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New England travel

The natural side of Martha's Vineyard

Grand seascapes and landscapes

By Cecilia Pinto McCarthy, Globe Correspondent

IF YOU GO . . .
When to go

Spring, summer, and fall all offer excellent opportunities to see plants and animals at different stages in their life cycles. From late March through May, migrating animals and birds arrive on Martha's Vineyard, including Chappaquiddick, to begin nesting and breeding. Gray seals come to pup on the beaches of Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, then leave to summer in Maine. The land comes alive with herons, egrets, willets, plovers, terns, oyster catchers, ospreys, and other breeding birds.

Plants including beach plums, shad bush, blueberries, rhododendrons, iris, and huckleberry renew themselves. Summer also teems with life as birds concentrate on raising their young before cool weather arrives. Fin and shell fishing is also prime in summer. Naturalist Kelly Cannon says, ``Martha's Vineyard is at its finest in early June when we are constantly seeing new things.'' In early fall, the land flourishes with cranberries, bayberry, asters, and mushrooms. Swallows begin to group; young osprey linger calling plaintively for their absent parents. September starts the popular fishing competition, the Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby.

What to bring

When hiking, wear a good sunscreen, insect repellent (even in early fall), comfortable hiking shoes, and long pants. Mosquitoes and ticks are part of going into the woods. Bring along a camera, binoculars, bird and plant identification books, and drinking water.

Getting there

Plan your trip well in advance, sinceaccommodations fill up quickly. Reservations are needed for cars on the Martha's Vineyard ferry, which leaves from Woods Hole. For information regarding accommodations and ferry times, write to the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce at PO Box 1698, Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568; or call 508-693-0085. Other important numbers

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown offers nature programs including guided canoe trips. Call 508-627-4850.

Trustees of Reservations tour reservations can be made by calling 508-627-3599. The group also runs summer educational programs for adults and children. For information, call the Islands Regional Office in Vineyard Haven at 508-693-7662.

In addition to the properties mentioned in this article, the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation and the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission provide public access to additional properties on the island. For information, call the Sherriff's Meadow Foundation at 508-693-5207 and the Land Bank at 508-627-7141.

Long before celebrities, ice cream parlors, and upscale boutiques defined Martha's Vineyard, the 108-square-mile island off the coast of Cape Cod was known for its pristine beauty. If you're looking for a place to rejuvenate yourself, body and soul, then consider what nature has to offer on Martha's Vineyard, including Chappaquiddick. A unique collection of ecosystems, the Vineyard islands are a nature lover's paradise, full of opportunities to touch the Earth and renew the spirit through walks, hikes, and tours.

The charm of Martha's Vineyard was not lost on the first European explorers, John Brereton and Bartholomew Gosnold, who arrived in 1602 and were captivated by the splendor of the island's wild vineyards. They were equally impressed with the island's wildlife, describing ``penguins,'' which were actually giant auks, now extinct. Today, Martha's Vineyard retains its natural solitary places with a dazzling variety of landscapes and seascapes and an abundance of plant and animal life.

One of the best ways to view the flora and fauna is to walk or hike through some of the more than 3,800 acres of preserved land on the 23- by nine-mile main island and nearby Chappaquiddick. Credit for the protection and accessibility of these wild places goes to a number of organizations, including the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank Commission, the Trustees of Reservations, the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy. Land donations made by private citizens enhance preservation efforts, while a 2 percent surcharge levied on Vineyard real estate transfers provides purchasing power.

Each section of the island has distinct features. The north shore tends to be craggy, while the south shore is typified by stretches of sandy beaches and pond-dotted heaths. Inland trails are thick with scrubby oak and shrubs, while on the island's far west reaches, palette-fresh burnt reds, oranges, and browns paint the clays of Gay Head Cliffs. The trips that follow are among the best for viewing the diversity of the island's landscape and wildlife.

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown is a 350-acre gem of the Massachusetts Audubon Society/Felix Neck Wildlife Trust. Massachusetts Audubon is currently the state's largest private conservation landowner with over 27,000 protected acres. Existing within the boundaries of Felix Neck are the variety of ecosystems found on the Vineyard: marsh, fresh- and salt-water ponds, woods, and grasslands. The sanctuary's visitor center is operated by friendly, knowledgeable staff, and provides trail maps, listings of recent bird sightings, and nature displays.

