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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Where the crowds are gulls and crabs

The Block Island North Light at Block Island National Wildlife Refuge on Block Island, R.I., in August 2023. The 134-acre Block Island National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for piping plovers, sea gulls, monarch butterflies and, just offshore, seals.

By Karen Angel

Had I stepped into a scene from “Planet of the Gulls”? The sky resonated with the sound of flapping wings, and groups of the birds shrieked and stalked among the shrubs on a rocky beach at Block Island National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island.

A fuzzy, freckled gull chick emerged from a bayberry bush, stared curiously at me as if it had spotted a Martian, and then waddled back to its hiding place.

It turned out I had stumbled on the state’s largest gull colony, and the reason so many other sunset watchers had stayed behind in their cars may have been that, as I later learned, the gulls are known to divebomb trespassers.

Preserves make up about 2,500 acres — nearly half — of Block Island, a 9-square-mile, pear-shaped speck of Rhode Island just northeast of Montauk, New York. With about 28 miles of trails, these areas provide a haven for numerous endangered animals, and anyone else seeking a little solitude.

On a tiny island whose seasonal population balloons, the preserves are rarely crowded, even in the summer. “Most people go to the beach,” Scott Comings, associate director for the Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, explained matter-of-factly.

The island is small enough that you can easily hit a preserve every day. During my week exploring, I never ran into more than two people at any of them, which enhanced the feeling of being far from civilization although I was never more than a few miles from the center of the island’s only town, New Shoreham.

In addition to the chance that you won’t see another soul there, you also won’t encounter bears or venomous snakes because there are none on Block Island. There also are no coyotes, foxes or raccoons. (Ticks are plentiful, so take proper precautions.) But you will see birds: About 300 species pass through in any given year. Because the island has few predators and sits in the Atlantic Flyway — the north-south migratory route along the East Coast — it is essentially a giant avian playground.

You can get started with programs such as nature walks or talks through the Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Conservancy. They’ll orient you to the island’s dunes, waterways, marshes and hundreds of freshwater ponds before setting off on your own, or with your furry friends: Leashed dogs are allowed at many of the preserves.

You can buy a $3 Nature Conservancy trail map from the Chamber of Commerce office near the ferry. The Block Island Chamber of Commerce offers an app with maps.

Exploring a pocket-size Narnia

The Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve, a 25-acre gem managed by the Nature Conservancy, offers a soothing introduction to Block Island nature with its milelong, nearly level loop mowed through waving fields of goldenrod. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set over Middle Pond as a family of swans glides by. The Nature Conservancy recommends Hodge for people with mobility issues and has an all-terrain wheelchair available to lend.

The hardest thing about Hodge is finding it. The Nature Conservancy staff offered the following directions: As you head north, count 10 telephone poles from the transfer station on your left and look for a gap in the stone wall along the road. Drive through the gap and you will see not only the preserve but an engraving on a large rock announcing you have arrived. When I found it, it felt a little like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia.

Inside, you might spy characters like a shiny black rhinoceros beetle — one of about five rare beetle species on the island — lumbering across the path; a tiny, adorable meadow vole; or a soaring, majestic northern harrier, a type of raptor.

A salt pond with a sweet side

The roughly 800-acre Great Salt Pond isn’t technically a preserve, but it is home to a wide array of water birds and about 100 species of fish. It’s also a popular place to get out on the water. Pond and Beyond Kayak on Ocean Avenue offers ecotours by kayak and paddle board. I opted for the kayak tour, which gave me a close-up view of fiddler crab colonies scuttling around on the beach, egrets wading along the shore and double-crested cormorants standing on rocks to dry their wings in the sun. Once you’ve built up an appetite, jump in line at the Payne’s Killer Donuts truck, also on Ocean Avenue, and grab a few of the warm cinnamon sugar variety.

Crawl with the crabs

If you prefer to explore the Great Salt Pond on foot, head to Andy’s Way, a quarter-mile strip of beach where you can spot all manner of crabs — the imposing horseshoe, the leopard-spotted lady, the domed-shell hermit and the feisty fiddler. They scurry around — sideways, of course — on the beach, where they burrow into the sand, and around the salt marshes and tidal pools by the 60-foot-deep pond. If you’ve never seen a translucent baby horseshoe crab the size of a quarter, you’re in for a treat: They seem simultaneously prehistoric and precious.

On top of the world

No trip to Block Island is complete without a foray to the nearly 200-foot-high Mohegan Bluffs on the south shore, followed by a climb down the 141-step wooden staircase to the secluded beach below. On a clear day, the view from the top of the staircase stretches to Montauk. You can climb the 52-foot tower at the nearby Southeast Lighthouse for even more breathtaking ocean vistas, including five wind turbines anchored to the seafloor about 3 miles offshore. In 2016, Block Island became the first American community powered completely by offshore wind turbines. Afterward, treat yourself to a lobster grilled cheese from the Southeast Light Delights truck near the lighthouse.

As I was heading from the lighthouse back to my car, I saw a young man coasting downhill on a bike with his arms held out as if he could have taken wing at any minute. After spending a week immersed in Block Island’s natural beauty, I could see why: I felt like flying, too.

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