[CT Birds] Hammo puddle report

Chris Elphick elphick at sbcglobal.net
Sat Aug 26 22:03:06 EDT 2017

Hi everyone,

Last Tuesday, Terry Shaw and I met with Bill Mattioli and Mark Sulik of the DEEP Parks Division and Shannon Kearney of DEEP Wildlife to talk, on behalf of COA, about the shorebird puddles at Hammonasset.  The focus of the discussion was to emphasize the value of these puddles to birders, especially those who photograph birds or have limited mobility.  Bill and Mark very graciously gave up much of their afternoon and we had a wide-ranging conversation.  Below, I’ve tried to cover all that we discussed …. consequently, this email will be rather long (sorry) ….

First a few general points:
- we tend to assume that everything that happens inside the park is under control of the park employees, but that’s not necessarily the case. E.g., much of what happens in relation to construction is determined by various permitting requirements.  Even more surprising to me was that, while the construction is happening, there are certain areas that are not even under the jurisdiction of the park.  E.g., the fenced area with a pool in it is – while construction is ongoing – not considered part of the park (!), but rather controlled by the agency that oversees the construction (which is not parks).
- many of the things that make no sense to some of us, make a lot more sense when you talk to the park personnel and understand the regulatory and other constraints they are under.  E.g., the only time they fill puddles is when they’ve received a specific complaint from the public about the damage the puddle could cause to cars.  Once this happens, they have no choice but to address the concern or risk legal action.  For this reason, we should assume that puddles in parking areas will periodically get filled – but we can also assume that other puddles will be allowed to form and replace them.  There are no plans to asphalt over any areas that are currently grass/dirt, so new puddles will form.
- areas that we may think of as never being used for parking (e.g., across from swan pond) do, in fact, get used and have to be treated like all other designated parking areas.  I think at least part of the issue here is that most birders avoid the park on sunny, summer, weekend afternoons – so we never see those areas in use. But, on busy days, there are cars in them and the park has an obligation to maintain them.
- given the number of visitors to the park (I believe 2 million/year), there are A LOT of competing demands and A LOT of people doing stupid things that require certain management actions that we might not like.  For example the fencing around the big pond at the west end apparently became necessary because of adults being irresponsible in ways that would put small kids at risk of being badly hurt (I'll spare you all the crazy details).
- independent to yesterday’s meeting, I learned that there has been a lot of personnel turnover in the parks, at least in part in response to labour rules laid out in union contracts.  A consequence of this high turnover is a loss of knowledge about things that happened in the past, or prior conversations with the birding community. So, when it seems like we are revisiting a conversation from 5-10 years ago and that the park staff know nothing about that earlier conversation, that is literally true .. but hardly the fault of the current staff.  The good news is that the labour rules that have driven some of this turnover have recently changed, which will hopefully lead to better personnel continuity.  Nonetheless, some turnover is inevitable and we need to keep it on our radar that periodically revisiting these issues with the staff is likely to be necessary, though not because the park doesn’t care/listen/remember. They just don’t know what happened 10, 15, 30 years ago ….

Here is a run-down of issues in the specific parts of the park that we spoke about, going from west to east:
- Far west end, beyond the current parking area – this area has been modified a lot due to construction, including the creation a big pile of dirt, which I believe sits on a former puddle of much acclaim.  The contractors doing the construction work are required by permit to restore this area to the way it was before they started, including removal of the dirt pile (and presumably creation of the puddle). Exactly what is done will depend on the permit requirements (not the park personnel), but apparently many photos were taken so that they know exactly what it looked like originally. We talked about creating additional puddles to the west of this area, but since car access is limited it seemed unlikely that that would meet the access desires of photographers, etc.  At some point in the future, pools in that area with walk-in access might be an option, although there are coastal (environmental) protection rules that could limit what is done (e.g., if NDDB species are affected).
- West end overflow parking – as of last Tuesday this area had 2-3 small puddles, where the pec and Baird’s spent time when not in the big fenced puddle.  Right now there are no plans to fill these puddles, to flatten the area (which has lots of other depressions), or to do any other work that would change the area or make it less suitable for birds.  The only circumstances under which any work would occur would be if a depression formed that someone complained about as a hazard to a car.
- Fenced construction area – this is the area with the pool where the recent Baird’s has been spending much of its time.  As noted above, until construction is over, the park does not control what happens in this area.  In the short term, nothing is likely to change, but Bill warned us to let people know that the construction company will be moving equipment back into this area in a week or two … so it is likely that the pool will become unsuitable for the latter half of the fall. (That said, when I was there, the birds using this puddle were moving back and forth between it and others no far away.) After construction is over, the construction company is again required (by permit) to restore the area to the way it was before they started.  If a pool reforms, Bill said he saw no reason to fill it as that area is not a designated parking area.  The fence would be gone too, and there would be nothing to stop people from driving around the pond to get views/photos from different angles.  
- Pavilion overflow parking across from Swan Pond – this is the area where puddles were filled following complaints.  Because this area is regularly used for parking associated with pavilion rentals, those puddles are not coming back.
- Meig’s Point parking area – As of last week, there was a small puddle on the east side, a larger one along the north edge towards the north-west corner, and a tiny by the road in the NW corner.  There is also an area half way down the east side that floods regularly on spring (moon) tides.  The tiny puddle has formed where the road edge is eroding causing a sharpish drop.  That spot is likely to be filled as someone could damage a tire on it.  But the other two, which had plenty of shorebirds of 6 species in them when I visited last week, or any similar ones that form, will not be filled unless they become deep enough to cause car damage.  There also are no plans to do anything to the area that floods on high tides (which is effectively turning into saltmarsh, albeit slowly).

So, the bottom line is that the park has no plan to eliminate puddles wholesale from the park.  If puddles get too deep, they will be filled, but others will inevitably replace them.  The current park staff now have a better understanding of what birders see in the puddles (literally and figuratively) and really do want to do right by the birding community.  They are not birders, however, and will not be able to understand what we want if we don’t take the time to talk to them.  They both noted that it is extremely unusual for birders to stop and talk to them in the park – perhaps if we did that more often, especially when we have concerns, the face-to-face discussion would help everyone understand each other better.

I would also add, the park staff have tried hard to accommodate birders in the past year or two. Although the borrow pits around the new parking area are not what some of us envisioned when we first heard about the plans (ie., steeper sided), they do support shorebirds when water levels are low, and I could easily see other interesting waterbirds showing up in them.  The vegetated lanes that cut across the parking area were put in, at least in part with birders in mind, and look like they’ll be great for sparrows come October.

Also, for those concerned about the ability of shorebirds to find suitable habitat, I should point out there are lots of places in the marshes that provide good foraging for shorebirds - these areas are not accessible to birders, so the birds that use them are not often seen, but the habitat is there (and very well protected) nonetheless.  (I say this as someone who has permits to enter the marshes for research and routinely sees lots of shorebirds out in the marsh.) For this reason, we focused on the observation issues in our discussion, rather than drifting into a broader discussion of habitat availability.

There are no doubt going to be continued conflicts between what we’d like to see and what other users of the park want.  And, like most things in life, we’re not going to get everything that we want – the only way for that to happen would be for the birding community to fund its own reserves (as is common among hunters and birders in other countries).  But, if Hammonasset wasn’t still a great place to go birding, then we wouldn’t all keep going there.  I just hope that when a Henslow’s sparrow (or yellow-browed warbler!) shows up in those parking lot lanes, that we’re as vociferous about what a great thing the park has done as we are about things we don’t like ….


Chris Elphick @ssts
Storrs, CT
elphick at sbcglobal.net

More information about the CTBirds mailing list