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Habitat Spotlight
Grasslands in Connecticut


Bobolinks are ground nesting birds that rely on grassland habitats.
Photographed by Tommy McCarthy.

By Tommy McCarthy, Environmental Educator

Exploring a natural grassland in the springtime is a unique experience. Different from the nature we are used to, in our predominantly forested region. Light fog blankets a grassland as the sun rises, diffusing the golden light in a beautiful way. Dewdrops adorn tall grasses and wildflowers. Spiderwebs woven among tall blades of grass also hold drops of dew, appearing to be elaborate beaded necklaces. Birds welcome the light by singing songs that go unheard in the forest, and near constant rustling in the tall grasses hints at several other forms of life that go largely unseen.

Grasslands are a type of habitat you may not associate with Connecticut. Today, it is true that most of our natural areas are dominated by young forest. Around 50% of Ridgefield and Wilton is covered in forest, while grassland covers less than 2% (not including lawns or turf, as they are not suitable as grassland habitat). Yet as we walk on paths through our forests, we are often reminded of the not-so-distant past. Stonewalls tell the story of European settlers arriving in New England and using the land for agriculture. Many of us are aware that old-growth forest was cleared by settlers to make way for croplands and grazing pastures. These woodlands full of massive trees were impressive ecosystems that took centuries to develop, and though we may mourn their disappearance from time to time, we don’t often think of what ecological marvels may have existed alongside them - like large grasslands.

New England was still likely largely forested when settlers first arrived, but Southern New England in particular was described as having some extensive open areas and numerous smaller clearings. We don’t have an accurate record of what the land looked like that far into the past, but there was certainly more grassland habitat than there is today for a variety of reasons. Grasslands in our region would have been the result of natural occurrences that we don’t typically allow to happen anymore. Wildfires, flooding, and even beaver activity are things we seek to control or put a stop to, since they often interfere with areas humans have developed. Wildfires created grasslands, as grasses are the first plants to colonize a burned area. Extreme floods could kill trees and create grasslands in a similar way, and beavers create ponds that eventually dry up and turn into meadows once the beavers leave. Connecticut’s native tribes also managed the land in their own way, and were known for using fire to clear areas for a variety of reasons. The way they used the land created a mosaic of different habitats over a long period of time, and grasslands were a significant part of that.


Nowadays however, grassland habitats are a rarity in our state. Old farmland has turned into forest over the past century or so, and without unchecked wildfires, flooding, beavers, or management, grasslands have diminished. Twenty-five different species of animal in Connecticut which are listed as state endangered, threatened, or special concern, are species that fully depend on the existence of suitable grassland habitat. If grasslands became fully absent from our state, many of these species would soon follow. So what can we do to ensure that our region does not lose this overlooked but rich part of its natural history?

One way we can help to preserve grasslands is by supporting local conservation organizations like the Ridgefield Conservation Commission and the Wilton Land Trust. Donating or volunteering helps them manage local preserves in a way that benefits wildlife and preserves biodiversity in a range of different habitats. Larger organizations like the Connecticut Audubon Society also do a lot of work to create and manage grassland habitat that is suitable for birds. Aside from supporting these organizations, there are also things you can do as an individual! Citizen science is a fun and engaging way to contribute to the conservation of habitat and the wildlife that uses it. eBird and iNaturalist are two great examples of this - both are community science apps that allow people to record what they see in nature, and submit it as valuable data that can be used by professionals. Visiting an area that you think might be important grassland habitat and recording the species you see could lead to that area being recognized as especially worth protecting or managing!


If you’re feeling particularly inspired by all this, you might even consider managing part of your own property as a wild meadow. You could have a beautiful preserve flourishing in your own backyard with a mowed path through it or around the edges. Creating patches of grassland habitat like this can benefit grassland birds especially, since they need places to stop and rest during migration. Suburban lawns and forests just don’t cut it for many species - even small meadows can be a great boon to them as they make their journeys. There are great resources available on how to make this happen - one that I found was the book “Lawns to Meadows” by Owen Wormser. The Pollinator Pathway website provides helpful information too. These resources do well to address concerns you might have when considering a meadow, so I highly recommend checking them out.


To close, I would encourage anyone reading this to find a grassland habitat to visit and explore. They truly are uniquely beautiful places, and experiencing it for yourself is the best way to come to appreciate it. If I had to pick one place for everyone to visit, it would be the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge which is about an hour and a half away in New York. It is the largest grassland preserve for miles around at 597 acres, and a great example of a successfully preserved and maintained grassland ecosystem. It is worth the drive any time of year, as there is always beautiful wildlife around to observe!


Female Northern Harrier hunting over the Shawangunk Grasslands. One of the grassland dependent species that is listed as endangered in the state of Connecticut.
Photographed by Tommy McCarthy.



Read more Notes From A Naturalist...

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