A walk in the woods: Earthplace offers new paths to nature
Updated 7:00 pm, Thursday, October 1, 2015
It’s clear to see that Tony McDowell, executive director of Earthplace, values an opportunity to get from behind his desk and take a walk in the woods. Following the trails that cover the greater part of the nature preserve’s property off Woodside Lane, he appreciates being outdoors on this early fall day — as well as to share his enthusiasm for the slice of nature that he stewards.
“Basically, Westport is a densely populated environment,” he said, “so having 70 acres in the middle of it is very good for ecological reasons.”
And the opportunity for visitors to explore the Earthplace woodlands expands this weekend as two new trails through the preserve are opened, coinciding with the annual Earthplace Festival on Sunday.
“A lot of people use the trails for both exercise and a peaceful setting, so we tried to expand the circumference of the circle,” he said, with the addition of the Wolf and Fox Tail Trails.
About a year ago, a committee made of up of staff and volunteers, including landscapers, master gardeners and arborists, began work on a sanctuary management plan. The two new trails — which complement the preserve’s six other trails through diverse terrain — resulted from the group’s planning.
People familiar with the Swamp Loop walk, along Stony Brook, should enjoy the expansion of the path to the northwest, designated as the Wolf Trail. “It’s really a natural trail made by game, so really we didn’t have to do too much,” McDowell said, noting that it is marked on either side with wood pieces as a guide for hikers since it can sometimes be hard to follow, especially in the fall.
The trail’s name is inspired by a stout and sturdy oak tree of exceptional age that stands tall along the trail by an old stone wall dating from the land’s farming past. “Everything around here was farmed,” McDowell said, but this tree was spared clearing. “It’s a pretty cool specimen. It’s been here a while.”
“We call it a wolf tree,” he said. “It’s a lone wolf.”
The trail leads out to the farthest side of a wide-open area known as the Meadow, skirting it on the north end before coming out to join the High Wood Trail.
Heading back toward the eastern side of the preserve, different terrain and habitat can be experienced along the new Fox Tail Trail, which heads through the forest. Here, deer are taking naps amid the leaves beneath a canopy of tall, straight birch and maple trees, while — in some secret spots — rare Eastern Box Turtles made a nest.
The Earthplace staff recently witnessed six of these tiny turtles hatch from eggs. The baby turtles were photographed, but left to live in their safe sanctuary.
“One of things we aim to protect is native species, and habitats for small animals and birds,” McDowell said. “The native species attracts insects and small animals that feed on them, so it’s really an important part of the food chains.”
He noted that when assessments were done of the area by experts, they found more native species living in what is known as Raccoon Swamp, down along the Swamp Loop, than any other area. “That makes sense because nobody walks through the swamp,” he said.
These special habitats left undisturbed, even in small ways, play a key role in helping wildlife and vegetation survive.
“Fallen trees or dead trees standing (are) absolutely a wonderful habitat for chipmunks and insects,” he said. “And these are our best study point for kids.”
The Earthplace Festival, which also will feature crafts, games and activities, is Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children. For more about the nature preserve, visit its website at www.earthplace,org .