Monday, July 28, 2014

A Mid Summer Report from Sandy Point

By Beth Sullivan
Sandy Point is Avalonia’s lovely little gem of an island, situated East of Stonington Point, South of Barn Island and North of Napatree Point. It is a spot treasured by many for the sandy beach, clear cool water, and peaceful surroundings, but also as a premier wildlife preserve. Situated partly in CT and mostly in RI, it poses a unique set of issues for stewardship and preservation.

Oystercathers nest on Sandy Point.

Sandy Point. One island, two states.

Shorebirds flock to Sandy Point

The real Sandy Point season begins with the arrival of the shorebirds. Some just stop over on their way farther north. Others, like the Piping Plovers and the American Oystercatchers, arrive to make their homes here. These birds are federally protected ,and this little island is known as one of the most successful breeding areas for the Oystercatchers. Unfortunately the gulls, especially the Black Backed Gulls, present some real difficulties with competition and predation. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has had a keen interest in the island for protection of the shorebirds here. Their stewards arrive on the island when the birds do, note where they are setting up their nests, and will place signs and roping around large areas to deter people from walking through and disturbing birds or destroying nests. Avalonia has an agreement with the Stonington COMO which issues passes for usage of the private island. This helps fund their stewards who go out several times a week to help monitor the beach, look for violations of the simple rules, and to educate the public about the significance of the nature preserve. Not everyone appreciates the efforts to protect the birds. Sadly, the stewards are often harassed. Some visitors to the island will deliberately flaunt their disrespect for the rules, let dogs run loose, and set up within the roped areas. How sad that in this day of enhanced understanding about the environment and our increased roles as defenders and protectors, some people just refuse to be compliant, or to care.
These signs help protect the nesting birds.

Piping Plovers

Horseshoe Crabs in decline?

Another wave of wildlife arrives in May. During the new moon and full moon high tide cycles, the ancient species of Horseshoe Crabs arrive offshore and prepare to make the island their breeding grounds. Last year we reported on several nights of adventure on the island, when teams of us paddled out and spent hours counting and tagging the crabs. Look here, and here and see a video here. We tagged nearly a thousand crabs in the area over last year's late spring and early summer, reporting our data back to the scientists at Project Limulus at Sacred Heart University. This year we have been discouraged. We are all trying to make excuses and wonder why there have been so few Horseshoe crabs , not only at Sandy Point, but also at local beaches and Bluff Point. We had far fewer tags available to us this year, and we actually had a hard time coming up with enough crabs to use them on. Admittedly we had several nights of bad weather, with storms or rain and wind that made the kayak trip impossible. We spent one long night out there in late June; we walked from one end to the other and back again, and we found only 137 new crabs plus about 20 that had been tagged in previous years. Where are they all? Are they nesting elsewhere? Did we miss a big night? Or are we experiencing a terrible population crash? Scientists from DEEP and Project Limulus are all concerned. We continue to make trips out and count. It is not as exciting as last year.
Please report any tagged crabs you may see.

Black-backed Gulls are a serious threat to the Horseshoe Crab.

Horseshoe Crab with a visible tag.

So the birds have had a decent year, with good numbers of Oystercatchers fledged. Piping Plovers are about average with other years. Horseshoe crab numbers are way down, and human numbers remain high. We are grateful for all those visitors to the island that enjoy and respect the nature there, who offer their own efforts at stewardship to encourage understanding by others. We thank those who make reports, pick up trash, and help with public education. Every eye and helping hand counts!
A breach for nature and people too.

Let’s see what the second half of the summer brings.

Photographs by Rick Newton.

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