Keeping Watch: An Interview with Island Naturalist Justine Kibbe

by Jane Ahrens

An Interview with Justine Kibbe
By Allison Sargent

What is your formal title?

Island Naturalist for the Fishers Island Conservancy

Now what does that really mean?

I monitor 12 key sites on Island, where I observe and record data. It’s like “reading” the environment and its ecosystems, becoming very familiar with its rhythm and verse. From the weather, the tides, local wildlife species, and migratory birds, to noting marine debris, health of seaweeds and sea grass. The list of just what to monitor could go on and on. I am also learning a bit more about invasive plant species and native flora. Of course, human impact on and around a small Island does not go unnoticed either. I also take and document many photographs and like to share being out in the field and do so on our website. I also work with the Fishers Island School through the Island Sentinel programs (see below for expanded discussion of this program.)

While I don’t consider myself an “expert” in the sciences, and have two degrees in communications, I believe it’s more about gifting to a unique community – Fishers Island, the unique asset of happening to be “Field Smart”. I have learned to let my natural surroundings ”teach me”.

How long have you been in this position?

Since August 2012

How were you hired?

Originally in 2011, my enthusiasm had me apply for a grant through the Conservancy. My initial idea was to tag several seals off of Hungry Point to be tracked via computer technology though the School. I realize it was a very “outside the box” idea and perhaps the timing was not perfect.

Instead the Conservancy suggested I become an Island Naturalist. So I recreated myself by nurturing other progressive ideas, and submitted another grant. I think it is a wonderful idea to have someone year round on island acting as a reporter, observer and ambassador for this fragile and special ecosystem.

What is the best part of this job?

The simplicity of sharing enthusiasm and respect for Fishers Island’s unique environment, especially with younger generations. I find this is also the most important part.

Least favorite part?

Inserting data into the computer program has me sitting indoors at a desk. I would rather be walking a trail or beach. It’s a good lesson in patience for me though, a different sense of solitude, plus come winter, I might be saying bring me a blizzard so I can be cozy and work on the database….

What are some of the most interesting discoveries/observations you have noted?

Simple discoveries are simple gifts. Like the only spot I find any Sand Dollars is the western end of Big Club Beach. That finding and unearthing a WW II officer’s shirt had me find a best friend in Julia Kushigian. By asking Lisa Eiricksson to volunteer and count seals while I attended a Masters Naturalist Course had her discover a rare whale species (Cuvier’s Beaked Whale) that had washed ashore at Hungry Point – a moment that would inevitably remind the Conservancy about the importance of community based monitoring. I also think that Island wildlife is getting to know me too!

Does Fishers still hold fascination for you as a naturalist?

Absolutely. Each moment in the field is new and different – but only if that’s what you’re expecting. Never expect a dull moment!

Do you have a favorite wildlife observation spot?

Yes. Hungry Point is my special place. I know I must sound a bit romantic, but I have always felt it resonates some past historical activity or presence of the original Naturalists – Pequot Indians. For me there is just some intuitive sense that I nurture here regarding this particular ecosystem. It’s the Harbor seals probably. This spot attracts the most variety of wildlife species – very active! Healthy Eelgrass meadows – the habitat appears to support food source and nutrients for most seasonal “visitors”.

Do you have a favorite place for observing plant life or weather?

I am attempting to learn more about plant life and because I live across from The Parade Grounds have started there. Of course on bike, the Island Recreational Path is also a “great read” for seasonal change – the plants, their scents and colors, learning and listening for different bird vocalizations, and don’t forget noting the last of the Cricket’s chirp before any cold snap.

Weather can be variable from one end of the island to the other. I can be west at Dock Beach in a sunny moment of blue sky and calm, then ride east and be drizzled on and wind whipped rounding Big Club Beach the same morning. Race Point is my favorite stormy place to be.

What have you learned about the ecology of Fishers that might surprise someone?

The relationship between the human population and surrounding flora and fauna on Fishers is a fragile one. Really it is a delicate balance to be considered daily. By living here we play a big part in any imbalance or degradation of Island habitat, but we also have everything to do with its conservation and preservation. We all need to be more aware and conscientious of just how we each individually relate and impact our home here.

Do you have a favorite season on island?

