Sandy Point keeps visitors at arm's length to protect birds

Rick Potvin, back left, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, speaks Sunday to John Hackett, of Windham, and prepares to hand him an information flier on Sandy Point. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel talked to people on the island's beach to educate them about the piping plover protection efforts and the usage policies for the beach.

Stonington - Over the holiday weekend, the unofficial start of summer, boaters once again flocked to the mile-long island in Little Narragansett Bay known as Sandy Point.

But this year, they have access to only half the island as the rest is closed to all but threatened species of birds, particularly the tiny piping plover.

"It's our belief, as with the Avalonia Land Conservancy (which owns Sandy Point), that there is more than enough space for the birds and for people to use it, too," said Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, which now comprises Sandy Point.

On Saturday and Sunday, Potvin and several interns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erected "exclosures," a combination of fence and netting designed to allow piping plovers access to their nest, while keeping humans and predators out. There are four known nests on the island, said fish and wildlife interns Lindsey Squire and Diane Alix.

Three nests are protected by the man-made exclosures and one is located in a rosebush near the western end of the island.

"The one in the rosebush is kind of its own natural exclosure, so we don't have to do anything there," Squire said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Avalonia Land Conservancy have roped off five sections of the 35-acre island so birds can nest and raise their young without threats from humans.

But some humans are unhappy about sharing their beach with the tiny, sand-colored birds.

"People are kind of mad that so many areas are roped off," said Kyle Berg, who works for the Stonington Community Center to enforce the rules on the island, including ones that ban dogs and fireworks. "It can be hard for people to realize what is being protected: You can't even really see the (birds). They just blend into the sand."

Some are concerned that as the summer wears on, boaters will begin jockeying for space off the open areas of the island when they find their favorite spots are closed.

But at about noon Sunday, few were affected by the closed areas. Walkers stayed outside the yellow-roped perimeters of the closed areas and families set up camp far away from the protected nesting grounds.

"Too many treehuggers might want to take the whole beach, but this balance is good," said John Godzyk, who traveled from Glastonbury to visit Sandy Point on Sunday. "You don't sit up there in the dunes anyway. You've just got to have balance, which they do."

The Fish and Wildlife crew spent Sunday morning erecting an exclosure over a plover nest near the center of the island. They worked quickly, assembling most of the structure outside the roped-off area, so as not to permanently scare a pair of piping plover away from their nest.

The tiny birds are easy prey for other birds, like seagulls, and their nests, built into the sand, can be easily trampled by people.

"We're giving this animal a little more help to get their birds out," Potvin said. "We were at a point when we had only hundreds of them, now we're in the thousands."

Later in the year, once the plover chicks start to fly, the Fish and Wildlife and Avalonia crews plan to decrease the size of the closed areas.

"Once these birds start to fledge and don't need this kind of protection, then we can start reducing these areas," Potvin said.

Lindsey Squire, left, and Diane Alix, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interns, clip the wire fence Sunday that will be used to build an “exclosure” to protect the nest of a pair of piping plovers on Sandy Point. Scott Houl, right, and Kyle Berg, Sandy Point stewards for the Stonington Community Center and Avalonia Land Conservancy, arrive to help.
Lindsey Squire, left, and Diane Alix, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interns, clip the wire fence Sunday that will be used to build an “exclosure” to protect the nest of a pair of piping plovers on Sandy Point. Scott Houl, right, and Kyle Berg, Sandy Point stewards for the Stonington Community Center and Avalonia Land Conservancy, arrive to help.
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