Boyd Woods Audubon Sanctuary, Western Connecticut

Bringing Back Birdsong and Cottontails

In 1995, an heir of Margery Boyd gave the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society (LHAS) a beautiful 102-acre tract a mile and a half south of the town of Litchfield in western Connecticut. The property, Twin Brook Farm, was graced with meadows, thickets, vernal ponds, rock outcroppings, and woods – plenty of woods. LHAS designated the property the Boyd Woods Audubon Sanctuary. One of three LHAS sanctuaries, it is now a popular destination for hikers and wildlife-watchers.

Building brushpiles for wildlife

Building brushpiles for wildlife at Boyd Woods Audubon Sanctuary.

Debbie Martin and her husband Richard are LHAS members who help manage the sanctuary. She explains that Margery Boyd lived on Twin Brook Farm from 1926 until 1992. An avid birder, Boyd kept daily records of every bird she saw. Says Martin, “Margery’s birding diary shows that many kinds of birds that need shrubland and young forest were common during the period when her property was reverting from farmland to forest.”

By the time LHAS acquired the land, it was 90 percent wooded.

“The woods were beautiful, but very quiet,” Martin says. “It was obvious that as middle-aged and mature trees had taken over, many species of birds that Margery recorded had disappeared.” To add diversity to the landscape, in 2005 LHAS had a 5-acre clearcut done, a project supported by funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). “Half of the cut area was allowed to grow back in shrubs,” Martin says, “and the other half was planted in conifers. Before long, a variety of birds found and occupied the cut-over area. Folks started hearing and seeing chestnut-sided warblers, blue-winged warblers, eastern towhees, field sparrows, and many other birds that need thick habitat.”

Cottontail rabbits were also common. Pellet surveys revealed that these were eastern cottontails, a species that is characteristic of brushy habitat but is not native to Connecticut.

Helping New England Cottontails

In 2012, when LHAS was approached about creating habitat for the New England cottontail, the region’s native rabbit, many of the society’s members strongly objected, mainly on aesthetic grounds. “We'd heard that a clearcut of 25 acres or larger was required,” Martin says, “and after visiting New England cottontail habitat projects in neighboring towns, where timber had been harvested, we were horrified by what we saw: treetops, logs, and huge piles of brush left strewn all over the place. Boyd Woods was a lovely, peaceful spot. We didn't want that kind of a mess on our property.”

Habitat management work in progress

Out of the mess and chaos of a timber harvest will quickly arise fresh young forest and shrubland needed by many birds, mammals, and reptiles.

But LHAS members began to see things differently the more they talked to biologists and foresters with NRCS and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We learned about the threatened New England cottontail, and about all the other species of wildlife that are also struggling due to the disappearance of young forest environments,” Martin recalls. Connecticut has identified more than 50 Species of Greatest Conservation Need that require young forest or shrubland habitat. “On that list were many of the birds that Margery Boyd had once counted as common. We realized, then, that we could help bring them back to Boyd Woods. As an Audubon Society, committed to managing our sanctuary for the preservation of wildlife, how could we not participate in this project?” Martin adds, “A turning point came when we were told that we could cut as little as 10 to 15 acres, and not 25. Suddenly, we couldn't wait to get started.”

In 2014, LHAS clearcut 8 acres to the west of the shrubland/conifer habitat that had been created in 2005. In the winter of 2015, 4 more acres were cut to the east. To continuously maintain a young forest environment for wildlife in years to come, LHAS committed to managing shrubby areas through periodic mowing and controlling non-native invasive shrubs as needed.

Indigo bunting

Indigo buntings are avidly using the new habitat at Boyds Woods./T. Berriman

Now, says Martin, it’s impossible to think of the freshly cut areas as “damaged” or “devastated” by the management actions that have taken place. “Although they still appear somewhat messy,” she says, “when spring arrives these new habitats are full of life. Towhees and fox sparrows sing from the brush piles.” (Workers constructed three large brush piles on each logged acre.) “Indigo buntings, field sparrows, and catbirds join the chorus along the edges of the cut areas. On the annual LHAS Evening Woodcock Walk, an amazing number of American woodcock sang and performed courtship flights over the recently expanded openings.”

Martin reports that the renewed summer sunshine is encouraging the growth of plants and wildflowers that previously hadn't been present. “Many of them are beautiful, as well as beneficial to butterflies and bees. In autumn, many plants go to seed or produce berries, yielding excellent food for wildlife.”

Tracks in winter’s snow demonstrate that “a variety of animals are visiting the clearcuts, with some, including eastern cottontails, burrowing into the brush piles,” Martin says. New England cottontails have been confirmed on another preserve only three miles from Boyd Woods Sanctuary. “We're confident that when New England cottontails show up here, they, too, will find this habitat accommodating.”

More Than a Pretty Place to Take a Walk

Martin adds that Boyd Woods is no longer just a pretty, tranquil place in which to take a walk.

New England cottontail

In time, New England cottontails should move into the new habitat at Boyd Woods./T. Barnes USFWS

“As we've created this mix of conifers, shrubland, and young forest habitat – with a total of 17 acres cut between 2005 and 2015 – we’ve truly become a wildlife sanctuary. During this process, LHAS has learned so much about the importance of land management practices, and we're witnessing the benefits of this work with each passing season.”

Margery Boyd wanted her land to be used for education and the enjoyment of nature. “Today, we have a perfect opportunity to fulfill her wishes in this promising new habitat,” Martin says. “A meandering path and two benches invite sanctuary visitors to check out the regenerating cut-over areas. Guided walks will also be offered in this outdoor classroom.”

LHAS members love the peaceful older woodlands. “But as we watch Margery's birds return, and await the arrival of the New England cottontail,” Martin says, “we readily admit that the 'messy clearcuts' that now diversify our landscape were the best thing we could have done at Boyd Woods Sanctuary.”

In April 2015, the New England Chapter of The Wildlife Society awarded Certificates of Recognition to Debbie Martin, Rich Martin, and John Baker of the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society for their oversight and promotion of New England cottontail projects. These awards celebrate the significant wildlife conservation and outreach efforts made by these outstanding volunteers. Wrote Lisa Wahle, the biologist who nominated the LHAS members, “Not only did they oversee their habitat management projects and troubleshoot problems that arose, they have made the effort to learn about and articulate the importance of young forest to wildlife. They continue to be passionate advocates for this type of habitat management through their writing, interviews, and presentations.”

Partners and Funding

Litchfield Hills Audubon Society, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Wildlife Management Institute