On the Trail — by Maureen Dewire
WildfloraRI, Fall 2013
Nestled in the middle of Narragansett Bay lies Prudence Island, a little-known Rhode Island gem. As the third largest island in the state, Prudence is roughly seven miles long and one mile at its widest. Approximately 65 percent of the island is state property, managed by the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NBNERR), a federal-state partnership program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Another 20 percent of the island is conserved through various groups including the Prudence Island Conservancy and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Hiking trails are scattered throughout the island but with a small residential population, slow pace and stellar views from all sides, many of the roads along Prudence are just as inviting as the trails.
A visit to the south end of the island will bring you to the NBNERR’s Lab & Learning Center,* complete with educational exhibits, a butterfly garden and public restrooms. Here you can also pick up a booklet for the Self-Guided Hike (SGH), a 1.9-mile loop taking you along a myriad of habitats including pine barren, coastal scrub and forested wetland. There are 14 “Discovery Stops” along the way, each marked with a post and number allowing you to follow along with your booklet (which can also be picked up near the start of the hike as you approach the T-wharf dock). For the tech-savvy crowd, all you need is your smartphone to scan the QR code on the post for the same information found in the booklet.
The hike begins adjacent to the NBNERR’s Estuary Education Shed, located at the base of the T-wharf dock. From here you start up the road and turn left onto Levesque Memorial Drive. This well-worn path meanders past Milkweed-filled meadows and along the shoreline, providing beautiful views of both Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands. Coastal scrub habitat dominates the south side of the path, where abundant Staghorn-sumac (Rhus typhina) vies for space among a host of vines, both native and invasive, including Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), New England Grape (Vitus novae-angliae), Poison Ivy (Taxicodendron radicans), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Multiflora-rose (Rosa multiflora). Look to the north and an entirely different botanical world awaits you. Here you will find moisture-loving trees including large stands of Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) and Red Maple (Acer rubrum). In the foreground is a mix of Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) and Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum), among others.
As you continue your walk, you will notice an abundance of European Larch (Larix decidua) trees. During WWII, the Navy used the south end of the island as an ammunition storage facility, as evidenced by the numerous bunkers you will see as you complete the hike. The Navy planted the larch trees to serve as a windbreak in the event of an explosion and subsequent fire. However, these non-native larch trees spread vigorously over the next forty years, negatively impacting native habitats and thus prompting Reserve staff to undertake a major removal and restoration effort that goes well beyond the Reserve. Relatively few larch remain standing in comparison to what was here just a few years ago, though, as with all large-scale projects, the work remains ongoing.
Continuing on the hike along Brown Road and Albro Farm Road, the forest thins out and the coastal scrub habitat returns, and along with it an abundance of Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Roadside plants include St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) and Milkweed (Asclepias ssp.). With such an abundance of flowers, the Reserve is a great place to enjoy a diversity of butterflies, including skippers, sulphurs, swallowtails and monarchs.
This section of the trail is also top-notch for birding, especially during the spring and fall migrations. Depending on the time of year, visitors can expect to see and/or hear any number of raptors, warblers, woodpeckers, sparrows and other songbirds, including American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Song Sparrow and Northern Flicker. In addition to the birds and butterflies, keep an eye out for island wildlife, such as box turtles, mink and white-tailed deer. As you approach the final few Discovery Stops you will find the last major habitat along the SGH, the uncommon pine barrens, dominated by Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida). This habitat, rapidly overgrown by deciduous trees such as oaks and a variety of shrubs, is maintained on a rotating basis by Reserve staff through a series of prescribed fires. As you pass the pine barren habitat, you will turn back onto T-Wharf road, heading south back towards the Bay from where you began.
With plenty of open space to roam as you so choose, Prudence Island and the Self-Guided Hike offer a peaceful place to take a leisurely walk among beautiful coastal scenery nearly any time of the year**. For additional information on the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, please visit www.nbnerr.org.
*The NBNERR Lab & Learning Center is typically open M-F from 9AM-3PM with additional weekend hours during the summer months.
**Reserve properties are open to bow hunting from mid-October through January. Visitors are welcome but vehicle access is limited on some units and you must wear an appropriate amount of fluorescent orange.
Prudence Island is accessible via ferry (vehicles, reservations required, and passengers), departing from Bristol
(www.prudenceferry.com). The NBNERR Lab and Learning Center is located about 3 miles from the ferry dock.
• Bikes are a good way to get around the island, but bear in mind many of the roads have deep ruts and are not well paved. Bikes with thick, wide tires are ideal and bringing a spare is always a good idea.
• There are no overnight accommodations or restaurants, but there is a small general store at the ferry landing at Homestead.
• The only public restrooms on the island are located at the NBNERR headquarters (typically open Monday through Friday, 9 am to 3 pm). There is a composting toilet at the south end near the T-wharf.
• Boats are permitted 10 minute live docking at state docks, but aside from that there are no public docking options.
• Ticks are present and in relatively high quantities. It is wise to stay out of any tall grasses and conduct a thorough tick check after your visit.