Answers to your questions about Block Island National Wildlife Refuge

On November 15th, the U.S. Mint will launch the new Block Island National Wildlife Refuge quarter, the 45th coin released in the America the Beautiful Quarters Program.

The soon-to-be released America the Beautiful quarter featuring Block Island National Wildlife Refuge provides a glimpse of the island’s many treasures: a historic lighthouse, scenic coastline, and one quirky wading bird.

While we’ll all soon be able to hold a shiny little piece of Block Island in our hands, not everyone will have an opportunity to visit this remote refuge. Block Island is situated off the southern coast of Rhode Island, and getting there requires boarding either a ferry or a small airplane, and hoping the weather cooperates.

For those who wonder what Block Island National Wildlife Refuge is actually like, we thought we’d share answers to some frequently asked questions about this special place. If you do have a chance to visit Block Island someday, you’ll already know your way around.

Does the refuge have a lost and found? I seem to have misplaced my dead quail.

Unfortunately, the refuge does not have a lost in found.The only facility on site is a seasonal lodge open during special events in the summer.

If it makes you feel any better, your dead quail would definitely not be in the lost in found if we had one. That’s because it was probably buried by an American burying beetle! The largest of the carrion (dead stuff) beetles in the United States, ABBs can bury the carcass of a medium-size bird, say a quail, in less than 24 hours. I know what you’re thinking. I could bury a dead quail in like 30 seconds! But how quickly could you bury something 50 times your weight with your bare hands? Picture a couple of twenty-five-foot long RVs. Now you’re impressed.

Oh, were you using this dead quail? (U.S. Forest Service)

Once widespread in 35 states, ABB declined drastically in the twentieth century — in 1989, it was placed on the Endangered Species List — but Block Island has been a true refuge for this species. The island is home to the only natural population of ABBs east of the Mississippi, and these beetles have supported, and been supported by, collaborative conservation efforts to save the species nationwide. Working in partnership with the Service, the Roger Williams Zoo initiated a captive-rearing program in the 1990s using ABBs from the island; the Block Island beetles have literally spawned the comeback of their entire species.

Sorry about your quail though.

A pudgy wading bird presented me with a twig. Should I accept?

Unless you are a female black-crowned night heron, I’d suggest you politely decline. That bird is looking for a mate, and twig shaking is just one of many ways male black-crowned night herons try to impress females. According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, he may also try extending his neck to show of his white plume feathers, and “slowly bowing while raising feet alternately”. Moves like Jagger.

Swipe right if this black-crowned night heron is your type. (FWS)

A true family man, the black-crowned night heron will first choose a nest in anticipation of having a brood, and then begin his courtship dance. Once he finds a mate, he will offer her twigs, which she will add to their nest. Both the male and female incubate their eggs, and will even incubate the eggs of other birds. Not just other night herons, but other species. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that black-crowned night herons often nest in large colonies with other herons, egrets, and ibises — all species that you might see feeding in the salt marshes and mudflats surrounding the refuge.

If you are a female black-crowned night heron, follow your heart!

How do you pronounce Fresnel?

Frāˈnel. Rhymes with “lapel”.

Cross-section of a Fresnel lens. (NPS)

The “s” is silent, an artifact of old French left in place as a reminder of the past. Not unlike the lighthouse in the refuge where you can see a Fresnel lens today. For visitors to Block Island, historical landmarks like North Light are a pretty sight. During the age of sail, sighting these beacons was a matter of life and death. If a ship got too close to land and struck a sandbar, the fierce winds and powerful waves common in winter Nor’easters could tear it apart in minutes, and believe me, the North Atlantic Ocean is not a pleasant place for a dip in February. North Light was built in 1829 to warn mariners away from potential danger, and rebuilt three more times to save the structure from another danger posed by winter storms: erosion.

North Light presides over Block Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Greenaway)

North Light is also a landmark for the refuge. In 1973, the Coast Guard decommissioned the light, and transferred the surrounding 28.7 acres to the Service to establish Block Island National Wildlife Refuge. The town of New Shoreham eventually purchased the actual structure, and has done extensive repairs over the years to bring it back to life, including reinstalling its 1867 Fresnel lens — a technology developed by French physicist and engineer Augustin Jean Fresnel. Once a safeguard for sailors, North Light now presides over a safe haven for wildlife.

What is the name of the species that flocks to Block Island in the autumn?

Those are called birdwatchers, or “birders”. Their most distinct marking is a pair of binoculars, which you will see suspended around their necks, or held up in front of their eyes. They are typically elusive and quiet, rising before dawn to tiptoe along the edges of fields, wetlands, and other habitat areas. Birders from all over the world flock to Block Island in the fall to take in a spectacular sight: thousands of neotropical songbirds, representing 70 species, that stop on Block Island during their fall migrations.

The hermit thrush is one of numerous species of migrating songbirds that draw birdwatchers to Block Island every fall. (FWS)

The vast majority of these fall migrants are juveniles that overshoot the mainland, and research indicates they are severely dehydrated by the time they make landfall. The numerous small ponds (approximately 365) and abundant fruit-bearing shrubs on Block Island provide life-saving rehydration and nutrition to these inexperienced travels, as well as a place to rest.

The birders who visit the island for glimpse of species ranging from hermit thrush to black-polled warblers to red-eyed vireos, have been key partners in preserving crucial habitat for songbirds all along the Atlantic Flyway. If you encounter a birder, you should respect its space. That said, these species are typically friendly and eager to share their love of birds with others. While you are not allowed to feed wildlife in a refuge, it’s okay to offer a donut to a birder.

Is Block Island called “Block Island” because it’s shaped like a block, because it’s the size of a city block, or because it’s blocking the way of something?

None of the above. It’s shaped more like a duck, and it’s the size of about 2,500 city blocks, or 7,000 acres. The refuge encompasses a small fraction of that area, about 103 acres around the face of the duck. However, thirty percent of Block Island is currently in conservation status, including lands owned or administered by the Service, The Nature Conservancy, Block Island Land Trust, Block Island Conservancy, Town of New Shoreham, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and individual private land owners.

Shaped like a duck, right? (Google Earth)

And far from being in anybody’s way, Block Island was probably a welcome sight for the Dutch explorer Adrian Block. According to historical accounts, Block came upon the island after being stuck on Manhattan all winter; apparently his ship and cargo of furs had gone up in flames. Outfitted with a new ship in the spring, he came upon Block Island while exploring Long Island Sound. Although there are no records of his setting foot on shore, it made enough of an impression for him to name it after himself.

But given that the island encompasses such tremendous ecological diversity and scenic splendor in a remarkably small geography, the name that the Native Americans who had been living there for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans gave to the area may provide a more accurate description. They called it “Manisses”, which translates to “Island of the Little God”.