The 11 units of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge include 8 islands and contain 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 just 600 feet offshore. Peach Island and the surrounding mudflats are an important feeding and resting area for bird including long-legged waders. At low tide in summer, it is possible to see dozens of great egrets, snowy egrets and small shorebirds feeding there.
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 the National Audubon Society.
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.
Menunketesuck Island, a 4-acre accreted sand island just offshore of the Salt Meadow Unit, contains extensive intertidal flats, sandbars and shellbars. Officially recognized as an Important Bird Area, the intertidal zone of the island is a significant foraging spot for migrant shorebirds, which roost on the island at higher tides. A summer colony of least terns and American oystercatchers has recently used the island to nest and breed. The unit is generally closed to the public from April through mid-September to provide breeding habitat for birds.
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 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.