The view from the tallest dune on Napatree Point in Westerly, R.I. Napatree is considered a barrier headland, and its sands are constantly shifting. In fact, Napatree has migrated 200 feet landward in the past 73 years.
Janice Sassi, manager of Napatree Point conservation area is on the lookout for piping plovers. Sassi, an avid photographer and birder, loves her job. She was devastated when she returned to Napatree Point after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to see dunes flattened and breached.
Peter August is a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island. His area of expertise is geographic information systems, and he has done extensive work at Napatree Point.
Perennial beach grasses are the primary stabilizers of frontal dune systems along the Atlantic coast. Beach grass is tolerant to high salinity, direct sun, extreme heat, lack of fertile soil and a fluctuating water supply, but it can't tolerate human foot traffic.
Plant restoration projects underway at Napatree Point involve management of invasive species and planting native plants, with the goal of helping to preserve Rhode Island's native plant communities, wildlife and pollinators.
Napatree provides rich habitat for shorebirds and is an ideal stopover point for migrating birds. It currently houses a telemetry station — just one in a network of such stations — that tracks bird movements across southern New England.
An American oystercatcher feasts on bivalves along the Little Naragansett Bay shoreline of Napatree Point.
Napatree Point is unique, in that the conservation area isn't closed to beachgoers. Since visitors and nature must coexist on this small spit of land, efforts are underway to encourage visitors to traverse sensitive dunes only on marked paths. On weekends during summer 2014, Napatree averaged 458 visitors a day.
Certain areas on Napatree, such as piping plover nesting sites, are off limits to dogs. Between May and September 2014, 176 dogs were observed. Of those, a majority were in compliance with the leash law, and no dogs were observed in the roped areas.
Peter August and Janice Sassi survey wildlife at Napatree Point in Westerly, R.I.
As a barrier, Napatree is especially susceptible to coastal erosion. Lack of infrastructure and development make Napatree an ideal location to study shoreline change.
Piping plovers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Napatree Point provides a large nesting area for plovers. Efforts — which include erecting fences around nesting sites — are underway to protect these small shorebirds.
Napatree gets its name from the 'nap of trees,' seen here on the eastern edge of the point's maritime shrublands. This site was slated for a vegetation restoration project, but that project was halted when this site was also found to be a nesting location for diamondback terrapins.