Monday, June 15, 2015

Open Space Poster Child: Long Hill, Shelton

I'm a believer in conservation areas that are managed for the benefit of both wildlife and people. The open space behind Long Hill School in Shelton is a great example. There are about 100 acres overall, including woodlands, hayfields, a community garden, and a hiking trail.  These human  uses do not conflict with wildlife. In fact, they help it.

See the coyote looking for rodents after the field was hayed? (click to enlarge)
Farming: On this managed open space at Long Hill, we  have a local farmer who is able to grow hay. The ability to reap hay is critical for the viability of many farms. Meadows also happen to be a type of habitat in decline throughout Connecticut that some species rely on. Bluebirds are one example.

Community Garden
Community Garden: We have about thirty people who lease plots at the community garden, which takes up about an acre of the property. Gardeners enjoy tending their plots, and help feed their families fresh, organic produce. The garden is located on a section of hayfield that is designated "prime farmland."  The garden is organic, and the gardeners make efforts to attract bees to pollinate their crops. They also put up bird houses to attract birds to eat the insect pests.

Hiking trail
Walking: People from the neighborhood walk in the open space. Some have a routine of just making a circle around the community garden, which is lined with flowers and has become a sort of scenic feature. Others follow a trail that runs through the wooded sections, or stroll across the series of meadows after they are hayed. Many have dogs that need exercise.  The trails have no real impact on the property. The hiking trail passes scenic wetland areas that also serve to improve water quality and reduce flooding.

Wetlands in the wooded area improve water quality
Wildlife: Does all this human activity in any way harm the wildlife? Quite the opposite! Hayfields, meadows, and shrubland are types of habitat in decline throughout Connecticut. I have a plot at the community garden, and can say this property is just bursting with wildlife.  I can hike all day through remote woodlands and not see much in the way of wildlife, while a quick stop to the community garden feels like a trip to the zoo.

Monarch butterfly caterpiller on Butterfly Weed, a type of milkweed.
Milkweed and Butterfly Weed both grow in the hayfield. Although they are cut along with the hay, the roots survive and resprout rapidly. Butterfly Weed is in the milkweed family, and is used by Monarch Butterfly caterpillars.

Tree Swallows nesting (successfully) in a garden plot.
Tree Swallows are a native species that lives in open meadows and uses Blue Bird boxes.The gardeners encourage birds with nest boxes, in part because the birds eat garden pests.

Black Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars love dill planted by the gardeners
Gardeners have learned to plant plenty of dill. Not only is it a useful herb that readily reseeds, it has big showy flowers that attract bees, and is a host plant for the dramatic Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Another favorite herb is cilantro, which is mobbed by honey bees. Gardeners make an effort to attract bees in order to pollinate their vegetable plants, so there are lots of flowers.

There are always rabbits in the hayfield.
Rabbits and rodents are plentiful in a hayfield, and attract coyote, hawks, bobcat, and other predators.

Tree Swallow (left), Bluebird (right), and bluebird house.
Until 2015, Blue Birds were seen in the hayfield in the spring, but did not stick around to breed. In 2015, a series of Blue Bird houses were install around the hayfield, and the houses monitored for invasive and aggressive House Sparrows.  The sparrows did kill one tree swallow. But for the first time, a pair of Blue Birds stayed at the garden and laid some eggs. Without active management of the open space for them, the Blue Birds were not able to reproduce.

Bluebird eggs
Also in 2015, a Box Turtle spend three days trying to dig the perfect hole in the woodchips placed around the outside of the garden deer fence. We hope she finally succeeded. Without the clearing and woodchips, she may have wandered out to the road looking for a sandy place to lay her eggs. Box Turtles are a species of concern in Connecticut, since they reproduce so slowly.

