Coastal Waterbird Program

Piping Plover adult on nest with chick © Pat Ulrich
Piping Plover adult & chick © Pat Ulrich

Management & ConservationTraining & Education • Partnerships • Visit • Support

Working to protect nesting and foraging areas for coastal birds throughout Massachusetts.

Mass Audubon's Coastal Waterbird Program (CWP) is one of the most effective entities working to protect coastal birds and barrier beaches in North America. The CWP was first launched in 1986 in response to declining populations of Piping Plovers—newly listed that year under the Endangered Species Act—and terns in Massachusetts. 

In partnership with federal, state, and municipal agencies (along with private landowners), the program helped to recover the number of nesting Piping Plovers in the state from 135 pairs in 1986 to 805 pairs in 2020—approximately 45% of the entire Atlantic Coast population.

Program Overview

The CWP currently protects over 140 miles of Massachusetts coastline each year. Through a combination of wildlife management, science-based conservation, policy development, and education initiatives, the program is manages the conservation of approximately:

  • 30-40% of the state's Piping Plovers
  • 40-50% of the state's Least Terns
  • 20-30% of the state's American Oystercatchers 

The program focuses on protection of the most threatened species of coastal birds, and more broadly on coastal ecosystem management. The CWP serves as a model for integrated coastal resource management.

2021 Year in Review 

In 2021, Mass Audubon's Coastal Waterbird Program protected threatened coastal birds through management and education at 186 sites along 140 miles of coastline. Read the field highlights >

Scientific Approach to Conservation & Management

The Coastal Waterbird Program monitors and protects more nesting sites on the Atlantic coast than any other non-governmental entity. Every year, from March through September, we utilize a variety of management techniques to protect nesting and migratory coastal birds from human disturbance and predators.

CWP's wildlife management techniques include:

  • symbolic fencing
  • signage
  • electric fencing
  • exclosures

We also consult with beach managers, local landowners, and permitting agencies on projects such as:

  • dredging and beach re-nourishment
  • off-road vehicle use
  • beach raking
  • fireworks

We also undertake management research to advance conservation objectives including developing best practices in bird and habitat protection. A good example of this is the program’s intensive study to understand movements and post-breeding habitat use of Roseate Terns, in partnership with USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Our work indicates that the majority of the endangered Northwest Atlantic Roseate Tern population stages (readies for migration) in southeastern Massachusetts—specifically on outer Cape Cod and Nantucket beaches. The study has provided important data for policy making and offshore energy siting.

Training & Education

The Coastal Waterbird Program has trained and mentored over 1,500 field staff over the past 35 years. We have conducted hundreds of educational programs on beaches, at schools, and for the general public. In addition, we have worked closely with beach managers and policy-makers to provide information on coastal waterbird protection.

CWP Trainees are critical to the core of what we do—protect birds on the beaches and develop capacity in future generations of conservationists. Our Trainee Program, supported by donations from foundations and individuals, allows us to train up to 40 seasonal staff each season, consisting of paid field assistants and student trainees. In addition, we provide training for staff of partner organizations.

Seasonal staff often include recent college graduates wishing to gain experience in conservation biology; trainees are less experienced but many return in subsequent years for paid positions and college thesis projects.

We house up to seven seasonal staff each season at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable. In addition, staff are housed at other Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries or in field housing with other organizations.


The Coastal Waterbird Program has assisted over 500 different landowners (private, municipal, town, state, and federal) with management guidelines to ensure the preservation of critical habitat.

Our long-term collaborative research programs—including new region-wide efforts to increase the productivity of American Oystercatchers—have been critical to the success of the program.

Because of our work with partners such as the Friends of Ellisville Marsh, the CWP is able to focus on factors affecting reproductive success at local and larger scales, enabling us to consider regional ecological changes such as sea level rise.

None of this work would be possible without the consistent and generous support of many members, foundations, government agencies, and the hard work and dedication of the many conservation professionals who have worked with Mass Audubon.


You can make a secure online donation directed to the Coastal Waterbird Program or by becoming a Mass Audubon member. And, if you have equipment that you are no longer using, please consider donating it to our program. We especially need:

  • Binoculars
  • Scopes
  • Digital Cameras
  • GPS units
  • Powerpoint Projector

Email Us for more information.

Visit to Learn More

Mass Audubon has an extensive history of protecting coastal waterbird populations. In fact, waterbird conservation was the impetus for the formation of the organization in 1896. Today, Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries throughout southeastern Massachusetts are working to protect coastal waterbirds and habitat in local communities.

Coastal Waterbird Program staff working state-wide to support local efforts are based at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable. Visit our sanctuaries and nature centers in WellfleetNantucketMartha's VineyardDartmouthMarshfield, and Barnstable to learn more!