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A “Truck Stop” for the Birds

Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary is home to a diverse mix of birds and butterflies. It also plays host to the many birds who fly along the Connecticut coastline during their migration.

If you’ve ever slowed down along Weed Avenue to catch a glance of a Great Egret out on Holly Pond, you know that this area of Stamford has more than its share of wildlife. For the past five years, Cove has also been home to the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

Tucked away at the far end of the parking lot, behind the and a softball field, on a piece of land formerly the “stump dump,” is a modest gate that gives way to a winding pathway. Cars cluster at the opposite end of the lot for access to the beach and more highly-trafficked walking paths through , but for the birds, the real action is right here.

Situated on the coastal Atlantic Flyway, this area provides a much-needed stopover, “the best truck stop on the migratory highway,” for birds to take a break in a stretch of otherwise urban landscape. In the 1980s, the whole of Holly Pond, Cove Island Park, and the current wildlife sanctuary was classified as an IBA -- Important Bird Area -- following a nomination by two local birders, Patrick Dugan and Michael Moccio who cited the diversity of birds found in this location.

“When the plan came up, I knew there needed to be a stewardship group to maintain this. You can’t come in here with a lawnmower and the city didn’t have the resources,” David Winston, head steward at the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary, said. “I knew plant, but I didn’t know a lot about birds, I just figured if you plant it they will come.”

They certainly did. While only a couple dozen species actually nest in the Wildlife Sanctuary, many more come through during their fall and spring migrations.

A kiosk just inside the gate provides visitors with a glimpse of the diversity to be found in the Wildlife Sanctuary, lists of birds common to the area, photos capturing some favorite sightings, and a blackboard for visitors to record their finds.

On Thursday, Sandy Paget and Pam Hale, Master Gardeners from ’s program, planted flowers in the butterfly garden just inside the Wildlife Sanctuary. Working inside the Wildlife Sanctuary takes a careful hand and a special level of knowledge.

“Everything in here can look like a weed to move people,” Winston laughed.

Walking the loop, visitors to the Wildlife Sanctuary pass open meadows, clusters of cedars, apple trees, and oaks, bird houses perched on posts in the middle of fields, and a swallow perch at the far end of the walking path. Additions to the Wildlife Sanctuary are sometimes general planting, and other times, results of grants for a specific project

“We just received a grant from the Connecticut Audubon Society to build a chimney swift tower. He’s a special concern, no ones entirely sure why their population has fallen off. They used to live in hallow trees and as fewer were left standing, they adapted to big industrial chimneys,but as Connecticut got out of manufacturing, a lot of those are gone. Residential chimneys have caps and few people would want them living there anyway,” Winston said. “We’re building a wooden tower to attract them.”

In addition to new projects like the tower, Winston and other volunteer stewards are constantly maintaining, experimenting, and trying new native plants inside the gates.  They have also begun to incorporate plants that do particularly well insidw the Wildlife Sanctuary into Cove Island Park and even in the medians in the parking lot.

“It’s a good laboratory. We can put in plants that birds, bees, and butterflies can enjoy too,” Winston said. “If you’re into plants and this sort of project, you’ll never be bored here.”

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