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Sipson Island

A trip to Sipson Island:

Over the past year or so, there has been a fair amount of local chatter about a twenty-four-acre island in Pleasant Bay. For over 300 years, this island, just off the coast of Orleans, has been privately owned. The only way any of us could appreciate this picturesque place was to look at it through binoculars. Then, for whatever reason, the island went up for sale. (Who sells an island? Can people actually do that?) Real estate ads and announcements soon spread the word that, for a meager 12.5 million dollars, any investor or fat cat could be the next owner of Sipson Island. But before the developers moved in, and the trophy homes constructed and those ugly “Residents Only” signs erected, local conservation groups and land trusts got together and effectively said, “Not this time.” While I don’t fully understand how it all came together, I do know that a lot of caring and forward-thinking people quickly joined forces to keep this island from being further developed. Today, most of the land is under the watchful eye of the Sipson Island Trust, and they have no intention of posting any, “Residents Only” signs. Any of us can now go there. See, not all the news in 2020 is bad.

This is a great story, but what does any of it have to do with birds, you ask? Let me explain. Two friends of mine, whom I’ll call “Erin” and “Tasia“ (because those are their names”, are part of the driving force to save the island. One of the first things they wanted to do, after it was purchased, was inventory the trees and plants. They also wanted someone to survey the island’s bird population. This is when my hand went up and I yelled, “Pick me! Pick me!” They picked me. Sweet.

I need to point out that Sipson Island is a real island, not one of those phony – connected by a bridge or causeway – islands. That means I actually had to take a boat to get there, and boats aren’t my favorite mode of transportation. (It’s a seasick thing.) On bird count day, Erin and Tasia met me at the landing, along with Kaleigh (an intern) and Diana (a board member). The Trust’s boat is pretty small (like one of those cute things some people plant flowers in), so it took a few trips to ferry everyone over. Tasia, the boat driver (captain?), suggested that I sit in the “stern,” which turns out to be the back of the boat. (Boat people sure use funny names.) When we reached the island, Tasia attempted to hop out and pull the boat onto the beach so we all could get out, but she caught her foot on a rope and ended up doing a cannonball into Pleasant Bay instead. This could have been bad, because we didn’t have a spare captain. But Tasia recovered quickly, let us off, and went back to her car for dry clothes. Meanwhile, the rest of us, while still trying not to laugh, set out to explore the island.

Even before starting down the first trail, I ran into some cool birds, including a Brown Creeper, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and an American Redstart. (Erin actually saw the redstart before I did, but it’s my story so I’m taking the credit.) We next came to several modern and fairly large houses. But modern or not, these houses will soon be removed from the property. The Trust’s purpose is to restore and preserve the natural habitat, not fancy human accommodations.

Sipson Island is only twenty-four acres, so no matter which direction you turn, you’ll soon witness stunning views of Pleasant Bay. It was these views that everyone wanted to show me, and I happily obliged. But after taking a quick photo or two, I promptly snuck back to the wooded areas and the birds. The Trust would like Mass Audubon to make a thorough survey of the breeding birds this spring, but I wanted to check out the fall birds, so we could learn which ones used the island to refuel on their way south. On my brief inspection, I found migrating Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers, Golden-crown Kinglets and a Scarlet Tanager. As I watched the hungry birds grab hatching insects, it made me wonder where they would have found food if the real estate developers had ended up in charge of the island instead of the Trust.

Later in the afternoon, Diana’s husband stopped by in a real boat to pick up Diana. He also offered me a ride back. I thanked him for his generosity, but decided to remain on the island and count the birds a little while longer. Meanwhile, Erin, Tasia and Kaleigh sat in the warm sun and made plans for further environmental studies, programs and guidelines. It was on my last walk around that I found a nest burrow that had been used by a pair of Belted Kingfishers in the spring, plus several indications that Bank Swallows had also raised their families here. Then I heard the three words I wasn’t looking forward to: “Time to go.” The ride back was uneventful. Tasia managed to remain in the boat the entire time and we all arrived back at the landing safe and dry. It was a wonderful day. I’m so glad they invited me.

FYI: The island is open to anyone who can figure out how to get there. (A canoe, kayak or paddleboard will do.) Also – pets, all pets, even yours – are prohibited. Keeping pets out of conservation areas has been a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around, but it’s important. Check the Sipson Island Trust website for info about the history, regulations and future plans. Finally, remember it’s called Sipson Island, not Simpson; so don’t go there expecting to see Homer and Marge. That last part is a little disappointing, but other than that, you’ll love it.