Box turtle digging holes around the community garden to lay her eggs
Sadly, the deer population is so high that the wooded parts of the property have been stripped of vegetation below a height of four feet. That includes tree seedlings, so the future of the forest is uncertain. This hurts many species of plants and animals. There are also a lot of coyote in this area, possibly related to the high deer population. Eastern Coyote are part wolf and in some cases may try to take down a deer, although they usually go for the fawns. After the meadow is hayed and the hay bailed, coyote will arrive at dusk to look for any rodents the cutting stirred up (there is a coyote in the photo at the very top if you look closely). This is an area where people need to be especially careful with small dogs.

Deer. It's not uncommon to see a dozen of them at a time in the hayfield just beyond the garden.
Open space management for deer could include a combination of bow hunting and thinning of the forest canopy to let in more light and speed up the growth rate of forest plants. So there are two more potential uses of the open space that would actually help the ecosystem (hunting and wood harvesting).

Another very commonly seen animal at the garden are turkeys. The gardeners and hikers often hear them gobbling in the spring. They are surprisingly tame, with turkey families often strolling about the meadow just on the other side of the deer fence from the gardeners working in their plots.
Turkey are seen and heard very frequently.
Snakes may not be everyone's favorite, but we've got those, too. When did a little Garter Snake ever hurt anyone? The worst they can do is pee on you when you pick them up.

Garden snake sunning on the garden drive in early spring.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Interview with the Shelton Bear

On May 14, I was downtown parked along the roadway, when I looked up and saw the bear out my window. The bear had slipped away from the police that were up the road trying to keep an eye on him until the CT DEEP arrived.  This was a great opportunity to ask a few questions. 

The bear appeared outside my car window while I was parked downtown. 

Hey there, bear!  
Oh hey.  I think I slipped the cops.

May I ask a few questions?
Whatever. What's that I smell in your car?

Umm...a breakfast bar wrapper?  So....where did you come from? You seemed to just suddenly appear in Shelton one day.   
I came from the north. I don't know where, I'm a bear. Got any birdseed?

No. Tell me, why did you come out of the forest and start hanging around houses?
It was my mom! One day she was licking my face and all happy, and the next day she was chasing me and growling and snapping. She didn't do it to my sister, just me. It's SO unfair. I kept trying to come back, but she wouldn't let me. And I'm like, 'What do I do?? Where do I go???  I'm just a kid!' Nothing. She just didn't care about me any more. I felt so alone.

So what DID you do? 
I had to start looking for food. Mom used to bring us to the food, but I wasn't really paying attention. I'm just a kid! I didn't know I was supposed to know all of this already! I did remember that in the spring we just ate stuff that was sprouting out of the ground, like lots and lots of SALAD, right? And I found some tolerable herbs and started eating, but suddenly a big daddy-bear started chasing me, and I'm pretty sure he was going to kill me.  I escaped...into another bear's territory.  Long story short, I kept running into more Daddy bear areas and I just had to keep moving before they could catch me. So I just kept going and going.

I'm so sorry. That's seems pretty traumatic.
Right?!  Then one day I was so hungry and tired I could barely walk, and I came upon some human dens, and all around the dens were the most delicious stashes of food imaginable. I used to be too scared, but this time I was just too hungry and I marched right up there.  My favorite were the bird feeders. Delicious! I can't believe my mom never showed me this. She was always scared of humans. 'Don't go out in the day', she would always say, 'they might see you'.  That's moms for you: paranoid. And guess what, when I got close to the human dens, there weren't any Daddy bear markings. Bonus! No attack bears, and lots of food. What's not to like? And there was all kinds of incredible food I found hiding in garbage cans. There were even nice little bowls of pet food left out on the porches. Amazing!

So I'm like a genius, right? None of the adult bears have figured this out, apparently. Sometimes the humans do come out, but they run back into their dens and hide. They're scared of me. Ha! Well, until today, anyways. I don't really know what's going on here. There seem to be a lot more humans than usual. I'm not sure which way to go.

Eating all that cheap bird seed and garbage food, aren't you worried about nutrition? What about all the vitamins bears normally get from eating all those spring greens?
Are you kidding me? BIRDSEED!!

