An historian of the region, Joshua Coffin , said of it in Plum Island, a wild and fantastical sand beach, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snow drift. The northern portion of the island is bordered by the mouth of the Merrimack River in which stands Badgers Rock , the western portion by the Plum Island River in the north which joins the mouth of the Merrimack to Plum Island Sound , Plum Island Sound in the south into which empty the Parker , Rowley and Eagle Hill rivers and the southern portion by the mouth of the Ipswich River into which the sound empties.
The Atlantic Ocean lies to the east. The sound is a tidal estuary. Developed areas of the island constitute the village of Plum Island, Massachusetts with public beaches, businesses and private residences. The village surrounds a body of water known as "the Basin,"  and lies wholly within Newburyport and Newbury, the Newbury portion forming one of three legal precincts of the town. In , The Trust for Public Land added an additional 12 acres to the refuge.
Besides providing habitat for birds and wildlife, this pristine coastal habitat is also enjoyed by visitors who come to swim, hike, surf, fish, and birdwatch. Plum Island is accessed by one road running from Newburyport to the north of the island on a causeway and drawbridge over the Plum Island River. The road remained a private one until , when the General Court required Essex County to lay it out as a county road, compensating its then owners with a cash settlement.
Plum Island Drive runs along the inland side of the island. In the north it is lined with homes. In the refuge it is paved for about half its distance and is a dusty dirt road for the remainder. Along it are numbered parking lots with boardwalks leading to the beach, overlooks and trails, and facilities for the maintenance of the refuge. Toward the south is the former site of Camp Sea Haven, a therapeutic camp for those stricken with polio.
Visitors are restricted from the levelled site. At the southern end of the road, the tip of the island, is Sandy Point State Reservation , a state park. It is for day use only. At the northern end of the road, the northern tip of the island, is the Plum Island Lighthouse, the only lighthouse remaining on the island.
It marks the narrow entrance to the mouth of the Merrimack River. The swift tidal currents through the outlet and through the channel between Ipswich Bay and Ipswich Harbor on the southern end make boating and swimming hazardous. Like most coastal communities, Plum Island has historically been a popular vacation destination. Several large hotels operated during the lateth and earlyth centuries.
Today, there are numerous lodging options for tourists, including bed and breakfasts , inns, and rental cottages. In addition, there is a population of year-round residents. The entire area between the islands and the mainland is grassland laced with tidal creeks.
At high tide the grassland is entirely submerged, in some places by only a few inches of water. At all other times the extensive stretches of grass appear. The creeks either dry up completely or are small channels within mud flats where shellfish proliferate. The lower stretches of the rivers and Plum Island Sound are thus tidal estuaries receiving the fresh-water flows of the rivers. The grassland is historically termed "Great Marsh". However, the name also comprises the similar grasslands behind the barrier beaches at Castle Neck Crane Beach and Coffins Beach, which shelter the estuaries of the Essex and Annisquam rivers.
Not included are the grasslands south of Cape Ann nor the grasslands north of the mouth of the Merrimack River. The entire coast of Massachusetts comprises this type of estuarial terrain, except for the rocky outcrops. Great Marsh has been the focus of a coalition of environmental groups and agencies to protect the marshes between Cape Ann and the Merrimack River from degradation.
Historically this coalition continues the work of the founding fathers of Ipswich and other towns in the area, who found it necessary to protect the marsh from overgrazing by means of legislation. Plum Island Beach is a gently sloping shelf extending some distance out to sea. As a result of the slope, tidal flow does not reach very far horizontally, while breakers are small and close to shore.
Boats can easily be launched from or landed on the beach. The shelf causes strong undertow currents.
Beach Plum Island Nature Preserve
During severe storms the beach is inundated and the breakers strike the dune line. A number of ships have been wrecked in the shallow waters off Plum Island Beach. The Labrador Current flows from north to south along the shore, migrating sand in that direction and chilling the coastal waters.
Several breakwaters have been constructed along the north coast of the island to protect the beach and impede the process.
Beach Plum Island in Sussex County DE
The migrating sand moves the outlet of the Merrimack River, which has been artificially fixed at its current location. On the dunes a fragile cover of beach grass , beach pea and beach heather stabilize the sand. Visitors to the refuge are restricted from the dunes except on boardwalks to protect this cover.
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Destabilization has been a problem. In the U. Soil Conservation Service planted several thousand black pines , a hardy alpine tree, to help hold the sand. Stands of black pine, pitch pine and occasional eastern red cedar trees can be found in the depressions between the dunes. There also are thickets of beach plum , from which the island takes its name, as well as bayberry and honeysuckle the latter being intrusive.
In the deeper depressions and more sheltered regions between or next to the higher dunes are vernal pools in which black oak , red maple and black cherry can be found. In the underbrush are cranberry. The ferns, moss and leaf cover there shelter salamanders and spadefoot toads. The native salt-water marshes between Plum Island and the mainland Great Marsh are visible from the western edge of the island. Salt marsh hay which grows there has been harvested for feeding farm animals. Less visible in "the low marsh" at the margin of the water is smooth cordgrass.
Also in the marsh are the sedges , Cyperus and Carex. In the s and '50s the wildlife service created two freshwater marshes, North and South Pools, from island runoff by diking a section of the marsh contiguous to the island. It serves as a nesting area and stopover for migrating birds. Originally the common cattail dominated the freshwater marshes, but two intrusive plants, the common reed and purple loosestrife , have replaced much of it.
The mammals are typical of Massachusetts woodland: the striped skunk , the raccoon , the red fox , the meadow jumping mouse , the white-tailed deer , meadow vole , white-footed mouse and others. Plum Island and its surrounding estuaries are a popular destination for birders.
Plum Island Sound is on a migratory route for many varieties of birds, as well as being a nesting area for piping plovers. Much of the beach in the National Wildlife Refuge is closed to visitors during the nesting season, which can last most of the warm months. Several prepared observation posts of birds are usually populated by birders with equipment ranging from simple binoculars to expensive telephoto cameras. Some posts are blinds; others are simply a paved shoulder with a sign. Birds are usually observed in the native salt-water marshes, the artificial fresh-water marshes and the thickets and isolated trees of the refuge.
The birds most commonly observed are listed in the visitor center in the refuge.
They are the greater yellowlegs , mallard duck , least sandpiper , great egret , snowy egret , herring gull , great black-backed gull , osprey , Canada goose , tree swallow , gray catbird , killdeer , glossy ibis , red-winged blackbird , northern mockingbird , least tern , piping plover and peregrine falcon. The greatest visible pest to humans is the greenhead fly. Before insect control they swarmed the beach and dunes so thickly as to make human presence there difficult if not impossible from June through September.
In recent years [ when? The dog tick and the deer tick enter the clothing of their victim from the vegetation and later crawl into the soft tissue, where they attach themselves.