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Partnering to Protect the Shorebirds of Sandy Point Island
Photo Credit: USFWS
Binti Ackley, like many of her fellow beachgoers and landowners, beams with pride when she talks about protecting the well-loved Sandy Point Island in Rhode Island.
“Sandy Point Island is my backyard, just a short paddle offshore," says Ackley. "During the 36 years I have lived here, I have explored and observed the ever-changing island and its residents, including the threatened piping plover."
Locals consider this barrier island -- nestled between Rhode Island and Connecticut in Little Narragansett Bay -- to be a prime boating destination and picnic spot. But it is also a hotspot favored by a variety of shorebirds, including American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliates), federally threatened piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), least terns (Sterna antillarum) and federally endangered roseate terns (Sterna dougallii dougallii). Beachgoers who ignore rules against building campfires and letting dogs run free pose a threat to these nesting birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Avalonia Land Conservancy (the owner of the island) and local residents have teamed up to find a balance between recreational use and wildlife conservation on Sandy Point Island.
Photo Credit: USFWS
“This partnership effort is really about striking a balance. Sandy Point Island is a special place for people and for wildlife,” said Sharon Marino, Project Leader for the Southern New England - New York Bight Coastal Program. “Once we started protecting parts of the island, the birds responded immediately.”
Biologists identify important nesting grounds for birds and rope off the areas to protect the parents and chicks from people until their flight feathers grow in. Nesting boxes are placed in least tern nesting areas to provide cover for the chicks.
About one third of the island is roped off seasonally for nesting birds; the rest is open for public access. Signs are put up to let the public know about the conservation efforts and biologists and volunteers educate beach goers about the importance of these rare birds and responsible beach use behavior.
These efforts, which began in 2009, have paid off. In the 2010 season, the island was home to one of the largest least tern colonies in New England in the past 30 years, with 443 nesting pairs fledging 91 chicks. The number of piping plovers nesting and American oystercatchers – a “species of concern” in Rhode Island – is also on the rise.
In addition, common terns (Sterna hirundo) nested on the island in 2010, something that hadn’t happened for 20 years. The endangered roseate tern has also been seen staging on the island and foraging in the adjacent waters. This island could potentially serve as a nesting location in the future.
Photo Credit: USFWS
“Some projects spend thousands of dollars on trying to make a habitat look good for least terns, and we just had to rope these areas off to get 443 nesting pairs,” said Rick Potvin, manager of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. “This is a short-term investment that gave us fantastic dividends.”
According to Avalonia President Anne Roberts-Pierson, the public has embraced its role in the conservation partnership. “Changing public consciousness is hard, but people already love this place. We’re just educating people about why the birds are important and we’re just asking them to tweak their behavior.”
“The feeling on the island has changed,” said Roberts-Pierson. “Avalonia has always tried to take care of the island, but now people see that biologists and people in conservation are watching the birds. This island is relevant in the environmental scheme of things, so they want to be a part of that. We have enough buy-in from regular beachgoers that they’ll quickly enforce these rules and protect their resource.”
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