10 Birds that Give Life to the Highstead Landscape

The Highstead landscape awakens on spring and summer mornings with a special beauty. Dew evaporates from the hilltop grassland meadow, leaves in the oak and red maple forests unfurl, and various birds break into song. These avian inhabitants choose the Highstead landscape where a mixture of habitat is available for their year-round, migratory, breeding, or nonbreeding needs. Highstead bird communities consist of species with wide geographical ranges, different ecosystem niches, and particular life cycle needs.

Whether busy flying overhead or ground feeding for insects and worms, these different birds are key players in the everyday ecological processes unfolding over seasons. Ruby-throated hummingbirds assist with essential pollination and blue jays with seed dispersal of oak trees, while red-bellied woodpeckers and other birds feed on “pests” and insects, keeping populations under control. Some species, like the barred owl, scavenge carcasses and control the population of rodents and small mammals. Further, birds are reliable bioindicators of environmental health or decline. For example, the American woodcock is sensitive to pesticide and heavy metal accumulation.

Get to know 10 species of birds at Highstead that reflect different habitat niches, and particular life cycle needs. Perhaps you will find them in your neck of the woods or have an opportunity to see them among the meadows, forests, and wetlands at one of Highstead’s future in-person guided walks.

Birds of Highstead

1. Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). 10 Birds.

Bobolink are a charismatic grassland specialist with a unique, bubbly song and color patterns. As one of our longest-distance migrants, this songbird arrives in Connecticut in early May after flying about 6,000 miles from the grasslands of central South America.

Since they prefer tall grasslands, uncut pastures, prairies, and overgrown fields, New England populations historically grew after European colonization brought large-scale deforestation and agricultural expansion.

Today, Bobolink populations are declining due to widespread application of harmful pesticides; habitat loss from early-shorn hay harvests, which hinder nesting success; and meadow loss due to human development and the regrowth of forests. At Highstead, Bobolink utilize 40 acres of carefully managed meadow habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species evaluates Bobolink as a species of Least Concern.

Listen to the Bobolink (All About Birds – Cornell University)

2. Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera). 10 Birds. Photo by: Highstead Foundation.

Where and when can you find the Blue-winged Warbler around Highstead and the Eastern region? These songbirds sing their buzzy insect-like song seemingly without end in the early part of their breeding season (May-June) throughout Highstead’s maple-ash wood canopy gaps. They specialize in shrubland habitat or forest openings where regenerating vegetation or a dense shrub layer occurs. On these shrubs, bright yellow-green male warblers sing for a mate and may even harvest insects from leaves by dangling upside down.

Due to their specific habitat needs, Blue-winged Warbler populations are generally in decline following decades of landscape changes and forest maturation following agricultural abandonment; however, the IUCN Red List categorizes Blue-winged Warblers as a species of Least Concern.

Listen to the Blue-Winged Warbler (All About Birds – Cornell University)

3. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). 10 Birds. Photo by: Highstead Foundation.

This large (crow-sized) Highstead forest-dweller forages for insects like carpenter ants and the larvae of wood-boring beetles, like the invasive emerald ash borer. Their efforts leave rectangular holes in live, dead, or dying trees and logs—you might find deep cavities in rotten wood where woodpeckers nest, roost, and search for food. Look high and low as Pileated Woodpeckers fly and forage in the upper forest canopy and at the base of large trees in mature forests.

Male birds will drum into trees throughout the winter season in their efforts to set and defend their territory. Both male and female birds partake in drumming as part of their courtship rituals in the spring. They may also drum in response to intrusion upon their nests.

Due to their habitat requirements, Pileated Woodpeckers need large alive and dead standing and fallen trees for both the insects they provide and as containers for their large nest cavities. Their numbers are increasing as forests age and their status is evaluated as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Pileated Woodpecker (All About Birds – Cornell University)

4. Veery (Catharus fuscescens)

Veery (Catharus fuscescens). 10 Birds. Photo by: Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ever heard a Veery “veer”? In late spring and throughout the summer, Veery will sing a spiraling song around dawn and dusk, particularly in forested wetlands, like the Red Maple Swamp at Highstead. After an impressive migration of continuous flapping on their strong and efficient wings—they have been tracked to travel up to 160 miles/285 kilometers in one night’s flight. These thrushes will spend the warmer seasons among their breeding grounds in New England, across the upper Midwest, and into Canada. They breed in wet areas, in interior deciduous forests, near streams and swamps, and where dense understory offers protection for their nests.

Unfortunately, Veery populations are decreasing. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Veery declined over their range by 42% between 1966 and 2014. South American forest transition to agricultural land-use practices and fragmented forest breeding habitat in the northern hemisphere may be to blame. However, Veery is a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Veery  (All About Birds – Cornell University)

5. Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). 10 Birds. Photo by Highstead Foundation.

The Eastern Kingbird patrols the skies over the Highstead Pond for flying insects that make up most of its spring and summer diet. Once the seasons pass, the aggressive flycatcher will winter in the forests of South America and subsist on fresh fruit. While at the pond, the territorial kingbird will work to chase larger birds like crows, hawks, and herons away.

Its scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus denotes “tyrant” or “king,” but its title is not the only characteristic that demands attention. Notice the golden cap on its head? Other kingbirds may have orange or red crowns, but this distinctive feature may remain concealed until a potential predator arrives, when a kingbird may raise its crown before diving at the intruder in an attempt to thwart them. Listen for their song, which can be described as a current of electricity running through a wire.

