Thursday, March 25, 2021

Oak Valley Sheep Pen


Top of the sheep pen, as seen from Oak Valley Trail
Next time you're on Oak Valley Trail, pause for a moment when you get to the interesting ledge above a seasonal brook (see photo above). This was the top of a livestock pen, probably one for Merino sheep, which were all the rage in the early 1800s. Down below, parallel to the ledge, a split rail fence zig-zagged along the bottom.  There was probably a gate about where a very large oak tree now grows. The entire structure was about 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. 

A zig-zagging line of stone marks an old fence line
Imagining the same spot 200 years ago

Where lumber was abundant, as it was in the Nells Rock area, split rail fences were sometimes built in a zig-zag style, which eliminated the need for posts. Later, as rocks were picked out of the land, those rocks were placed at the bottom of the fence. After the farm was abandoned, the wood rotted away but the stones remained, crossing the land in a zig-zag pattern. There are several examples of this along the trails in the Nells Rock area. 

How a wood fence turns into a zig-zag line of rocks
(from Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane)

It's possible the pen was used for cattle rather than sheep, but ruins in this area tend to be from the early 1800s, and that's when Merino Sheep were very popular.  The land along Oak Valley Road was otherwise pretty marginal for farming, so it was settled late, abandoned early (mid-1800s), and purchased by the water company in the late 1800s (preserving the stone structures). 

The sheep is next to this muddy wetland crossing

The zig-zagging line of stone near the brook doesn't look like much of anything at first glance, and it's next to where the trail crosses some mud, so it would be real convenient for someone to harvest those stones to place across the mud. We don't want that to happen, so we're looking at building a better wood crossing at the brook. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Animal Tracks of 2021

We finally got some snowcover for a good month this year, unlike the past few years. Animals left all kinds of tracks, especially deer and squirrels, and coyote. Here are a few of the more interesting tracks left behind:

FISHER There were lots of fisher tracks near the Birchbank overlook. The tracks zigzagged through the steep rocks just below the overlook and went from tree to tree on the flat knoll just below the summit, then straight down the hill, crossing the blue/white connector and reappearing at the Aquarion recharge ponds at the foot of the slope, finally crossing Birchbank Road and heading south down the RR tracks. 

Fisher and deer at Birchbank

Fisher tracks at Birchbank

Fisher are large members of the weasel family, related to otter and skunks. They were once eradicated from Connecticut, but restocked in 1988 in the Northwest hills. They mostly eat small mammals like squirrels and mice and rabbits, and can climb trees. Although fierce for their size, their supernatural attributes have been greatly exaggerated as urban legends.  Screams attributed to fisher are usually that of the red fox.  These tracks were further corroborated by sightings of fisher by residents of the Birchbank neighborhood over the past several years. 

More fisher tracks, although less clear, were also seen off of Nells Rock Trail at Shelton Lakes. With territories of several square miles, one fisher can cover a large area, although these tracks were probably a different individual. 

OTTER  The most delightfully unexpected tracks were these slide marks from an otter at Boehm Pond. The slide marks criss-crossed the entire pond. Otter are extremely playful and slide just for the fun of it. Although the tracks were frozen solid when viewed, it looks like the surface was quite slick and slushy when the tracks were made. A video of the otter was later taken as the otter rested on the ice at a beaver lodge. The beaver keep the water open around the lodge. Otter are scattered about Connecticut and are not seen much in Shelton except perhaps along the Housatonic River. This otter probably swam up the Far Mill River to Isinglass Reservoir, which is near Boehm Pond. 

Otter slide marks

BOBCAT  One particular bobcat crossed Nells Rock Trail off of John Dominick Drive, then walked straight up a rocky cliff, crossed the top, and stopped to survey an overlook (photo). The bobcat then went down a very steep embankment and headed through the mountain laurel towards Buddington Road. Bobcat are well-established in Shelton and throughout Connecticut. Bobcat have rounder prints than coyote, and no nail marks. 

Bobcat at Nells Rock

FOX  Eklund Garden appears to have a resident fox who slips through the deer fence routinely and hopefully finds a meal of voles (voles damage the garden plants). Over the years, holes have been methodically chewed through the plastic fencing at ground level, which is fine as long as the deer can't get in. It's impossible to say who was responsible for these rather surgical holes, but fox are certainly making use of them. 

Slipping through the deer fence
Fox tracks

Shelton Trails Letterboxing Challenge

Each of our letterboxes contains a logbook, ink pad, and custom stamp.

