Clam River Reserve, Berkshires

Patience Pays When Making a Home for Cottontails and Other Wildlife

"On a project like this one, patience is key," said Doug Bruce, stewardship manager for the Berskshire Natural Resources Council. Bruce stood in a brand new 25-acre habitat project on BNRC’s 550-acre Clam River Reserve. "Sometimes you need to think about things on a natural time scale rather than a human time scale," he added.

Before habitat management took place on BNRC site.

Before habitat management, there was scant cover for cottontails or any other wildlife beneath the middle-aged forest./M. Piché

"No one likes to be surprised, so before timber harvesting began here, we talked to all the neighbors about what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how it would help wildlife" – creatures ranging from reptiles to birds to mammals, including New England cottontails, which have been found in the recent past within dispersal distance of the site. "We explained to people that this clearcut would look terrible for two or three years, but then it would be beautiful."

Beautiful in terms of the dense, vigorously regrowing young trees of many different species, as well as the improved opportunities for birdwatchers, hunters, and hikers to encounter more and a greater diversity of wildlife on the site.

Marianne Piché, looking at the recently cleared land with Bruce, said, "This was my first habitat project here in western Massachusetts." Piché is a habitat biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, also known as MassWildlife. A specialist in promoting and planning habitat projects for New England cottontails, she began her work in the Southern Berkshire Focus Area in 2010 by contacting land trusts in the region, including BNRC, and asking if they would consider using some of their holdings to make much-needed habitat for New England cottontails.

Logging commences at BNRC habitat site.

Timber harvesting took place in 2013 and 2014./M. Piché

Piché works closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to bring financial assistance to private landowners who take on habitat-management projects that benefit wildlife. (NRCS funds many private-lands habitat projects benefiting the New England cottontail throughout the species’ six-state range from eastern New York to southern Maine.)

Piché recognized the important publicity that young forest habitat and the New England cottontail restoration effort would receive in the Berkshires following a major project by a respected land trust like BNRC. Piché got together with BNRC’s consulting forester, Peter Tucker, and with Kate Parsons and Nick Pitel of NRCS, and identified a good spot for this type of project. Following the planning and groundwork, the informational programs and explanations – and plenty of patience – timber harvesting took place on the Clam River parcel during 2013 and 2014.

Doug Bruce and Marianne Piche check out new aspen growing on BNRC habitat project.

Aspen shoots, still holding leaves in late autumn, quickly pushed up from harvested trees' root systems, jump-starting young forest on the site./C. Fergus

After just one growing season, Bruce and Piché were heartened by the flush of new young aspens that had sprouted from the root systems of harvested mature aspen trees on the site. Some of the sprouts already topped 6 feet tall. Acorns were scattered throughout the tract, dropped by red oak that had been left as seed trees to help regenerate the cutover area as early successional forest, providing habitat for New England cottontails and other young forest wildlife for a span of 10 to 20 years.

"On this particular site, we had a core area of existing old-field habitat to organize the project around," Bruce noted. That core consisted of two former house lots, never built upon and totaling 7 acres, growing up in weeds, briars, and seedling pines. The two lots were surrounded by older upland forest dominated by softwood trees, including white pines, as well as various hardwoods. Beneath the trees, ground cover was minimal, like that in many other middle-aged woodlands in the Berkshires. At Clam River, among the hardwoods were the northern red oaks that would purposely be left uncut – trees that had fruited so abundantly during autumn 2014, providing a seed source for the new forest.

Male eastern towhee in young forest during spring.

As well as cottontails, eastern towhees and many other songbirds will find new habitat on the Clam River project./B. Thompson USFWS

Tom Ryan, a service forester for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, also came to check out the habitat project. Ryan works with NRCS conservationists to ensure that appropriate levels of funding for tree clearing are provided for different projects; he’s also responsible for issuing permits for timber harvests. He explained that the Massachusetts Forest Cutting Practices Act required that the Clam River project receive a permit, since it represented a commercial timber harvest that would exceed 25,000 board feet of lumber or 50 cords of firewood. Loggers on the site harvested white pine sawlogs as well as firewood sold to consumers.

