Tag Archives: young forest

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

The story behind the nation’s newest wildlife refuge

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. (Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS.)

A New England cottontail in brushy shrubland. Photo credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS

How a small preserve north of New York City kickstarted a multi-state conservation effort.

Hear from our partner Stuart F. Gruskin, Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York! TNC recently donated to us the first parcel for the nation’s newest national wildlife refuge, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge! This post appeared first on treehugger.

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of New York City, it was common to see New England cottontail rabbits hopping around. Over time, due to habitat loss the species – our region’s only native rabbit – has sharply declined, becoming close to being endangered. This caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and just last month, the country’s 556th national wildlife refuge, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, was unveiled. A couple of hours north of New York City, the new refuge is dedicated to conserving young forest and shrubland essential to many types of wildlife, including threatened species like the iconic New England cottontail.

I’m proud that The Nature Conservancy played a part in establishing this refuge, by contributing the first property needed for the new refuge to legally be established. Our historic Nellie Hill Preserve, a 144-acre parcel in Dutchess County, is the first land acquisition of many in this ambitious project. Eventually, Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will span six states (CT, MA, ME, NH, NY and RI) and conserve up to 15,000 acres of important habitat that’s quickly vanishing due to both human development and the course of time (i.e. young forest eventually becomes mature forest). This is a uniquely effective approach to conservation – instead of a large, contiguous area, this refuge consists of a network of ecologically significant focus areas within a very large, 250,000 acre landscape, and is designed to ensure that there is sufficient habitat within the footprint of the refuge to support the cottontail rabbit as well as many other species that rely on shrublands.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

As a general proposition, any new national wildlife refuge is cause for celebration, but Great Thicket National Refuge is a truly special achievement. It required a strong collaborative effort among the federal government, the six states, and importantly, the local communities that will benefit. By donating an existing preserve to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy kick started the process of securing the habitat that will make this refuge a success.

This is also a great example of leveraging traditional conservation to achieve a larger outcome. When we acquired the Nellie Hill property 25 years ago, it was originally grazing land for cows. We discovered that there were rare and threatened plant species needing protection. The property itself included rocky cliffs, sloping meadows, oakwood forests, and limestone woodlands. With the help of volunteers, the Conservancy managed the landscape through a suite of strategies, including prescribed burns and invasive species control. We also built and maintained a network of trails to encourage public use of Nellie Hill. In the years since, Nellie Hill has become a haven for both wildlife and people.

By any standard, Nellie Hill was successful conservation. The opportunity to magnify its impact, and rethink the conservation benefits by including it in the Great Thicket, however, is a great example of how reimagining strategies and methods can enhance conservation outcomes. Nellie Hill is now part of a multi-state, large scale, comprehensive effort to achieve natural resource conservation goals that simultaneously yield community benefits – like many conservation initiatives, a true win-win.

Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge© Mark King/The Nature Conservancy

At The Nature Conservancy, we’re often thinking about the urgency of natural resource conservation today. Finding new ways to amplify the impacts of prior actions, as happened, is one way of meeting that challenge. We know that natural spaces protect the plant and wildlife species that live there, can help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a climate changing world, and can also directly help people by providing recreational opportunities, supporting local economies and property values, and enhancing quality of life. And let’s not forget that the refuge created here is not just for cottontail rabbits, but also serves as a refuge for people, providing a place to go where the intangible and profound benefits of visiting a natural place can be enjoyed.

We cannot expect that any level of government – local, state, or federal – will be able to ensure on their own that both people and nature thrive. Finding opportunities for partnership is something that we all need to do much more often. Future success for all of us, including the New England cottontail, will depend on collaborations like Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.

Stuart F. Gruskin is the Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York.

Backyard Birding: Get to Know the Remarkable, Crepuscular American Woodcock

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

The American woodcock is one of the first migratory birds to return north for the season, and the male’s spectacular mating flight is worth a glimpse – but to see it, you need to adopt some of this bird’s more crepuscular habits!

Ever since I first heard the word ‘crepuscular,’ it has been a favorite of mine. It means ‘active at dawn and dusk’ and is often used to describe wildlife activity. Many mammals are crepuscular, and certainly any human outside at these times of day will attest to how magic dawn and dusk are.

The American woodcock is a largely crepuscular, ground-dwelling bird in the shorebird family. Few would doubt that is strange looking, with a long beak, big eyes and a large head. But it is also beautiful in its own right, much as pelicans and toucans are beautiful.

Am Woodcock on Nest

American Woodcock on a nest (Credit: Carlos Guindon/USFWS Contractor)

Strange in More Ways Than One

Like many of its shorebird relatives, the woodcock has a long flexible bill for feeding. It consumes a variety of invertebrates, but especially earthworms. Its large eyes are uniquely positioned on its large head, allowing the woodcock to see in most directions at once, probably very useful for detecting danger while its head is down feeding.

I have seen a woodcock during daylight hours, and it slowly retreated away from me, but with its amazing head and eye configuration, it was watching me every step of the way.

While most of its relatives spend their time at the edges of water bodies, the woodcock lives in and around moist vegetation, especially thickets and regenerating forests adjacent to open areas.

In summer it is found over most of eastern North America, but in fall the northern populations migrate south, and in winter the species is largely found in the southeastern U.S. In spring, woodcock are among the earliest migrants to return to and breed in the northern parts of their range.

While American woodcock are generally quite cryptic, the display flight that the males perform at dusk in spring brings the species into prominence. A male will launch into flight over an open area – circling, fluttering and zig-zagging high in the air, all while his outer wing feathers produce a loud twittering sound.Unfortunately, woodcock populations have declined by about half over the last four decades. The growth of thickets and young forest into mature forest is believed to be the primary reason for their decline. While mature forest is great habitat for many wildlife species, American woodcock and numerous other types of wildlife, can’t live in mature forest. Over the last century there has been a trend toward less disturbance (natural and intentional) of forests, which has resulted in reduced habitat for woodcock and some other declining fauna such as golden-winged warbler and New England cottontail.

young forest

A patch of young forest and shrubbery (Credit: USFWS)

Fortunately there is growing recognition of the need for more young forest in our landscapes. The Young Forest Project promotes thoughtful forest disturbance to create regenerating habitat, and several organizations specifically advocate for American woodcock habitat, such as through The American Woodcock Conservation Plan.

So, there is an introduction to our crepuscular, forest-dwelling ‘shorebird,’ with twittering wing feathers. Now is the season when males are displaying. May they grace moist young forest near you.


At Brave Boat Harbor and Upper Wells, trees had grown too mature to provide habitat for cottontails. Their leafy crowns cut off sunlight, causing ground-covering food plants to die off. Leaving plenty of other middle-aged forest, trees were harvested on less than 5 percent of the forest as part of an effort to manage young forest across 25 acres. The area is now growing into a dense thicket and becoming great habitat for cottontails and other wildlife, such as gray catbird, a type of shrubland bird. Credit: USFWS

Loggers clear 30 acres for cottontail habitat in NY

Check out this story from New York Outdoor News! We recently finished the primary phase of our first private lands project with owner Benny Caoila in Patterson, New York. In March 2015, we harvested small areas of trees on 30 acres to provide space for young trees, shrubs and plants to grow.


Benny Caiola is a real estate developer, but for the next several years, he’s going to be developing some of his land with a different goal in mind — restoration of the New England cottontail rabbit.

If you see rabbits sneaking into your garden or running ahead of your beagles, you are most likely watching the eastern cottontail.

But the eastern variety is actually an import, introduced into New York decades ago to replace a once-populous native, the New England cottontail. Now state and federal wildlife officials are launching a project to restore the New England cottontail to much of its original range, and Caiola and other landowners will be on the front lines of the effort.

Partners (loggers Joe Zarecki and Faun Koplovsky, forester Doug Ramey, Ted Kendziora with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) stand in front of our first private landowner project in New York. Photo courtesy of Benny

Partners (loggers Joe Zarecki and Faun Koplovsky, forester Doug Ramey, Ted Kendziora with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) stand in front of our first private landowner project in New York. Photo courtesy of Benny

Caiola, who lives in Larchmont, Westchester County, owns 300 acres in Patterson, in Putnam County, that adjoins about 1,000 acres of state land. The land is primarily forest that had been logged at some time in the past.

“Doug Ramey from East-West Forestry Associates, whom I’ve used in the past, had reached out to me about a habitat project that was taking place on the adjoining state property,” Caiola said. “He explained to me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting this work and that there was possibly some grant money that was available if I was interested. I told him that I was and he proceeded to set up a meeting with Ted Kendziora from U.S. Fish and Wildlife as well as Doug Little from the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“(Kendziora) explained to me that this type of habitat restoration additionally benefits approximately 40-plus species, like turkey and deer,” he said. “It was pretty much a no-brainer for me.”

The New England cottontail has inhabited parts of New York and New England for thousands of years, but habitat destruction has greatly reduced the numbers and range of the native bunny.

Sure, it doesn't look so great now, but wait a growing season. This place becomes a hotspot for food and shelter for tons of wildlife. Photo courtesy of Benny.

Sure, it doesn’t look so great now, but wait a growing season. This place becomes a hotspot for food and shelter for tons of wildlife. Photo courtesy of Benny.

The eastern cottontail, which to the untrained eye is almost identical to its New England cousin, was introduced to the region in the early 20th Century, and flourished. Despite their similar appearance, the eastern cottontail was better able to adjust to shrinking habitat than its native counterpart, said Meagan Racey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist.

“Biologists believe that their larger eyes and sharper vision lets eastern cottontails venture farther from protective cover while remaining able to spot and evade predators. Eastern cottontails seem better able to survive in the fragmented habitats of southern New England, including open fields, forest edges, small thickets, and even golf courses and suburban lawns,” Racey said. “In many smaller habitat patches, eastern cottontails have replaced New England cottontails. They may simply be able to survive in habitats that New England cottontails cannot use, and they may be better able to find and occupy new habitats as they become available.”

Here's an 'after' example from another one of Ted's projects. Credit: USFWS

Here’s an ‘after’ example from another one of Ted’s projects. Credit: USFWS

The goal of the project is to recreate large tracts of the type of habitat conducive to survival of the New England cottontail rabbit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with state wildlife agencies in several Northeastern states, including New York.

In the Empire State, DEC is working with its federal counterparts to create about 10,000 acres of suitable young forest habitat across parts of Dutchess, Columbia, Putnam and Westchester counties that can sustain more than 28,000 New England cottontails by 2030.

Currently, there are only pockets of the native rabbits east of the Hudson River.

“The habitat conditions the New England cottontail needs are also needed by many other species of wildlife,” said DEC chief wildlife biologist Gordon Batcheller. “There are 100 different species that require young forest or brush land. Bog turtles, whippoorwills, ruffed grouse — all need young forest. So if we create habitat for New England cottontails, we’ll benefit whole other species.

“It’s a core mission of ours to protect these species and ensure they continue into the future as a native New Yorker,” Batcheller said. “Managing for young forests is long term commitment. It needs to become part of who we are and what we do in our own lands. We’re looking to establish long term management in perpetuity. Going forward, this will be standard operating procedure in the Northeast.”

For more information, go to newenglandcottontail.org.