by Dr. Sarah Treanor Bois
Director of Research & Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation
After a rather mild fall, Nantucketers have been spoiled with the unseasonably warm weather. As winter looms and truly sets in, many of us may be in the mood to hibernate. During typical winters, many Nantucketers vacation in warmer climates or go on winter wonderland get-a-ways to the mountains. Travel restrictions and isolation are on the mind, and we need to focus on how we can enjoy what our island has to offer this winter.
Instead of retreating indoors back to Netflix and endless bread-baking, how about getting out into nature? Nantucket has a lot to offer during the off-season. Being out of doors is one of the safest things we can do in the time of COVID. Beyond just taking the dog for a walk to the usual haunts, there are many creative ways to enjoy natural Nantucket in winter. So how about trying something new to make our islan d seem a little bigger?
Nantucket is a special spot for bird watching year-round. Thirty miles out to sea makes us a great stopover for migrants. Late fall and winter storms can also bring unusual birds from afar—a treasure for local birders adding to life-lists. Many of our migrants have already flown south, but we are now entering winter duck season. Nantucket is “away” for these hardy ducks who breed in places like the Great Lakes region and some in the high arctic. Sightings this winter may include Longtailed Ducks, Scaup, Scoters of various species, and Mergansers. Nantucket in winter is a mild temperature getaway for these ducks!
Winter is also the time of “the great gull show” where a myriad of gull species congregate on beaches like Low Beach in Siasconset which we normally don’t see in the summer with our typical gulls. Lesser black-backed gulls, Iceland gulls, and, if you’re fortunate, a rare Glaucous gull are ones to look out for.
It wouldn’t be December without the annual Christmas Bird Count, which was started on Christmas day in 1900 as a bird census. The date for Nantucket’s 2020 Christmas Bird Count is Sunday, December 27. As one of the organizers, Ken Blackshaw said, “It will be an interesting project in this year of COVID and social distancing, no car-sharing, etc. All meetings will be done remotely/virtually…(but) the birds are still out there—thriving actually!” For more details on how to participate, join the Birding Nantucket Facebook group or contact lead organizer Edie Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org. As with everything this year, the details won’t be finalized until closer to the date.
New to Nantucket birding? For aid in identification, pick up a bird guide at Mitchell’s Book Corner and join the Facebook Group: Birding Nantucket. The Ebird for Nantucket page—ebird.org/region/US-MA-019—will give you the most recent sightings and h ot spots. We may not be able to bird together, but we can still share knowledge!
TAKE IN A SCIENCE TALK
If the winter weather gets too frigid to venture out and the woodstove is just too warm to leave, thanks to Zoom, you can now learn all about island science without having to leave the comfort of your couch. Multiple organizations are hosting winter speaker series to keep us all up to date about island flora and fauna.
The Linda Loring Nature Foundation is hosting monthly Science Pub Talks. Check out llnf.org for info and to register. The Nantucket Atheneum is hosting multiple talks each week on a variety of topics including science and nature.
You can even catch up on talks that you missed! The Linda Loring Nature Foundation, the Maria Mitchell Association, and the Nantucket Atheneum all have YouTube channels where previously recorded talks are saved to view whenever it’s convenient. You can hear about Nantucket bats, coastal resilience, our cosmos, and so much more. See the individual organization websites for the library of possibilities.
Shellfishing (or clamming/clam digging) for clams, oysters, and mussels, is a traditional Nantucket activity. In Massachusetts, recreational shellfishing is regulated by each town. For all the local regulations, check out the Nantucket Shellfish Association which has all the Town regulations in one spot at nantucketshellfish.org/standards. In winter, the shellfishing mainly involves digging or raking. It can be cold, but after being shut in all winter, “softshell Sundays” are a welcome change of pace. Generally, scallop season lasts until March 31. Fun for the whole family and you end the day with a delicacy on your plate! As noted, you can dig for softshell clams only on Sundays. Spend an hour or two with the kids digging and spend Sunday afternoon steaming them open to dip in some butter.
Don’t forget to purchase a permit from the town; they are only $35 for adults and free for residents 60+ (more for non-residents). Kids under 14 are free, but children must be with an adult who has a valid permit.
Even when my son was small, we could teach him how to find the bubbles in the sand. He could dig them himself (sort of), but mostly he could tell us where he saw the bubbles for us to hand dig. Everything always tastes better (and the toddler was more likely to try things) when you harvest them yourself.
WINTER WALKS IN CONSERVATION
With more than 50% of Nantucket under conservation, there are so many places to explore. There is no need to get stuck in a rut! The Nantucket Conservation Foundation (NCF) has their ACKtrails app to explore their properties. This app will help you discover new NCF properties and also provide some points of interest on properties you may already know and love.
The Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) has a self-guided nature trail. The brochure can be downloaded at llnf.org and comes in 6 different languages. The popular LLNF StoryWalk is up trailside, and a new story will be installed in early December.
Some organizations are offering guided walks in winter with local experts. COVID restrictions apply and spaces are limited, but it’s great to be able to ask questions in-person to someone who knows (rather than random posts on social media). Need help figuring out what you’re seeing? Use the iNaturalist app to take a photo and identify a bird, plant, animal, egg case, shell, etc. Using the public, free app, we can all take photos of cool things in nature and share them with the community. Experts will even identify them for you!
When headed out on the trails, remember that hunting season lasts until December 31, so if you venture out Monday-Saturday, remember to wear hunter orange or other bright colors. Hunters are out putting long hours into their hunting spots while helping to maintain the balance of the island’s deer population.
We are fortunate to have thousands of acres available for roaming. The important thing to remember is that this is a privilege. Please respect the rules of each individual organization and property; keep dogs on leashes, pick up trash, clean up after your dog, no bikes where applicable, and even no dogs on some properties. Remember to practice social distancing and follow CDC guidelines.