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Parcel's vernal pools, strategic location entice Avalonia

North Stonington - Standing alongside a shallow bowl of sunken ground off an old logging road in the woodland known as Babcock Ridge Wednesday, Bruce Fellman scanned the wet earth.

"What we're looking for is marbled salamanders," he said. "They lay their eggs in holes in places like this in the fall, in anticipation that they'll become vernal pools."

Typical for a vernal pool, no water sits on the surface at this time of year, but come spring, a small pond, alive with tadpoles, salamanders and insects, will form. It is one of a series of vernal pools in the 74-acre forest, and one of the natural features the Avalonia Land Conservancy is hoping to protect by acquiring the property, strategically located between two other Avalonia preserves.

The Erisman property is just to the north, off Reutemann Road, and the Henne Memorial Tract is just across Babcock Road to the south. A linear trail connecting the three properties would extend about 5 miles through what would be a 220-acre habitat for birds, amphibians and other animals.

"One of our goals is to have wildlife corridors," said Michele Fitzgerald, president of Avalonia, as she hiked the Babcock property with Fellman, a town resident, photographer and naturalist, and Mac Turner, North Stonington town director for Avalonia.

This fall, Avalonia is working to raise about $130,000 in donations and grants in order to complete the purchase of the Babcock Road property. As part of that effort, Turner and Fellman will guide a series of hikes of Babcock Ridge beginning Saturday and continuing through Nov. 29.

"We're trying to raise awareness and make people appreciate its value," Turner said.

Fitzgerald said the money needs to be raised by Dec. 31 to enable the group to complete the purchase of the land from its owners, the children of former owner Thurman Maine, a well-known and beloved town doctor. The cost is $285,000, but Avalonia has obtained a state grant for just over $140,000 and has raised another $12,000 in private donations, she said.

The cost represents 75 percent of the total value of the property, noted Turner, because one of Maine's four children, the late Ruth Goldsmith, bequeathed her one-quarter interest to Avalonia.

"That gives us a huge toe in the door with the heirs," he said. Past attempts by the owners to subdivide the property for housing development failed when town land-use boards voted against granting permits for the steep, rocky parcel.

"Between all the wetlands and the steep hills, it becomes a really squirrelly property to develop," he said.

Preserving Babcock Ridge would protect the Shunock River watershed and would expand the open space buffer encircling the village of North Stonington, Turner said. Future hikers through the forest could take in views of stonewalls, huge boulders known as glacial erratics, Christmas tree ferns and an abundance of moss-capped rocks, along with the patter of worm-eating warblers, white-breasted nuthatch and pileated woodpeckers.

"This is a classic New England upland forest, with hickory, maple, beech and an understory of ferns," Fellman said.

j.benson@theday.com

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.

If you go

What: Babcock Ridge guided hikes

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26 and Nov. 9; and 11 a.m. on Nov. 24 and Nov. 29.

Where: Hikers should meet at 113 Babcock Road, at the "park here" sign.

More Info: For more information, call Mac Turner at (860) 535-1541.

To donate: Send contributions to Avalonia Land Conservancy, P.O. Box 49, Old Mystic CT 06372, or visit www.avalonialandconservancy.org and click on "Donors and Members info."

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