Wild Islands

Conch shell in surf on Gunning Island
Gunning Island Wildlife Sanctuary

Dotting the length of the Massachusetts coast, the islands Mass Audubon protects are sanctuaries in every sense of the word.

Most are rarely visited by people, providing safe havens for rare and threatened wildlife. Others provide visitors with glimpses of coastal birds, unique plants, and pristine landscapes.

Get to know a few of the islands that you can explore by land or by sea.

Great Egrets in breeding plumage Kettle Island
Great Egrets on Kettle Island

Kettle Island

On summer evenings, hundreds of Great and Snowy egrets parade through the sky toward Kettle Island, off the coast of Manchester-by-the-Sea, where they roost. Equal numbers of Glossy Ibis file in, followed by Black-crowned Night-herons, Little Blue Herons, and sometimes a truly rare Tricolored Heron. This is Massachusetts' most diverse colony of wading birds and also its largest, which helped Kettle Island secure status as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

How to Visit

To protect the nesting colonies, the island is closed to visitors. Viewing the colony from a boat is encouraged and is best done at sunrise or sunset when the island's birds are on the move.

Straitsmouth Island

Thanks to a partnership with the Thacher Island Association and Mass Audubon, Straitsmouth Island in Rockport was recently reopened to the public after a 180-year hiatus. Separated from Cape Ann by a 500-foot cut, the island feels a world apart. Common Eiders nest near shore, and Harbor Seals haul out on the rocks to sun themselves. A lighthouse and a lighthouse-keeper’s cottage complete the picturesque profile.

How to Visit

On Tuesdays from July through August, hop aboard the Thacher Island Association ferry (visit thacherisland.org for information and reservations). Experienced kayakers can also paddle from Rockport Harbor to explore the island's trails for excellent tide-pooling, birding, and seal-watching, but should be aware of rocks when approaching at low tide. Or for a unique view of the island and its historic lighthouse, set sail with Mass Audubon staff on the schooner "Adventure" out of Gloucester on August 8.

Osprey on nesting pole at Gunning Island
Osprey nesting on Gunning Island

Gunning Island & Little Pine Island

The area surrounding these small islands off of Westport supports the densest nesting populations of Ospreys along the East Coast and was one of the first areas where the birds recovered from the devastating impacts of DDT.

How to Visit

The dense, shrubby vegetation, including copious amounts of poison ivy, means no on-island visitation, but you can observe the Ospreys and other shorebirds by boat or kayak.

Sampsons Island

This island in Barnstable is an important focus for Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program, which monitors Sampsons Island as well as dozens of beaches throughout the state each spring and summer, protecting Piping Plovers and colonies of Least and Common terns. 

It's also an important bulwark against rising seas and stronger storms for the village of Cotuit. Ocean currents have increasingly washed the island's sand into the channel separating Cotuit Bay from Nantucket Sound, meaning less nesting habitat for shorebirds, trickier sailing through the channel, and poorer water quality in the bay. Since 2018, Mass Audubon and the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition, in partnership with the Town of Barnstable, have been dredging sand out of the channel, using it to restore lost nesting habitat.

How to Visit

To protect nesting plovers and terns, access is limited to the beaches on the Cotuit Bay side of the island (which also has warmer water and better swimming) and only by personal boat or kayak. American Oystercatchers and Willets frequent these beaches, and seal sightings are common.

Sailboat on ocean pre-sunrise © Andrea Collins
© Andrea Collins

Elizabeth Islands

Originally inhabited by the Wampanoag people and later named for Queen Elizabeth I by British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, the Elizabeth Islands have always held a special appeal for those who want to explore.

Penikese Island is home to colonies of rare tern species, while Cuttyhunk features a quaint village and harbor where you can catch glimpses of migratory songbirds and watch from Lookout Hill for passing raptors. Mass Audubon protects more than 60 acres on Cuttyhunk as well as provides educational programming to the local school and coastal waterbird monitoring.

How to Visit

In late summer and early fall, Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable offers tours that take you through Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay along the Elizabeth Islands, landing at Cuttyhunk and Penikese Islands. Shipboard commentary will focus on landmarks, geology, wildlife, and history.

Barn Owl in nest box at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary © Brian Rusnica
Barn Owl at Felix Neck © Brian Rusnica

Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket

Even though Mass Audubon's Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard wildlife sanctuaries are parts of larger islands, not islands themselves, we'd be remiss to leave them out!

Of Mass Audubon's three Nantucket properties, the largest is Sesachacha Heathlands (pronounced "SACK-a-juh"). Its sandy soil supports a unique community of plants, including Bicknell's Hawthorn, which is found only on Nantucket Island, with 80% of its population growing at Sesachacha. 

Across the sound on Martha's Vineyard, Felix Neck is just a half-hour bike ride from the ferry dock in Vineyard Haven. Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes frequent Felix Neck’s freshwater ponds, and Barn Owls nest in the roof of the nature center.

This article is was featured in the Summer 2020 issue of Explore, Mass Audubon's quarterly member newsletter.