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.