Data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) indicate that 47% of Eastern Kingbird decreased between 1966 and 2017, an era of habitat loss and degradation from human development as well as forest succession, increased pesticide and insecticide use, and reduced prey abundance. Eastern Kingbird is a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Eastern Kingbird (All About Birds – Cornell University)

6. Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). Photo by: Highstead Foundation.

“FEE! BEE!” Eastern Phoebes are among the first migratory birds to arrive at Highstead, and the last to leave their New England breeding grounds for their winter homes as far as Mexico. In New England, Phoebes favor brushy habitats like woodland and pond edges, where they hunt for flying insects.

These flycatchers will make themselves at home among rock ledges and human-made structures like bridges and eaves suitable for their nesting (including those on the Highstead barn). One way to tell if you’re looking at a Phoebe is to notice if their tails bob up and down when perched. Phoebes are usually sighted near the Highstead Barn.

Eastern Phoebe numbers are increasing, and they are evaluated as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Eastern Phoebe (All About Birds – Cornell University)

7. Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). Photo by: Highstead Foundation.

The scattered trees, meadows, and partially open habitat throughout the Highstead landscape appeal to the Eastern Bluebird. These small thrushes are fairly common in our region. Despite urbanization, pesticide application, and competition from other cavity-nesters like the non-native European starling and house sparrow, bluebird numbers are increasing. Human-made nest boxes have become a suitable aid for Eastern Bluebirds when available cavities are harder to find.

The Eastern Bluebird is evaluated as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Eastern Bluebird (All About Birds – Cornell University)

8. Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). Photo by: Warren Bielenberg, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, National Park Service
Photo Credit: Warren Bielenberg, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

What was that red flash? A trick of the eye? A cardinal? No it’s even brighter red!  Once you get a closer look or hear the raspy, rambly “chick-burr” beckon you through Highstead’s mature oak forest, you’ll find a Scarlet Tanager.

The male birds are bright red in body, contrasting against the green and browns of a temperate woodland habitat, with black wings and tail. They are denizens of the canopy of tall and undisturbed forest tracts, and breeding pairs will nest high in the trees among pine-oak, oak-hickory, beech, hemlock-hardwood, and even boreal forest stands as far north as Canada. Females and immature males blend more among their surroundings in olive and yellow feathers and darker tails and wings. After the breeding season, adult male plumage will molt to a yellow-olive color while retaining their black tails and wings.

Scarlet Tanager populations are trending stable and are listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

Listen to the Scarlet Tanager (All About Birds – Cornell University)

9. Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)

Come May, Wood Thrush arrive to breed in Connecticut and deciduous New England Forests from wintering in forests as far south as Panama to southern Mexico. While they are generally an interior forest bird, you may also see or hear their “ee-o-lay” song in residential areas or among forests edge. Understory species like spicebush and blueberry are some of the Wood Thrush’s favorite regional plant foods, and small invertebrates and even salamanders are some of their prey.

The species’ status improved in the 2020 IUCN Red List update to Least Concern after seven years of being labeled ‘Near Threatened’. This may be due to improved habitat stewardship and data collection, but Wood Thrush remains a declining species in our region. The North American Breeding Bird Survey details a total population decline of almost 50% between 1966-2019.

Listen to the Wood Thrush (All About Birds – Cornell University)

10. Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Barred Owl (Strix varia). Photo by Highstead Foundation.

Highstead’s most common resident owl is the Barred Owl. You’ll often hear their characteristic hoot (“who cooks for you?”) day or night in the mixed and mature oak forest and wooded wetlands at Highstead. This species does well in deep, unfragmented woods that support optimal habitat like old trees for cavity nesting and small prey animals like invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, chipmunks, voles, mice, and other birds.

Beyond its origins in the eastern United States, Barred Owl ranges extend into Canada and through the South and Midwest, bypassing most western states except for Idaho, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest. Overall, populations are increasing, but the species’ habitat requirements leave them sensitive to tree harvest or severe forest fire activity. Their IUCN Red List status is Least Concern.

Listen to the Barred Owl (All About Birds – Cornell University)

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Biden Administration Launches $1 Billion “America the Beautiful” Challenge

On April 11, 2022, the Biden administration launched the $1 billion “America the Beautiful” Challenge, which will fund locally led ecosystem restoration and conservation projects throughout the United States.

The Challenge aligns with Biden’s “America the Beautiful” Initiative, which seeks to conserve 30% of United States water and land by 2030. The administration released an initial report on the initiative in May 2021 which outlined the key principles of America the Beautiful. Projects must serve one of the following key areas of need:

  • Conserving and restoring rivers, coasts, wetlands, and watersheds
  • Conserving and restoring forests, grasslands, and other important ecosystems that serve as carbon sinks
  • Connecting and reconnecting wildlife corridors, large landscapes, watersheds, and seascapes
  • Improving ecosystem and community resilience to coastal flooding, drought, and other climate-related threats
  • Expanding access to the outdoors, particularly in underserved communities

An initial commitment of $440 million of Federal Resources will kickstart the Challenge and be administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. A major portion of the initial funding was implemented through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which passed in November of 2021. 

The Challenge has a “one-stop-shop” competitive grant application process, coordinating funding from several Federal agencies and private philanthropy. This streamlines the process for States, Tribes, territories, local groups, and NGOs to apply.  

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will set aside funding specifically to support Tribal Nations’ efforts, and  “applications will be encouraged to prioritize projects that uplift Tribal and Indigenous-led efforts.” In 2022, the America the Beautiful Challenge expects to award at least 10% of all funding to Tribal grants.  The Challenge is also aligned with the Justice40 Initiative, which aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. 