Our latest trail challenge involves "letterboxing" and there is no time limit.  Letterboxing is often confused with geocaching, but it's much older and you don't need gps. Containers have been hidden along twenty trails that our volunteers work on, each one containing a logbook, an ink pad, and a hand-carved rubber stamp with the name of the trail. Use our clue packet to locate the letterbox for each trail, and stamp your clue packet (or personal logbook, if you prefer).  We may have a reward for everyone who has collected all twenty stamps, to be announced at a later date. 

CT DEEP State Forest letterbox

This challenge was inspired by the CT DEEP's long running State Forest letterboxing challenge. They have a letterbox hidden at each of their thirty-two state forests.  Find all 32 and they will send you a hiking stick. 

Clue packets can be downloaded as a pdf file, or you can pick up a pre-printed packet at City Hall that also contains all the trail maps you will need (look near the front door).  Most people will need to refer to our trail maps to complete this challenge. Trail maps are posted on the Conservation Commission's website, which is also accessible directly from the Trails Committee's blog (menu on the right). 

Click HERE for the challenge webpage. You will probably want to create a trail name for yourself and carry a rubber stamp for signing the logbook. And although our letterboxes do contain small ink pads, by tradition letterboxes usually do not contain ink (which can leak all over the letterbox) and it's wise to carry your own ink pad. 

There are many other letterboxes (and geocaches) hidden along Shelton's trails. Clues to find letterboxes are posted on Anyone interested in finding more letterboxes is encouraged to set up a free account and record their "finds." This will result in secret clues becoming visible when you're no longer considered a beginner. 

Happy hunting!

Friday, February 5, 2021

Otter Playing and Baby Beaver at Boehm Pond

Boehm Pond finally froze up enough to walk after a cold snap last week, so on Sunday I took a stroll through the flooded trees and explored the beaver pond. The surface looked like it had previously been thin and punky and coated with slush before the deep freeze. There were dozens of what looked like old breathing holes in the ice (now mostly frozen over) and plenty of interesting tracks. 

Otter slide marks

The tracks didn't make much sense at the time for a beaver, they just looked odd, and I was planning on doing some research, when a few days later Lisa Adriani shared a blurry video of a "beaver" on the ice at its lodge. Both of us initially thought it looked a lot more like an otter, and both of us assumed that we must be wrong because it was at a beaver lodge and therefore must be a beaver. But after some back and forth, and learning that otter routinely hang out at beaver lodges in the winter because beaver keep the water open, we decided it was most likely an otter. 

Otter on the ice! Beaver lodge is in the background.

Then I looked back at those weird tracks on the ice I'd forgotten about and discovered they were otter slide marks. Otter were playing on the slushy ice. The sliding tracks were all over the place. 

Otter slide marks crisscross the ice
(click photo to enlarge)

Otter are well-known for their play, which includes sliding on ice and snow. Often they take a few bounds and then slide, bound and slide, bound and slide. Here's a video of one doing that. They can also slide on their chest using their two back feet to push, or their two front feet to pull. Both types of slides can be seen in the above photo. They must have loved the slick layer of slushy snow on the ice. 

Otter slide at the beaver dam 
(box culvert goes under Winthrop Woods Road)

Otter are not common in Shelton but are occasionally seen in Southwest Connecticut. My hunch is that they swam up the Far Mill River to Isinglass Reservoir from the Housatonic River, and then went overland or followed Boehm Brook to the pond. Otter eat fish, and I noticed a dead sunfish at the dam a few days later. There were no marks on it. It's possible that water quality issues in the shallow pond under the ice weakened some fish and made them easy prey, or even toys to play with (otter do not normally eat dead fish, but will sometimes kill extra fish for no reason except they think it's fun). 

Otter tracks, including tail drag

Otter tracks are variable, but one version is four foot prints in a short line, almost on top of each other, with tail drag marks like the photo above. 

Sounds of the beaver lodge:
babies and gnawing, lots of gnawing

Back to the beaver.  Walking up to the lodge and crunching loudly on the ice pack with my ice spikes, I heard lots of gnawing from inside. This was surprising considering how noisy I was. They didn't care. The gnawing was a sharp contrast to the quiet, ice-covered pond. I started take a video of the gnawing, then took a few steps closer, at which point babies -- adorable babies! -- starting mewing. Be sure to turn up the volume if you watch the video. Many people think they sound almost human. If you want to imagine what it looked like inside the den, check out this other video taken inside a lodge of a couple baby beaver fighting about a stick

Blowdowns at the back of the pond, and more otter slides

At the back of the beaver pond, deep in the trees, there were quite a few uprooted trees, and many of these had formed protective water caves where the water was unfrozen. Otter tracks could be seen where they slid across the ices from one blowdown to another. They must have had a great time swimming around under the ice and then sliding across the top of it. 

