Category Archives: Stewart B. McKinney NWR

Odd Jobs with Stewart B. McKinney Part 2: Falkner Island

Having finished up the easiest “job” I’d ever been assigned (babysitting Outer Island for a few days) I was prepared to have my next random task for Stewart B. McKinney  be a little bit more difficulty (read: not a cakewalk).

Falkner Island is another of the Stewart B. McKinney’s holdings. During the Summer it’s one of the only places that Roseate Terns still breed and nest. Its had a variety of buildings on it since 1802 when a lighthouse was built there to keep boats from breaking themselves open on the rocks.

By August the Terns had largely left their nest’s on the island, but I was still kicking around Connecticut with time on my hands. I hadn’t been able to get out to Falkner until the season was almost over, so I jumped at the chance to see the place, even if it meant I’d be helping with cleanup.

Two days of removing the nest boxes used to protect the Terns while they incubated their eggs and repainting the research station was time well spent to get to explore.

The Nest Boxes for the Terns were often hidden in nooks and crannies like this one.

There were more where these came from.

The Nest Boxes were designed to protect the Tern eggs from predation by Gulls and Black Crowned Night Herons. The design has been altered over the years to reduce egg-mortality from heat (hence the chicken-wire covering the cutout on top of each).

The View from the Lighthouse

Due to its importance as a breeding center for Roseate Terns, Falkner Island is closed to the public for most of the year. Stewart B. McKinney does open it up to the public on open house days during late-August. The view from the lighthouse is well worth the wait.

Another View from the top

Odd Jobs with Stewart B. McKinney Part 1: Outer Island

I finished my time on Calf Island in early August. However, with no job to go to right off the bat I asked the Staff at the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge if they had anything for me to do for the remainder of the summer. Luckily for me there’s almost always something that needs doing at a Refuge.

My first assignment was to go and take the place of the pair of Island Keeper’s that had been assigned to live on Outer Island over the summer. “Oh great,” I thought to myself. “Another couple days of roughing it on a deserted island.”


I wasn’t…exactly correct on that. You see, while I’d known that Calf Island was the most “rustic” of all the Island’s within the refuge, I wasn’t really clear on how big the gulf between my experience and the experiences of some of my coworkers actually was.

As it turns out, Outer Island is pretty much the opposite of Calf. Where I lived in a (cozy) screened in porch off a pavillion on Calf, the Outer Island Keepers lived in a two bedroom house with electricity and a living room.

The house used to match the fireplace.

The experiences aren’t really equatable.

At any rate, helping the refuge ‘keep an eye’ on Outer Island turned out to be a cake job. At night there were boils of baitfish by the docks (fleeing from a dozen or so marauding bluefish) and during the day the Terns that had been breeding on nearby Falkner Island flew around fishing. Outer Island has some amazing history behind it. Which unfortunately I do not actually know. The Island Keeper’s who lived there during the summer worked extensively with the Friends of Outer Island helping with the upkeep of the island and with giving tours to the hundreds of people who visited the island over the course of the summer. I just had to babysit for a couple of days.

The last days on Calf

In total I spent sixty days on Calf Island this summer. We finally shoved off, in good spirits, in early August. To be fair, part of our good spirits was the sort of elation you only get from escaping what could have been a rough experience. As it happened, the final moments on the island were unexpectedly tense, as the retreating tide threatened to strand our beached boat high and dry. Since we’d already boarded up our eratz-home and taken most of our gear off the island, we would have been in for a rough night had we not — in a fit of hulkish desperation — half-lifted and half-dragged our (not exactly small) boat back into the water. After getting our breath back, wringing out clothes out (there was no way to stay even remotely dry), and letting our spines unkink themselves, we pushed off for the final time and zoomed off.

At full throttle, our fully loaded boat barely outpaced nearby kayakers (I barely kid)

Despite Calf’s final attempt to keep us as prisoners guests for another twelve hours (or until we gave up and decided to swim for shore), I think that the Calf Island part of my summer went quite well. Working in a somewhat isolated environment was, as always, a good time, I was able to devote some serious time to honing my bird identification skills, and after a summer living on Calf I’ll never complain about mosquitoes again. Ever. As we learned the hard way, there are two types of mosquitoes on Calf Island. If memory serves (and I may be wrong here, someone correct me if I am) the diurnal species of mosquito on the island bred in fresh water and had striped legs. The nocturnal species bred in salt water and had legs bereft of stripes.

Not that it really mattered, they could both bite through two layers of clothing and didn’t seem to care how much deet we slathered ourselves with. By the end of the summer it seemed like I no longer swelled up when bitten. Either my bodies reaction to it had been suppressed by over exposure, or (more likely) I’d just stopped noticing it.

