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Norwalk Plus magazine : Norwalk Plus Summer 2008 Published: Jun 4, 2008 - 5:20:47 AM

Restoring nature’s oasis in Norwalk

By Marcia Powell

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Norwalk Seaport Association partner to restore natural biological habitat in the Norwalk islands

Due to heavy recreational use, habitat degradation by nonnative invasive plant species and unchecked animal populations, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has identified the Norwalk Islands and their habitats as one of the 13 most imperiled natural communities in Connecticut. Now, thanks to a long-term partnership between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Norwalk Seaport Association, efforts to restore the natural habitat in the Norwalk Islands are underway.

The Seaport Association, which owns and maintains Sheffield Island Lighthouse, is a recognized Friends organization of the National Wildlife Refuge System, in particular, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in the Norwalk Islands. The ongoing Habitat Restoration and Conservation Project will encompass the 51-acre refuge on Sheffield Island and the 68-acre refuge on Chimon Island.

In October of 2007, a Fish & Wildlife Service team visited Sheffield Island to begin identifying and mapping the location of specific invasive plants (see illustration) and determine a strategy for habitat restoration and conservation. The team included McKinney Refuge Manager Richard Potvin, Facilities Manager Cynthia Coughenour, and Cynthia Boettner, who is coordinator of the Invasive Plant Control Initiative for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge. Potvin, Coughenour and Boettner made a follow-up visit to the Island in March with Outdoor Recreation Manager Ava Kahn and Maintenance Supervisor Sean Healy.

According to Boettner, “We’re focusing on plant populations that are threatening management goals, such as federally- or state-listed species or wildlife habitat. In the case of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, threats to colonial waterbird habitat, migrating songbird habitat or resident wildlife habitat are all of concern. Actions for 2008 include stopping invasive species that are known to be either especially fast-spreading, of regional concern, could particularly threaten the refuge’s management goals, or would be easy to involve volunteers in the survey and control work,” she says.

Among the invasive species that have been targeted on Sheffield Island are mile-a-minute, perennial pepperweed, garlic mustard, Japanese barberry, Asiatic bittersweet and phragmites.

In addition to removing invasive species, Coughenour says, the Fish & Wildlife Service and Seaport Association hope to partner “in improving the habitat by planting native species of plants for use by migratory birds. It is hoped that once we control invasive species, we will be able to attract a long-legged wader colony to the island. It is very important for continuing conservation of these unique birds to prepare habitat to meet their needs if for some reason their current nesting habitat is destroyed or abandoned.”

Susan Snider, the Norwalk Seaport Association executive director, reports that “The forest and scrublands of the Norwalk Islands are recognized as a regionally significant habitat for feeding birds and a vital nesting habitat for migratory birds as well as quality wintering grounds for local waterfowl. For example, Chimon Island has supported as many as 1,200 breeding pairs of herons, egrets and ibises. Among the bird species on Sheffield Island that we hope will be positively affected by this project are the Least Tern, whose population has been diminished, and the Piping Plover, which is on the endangered species list.”

Snider emphasizes that volunteers, working under the direction of Fish & Wildlife Service personnel, will be crucial to the success of the Habitat Restoration and Conservation Project. Volunteers organized by the Seaport Association will be supplemented by five Youth Conservation Corp members (a Fish & Wildlife Service summer employment opportunity for young people ages 16-18) and two leaders who will work on Sheffield island for four weeks.

“It is important that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service partners with the Norwalk Seaport Association to assist us in our conservation mission on the Norwalk Islands,” says Potvin. “These islands have great potential to provide habitat to conserve migratory birds and provide wildlife dependent on recreation, but before we can reach that potential, we must deal with the invaders that have taken over the Norwalk Islands.”

“Wildlife is an important part of our nation’s ecosystem, supporting communities both economically, socially and aesthetically,” says Snider. “The loss of natural habitat endangers wildlife and affects our quality of life. Habitat restoration also has a positive impact on children and adults by broadening their appreciation and awareness of the environment and the outdoors, thereby, increasing self-esteem and community pride. Pride in ourselves and the communities in which we live expands our horizons and encourages us to strive for our goals and become responsible citizens.”

Kahn, who has worked closely with the Seaport Association on a variety of projects, says, “The Norwalk Seaport Association has been an outstanding, welcoming and very active Friends group of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, working with us to conduct environmental education programming, special events, island cleanups and providing island and trail maintenance utilizing volunteers and staff. These things would not be possible without the Seaport Association. They really take care of the island. I believe this has been a win-win relationship for both the Refuge and the Seaport and a great example of what can be accomplished with positive partnerships working together to achieve goals.”

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