This is apparently a beaver toilet

The uprooted trees also created islands where beaver had stockpiled sticks.  Later in the week, after a big snow, I returned and there were no tracks in the back of the pond except for one uprooted tree where the beaver seem to have been exiting the water, climbing up the root ball, and pooping. There didn't seem to be any other activity in this spot, no chewing or anything, just pooping. Makes sense for them to keep this out of the iced-up pond. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Hang Ups, What Hang Ups?

This was a tricky one

Mark & Luis have been getting a lot of practice pulling down hung up trees this year. This weekend they wanted to tackle a particularly troublesome tree that had broken and was hung up over a footbridge on the Paugussett Trail near Buddington Road.

In keeping with our practice of doing work parties in interesting weather, we went out on Saturday morning when it was 16 degrees and windy to look at it.  We debated whether we should even try to take it down or not.  

In this case, we didn't want the nice boardwalk that was built by the boy scouts to be smashed by the tree when it came down.

The red maple was hung up pretty good and would be tricky to take down.  But Mark felt we could get it and had discussed renting a gas powered pole saw from Home Depot.  We decided to come back Sunday when it was a little warmer and less windy.  

The trunk was pretty messed up, which made the tree difficult to control. 

Sunday came, and it was 6 whopping degrees warmer, but no wind, which was safer.  We started clearing some of the brush around the trees for better footing and escape routes.  Bill Dyer is taking out dead branches overhead with his electric pole saw to avoid having things crash down on us.  Bill also had his ice spikes on for better footing on the frozen ground.

Mark & Luis rented a 14' gas-powered trimming saw from Home Depot in Derby for $50.14 for 4 hours.

 The saw cut well and Mark was able to notch the tree from both sides.

Mark cut the tree while Luis and the rest of us were watching the trunk for any movement, from a safe distance.

 Mark kept offering to let us cut too, but we said "No, you've got this".

Bill and Bob were offering advice and encouragement from the peanut gallery.  "You're doing great Mark, keep going".

The tree was very persistent, and despite having most of the trunk cut thru did not want to come down.  Mark is using a little body english to cut into the shattered trunk.

It was very tiring holding up the saw.  Later  Mark discovered that the Echo saw was not extended it's full length and could be about 2' longer.  It made it a little more awkward to control, but allowed some more cutting near the top of the tree.

The trunk did finally move, but we decided to throw a rope over the tree and pull it down as a safer means to finish the tree.

The rope did the trick.  With four of us pulling on it, the tree came down with a thunderous crash.  

The main trunk embedded in the swamp just before the boardwalk. 

A piece of the trunk bounded off some logs that we had placed on the boardwalk to protect it.

The boardwalk survived unscathed, as did we.  We did learn a lot with this new experience:

  • Never use a ladder on a frozen pond with a chainsaw.
  • Wearing micro-spikes in helpful in the wintertime.
  • Renting a gas-powered pole saw and working from the ground can be safe.
  • Some hung up trees maybe should be left in place.
  • Always look up when you're out in the woods.
  • It's good to have a team to watch the tree move and offer encouraging advice.
  • Rope can be your friend.

It was another successful work party.  Mark will probably sleep well tonight after all the work using the pole saw.  Thanks to Bill, Mark, Luis, Bob & Terry for helping out.  

Now for the Groundhog Day Nor'easter that's blowing in tomorrow.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ash Tree Status from Hearst Papers

There was a sad, but thorough article in this morning's CT Post on the death of all the ash trees in Connecticut.  The Emerald Ash Borer is wiping out most of them, which is causing a lot of damage to our trails, roads, and utility lines, as well as other impacts.  Ash trees were a big component of the Northeast's forests, and a valuable tree for ecology and lumber.


Another dead ash tree from Boehm Pond Trail - 2019

The Shelton Trails Committee has had to spent a lot of volunteer time in the last couple of years clearing trail blow-downs, or fixing damage from dying ash trees.  It's too bad because a really nice tree in our state was wiped out almost overnight.  Many towns, cities, the State, utility companies, and property owners have spent large sums clearing tree damage from this invasive pest.    Hopefully, the control measures that are discussed in the article will help future generations of ash trees recover somewhat. 

