Stenger Farm Park: An oasis of flora, fauna in Waterford

Waterford — From the road, Stenger Farm Park looks like a dirt lot next to a field, easy to pass by without even a hint of curiosity.

But walk into the tree line and you will find three lush micro-ecosystems — woods, meadows and a pond — filled with all manner of organisms, from parasitic plants to a wide variety of butterflies. It's a relaxing place to walk and perfect for the budding nature photographer looking for a snap to post on Instagram.

All paths lead to roam

The main entrance is off Clark Lane. From the parking lot, cross the lawn and find a footpath into the woods — mind the poison ivy, if you’re allergic — or follow the gravel road that skirts along a stone wall. The footpath quickly meets up with that road, which at this time of year is littered with black walnuts, and that will take you down a steep hill.

There are several other pedestrian entrances among the neighborhoods that lie along the park’s edge. They can be hard to find unless you know where to look. On Summer Street, for example, you walk to an obscure dead end and find yourself confronted by an unfriendly-looking gate that bans all but “authorized” vehicles. Walk around the gate, and you find yourself on a stony, wooded path, with backyards on one side and trees on the other.

Whichever path you choose, most signs of civilization abruptly melt away. The hum of traffic is still dimly audible, but it’s as likely as not to be drowned out by bird calls.

A picture of New England ecology

As its name suggests, and like much of New England, this 95-acre park was once a farm. From the air, it looks much the same today as it did in the 1934 Fairchild aerial survey — you can compare the two through a mapping project created by University of Connecticut students at bit.ly/StengerAerials — with one very notable difference: There are far more trees now.

Narrow paths snake among ferns and boulders in these young woods. Flowers, some invasive but some native, grow at path edges or spring up between tree roots. In fact, almost everywhere you look in this park, you will find blossoms — from bluets in the spring, to parasitic Orobanche in early summer, to butterfly weed and ragweed in late summer, and so many more. You’ll also find shrubs, mushrooms and vines. In the spring, keep an eye out for wood frogs. Birds and woodland butterflies — little wood satyrs in the spring, black swallowtails and wood nymphs in the summer — flit about.

Step out into the meadows, and you will see plenty more butterflies, but the species are completely different. There are many kinds of sulphurs and skippers. Along with the introduced cabbage white, there’s the native American lady, monarchs, fritillaries and common buckeyes. And if you keep sharp, you’ll find members of the gossamer-winged family — tiny butterflies with speckled outer wings and pale, furry bodies: American coppers in blazing orange, hairstreaks, even blues and azures, depending on the season.

Various mown paths, marked by color-coded arrows on wooden posts, guide you around this part of the park. The walkways are wide, offering opportunity to get an up-close look at the flora and insects without having to worry about obstructing anyone; joggers can pass right by, leaving you in peace to frame that shot of a monarch resting on native milkweed.

Butterflies are not the only creatures to draw one’s attention here. Dragonflies of different sizes whiz by, bees and wasps circle slowly among the flowers. Crickets sing unseen. You are as likely to spot the tuft of a rabbit’s tail disappearing into the brush as you are a snapping turtle dragging itself across the grass. At dusk, you may even glimpse a coyote peering at you from afar.

A wooden platform, complete with a picnic table, and benches along the path offer views of the third distinct ecosystem of the park: the pond.

Though it is small, it is teeming with fish that send ripples across its mirrorlike surface. Frogs call out to one another. A kingfisher swoops over the water. Turtles often laze in the sun on partially submerged branches.

Farm to park

Beside the pond and just off the path, there’s a yellow blossom with a delicate tail. It’s tiny and looks innocent enough, growing near some black-eyed susans.

But this is common toadflax, an invader that originated in Europe and parts of Asia.

Toadflax at Stenger Farm Park.
Common toadflax, one of many invasives at Stenger Farm Park.

Some non-native species got their foothold when settlers brought Old World seeds to plant in their gardens; others were introduced accidentally.

Invasives tend to do best in disturbed areas, such as farmland that has been stripped and tilled, according to Chad Jones, associate professor and chair of Connecticut College’s botany department. Many invasives like open areas and forest edges, he says, though some like shade and can be found in woods, particularly young woods.

“My research in Southeastern Connecticut as well as other research from around New England have shown that invasion levels are much higher in younger forests (that were open fields as recently as the 1930s when the first complete aerial photographs of the state were taken) than in older forests,” Jones said by email this past week.

History is evident here in other ways, if you know where to look.

The central feature of the park is a half-mile oval that encloses the pond. This is what remains of a horse-racing track established by John George Burckle, who bought the farm just after the Civil War.

Burckle sold the farm in 1889 to Nicholas Stenger, by whose name it is still known. The Stenger family ran a dairy farm here, and though they did not race or train horses, brothers Harry and George were happy to make the track available to those who did. They also briefly hosted midget auto and motorcycle races until they realized the vehicles were ruining the track; even today, motorized vehicles are not permitted in the park. Carnivals and other entertainments sometimes were featured here, as well.

The brothers shut the farm in 1960, and after the last of the Stengers died, the town, urged by residents who signed petitions, purchased the property for open space and recreation in 1979.

But it took another decade and a near-tragedy for the former farm to be made presentable for public use. In 1991, two boys fishing in one of the ponds were assaulted and almost drowned by three teenagers. The town responded by clearing underbrush, mowing the fields and taking down “no trespassing” signs.

The idea was to welcome the public, but even today, the park remains underused.

Slow down, have a look

Whether you are looking for flowers to post to your Instagram, taking the kids out for a bit of wildlife spotting or just want to escape and slow things down, this little park has so much to offer. Bring your canine friends to enjoy the fenced-in dog area off Clark Lane, and if you walk through the meadows, blue bins have been placed along the paths for your convenience. And of course, bring your camera; you later may find surprises in your pictures that you never noticed with your eyes.

Bug spray is recommended, due to mosquitoes around the pond. Sun block for spending time in the meadows, where there's less shade, also is a good idea. As always, check yourself for ticks after venturing outside.

And if you do stop by and snap a few photos, share them with us on your Instagram by tagging #DayAtStenger.

j.meyers@theday.com

j.ruddy@theday.com

Ferns grow through the woods May 21, 2017, alongside a small footpath at Stenger Farm Park in Waterford. (Jacinta Meyers/The Day)
Ferns grow through the woods May 21, 2017, alongside a small footpath at Stenger Farm Park in Waterford. (Jacinta Meyers/The Day)

Early deforestation in New England

When Europeans first arrived in the New World, they were awestruck by its rich woodlands. They eagerly chopped down trees to build houses, barns and ships.

But “the lumberer was not the chief agent in destroying New England’s forests," according to "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England" by William Cronon and John Demos, "the farmer was." What these farming settlers did not use for construction, they burned as fuel or fashioned into fences. They further cleared forestland for planting crops and grazing livestock.

In his book “Hope, Human and Wild,” environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote that in the last half of the 1800s, forest cover in much of the East had fallen to 20 percent or less.

“The ecological effects of this deforestation were profound, extending even to the climate itself," according to “Changes in the Land.” It drove away animals who once inhabited the forests and allowed for the proliferation of invasive plants.

 

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