Right. Hey, how did you get that cut? 
I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you. And I can do that. I'm a bear.

I don't believe you would kill me, you seem very sweet.
Shhhh. Do you have any hamburgers?  I keep smelling them on the grill.

No, sorry. 
How about some pet food? Or scraps of bread? Or melon rinds? I love that stuff. Peanut butter?

No. You really should go back to the woods for your own sake. 
I don't want to. I like it here with the humans. There is so much food. And there are some really intense smells coming from kitchens. I'd like to explore that. It's on my bucket list. I'm trying to work up my courage to go inside.

The Route 8 fence near Daybreak Lane provides wildlife with a convenient passageway

(Sigh). Hey, can I ask why you keep going up and down the Route 8 corridor? Were you trying to get across the highway or what? 
I was thinking about it. But the cars were pretty scary. And I kept getting distracted by so much delicious food. Also, there's a really nice wooded travel path along that fence. The cars are close by, but they stay on the road, so I just keep walking along the fence through the woods until I smell something good to eat.

Do you have a name?  No, but I have a unique smell.

Is there anything that bothers you about the houses?
The dogs and cats. I wish the dogs would just shut up with all their stupid barking, but it's really the cats that terrify me.

They are truly frightening. And they can climb trees.

OK, I think the CT DEEP is coming and they are going to take you for a little ride back to the forest.  It's because you're downtown.  It's just not a good situation.   
Wait, what?  No!  I like it here!  Let me think.... a TREE!  I'll climb a TREE! They'll never get me up there. It's my safe place.  See ya! And thanks for the heads up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Shelton Bear Part I - Timeline

Although there is more than one bear in Shelton, there is only one "Shelton Bear." Some called him Yogi, or Boo Boo, but most just called him "the Shelton Bear."

For two weeks, Shelton residents were riveted by the sudden appearance of this bold bruin foraging along streets and in backyards in broad daylight.  Photos of the bear were everywhere. Facebook statuses consisted of, "I just saw the bear!" His movements were tracked. He made the Channel 12 Nightly News when he turned up in Stratford. But after he wandered into downtown Shelton for the second time, the CT DEEP tranquilized him and returned him to the forest.

The bear turned out to be a male yearling weighing just 100 lbs (he was incorrectly reported as a female in the Herald -- I verified this with the CT DEEP). This is the time of year that mother bears drive their yearling sons out of their territory. The youngster is in peril as he tries to find enough food to eat while fleeing from adult male bears, which may try to kill him. Male yearlings may travel over 100 miles, and resort to foraging in marginal bear habitats such as urban areas.

Two Weeks of Crazy

Thursday, 4/30: It all started one morning when I got an email that a friend of a friend had seen a bear on Mill Street at about 8:00 am. This is in my neighborhood. Another friend soon emailed a great picture taken by her neighbor of a bear on Wesley Drive, also in my neighborhood, around 7:00 am.

The first photo, taken on Wesley Drive, went viral
(not sure who took the photo)
I posted the bear photo on the Shelton Trails & Conservation Facebook Page, and it instantly went viral. By the end of the day, the photo had been shared with over 25,000 people, the highest number of any post for our page. Others began posting about their bear sightings. Several had seen the bear unsuccessfully trying to cross busy Bridgeport Avenue. One account had the bear going out into traffic, stopping, and going back the way he came. Another had him rolling down a dirt embankment to the road. Yet another reported seeing the bear to the north on Bronson Drive at dawn.

I drew up a Google Map of the bear sightings. He seemed to have raced down from the north, where there is lots of forest and farms, until he arrived at Bridgeport Avenue during morning rush hour. On the map, these are the red markers coming down from the upper left.

