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Ecology Under the Sun

Coastal Ecology Under the Sun

Connecticut’s shoreline parks and beaches are a paradise for birders, prowlers of tide pools and saline creeks, and nature in general. Right now is a great time to go.

The opening of the new multi-million dollar nature center at Meigs Point at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison highlights the fact that the state’s beachfront parks offer many more attractions than swimming and sunning. A bevy of top state officials, led by the governor, cut the ribbon on center, highlighting its importance. It is a major improvement over the old center, housed in a quaint farmhouse.

Hammonasset is pretty much the crown jewel of the state park system and the largest beach, spanning more than two miles on Long Island Sound and 5,000 feet along the river of the same name, occupying 1,000 acres. The first state park in Connecticut, Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, which draws multitudes of New Yorkers, is smaller, covering barely more than 235 acres. Silver Sands State Park, almost 300 acres in Milford, is low on visitor amenities but known for its offshore Charles Island, linked by a sandbar exposed at low tide. In East Lyme, Rocky Neck State Park covers 710 acres, some of it fronted on the water by spectacular rock formations that give the neighborhood its name.

Visitors who want to explore Rocky Neck’s geology do not have to venture far from the large stone pavilion located near the beach. Directly beneath the pavilion are large outcrops of granitic gneiss, metamorphic rock formed by intense heat and pressure. The granitic gneiss exposed at Rocky Neck State Park is part of the Potter Hill Granite Gneiss dating back to the Proterozoic Eon, which ended 542 million years ago.

This gray, coarse-grained gneiss is irregular in texture with patches and streaks of pink granite. Likewise, there are lenses of orange-pink microcline feldspar. Other minerals present in the Potter Hill Granite Gneiss include quartz, garnet, tourmaline, and biotite. The massive boulders strewn around Meigs Point make it a geological highlight of Hammonasset. From fine silt to cottage-size boulders, the sediment that totally covers the Earth’s ancient bedrock at Hammonasset was transported there by glaciers during the Ice Ages.

Sherwood Island and Silver Sands lack picturesque rock formations but have interesting geology in their own right. The sands of Sherwood Island are largely red and black, the red being garnet and the black a mineral called magnetite. A geological highlight of Silver Sands is the half-mile sandbar that likens it to Charles Island. The sandbar is a “trombolo”—a name given to bars that link islands to other bodies of land.

Charles Island is the site of one of the state’s largest rookeries for wading birds, including snowy egrets and great egrets (a threatened species in Connecticut), glossy ibis, and little blue herons, a “species of special concern” on the state list of endangered wildlife. It and several other areas of the state’s seashore parks are also nesting grounds for imperiled piping plovers and certain terns, which lay eggs in the sand. Charles Island, like some other parts of parks critical to avian nesting, are closed for the summer until September 9. Even so, visitors can see birds going to and from their rookeries.

Birders flock to all of these seaside parks. Species that show up at one time of year or another range from snowy owls to flashy shorebirds called willets. Behind the beaches, all of these parks have various types of woodland and marshes, most of them teeming with birds. Their coastal location enables them to draw birds of water and land, especially during migrations. Birds of prey — including ospreys, bald eagles and harriers — are frequent sights.

Access to natural areas within the parks is easy. All contain trails that are easy to traverse. Visitors often can see a wide variety of birds from their vehicles.

Hammonasset offers a real treat: a butterfly garden at Meigs Point. The garden, maintained by volunteers, contains plants that attract butterfly species inhabiting the park. A notable species found in the garden is the black swallowtail, which leaves its larvae on parsley plants planted there. Come September, the garden’s most awaited annual event occurs. Hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies, which roost in pines and cedars nearby, flutter past with their black-and-orange wings, off to wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico.

Image Credits: Shutterstock

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