|A Brief Ecological History of Burying Island|
|Saturday, 09 June 2012 10:00 | Written by Rich Bard | Blog Entry|
Steve rowed the boat slowly, speaking in measured phrases between his strokes. Occasionally he looked over his shoulder to see if we were still on course for Burying Island. He was in no particular hurry. As long as the headwinds weren't too strong, we'd get there in due time. It’s a trip he's made countless times since his family acquired the island, back in 1938, when he was just four years old. Since then, Steve has seen the once nearly clear-cut island return to a forest and watched the wildlife return along with it.
As we walked around the island, signs of animals were everywhere, from a single bird feather caught on a twig and fluttering in the breeze to the remains of a whole great blue heron. We walked through the remains of a once-thriving heron rookery, boasting upwards of 200 nests in a small patch of trees in the island's interior.
Steve remembers when the herons first began to nest on the island, back in 1959. Unfortunately, the recovery of the once-endangered bald eagle brought about the end of Burying Island's heron rookery. Sitting ducks for the eagle's rapacious appetite, the rookery disbanded in 1999, within a couple of years of the eagle's arrival. A decade later, Steve can still hear the “klaxon call” of the herons when the eagles first began their attack on the rookery.
Steve pointed out the massive pine tree that holds the eagle nest, which sits a hundred feet above the forest floor. He is pleased that the eagles chose a strong pine, with a long, straight trunk that will stand tall for many years and hopefully host many young eagles.
On the ground below the nest, we found the remains of horseshoe crabs. Taunton Bay, where Burying Island sits, is the most northerly breeding grounds of this living fossil. They are an important prey species for many predators and their carcasses litter the island. Steve has been studying their habits for years and gave me a brief lesson on where in the bay the animals are at different times of the year.
Horseshoe crabs aren't the only prehistoric relic on Burying Island. Many times on our tour, he pointed out places where artifacts have been found from two different cultures, one of which is 6,000-7,000 years old. Steve isn't sure when the island got its name, but he has always suspected certain sites of being ancient Native American burial grounds. I sensed that, although he is curious, Steve probably won't ever really look for the burial grounds, preferring to leave the remains—and the mystery—in place.
I imagine a time-lapse photography sequence of Burying Island over the course of Steve's life. The trees slowly re-grow from the stumps of his childhood as the seasons pass in the blink of an eye. The coming and going of the tide, the single most important ecological event in Taunton Bay, is only a blur. Finally, balsam fir trees, a short-lived species, begin to die of old age, and lichen and moss grow on the spruce trees.
At the same time, we watch Steve growing from a young boy to a man, then to an old man, his still-strong body beginning to bend, just a little. In the final frame of my mental movie, I see Steve, hands on the oars in his skiff, leaning into his stroke. Burying Island looms behind him, as it has all his life.
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