The Treasure Islands of Essex County

by Chris Leahy, Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology emeritus

Halfway Rock © Chris Leahy

There is something about islands. Their remoteness generates a certain mystique.  Even islands inhabited by people have an aura of “away-ness,” and uninhabited ones stimulate visions of hidden treasures of one kind or another. There is also an ecological significance to islands: their plants and animal communities are often different from those of even nearby mainlands; their isolation from other populations promote evolutionary change; and they may act as refuges for certain species because they are hard to reach by predators.

The coastal waters of Essex County from Nahant Bay to Cape Ann are dotted with more than 50 islands ranging in size from small rocky “skerries” which are nearly submerged at high tide to the well-wooded 83-acre Great Misery Island, two of them populated at least seasonally. In 2002 these were formally designated as the Essex County Coastal Birds Islands Important Bird Area*, due to their breeding populations of water birds that rarely nest on the mainland, including a number of rare or uncommon species.

Straitsmouth Island © Chris Leahy

This summer Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department, supported by a grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and the help of several generous private boat owners began a survey of these islands with the following basic objectives:

  • Developing a comprehensive understanding of past and current bird survey efforts, data sources, and management activities.
  • Completing an assessment of current breeding bird activity on the islands.
  • Identifying existing stresses such as human use, presence of rats and other predators, vegetation change, and climate vulnerability.
  • Developing recommendations for future management in support of the breeding birds.
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of these islands through programming and networking with state and regional conservation entities.

The survey has already turned up a number of previously unrecorded breeding sites for wading birds and American Oystercatcher.  We will be publishing more detailed results in the near future.

 

*An Important Bird Area (IBA) is an area identified using an internationally agreed upon set of criteria as being globally important for the conservation of bird populations. The program was developed and sites are identified by Birdlife International based in Cambridge, England. Currently there are over 12,000 IBAs worldwide and 79 in Massachusetts.

 

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