By Land, Sea, or Air, Napatree is Doing Well

An American Oystercatcher searches for a mussel lunch. Photo by Janice Sassi.


After the summer crowds have gone and the icy winds begin to lash the sands of Napatree Point Conservation Area in Westerly, the work to care for the beach continues. Two dozen naturalists and scientists make a pilgrimage to the area in order to share the State of Napatree, an extensive document covering one of the most important natural areas in the state. The Watch Hill Conservancy is the agency charged with the care and feeding of the area, and URI professor Pete August, chair of the Conservancy’s science advisors, said “We have habitats and species that we need to protect; our long-term goal is to keep Napatree a dynamic, flexible, resilient system. If we don’t, issues of storm surge and sea level rise are going to become a problem.” The day-long conference detailed the latest work that has been done in science to aid in better managing the area.

On the land

        Napatree Point balances conservation with the tens of thousands of visitors who enjoy its beauty every year. Janice Sassi, Napatree Point Conservation Area Manager, says a summer weekend may see 1500 people on the beach each day. Peter August views the numbers as a chance to teach the public about the environment they’re enjoying. “All the naturalists here spend a huge amount of time trying to inform our guests who visit Napatree.” The naturalists spend their time answering questions about the organisms that call Napatree home, including offering free walks each Saturday during the summer season.

The Napatree Investigator Program is another free session that runs throughout the summer and brings kids seven to fourteen out on the beach to educate them about the importance of conserving Napatree and the environment in general. Each week has a different theme, such as crabbing or catching fish in seine nets, all designed to help future generations be good stewards of the area.

Along with the human interactions on Napatree, botanists report on the 170 species of plant life that the area supports. Some, like the dune grass, are native to Rhode Island and help anchor the dunes in place. For the past several years, botanists like Hope Leeson have taken part in dune restoration by replenishing the dune grasses that are overwashed by storms or crowded out by invasive plant species. Black swallowwort is an example of an invasive that confuses monarch butterflies into thinking they are another plant, resulting in offspring that are unable to feed after hatching. American Bittersweet is a tenacious, woody invasive that Leeson and others constantly do battle with in order to allow natives to flourish. The work is continuing.

In the sea

With so many visitors enjoying the beach, the work that Scott Rasmussen and Grant Simmons do for checking on water quality becomes even more important. During the last 11 years, teams have taken water samples from both the bay and ocean sides of Napatree. On Friday mornings from May to October, a team records information about water clarity, salinity, temperature, and more. The data is shared with URI’s Watershed Watch, which monitors both fresh and salt water locations around the state.

Napatree Point Conservation Area is maintained under the watchful eyes of scientists and naturalists. Photo by Janice Sassi.

One of the more famous visitors to Napatree is one that comes from the sea: the horseshoe crab. Naturalist Laura Craver-Rogers has headed up a program that coordinates with Sacred Heart University to count and tag these prehistoric creatures that are not only important in and of themselves, but whose eggs are a vital source of protein for many migratory species of birds that visit Napatree and the Atlantic coastline. Some years, sighting and tagging efforts will record as many as 5,000 animals coming to the beach to lay their eggs. Although there isn’t enough data to make a solid determination yet, Craver-Rogers is optimistic that this year’s numbers are consistent with a stable population.

In the air

Perhaps the most noteworthy visitors are those who come to Napatree by air. Not the ones flown to nearby airports: those who come on wings of their own. Jan Sassi notes that the Ospreys have new nesting platforms that she hopes they will make home. “We had a terrific team out last February getting new Osprey platforms installed. Thanks to a generous donation from Ted Grand (in memory of his parents Bertram and Ruth), we were able to research and build three structures that we hope they will use for nesting. The birds visited all three this year, though they didn’t nest, but we’re hopeful that they will next year.”

American Oystercatchers also made their regular appearances on Napatree. Naturalist Kevin Rogers says that the birds, with their dark coloration and long, orange beaks, have a clear preference for Napatree. Rogers says that the location has by far the greatest number of Oystercatchers in the state. Piping Plovers, though they were unsuccessful nesters on Napatree, were also present, using the area as a vital feeding resource in their migration. Even an assortment of bats flies through the Napatree airspace, including Big Brown bats, Hoary bats, Silver Haired, and Red bats.


And into the future

        By the end of the meeting, over a dozen presentations have been made covering hundreds of hours of work. The efforts involved in watching over Napatree will continue throughout the winter and straight through to the “migrations” of the summer crowds. It’s a task everyone around the room understands well, and one that Peter August sums up this way:

“We do this now because it’s our turn to manage and steward Napatree. In the future, there will be others, but this is our ship, and very importantly, most of the land is owned by the fire district, but the Watch Hill Conservancy owns the conservation easement over Napatree.

“We’re not doing this just because it’s fun, just because it’s the right thing to do, but as an easement holder, the conservancy is obliged to do this.”

Note: For more information about Napatree Point Conservation Area, as well as the full State of Napatree Report, visit .

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