Norwalk Land Trust to clean up Hoyt Island
Updated 11:04 am, Thursday, June 14, 2018
NORWALK — Paddling a kayak toward Hoyt Island, Village Creek resident and former Norwalk Land Trust board member Charlie Taney points upward into the sky at a bald eagle flying away from the island and returning to its nest on nearby Wilson Point.
“There’s one of the eagles up there, a bald eagle! See them land, the white tail? If you look at the top of the tree, that’s the white head,” says Taney, grabbing quickly for his binoculars as the eagle settles into its nest. “The last two years, they raised one eagle per year. This year, they’ve got twins.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Taney and land trust members gave Hearst Connecticut Media a tour of the 3-acre island situated at the mouth of Village Creek. The island was reached by kayak.
Over the last decade, Taney said he’s identified 165 bird species in the area of Hoyt Island, which was deeded to the Norwalk Land Trust in 1979.
While the island has always been home to birds, the land trust’s goal of designating it an official bird sanctuary is closer to reality with a $100,000 state grant to clean up contaminants left from a fire.
Cleaning up toxins, invasive plant species
In 2008, a fire sparked by vandals destroyed a house on the island, leaving behind the foundation, chimney, piping and an old bathtub as well as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been shown to cause cancer in animals and affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The state grant will be used to remove the foundation, debris and toxins, and restore the area to its natural state, even if the island will be an official bird sanctuary, posted off limits to people.
“Wildlife need as much protection as humans do,” said Norwalk Land Trust President D. Seeley Hubbard. “Having a bird sanctuary here with those contaminants here would inflict certain health problems with the wildlife.”
That wildlife also includes horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapin turtles, raccoons, possums and coyotes, and whitetail deer. Two fawns were seen on the island Wednesday afternoon.
Removing the toxic materials, Hubbard said, will allow the land trust to restore the environment and establish a preserve for migratory birds.
The Land Trust already has done much work to make the Hoyt Island more attractive to wildlife. Last year, interns removed Winged Eunoyomos, one of a number of invasive plant species on the island. And while birds love Oriental bittersweet, the plant can act as a strangler vine and kill trees, said Sarah Graber, Land Trust vice president, stewardship chairwoman and master gardener.
She points to low-bush wild blueberries and the numerous oak trees, which are ideal for drawing birds to the island. Both provide food.
“Tons of oak trees and that’s really one of the best things for birds,” Graber said. “They have more caterpillars than any other trees, and that’s what their young eat. They can’t eat seeds yet and the caterpillars are soft.”
‘Remarkable piece of habitat’
Taney considers Hoyt Island an ideal bird sanctuary given its different ecosystems, which range from saltwater marsh to wooded upland areas.
“That’s why you get 165 (species) because this habitat is a combination of land-based birds and water-based birds and that’s why it’s such a remarkable piece of habitat,” Taney said.
Birds seen in the vicinity of Hoyt Island and Village Creek range from the uncommon red-throated loon, little blue heron, Swainson’s thrush and clapper rail to the more common belted fisher, Baltimore oriole, ruby throated hummingbird and barn swallow, according to Taney.
He thanked state State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, of Norwalk, for helping secure the $100,000 grant to remediate the environmental contamination on the island.
Duff described Hoyt Island as “one of the few remaining areas of Fairfield County shoreline that is not developed.”
“Thanks to the hard work of the Norwalk Land Trust and this investment by the State of Connecticut, the island will be preserved for years to come — allowing indigenous wildlife and vegetation to exist untouched,” Duff said. “I am proud to have worked with the Norwalk Land Trust and Gov. Malloy to return this jewel of the Sound to its natural state as a nature preserve.”
Graber said the land trust had raised roughly $40,000 — far short of the $130,000 needed for the cleanup. The trust is working with HRP Associates, Inc. of Stamford to perform the environmental remediation, which land trust officials hope to see undertaken this fall.
Founded in 1973, the Norwalk Land Trust now stewards 29 parcels of land, totaling approximately 100 acres. That includes the 16-acre Farm Creek Nature Preserve in Rowayton and a 5.5-acre conservation easement at the historic White Barn Theater property in the Cranbury section of Norwalk. Fundraising to purchase the entire 15.4-acre parcel at the latter location is currently under way.
Still, Hoyt Island is unique for the land trust.
“It’s our only island and it was actually, I think, one of the first properties that we acquired,” said board member Mary Verel.
She credits the late Roger Willcox, a former officer and director of the land trust, for helping the trust acquire Hoyt Island and working to preserve it. Willcox, who lived in Village Creek, died in August 2017 at age 97.
Rich human history
Long a home to birds and other wildlife, Hoyt Island also has its human history.
Charles Yost, a lifelong Norwalker whose lineage can be traced to the town's settlement, discovered that his great-great-grandfather, Charles B. Smith, once owned Hoyt Island. The Yost family lineage can traced to the Puritan rebel Richard Smith, who in 1663 acquired a sizable parcel of land along the Nissequogue River on Long Island — now known as Smithtown, N.Y. Four generations later, Charles B. Smith left Long Island in 1865 to start an oyster business on the other side of the Sound.
He soon began acquiring various properties and oyster beds along the Norwalk shoreline. One of those properties was an islet known as Hoyt's Island, which Smith purchased for $600 from David Hoyt in 1876. Smith later moved his family into a small house situated in the middle the island, surrounded by towering trees and shrubbery.
The three-bedroom Smith homestead stood for more than a century until 2008 when trespassers burned down the old house.