Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge
The Thimble Islands
The 950-acre Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge used to be known as the Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuge. The property was renamed after the Congressman from Connecticut in 1987. From 1984 to 1987, the refuge was named Connecticut's Coastal National Wildlife Refuge.
This National Wildlife Refuge is broken into ten units, spanning about 70 miles of the Atlantic Flyway along the Connecticut coastline. This refuge provides necessary protection for tidal wetlands, barrier beaches and fragile island habitats. Many species of shorebirds, wading birds, terns and songbirds use these areas for resting, nesting and feeding purposes. Scoters, American black duck, brant and other waterfowl use the adjacent waters for wintering purposes.
The oldest unit of the property is the Salt Meadow Unit in Westbrook. Salt Meadow is now a 274-acre refuge and home to the refuge headquarters. More than 280 species of migrating neo-tropical birds fly through here during the spring and fall migration seasons. The National Audubon Society has designated this unit an "Important Bird Area." The unit offers 2.5 miles of trails crossing through marsh, grassland and forest habitats.
The Outer Island Unit is on Outer Island, a member of the Thimble Island Chain off the coast of Branford. It is accessible via ferry or private boat. Falkner Island is accessible only by private boat, although the property is generally closed to the public except during an "open house" period every year in September. Falkner Island has also been designated an "Important Bird Area" by the National Audubon Society. There are more than 120 nesting pairs of endangered roseate terns and more than 3,000 pairs of nesting common terns using the "amenities" at Falkner Island. A problem that comes up on Falkner Island is the presence of black-crowned night-herons: they feed on the eggs and newly hatched roseate tern chicks.
The Milford Point Unit offers an observation deck accessible via a boardwalk, then a short distance along the shoreline. The view overlooks the nesting area on a 9-acre barrier beach. Milford Point is home to a nesting colony of threatened piping plovers. A problem with the piping plovers is that they lay their eggs in small scrapes on the sandy beach. That makes it easy for humans to step on the unseen nests and for gulls, foxes, crows and coyotes to drop by and eat the eggs and chicks.
The Great Meadows Unit is onshore, located in Stratford. There are presently no access trails on the property but views can be had from the surrounding roadways. The Calf Island Unit is on a 29-acre island about 1,000 yards offshore near Greenwich. The Chimon Island, Goose island, Peach Island and Sheffield Island Units are all on islands in the Norwalk Islands group off the coast of Norwalk.
Several units of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge are simply closed to the public to prevent the disturbance of nesting and resting birds. A couple are open only during the annual open house (in September). Some are open to the public all year round. All are in areas where the possibilities of human encroachment and habitat destruction are imminent.
The ten units of Stewart B. McKinney NWR offer migratory and native birds several different habitats ranging from tidal salt marsh to grassy upland to sandy beach to dense forest.
Sheffield Island, 1,000 yards off the coast of Norwalk
Photo of the Thimble Islands courtesy of Flickr userid Paul Stumpr, CCA-by-SA 2.0 License
Photo of Sheffield Island courtesy of John W. Barber
Map courtesy of Cartesia MapArt US Terrain