The 11 units of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge include a variety of habitats from grassy upland to tidal salt marsh. Though many refuge units are small in acreage, their importance to wildlife, especially migratory birds, is enormous. Native wildlife populations have diverse habitat requirements. Each species, from roseate terns to American black ducks, has very different needs for food, water, shelter and space. The refuge units along Connecticut's coast fill these needs by providing habitats that are forested, marshy, sandy, rocky and secluded.
The forest and shrublands of the Norwalk Islands provide regionally significant habitat for colonial nesting wading birds. The 70-acre Chimon Island Unit has supported as many as 1,200 pairs of herons, egrets and ibises. The 67-acre Sheffield Island Unit also has the potential to support nesting wading birds. Presently, a small population of herring and great black-backed gulls nest along Sheffield's rocky shoreline. Waters surrounding these island provide habitat for wintering waterfowl.
Goose Island, a one-acre island approximately one-half mile east of Chimon Island, is comprised of gravel beach and brushy upland. This island currently provides nesting habitat for gulls and American oystercatchers.
Part of the Norwalk Islands, the Peach Island Unit is a 2.6-acre island located 600 feet offshore. Though alone the island would have limited value to migratory birds and other wildlife, the refuge as a whole conserves more than 1000 acres of significant habitat for wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds, and terns - including the endangered roseate tern. Black ducks, scoters and brant winter in nearby waters.
The rocky shores of five-acre Falkner Island Unit support one of the few remaining nesting colonies of endangered roseate terns in the northeast (up to 40 pairs in recent years) and the largest common tern colony in Connecticut (2500+ pairs). Because of these distinctions, Falkner Island was designated an Important Bird Area by Audubon Connecticut.
Just over 200 species of birds have been recorded on or near Falkner Island since the late 19th century. Neotropical landbirds use the island's shrublands for feeding and resting during spring and fall migration. Some raptors use the island during winter migration. Migrating butterflies and dragonflies also use the island as a refuge during their crossings of Long Island Sound.
Harbor seals make use of the island as a haul-out area in the winter and gray seals have been recorded in the past. Bats are also occasionally seen near the area. In addition, the waters surrounding Falkner Island are inhabited by many species of fin-fishes such as striped bass, bluefish, flounder, American mackerel and American eel.
Milford Point Unit, a 22-acre barrier beach peninsula, is a historic nesting area for the threatened piping plover. Its diverse mix of habitats provides over 50 species of waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds with a safe haven for feeding and resting during their long spring and fall migrations. The surrounding saltmarsh and mudflats are a haven for waterfowl and wading birds, and are thought to be among the most productive in the state for migrant shorebirds.
Salt Meadow Unit, Connecticut's first National Wildlife Refuge, was established to protect feeding, nesting and resting habitat for migratory birds, to encourage natural diversity of fish and wildlife species, and to provide environmental education opportunities for the public. This unit contains 400-acres of salt marsh, forest, grassland, and shrubland habitats.
Menunketesuck Island, a 4-acre accreted sand island just offshore of the Salt Meadow Unit, contains extensive intertidal flats, sandbars and shellbars. The intertidal area is a significant foraging spot for migrant shorebirds, which roost on the island at higher tides. The Menunketesuck Island was recognized as an Important Birds Area by the Audubon Society. The unit is generally closed to the public from April through mid-September to provide breeding habitat for birds.
In the fall of 1994, 367 acres of tidal wetland and upland habitat were acquired at Great Meadows Marsh for inclusion into the refuge. The marsh has been recognized by the Service as an important area for migratory birds including waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and many rare species. Great Meadows contains the largest unditched saltwater high marsh in Connecticut, provides feeding and nesting habitat for over 270 species of birds, and is an important wintering area for the American black duck. Lewis Gut, which channels water into the marsh from Long Island Sound, contains one of the most productive shellfish beds in the state and provides breeding and feeding grounds for several species of finfish.
Five-acre Outer Island Unit, the southernmost island in the Thimble Islands chain, was donated to the Service in 1995 for environmental education and scientific research purposes. There is a cooperative partnership between the Service and the Connecticut State University System to provide environmental education and scientific research programs for the public while assuring the well-being of the migratory bird species that utilize the coastal environments of Long Island Sound. This small island serves as important stopover habitat for birds migrating across Long Island Sound during the spring and fall. The northern and western portions of Outer Island are closed to the public to provide migratory birds and other wildlife an area free from human disturbance.
The 31.5-acre Calf Island Unit boasts a diverse coastal habitat including tidal wetlands, intertidal flats, rocky intertidal shore, sandy beach, mixed forest and costal shrubland. The island provides excellent wading bird habitat and is located next to Great Captain's Island, which contains one of the largest heron and egret rookeries in the Long Island Sound.
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Did you know that there is a native cactus in Connecticut? Yes, Opuntia humifusa or the prickly-pear grows in all eastern states except Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Although it is rare and listed as a species of special concern in the state, you can find it on several units of the Stewart B. McKinney NWR.