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UMASS Field Staton, Nantucket

by Peter Brace

At a rare junction of numerous island ecosystems out at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, there are abundant symptoms of spring fever emerging and intensifying with each passing day. At this sanctuary—for students, islanders, Nantucket visitors, and wildlife alike, are the habitats of freshwater pond, tidal salt marsh, uplands, coastal beach, cedar forest, and saltwater harbor.

Somewhere in amongst steadily-greening low and high marsh cord grass, great, little, and snow egrets, along with great blue herons, are snagging Atlantic silversides and other minnows in the shallow saltmarsh water. Gulls; herring, great, black-backed, and laughing, glide overhead in search of fish, shelled or otherwise, sharing the thermals of this gradually-warming island with Northern harriers and red-tailed hawks hunting for rodents. Wafting around on the air here is the ever-pungent aroma of the rich, muddy, Swiss cheese-like foundation of the marsh infused with the briny smell of the ocean and Sound warming up.

Atop a telephone pole retrofitted with wooden crossbars on a bluff overlooking the harbor, a pair of ospreys is rebuilding last year’s nor’easter-ravaged nest while taking turns diving for their scaly sustenance just off the beach. Already awake from their muddy winter slumbers, snapping and painted turtles are out and about, searching for sandy spots in which to lay their eggs. They sometimes can be seen crossing the winding access road leading down to the field station campus from Polpis Road.

In the knee-deep harbor water, female horseshoe crabs, with their boyfriends riding piggyback as they fertilize their ladies’ eggs, glide along the sandy bottom forested with eelgrass which is now sending up new shoots and fronds. Juvenile striped bass dart here and there.

If you arrive at the right time of day, somewhere on your wanderings you might bump into Dr. Sarah Oktay, the managing director of the field station, reputed to be the busiest person on Nantucket. She’s gearingup for a full summer of visiting student groups from the mainland and the university’s summer session for budding biologists.

This winter, the field station broadened its natural world laboratory mission to play a crucial role in UMass Boston’s very new environmental science program. During this inaugural spring session, UMass Boston began its 16-credit LivingLab Nantucket Semester in which students majoring in environmental disciplines, as well as those pursuing independent study projects, took various biology, ecology, and general sciences classes, January through April.

There are trails meandering around this 110-acre jewel of island conservation land that is owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. If you’re ambitious enough, you can certainly get some exercise, but that’s not why you’ve come. You’re here to find evidence of spring on this seasonally-tardy island, and maybe learn a thing or two from the people you meet there.
The UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, found at 180 Polpis Road, is open to the public seven days a week, year round. Leashed dogs are welcome.

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