Monday, June 21, 2021

Sandy Point: Getting Back to Sharing the Shore


by Beth Sullivan

American Oystercatchers 
Photo credit: Rick Newton

There is so much going on right now. There is so much beauty at this moment in time. Such life and rejuvenation, birth and growth, freedom and the ability to breathe more openly and hopefully.   I am quite sure that this spring seems extra special because of the year we have all been through.   We have holed up, curled in and in many cases, kept our heads down.   It is time now to grow outward and explore and remind ourselves how lucky we all are.

Nature has provided solace and sustenance for so many of us over the last year and a half.   It is time now to look at where we have been and see how we can restore and support some of our natural areas. To give back a bit.   As stewards we have begun getting back onto the preserves and working as teams, to maintain and monitor.  Over the summer we will make the rounds and I will report on what is happening.

Sandy Point: One Island, Two States

The first update is about Sandy Point Island: Avalonia’s gem of a wildlife refuge in Little Narragansett
Bay, between Stonington and Napatree Point in Rhode Island.  The history of the island and Avalonia’s ownership can be found in earlier blogs and on our website.  Its primary purpose is as a nature preserve.  It is acres and miles of shifting sand and beach grasses and shrubs. The island itself has shifted dramatically over the decades, a fact which can be seen easily on a series of aerial maps and Google Earth.   But even with the movements of the land over time, the island has remained a historical nesting and refuge area for a wide variety of very special species.

If you find a tagged horseshoe crab,
take a photo and report it
Photo Credit: Beth Sullivan

The most ancient of these species is the horseshoe crab: Limulus polyphemus.  These relics of the dinosaur era return to the same areas of sand at the edges of the oceans around the world, somehow following some magnetic compass in their own bodies, to come ashore during the full and new moons of May and June at the high tides, to mate and lay their eggs.  For almost a decade, Avalonia volunteers made multiple trips each season, usually at night and by kayak, out to the island to count and tag the horseshoe crabs. This was part of Project Limulus, a study conducted by Sacred Heart University. The tagging part of the project is completed, different parts of the study continue, and the crabs continue to return to the sandy island each late spring into summer.  If you find a tagged horseshoe crab, take a photo of the information on the tag, and report it on the website link below.


Piping Plovers
Photo Credit: Rick Newton
The island is also an important nesting site for several threatened or endangered species of birds.  Piping plovers, American oystercatchers and least terns make their homes and raise their young on this strip of sandy island.   All these species make very simple scrape nests on the sand, amid the pebbles and shells on the beach. They are very vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. High storm tides can wash the nests away, there are predators that target the eggs and the young, including the gulls that also nest there, and crows.   Sadly, some of the worst disruption is human caused.    The island is much loved by many people for its beauty, beaches, and wildlife.   But people and wildlife do not always mix well.   Our simple presence near a nest can cause a parent to abandon the nest or eggs.  People can inadvertently step on, or land their boat on, a nest or eggs.    When the chicks hatch, they can run but they cannot fly so they must get to the water’s edge to feed by finding their way through whatever obstacles there may be on the shore. On busy summer weekends, that can be people, blankets, chairs, kids and coolers.  Dogs are not allowed on the island at all, even on leash, because their mere presence terrorizes the birds.

They have a narrow window of time, when they nest, incubate their eggs then have the young wandering around like toddlers; vulnerable to all sorts of dangers and hard to control!

Signage is provided for all visitors
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has provided an amazing partnership with Avalonia to monitor the
wildlife, provide fencing to help remind visitors to avoid nesting sites, create educational signage and offer trained biologists to be on the island to teach visitors about the importance of the habitat.   For permits and passes which are required, please visit

We are at the Solstice.  The longest days of the most lovely of seasons. We all want to enjoy our new freedom to get back out in nature with our friends. Please remember that wildlife on all our preserves, needs to be protected. At Sandy Point the protection is critical to the survival of 3 species. Please help us, and the wildlife, by observing the guidelines and looking out for and enjoying the other beings that use the island.


USFWS biologists monitor the nesting sites
and roped off areas.
Photo credit: Rick Newton

All creatures seem to be drawn to the 
gentle, shifting shoreline of Sandy Point.
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan

When young shorebirds need to run to the
water, they can encounter many obstacles.
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan



Monday, June 7, 2021

Caterpillars: Love 'em or hate 'em?


Tent caterpillars are easy to
spot in their nests.
Pretty much any kind of wildlife intrigues me. I am not afraid of much but have a healthy respect for things that bite or sting. I am grateful we do not have venomous snakes to worry about in my area.

But I have to say I am getting pretty upset with caterpillars this spring! We have seen groves of trees denuded in a short time. Some trees never even had the chance to unfurl their leaves. Some never blossomed.

When leaves emerged this spring,
they were already damaged!

The Winter Moth

This photo is from June -
not mid-winter

The first wave of problems was caused by the Winter Moth: A nondescript, smallish brown-gray moth that was noted in abundance last fall and into December, in pockets in southeastern Connecticut. They flew in clouds, caught in headlights, covered garage doors and patio windows. Then they disappeared, but not before laying millions of eggs on the bark and buds at the tips of branches of certain trees. They seemed to favor Oaks and fruit trees like Crab Apples and Cherries. Despite the bitter winter the eggs survived and as the spring enticed trees to begin their growth, the caterpillars hatched and ate into the developing buds. As leaves unfolded they were damaged and lacey. Their photosynthesis abilities were greatly diminished. The trees will suffer. The caterpillars were small, smooth and green, and while I felt helpless, I knew some birds were enjoying a spring feast. So there was a positive side to it…maybe. But if Oaks are too weak to produce acorns, other species will be impacted later. The trees that lost their blossoms will not produce fruit, so the birds dependent on the berries in the fall will be severely challenged. The birds being impacted are our own natives; the caterpillars doing the damage, are not.

Gypsy moth caterpillars
blend into the bark.

The Winter Moth caterpillar cycle is nearly finished now. They will drop to the ground to pupate. There are  foresters very interested to determine exactly how and where they complete this stage, as control may be possible. But, to add insult to injury, Gypsy Moth caterpillars have made a comeback in many areas, as well as Tent Caterpillars, easy to spot with their webby abodes. The poor trees that are trying to re-sprout leaves, are being eaten back yet again. There is only so much a tree can tolerate before it will be damaged beyond recovery. The Gypsy Moth caterpillars and Tent caterpillars are not as enticing to birds; they are too fuzzy to be palatable to most, except Cuckoos. We can wage war on them. Tent structures can be removed and destroyed. Gypsy Moth caterpillars often migrate up and down the tree trunks and can often be found clustering near the base prior to pupating. I have no problem destroying them!

Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies are in
serious decline!

Little monarch caterpillars have 
big appetites!
But then we think of our Monarchs. The beautiful native that has enthralled people of all ages and cultures for centuries is under siege. Their home range for winter migration is threatened with climate change and forest destruction. The Milkweed they depend on here, for their caterpillar food, is being decimated by habitat change and widespread use of herbicides. There is a “lookalike” invasive plant, Swallowwort that attracts the butterfly to lay her eggs, but the caterpillars will not be able to survive. So dedicated nature people like me go out to dig, propagate and save milkweed to establish big patches in attractive places for the Monarchs to use. We rejoice to see the chewed up leaves!

Another caterpillar…a different response!



We preserve and protect Milkweed
so that the Monarch butterfly can survive!