A historic look at the flora and fauna of the Isles of Shoals

First a description of the Islands, pre-1895, from Frank Preston Stearns’s Sketches from Concord and Appledore:

They are mostly bare rocks, like mountain tops rising above the water. They are not however submerged mountains, for as their name indicates the sea is nowhere very deep about them. If the points of the horse-shoe had been turned toward the east instead of the west they would not have been habitable and the place would have been known to navigators as the Devil’s Reef, The Devil’s Horse-shoe or by some other term ominous of shipwrecks. The group of islands form a cosy though not very safe harbor where every evening in the mackerel season a small fleet of fishing-vessels sail in there to anchor for the night (223-224).


A herring gull

Stearns continues with an account of the flora and fauna of the Shoals. Notice some of the differences as you read, the lack of trees and the prevalence of burgomaster (glaucaus gulls or Larus hyperboreus). Recall that on John Smith’s 1614 arrival many of the islands did have trees, according to his description. But do we really believe Appledore to be home to that many green snakes?

As might be expected the fauna and flora  of the Shoals is neither rare nor extensive. Gulls are to be seen of course at all times – especially the large burgomaster gull, one of the finest of birds in size and ferocity, and in power of sight nearly equal to an eagle. In spring and fall, flocks of coot and the more fishy sort of ducks are to be found there together with a good many loons. Snowy owls are not uncommon in cold weather, and during winter almost any kind of Arctic bird may arrive there. A flock of eider ducks once took refuge and were shot under the same overhanging rock where the terrified servant-girl concealed herself when pursued by the murderer Wagner. There are probably more green snakes on Appledore than anywhere else in America. Wild roses and morning-glories are the only flowers large enough to attract the notice of a passing tourist, but Celia Thaxter has also written a pretty poem on pimpernel. There are no trees to speak of (224).

Sterans, Frank Preston (1895) Sketches from Concord and Appledore. G.P. Putnam and Sons: New York.

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