The link to the CT Post article by Robert Miller is here, and a copy of the article is below.

Robert Miller: The CT fight against an invasive beetle that’s killed millions of trees

With the battle lost, the federal government is admitting what everybody knew — the emerald ash borer controls the field.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Dec. 15 that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will no longer try to use federal quarantines to control the spread of the invasive and highly destructive beetle.

Because the borer has now pretty much infiltrated all states east of the Mississippi River, killing about 35 million ash trees from Louisiana to New England along the way, the decision was expected.

“It doesn’t make sense to continue,” said Claire Rutledge, an associate agricultural scientist in the entomology department of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

However, now the borer is here, new local fights against it are beginning using biological controls.

Rutledge and other entomologist’s are releasing three species of tiny parasitic wasps that feed on and destroy the borers’ eggs. The hope is that in a decade or two, when ash trees start to grow back, the wasps will have lowered the beetle’s numbers enough to let new ash trees survive.

Rutledge said there are 18 sites in the state where the agricultural experiment station has released the wasps, including places in Sherman, Kent, Weston and Litchfield. The wasps are wintering over and spreading. Initial research shows they’re also doing their work to reduce ash borer numbers.

“It seems to be working,” she said. “Those little wasps are doing a bang-up job.“

Alas, the program comes too late for the beautiful, straight-grained ash trees growing alongside town roads or planted for shade in cities - trees whose seeds feed birds and moths, whose wood is great for ax handles, hockey sticks, furniture and flooring, and whose fall foliage adds a dark reddish-purple swatch to the landscape.

They’re pretty much lost. The emerald ash borer — which is a native to China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and far eastern Russia — and which somehow showed up in Michigan in 2002 and has spread ever since — is killing them all.

Female borers lay their eggs on ash tree bark. When the eggs hatch into larvae, the larvae bores into the tree and feeds on the inner bark and cambium — the cells between a tree’s wood and its bark — cutting channels into the tree. Those channels girdle a tree, preventing water and nutrients to reach its branches. The infestation can kill a tree within two years.

Woodpeckers then show up to peel away the infested tree’s bark to feed on the larvae. When you see an ash tree with pale yellow stripes and blotches, you know woodpeckers have been at work and that the tree is a goner.

The agricultural experiment station’s researchers found the shiny green beetles in New Haven County, Connecticut in 2012. By now, they’ve spread across the entire state.

“Pretty much every ash tree is gone — 95 to 98 percent are dying,” said Michael McCarthy, Newtown’s tree warden.

“It’s out of control,” said Michel Boucher, New Milford’s tree warden. His town has removed 400 dead ash trees along town roads in the past year, he said.

“They’re all shot,” said Kevin Lindquist, owner of Danbury Tree Pro.

Because ash trees thrive in open spaces, they grow well along roadsides. The cost to towns of cutting down all those dying ashes is another form of emerald ash borer damage - this time to town budgets.

“It will be horrendous,” Newtown’s McCarthy said.

Matt Bartelme, owner of Bart’s Tree Service in Danbury, said that because the emerald ash borer doesn’t spread rapidly on its own — humans moving beetle-infested firewood are its chief means of transport — you can find the occasional healthy ash tree in the woods.

“It’s as if it’s in its own little quarantine,” he said.

Bartelme also said you can track the infestation in the state year by year. Right now, he said, there are still healthy ash trees in coastal towns like Westport and Darien — the borer simply hasn’t spread there yet.

Rutledge, of the experiment station, said that young ash trees’ need for open air and sun may pay off in the future. When big infested, diseased ash trees fall, she said, that will create a hole in the forest canopy, allowing seedlings or trunk sprouts to thrive.

“They’re pretty good truck sprouters,” she said.

Throw in parasitic wasps and there may be hope for an ash tree comeback.

“It’s my prediction,” Rutledge said. “I think there’s a chance for ash trees.”

Contact Robert Miller at

Robert Miller has been working as a reporter in western Connecticut since 1978. He has covered the environment for about half that time. In 2014, he retired from day-to-day reporting, but has continued to write a weekly column on the environment for The News-Times in Danbury. He's a birder and a gardener and a bookworm who lives in the exurbs - the rural suburbs. He thinks the world we live in -- even his tiny corner -- is an endlessly fascinating place and he has been very lucky to write about it.

Saturday, January 23, 2021