Block Island Naturally
Article Credit: By Scott Comings | The Nature Conservancy
Block Island is a place where the human and natural communities are intricately linked. Nature is literally right out your door and whether you are a seasoned naturalist or new to the natural world there is so much to experience. Each season brings something new to enjoy on the island: in the spring there is the call of the spring peeper, the sea of white from the blooming shad bush and the return of striped bass; in the summer there is the sky dance of the northern harrier, blackberries ripen, and an amazing variety of salt water fish; in the fall, migratory songbirds and raptors return, monarch butterflies pass through and wildflowers abound; in the winter, seals are frequently seen sunning themselves on rocks and beaches, rafts of sea ducks return and snowy owls can often be seen.
Don’t let our size fool you! While Block Island is the smallest town in the smallest state, this 6,000-acre (9.5 square miles) island serves as an important offshore refuge for many of the species that were once common in southern New England. Thanks to the community-led conservation effort on the island, 47% of the island is now protected and there are ample opportunities to observe nature on the over 27 miles of hiking trails found throughout this wonderful place (be sure to grab a trail map from the Chamber of Commerce!). Read on to learn more about the island’s rich history, the many special plants and animals that are found here, and how and where you can explore the nature of Block Island.
The first land conserved for the public was Nathan Mott Park (now across from the airport) in 1941. Active conservation of the island began in 1972 when the Block Island Conservancy (the first land trust in Rhode Island) was formed to conserve Rodman’s Hollow. During this acquisition, The Nature Conservancy was invited to assist (and opened an office on the island in 1991) which started a partnership that continues to this day. In 1986 the Block Island Land Trust was formed, and it is one of only two municipal organizations funded through a land transfer tax in the state. Over the last 34 years these three organizations have worked closely together along with off-island partners like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and R.I. Department of Environmental Management to conserve lands throughout the island for the benefit of people and nature. The effort ensures that this place will continue to be special for generations to come.
It is easy to get the three on-island conservation organizations confused but there are some key differences. The Block Island Conservancy is a local grassroots group with a mission to protect Block Island’s natural heritage, rural character, and access to its resources and the organization is funded through private donations. The Nature Conservancy is the world’s largest conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends and is also funded through private donations. The Block Island Land Trust is a municipal group focused on acquiring, holding, and managing property on Block Island for agricultural, aquifer protection, wildlife conservation and public recreational use. They are funded though a 3% tax (paid by the buyer) on all transfers of property. For most of the conservation activities on the island the three groups work together to maximize our impact.
Since the 1950s, there has been ample scientific research completed on the island that has shown just how important this place is for all types of birds, fish, insects, and plants. Perhaps most notably, there is one federally threatened species found on the island: the American burying beetle. This nocturnal, orange and black beetle measures over an inch and was once common throughout the Midwest, South, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Today, Block Island is the only place it naturally occurs east of the Mississippi River and has the highest density of the species in the world.
American Burying Beetle Photo Credit: Chris Raithel
There are also over 40 state-endangered or threatened species found throughout the island including the northern harrier, barn owl, American oystercatcher, clay-banks tiger beetle, northern blazing star, and bushy rockrose to name a few. In addition to this there is one globally imperiled habitat type, morainal grasslands (sandy hilltops) found in the southwestern part of the island. This type of grassland has a whole suite of plant and insect species that are unique to it.
Block Island is also known for having the highest quality coastal shrubland in southern New England that is comprised mostly of northern arrowwood, shadbush, bayberry, and elderberry. The coastal shrubland habitat is especially important for migratory songbirds in the fall because they provide cover and berries are a key food source. Block Island is a vital stopover site for songbirds during migration to rest and refuel (like you might at a rest stop on I-95) before continuing their journey. The best times to see these migrant songbirds are in May or September and October.
Located in the center of the island, the 800-acre Great Salt Pond is considered by most to be the jewel of Block Island. It is an important nursey for all types of juvenile fish; to date over 100 different species of fish have been recorded in the pond. The pond is also important for shellfish like quahogs, soft-shelled clams, and scallops. All sorts of amazing wildlife can be seen on the pond depending on the time of day and season.
Naturally, there is so much to experience on the island thanks to many forward-thinking folks, many of them volunteers. In order to preserve this legacy, there is still much to be done and it is a community effort! While The Nature Conservancy, Block Island Conservancy, and Block Island Land Trust all have some level of staffing, volunteers play a huge role in ensuring this work continues and thrives. Volunteer areas include stewardship, community science, outreach, board service and much more. So how can you help – get involved – volunteer, donate, and if you own island property manage it for wildlife. If you need help on how best to manage your property, we are happy to meet with you to make suggestions.