Gypsy moth caterpillars cause winter closure of Hampton's Trail Wood sanctuary

Edwin Way and Nellie Teale moved to this 1806 house at the Trail Wood sanctuary in 1959. (Judy Benson/The Day)
Edwin Way and Nellie Teale moved to this 1806 house at the Trail Wood sanctuary in 1959. (Judy Benson/The Day)

Hampton — For the first time in more than two decades, the sprawling 168-acre Trail Wood Sanctuary will be closed to the public for the winter, and gypsy moths are to blame.

Gypsy moth caterpillars, which have been decimating Connecticut's trees since their population soared in southern New England in 2016 after a stretch of dry weather, have killed many trees in the sanctuary that must now be cleared, according to Sarah Hemingway, the regional director for the Connecticut Audubon Society, which owns the property and has operated it as a sanctuary since 1993.

Contracted loggers will remove trees that gyspy moths have killed or damaged starting Dec. 1, and the sanctuary, the former home of author and naturalist Edwin Way Teale and a popular year-round hiking spot, will be closed.

"There was a concern that some of the dead trees might be a hazard for hikers," said Connecticut Audubon Society spokesman Tom Andersen.

Gypsy moths have defoliated trees, mostly oaks, in different spots around the sanctuary over the past several years, Hemingway said.

"When that happens to a tree one year, the tree can deal with it," Andersen said. "It stresses it out, but it can recover."

But multiple years of gypsy moth attacks have killed the affected trees, he said, and recent storms have felled more, Andersen said.

The sanctuary's miles of trails will reopen to the public in March, he said.

"It's a fairly big project, and they can only do it when the weather conditions are right," he said.

Workers will selectively take down fallen or weakened trees around the sanctuary, a process he said would allow the surrounding trees more room to grow and benefit bird species like the blue-winged warbler and the indigo bunting, which thrive in areas with shorter trees and shrubs.

"When you clear away trees in a forest it opens up the forest canopy, allowing more light in, which allows smaller, shrubbier trees to grow," Andersen said.

Hemingway said the work was scheduled to create the smallest possible disruption to birds and would be done in a manner sensitive to the sanctuary's water sources and wildlife.

The loggers will leave trunks and branches on the ground to encourage new seedlings and potential nesting areas. Smaller branches will be made into brush piles.

The work could create a bright side of the gypsy moth infestation for birds and hikers, Andersen said.

"We would have preferred that the trees hadn't died, but since they did, we're making the best of it," he said.

Regular hikers will notice significantly less foliage when the sanctuary reopens this spring, and Hemingway said some who frequent the property for wintertime exercise have said they will miss the walking paths.

"We do definitely have some regular walkers that are already unhappy about this," she said.

But "this is basically the best way we can manage a bad situation."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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