Jonah Keane: Bobcats, bobolinks, and American elm at Arcadia

  • The sun rises over a meadow at Arcadia. PHIL DOYLE

Published: 11/13/2019 1:42:22 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in its 75th year. The topic next month will focus on the sanctuary’s climate change work and partnerships.

Do you have a favorite place to walk in the woods? One you’ve visited this fall to see brilliant colors or catch a glimpse of wildlife? Here in the Valley, we say we are lucky to have so many places to experience nature.

But there is more than luck involved in creating the many natural oases of protected land that exist within and around the Valley’s cities and towns. These special places have been protected and maintained by the hard work of our community through local, regional and statewide land trusts and local, state and federal government.

Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, celebrating 75 years in 2019, is an example of the community effort that goes into creating and maintaining conservation land. From its origins as a parcel of 141 acres purchased for Mass Audubon by the Chafee family in 1944, the sanctuary has grown to 730 acres that extend into Northampton and Easthampton to wrap around and protect an ancient Oxbow of the Connecticut River (connected to the more recent and well-known Oxbow visible from I-91). Those acres are made up of over 30 parcels, protected over the decades in partnership with donors, landowners, other nonprofits and the city of Northampton.

Arcadia was the first land protected for conservation in Northampton and today 25% of the city is protected. So 2019 is also a year to celebrate Northampton’s commitment to conservation and a time to celebrate the community’s collective accomplishments.

This local conservation effort makes a clear difference for us, local wildlife and the world. You’ve experienced the personal benefits of a boost to your physical and mental health on your fall walks. You may be less directly aware of the “ecosystem services” provided by protected land, such as reducing the impact of storms and purifying our air. Conservation also offers a global benefit because protected land both absorbs carbon, the main contributor to climate change, and prevents development’s increased carbon emissions.

Beyond the sanctuary and working in partnership with the city of Northampton, we have protected over 100 acres along Rte. 10, now called the Rocky Hill Greenway, conserving a wildlife corridor that connects Arcadia to other open space. A camera set up to see what animals travel the corridor showed it to be a busy place.

For me, the highlight has been the bobcats we saw passing through, including an adult bobcat crossing a stream followed by two kits. Both parent and offspring paused to shake the water off wet paws. I felt a connection with these animals, perhaps because I’m a father of two young kids myself, and relief that this land was protected for them.

Along with land protection, Arcadia staff actively manage the land in our care to create habitat supportive of wildlife.

This combination of protection and management is vital for species preservation. A recent study in the journal Science detailed the incredible loss of birds our continent has experienced, estimating 3 billion fewer birds now compared to 1970. But Arcadia is a place where birds and other wildlife can take refugee, including more than 30 rare species of plants and animals found at the Sanctuary.

Eastern meadowlark and American kestrels, for example, birds in steep decline statewide because they are losing their grassland habitat, are breeding at Arcadia. The bobolink’s story could be my favorite though. They are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change (as determined by Mass Audubon’s 2017 State of the Birds). They fly 6,000 miles to South America every fall and then back 6,000 miles in the spring. After that incredible journey they settle down in the meadows, where the grass isn’t mowed until their young have fledged.

Along with our grassland management, our floodplain forest restoration in the back of the meadows will have important ecological benefits. Floodplain forest is listed by the state as a rare natural community. Seventy five years from now, we are imagining the Dutch elm disease-resistant American elm (grown by our partners at The Nature Conservancy) and other floodplain species thriving here.

Our latest project will once again have us partnering with the city of Northampton to purchase and restore the Pine Grove Golf Course. We’ll be returning this highly altered stream and landscape to conditions that will provide significantly higher quality habitat.

Most importantly, both the floodplain forest restoration and the golf course project will result in increased carbon storage and expanded capacity to hold and disperse water during storms, helping us to mitigate the worse impacts of climate change while making the landscape more resilient to increased storm intensity.

Despite the changes in our climate, I’m hopeful that years from now, through our community’s continued hard work protecting and restoring the land, the opportunities will be plentiful for bobolinks to breed after a long journey, for bobcats to thrive and move through the landscape, and for us to enjoy a rejuvenating autumn walk under the American elm.

Jonah Keane is Mass Audubon’s Connecticut River Valley Sanctuaries Director.

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