Oswegatchie Hills important to birds, too

The Oswegatchie Nature Preserve in East Lyme is a hidden oasis within the highly developed I-95 corridor. This 420-acre preserve is the work of dedicated individuals, who, beginning in 2001, had the attractive tract set aside for future generations.

I recently visited the site early one morning during May and discovered dozens of neo-tropical warblers. Apparently, the sanctuary acts as a magnet for tired, hungry migrants, arriving from across the sound.

I entered the preserve from the Damon Heights Road just off Route 161 where I was immediately impressed by the towering oaks. There were hills, huge moss-covered boulders and mountain laurel shrubs winding up through rocky crevices. Shades of green of every hue dazzled my eyes. The pastels of emerging foliage contrasted with the olive-colored laurel leaves faded from the winter. I quickly realized that I was in a special place.

The woods were rich with the call notes of warblers. They were everywhere - high in the canopy and low in the understory. The first was an impressive blazing orange and black colored American redstart. It was flashing its feathers like sparks from a fire beneath the mountain laurel. Just a few yards up the trail I found more redstarts flitting about the laurel, and I wondered what it was they were feeding on in the shrubs.

Deeper in the woodland and higher up on the hills there were more warblers. Some were passing through, but surely others were there to nest. I counted five different species, with my most exciting find being a single blue-winged warbler that I observed feeding only a few feet away.

While hiking through the trails, I couldn't help but feel a little sad knowing that this beautiful and much needed open space soon might be destroyed, because while 420 acres have been set aside there are another 230 acres slated for development. It may not be a premier birding site - but it does have unique significant value. The Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills and other conscientious residents are trying to save these beautiful hills. Their hope is to have the woodland designated as a National Audubon Society Important Bird Area.

I recommend visiting the nature preserve and its website before taking action. It is always fair to completely understand both sides of such a debate. However, if all the remaining land is developed, we will certainly lose some quality of life around here. Therefore, anyone inclined toward preservation instead of development ought to make a list of the birds they see at Oswegatchie Hills and send it along to the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills.

Human beings are not just industrious; we are also spiritual creatures. Like the birds we too need places to let our spirits soar. Whether or not you decide to get involved, the Oswegatchie Hills makes for a great day of birding. I plan to visit again soon to see which species are nesting and listen for the elusive whippoorwill, which is known to breed there.

Robert Tougias is a birding author who lives in Colchester. He is available for slide presentations, and you can send him questions at rtougias@snet.net.

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