Home to over 100 species of birds, Felix Neck is one of the best birding sites on the island. Its well-marked, color-coded trails make for a relaxing walk, meandering through scrub oak and pitch pine woods flecked with fresh- and salt-water ponds and estuaries.

In warm seasons, a wildflower garden frequented by little blue sulfurs and voyaging monarch butterflies welcomes visitors to the sanctuary. To the left, check the osprey tower, one of several man-made structures erected around the island to encourage osprey breeding. Ospreys, sometimes called fish hawks, feed almost exclusively on fish, and can be found perching on telephone poles or soaring over water in search of food. With its five- to six-foot wingspan and dramatic diving ability, the brown-and-white osprey is a magnificent marriage of power and beauty. Pairs return each spring to the same nesting site, and can be spotted through late August gliding overhead or feeding their young. In late August and the early weeks of September, the adult ospreys leave their young and head for warmer climates, but it is still possible to see juvenile birds that have lagged behind. It is a gift to view the stunning raptor, which has made a remarkable comeback in the Northeast in recent years, having suffered the effects of pesticides during the 1950s and 1960s.

Along with the osprey nest, the open grasslands by the parking area contain rows of square birdhouses on poles, homes for Eastern bluebirds and shimmering indigo-backed swallows. Catching sight of the striking bluebird is a rare treat, while the ever-present swallows are easily spotted swooping playfully overhead. Visitors to the Vineyard in early fall can observe the swallows banding together, sometimes in flocks of thousands, as they prepare to migrate south.

Felix Neck has so much to offer that walking should not be rushed. Many people tend to look straight ahead as they walk, neglecting the fascinating details at their feet: Tracks left by deer and racoons pressed into the mud reveal their nocturnal wanderings, and holes dug by meadow voles puncture the soil at the trail's edge. As the days cool in the fall, orange- and red- colored mushrooms adorn the path like lanterns, their vibrant colors warning of their poisonous flesh. Common bird sightings include red-breasted nuthatches scaling tree trunks in search of food or groups of black-capped chickadees flitting from tree to tree in their characteristic undulating flight. Often the curious chickadees will gather in trees along the trail to watch human visitors.

In the wooded areas of Felix Neck, look for species like the northern flicker, a type of woodpecker, or the rufous-sided towhee with its rusty brown sides and black back. One trail leads over a wooden boardwalk to a turtle pond where waterfowl gather. Follow the trail to Sengekontacket Pond, a large salt pond surrounded by beach and marsh. Walking along the sand you can find evidence of the Vineyard's abundant shellfish: Scallop, clam, mussel, whelk, and cast-off shells of horseshoe crabs embellish the sand. Sengekontacket Pond is a haven to many species of birds that can be discovered from the shore. The statuesque great blue heron blends against tall grasses while fishing at the water's edge; common and least terns skim over the water, their heads bent downward anticipating a catch; and herring and black-backed gulls bob peacefully with the waves. Felix Neck also contains a man-made waterfowl pond with a cabin where visitors can rest while spying on green herons, geese, mallards, and other ducks.

The trails that span Felix Neck Sanctuary are easily navigated and are within a short distance of the visitors' center, making this hike ideal for families with children.

Menemsha Hills Reservation, a 211-acre property of The Trustees of Reservations located in Chilmark, is a more rugged hike through oak and pine forest to spectacular hilltop and ocean views. Consider wearing a bathing suit and bringing a picnic lunch, since the trail exits at the beautiful beaches of Vineyard Sound.

From the parking lot, follow the trail leading to the 308-foot-high Prospect Hill for breathtaking views of the coastline, the Elizabeth Islands, Menemsha, and the cliffs and lighthouse of Gay Head to the west. The woods of Menemsha Hills are dense and lush with ferns, blackberry bushes, a variety of shrubs, and tight clusters of trees stunted by salt-water-laden winds and harsh soil conditions. This compact vegetation provides shelter for the rufous-sided towhee, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, white-eyed vireos, downy woodpeckers, catbirds, and many other species.