Screenshot of bear sightings map (click to see full map)

At some point he did finally make it across Bridgeport Avenue, and later that afternoon he appeared in a meadow next to Long Hill Cross Road. The responding Police officers kept an eye on him until he headed into the woods. And then he was unexpectedly seen along Old Stratford Road near the Outback Steakhouse restaurant and BP gas station, right next to Exit 12 for Route 8. This was an odd place for a bear to be spotted.

And then he disappeared for three days. At the time, I figured he was just passing through and was in some other town for good. I now suspect he was roaming around the forests of northern Stratford. Maybe the Merritt Parkway and dense housing pushed him back towards Shelton.

Monday evening (5/4) he suddenly reappeared, pushing garbage cans around Daybreak Lane, just across Route 8 from where he was last seen. Route 8 is a limited access highway protected by a chain link fence, but there is an underpass at Exit 12 where the bear could have walked under the highway. He could also just climb over the fence, too.

Eating birdseed on Daybreak Lane (photo by Robin Friend)
Tuesday (5/5) he was back on Daybreak Lane at bird feeders and garbage cans. I received a second-hand report that a resident had witnessed a fight between three bears in his back yard, with the smaller one being injured. That's coincidentally when a long gash appeared on the left hind quarters of our extraverted friend, so maybe it was true. The wound became a handy marker that verified we were seeing the same bear. I was not able to verify the account of a bear fight.

An big gash appeared Tuesday, possibly from a bear fight (photo by Robin Friend I think)
Wednesday (5/6) he was still on Daybreak Lane nursing his wound.  A resident explained his routine to me. She could predict what time he would be at each house. Another resident called me  at City Hall because the bear was in her backyard hanging around her pool for hours. She was afraid to go outside. The bear got her garbage early on, and was apparently looking to get lucky again. This was a theme: If the bear found food once, he would be back again. And again. That evening I drove down to Daybreak Lane to try and observe the bear, but he never showed up. I did notice plenty of residents out walking and working in their yards, so it would seem that most people weren't too concerned.

Thursday morning  (5/7) he had finally moved on to the north and was outside a daycare center on Long Hill Cross Road next to Route 8. I just happened to drive by and see the Police seeming to guard the center, peering into the woods, and had a feeling the bear was there. They had called the DEEP, but the bear was gone by the time the DEEP arrived. The Police seemed to be getting a little frustrated with the bear at this point. Shelton residents were not accustomed to seeing a bear in their yard, and many called 911.

Friday  (5/8) he continued north up the Route 8 corridor, where he was spotted in an industrial park along Platt Road, and later on Long Hill Avenue near the Board of Education offices, where he was raiding bird feeders.

Foraging downtown off Wakelee Terrace, Route 8 in the background
(Photo posted by Katherine O'Toole)
Saturday (5/9) there was a flurry of sightings as he continued north along Long Hill Avenue and the Route 8 corridor, strolling through the middle of Long Hill Burying Ground and venturing into the edge of downtown Shelton up to about where Long Hill Ave passes under Route 8. One woman I spoke with said the bear was walking along the Route 8 fence on the Route 8 side, while she was walking her dog on the other side. Apparently her dog was not too happy about this. This was all in the middle of the day! By evening he had turned around and was back on Long Hill Avenue near the Board of Ed offices once again. He then got his own Facebook page, where he is listed as a comedian. As of this post, the page has 1,280 followers.

Tuesday (5/12) We had a heat wave for a few days, and the bear seemed to just disappeared until he was spotted by Shelton residents on a News Channel 12 video of a bear at Beaver Dam Lake Road in Stratford on Tuesday. The wound on his haunches was distinctive - this was "our" bear. It might be that the heat kept him travelling at night.

On Daybreak Lane (photo by Robin Friend)
On Wednesday afternoon (5/13) he was back on Daybreak Lane, once again foraging from garbage cans that had been set out along the street for pickup. He didn't stick around this time, but head back north again along the Route 8 corridor. That evening he was spotted on Old Mill Road and then he was back at the daycare center on Long Hill Cross Road, where this video was taken.

