In a tony Conn. town, a wealth of nature
WESTPORT, Conn. - Only an hour north of Manhattan, the town of Westport is home to sprawling mansions with manicured gardens, a lovely curve of beach, and a downtown shopping district where an ice bucket could easily set you back 300 bucks. This was the last place we expected to find a wildlife sanctuary and nature discovery center, but we were pleasantly surprised to find Earthplace at the end of a winding road in a residential neighborhood.
About to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Earthplace maintains a 62-acre reserve and offers programs and exhibitions designed to educate the community about nature and the environment.
For outdoor activity, six well-managed trails are easy to navigate and appropriate for kids of any age - no trail takes longer than a half hour. The Swamp Loop Trail begins at one end of the parking lot, near a life-size bronze sculpture of a bear and her cubs. You can start here and then connect with other trails or loop back to the trailhead.
The property, which was once a farm, combines arching canopies of hardwood forests with open fields, streams, and swampland with paths that meander past wildflowers, native grasses, abundant birdlife, and old stone walls. There's even an open-meadow trail, Wheels in the Woods, whose surface is composed of natural and recycled products for visitors who use wheelchairs or walkers. Pets are not permitted.
Indoor activities take place in a connected series of rooms that feature hands-on exhibits, nature dioramas, a small theater, nature lab, ecology-resource lab, and, most fascinating to out-of-towners, an animal hall. Called "species ambassadors," the collection of animals here includes some that can't be released into the environment because of injuries, as well as several domestic species.
On a recent visit, volunteer Caroline Glaser reached into a cage and extracted a small brown bat. Glaser wore rubber gloves for protection but seemed thoroughly comfortable holding the squirming creature as she showed us its tiny hand and webbed wing and talked about its wonders.
"Bats are very intelligent social animals and, contrary to common lore, they aren't blind," Glaser said. "They can see as well as we do. I want people to understand that bats are beneficial to us and not a danger to people."
Nearby, a Burmese python named Barney slept in a coil. The accompanying documentation - posted on all the cages - explained that Barney was donated to the center 20 years ago when his owners couldn't care for him. (The center also clearly states that it does not take in every critter someone wants to donate.)
In the same room, a small owl directed its mesmerizing gaze on us and we stared back, entranced. Only later did we notice the sign asking visitors not to stare directly at the animal as he is incapable of knowing whether we are predators. Oops.
Outside, larger enclosures house injured birds of prey, including two bald eagles, a peregrine falcon, a barred owl (blind in one eye), turkey vultures, and a great horned owl. Each cage has information not only about the particular birds and their injuries, but also on the species as a whole, including where they live, what they eat, their life spans, and other characteristics.
The facility also is home to a state-licensed preschool and summer camp. On weekdays after 3 p.m., and on weekends, the children's playground is accessible to visitors. Picnics are encouraged. The gift shop sells guidebooks on trees, fish, whales, reptiles, and other related topics, crafts and nature-themed books and toys for kids, and other items to encourage continued learning about nature and the environment.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.