Dwindling cottontail finds 'rabbitat' on Salem property

Salem - When most people think of places to hike, mature forests and woodlands probably come to mind.

But since a variety of natural habitats are needed for healthy wildlife populations, appreciating the outdoors on foot can be just as satisfying in grasslands, along wetlands and very young, or "early successional" forest - thickets where the plantlife is mostly shrubs and finger-thin, very young saplings.

One local place that affords access to all of those habitats is the Zemko Pond Wildlife Management Area, one of several southeastern Connecticut sites featured in the Connecticut Forest & Park Association's annual Trails Day events this weekend. The Zemko property has also been newly added to The Day's online hiking guide, with photos and a trail map, so those who can't make Saturday's hike can find out how to visit another time at www.theday.com/hiking.

The state Department of Environmental Protection acquired the Zemko property in two pieces in 2002 and 2004, designating it mainly for hunting and wildlife-enhancement projects. But hikers are welcome on the old farm roads that traverse the 464 acres, said Paul Rothbart, habitat program supervisor for the DEP's Wildlife Division.

Members of the Zemko family, once one of the town's largest landowners, had plans for a campground or other development there that fell through, recalled T.J. Butcher, a neighbor to the property for the last two decades and a Salem Land Trust member who's leading Saturday's hike. He and others lobbied the state to acquire the property.

Its varied habitats - particularly the grasslands and thickets that are in short supply in the state - made it a very attractive piece for wildlife-conservation efforts, Rothbart said. The scarcity of these habitats, which have been lost as the state reforested over the last century, has led to declines in the many wildlife species that use them, from whippoorwill and woodcock to box turtle and black racer snake, among others, said Anthony Tur, endangered species biologist at the New England office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"These species aren't doing so well," he said.

One species that's seen some of the biggest declines is the New England cottontail rabbit, which was once abundant. The loss of thicket habitat and the introduction of the non-native Eastern cottontail has caused its population to decline an estimated 75 percent over the past four decades. The federal wildlife agency considered the New England cottontail, which is smaller than its cousin, for endangered species status but decided instead this year to fund projects that create habitat for the rabbits to try to increase the population, Tur said.

Grants were distributed among the three states with the largest remaining populations of the little brown bunnies - New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In fact, Connecticut has the largest population, mostly in the northeast and northwest corners of the state, but there is also a core community in the southeastern part, Rothbart said. That's where the Zemko property comes in.

It's one of five sites around the state where the DEP has used a Fish & Wildlife grant to create thicket for the rabbits by logging an area of mature forest, and the only one in southeastern Connecticut, he said. The plan is to let saplings regrow, then return after a few years to recut so that it doesn't turn back into forest. The Zemko property was chosen, he said, because a population of New England cottontails has been confirmed by wildlife biologists to be living in Salem.

The habitat work was completed about three weeks ago, Rothbart said, so visitors Saturday will see fresh evidence of the DEP's efforts. They will also see the results of other land-management efforts there, from grasslands that are mowed periodically to keep them from becoming forest, to the relative sparsity of invasive species like barberry that crowd native plants in many other forest areas.

"The biggest problem we have there is controlling invasives," Rothbart said.

Butcher, the guide for Saturday's hike, plans to lead the group first to one of the meadows, abundant with butterflies, dragonflies and grassland birds flitting amid tall grasses and wildflowers, then through mature forest and past some of the many vernal pools where salamanders and frogs hatch.

"This is an area really alive with animals because of the vernal pools," he said, explaining that the amphibians coming from the pools are an important food for coyotes, fox, ducks and other animals.

From there, he'll head to a pond formed by the damming of Harris Brook, an important tributary of the Eightmile River. He may also take the group past a swamp formed by a beaver dam, a stone chimney left from a long-gone hunting cabin and the old apple trees that once supplied fruit for cider when the property was farmed a century ago.

"I've been walking this property end to end for 22 years," said Butcher, who trains for long summer backpacking excursions in frequent hikes there. He also helps maintain the grasslands, mowing them with his tractor and Brush Hog, keeps the dirt roads cleared of fallen trees, picks up trash and keeps eyes and ears alert for ATVs, which are not permitted there.

"If it's a rainy day Saturday, it means we'll hear more birds," he said.



Connecticut Trails Day events Saturday in southeastern Connecticut:

East Lyme, 10 a.m. to noon: Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, guided or self-guided hike, meet at Veterans Memorial Park off Pennsylvania Avenue.

East Lyme, 10 to 11 a.m.: Camp Pattagansett, 2.5-mile nature walk; meet at camp's parking lot off Upper Pattagansett Road.

Groton, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Bike ride from Haley Farm State Park to Bluff Point State Park; meet on Haley Farm Lane.

Groton, 10 a.m. to noon: Historic sheep farm and Fort Hill Brook educational walk; meet at 245-255 Hazelnut Hill Road. Registration recommended, suesutherland@snet.net.

Ledyard-Preston, 3 to 6 p.m.: Poquetanuck Cove paddle; bring own canoe or kayak, life preserver. Meet at end of Royal Oak Drive (off Arrowhead Drive), Ledyard. Register at (860) 464-8101.

Lyme, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.: Roaring Brook Preserve educational walk led by former state geologist Ralph Lewis; lunch available for $8 afterwards. Meet at 10:15 a.m. at Hadlyme Public Hall, 1 Dayhill Road. Register at (518) 253-4844.

Lyme, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.: Mt. Archer Woods, River-to-Ridge trail system hike and invasive plant program; meet at 1:15 p.m. at Lyme Town Hall, 480 Hamburg Road.

Lyme, 10 a.m. to noon: Nehantic State Forest/Nayantaquit Trail hike, 3.5 miles. Information on meeting place and registration at (860) 443-8010 or ckdri@conncoll.edu.

Montville, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Camp Oakdale, lower trail fitness walk; meet at small pavilion at camp, 75 Oxoboxo Dam Road. Register at (860) 437-7944, victor_j_cicchese@sbcglobal.net.

Mystic, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.: Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center/Avalonia Trail hike, meet at nature center, 109 Pequotsepos Road.

Mystic, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Merritt Family Forest, meet on Fishtown Road, just south of Route 1.

North Stonington, 1 to 3:30 p.m.: Fowler-Grindstone Preserve and Boulder Farm hike, meet at trail sign at Fowler Road and Grindstone Hill Road intersection.

Salem, 10 a.m. to noon: Zemko Pond Wildlife Management Area educational walk, meet at parking area off Round Hill Road.

Stonington, 7:30 a.m.: Sandy Point Nature Preserve paddle, talk by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service interpreter on island; meet at state boat launch at Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, Palmer Neck Road. Bring own kayak, life preserver. Limited to 10 to 12 people. Register at (860) 464-8101.

Voluntown, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Pachaug State Forest, trail maintenance project; volunteers meet at Green Falls Pond Campsite off Route 138. Register at (860) 388-6585 or jsahadi@northcove.com.


More information on these activities, along with a complete list of all 100-plus trails day hikes statewide, can be found at www.ctwoodlands.org/CT-TrailsDay2010.


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