Thrice cursed Charles Island now a sanctuary

Charles Island, a 14-acre island located approximately 0.5 miles off the coast of Milford, boasts a long and storied past. The unassuming island is steeped in decades of history, is said to be “thrice cursed,” and is a now cherished state resource for native wildlife.

The first curse was said to have been laid upon the land by a Paugusset chief in 1639 when he lost the land, which he believed to be home to the sacred spirits, to European settlers. Resulting in ill will, he cursed the island, any structure that was erected on the island and anyone who tried to live there. The second was laid on the island in 1699 by Scottish pirate and notorious high sea robber Captain William Kidd, who was lured into a trap on the island leading to his trial and execution, but not before he buried treasure. He, like any good pirate, cursed the island, believing if you curse the land, you’ll scare off any would be treasure hunters. The third curse was by a group of sailors in the 1721 said to have buried treasure on the island seeking to hide it after stealing it from Mexican ruler Guatmozin. Meeting a bad end, they cursed the island so no one could find the treasure and cursed anyone attempting to come after them.

“There are lots of stories about this very cool place connected to Silver Sands Beach by a naturally occurring tidal sandbar (tombolo),” said Mayor Ben Blake. “For us Milford kids, the best local folklore holds that the notorious Captain William Kidd visited Milford in 1699 on his way to Boston where he was subsequently arrested and imprisoned prior to being returned to England for trial and execution. According to the same legend, Captain Kidd also buried a portion of his fortune on Charles Island, possibly beneath the giant boulder known as Hog Rock. For over 300 years, people of all ages have searched for the lost pirate’s chest.”

Geologically the island is a coastal moraine segment formed by an unsorted glacial deposit (mixture of rocks and sediment). It is also a “tied-island” — tied to the mainland by a connecting bar consisting of pebbles and cobble. Erosion has reduced the size and width of the sandbar and of the island itself. The island is accessible from shore during low tide via a sandbar, a tide-washed rocky mound known as a tombolo, which stretches from the mainland beach to the island. Visitors are cautioned about the strong undertow and twice daily flooding of the sandbar during high tide.

According to local histories, the Sachem Ansantawae resided on the island during the summer months. European discovery of the island occurred in 1614. The island was originally known as Poquehaug until the area was settled by the English in 1639 and was then referred to as Milford Island. In 1657 Charles Deal bought the island, henceforth Charles Island, as it is known to this day.

The island has changed hands numerous times through the centuries, which included its use as a tobacco plantation in 1657, a fertilizer plant, a hotel in the 1880’s, and a Catholic men’s retreat center in the 1920’s and 30’s. Each eventually failed. It has been considered as a site for a yacht club, amusement park, military installations during WWI, and a nuclear power plant.

The state of Connecticut now owns the island, which was designated a Natural Area Preserve in 1999 for the local bird population of herons and egrets. The island, managed by CTDEEP’s Wildlife and Habitat Management Program, is densely wooded, providing an essential habitat for water birds.

The hosts one of the state’s largest remaining breeding colonies of heron and egret. Designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, it provides nesting habitat for rare and state-threatened bird species, including endangered Roseate Terns, Great and Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Long-eared Owl, and Least Tern. The island also supports year round bird inhabitants, migratory waterfowl and wading birds.

“Charles Island is a Natural Area Preserve,” said Patrick Comins, Executive Director at Connecticut Audubon. “People make the argument that it’s public land so they should be able to go there — there is a specific program of the state called the Natural Area of Preserve Program and it’s at the discretion of the DEEP Wildlife Division what the rules and regulations are. The island is closed between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The state is the land owner. It is a very important nesting area for state threatened Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets as well as Black Crowned Night Herons, Glossy Ibis and perhaps some Blue Herons as well. There are also state threatened American Oyster Catchers that nest on the shores of the island.”

Access to Charles Island via the sandbar is closed from the end of May through the beginning of September in an effort to protect the native wild bird population and their nesting sites. People are asked to respect the rules and stay off the island during the nesting season.

“The trees have been dying because of a fungus,” continued Comins. “The state is working on two things out there now, there’s an invasive vine that is overtaking called Mile a Minute and they are working to eradicate it. They’re also planting of native trees (Sassafras and Cottonwood) that can serve as nesting structures in the future for the herons and egrets out there.”

The habitat on the island has changed significantly over the last 12 years, said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist. “When the wading bird colony was a thriving colony, the habitat on the island was very, very different, there was a very dense canopy cover, there was a good structured canopy mid layer, there were shrubs, it was very dense and shaded. A lot of the vegetation out there was invasive species, Norway Maples, Tree of Heaven and Bittersweet Vines which weighed the trees down. Deer moved out to the island and removed (ate) regeneration that was occurring. Add to that a very unusual soil fungus called Amalaria which is affecting the root system of the trees. Add Hurricane Sandy which hit the island hard damaging vegetation. The only thing that survived ironically was the Norway Maple Trees.”

“We are working to get the habitat back to what it was so we can retain the colony’s there,” said Dickson. “We are strategically planting new cedar and hardwood trees (Red Cedar, Oaks, Sassafras). The Mile a Minute Vine has now also taken hold on the island which we are removing when it doesn’t disturb the nesting birds, we introduced beetle’s that eat Mile a Minute Vine, and we put deer fencing up — we are making progress.”

“Interestingly, the birds that nest on Charles Island fly up and down the coast foraging to get food to bring back to their nestlings,” Comins said. “If you live between the New Haven area and at least Stratford, maybe further, and you see herons and egrets, which are very beautiful, they’re probably flying back and forth from Charles Island. There are only about a half dozen islands off the coast of Connecticut that host all of the nesting herons and egrets, there may be 100 nests or more on the island. If people keep going back and forth to the island they’re going to scare the birds away and that whole colony will abandon the island and you won’t see any egrets or heron in the whole center part of the state. Dogs also flush out the wildlife. Charles Island is critically important to the continuation of these threatened species. The Snow Egret is doing very poorly in the state; I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a state endangered species.”

“One of the big changes for the birds is that the canopy isn’t as closed as it once was,” said Dickson. “Now the birds are much more exposed and they can see people a lot more quickly than they ever did before, making them a lot more nervous. It’s sometimes difficult for the public to understand, but things have changed. We can’t have access to the island the same way we did 15 years because the habitat has changed so much that it doesn’t allow us to do that. The birds are much more sensitive to disturbance now than they were 15-20 years ago. The birds are now faced with a huge challenge.”

Additionally, “they don’t want people going out to that island because there’s a very high tidal range in that part of Long Island Sound,” added Comins. “It’s connected by a tombolo during low tide, but then you’re out on the island and the water starts rushing in with the tide and it gets slippery. People have actually slipped and fallen in the water on the way back and drowned. These are two reasons why it’s closed, for safety and to protect the birds and again it isn’t public property, it’s a Natural Preserve.”

“Now is a great time to observe these birds with a pair of binoculars from Silver Sands State Park, they’re just beautiful,” added Comins. “It’s also about the best place in the state to see Clapper Rails and wildlife including migrating birds and owls. Hammonassett State Park is another great place to see these nesting birds. Keep in mind, whenever you’re seeing these great birds along the coast, they’re only nesting on a very small number of islands off shore and if those colonies are lost we’ll lose those birds. We lost them in the 19th century and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that returned to nesting in Connecticut. We could easily lose them again for another hundred years.”