Crescent Beach, Two Lights, and Kettle Cove State Parks, Cumberland County
Making Habitat on a Spectacular Coast
These parks are a haven for humans with their shifting light and changing weather, their rocky headlands, their forests and brushy fields alive with wildlife. Bunnies probably don’t spend much time looking at the view: They’re hunkered down in shrub thickets, or feeding busily in grassy strips mowed in old fields. This area hosts what is probably Maine’s largest population of New England cottontails. (Watch one in action here.)
If, on a summertime hike at Crescent Beach or Kettle Cove, you happen onto someone in a brown uniform riding an all-terrain-vehicle pulling a mowing machine behind, don’t conclude that they’re trying to groom a lawn. Rather, they’re mowing 10-foot-wide strips around the edges of shrubland habitat, so that rabbits can creep out and feed on the succulent new growth of grasses and herbs – while remaining able to dart back beneath the nearby shrubs should a hawk or coyote threaten. Periodic mowing stimulates the growth of plants that cottontails relish, such as goldenrod, rushes, clover, and plantain.
In 2011 managers mowed approximately one-half mile of cottontail feeding strips in old fields. They broadcast clover seed in the new-mown strips to encourage the growth of this favorite cottontail food plant. In the future, managers may widen hiking trails that meander through shrubland habitat, which will spur the growth along their margins of food-providing greenery.
In brushy areas, managers are gradually reducing the number of non-native invasive shrubs, while planting or expanding clumps of more-desirable native shrubs. Some of the native shrubs that rabbits feed on or use for cover are blackberry, dogwood, juniper, hawthorn, sumac, alder, and bayberry. (Invasive shrubs infesting park lands include honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, and black swallowwort.)
More Young Forest Needed
In many shrub patches, trees have pushed above the low growth. Conservationists want to slow down those trees before they shade out and eventually kill the shrubs that rabbits need for food and cover. One way to suppress trees is to girdle them: cut a band of woody tissue around the base of the trunk, which kills the upright stem without harming the root system. Girdling aspen trees – aspens are fairly common in the three parks – causes their root systems to send up hundreds of new small stems, creating the dense young-forest habitat that cottontails need. The same technique also works for native shrubs such as sumacs and alders.
Another relatively simple way to increase the total amount of cottontail habitat is to let shrubs take over old fields. At Crescent Beach and Kettle Cove, several fields have been mowed in recent years to keep them in grass and weeds. Over the next several years, those fields will be allowed to grow up in shrubs.
The local rabbit population will expand into the shrublands. And many other kinds of wildlife will find homes there as well: Eastern towhees, white-throated sparrows, and American woodcock, short-tailed weasels and bobcats, and smooth green snakes and wood turtles.
Hiking trails wind through prime areas of New England cottontail habitat; visitors may spot cottontails, especially early in the morning and during evening hours when the rabbits venture out to feed. Find information on the parks at http://www.maine.gov/doc/parks/programs/index.html or contact the parks manager at 207-799-5871.
For more information on cottontails, contact Kelly Boland, New England Cottontail Restoration Coordinator (Maine), 207-646-9226 x 32, email@example.com.
Funding and Partners
Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute