Sandy Neck Beach
PerspectivesThis narrative is a brief and skeletal overview of some of the natural resource, processes, and history, which have culminated in the present-day Sandy Neck barrier system. It is not intended to present the full scope of available information: rather to lead the newcomer a relatively comprehensive understanding of the resource. More information is available from the Rangers, staff at the Ranger Station, or the administration office of Sandy Neck.
RestrictionsVehicle traffic on the trails at Sandy Neck is strictly regulated. The public is not allowed to operate vehicles on the trails without express written permission. This policy has been adopted to minimize any adverse impact to natural systems. Pedestrian traffic is regulated to a lessor degree. Hikers may leave established vehicle trail IF they observe certain restrictions designed to protect fragile resources.
Pedestrians MUST avoid walking on the primary dune (nearest the water), and any steeply banked dunes devoid of vegetation. Any erosion from foot traffic is exacerbated by high winds which are prevalent during intermittent summer storms and throughout the winter months. Small gaps in vegetation caused by foot traffic results in the erasure of adjacent dune during the winter. in addition, American beach grass (planted to add a measure of stability to the shifting sands) is easily damaged by foot traffic.
Be conscientious and bring out what you brought in. Leaving Sandy Neck in its natural state will guarantee its availability for future generations.
There are no additional restrictions on pedestrian access during the fall and winter months. Indeed, these seasons represents some of the most rewarding opportunities in terms of scenic beauty, environmental quality, and wildlife activities. However, hikers must bear in mind that hunting is allowed on Sandy Neck in conjunction with state law and local restrictions. (See Sandy Neck regulations and state Abstracts for further information.) In the interest of public safety, it is recommended that hikers wear orange and/or other highly visible clothing and keep to open trails during the hunting season.
Natural ProcessesSandy Neck was formed gradually over thousands of years. A process called "littoral drift" swept sand from dunes to the north and west down to the present day Sandwich and Barnstable. About 3-5,000 years ago, a small "nub" formed on the coastline that served to collect more sand. This process continues to this day. It has slowed somewhat due to the construction of jetties to the west, but is easily observed in the dramatic changes in the location and size of "Little Neck" (at the easternmost end of the barrier) and of the tidal flats offshore.
Historical Sketch (Historical period to 1900s)Sandy Neck was initiated into the historic era when it was acquired in two purchases from Native American tribal leaders (Sachems). The western half of Sandy Neck was "purchased" from Sachem Serunk in 1644 for four coats and three axes. The transaction for the eastern parcel occurred in 1647, when Sachem Nepoyetum received two coats and one day's plowing in exchange for rights to the property.
Sandy Neck's first economic value after it's acquisition was as an agricultural resource. Livestock were allowed to graze on the rich beach and marsh grasses, and sea life washed ashore was collected for raw materials and for human sustenance.
Sandy Neck's fragility was first acknowledged when the damaging affects of free range policy were recognized. An ordinance was then adopted to protect the remaining vegetation. Collection of wood for fuel for the developing whaling industry continued however, and in 1711 a fee of 3 shillings was assessed each person (Native or English) for use of the Sandy Neck resources.
In 1715 Sandy Neck was set aside as a "reserve" for residents of the town to establish fishing houses. Therefore Sandy Neck was utilized as a whaling station with private fish houses and commercial whaling try yards (for flencing and derivation of products), and as a site for Barnstable's saltworks during the Revolutionary War. Hunting cottages were introduced to Sandy Neck at he turn of the century, and agricultural endeavors including the cultivation of cranberry bogs and haying fields flourished.
The Trail SystemThe vehicle trail system which crosses the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach is the preferred route of access for pedestrian traffic. The trails form a simple grid, running northeast-southwest from Cape Cod Bay to the Great Marsh. The "Marsh Trail" and the front beach run northwest-southeast along the peninsula. The Marsh Trail follows the marsh and the upland regions of the barrier, from the Ranger Station on Sandy Neck Road to Trail#5. One trail cuts through the interior of the Neck between Trails #4 and #5. This trail is better known as "barley's Dune Trail" and is open for hiking and horseback riding (additional information is posted at the trailhead on Trail #5).
Trail #1The "Trail One" region is the oldest portion of the Sandy Neck barrier, and the most uniform in natural attributes. This area is fairly representative of northeastern coastal barrier beaches, and benefits from a thick carpet of American Beachgrass. Low-lying depressions, or "swails," provide enough shelter for the establishment of successive vegetation. Among the most common are rosa rugosa, beach plum, cranberry vines, dusty miller, poverty grass, pitch pine, poison ivy, and phragmites. The rare Plymouth Gentian has become established just east of the 4X4 access trail. This area is visited by various upland avian species including starlings, red wing blackbirds, crows, quail, sparrows, flickers, and others. Moles and shrews inhabit the area. Ticks are present in the summer here and throughout Sandy Neck.
Special attention mast be paid to remove any ticks that become lodged on skin or clothing. Ticks can carry a number of pathogens. One of the most worrisome is the Lyme Disease spirochete, carried by the tiny deer tick. If any pedestrians notice a circular rash surrounding a bite mark (like a target), they should seek prompt medical attention.
Some of the dunes in this region provide nesting habitat for as endangered marine turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin. Each year the adult turtles crawl out of the marsh, haul themselves through the grass and on the face of surprisingly steep dunes to nest. Months later, young turtles hatch and make the perilous journey hack across the dunes to their marshy environment.
Research conducted on Sandy Neck showed that gender determination among terrapins is a function of nest temperature during incubation. Thus, sexual composition of hatchlings is influenced by alteration of environmental factors within the nesting habitat (i.e., changes in vegetation).
