Thursday, June 16, 2005

Stewardship Sites: Huckleberry Island

I was looking again at the list of Long Island Sound Stewardship sites earlier, breaking them into places I’ve been and places I haven’t.

Places I’ve been:

Norwalk River; Hammonasset Beach, Madison; Great Meadows, Stratford; Lower Connecticut River, Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Lyme and Old Lyme; Milford Point, Milford; Quinnipiac River, New Haven; Rocky Neck, East Lyme; Sandy Point, West Haven; Fishers Island Coastline – Southold; Huckleberry & Davids Islands – New Rochelle; Lloyd Neck – Huntington; Manhasset Bay – North Hempstead; Marshlands – Rye; Pelham Bay – Bronx; Plum, Little and Great Gull Islands – Southold

Places I haven’t:

Barn Island, Stonington; Bluff Point, Groton; Charles Island, Milford; Duck Island, Westbrook; Falkner Island, Guilford; Great Neck and Goshen Point, Waterford; Watts Island, East Lyme; West Rock Ridge, Hamden and New Haven; Alley Pond – Queens; Crab Meadow – Huntington; Jamesport State Park -Mattituck Inlet – Southold; Mt. Sinai - Port Jefferson Harbor – Brookhaven; Nissequogue River – Smithtown; Oyster Bay (Mill Neck) – Oyster Bay; Shoreham – Baiting Hollow – Riverhead; Stony Brook Harbor – Brookhaven/Smithtown

As luck would have it, I’ve written about six of the places on the first list, including Huckleberry Island, a tiny place off New Rochelle. When I went there, in June of 1989, it was owned by the Huckleberry Indians, who not surprisingly aren’t real Indians but rather members of a “fraternity” within the New York Athletic Club, which has a yacht club nearby at Travers Island.

When I was researching the story, I called a club official to ask about the Huckleberry Island, and he described the Huckleberry Indians as “basically a bunch of nature fanatics who like to get drunk and run around in the nude.”

By the time I went there, it had been years since the HI’s had used the island, thankfully. Here’s a newspaper story I wrote about it, published on June 26, 1989:

Forget the parks, preserves and bird sanctuaries. Don't bother with the coastal marshes and the north county woods.

When it comes to unbridled wildlife in bewildering concentrations, forget everything in Westchester except Huckleberry Island in the Long Island Sound.

The 12-acre clump of rock, soil and trees is the only place in the county where animals live in numbers that rival the bounty of wildlife that astonished the first European explorers of North America.

Three thousand gulls. Three hundred cormorants. Two hundred night herons. Two hundred egrets. And this year, one pair of glossy ibises, marking the first time the species has nested in the county.

Researchers visited the island this week as part of an annual survey of nesting water birds in southern New York. The island, they say, is thriving, with the number of birds growing each year.

As a result, they say, Huckleberry Island is one of New York's great bird colonies.

''This is the colony for this part of New York,'' says Peter Capainolo, one of the researchers.

The island is part of New Rochelle and is owned by the Huckleberry Indians, a club within the New York Athletic Club yacht club in New Rochelle.

Except for a handful of dilapidated buildings, it is undeveloped, with rugged granite shores punctuated by wedges of beach. The center is thick with hickories, oaks and maples and stands of smaller trees like privet and sumac.

Protected by New York state as a critical wildlife habitat, Huckleberry is a virtual bird factory, a source of both the elegant and the common - the pure-white great egrets and snowy egrets that grace the county's shores and the herring gulls that scavenge wherever they can.

''Islands are perfect because there's not a lot of predation and not a lot of disturbance,'' said Anne Ducey-Ortiz, who works for the study's co-sponsor, the Seatuck Research Program in Islip, N.Y., a Long Island substation of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Seatuck is conducting the study in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

But although 126 islands dot the Sound, Huckleberry is one of but three that support substantial colonies - Chimon Island in Norwalk, Conn., and Falkner's Island in Guilford, Conn., are the others.

And although the Connecticut atolls are part of a national wildlife refuge, Huckleberry is private. But a visit last week in the company of four researchers - led by Capainolo and David Kunstler, a naturalist at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx - revealed a wild world that in its intensity seemed more likely to be off the coast of Maine than in the shadow of New York.

With vulnerable young in nests and on the ground, the birds were unhappy at the approach of intruders, raising a furious clamor and engaging in a subtle defense mechanism that involved the discharge of gooey streams of white waste.

Under those harrowing conditions, the researchers set to work, mindful of the difficulties of the island's qualities.

''This is a real scene right here,'' said Capainolo, admiring a cluster of cormorants, their black bodies and orange bills stark against the pale sky. ''It's right off the Bronx, but it's like you're in Florida.''

Yet Huckleberry is no serene Eden. Death intrudes regularly: dead gulls splayed on rocks; a dead cormorant dangling from a tree, its neck tangled in a fishing line; a gull cowering in the weeds, its white head stained with blood.

''We have one guy freshly pecked to death. It's still warm,'' said researcher Trish Pelkowski, returning from examining an infant gull.

Kunstler said that if a young gull wandered away from its nest, other adults pecked it to death, a reward for the innocent invasion of their territory.

But despite the mortality, the colonies serve their purpose.

''For one thing, they overwhelm predators,'' said Capainolo.

Whatever the reason, Huckleberry Island is a success.

Ducey-Ortiz said the rookery was discovered in 1975, and Kunstler first surveyed it for Seatuck in 1986. The colony doubled in size from 1987 to 1988.

Although this year's work has yet to be tallied, the researchers think that the number of birds will continue to increase slowly.

''We may have just done a better job counting,'' said Kunstler, explaining the increase. ''But everybody seems to think, including the Huckleberry Indians, that there's more.''


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