Editor's Note: During a recent ceremony celebrating the state's acquisition of the Sciongay property on the Clinton/Westbrook town line, to ensure its preservation as open space, a biologist from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told the group why the land was so special.
Here are excerpts from the talk given by Stephen Gephard, supervisor for the Diadromous Fish Program and Habitat and Conservation Enhancement Program, Inland Fisheries Division, Dept. Energy and Environmental Protection.
While the state works to preserve the land as a wildlife habitat, it also is evaluating the best way to provide public access. The possibility of placing the trail head at Fish Plain Road in Clinton is being evaluated.
It is a pleasure for me to be here and share in this announcement. This property has been on my radar screen for many years—after the Sciongays caught me sneaking in to peek at the property while I was monitoring fish runs in the area. But their interests aligned with my interests and we struck up a friendship and, with the family, I have waited eagerly for this day.
The land is truly beautiful and will be a great place for people to visit to enjoy and relax and take in the scenic qualities. If we get some snow, I look forward to strapping on my cross-country skis this winter and exploring the land. But biologically, ecologically—this is a very special and productive place and I’d like to give you a brief introduction.
As a biologist, I recognize that much of the ecological action— the real productivity—occurs at ‘edges.' Not in the heart of the jungle, in the middle of the tundra, the center of the Great Plains, out there in the middle of the ocean or the great north woods. It is where these ecosystems abut and intersect. The edges. That’s why estuaries are so important—at least three if not more major habitat types come together in an estuary.
In my opinion, an under-appreciated habitat zone is the head- of-tide in a stream. This is the location of the farthest upstream reach of the tide—often, but not always, defined by a rapids or falls. It congregates species. Some marine species won’t go any farther up and some freshwater species won’t go any farther down and the diadromous species that can do both stage here as they acclimate to the new environment. This makes it a real hot spot. Many of the heads-of-tide in Connecticut are highly developed—like Norwich, New Haven, Hamden, Westport, Bridgeport, etc. and the habitat has been degraded.
But not on this property. Yes there is a dam blocking the way but the habitat is still in great shape. On this property we have a head-of-tide, an estuary, a freshwater pond, and a tract of undisturbed forest—all within 155 acres. If that’s not enough, this is a critical link in an important open space greenway that links Long Island Sound and the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge with upland woods of the Cockaponset State Forest—in my opinion, one of the state’s finest State forests. And these Greenways are important because fish and wildlife need to move. They need to shift from habitat to habitat and in a densely populated state like Connecticut, that is getting harder and harder for them to do. By preserving this open space, we are allowing that to continue.
So what happens on this land? If I told you that the land abounds with deer and wild turkey and songbirds, you probably would not be impressed, thinking that you can see all of that in your backyard. But that’s just the start. The land includes a great stand of forest with a diversity of hardwoods, especially oak, but interspersed with stands of cedar, hemlock and white pine. There are red maple swamps and at least two vernal pools (one which is sizable) that are becoming increasingly rare in Connecticut. This is critical habitat for toads, frogs, salamanders and their amphibious kin—all which are on a decline in the region. There are snapping turtles that crawl out of the pond to lay their eggs in an unusual sand dune in the middle of the property and there are wood turtles and box turtles, both which are State-listed species. At the head-of-tide below the dam are two State-listed species of plants: Parker’s Pipewort (which is endangered) and Mudwort (which is listed as Special Concern). In addition to all of this are 71 species of birds, 21 species of mammals including river otter, and 17 species of reptiles and amphibians. The Wildlife Division is now investigating the possibility that the land supports a population of the native New England cottontail, another species experienced great decline throughout its range.
But let me put on my fish biologist hat and really start bragging because this is where the stream habitat comes in. This stream—the Menunketesuck River—hosts abundant runs of anadromous fish—fish that start their lives in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to grow and mature, and then return to the stream of their origin to spawn. The most prominent of these are the river herring—alewives and blueback herring. In fact, I’ve read where the stream name in the Indian tongue meant “stream of silvery bony fish”—a perfect description of river herring. They need to reach freshwater pools to spawn and this dam has caused their numbers to decline during the past 100 years or so. But despite the dam, a remnant run of these fish have been able to hang on by spawning right below the dam, every spring, as if hopeful that someday there will be a way around that big stone wall. River herring used to be as thick as fleas in Connecticut and as a major export to the Caribbean but they have declined so much that we have prohibited all harvest of them in Connecticut and the National Marine Fisheries Service considered listed them under the federal endangered species act. So they need protection. When they migrate upstream, along with them come striped bass, white perch, sea-run brown trout, sea lamprey, and the amazing American eel that can wiggle over the dam. Later in the summer hordes of blue crabs march up from the estuary to the dam.
This smorgasbord is a major factor in the abundance of the wildlife found here. They’re here for the feast. The great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, green herons, great egrets, and snowy egrets line the banks, snatching fish from the shallows. Ospreys plummet from above. Eagles frequent the site. I was there two weeks ago and saw a mature bald eagle roosting in a pine tree by the pond. This productivity— imported from the ocean—fuels so many other populations in these merging ecosystems.
These runs have been sustained for decades, despite the presence of the historic dam. But it can be better. If these fish can reach the productive habitat upstream of the dam, their numbers can multiply and their ecological function—their value—can skyrocket. With a properly designed fishway, these fish can gain access to the wonderful 40-acre head-pond above the dam and an additional 3 miles of free-flowing stream. This will transform the run of river herring from a few hundred to tens of thousands and the run will expand up into the native habitat that used to experience these runs before the dam was built. As the fish move upward, so will the wildlife. Ospreys will no longer stop at the dam but continue upstream to fish in the pond.
Our friends at the Connecticut River Coastal Conservation District earlier this year applied for a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to enable them to hire an engineer to design such a fishway ... when I leave here, I will travel to Norwalk where NFWF is announcing the recipients of their 2013 grants, and that will include the Conservation District. They will be awarded a grant and the process to build a fishway at this dam will soon begin.
So, in addition to being a beautiful place for us to visit, this is a very special place for fish and wildlife to visit. I want to thank and congratulate all who have worked so hard to protect this land—including the family and DEEP staff like Dave Kozak. The work they have invested will pay increasing dividends in ecological health and biodiversity long after we are all gone.