Texas Cattle Ranch Connects to CT Cottontails

By Peter Marteka, Hartford Courant

There doesn't seem to be much in common between a patch of woodlands in southeastern Connecticut and a cattle ranch in Texas.

But in 1975, New London native turned Texas cattle rancher Morgan R. Chaney bequeathed 235 acres to the Connecticut Audubon Society, with the land becoming the environmental group's largest sanctuary. The lone direction Chaney left for the group was to use the acres as a wildlife sanctuary and nature preserve.
Not much has changed in the 42 years since the society took over the land — now known as the Morgan R. Chaney Sanctuary — near Montville in the southeast corner of the state. An old hunting cabin and huge stone root cellar as well as granite rock foundations still peer out of the forest. There are views across the sparkling waters of Lake Konomoc. Trails twist past huge rock formations and ravines.

As those trails twist past old stone walls and patches of mountain laurel, visitors reach a huge clearing. Tree stumps dot the landscape and piles of brush reach several feet high. Huge white pines tower over the recently cleared forest opening. Not what one would expect at a sanctuary, but it's all for a good reason.

Society officials have created a shrub habitat where 10 acres of forest once stood in order to open up an ecosystem that protects a half-dozen rare birds, including the blue-winged warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, eastern towhee, brown thrasher, field sparrow and indigo bunting, as well as a rare mammal — the New England cottontail rabbit.

It's a bit jarring to see at first, but signs on trees point out the importance of the new habitat that will be "dominated by young trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers... It may look messy at first, but soon this area will provide food, nesting spots and hiding cover for many wild animals."

A parking area off Fire Street will bring visitors to the newly cleared forest quickly. On the edge of the field is an old stone hunting cabin built into a hillside with huge granite foundations nearby. Another fascinating manmade structure is a huge root cellar that first appears to be a cave in the hill. The walls and roof of the six-foot-high cellar is made with huge stones and goes about 20 feet into the hillside. Barely a sound from outside can be heard from inside the stone walls.

None of the trails are marked at the sanctuary, but they are a combination of old roads through the woods and well-traveled, easy-to-follow paths. The Turner Road entrance takes visitors past a large swamp and through ravines while looping to the new shrub habitat. There are nice views of Lake Konomoc, part of New London's water supply system, from the beginning of the trail.

"The society hopes to assign a biologist to work the sanctuary this summer," read a 1975 Hartford Courant article about the donation, "to chart trails and conduct tours and to study the many bird species that congregate there during summer months." With the recent restoration work, it sounds like the birds and mammals are still in good hands.

To visit: Travel east on Route 85 from the roundabout at the Salem Four Corners for 4 miles and turn left on Turner Road. The Sanctuary is on the left, just past the intersection with Ridge Hill Road. There is also a small parking area on Fire Road off Chesterfield Road which can be accessed from Route 85 west of Turner Road. Download a map of the sanctuary.

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