On Block Island, a tiny dot off the New England coast, birders and other nature lovers can find beauty and solitude in 2,500 acres of ponds, dunes and marshes.
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.
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 Rhode Island’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 nine-square-mile, pear-shaped speck of Rhode Island just northeast of Montauk, N.Y. 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, the associate director for the Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, explained matter-of-factly.
The air at the 190-acre Clay Head Preserve is scented with flowers like honeysuckle and wild roses. The preserve offers a section of intertwining paths that locals call the Maze. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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 like 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.
Block Island isn’t big on signs, and address numbers aren’t sequential, thwarting GPS navigation. Fortunately, cellphone reception is excellent, and the entire island was recently wired for broadband internet service. So make sure your phone is fully charged and you have plenty of water before you set out on your adventure, in case you take a wrong turn and end up logging unplanned mileage, as I did.
From the top of the 200-foot-high Mohegan Bluffs, you can sometimes see all the way to Montauk, N.Y., at the eastern tip of Long Island.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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 mile-long, 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 also 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.
Bull thistle at the 25-acre Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve. This preserve is not easy to find, but that is part of the magic. Arriving through a gap in a stone wall is like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
A honeysuckle-scented maze
Like Hodge, the 190-acre Clay Head Preserve is difficult to find, but well worth the effort. A three-and-a-half-mile round-trip out-and-back trail, redolent of honeysuckle, like much of the island, and dotted with pink wild roses and white viburnum, offers views of the ocean and craggy coastline as well as access to the beach, where you can wade and picnic.
The trailhead is just south of Hodge off Corn Neck Road at the end of a 0.3-mile dirt track, where you will see a sign that says Clay Head Nature Trail. In the fall, you might spy some of the 100 or so species of songbirds that stop here to rest and refuel. If you’re feeling brave, you can wander into the section of intertwining paths that locals call the Maze.
Echoes of the Emerald Isle
Sheer wild beauty is on display at Rodman’s Hollow, a 230-acre basin created by a melting glacier some 22,000 years ago. It is considered the birthplace of the island’s conservation movement: The Block Island Conservancy formed in 1972 to purchase this land from developers. Here, a two-and-a-half-mile loop leads to Black Rock Beach, where the trail suddenly falls away to reveal the surf slapping against jagged bluffs and the vast blue horizon where the ocean and the sky meet. “It’s like being on the coast of Ireland,” said Sarah Greenaway, 48, a special education secretary from Wayland, Mass., who has been spending summers on Block Island for 24 years. “It’s just stunning.”
After hugging the oceanfront for a bit, the trail loops back to the parking lot. A search-and-rescue drone flew overhead on my way to the ocean and back to my car. Members of the volunteer fire and rescue department, who were testing the drone, told me visitors commonly get lost on the preserve’s labyrinthine paths.
A gray seal near the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors can spot seals bobbing in the surf by taking a short walk from the parking lot to Cow Cove.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Seals, songbirds and plovers
It’s basically impossible to get lost on the narrow 134-acre Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, which provides a landing strip for songbirds and migrating monarch butterflies.
A 0.7-mile walk from the parking lot to Cow Cove, where the heads of gray seals bob in the surf, will take you to the dunes near Sandy Point. Piping plovers, a federally threatened species, recently started to breed there after an 11-year absence from Block Island, said Maureen Durkin, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. The tiny chicks “look like a little cotton ball on a stick,” Ms. Durkin said, and many don’t make it to adulthood.
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 around 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.
Along the shores of the roughly 800-acre, 60-foot-deep Great Salt Pond, visitors share the sand with beach dwellers like fiddler crabs. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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.
The nearly 150-year-old Southeast Lighthouse offers commanding views of the Atlantic Ocean from its 52-foot tower near the Mohegan Bluffs.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
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 three 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.
A mile-long path mowed through fields of goldenrod draws visitors to the Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve, a perfect place to watch the sun set over Middle Pond and Block Island Sound.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times