Spotted him today on long hill cross rd behind apple tree day care at 8:05 pm
Posted by Jason Hoefflinger on Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Thursday (5/14), his last day in Shelton, he was out foraging bright and early along Long Hill Avenue near the Board of Ed once again, then emptied a garbage can behind a house at the corner of Long Hill Ave and Constitution Blvd. where he had previous found bird seed. He spent the afternoon near this house, reappearing multiple times when least expected.

And then he was spotted downtown during evening rush hour traffic. I saw a post on Facebook from someone who had just seen the bear on Fairfield Avenue, and decided to try and get a look. I especially wanted to see how the bear acted in this urban environment and how he reacted to the presence of people. The video taken the evening before seemed to show he still had a healthy fear of people, which is good.

There he is! (my photo)
I arrived at the location and didn't see anything for at least 15 minutes. All was calm. People were coming home from work or watering their lawns, and I talked to a few people, warning them about the bear. Eventually I came up behind a patrol car driving very slowly, obviously looking for the bear, and then the bear appeared, scurrying across a lawn and climbing up between a shed and tree and over a 6-foot tall privacy fence (photo above). It was pretty impressive, and now he was inside a tiny back yard completely enclosed by a privacy fence.  Going around the block, there were two patrol cars stopped in front of the house with the privacy fence. I drove past and stopped, and then a man ran out in the road waving and pointing. I drove in his direction, and sure enough the bear had climbed back out over the privacy fence and was heading down the block between houses. 

Dodging the cops (my photo)
Snapping a few pictures (above), I suddenly noticed a little girl all by herself standing on the front porch with the bear right behind the home. I got out and asked her to go inside, which she did, and then the patrol cars moved up.

He just appeared outside my passenger side window.
At that point, I drove down to the end of the street to get out of the way and parked so I could check my phone messages. And when I looked up, the bear was right outside my passenger door window, posing in the late day sun. He looked a bit bewildered, and then turned around the way he came. In the meantime, cars were pulling onto the street. Some were people coming home from work and asked me what was going on. But others had the look of sightseers, and suddenly there seemed to be a lot of them. I figured the last thing the Police needed was a crowd of onlookers, so I left. I was very uneasy about the bear feeling surrounded and cornered downtown with all the onlookers.

What happened next was broadcast in real time via Facebook by people who lived in the neighborhood. The bear fled the growing crowd of onlookers (who were apparently mostly from the neighborhood) and climbed up a tree. Eventually the CT DEEP arrived and darted the nervous bear, who fell maybe 30 feet out of the tree with a big thud.

Some really great photos of the event were taken by Marcin Stawiarski, a wildlife photographer from Shelton, and posted on the Shelton Herald. Here are a few:

This is my favorite. (Photo by Marcin Stawiarski)

Treed!  (Photo by Marcin Stawiarski)

Finally captured (photo by Marcin Stawiarski)

This all occurred just three blocks from City Hall where budget hearings were taking place with press coverage.  Here are some articles that soon appeared in the Shelton Herald:

THURSDAY NIGHT: Shelton Bear is caught and taken elsewhere
Bear capture in Shelton turns into a neighborhood event
PHOTOS: Bear is tranquilized and taken away Thursday Night

The next day, I emailed one of the responding CT DEEP Officers Jeffry Samorajczyk, who provided the following info on our bear: "The bear was a young male (approximately 16-18 months old) and about 100 pounds. The bear was fine after being relocated. The officers did not ear tag the bear upon reaching their destination as it was beginning to wake up. They were however able to treat the pre-existing wound on its left hip. They stayed with the bear until it was mobile and checked the release site this morning to make sure it had left the area. It had."

[EDIT] Follow-up: Photos of the bear in Newtown surfaced on the Shelton Bear's Facebook Page on May 21, one week after he was transported. He was, of course, eating from bird feeders and peering into windows. His wound appeared to be healing.

In Newtown, as post on his Facebook page.