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Waterford - Lush with shoulder-high big bluestem, little bluestem, goldenrod and other grasses and wildflowers, the 12-acre meadow off Benham Road represents the kind of habitat the state needs to preserve its diversity of bird species, according to the Connecticut Audubon Society.
Part of the Mamacoke Island area owned by Connecticut College, the meadow is highlighted in the society's annual State of the Birds report, as a model more owners of public and private lands across the state should follow. The report was released on Monday.
"We thought it was a good project, and we wanted to show that it can be done, so others can use it as a guide," Audubon spokesman Tom Andersen said.
Released annually since 2006, this year's report emphasizes the need for more active management of open space parcels around the state to maintain and enhance their conservation value.
"When you buy land for conservation, that's only the beginning," Andersen said. "If you don't manage it, it will lose its conservation value."
As an example of what happens when open space parcels aren't managed, the report describes the loss of a heron colony on Chimon Island off Norwalk.
The report cites grasslands and early successional fields in particular as a type of habitat most needed in the state to prevent the loss of species such as the blue-winged warbler, the eastern towee, the indigo bunting, the chestnut-sided warbler, the bobolink, eastern meadowlark and field sparrow. The wildflowers and grasses that characterize these habitats are also critical for butterflies, bees and dragonflies, Andersen noted.
Statewide, the report says, many of the state's old fields are being left to convert into woodlands, "resulting in an increasingly large forest monoculture and a diminishing variety of birds."
"What we are promoting," said Stephen Oresman, chairman emeritus of the society, "is an approach to wiser land use that is complex, detailed and long-term."
Glenn Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum, said that to expand and enhance the grassland parcel, the college cleared woody and invasive plants, cut trees back from the perimeter and seeded one portion with a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers, using a U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Grant to help fund about 25 percent of the cost. After the work was done in 2004, Dreyer and others at the college monitored the parcel to track the mix of plants that emerged, as well as the bird species found there. Among "high conservation priority" birds found nesting there in 2012 and 2013 were the eastern kingbird, the Baltimore oriole, the orchard oriole and the indigo bunting.
"An awful lot of our property is forest, so we were trying to enhance biological diversity," he said.
To maintain the grasslands, the college mows the fields once a year in the spring, and uses herbicides selectively to control aggressive species such as sumac and mugwort, Dreyer said. He said the area is intended to be an educational site for land trusts and private landowners hoping to create grasslands on their properties.
Audubon is advocating that the state work with municipalities, land trusts and other private landowners to create an inventory of all the open space parcels and the various habitats each supports.
"One of the real issues is that nobody really knows how many acres of different habitats we have in Connecticut," Andersen said.
The 2014 Connecticut State of the Birds report can be found at: www.ctaudubon.org.