Matt Pelikan's Favorite Nature Spots

Ask Matt Pelikan, Islands program director for The Nature Conservancy, to nominate his favorite natural places on Martha’s Vineyard, and he is both enthusiastic and cautionary.  

“I don’t see scenery,” he warns, smiling. “I see habitat.”  

Message received. Not all his favorite places are as spectacularly beautiful as our initial stop this day – atop the Gay Head Cliffs of Aquinnah at 7 a.m. on the first seriously cool morning of fall.  

Some will have less obvious charms, but all, he assures, will contribute to a fuller understanding of the forces – natural and human – that have shaped this unique offshore environment.      

Matt, a lifelong birder and nine-year veteran of various Vineyard conservation activities, is a great explainer. Spend a half-day with him as he explains the Island, from its formation as the terminal moraine of a mile-thick ice sheet to its regular burnings by Native Americans, its deforestation and reforestation by European settlers to its gradually warming climate and seasonal rhythms, and you begin to see it as he does – not just as static snapshot scenery but as something kinetic, and wonderfully complex. And it becomes all the more beautiful by the understanding.  

Here are five of Matt’s favorite nature spots, in his own words:

Gay Head Cliffs, Aquinnah
This is a major migratory crossroads here. This is the nexus of the Vineyard. Birds come here and know they want to be moving south and west down along the coastline. They concentrate at this point, the end of the Vineyard, and wait for favorable wind conditions. Right now [mid-October], you get lots of species in the thickets, feeding on insects and berries, trying to stoke up energy for the next stage of their journey. Spend a couple of hours here in the morning, you can maybe see thirty or forty species of migratory birds.  

You get hawks flying along here, using the updrafts off the cliffs, where they hang very efficiently, waiting for some bird to expose itself. I’ve seen Peregrine falcons dive down, grab a warbler and go back up in the air, hold it in one foot, pluck it a bit, and eat it while still airborne.  

It’s worth coming out here, from a birder’s perspective, into November. A little later in the season, a lot of sea ducks will start coming out here. Some years we get flocks of tens of thousands of common eider. The same mechanism applies for monarch butterflies as they migrate south. Sometimes in late September and early October the pine trees down here are just covered with monarchs roosting.  

Simultaneously, the population of striped bass and bluefish is beginning to move south toward warmer water. You don’t really see them, but you see the Derby fleet offshore, which lets you know where they are.

Lobsterville Beach, Aquinnah
It’s primarily tribal lands here. In typical fashion, the Native Americans ended up stuck with the least promising–looking pieces of land. This shrubby vegetation here is exposed to salt spray and high wind. It looks like a really austere, sterile environment, but if you went out and kicked the bushes, all sorts of interesting things could fly out.   

There are little swales out here, little hollows in the re-deposited sediments that catch water and produce a lot of insects, which have an aquatic larval stage. And there are bayberries, rose hips, and other kinds of berries.   

This is one of the most distinctive landscapes of the Vineyard. There really are very few places in New England where this coastal heathland ever occurred, and most of those places now have houses on them. There’s a pretty dramatic change in the geography just south of Boston harbor, where the coastline gets rocky, but here in the southeastern corner of the state, the bedrock is overlaid by glacial deposits of various kinds. The bedrock here is hundreds
of feet below us.   

It’s a wonderful resource. This is invariably the place where a species called the northern shrike turns up.

You get one or two every winter. This West Basin area has lots of ducks, herons; common loons winter here in large numbers. They feed heavily on crabs, and Menemsha Creek and the bottom of the ocean here in the bight are evidently a very crabby place. You see the loons diving, and every time they come up with a crab.  

And Menemsha harbor here is one of the great fishing places on the Vineyard. Anytime you have an inlet like this and a falling tide, you have all sorts of bait washing out. The fish gather offshore to feed off that.

Squibnocket Beach, Chilmark

This is the place to surf when the conditions are right. There’s a configuration of shoals, which produces breakers quite a ways out.  