This year alone, $85 million is allocated to the America the Beautiful Challenge. The Request for Proposals on the Challenge was released May 4, 2022. The Proposal Due Date is Thursday, July 21, 2022. For more information, refer to the applicant tip sheet, and attend their Applicant Webinar on Thursday, May 19. Stay tuned in our Policy Series for updates. 

America the Beautiful Challenge co-leading agencies
Co-leading organizations: The U.S. Department of the Interior, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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People of Highstead: Tara Whalen

Highstead would not be what it is today without the steadfast leadership and diverse experiences of its team members. Meet the people of Highstead: experts, conservation leaders, scientists, and staff that embody Highstead’s mission to build a healthier, more livable world for all in our staff interview series.

Tara Whalen
Tara Whalen, Manager of Conservation Finance Programs

What is your role?

Tara: I am the Manager of Conservation Finance Programs. I support the work of our partners and the Regional Conservation Partnerships through research, collaborative efforts, and outreach on environmental policy and finance. I also serve on the Conservation Finance Network editorial team and the Sebago Clean Waters steering committee.

What drew you to Highstead?

Tara: After finishing up my Masters of Science in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, I met with many land trusts and conservation organizations in the region to get a good sense of what a career in conservation could look like. When I visited Highstead, I was excited to learn about the regional scale of their work and the many different kinds of innovative projects that the team was involved in.

What are your favorite parts of your job?

Tara: I most enjoy the collaborative nature of the work. Since starting at Highstead, I have learned so much from my colleagues and partners, and I find working as a team is very rewarding. I also really value the creativity of the people I work with and the willingness to try out new ideas and approaches to the tough environmental challenges we face.

Where does your motivation come from?

Tara: My motivation comes from a deep love and respect for the natural world that was instilled in me at a very young age. As a family, we spent a lot of time outside, taking walks and helping my mother in the garden. I have always sought work that connected me to the land and have enjoyed working as a park ranger, environmental educator, and wilderness instructor. My past work experiences and studies have galvanized my interest in environmental justice and a desire for meaningful work where my efforts will both protect the land and natural resources, and the right of all people to have access to and a connection with the natural world.

What is the professional accomplishment you are most proud of?

Tara: I am most proud of how much I have grown professionally. You can take many different paths with a career in conservation, and it can be difficult to navigate at times. I am happy to say I am now in an organization and position that allows me to utilize the skills and relationships I’ve built over the years and, at the same time, challenges me every day to continue to grow and learn.

Do you recommend any books, podcasts, or other resources that have had an impact on your life or work?

Tara: I came across an essay written by William Cronon titled The Trouble with Wilderness several years back, which has had a huge impact on how I think about the natural world and conservation. More recently, I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I really enjoyed and would recommend.

Where is your favorite place to recreate in the Northeast? What makes it special?

Tara: My favorite place has to be the forests in Northern New Jersey, where I used to work and lead camping trips for students. I spent so much time in these woods and on the trails that it became my second home. I make sure I make it back there each summer to hike and spend a few nights. It’s a beautiful place that is very important to me.

What advice would you give to the next generation of conservationists?

Tara: I would advise the future generation to stay curious, ask questions, and be open to learning from and connecting with new people. There are so many facets to conservation work, endless new things to learn, and new ways of doing this work. Remember, it is OK if your career path is not a straight line. Different experiences and skills will make you a more agile and impactful conservationist.

Category: Stories

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Lawn Weeds: Friend or Foe?

The following article appeared in the inaugural issue of The Sentinel, a new newspaper serving Highstead’s hometown of Redding, CT.

Pollinator in a home garden
Photo by Geordie Elkins

Spring has sprung in Redding. Choruses of spring peepers are heralding the arrival of spring from every swamp and vernal pool. Woodcock mating calls, spring bulbs poking through the soil, the return of migrating songbirds, and longer daylight hours all renew our hope of warmer weather on the horizon. But with it comes summer chores and chief among them is mowing the lawn. I’m not sure about you, but I can think of much better ways to spend my weekends than pushing a loud, smoky lawnmower around the yard and spending my hard-earned money on Weed & Feed to spread on the lawn.

Twenty percent of Connecticut is covered with lawn, putting it near the top of the list of states with the most turfgrass. As a nation we have come to embrace the beauty of neatly trimmed expanses of green surrounding our home and workplaces. Once a blade of grass stretches itself above the rest, we mow it. When a “weed” gets established, we spray it. But do we really need to run for the Roundup and 2,4-D every time a dandelion raises its golden rays above the grass or a patch of clover starts to interrupt the order of our neatly groomed blades of grass? Are weeds really our enemy?

In the past five years a shift in values has started to take place in Connecticut. Homeowners who once prioritized a neatly manicured and weed-free lawn have decided that using their yards to support pollinators is a higher priority. All across Connecticut and the Northeast people are joining a Pollinator Pathway to help increase habitat for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. They are committed to rethinking their lawns, planting native plants, and avoiding pesticides. 

What does it mean to rethink your lawncare? Not everyone is able to convert their lawn to a wildflower meadow but by adjusting your lawncare practices you can transform your lawn into a valuable pollinator habitat. One of the easiest actions to take is to mow less and reduce chemical use. Research shows that mowing your lawn every 2-3 weeks instead of every week significantly increases the number of flowers and abundance of bees.