The 216-acre Cedar Tree Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in West Tisbury will make you forget that you are surrounded by water. Dense with plant life, which creates a cooling shade, Cedar Tree seems as remote and magical as any forest. Only the roar of the ocean as the trail wanders toward the beach reminds the hiker of his actual location. Owned by the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, Cedar Tree overlaps the Alexander S. Reed Bird Refuge, residence to bird species such as the scarlet tanager, oven bird, the secretive veery, and the white-eyed vireo. Plant species found in these woods include sassafras, distinguished by its mitten-shaped leaves, and stands of beech trees.

The sanctuary's three main trails are narrow and natural, creating a heightened sense of adventure for the hiker. Trails lead through thick woods and over hills, by streams, freshwater ponds, and bogs to isolated beach. Hikers may stop to rest on the benches at the rim of Ames Pond and relish the beauty and solitude. At the trail's end, a reward awaits -- the seemingly untouched sands of Vineyard Sound surrounded by dunes and tangles of grasses and shrubs.

Moshup Beach at Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard's west end is an exhilarating beach walk with dramatic views of the renowned clay cliffs. A boardwalk slices through dense moorlands filled with shrubs, yarrow, and rose hips, exiting onto the open beach. Ospreys perch on nearby telephone poles, resting after a fishing trip. Ambling along the beach, you'll find it difficult to notice anything but the 150-foot striated cliffs with their layers of red, burnt orange, beige, green, and brown. Sandwiched in the clay are plant and animal fossils, from whales to horses, harkening back to ancient eras and hinting at the connectedness of land and sea.

These ever-eroding cliffs provide homes to throngs of swallows thatnest in holes drilled just below the top edge of land, leaving the banks pockmarked. During nesting season, the swallows pop in and out of the holes like rows of cuckoo clock birds.

Ever vigilant, the red-brick Gay Head Lighthouse proudly keeps watch over these ice age cliffs, having guided seamen since 1844.

As Moshup Beach curves along, it yields views of the unpopulated Noman's Land Island. Large black cormorants, which lack the oil gland needed to waterproof their feathers, can be seen perching on rocks, their wings outstretched to dry in the sun. In the cooler months, look for the black and white scoter, a type of duck that winters on the oceans, bobbing like a buoy on the waves. Blue crabs, ravaged by gulls and other predators, are dispersed here and there along with jellyfish and shells.

Once you've worn your legs out walking the trails, head to the most unspoiled habitat in the area, Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge and Wasque (pronounced WAY-ski) Reservation on the island of Chappaquiddick. A treasure-trove of wildlife, Cape Poge and Wasque Reservation brim with life, luring birders, nature lovers, and fishermen

A three-hour natural history tour, sponsored by the Trustees of Reservations and led by an experienced naturalist, guides visitors on a safari-like journey through the 716 acres of the refuge and reservation. Space on the tour is limited to 12 people (reservations only) and leaves daily at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Chappaquiddick is easily accessible from the rest of Martha's Vineyard by the Edgartown Ferry. Cost is $27 for adult members of the trustees, $30 for nonmembers, and $15 for children.

The Trustees of Reservations is the world's oldest land trust, preserving valuable ecological and historic properties throughout Massachusetts since 1891. The group is dedicated to keeping land available for human appreciation and use. Kelly Cannon, a naturalist with the trustees, says, ``TTOR welcomes human use. They believe in providing people with various ways to access the land and water by allowing biking, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking.'' Cape Poge and Wasque Reservation are prime examples of this philosophy.

The tour begins in the parking lot on the Chappaquiddick side of the ferry where a trustees naturalist greets visitors and provides them with binoculars as they clamber into the back of a covered pickup truck. The first leg of the trip leads to Wasque Reservation for a short hike through pine and oak woods along a boardwalk to Swan's Pond, then through grass-covered dunes to Wasque Point beach. The pond harbors waterfowl such as mute swans, black-crowned and great blue herons.