This Salt-Marsh was pretty much full of mosquitoes. The one time I bothered counting how many I killed I swatted 30 in 10 minutes.

Happily, before I shipped out my family braved the bloodsucker-apocalypse to visit me. After taking their lives in their own hands and kayaking across the motorboat channel they spent the day hiking around the island and experiencing a bit of what the place I lived in had to offer.

Note my head net and my mother’s conspicuous lack of one.

Ok, so I don’t look so great in this picture. To be fair though, I’d been living on an island where the closest this to a long shower involved thunder and lightning.

It was great to be able to show them a bit of what I do in my day to day. Even if they all did go home itching like crazy.

Next up: More adventures at Stewart B. McKinney

Birds of Calf Island: Not just Osprey Anymore

Ok, normally I try not to post about the same thing more than once unless I genuinely have more to add to the story. So while my original plan was to just upload a few more Osprey pictures and be done with it, I’m instead going to go for a more complete look at the local avians on and around Calf island.

Every day we walk the perimeter of the island and record what we see. Its becoming mundane as we see the same six or seven species of shorebird every day. Soon however, that will change. We’re looking forward to the end-of-summer arrivals. They should be showing up any week now.

Unfortunately they aren’t here yet.

Cormorants swim in pursuit of their meals and are (unsurprisingly) remarkably graceful in the water and incredibly clumsy when out of it.

This picture courtesy of the Killdeer’s nest-defense strategy.

Killdeer, for example, are regulars on our survey. There are at least two pairs of Killdeer on the island. One of which has gotten around to the tedious business of preparing a nest and laying an egg. Killdeer nest more-or-less in the open, and their defense lies in superb camouflage and a willingness to put themselves in harms way to protect their unborn chicks. Every day, like clockwork, as we approached the nest we first be buzzed by one of the pair, they’d land a few yards away and would drop a wing as if they were injured, then would run/hop away from where we knew perfectly well their nest was located.

I suppose it works better on actual predators. All it did for us was confirm what we’d already suspected, there was a nest nearby (or a chick, but they’re considerably harder to locate).

So well camouflaged I almost stepped on it.

Cool, right?

Last for now are another few shots of the omnipresent Osprey. Their clacking and squealing wakes me up most mornings and its a rare hour spent on the beach when four or five don’t glide by on their way to or from their nests or hunting grounds.

I’m glad I’m not a fish.

Calf Island: I see Garlic Mustard when I close my eyes

I’ve been on Calf island for somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 days now (or will have been when this post goes live). As I mentioned in a previous post one of the biggest priorities on the island is spearheading the removal / cleanup effort that the Biologists at the Steward B. McKinney Wildlife refuge cooked up. To that end I spent the first few weeks of my term cris-crossing the island with a handheld gps and a notebook, finding and marking populations of invasive species. Once I was confident we’d found the majority of the larger populations we began removal efforts, endevouring to visit and remove invasive individuals from each of the 40 plots we located once every seven days. At this point in the summer its a pretty easy task — I’ve already found and bagged most of the target individuals. However, for the first few weeks it was an incredibly time consuming job. Our initial passes filled nearly four dozen 30 gallon trash bags with seed-bearing stems and there’s always more.

As far as I’m concerned this summer, there are three invasive plant species in need of attention currently on Calf Island.

First, there’s Mile-a-minute vine, an aggressive annual vine species that carpets areas if left untreated, strangling and suffocating everything beneath it. It has thorns, but early in the season they aren’t so bad. It isn’t too prevalent on Calf island just yet, and I’m pretty confident that given a few treatments and a bit of luck, it’ll be gone from here.

Next, there’s Japanese Knotweed, which luckily is only present on a few spaces on the island. Typically places with sunlight, which are rare under the canopy in the island’s interior.

Finally, the island (like everywhere else it seems) has a Garlic Mustard problem. A massive one. In truth maybe forty of the four-dozen trash bags we’ve filled so far have been filled with Garlic Mustard. The second-year adult plants were already seeding when we landed on the island the first day, so it immediately became a priority. Its seeds can persist in the seedbank for upwards of five years, too. So any effect our efforts might have had won’t be felt until I’m nearly thirty.

That’s a thought to give me pause.

Calf Island: Overview

A month ago (early June, 2012) I arrived at the Steward B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook Connecticut to begin training for my current job on Calf Island. I’ll get into the training regiment at a later date, I suppose it might be interesting to someone considering entering the field. In the meantime. My last few entries have been annoyingly brief, largely because I don’t have a reliable internet connection on the island. Now that I’ve made the time to find a library with free wifi (and blessed AC), I think its time to explain exactly what I’m doing with myself out here.