Pollinators need your weeds. One good example is the Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly. The common lawn violet is the exclusive food for its caterpillars. The adult female lays her eggs near violets in the fall, they quickly hatch and overwinter as caterpillars, and as soon as they awaken in the spring they need to feed on violets to grow into butterflies. White clover is another a common lawn weed that is very difficult to eradicate. Although it is not native, its leaves are food for many species of butterflies and the flowers produce nectar that support native bees, honey bees, moths, and butterflies.

Allowing some weeds to coexist with your grass and letting them get tall enough to flower will turn your sterile lawn into a vibrant home for bees and butterflies. If this seems radical, start with a portion of your lawn – maybe the edges, a corner, or just the backyard. An alternative starting point is to change your mower height to 4” instead of 2.5”. This will allow some flowers to persist below the cut line.

This spring, as the days warm and the grass starts to grow, give yourself permission to leave the lawnmower in the shed and enjoy a real day off. Lounge in the hammock, listen to the soft buzz of the bees and watch the butterflies float in the wind. They will appreciate it as much as you.

Category: Perspectives


Practical Solutions to Climate Change

It’s no secret that the earth is in crisis. And Earth Day is a time to acknowledge how the natural systems that sustain humans and nonhumans on earth are shifting before our very lives. Deforestation combined with increased human-caused ⁠— or anthropogenic ⁠— sources of greenhouse gas emissions and other anthropogenic pressures are exacerbating global climate change. The result: acidification of our oceans, global temperature rise, extreme weather events, mass extinction, and biodiversity loss, among other ill effects. These impacts, which often disproportionately harm the most vulnerable communities, must be met with real and serious action by all of us. What can an individual or community possibly do to make a difference?

We can take a cue from the 2022 Earth Day theme and “Invest In Our Planet” by implementing nature-based solutions at our homes or in our communities. Nature-based solutions involve the services that nature’s ecosystems provide and are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.Specifically, nature-based solutions may involve capturing water from storm runoff, supporting healthy and fertile soil (for erosion prevention and food and other crop production), sequestering carbon and oxygen generation, filtering air and water, and providing habitat for wildlife and essential pollinators like native insects and birds.

Are you ready to help protect your community, support and restore healthier ecosystems, and address climate change?

“At Highstead, we take an ecologically-minded approach to stewarding our natural areas and cultivated landscapes in ways that demonstrate methods of sustainable ecological design and management,” says Kathleen Kitka, Highstead Landscape and Collections manager. “We want to show how to enhance habitat diversity and conserve native plants and wildlife.” This strategy plays out in ecologically landscaped settings from the Highstead Barn, to preserved habitat like the forested wetland.

Take a tour of some of the nature-based solutions and strategies employed across the Highstead landscape.

The Barn Landscape and Meadow

The Highstead Barn. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
The Highstead Barn.

Situated above a wildflower meadow and below an oak forest, this one-acre landscape is centered on Highstead’s Barn headquarters building. The Barn landscape is similar to a residence and serves to demonstrate management of a residential site as a low maintenance, ecologically sound, and aesthetically pleasing naturalistic landscape. Native plantings blend the Barn aesthetically into its natural surroundings, create habitat for wildlife, reduce maintenance and pollution, and help maintain a sense of place.  

Oaks and other tree species pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their woody biomass, and their storage capacity grows the longer trees are allowed to age. Even more, scientists at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research recently found that mature oak trees (Quercus robur) with sufficient and available nutrients, increased their photosynthetic response when exposed to elevated carbon dioxide levels.

The oak genus (Quercus), consisting of over 90 species in North America, also offers substantial pollinator power by supporting 897 caterpillar species in the United States along with other insect species, more than any other native tree or plant. On the side of the built environment, tree cover provides additional benefits, like those described in Highstead’s senior ecologist Ed Faison’s 2021 Arnoldia article, Backyard Natural Climate Solutions. Faison detailed how trees standing within sixty feet of his house provide summer cooling and winter insulation, resulting in decreased energy expenditure and reduced carbon emissions.  

Viewshed from the Barn to the pond. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
Viewshed from the Barn to the pond.

On the hillside east of the Barn, the wildflower meadow fills a substantial viewshed and is an example of a lawn alternative. This two-acre ecosystem was created following construction of the adjacent pond. It was initially planted with a mix of clover and grass seed to prevent erosion and one half of the expanse was subsequently seeded with North American native prairie grasses and forbs. This portion of the meadow was found to be less susceptible to colonization by invasive species than the unseeded half. The meadow is maintained as a habitat for wildlife, including songbirds, butterflies, and other pollinating insects that depend on native plants and grasses to complete their lifecycles. It is mowed annually to prevent transitioning to forest.

If you don’t have an existing meadow or space for one in your backyard, you can plant a wildflower garden as a foundation planting near the house or in ornamental plant containers on your deck or patio.

Wildflower foundation planting on the east side of the Barn, facing the meadow. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
Wildflower foundation planting on the east side of the Barn, facing the meadow.

The Highstead Pond

The Highstead Pond. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
The Highstead Pond.

Fed by an intermittent stream flowing from the adjacent wooded swamp, this nearly three-acre human-made pond was created to enhance the diversity of native plants and habitats on the property. Situated downhill from the Barn, it also provides an aesthetic central point for the Highstead landscape. Ponds and wetlands play an important role slowing the flow of storm runoff which reduces urban flooding.

Paint Turtle on a log. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
Painted turtle on a log at the Highstead Pond.