The surrounding land is a botanical showcase. The indigenous plant life wages a constant battle against an Asian bamboo-like grass called fragmitis. Fragmitis, which grows at a phenomenal rate, was most probably introduced to the island after hitching a ride on a boat propeller. Nearby, a stand of red cedar trees marks the way toward the grasslands and the beach. Along the route, the naturalist draws attention to edible plants, encouraging everyone to try the slightly sour, plumlike taste of rose hip berries (each one contains more vitamin C than an orange) and the saltiness of the sea pickle. Bayberry, with its waxy blue berries, was used by Martha's Vineyard's early inhabitants to make candles. It lines the boardwalk as do huckleberry bushes and poison ivy.

The boardwalk ends at the beach, offering spectacular views of Wasque Point and Muskeget Channel. The riptides here prohibit swimming but provide a bounty for fishermen angling for bluefish, striped bass, bonito, and other game fish.

After Wasque Reservation, the pickup truck rumbles over Dyke Bridge, which leads to the barrier beach and Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge. The tour continues onto the beach via thickets of cedars and pitch pine, paralleled to the west by Cape Poge Bay and by Muskeget Channel to the east. The land is rich with plant life: bayberry, rose-hips, marsh mallows, lichens, and clumps of pale lavender heather.

As expected, the fertile land and sea also promote an abundance of bird life. Naturalist Kelly Cannon points out least terns and piping plovers, two species of birds that are struggling to survive in the face of formidable obstacles. The endangered piping plover, a small, brown and sand-colored bird, breeds on coastal beaches along the Atlantic coast in late March and early April, migrating by mid-September. Several factors have contributed to their decline over the years, including excessive hunting (their feathers were harvested for decorating hats), habitat reduction caused by commercial, residential, and recreational development, storms, and human and animal disturbance of nests and chicks. On Chappaquiddick, the piping plover as well as the least and common terns battle for survival against these odds.

Traveling in the open pickup along the beach makes it easy to view a profusion of seashore birds. Along with terns and piping, semipalmated, and black-bellied plovers, there are black and white oystercatchers using their chopstick-like, reddish orange bills to drill through and pry open shellfish, and brown and white sanderlings and sandpipers picking along the shallows accompanied by their larger cousins the willets. The waves are ridden by cormorants, loons, scoters, herring, and black-backed gulls.

Flanked on the inland side by marshy ponds, riders can enjoy scenes of Cape Poge Bay. The bay, formed by the barrier beach and the curve of land known as Cape Poge Elbow, serves as an ideal nursery for fin and shellfish, particularly scallops.

Tucked in trees and along the banks are the belted kingfisher, great blue heron, the smaller green heron, and snowy-plumed egrets. Northern harriers, also called marsh hawks, fill their stomachs with small prey such as voles, mice, and songbirds. Harriers represent a particular group of hawks with keen hearing ability and flatter, more owl-like faces. Chappaquiddick is also home to otters, deer, raccoons, skunks, and, during breeding season, gray seals.

The Trustees of Reservations also hosts a 1 1/4-hour tour to the remote Cape Poge Lighthouse ($12 for adults; $6 for children under 15). The structure was first erected in 1801, but since then the original wooden lighthouse has been demolished by the sea and rebuilt four times. Now it stands 300 feet from ocean's edge and provides stunning views of Muskeget Channel and Cape Poge Bay. From the top of the lighthouse, visitors may see harriers hunting above the brush or deer bounding through the shrubs.

Another great way to experience the natural beauty of Chappaquiddick is to rent a canoe or kayak from the trustees' station at Dyke Bridge (Available June-September. $25 for a half day; $35 for a full day). Naturalist Cannon recommends self-guided canoeing or kayaking of adjoining salt-water Poucha Pond for a closer, hands-on perspective of the environment. Poucha Pond and Cape Poge Bay also may be investigated on a two-hour guided Trustees of Reservations canoe tour. (Same prices as the Natural History Tour, but no children under 7 allowed).

Martha's Vineyard, including Chappaquiddick, is a precious, fragile environment that, if experienced for what it truly is, can revitalize and renew the body and soul, reconnecting us with the earth. And there's no better way to do that than to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of these island paradises.

Published 08/23/98 in the Boston Suday Globe's Travel Section


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