Squibnocket Pond here is legendary for waterfowl. Back in the days of market hunting, it was a very productive place. From the birder’s perspective, this has long been the best place in Massachusetts for a beautiful bird called the Harlequin duck, a very snappy waterfowl. There are loons and grebes during the winter.  

One thing that’s very interesting about this beach is how radically it can change over the space of just a couple of months. Right now it’s pretty much all sand, but just below is a pretty solid layer of cobble and rock. Depending on the weather patterns, this can be a rocky beach or a sandy beach or anywhere in between. If you go offshore, there are big boulder fields and you get enormous concentrations of striped bass working them. Kayak fishermen love it.  
See this cliff here to the left? Probably fifty to seventy-five feet of beach has disappeared over the past few months, undercut by storm waves. Here, you really get a feel for the provisionality of the Vineyard. We’re just exposed to this incessant pounding from the open ocean. The shoreline has been receding ever since the Island was formed and will continue to recede until there is no Vineyard left. This is a very good place to experience the relentlessness of that process.  

Prospect Hill, Chilmark
The main geological distinction on the Vineyard is between the hilly moraine, bulldozed up by the ice sheet, and the outwash plain formed by runoff from the melting ice, the flat southern and central portion of the Island.  

Biologically, the two areas are quite distinct from each other. As is always the case in biology, everything starts with the soil type, which determines what plants live there, which determines what insects live there, which determines what birds live there, and so on.  

The outwash plain habitats are disturbance-dependent. They were more exposed to fire, both because the Native American population, which was concentrated there, used fire as a management tool, and because the outwash soils are much more granular and non-retentive of moisture. In summer, if we have several weeks without rain, it effectively becomes a desert and is very fire-prone. The moraine, in contrast, is much wetter and had a much lower frequency of fire, so you get much more mature, built-up forests.  

This beautiful overlook, Prospect Hill, is one of the two highest points on the Island, and I like it because you really get a feel for the moraine, the rolling hills, the extensive oak forest.  

This may be the best view on the Vineyard: the Elizabeth Islands over there, the western side of Buzzards Bay, Dogfish Bar. You get a wonderful gradation of reds and browns through the season. The red you see now is beetlebung – black tupelo – a wetland tree. One of the characteristics of the moraine here is layers of different kinds of sediment. And sometimes you have a layer of relatively impermeable clay a ways underground, and it traps water on top of it, giving you what’s called a perched wetland. Many of these beetlebungs mark those perched wetlands, little indicators of what’s going on forty or fifty feet underground.  

The trail from here down to the ocean is just a wonderful walk. This whole property is a real gem.  

Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs
When my wife and I came here for the first time, she was sweating bullets before a job interview, and I was out tooling around, seeing if this was the kind of place where a guy could live. It was in April, so it was empty here, and I remember the Beach Road seemed to go on forever. It was so beautiful with the open ocean on one side and the pond on the other. It was one of the places that persuaded me I wanted to live on the Vineyard.  

Among the places where the seasons are evident, this is high on the list. It goes from being bleak and austere in January to being packed in July. Any time of year you can stop, early in the morning or late in the day when there aren’t too many people, and get a feel for the peculiarity of the season – the way the light changes, the water is a different color every day, the grass is a different color, the level of fecundity is a really stimulating thing – that is what I live for.  

Sengekontacket Pond itself is in somewhat degraded condition because there is such heavy settlement. There’s a lot of nitrogen enrichment in the
pond, and that’s had some impact on, for example, the eelgrass beds that used to be very extensive and have been greatly reduced, but it’s still a
very productive resource: hard-shell clams, maybe some bay scallops, a lot of worms.  

Every March, there is a wonderful phenomenon I wait for all winter, which is a hatch of clam worms. One day there’s nothing happening, and the next day the word has got out among the herring gulls and there are five hundred of them slurping down clam worms like they were spaghetti.   

And when you get a northeast storm, the intensity of the wind off the Sound, the waves, the salt spray – it’s a very elemental experience. It makes you feel like a very humble little bit of poorly organized cytoplasm in the face of these huge forces.