What’s hopping down the bunny trail?

New England cottontail. Credit: Peter Paton
A female bluebird perches close at the Peck and Callahan preserves. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Rabbits aren’t the only ones that use young forest habitat. Here’s a female bluebird enjoying the restored area at the Peck and Callahan preserves. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

DID YOU KNOW?Photo from Great Bay refuge
The rare New England cottontail is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. It’s different than the non-native eastern cottontails that people brought to New England for hunting years ago, and that you commonly see on roadsides and in gardens. A huge team, including our agency, is out to save it. Learn more.

We’re sharing a post from our partner, Beth Sullivan at the Avalonia Land Conservancy in Connecticut. Avalonia is helping us make more habitat for the New England cottontail and other wildlife that depend on young forest. See the original post at their blog.

Last year at this time, we were in the middle of a giant project on our Peck and Callahan Preserves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in combination with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, had helped us plan and prepare for what was one of the biggest projects Avalonia had undertaken to date other than acquisitions.

We’re taking a new approach to stewardship. Over the years, the goal of environmental stewardship has shifted from pure preservation to more active conservation and management of land entrusted to us, for its best usage and greatest value.

We were convinced that turning 22 acres of mature forest, past its prime for supporting diverse wildlife, into a young forest restoration area was the best use for the land and our best action for the future of many species.

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The active cutting part of the project was completed in August of 2013 (see photos above). In the fall there were several trips to the site for fine-tuning the landscape, opening a passable trail for machinery and work parties, and a huge effort to plant and then protect nearly 100 native shrubs, installed to add diversity to the landscape as it regrew.

Shrubs were protected by netting to prevent deer nibbling. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Shrubs were protected by netting to protect from nibbling deer. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

The ideal way to plant new shrubs was in groups of eight or nine, and then erect fencing around the whole plot to keep deer from browsing on them. Well, in rocky, upland Stonington, there were no places where we could dig nine adequate holes in a fashion even close to ideal! Then, trying to cart fencing material, more than a half mile into the rocky preserve which was now covered with slash and brush, became an impossible feat. So we improvised and used a light netting, draped tepee style over stakes near each plant. Then more branches were piled around the plant to make it even more difficult for deer to get close enough to eat the desirable shrub. The effort served its purpose for the winter.

Turkeys forage in the open and retreat to woodland edge. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Turkeys forage in the open and retreat to woodland edge. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Checking on Progress. We returned several times in the spring to check on different areas and were pleased at the progress. Tree stumps were re-sprouting robustly. There were shades of green covering what had been bare earth. Almost all the plants were showing signs of life and regrowth. Not many had been nibbled by the deer. Some were even blossoming, a promise of berries to come. We were, however, dismayed to find a snake had become entangled in the netting at some point and had perished. We knew the netting had to come off.

Well, the job to remove the netting was far harder than putting it on. First we had to find all the plants! With all the new growth surrounding them, even many of the orange tags and flags were hidden. Weeds and vines had grown up into the netting and the plants themselves were happily sending out new branches and leaves, so removing the netting became a surgical operation.

The ground is now covered with green. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

The ground is now covered with green. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

We spent hours back tracking through all corners of the areas as we worked, examining new growth, becoming excited over resurgence of vines and thrilled at the ground cover of low bush blueberries.

It was a wildlife heaven.

Wild turkeys foraged in the brush and took dustbaths in the trail. There were grasshoppers all over as well as dragonflies, bees and uncountable other insects.

Native shrubs grow up through protective branches. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Native shrubs grow up through protective branches. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Fly-catching birds of several species were using the brush piles and tree snags to swoop and catch the insects. There were bluebirds singing everywhere. Eastern towhees chorused from spots low and high throughout the area. The little vernal pond was still cool and shady, having been protected during the project. We found a small wood frog in the fern glade nearby. The clear stream ran fresh through the moss covered boulders in the low land.

We ran out of energy before we had found and uncovered every bush. We will return again soon. But it was a reaffirmation, to me, that this project will bring new life and rejuvenation to an opening in the forest. It may be a while before the New England Cottontails find it, but a lot of other wildlife already has.

Much of ground cover is lowbush blueberry. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Much of ground cover is lowbush blueberry. Photo courtesy of Beth Sullivan, Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Follow the project at the Avalonia blog.

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