Savoring autumn's splendor in Westbrook

Westbrook - A dozen or so people gathered Sunday afternoon for a chilly walk through the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, kicking up a carpet of crunchy brown and yellow leaves as they followed tour guides Kris Vagos and Shaun Roche.

"I think Connecticut definitely beats out Maine" in terms of fall color, said Vagos, a native Mainer, before leading the group into the woods. She said her home state features mostly white pines, which don't change color.

McKinney employees Vagos, a wildlife biologist, and Roche, a park ranger who handles visitor services, organized Sunday's walk to provide information about the science behind seasonal leaf changes.

Although they did start the afternoon off with a simple explanation of leaf biochemistry, their discussion broadened to include foraging, salt marsh birds, endangered species and habitats, the property's former owners and pretty much any other topic the group showed interest in.

The walkers, some toting toddlers or leaning on canes, bundled up their coats against the autumn breeze and stopped periodically to admire garter snakes and stone relics in the forest.

The plant life in Connecticut is more colorful than Maine, said Vagos, thanks to oak-hickory forests that also feature northern hardwoods like the sugar maple or white birch. Most of the state's evergreens, she said, are clustered in the northwest.

Roche explained the basics of seasonal color changes to the visitors: As winter approaches, deciduous plants produce less chlorophyll, allowing chemicals like yellow-orange carotenoids and dark red or purple anthocyanins to show through.

"I find it pretty cool," said Roche.

The tour guides stopped on a wooden deck that overlook a large salt marsh - a "unique habitat," said Roche, who added that there are "not too many places left like this in Connecticut."

Although the marsh coloring was "a little past the peak of the foliage," Vagos shared pictures of her favorite marsh plant, the pickleweed, which she said is edible but very salty.

"I wouldn't recommend it," she said.

She called the plant "Jurassic looking," and described how it morphed from green to deep red in the fall.

She also praised the fall's light purple marsh heather and the grasses lining the marsh that turn deep brown. The grass looks "like little waves" and "really soft--which it's not," she said.

A few days ago, added Roche, the edges of the marsh were lit up with black gums that contained the anthocyanin sugar that caused "this red color that people really like."

That color is also found in sumac, which grows in abundance along the refuge's paths. Vagos told the intrigued onlookers that in addition to the wild grapes she let them munch on, sumac is also edible.

In a summer program, Vagos helped kids make sumac lemonade from the berries, but she added that the hairs of the berries are also harvested for use as a citrusy spice in some Middle Eastern foods.

Vagos and Roche ended the walk by discussing the wildlife that frequents the park's early successional forest, an endangered habitat the rangers work hard to maintain.

"We think of fall as harvest time for people," Roche reminded the visitors. "Well, it's harvest time for all these plants for wildlife to eat as well."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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