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Between Fishers Island's mansions, beauty lies

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published 10/27/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 10/27/2013 01:10 AM
Naturalist Justine Kibbe keeps track of life, both wild and human, on nearby Fishers Island

Fishers Island, N.Y. - On a raw, damp day last week, Justine Kibbe made her way across the lawn of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean's summer house, through a gated path to a deserted beach called Hungry Point.

"Last week, I counted 13 seals here, but I've counted over 100 at this point," Kibbe said, binoculars up to scan the choppy waters and a cluster of rocks where harbor seals often in comical poses resembling oversized bananas. "This is the most diverse area for wildlife on the island."

On this quiet, overcast October morning, she spots just one seal pop its head out of the water, five eider ducks, two great black-backed gulls and a herring gull, then walks the beach, noting coyote tracks in the sand. On a tally sheet attached to a small clipboard, she records each wildlife sighting, along with signs of the human element. Today it's a tug towing a barge, but other days there would be lobster boats, ferries and sailboats, as well as trash, dog walkers or fishermen.

With its location in the populous Northeast, Fishers Island for much of the year possesses a paradoxical flavor of both remoteness and nearness to the wider world, with the developed shores of southeastern Connecticut clearly visible from streets and beaches where private access gates and security signs seem to outnumber people, and the marine, forest and field landscapes between the handsome summer homes invite appreciation of solitude and natural beauty.

Kibbe, who is 52, a year ago became the naturalist-in-residence for this small, exclusive summer resort just a 45-minute ferry ride from New London. The island is home to a population of about 260 year-round residents that multiplies manyfold between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Employed through a Fishers Island Conservancy grant, Kibbe is spending her days circumnavigating the island, often by bicycle, to monitor 12 shoreline and interior sites.

"I'm learning the rhythms of the wildlife, the rhythms of the island," said Kibbe, who lives in a small cottage on Darby's Cove. "It's exciting. I feel like this is kind of like a neighborhood wildlife watch."

She is a regular visitor of the kingfisher that hangs out at the oyster farm, the oystercatcher pairs that nested at South Beach, the dolphin pod that interruped the ferry's departure last winter, and the buffleheads and surf scoters at Isabella Beach, and the red, green and white seaweeds that collect on the sandy shores.

She observes how storms are reshaping the coast - a reality made immediately poignant when Superstorm Sandy struck just one week after she began her work -and ponders a project to restore a brackish pond, once a haven for shorebirds but now polluted with mats of brown muck blown in by Sandy.

"We wanted to understand what we have out there, and to use that to be able to educate our population about this special and delicate environment," said Tom Sargent, part-time island resident and president of the conservancy, a nonprofit group with several hundred members.

Through Kibbe, the first naturalist employed by his group, islanders can learn about the impacts of climate change, the warblers and raptors that migrate through, the river otters that live around Middle Farms Pond, and the birds returning to a recently restored 50-acre grassland, he said. Despite the island's reputation for loving privacy above all else - one Sargent says is exaggerated - the conservancy is eager to connect through Kibbe with other conservation groups in the region, he said, and island property owners have been cooperative in giving her regular access.

"We certainly want to be tied to everyone from an environmental point of view," Sargent said.

After moving to Fishers Island two years ago, Kibbe started volunteering her time as a wildlife monitor, employing skills she learned over six years tracking fur seal populations on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, 750 miles from the Alaskan mainland. She then proposed working for the conservancy, collecting data, sharing her observations in a blog on the group's website and working with students at the island school.

"We've always tried to have a link with the conservancy, to give the students authentic learning experiences that are so important," Karen Loiselle Goodwin, principal of the Fishers Island School, said. "Justine has helped bring that to the next level."

Among projects with the K-12 school, which educates tuition-paying Connecticut students alongside island children, Kibbe has organized beach cleanups, started the Island Sentinels program that puts students to work doing field monitoring, and shared her experiences doing seal research in Alaska. Her work thus far with island youth - whether through the school or at the beach, tennis and golf clubs where their families gather in the summer - is just beginning, Kibbe said.

"Why not the country clubs?" Kibbe asked, as she walked past the now-covered swimming pool at the Hay Harbor Club to its waterfront, another of her monitoring spots. "It's all about bridging."

"Bridging" is a word Kibbe often uses to describe her outlook on her work and her life. Another is "chapters," used to describe the unique places and endeavors that fill her resume, from Head Start teacher's aide to radio station news director and fur seal research assistant among the Aleut community in Alaska, to Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan.

The current chapter, she said, brings her story full circle. Growing up, she spent summers on Fishers Island at a once run-down home her parents bought and restored. It was here that her love of island life and being outdoors took root. And while she loves the island for the unique beauty she is eager to help preserve, she also hopes her work will enable the island to reach out to other communities, contributing knowledge and appreciation for the natural world and the human impact on it. Lessons she learned on St. Paul Island, home to just 420 native people, serve as her guide.

There, she said, "you bridged out of necessity, because the environment and the culture are endangered." The fur seal population that first brought settlers to the island is declining, and rising sea levels from climate change are threatening human life on the island in profound ways. When she decided to end her time there and start her "East Coast chapter," Kibbe said, she at first thought her experiences in Alaska would make for a more seamless transition.

"The biggest culture shock for me coming back to Fishers Island was its tradition of exclusivity and privacy. That was a whole new facet of culture I had to learn to navigate," she said. "I want to break the tradition of Fishers Island always looking inward, and start looking outward, or it will implode."

j.benson@theday.com

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To learn more about the conservancy and to read Kibbe's blog, "Field Notes," visit www.fishersislandconservancy.org.

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