Just over ten weeks ago Stratford Point was on fire.
On February 29, the , the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Connecticut Audubon Society coordinated .
Vegetation and debris were burned to the ground in order to give native species a chance to revive, and, in turn, native birds, insects and animals opportunity to thrive as nature intended.
On Monday, birds chirped, butterflies flitted from leaf to leaf and the firefighters were nowhere to be found.
With the charred earth already regenerating, biology undergrads and professional science graduate students from Sacred Heart University combined forces with staff from the Connecticut Audubon Society to plant truckloads of trees and shrubs.
"We're planting 96 trees and shrubs this week," said Mike Stocker, a Sacred Heart graduate student originally from Long Island.
"The idea is to plant native trees and shrubs like shadbush with its bright red berries in the fall," said Jennifer Mattei, science professor at Sacred Heart. "This will attract birds to the shelter and food these provide. The birds, in turn, bring seeds from other nature spaces and speed along the succession of the coastal woodland."
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All morning yesterday the students worked alongside their professors and Audubon staff in the mild weather and occasional drizzle.
Christina Giglio and Michael McCain, Sacred Heart undergrads who also worked on the summer beach restoration project as well as the tag-and-release horseshoe crab projects, prepared a hole for a young hackberry tree. After the hole was dug -- no small feat, given the size of the rootballs -- the pair lined the hole with a mix of organic compost and sand.
Westport resident and Sacred Heart graduate student Jenny Gazerro said, "This is a very exciting day for us. It has been in the works since last May."
Gazerro said that the trees and shrubs planted this week will fill in and spread outward rapidly. "The grass will be over my head by mid-summer," she said.
Describing several of the plantings as "fruiting trees," Gazerro, who is looking forward to a career in restoration or conservation work, provided the hackberry as an example. "It bears fleshy fruit that attract birds," she said. "Then the birds go plot to plot and spread the seeds for us."
According to Connecticut Audubon Society conservation biologist Twan Leenders, "The birds instinctively need the native grasses to nest and rest. They need the native species. Although to an outside looker, the invasive species look the same, the space is dead as far as the birds are concerned if it's full of invasives.”
Pointing to a stand of benign looking tall grass known as phragmites, Leenders said, "The birds can't use it for nests. There should be cattails there. Not phragmites, not common reed."
Organic Sand, Compost Bolster the Dunes
Leenders explained that prior to this week's habitat restoration project, Sacred Heart and Audubon teamed up last December to restore the dunes at Stratford Point.
"Underneath the dune are nine layers of what we call 'tube socks,' each twelve inches in diameter, filled with sediment…organic compost and sand mixed together."
Leenders, formerly a biology professor at Sacred Heart himself, went on to explain that leftover organic compost and sand from the dune restoration are being put to use as mulch for the 96 plantings this week.
What's unique about the Stratford Point project, according to Leenders, is that there is funding for both benchmarking and follow-up. The site, now owned by Dupont, was formerly the site of Remington Gun Club and became contaminated with lead.
According to Leenders, "Dupont are just about finished remediation of the shot. Now, we're making the book so, in future, people can play by the book," he said.
"If it works, it'll be the model for coastal habitat and restoration elsewhere," he said with a hopeful expression. Just then the truck backed up brimming with trees and shrubs and he set off with a shovel.