Transient mammals such us fox, coyote and deer pass through the area, though this habitat is generally unsuitable for permanent residence. To the west of the trail tie the remnants of decades of varied use. Glass and metal refuse remain scattered through the dunes, testimony to years gone by when natural resources were believed lobe inexhaustible and incorruptible. To the south of Trail #1(in the Great Marsh) is a small island that supports upland vegetation. This island is privately owned and is not open to the public. All cottages on Sandy Neck are owned or leased, and due regard must he shown for the owner's property and privacy rights. Pedestrians should rake care not as stray onto any private properties under penalty of trespass.
Trail #2Maintaining the integrity of the entire area between the parking lot and Trait #2 is essential, as it is subject to the most intensive human use. In the summer months pedestrian traffic is intense, and in the fall the area sees heavy use as a primary location far hunting in conjunction with the state's pheasant release program.
Beginning at Trail #2 and heading east, a subtle change in topography occurs. Dunes tend to become more dramatic, and upland regions are more thickly vegetated. A great deal of variation can be found among the vegetation in these regions. In several areas, upland species have followed in succession of the beach and wetland vegetation and pioneer species. Thick briars and scrub brush give way to stands of holly, or to grassy meadows peppered with young oak trees.
The borders of several of the vegetated "patches" illustrate the dune migration characteristic of coastal barrier beaches. What first appear to be small twiggy shrubs are revealed to be the uppermost branches of entire trees that have become entombed beneath the sand of migrating dunes. As the grade is descended, tree trunks and eventually root systems may become apparent. Approaching Trait #4, the patches of upland vegetation become larger and more comprehensive and are identifiable as true maritime forests.
Haying fields from the turn of the century can be seen at various locations along the Marsh Trail. These fields provided fodder for livestock that had been displaced from much of the neck by local ordinance. Thereafter farming of vegetation to feed livestock became a cottage industry. Revetments (or "dikes") were built across the mouths of tidal inlets creating artificial impoundments. "Salt hay" was cultivated and harvested from within these impoundments.
The watchful eye may be able to spot willets, great blue herons, great, common, and "cattle" egrets, and other wading birds that thrive in a wetland environment. Red tail hawks, kestrel, harriers, and other raptors often hunt the border of the upland and marsh regions. Various song birds also make appearances along the marsh/upland ecotone.
Trail #4, 5East of Trail #4 to Trail #5, pedestrian traffic is restricted to posted vehicle trails and to regions to the NORTH of (and including) "Braley's Dune Trail. There is a large stretch of predominantly upland (pitch pine) woods starting approximately one half mile east of Trait #4 and continuing on to Trail #5 and beyond. The woods provide shelter and habitat for many of the larger vertebrates that survive on 'The Neck" including skunks, garter snakes, red and gray squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, rabbits, great horned owls, downy woodpeckers and sung birds, coyote, white tail deer, and many other species.
A few temporary shelters and blinds are scattered across the area. These structures are used for wildlife research and observation (primarily the deer population). They ore present by permit are privately maintained by volunteers with assistance from the Barnstable's school department, and should not be disturbed in any manner.
Blueberry patches and cranberry beds can be found scattered throughout the wooded region and along Braley's Dune Trail. It is permissible to take edible fruit from these shrubs for personal consumption. Mushrooms can be found growing in the sand throughout the area as well. Due to the difficulty in the proper identification of edible mushrooms from their toxic counterparts. it is recommended that all forms of fungi be left undisturbed. Of course, any item taken from the wild must he properly identified prior to consumption.
Trail #6There is a substantial parcel of private property between Trail 5 and Trail 6 that must not be disturbed. Additionally, Trail 6 and beach point are home to a population of seasonal residents. The "Sandy Neck Light" lighthouse is conjunctive to this "cottage colony," and is also owned by a private party (the light itself is now defunct, but the keeper's house is maintained). Remnants of the former automated Coast Guard beacon lie scattered in the dunes near the end of Beach Point, left where it was dismantled.
Each summer the Beach Point and Little Neck portions of the barrier provide fertile shorebird nesting and staging grounds. Shorebird species including piping plovers (threatened), common teens (special concern), and least terns (special concern) return each year to feed, nest, and raise their young. Many of these shorebirds are extremely territorial, and are disturbed by the mere presence of human beings or other encroachments into their nesting area. The chicks themselves are cryptically colored and blend to with their environment to reduce the risk of predation. Eggs at other locations have been lost when pedestrians have inadvertently stepped on unhatched clutches. Take care to avoid an areas posted with "Nesting Area" signs. Adult birds that are busy trying to repel intruders neglect their offspring and this quickly leads to unnecessary mortalities in an already fragile population.
During the fall and winter, the waters off of Beach Point and Little Neck support huge congregations (or "rafts") of migratory waterfowl including various eiders and scoders, mergansers, brant, grebes, mallards, and black ducks. Alert hikers may also catch glimpses of kestrel, northern harriers (marsh hawks), and snowy owls.
There area myriad of resources available and accessible at Sandy Neck. Additional information about the natural attributes, cultural or natural history, and specific management policies and programs are available from gatehouse staff and Rangers. Various articles in technical journals, published historical accounts, and other literary resources also contain information about Sandy Neck.
With the public's cooperation and conscientious use, recreational opportunities at Sandy Neck will be available for generations to come. The staff at Sandy Neck thanks you in advance for your cooperation, and looks forward to assisting you in any manner that will enhance your visit and exploration of this unique resource.
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