Smack dab in the middle of the Peconic Bay is a private island that plenty of East Enders avoid, primarily because they’ve heard stories about being chased away by guards or guard dogs. But the truth is, Robins Island is really owned by the birds, and they’re just as happy to chase you away as any guard dog might be.
Robins Island is 435 acres of mostly undisturbed wilderness that sits right between North Sea on the South Fork and New Suffolk on the North Fork. On paper, it’s been owned since 1993 by Louis Moore Bacon III, who’s usually described by the media as a billionaire hedge fund manager. That’s true. But he’s also a guy who worked on boats in the Peconic Bay in his youth, and whose favorite pastimes include restoring bird habitats and hunting pheasants.
In fact, Mr. Bacon likes birds so much that the National Audubon Society gave him their prestigious Audubon Medal at a ceremony at The Plaza Hotel this past January. The Audubon Medal has been won in the past by people like Rachel Carson, Robert Redford and Jimmy Carter, which puts Mr. Bacon in serious environmentalist company.
Given all this bird-loving, it’s little surprise that the craggy windswept bluffs of the west side of the island are closely guarded by the East End’s most famous predator: the lovely osprey. Here’s how a pair treated me when my zoom lens got too close to them on a recent kayak trip around the island. I certainly learned my lesson:
There’s not much you can see of the spooky interior of Robins Island from a small plastic boat out in the bay, but that part of the island is really better left to the imagination, unless you plan to pretend to be a bird by strapping on a pair of wax wings and flying over the island like Icaris from the Greek myths. Someone actually did that, and they made a YouTube movie about it, which is so frightening that I had to put it way down at the end of this story, where you will only have to be subject to its scariness if you read that far.
If you’re kayaking around the island, whether you go clockwise or counterclockwise depends on the wind and the tide. You want to spend the first hour or so in choppy water, with the wind and tide in your face, so that when you get to the lee side of the island you can just float home with the wind as near to at your back as possible. Usually that means you’ll be headed counterclockwise if you put in in New Suffolk, paddling with all your might, usually against the tide, to the green buoy in the North Race, while dodging the wakes of endless motorboats.
Directly on the other side of the green buoy is the long sand spit that cradles the lagoon where Mr. Bacon keeps all kinds of boats, and where all kinds of motorboaters raft up and anchor for the night. They do that because it’s a fun thing to do, not because they’re pals of Mr. Bacon or anything.
Mr. Bacon’s crews use a very cool modified World War II-era LCVP landing craft to get back and forth to work, carrying feed for game birds, fuel oil for the houses on the island, and boulders and trees and landscape designers out to the island to help keep it wild.
But this story isn’t about boats. It’s about birds. In addition to the guard dog ospreys, the west side appears to be swarming with what I thought were Jimmy Durante birds, because they talk funny and they have big noses and they play the piano. But they’re really oystercatchers. For years, the only place I’d seen oystercatchers was on Robins Island. I thought they were an alien species to the East End. But this year, I’ve been seeing them in creeks and along the shore, on both forks, and so have other people I’ve spoken with who know more about birds than I do. I don’t know if I’m noticing the birds more now or if their population is expanding due to the breeding sanctuary provided by Robins Island, but either way, I’m happy to know now that the oystercatcher is a native Long Island bird.
The craggy bluffs of the west side of the island are also home to cliff swallows, which bore into the soft clay of the ever-shifting mud cliffs toward the southwest side of the island. And as you get closer to the South Fork, more rarefied birds begin to scurry down the shore, which belongs here to piping plover, terns and sandpipers.
Once you round the southern point, if you’ve timed the winds and tides correctly, the east side of the island is a peaceful oasis, where you can see clear through to the bottom of the bay, contemplating the interconnectedness of our lives and nature, while the tiny endangered birds run up and down the beach in gleeful abandon, drinking champagne and basking in the pleasure of not having to share their own private island with Bonackers.
Crows caw out to you from the dense woods in the center of the island, warning you off from the mysteries of nature within its depths. You’d do best to obey. There’s no room for us humans here. Robins Island is for the birds.