Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Nulhegan Basin Division, Essex County, Vermont
About the Nulhegan
The Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (usually referred to simply as “the Nulhegan”) lies north of the Nulhegan River in Essex County, northeastern Vermont. The Nulhegan encompasses 26,000 acres (about 40 square miles) of mainly forested land formerly owned by Champion International, a large wood-products company. The forest type is northern hardwoods, dominated by beech, birch, and maple. The area has been logged several times during the past century.
The Nulhegan lies in an upland basin ringed by mountains and veined with streams and wetlands. The soil is relatively thin and infertile, and the growing season is short. Nevertheless, the varied habitats provide a home for many birds, including a number of boreal species that are rare south of Canada, along with small and large mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and a variety of plants, including rare orchids and wildflowers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has owned and administered the refuge since 1999. A well-maintained and well-marked road system provides access.
Improving the Land for Woodcock
The refuge’s Woodcock Habitat Management Demonstration Project consists of three units together totaling 286 acres. The units lie next to roads and are easily reached for ongoing management practices, scientific study, and inspection by the public.
In 2007 land managers began to improve and create woodcock habitat on all three sites. At that time most of the land was covered with pole-stage and somewhat larger trees and had last been logged in the 1980s. At first, foresters marked out areas for commercial logging. Following the logging, workers used a tracked excavator with a brontosaurus attachment to shred saplings and obliterate other vegetation. The work was done in winter, when the trees' roots retained nutrients and energy. After cutting, the roots sent up copious sprouts, allowing the sites to come back quickly as young forest.
Additional cutting will take place on all three tracts in 2012, 2017, and 2022, creating a 20-year rotation that will maintain the key woodcock habitat types – courtship, nesting and brood rearing, feeding, and roosting. Each year workers mow several smaller areas in the units to keep them functioning as springtime singing grounds.
This unit lies on the east side of Stone Dam Road 2.5 miles north of Vermont Route 105. Here, 134 acres will be managed for woodcock. By the end of 2008, workers had cut back 38 acres in a total of five separate areas, creating roosting fields and the early stages of future feeding and nesting and brood rearing habitats.
Unit 1 is bordered on the east by a large north-south-oriented power-transmission line. Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO), which owns and manages the power line, has voluntarily treated approximately 14.5 acres of the power line right-of-way, using a brontosaurus device to mow back low vegetation, maintaining the cover for springtime courtship and nocturnal roosting of woodcock. VELCO continues to mow these and other areas each year to keep them open.
VELCO also donated the use of the brontosaurus to shred vegetation elsewhere on Unit 1. Other management measures taken on Unit 1 include "grubbing," removing loose debris such as rocks and logs that represent hazards for brush-mowing equipment.
This map (pdf) shows habitat measures put in place on Unit 1.
This unit lies west of the junction of Four Mile and Lewis Pond roads. Altogether, 119 acres will be managed here for woodcock. Workers had cleared 39 of those acres by the end of 2008. On 7.5 acres, rocks and logs were grubbed out to make future mowing more practicable.
Unit 3 is on the east side of Lewis Pond Road, about 2.5 miles south of Unit 2. On this, the smallest of the three management units, 32 acres will be improved for woodcock. By the end of 2008, about 12 acres had been cut; in 2009, 2 acres were treated using the grubbing technique.
Wildlife Management Institute biologists have captured woodcock, outfitted them with miniature radiotransmitters, and followed the birds’ movements on the Nulhegan, determining where they feed and rest during the day and at night. WMI will continue to monitor individual woodcock on and near the demonstration units and will compile data on how woodcock use the sites as the habitat is improved.
In 2008 Dr. Jameson Chace, a biologist with Salve Regina University, Newport, R.I., began studying songbirds on units 1 and 2. He and his assistants are mapping out individual songbird breeding territories. Their study will focus on area-sensitive species that need large tracts of unbroken forest, including the ovenbird, red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager, and hermit thrush, to see how the new openings in the forest may affect them.
Chace will also study birds that benefit from early-successional woodland: chestnut-sided warbler, indigo bunting, white-throated sparrow, common yellowthroat, and mourning warbler, all of which are expected to breed in the cleared areas. In the future, Chace hopes to monitor mid-successional species, such as the Canada warbler and black-throated blue warbler, when trees in the treated areas become taller after 10 years of growth. Chace characterizes the work as “basic research that will let us see if the different songbird species respond to habitat changes in the manner that we expect.”
The Nulhegan has a large population of moose, which like to browse on tree seedlings and shoots. Biologists are interested in learning whether moose feeding patterns may affect the regrowth of trees and other vegetation in the woodcock management areas.
Funding and Partners
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System, Vermont Electric Power Company, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute.
How to Visit
The headquarters and visitor center for the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge are on Vermont Route 105 about 12 miles east of Island Pond and six miles west of Bloomfield. Refuge personnel can supply visitors with a map and advise on road conditions on the refuge. (The dirt and gravel roads are closed to vehicles in the winter and during “mud season.”) They can also provide detailed maps of the demonstration sites. Contact the refuge at 802-962-5240 or 5396 Route 105, Brunswick VT 05846. See www.fws.gov/r5soc
Each of the three management units has an interpretive display panel explaining woodcock biology and habitat requirements, along with a map showing where and when cutting and other habitat-improvement practices have taken place.