The pond maintains a fairly stable year-round water level, supporting aquatic and wetland vegetation diversity, which serves as habitat for wildlife associated with inland ponds and marshes like wood duck (Aix sponsa), painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), and red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). A buffer zone of un-mowed vegetation is maintained along the pond edge for wildlife habitat, water quality, and visual continuity with the adjacent meadow.

Bees on sweet pepperbush.

The south and west edges of the pond were altered during its construction, and restoring this area to a more naturalistic state led to plantings of native trees and shrubs whose naturally-growing counterparts are indigenous to the adjacent forested swamp – including Clethra alnifolia, or sweet pepperbush, a favorite of bees when they bloom around the pond and throughout the wetland at the height of summer. If you have a garden or orchard and desire to attract pollinators, then Clethra is a helpful plant—it is also beautiful and fragrant!

Red Maple Swamp

Red Maple Swamp. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
The swamp boardwalk.

Adjacent to the pond is a red maple swamp, a forested wetland ecosystem. Wetlands act as holding basins for storms and runoff. Wetlands temporarily stem this runoff by reducing the velocity of the water and releasing it into the environment gradually over time, thus lowering the severity of flooding and downstream erosion. In addition, wetlands can filter and clean water of excess sediments and chemicals naturally, and on a larger scale, are essential storage for carbon, as their plant communities and soils are suitable for preventing atmospheric carbon dioxide release.

At the same time, this forested wetland serves as essential habitat for rare native species and provides suitable territory for native tree and shrub species, benefiting pollinators and diverse wildlife. Red maple and yellow birch dominate the overstory. Spicebush, winterberry, and sweet pepperbush comprise the tall shrub layer. Skunk cabbage and cinnamon fern fill out the thick herbaceous layer along with various sedges, marsh marigold, and marsh blue violet. In addition to common animal species such as bobcat, barred owl, and spotted turtle, at least one rare species inhabits the swamp – Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), a species of special concern in Connecticut. An inventory of lichens at Highstead conducted by Douglas Ladd of the Missouri Nature Conservancy found that “the low wet valley of the swamp contains some of the most sensitive lichens, including species restricted to high-quality natural habitats.”

Oak-Mountain Laurel Forest

Pileated woodpeckers on old-growth trees. Practical Solutions to Climate Change at Highstead.
Pileated woodpeckers in mature forest.

Rocky ledges and dry, acidic soils on the western half of the property support 100+-year-old oak trees with a towering mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) understory that spreads over 55 acres. These oaks are powerful players for carbon sequestration and air and water filtration, and they provide habitat for forest-dwelling fauna like pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer. Mountain laurel are widespread throughout Northeastern U.S. forest understories and have a mutually beneficial relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. These soil microorganisms support Kalmia by providing better access to soil nutrients, like nitrogen, and Kalmia provide fungi with carbon from photosynthesis. This type of nutrient cycling is a crucial component of healthy forest ecosystems. 

At the northwest corner of the property, a two-acre enhanced oak woodland area demonstrates a naturalistic landscape that is fenced for protection from deer. Several species of native deciduous azaleas and companion plants were added for aesthetics, plant diversity, and to lengthen the flowering season of the woodland. The site is allowed to evolve naturally and is presently undergoing a dramatic increase in herbs and woody plant regeneration due to the elimination of deer.

Blooming mountain laurel and the deer exclosure.
Blooming mountain laurel and the deer exclosure.

Grassland Meadow

The grassland meadow in late summer.
The grassland meadow in late summer.

On the eastern hilltop drumlin is a meadow consisting of introduced grasses, a common land type from the conclusion of the colonial period in New England, and is preserved for its scenic and cultural heritage and habitat value. It is an uncommon habitat in southern New England due to agricultural decline, natural successional processes, and increased development. Although the grasses are not native, locally adapted native forbs like common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca) and Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) are interspersed throughout and are a magnet for pollinating insects such as bees, wasps, and butterflies. Milkweed plays an essential role in the survival of the monarch caterpillars who rely on this plant for food.  

A monarch butterfly on milkweed.
Milkweed plants.
A monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

Today the meadow serves as critical nesting habitat for the migratory bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), a Connecticut species of special concern. Highstead mows the grassland meadows in the late summer to ensure that young birds have an opportunity to fledge successfully.

In addition to habitat for grassland-adapted flora and fauna, grassland meadows sequester carbon by fixing it underground, in contrast to forests where carbon is aboveground and stored in woody biomass and leaves.


Everybody has a role when it comes to climate action. You can start small by planting natives in containers or strengthening your existing gardens with pollinator-friendly species. You can think big without dismissing your entire landscape and work around nonnatives, or preserve your forest, meadow, or pond as a conservation corridor to support biodiversity and absorb carbon dioxide. Your sustained connection with the planet is vital, so if you are ecologically landscape inclined, consider the significant improvements you can make by applying nature-based solutions and strategies to your home or community spaces.

Learn More About Nature-Based Climate Solutions

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Pollinator Pathway Success is Focus of CBS News Segment

As part of its coverage leading up to Earth Day 2022, CBS News visited Norwalk, Connecticut, to share the success of the Pollinator Pathway project.

Focusing on the value of lower-impact yard care, the 2-minute segment explores how the local effort to eliminate yard pesticides and increase the use of native plants to create corridors of pollinator-friendly spaces in Fairfield and Westchester counties has grown into a national phenomenon.