After a few weeks of training and orientation, I finally shipped out to Calf Island. Calf island is a 30 odd acre dog-bone shaped island near Greenwich, CT that is half public access and half restricted. On the public side there is a “slightly” out of order float-dock (not connected to land during high tide), a large pavilion, and some forest. The restricted side contains a large chunk of dense, untracked, forest and a tidal marsh full of mussels, shorebirds, and mud. In between the two halves is a narrow strip of sandy beach that is currently also open to the public (it had been closed earlier in the season in anticipation of nesting that never happened). At low-tide a narrow spit of sandbar connects Calf island to neighboring shell island.

At low tide the spit is wide enough to play soccer on and is covered with birds eating the shellfish that live there, at high tide it’s covered in 4 feet (at least) of water.

The flora on the restricted side of the island is considerably denser than on the public side.


Another shot of the restricted side of the island. Most of what is visible is intertidal.

I currently reside in the pavilion on the public side of the island with one other island keeper. There are two small rooms enclosed on one side of the pavilion, one of which contains a propane powered refrigerator and our food, the other of which holds a pair of cots and our clothes. Besides those two rooms the pavilion shelters a large fireplace, three picnic tables, and a propane stove we cook on (when we have propane at least). The bathroom facilities are… rustic.

Obviously, this is all right up my alley, given the choice I’d rather spend my days entirely outside anyhow. So the fact that I’m really given no choice at all doesn’t bother me one bit.

The outdoor portion of the pavilion is actually quite spacious, the “bedroom” portion is visible in this picture, it is the tiny screened off section that was clearly added on as an afterthought. Its small, but I only really go inside to sleep or change clothes anyhow.

Our mission on the island is threefold. First (in my mind at least) we’re here to survey the island, identify potentially problematic populations of invasive plants, and remove them from the island before they can go to seed. At the same time, locating populations of rare or endangered plant species on the island would also be valuable. Second, we’ll be attempting to get an accurate idea of what wildlife the island supports, both avian and mammalian. Third, we’re to act as environmental interpreters to the few visitors the island attracts. We’d like people to treat the place with some respect and – if possible – leave with a greater appreciation of it’s value than they arrived with.

Our tenuous connection to the mainland.

I’m excited to get the wildlife experience, my bird identification skills have waxed and waned over the past few years, hopefully this will be an opportunity to really nail my shorebirds at least. As for the botany side of things, I’m pretty much playing to my strengths there, invasive identification and control is what I have the most experience in, since I expect I’ll continue to work in that field for quite a while, I might as well be good at it.

Reading ebooks by candle-light


reading by candle light

I love my job. Really. One of the things I think is best about it is this particular juxtaposition. I’m reading an book on my Nook (which I highly recommend by the way) lit by a quartet of candles. Three citronella, one beeswax.

The collision of pioneer tech and modern day is remarkably perfect. Who’d have though?

Sunset on Calf Island


I am fantastically lucky. Really. There are updates in the pipeline, I swear. The only thing I’m lacking
on my 30-acre paradise is non-phone-based internet.

I can live with that.

The Osprey at Calf Island

One of our first tasks upon arriving on Calf was to seek out the nests of any resident Osprey and mark them with a GPS for further observation. As best as I can tell there are at least three (and possibly four) mated pairs of Osprey with nests on or near the island. Two or three of the pairs have nests on nest boxes constructed specifically for their benefit on the water and the last pair has taken up residence in a dead tree on the restricted side of the island.

One of the pair that has their nest on the island itself.

Since we walk past it nearly every day (giving the soon-to-be parents as wide a berth as we can) we’re looking forward to watching any chicks that pair produces grow up.The other pairs are a bit out of our range, but the pavillion I live in faces the sea, and the area’s Osprey fly overhead nearly constantly.

The other in the pair, with a little something in tow.

Welcome to Calf Island.


I arrived on Calf Island last Tuesday. A more detailed post will follow, but after months of waiting and a few weeks of training, I’m finally here. Doing the work I love.

The island itself is shaped like a dog-bone. The northern half is open to the public, and contains the pavillion I’ll be living on for the next 3 months. The southern half is closed to the public. The forest is incredibly dense there, and difficult to navigate. In between the two halves there’s a closed salt marsh and an open sandy beach (see the picture above). Visitors are few and far between, but those that we’ve entertained so far have seemed enthusiastic about what we’re doing here.

All is well.

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