Before issuing the permit, Ryan had inspected the site – which features flat to gently sloping terrain, including a swampy area – to make sure it would regenerate trees after cutting and that the wetlands would not be harmed during logging. Ryan noted that wood harvested in the Berkshires is also used for making pallets, for paper pulp, and for bark mulch and chips.

Ryan also liked the looks of the young aspens. "I expect a lot of blackberry shrubs will also come up here," he said, "and maybe gray birch, plus quite a bit of oak from the seed trees that were left." Other potential species he thought might grow on the site were chokecherry and pin cherry (their fruit provides food for wildlife from birds to bears), black cherry (another wildlife food source and a high-value hardwood much sought after for products such as fine furniture), paper birch, red maple, white ash, and white pine. Ryan noted that deer densities are low in this part of Massachusetts, so deer browsing should not retard tree regrowth. Added Piché: "I can see snowshoe hares doing well in the regrowing cut, and also bobcats."

Logger workshop at BNRC habitat site.

Habitat projects like the one on the Clam River Preserve are great settings for workshops to teach loggers how to best create young forest./M. Piché

Said BNRC’s Bruce, "Hunters in this area are definitely behind projects like this one. We allow hunting on all our properties, and this site will provide food and cover for deer, ruffed grouse, and woodcock." He added, "I’m a birdwatcher, so I did a monitoring point in each of the old fields before the project got underway," noting which species were present; he did the same thing in the woods that were scheduled to be harvested. "This coming spring and the year after, I’m sure I’ll be hearing a lot more bird songs here," Bruce said, "including some made by a whole suite of species that currently don’t use the site" – birds like eastern towhees, field sparrows, brown thrashers, and blue-winged warblers, all Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Massachusetts, as is the New England cottontail.

New England cottontails that disperse into the habitat project should find plenty of leafy summer food in the 7 acres of vegetation on the former house lots, which will be mowed every few years to keep them in an old-field state. In winter the rabbits will shelter in brushpiles and among the thickly regrowing young trees in the area where timber was harvested; when feeding, they’ll browse on bark and woody twigs.

Bruce and his BNRC colleagues plan to host springtime bird walks through the new young forest, and they hope to set up an interpretive trail explaining how this type of habitat is important to so many kinds of wildlife.

Signage helps educate and inform site visitors.

Signage on New England cottontail habitat projects helps inform and educate visitors./C. Fergus

The project has already served as a vehicle for explaining young forest management to loggers: In 2014, BNRC hosted a workshop on the site with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, MassWildlife, and NRCS. The workshop demonstrated the type and extent of tree clearing required to create young forest. It also highlighted the construction of brushpiles (not a typical component of a logging job) to provide cover and protection for wildlife like New England cottontails and small rodents.

The Berkshire Natural Resources Council is a non-profit land trust whose mission is to protect and preserve the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the Berkshires for public benefit and enjoyment. Like the rest of BNRC’s holdings, the Clam River Reserve is open to the public for passive recreation, including hunting, hiking, and nature study. BNRC’s Bruce and MassWildlife’s Piché hope that someday soon, visitors will have a chance to observe and enjoy New England cottontails in the freshly renewed young forest, along with the many other kinds of wildlife that will share the habitat.

Funding and Partners

Berskshire Natural Resources Council, MassWildlife, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute.

How to Visit

The Clam River Reserve is best accessed from the Sandisfield Town Hall Annex at 66 Sandisfield Road. To see the habitat project, go west on Sandisfield Road (Route 57) for 1.1 miles to Hammertown Road (look for the Sandisfield Arts Center on the right near the corner), turn onto Hammertown Road, and continue northeast for 0.8 mile. Park at the pull-off at the "End of Winter Maintenance" sign. The habitat area is 200 yards to the southwest along Hammertown Road.