Spring – you believe you can actually witness leaves unfurl and bloom before your very eyes.
Summer – recollecting memories help to compare my own data.
Fall – brilliant colors, vivid wildlife transition, shadows.
Winter – I happen to also be Alaskan tough.

What are your biggest environmental concerns about the island?

Of course I am concerned about the Island’s environment – and try not to take it on so personally. There are days when Mylar balloons wash ashore and it seems a constant. I photograph entangled Cormorants and Harbor seals – victims of monofilament debris. Both hurricanes Irene and Sandy woke us up with detrimental effects of coastal erosion. Documenting “Plastic Pond” behind Chocomount gives me just a hint of what’s really “out there”. For me though to witness the depletion of fish and bird species first hand from 40 years ago is the most disheartening. As kid I can remember schools of King Mackerel swarming Silver Eel Pond in August. So many baby Snapper Blues that you could almost corral them rather than hook them! Now I can’t even sight a Cunner fish. Clams gathered by the bushel in Hay Harbor. Eel grass so thick I was wary of all the Eels that actually inhabited it! I remember the sound of native Quail echoing “bob white” in the rolling fog across the Parade Grounds. I could count so many pheasant (hens too!) that never used to arrive by ferry. What concerns me most right now is I have seen change in just the four years I have been actively monitoring.

Are you worried about climate change?

I don’t suppose it does me any good to worry about it. It can become overwhelming. But I document trends that would have me believe it’s happening in our very own backyard and we should all be taking notes.

Do you do any outreach with the school or community?

Yes. I established The Fishers Island Stewardship Program. Each year I have applied for a grant that pays students during summer months to help continue monitoring key sites. It was a good way to bridge my Conservancy work with the School and our Community Center. I mentor Island Sentinels who are young Naturalists in the making. Those that apply and are accepted are a truly committed team. This year I was blessed with interested students who live all year round on Fishers and some that arrived just for July and August. Some even commuted from the mainland! Working out in the field, riding bicycles to each site, collecting data and looking for trends is a chance to discover one’s innate Naturalist qualities and talents. I feel it is a perfect step in supporting the School-wide Enrichment Model here on Fishers where I can inspire individuals. The great thing about educational outreach is when ideas continue to grow. This past year we have begun to develop an Island specific data base at School, while I continue to grow community based monitoring and share Local Traditional Knowledge with Science in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

What in your past prepared you for this job?

Funny, you should ask! I believe growing up spending summers on Fishers Island was a perfect custom fit. That was the local and traditional piece. It was here that my passion for marine environments was deeply instilled. In the 1960’s my folks bought and fixed up an old Fort Wright house. The months of July and August were spent outdoors on my bicycle and at the beach. Admittedly, even then I wanted to live here all year round. I was sad to board the old Mystic Isle ferry in September and not know what really happened on the Island environmentally. I actually yearned for natural knowledge such as: Are there seals here? Had anyone ever seen whales off Isabella? I felt like I was missing out being an Islander.

Many chapters later I found myself living on the remote Pribilof Islands in Alaska. I spent six years in the middle of the Bering Sea on the Island of Saint Paul. I believe living with the native Unungan people taught me that I had the natural gift to be a Naturalist and I nurtured this gift there with very few man made distractions. Originally, I was asked by Pribilof Stewardship to volunteer and observe Northern fur seals. Traditionally, scientists visited Saint Paul Island mainly during July and August to study the nearly endangered seal species. Atop Polovina Cliffs, I recorded returning tagged females. I stayed on and was the first volunteer to monitor seals during the “off season” until December. I broke tradition at least scientifically! My desire to serve a small Island community grew from mentoring students to reporting for local public Alaskan radio. I was able to promote environmental conservation in the Bering Sea region through radio broadcast.

I know I have come full circle by returning to Fishers Island nearly 30 years later.

How can folks find out more about your findings and observations?

I continue to write Field Notes and post them on the FI Conservancy website. I also submit science articles to our Island’s Community website Otherwise it’s fun to share any educational outreach when folks catch me out in the field – usually on my bicycle!

Featured Photo

USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay . Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

A Fishers Island Community Center Program and the accompanying Fog Horn eNewsletter serve as the communications resource for the Fishers Island community. The content – news, calendar, links and photos, milestones, ads, and more create a clear image of Fishers to those on and off the island.

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