Featured in the segment are movement founders Louise Washer of the Norwalk River Valley Watershed Association and Donna Merrill, a member of the Wilton, CT, Conservation Commission and former Executive Director of the Wilton Land Conservation Trust. Started in 2017 when both were members of the Hudson to Housatonic RCP (H2H) it became an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit this year. Their mission: “Establishing pollinator-friendly habitats and food sources for bees, butterflies and birds.”

The Pollinator Pathway now has the participation of more than 300 communities nationwide. “It is seeding all over the United States,” says Merrill. “It’s moving into the Midwest, into the Northwest, into the Southeast. I think we are really changing something.”

They emphasize that small steps can, in fact, make a difference. “People read about the ‘insect apocalypse’ and bee decline,” says Washer, “This is something positive. This is something you can do.”

The Pollinator Pathway invites people to join the movement by committing to some basic pollinator-friendly behaviors, literally in their own back yards – whether urban, suburban, or rural.

The commitment is simple. Anyone can join by taking these steps:

  • Adding native pollinator-friendly plants – anywhere from one pollinator-friendly tree or planter, to a small pollinator garden, to a full meadow
  • Subtracting a little lawn (cut high or reduce the size)
  • Avoiding the use of pesticides and lawn chemicals

Category: News

Tracking the Progress and Impact of Federal Climate Legislation

With the introduction of two new pieces of federal legislation related to climate and conservation in the fall of 2021, Highstead’s Conservation Finance Team began providing background and insight on aspects of the legislation that were most relevant to conservation in the New England region. Here is an ongoing compilation of articles.

Biden Administration Launches $1 Billion “America the Beautiful” Challenge (May 5, 2022)

The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated a significant amount of initial funding for the $1B “America the Beautiful Challenge,” a competitive grant program coordinating funding from Federal agencies and private philanthropy. Learn about The Challenge and Request for Proposals. 

What’s new with Clean Water State Revolving Funds? (Feb 22, 2022)

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law significantly increased funding for Clean Water State Revolving Funds. Learn about the potential use of CWSRF funds for conservation and get clarity on how the funds work. 

Next steps for Land Justice in the New England Conservation Community (Dec 17, 2021)

Following the RCP Network Gathering on Land Justice, we examine the emerging focus on justice in the conservation field and opportunities for new funding to advance environmental justice initiatives. 

Reconciliation Bill passes in House signaling need for regional coordination (Nov 23, 2021)

After the passage of the Build Back Better Bill in the House, we spoke with conservation leaders on how regional coordination can bolster funding opportunities in New England and tackle obstacles in funding. 

What does the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill mean for New England? (Nov 9, 2021)

Learn about the latest on the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and get a closer look at the Build Back Better Framework. 

Conservation funding in the Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills: An Explainer (Oct 26, 2021)

The United States Congress is in the process of advancing two bills that support additional funding for established forestry, stewardship, agriculture, and climate resiliency programs. Discover how the Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills have the potential to advance regional conservation goals. 

Category: News

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Conservation Finance Learning Lab

We are excited to announce the five-part Conservation Finance Learning Lab produced in partnership between Highstead and The Conservation Finance Network and made freely available to registrants. The webinars will take place from December 2021 to April 2022, and will feature panel discussions, case studies, and networking opportunities for participants to take a deep dive into tangible, innovative approaches to conservation funding and financing. The concepts and lessons learned from the case studies presented will be broadly applicable to practitioners everywhere. Each session will build on the previous sessions, culminating in the “Dolphin Tank” exercise*, where participants will have the opportunity to analyze and deliberate solutions to real-world conservation problems. Attendance at all/most sessions will ensure the full benefit of the series. Register for individual sessions below.

*Like Shark Tank, but friendlier!

A woman and a young girl canoe on a lake with mountains in the background. Conservation Finance.

Webinar Dates and Registration

Participants who have not previously participated in Conservation Finance 101 are encouraged to watch this pre-recorded session.

For those unable to attend a live session, a recording will be available on this page after each webinar.

Previous Sessions

Part V: “Dolphin Tank” Project Consultations: Bringing it Home – Tuesday, April 12th at 2 PM ET

This last session will put the previous webinar lessons into practice where participants will have the opportunity to analyze and deliberate solutions to real-world conservation problems.

Part I: Structuring Conservation Transactions to Broaden Partnerships and Funding Sources – Tuesday, December 14th at 2 PM ET.

Explore transaction structures through urban/rural examples where equity is centered in funding and financing.

Part II: Turning Over Rocks: Underutilized Sources of Funding – Tuesday, January 11th at 2 PM ET

Focus on underutilized sources of federal funding and financing, what to track, and how best to anticipate them (CIG, RCPP, LWCF, IFNF, etc.).

Part III: The Power of Debt: Borrowing Money to Save the World – Tuesday, February 8th at 2 PM ET

Focus on the benefits and sources of debt alongside repayment pathways (PRIs, SRF, revolving loans, etc.).

Part IV: Corporate Engagement: Successfully Selling your Project – Tuesday, March 8th at 2 PM ET

Focus on cracking the nut for corporate engagement. Trends, tips, and tricks for honing, and then making your pitch to companies.

The Conservation Finance Network wordmark. Conservation Finance Learning
Highstead logo. Conservation Finance Learning

Category: Events

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What’s New with Clean Water State Revolving Funds?

This past November, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. This Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes the single largest federal investment in water ever made and allocates $11.7 billion over five years to the Clean Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF). “This means an increase of $1.69 billion or more per year, “which adds significant resources to the program,” said Michael Deane, Chief of the EPA Clean Water State Revolving Fund. More funding for the program, combined with greater emphasis on nonpoint source projects — including habitat, groundwater, and surface water protection and restoration — make the CWSRF an appealing source of funding for conservation in New England. 

