By STEPHANIE SCHOROW
Rabbits are everywhere. They skitter across the path, rustle in the bushes, and peer at me out of the tall grass. At dusk I clamber up the crumbled steps of an abandoned military fort and suddenly came nose to nose with a bunny – I’m not sure which of us was more startled.
It was my first night camping on Lovell’s Island, one of the 34 islands in the Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area and it was a revelation. Indeed, many Bostonians don’t even realize that there are islands “out there,” just a few miles from the hustle of downtown. Designated in 1996, the park is managed by the National Park Service and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The 52-acre Lovells Island, one of my favorites, is a wild gem of a place. Here you can explore decaying ramparts of Fort Standish, choked with blackberry bushes and staghorn sumac. You can walk a stony beach with a sweeping view of the outer islands, including Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse station in the United States, on Little Brewster Island. You can watch oyster catchers and other sea birds. You can camp overnight and watch the sun set behind Boston, with only the sounds of the waves, a clanging buoy bell and the occasional plane from Logan airport passing overhead. You feel so close and yet so far away.
Indeed, as the islands are now under National Park protection, they are turning back into a pre-Colonial, more “natural” state. No less than the famous biologist E.O. Wilson has called them a “micro-wilderness” due to their variety of plant life, animals, birds and insects.
The bug life alone is astonishing. A six-year collaboration between Harvard University and the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership collected 150,000 insect specimens. About 1,800 species were identified, out of the possible 5,000 that may live out there, said Jessica Rykken, a Harvard research associate in comparative zoology. “We documented 170 species of bees on the islands so far – that’s pretty impressive,” Rykken said.
The project also solved an entomological mystery: A tiny ground beetle was collected in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. For 100 years, beetle biologists tried in vain to find it. Then in 2007 Bembidion nigropiceum was found on the beaches of the harbor islands. “It’s not a native species but it’s a pretty exciting find,” Rykken said.
The small mammal life on the islands captivated the attention of community ecologist Lauren Nolfo-Clements when she moved to Boston for a job at Suffolk University. She began studying mice and voles on Bumpkin Island in 2008. The first year she trapped and released more mice than voles. This made sense; coyotes had made a den on the island and probably preyed on the larger voles.
For a coyote, “You get more bang for your buck when you catch a vole,” said Nolfo-Clements. In 2009, the coyotes were gone and the voles increased. This summer, to her utter surprise, “the small mammal population has completely crashed.” In past years she’s caught 200 small mammals in a season; this year it’s been 15 to 20.
Rangers report different animal sightings every year. A mink was reported on the island, and 2010 was hot summer and followed by brutal winter, but Nolfo-Clements is not sure what accounted for crash. “People have this misconception that ecological communities are very static; that’s not true,” she said. This ebb and flow becomes readily seen in the microcosm of the islands.
This year a wild turkey and deer have been seen on Spectacle Island; the deer could have possibly swum over but the turkey (not long-distance flyers) was likely blown in. Muskrats are often sighted; sometimes raccoons.
And on Lovells Island, eight years after my first visit, the rabbits – a European breed that likely escaped – have virtually disappeared. Nolfo-Clements and others believe the highly inbred group fell victim to a neurological disease common in overpopulated situations; Lovells is barely big enough to support a rabbit population. The rabbits may be all gone.
Often we think of nature moving slowly, that without human inference, changes come at a glacier’s pace. Just a few miles from downtown Boston, the micro wilderness of the Boston Harbor Islands teaches us otherwise.
The Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area
Park information line: 617-223-8666
Link to map
If You Go
Ferries to Spectacle and Georges Island leave hourly during the summer from Long Wharf on the Boston waterfront, near the Marriott Hotel and New England Aquarium. Roundtrip tickets: $12, adults, $8 seniors, $6 children and $2 for under three. See ferry schedule at: http://www.bostonislands.com/ferry-schedule-summer
To travel to Bumpkin, Grape, Peddocks and Lovells Island: Catch the inter-island shuttle operating daily from Georges Island or from the Hingham Shipyard. There’s an addition fee of $3 per person for this shuttle. See schedule at http://www.bostonharborislands.com/ferry-schedule-summer. Tickets can be bought in advance. For information on special cruises, contact the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.
Eastern gray squirrel
Seven-spotted lady beetle
Common green darner (dragonfly)
About the Author
Stephanie Schorow, www.stephanieschorow.com, is a Boston-based freelance writer and the author of East of Boston: Notes from the Harbor Islands (History Press).
Click here for a map of the adventure location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States.