Local family helps restore bird sanctuary on Milford's Charles Island

MILFORD — Like many locals, Bill Pursell has seen how Charles Island Natural Area Preserve has changed over the years.

Deer overpopulation, a fungal tree disease and storms have greatly reduced the forestation on the island, according to wildlife biologist Pete Piccone of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Now, Pursell hopes to lead a tree comeback using trees native to the area to restore Charles Island’s landscape.

“When we talked to Piccone, he wanted to have native trees be planted on the island,” Pursell said. “The black cherry tree is a native tree, but we couldn’t get one from Wisconsin, for example, because they are not the same tree as the ones that have grown locally.”

Pursell said his grandfather bought a cottage in 1941 that has a view of the island. After talking to some family members, Bill Pursell decided to help reforest the 14-acre bird sanctuary, one tree at a time.

So far, Pursell and his family have donated 14 black cherry trees and 25 bare root trees. Piccone gave the OK for each of the plantings.

“The citizen science and involvement are essential because we can work together to restore the Island,” he said.

Pursell said the family planned on donating and planting trees twice a year.

In addition to the donations from the Pursell Family, several other species of local trees have been planted at Charles Island. The new trees include sassafras, basswood, red cedar, red maple, American sycamore and bitternut hickory.

Piccone said the trees had been selected because they are resistant to the armillaria fungal disease that had nearly wiped out Charles Island’s trees. The planting areas also are being protected with deer fencing to protect the saplings as they are becoming established.

The tree-planting efforts are complicated by the fact that DEEP discourages people from walking out to Charles Island from May through September when local birds are nesting.

“So we are a little limited in that respect as to when we can go out there and plant trees,” Pursell said.

Piccone said the summer months are when the snowy egret and glossy ibis are nesting on the island. Both birds are of concern to wildlife biologists, he said.

“We categorize the snowy egret as threatened and the ibis as concerned,” Piccone said.

But the threatened species are another reason Piccone said DEEP wanted to see Charles Island reforested. The island’s naturally wooded habitat makes it unusual and especially attractive to some species of birds, he said.

“There are not many islands that developed like that, making it a very special habitat,” he said. “By not having Charles Island, there’s a limited choice for them which is why it’s a very important nesting site.

Pursell said the reforestation would be a long-term project.

“The state has been working on this for a while,” he said. “Because their budget is limited, and they’ve got hundreds of projects spread all over the state, this may not be the highest priority.”

But if restoring Charles Island’s trees isn’t a high priority for the state, local people have reacted enthusiastically to the idea on social media. Pursell said he has gotten so much positive feedback it has become a little overwhelming.

“There were lots of people saying they would buy trees or would go out and plant trees, and we can’t do that,” he said. “So we had to control expectations.

Despite discouraging people from heading out to the island on their own to plant trees, Pursell said he was looking for a way to help the public get involved, while still protecting the island.

Some ideas he has had include setting up a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit to control the reforestation, or simply starting an online fundraising page.

“I’m at the point where I’m trying to figure out, not if the public gets involved, but how,” he said.