State Revolving Funds are an appealing source of conservation funding.
The Virgil Parris Forest contains shoreline on South Pond in Buckfield, Maine. Aerial view. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

Of particular importance is that 49% of this funding must go towards “additional subsidization,” or principal loan forgiveness — this portion functions like a grant to help states fund priority projects, especially within environmental justice communities. The increased Infrastructure Law investment, along with the focus on additional subsidization and the potential projects in New England, means it is the perfect time to start thinking about leveraging SRFs to fund conservation projects. Terisa Thomas, Director at Quantified Ventures, advanced key legislation for SRFs in Vermont. Thomas encourages the New England conservation community to utilize SRFs and “Step into this new generation of conservation finance, where there’s not enough free money to make it all happen today, and waiting until tomorrow is not an option.”

A Brief Explanation of the Clean Water State Revolving Funds

The CWSRF was established in 1987 to provide low interest loans and long-term financial assistance in support of water infrastructure needs. Since its inception, the CWSRF has allocated $145 billion towards water quality improvement projects. SRFs are funded with a federal capitalization grant, which is given to a state and then matched at 20% by state funds. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law reduces state match down to 10% for financial years 2022-23, with the match returning to the normal rate after that. States lend out these funds as low-interest loans, with an interest rate ranging from 0% to the market rate, with an average rate of 1.2%. As loan recipients pay back the principal, states can make new loans to other recipients, creating a revolving source of funding for projects. Eligible recipients include municipalities, nonprofit organizations, citizen groups, and private entities. This Conservation Finance Network Toolkit explains how State Revolving Funds work and how they can be applied to conservation. 

It is the perfect time to start thinking about leveraging SRFs to fund conservation projects.

Nonpoint Source Projects and CWSRF

To qualify for a CWSRF loan, projects must demonstrate a water quality benefit and meet at least one of the EPA’s 11 eligibility criteria and project categories, including habitat, groundwater, and surface water protection and restoration. Land acquisition and restoration can be funded through the CWSRF, typically as a Nonpoint Source (NPS) project as a means to protect water quality. Projects can take the form of conservation easements, leasing of land, fee simple purchases, and restoration activities such as pervious trails and tree planting. 

While nonpoint source pollution is the leading source of water quality impairment across the U.S., less than 4% of CWSRF funds (through 2020) have gone towards addressing nonpoint source needs. Michael Deane highlighted this disparity and emphasized that new funding from the Infrastructure Law poses an opportunity for states to explore more nonpoint source projects. Green infrastructure projects have at times been underappreciated as a water quality solution. Conservation NPS projects prevent water impairment at the source, reducing the need for traditional wastewater treatment. They also prevent development in sensitive areas, helping avoid associated storm water runoff and water quality degradation. 

What Makes a Strong Nonpoint Source Project?

As nonpoint source projects have a unique set of challenges and opportunities, this Best Practices Guide for NPS projects outlines everything an NPS project developer should consider. Understanding what makes an NPS project effective is key to figuring out if the CWSRF might be the right fit. First, determine what your state’s water quality priorities are. States will be most interested in projects that solve priority problems. Demonstrating multiple benefits can also make your project a stronger contender for funds. NPS projects often naturally have multiple benefits, as they protect habitats, conserve natural resources, and preserve land. Additional benefits of NPS projects include economic, public health, and social benefits that come from healthy watersheds and access to green space.  Projects that benefit underserved communities are also prioritized at the state level. Another feature that makes a project more attractive to state CWSRF programs is having layered financing where funds are coming from multiple sources. Layered financing shows support from other sources and validates project preparedness. 

Obstacles making way for opportunities

Utilizing Debt to Advance Conservation Goals

While conservation groups may be averse to taking on debt or trying an unfamiliar financing approach, Terisa Thomas emphasized their many benefits for conservation projects. “The value of securing all financing upfront, a 0% or very low interest loan, and flexibility in terms of repayment… This enables the project versus losing the project or waiting a few years when the cost of the property significantly increases.”  This Conservation Finance Webinar on the Power of Debt highlights the value of debt for conservation projects, and this article tackles talking to your land trust board about debt financing. 

Building State Relationships and Forming Partnerships

The EPA gives states discretion on how their CWSRF works so that they are able to target their priority water quality issues. As each state has a unique CWSRF strategy, some are further along in the NPS project realm or have special financing to support NPS projects. States utilize Intended Use Plans (IUPs) to identify priority projects each year. It is important to find out your state’s water quality priorities and goals so your NPS projects align with them. Working with your state CWSRF representative can also help determine whether changes can be made to state CWSRF regulations to accommodate the growth of NPS projects. The importance of reaching out to your state’s SRF contact early on in the process cannot be overstated. Find your state’s CWSRF allotments, contacts, and websites from the EPA.

In addition to coordinating with state CWSRF representatives, partnerships at the local level are an essential part of NPS projects. Establishing a relationship with your municipality and local wastewater utilities is important to help them understand green infrastructure and the value of conserving land to protect water quality. Partnering with other land trusts can build capacity to understand how the SRF works and collaborate on projects. Working with other entities can also lead to potential repayment streams and creative solutions. 

