Editorial / One good tern deserves another, and another
Westporters are uncommonly generous in their support of the town's homeless shelter. And with its first-in-the-state ban on plastic bags, among other initiatives, the town is a leader in protecting the environment.
Given those two community traits, a town partnership with federal wildlife officials for another type of local shelter -- one for threatened shore birds -- is a win-win situation.
Town-owned Cockenoe Island -- the tiny, boomerang-shaped spec of land about a mile off Compo Beach -- turns out to be an excellent nesting ground for the least tern and other threatened species.
In particular, it is a sand spit that looks like a tail extending off one end of Cockenoe where conservation officials want to establish a bird sanctuary. The island long has been popular with boaters for picnics, swimming and overnight camping, and those activities still would be allowed under the partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Cockenoe has been a symbol of environmental activism since before the town acquired it more than 40 years ago. It was owned in the 1960s by United Illuminating Co., which proposed putting a towering nuclear power plant on it. Westporters rallied against the plan, and UI ultimately agreed to sell the island to the town in 1969 for $200,000 -- about $1.25 million in 2011 dollars. The town has maintained it for recreational use since. Cockenoe was named after a 17th century Native American youth who was the area's first English translator, according to John Kantor's WaterView blog for Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
As late as 1850, by several accounts, the island was about 50 acres, but more than 150 years of winds and tides have eroded away about 25 percent of that. By various accounts, ox carts could drive to the island at low tide in the early 1800s, when a farm-- complete with farmhouse, barn, horses, cattle and sheep -- operated there.
The farm in its final vestiges was operated as a whisky distillery until raided by federal agents in 1870, according to WaterViews. Today, the island remains a haven not only for recreation, but shell fishing as well. Cockenoe oysters are said to be found in raw bars around the northeast.
A public meeting is scheduled in Town Hall Thursday, when the plan for the island will be discussed.
Those who visit Cockenoe should attend.
The least tern -- so called because, at about nine-inches long, it is the smallest of the tern-gull family -- has a white body with a black cap on its head, gray wings and yellow beak and feet. With humans and wildlife working together to protect nesting areas, we may be seeing a lot more of them.