Will Tropical Storm Isaias Help Wildlife?

Robert Miller in the New Haven Register

The morning of Tropical Storm Isaias, the sky turned witchy gray-green, “the way it looked in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” said Jim Arigoni, conservation biologist at Deer Pond Farm, the nature sanctuary in Sherman owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Both Arigoni and Cathy Hagadorn, the sanctuary’s executive director, were out in the woods when the storm began to gather. “I said ‘We better get out of Dodge City,’” Hagadorn said.

American woodcock

American woodcock are just one of many kinds of northeastern wildlife that take advantage of brushy regrowing forests to breed and find food./E. Dresser

They retreated, pronto. But the next day, when they tried to return, they couldn’t. Isaias had left its mark. The main access road to the sanctuary — Wakeman Hill Road — was completely blocked by downed tree after downed tree.

Hagadorn parked her car at a southern access point and hiked about a mile-and-a-half along Deer Pond Farms’ trails to its headquarters. She had to skirt the same gauntlet of uprooted trees and fallen limbs to walk to work.

“Getting up here was quite a challenge,” she said.

Isaias, which struck on August 4, closed the sanctuary for nearly all of August. There were at least 150 trees barring the way along sanctuary’s 15 miles of trails.

“If a tree falls in the woods, what do you do?” Hagadorn said.

First, tree crews moved in with chain saws, excavators and bucket trucks to clear the trails. Then, Deer Pond Farm’s volunteers took over, clearing the smaller limbs and left-over brush.

“The job we did was with small debris,” said Michelle Sikorski of Danbury, a volunteer trail monitor at the sanctuary.

“They’d cleared the loop I do,” said Gary Kraft of Brewster, New York, another volunteer. “My job was the small stuff.”

The end result of this intensive clean-up: After being closed for most of August, Deer Pond Farm — its 835 acres straddling the Connecticut-New York line — is open again.

There is carnage aplenty to see — tree trunks twisted and shattered, black locusts and wild cherry and oaks scattered and laid low.

But there’s also woods and wetlands and meadows and cleared trails for rambling. Sikorski said that’s important as coronavirus constraints — home working, home schooling, and social distancing — stay in effect.

“People need nature,” she said.

But sanctuary visitors will have to readjust themselves. Isaias will change the look of Deer Pond Farm for long into the future.

Hagadorn said this shouldn’t be seen as something unnatural. Wild winds and downed trees have been a part of Connecticut ever since forest sprouted across the state’s landscape.

Ecologists can see Isaias, in some ways, as a regenerative force.

When trees fall, there’s no longer a canopy of leaves blocking the sun. The new clearings can sprout and start new growth. A host of creatures — insects, amphibians, birds and mammals — need that open, brushy space to thrive.

New England cottontail

Young forests in Connecticut, whether caused by storms or conservationists' habitat improvement projects, provide food and cover for the New England cottontail, a rare regional rabbit./NHFG

Connecticut’s woods, in general, are a mature forest in need of selective renewal. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is a partner in the Young Forest Habitat Initiative, which hopes to encourage creating such forest openings.

Hagadorn, Deer Pond Farms’ director, said the snags are a boon to some resident species at the preserve. “They present opportunities for woodpeckers and squirrels,” she said.

The storm also took down older trees, trees with some unseen rot, or trees that had rooted in shallow soils with ledge underneath — trees with suspect futures.

More than half the trees Isaias damaged at Deer Pond Farm were black locusts, which grow tall and spindly. They’re native to the Appalachian woodlands and are officially listed as an invasive species in Connecticut. (Another train of thought is they may be just part of a changing forest and part of the Northeast Highlands ecosystem that runs from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, smack through Sherman.)

The trick in the future will be to watch the new clearings. Invasive species — barberry, bittersweet, porcelain berry, autumn olive, garlic mustard and winged euonymus — like openings in disturbed ground.

“We’re going to have to carefully monitor these places,” Hagadorn said.

Also, Deer Pond Farm is not exactly a wild place. Kathy and Walter Wriston, who owned the property and donated it to Connecticut Audubon Society, had managed the woods carefully.

The Wristons left brush piles behind. Those raggedy heaps aren’t collection depots. They have a purpose, providing refuge and shelter for birds and animals throughout the year. Isaias has created ample opportunity for more, plus another lesson.

“Leave a little mess,” Hagadorn said.