Monday, February 16, 2015

Sandy Point-Looking ahead to warmer days

By Beth Sullivan
What better way to spend a snowy afternoon, than to think about summer days and Sandy Point?
It doesn’t get much human usage during the winter. The channel dredging project was completed late this fall and considered successful. The sand material deposited up on the island has created additional habitat for the shorebirds who use the island as a nesting refuge. It will be interesting to see how many Least Terns, Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers will be able to nest, and fledge young successfully this next summer.
Flocks of Snow Buntings circle the sandy dunes looking for seeds.
The dredging project restored acres of sand to the island. 

At this time of year, Canada Geese may use the sheltered sides to congregate and feed offshore during lower tides. Winter birds like Snow Buntings and Horned Larks are probably using the bare flats. They seem to think this is comfortably “south”. They love windblown sand! There have been reports of Snowy Owls moving between Napatree Point and Sandy Point, so that special species also finds refuge there during the winter.
Well camouflaged, a Horned Lark, explores the sand.
Snowy Owls also find refuge on Sandy Point.

A thoughtful family donation

Thanks to the Gildersleeve family of Stonington, this island was donated to Avalonia Land Conservancy Inc. (then Mashantucket Land Trust) in 1982. The deed instructs that it to be used forever and primarily as a Nature Preserve. This family knew long ago what a special place it was, and how valuable to species in need of protection.
We also know it is beloved to many in the community as a place for rest and recreation, and that practice continues. It has always been a priority for Avalonia, to find the right balance between human enjoyment and wildlife protection. In the past years, it has become increasingly difficult to protect the special species from overwhelming human usage. Dogs and kites, and camps and parties are all seen as intrusive and threatening to the vulnerable birds. Horseshoe crabs also find refuge there for their nesting ritual that has gone on for thousands, if not millions of years and those areas are often disturbed.
The new sand makes a great base for this summer's nesters.
Horseshoe Crabs have been visiting Sandy Point for millions of years.

Avalonia and the Stonington COMO have teamed up for years to help monitor the usage and provide stewardship and oversight, but it has never been enough- not enough time and not enough money to hire knowledgeable stewards, and no ability to enforce the rules. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has helped us for the last several years, but also without the ability to provide enforcement. The wild life has suffered.

Avalonia-USFWS Agreement

There is good news on the horizon. Avalonia has been working with the USFWS to enter into an agreement to properly protect the island and its inhabitants. Sandy Point has been added into the refuge boundary of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. While the major portion of the McKinney Refuge is much farther west along the CT shore, we are lucky to have a USFWS branch close by in Rhode Island, and this group will oversee the Sandy Point as part of a new lease agreement. While Avalonia retains full ownership of the island, as desired by the donors, it will be properly managed as a Nature Preserve, with biologists to observe, survey and assess the wildlife. Recreational usage will still be encouraged. The USFWS stewards will also provide visitor services such as informational and interpretive signage and environmental education. By doing this, they can engage the public’s cooperation in their efforts. They will also have the ability to enforce the rules.
People and wildlife will find a balance. 

A permit will still be required, as in years past. The effort to provide staff and transportation and materials to the island is costly. But the pass will be less expensive. The USFWS has just issued a press release to outline the permit process and information will be available through the COMO as before. More information will be coming soon.
We can all work together to  protect the wildlife on Sandy Point.

So on these cold winter days, we can think ahead to the summer, be excited to get out to Sandy Point for some passive R&R, and enjoyment of the wildlife we are now better able to protect.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, Rick Newton and USFWS. 

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