Friday, April 11, 2014

Windsor Prison Farm

Just a 10 minute drive outside of historic Windsor, Vermont (birthplace of the Vermont Republic, 1777-1791) are 945 acres of state owned farmland that hosts the 28± acre Southeast State Correctional Facility (SESCF).  The farm was established in 1915 as an annex to the Windsor State Prison, the first state penitentiary in the United States and longest operating facility until it closed in 1975.  Prison inmates worked the farm raising a dairy herd, a piggery, chickens, as well as produced vegetables and fruits for themselves and residents of other state institutions.  When the dairy herd was sold off in 1992 the property essentially ceased being an actively managed farm. 

Apart from the SESCF the remaining acreage is a patchwork of plant communities, representative of early seral and climax successional stages that typically follow farm abandonment including the broad categories: grass-forb fields, old fields, pole stage woodlands, and mature forests.  Other habitat types present on the property are feral apple orchards, wet sedge meadow, hedgerows and woodland brushy borders, a pond, and small streams.   This diversity of habitats attracts diverse birdlife. 
In recent years, Windsor Prison Farm (WPF) has become a popular Southern Windsor County bird watching destination.  A total species count exceeding 100 so far has been documented on or in the vicinity of the property.  Birds of particular interest to birders are those associated with old field habitats, such as Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers, Eastern Towhee, and Field Sparrow. Old field communities are becoming increasingly uncommon in New England as abandoned farmlands revert to forests or are being developed.

Click on image to enlarge.
Numbers correspond to habitat types described below.
1.  Grass-Forb Fields are a prominent WPF landscape feature.  Annual mowing and periodic brush hogging maintain these habitats.  Perennial grass-dominated fields make up much of the property; however, these are gradually being superseded by biennials forbs, such as goldenrod (Solidago sp.).  Grassland nesting birds on WPF are Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow.  Other associates are Wild Turkey, American Kestrel, Tree Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, and Red-winged Blackbird. 

2.  Old Fields exist where hay fields and pastures were abandoned from active agricultural use and natural early plant community succession has been allowed to proceed. The largest area of this habitat type is located upland of the large wet sedge meadow near the center of the WPF property (7).  This is a shrub-sapling community dominated by brambles (Rubus sp.), multifora rose (Rosa multiflora), shrub dogwood (Cornus sp.), black cherry (Prunus sp.) and white pine (Pinus strobus). Birds likely to be seen in this habitat are American Woodcock, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher,  Golden-winged Warbler (rare),  Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and Indigo Bunting.  Prairie Warbler has been documented nesting in a dry old field habitat  abutting the WPF property and Marton Road.
Brown Thrasher
3.  Feral Apple "Orchards" provide habitat for Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Black-billed Cuckoo, Cedar Waxwing, and Blue-winged Warbler among other spcies.   Typically the understory vegetative layer in and around the "orchards" is dominated by pasture juniper (Juniperus communis) and brambles (Rubus sp.).  Because apple fruit are an important late fall and winter food source for white-tailed deer, grouse and turkeys, these stands are actively managed a local hunter group in partnership with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to improve apple tree health and fruit production through selective tree and brush removal.

Blue-winged Warbler
4.  Mature Deciduous-Mixed Forest is Northern Hardwood Forest Formation represented by sugar maple (Acer saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), yellow birch (Betula allegahaniensis) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is the dominant forest type on the property.  Some of the mature forest bird species located on the WPF property include Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, 
Pileated Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed and Blue-headed vireos, Veery,  Thrush, Ovenbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

5.  Mature Coniferous Forests are either predominantly hemlock or white pine stands.  Mature pine stands exemplify advanced old field succession.  Hemlock forests are critical winter habitat for white-tailed deer.  Common bird associates of coniferous forest include Barred Owl, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, and Blackburnian Warbler.

6.  Woodland Edges and Hedgerows represent the boundary between two very contrasting habitat types (e.g. forest and grassland).  Ecologically this produces the "edge effect" where the abundance of food and cover tends to favor high species diversity.  Birds associated with wooded-brushy edges on the WPF are  Mourning Dove, Black-billed Cuckoo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, American Redstart, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and American Goldfinch.  During spring and fall migration seasons edge habitats may attract a variety of warbler and sparrow species not present at other times of the year, e.g. Palm, Blackpoll and Wilson's warblers and Fox, Lincoln's and White-crowned sparrows. 

7.  Wet Sedge Meadow that is at the core of the WPF property likely grazed by cows back when the farm maintained a dairy herd.  Today, the dominant plants are sedges (Carex sp.), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), some common cattails (Typha latifolia), scattered alder (Alnus sp.) and willow (Salix sp.).  Birds to be seen here are American Bittern, Wilson’s Snipe, Alder and Willow flycatchers, Yellow Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird, Swamp and Song sparrows.  In 19XX, a pair of Northern Harriers successfully nested and fledged young here.  During the nesting season listen and look for male snipes engaged in aerial display flights to attract mates and defend their territories.

8.  Prison Pond was constructed in 1925 by damming a tributary stream to Hubbard Brook and has a surface area of one acre.  Occasional pond drop-ins are Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser.  More predictable during the nesting season is a pair of Louisiana Waterthrush sometimes found in the brushy pond shoreline but more often heard singing downstream from the forested ravine through which the brook flows.
9.  Pole Stage Woodlands is at the present time a relatively minor habitat type on the property.  It is a successional stage between old field shrub and mature forest communities.  Species associated with pole stage woodlands are Ruffed Grouse, American Woodcock, Warbling Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, and Chestnut-sided Warbler.
The latest revision of the Connecticut River Birding Trail  – Upper Valley Section added Marton Road, including the WPF property, is one of 49 Vermont and New Hampshire birding sites identified within a 77 mile long section of the Connecticut River Valley.

Directions to the WPF property: From the traffic light at the intersection of Main Street (US Route 5) and State Street in downtown Windsor drive  0.7 miles on State Street to the junction of it with Hunt and County roads.  Bear left onto Hunt Road and drive 1.5 miles and turn right onto Marton Road.  Drive 1.7 miles to intersection with Prison Road (closed to vehicles) on the right.   Cautionary Note: the SESCF is located due east of here and is off limits to the public.  While birding the property obey signage and do not approach the correctional facility.   

No comments:

Post a Comment