An example of CWSRF advancement of NPS projects comes from Vermont. State restrictions on nonpoint source funding were a barrier to addressing nutrient loading issues in Lake Champlain, which was a top priority for water quality in Vermont. Terisa Thomas played a key role in passing Act 185 in May 2018 — which expanded eligibility of CWSRF projects to include natural resources protection projects such as conservation easements, wetland restoration, and tree planting. Act 185 also enabled direct loans to private entities for natural infrastructure projects. “There are only a few states that do this and it’s a huge barrier to finance these projects if you have to go through municipalities,” said Thomas, “this allowed our State Revolving Funds to work directly with conservation groups to develop financing tools that are of value.” 

Administrative Burdens

As NPS conservation projects are often smaller than other gray infrastructure projects funded by the CWSRF, administrative challenges can exist. Financing several small NPS projects requires more relative effort than larger, traditional projects. Exploring more conservation projects also requires exploration of new partnerships and financing options by state CWSRF programs. In states with strong NPS partnerships and projects, dedicated staff play an important role. 

Repayment Streams

The need for a repayment stream has resulted in some creative solutions for conservation focused projects. Some examples include Homeowner Association fees, recreation fees, and equipment rentals. The Yurok Tribe in California acquired over 22,000 acres from the CWSRF. They came up with a very creative repayment plan — carbon credits from sustainable harvesting practices and timber sale revenues. The Massachusetts CWSRF Community Septic Management Program applies property tax bills to repayment. Applicants must prove the validity of a repayment plan in order to secure a loan, so this should be a priority issue to discuss when considering applying. Michael Deane remarked that, “Some conservation or watershed focus projects don’t have an obvious repayment stream, and while there’s some exciting things going on with land trusts and conservation groups to generate revenues to pay off loans, the ability to provide loan principal forgiveness through the CWSRF program’s additional subsidization can provide more flexibility for states to structure affordable assistance and get some momentum going.” Creative repayment streams and additional subsidization can help NPS projects thrive. 

Regional Collaboration Lens

New England as a region is in a favorable position to capitalize on this opportunity. Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) can share knowledge and creative solutions. As the conversation around SRFs circulates around New England, several webinars have shared regional and national knowledge of the CWSRF. In the words of Terisa Thomas, “This is the prime time for municipalities and conservation organizations to develop new partnerships with state SRF representatives and express interest in participation.” The CWSRF is a powerful financial tool that has the potential to kickstart conservation projects across New England.

More on Climate and Conservation Legislation

Category: News

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Highstead Interns Bring Talent and Learn Valuable Conservation Skills

In Fall 2021, Highstead hosted three conservation interns, Jackie Rigley, Jenni Fuller, and Fiona Lunt, who each shared their talents in one of three areas– 1) Policy, 2) Geographic Information Systems (GIS), or 3) Communications and Events, respectively. The purpose of the conservation internship was for each person to gain real-world conservation experience in an area of interest to them, while simultaneously supporting the work of Highstead and the broader Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) Network. Conservation interns also benefit from networking opportunities with other conservation professionals and scholars, and are given the time and support to develop their own “conservation portfolios” to help their future endeavors. At the end of their 12-week tenure, each intern presented about what they did, what they learned, and how they would use the skills they gained in their future work. 

conservation finance
A preview of one of Jackie’s articles.
Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Jackie, Jenni, and Fiona had the opportunity to support a wide variety of projects each within their own discipline. As the policy intern, Jackie worked extensively on articles about current and pending conservation legislation, producing four Highstead website “Insights” on topics like the Infrastructure Bill and Land Justice in New England. Jackie interviewed multiple experts within Highstead’s network to produce thorough and digestible articles about these pressing policy and conservation finance topics while simultaneously learning and researching to become a better expert herself. In her final presentation, Jackie expressed, “In terms of policy work, I learned that it’s ever-changing…and that I really enjoy that.” In a short period of time, she developed a strong knowledge base about conservation policy as well as the networking skills it takes to be able to write about these issues, in the end producing a robust collection of helpful articles for Highstead and its networks.

Jenni focused on GIS and flexed her analytical and design skills throughout her time at Highstead, first in the production of the 2021 RCP Network Gathering story map. Jenni spent much of the first portion of her internship developing this informative and visually-appealing guide to the Gathering, which was shared with participants and remains an important resource for understanding Land Justice and how it has shaped the region.

Jenni also began a project for the Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative that will integrate eBird science data in order to produce a practical conservation map that is useful to members of the RCP Network. Jenni also researched and designed a new logo for the initiative as well as developing an internal web tool that shows where RCP regions and grassland areas overlap. In reflecting on her time as an intern, Jenni noted, “Having a community that is so supportive has been an amazing experience… And being able to use my creativity is really fulfilling for me, and I really appreciate having that opportunity.”

rcp network gathering story map
Both Jenni and Fiona helped create the story map for the 2021 RCP Network Gathering, with Jenni being the main architect and Fiona helping with content editing.

Fiona, the communications and events intern, supported communications for Highstead and their networks. Early on, she helped with planning for the RCP Network Gathering, which included editing and writing content for the story map, promoting the event, participating in planning meetings and providing support to the meeting itself.

Fiona also worked closely with the Hudson to Housatonic RCP, helping partners remain connected through multiple communications channels and aiding working groups in their specific conservation endeavors. She wore many hats, including editor, communicator, note-taker, organizer, ecologist, and even tech support, and in the end expressed that from this work she can now “step back and see how my part is contributing to the bigger realm of conservation work.”

In the final presentations, all three interns expressed their gratitude to Highstead for creating a welcoming environment and encouraging them to pursue their conservation-related goals. Now in 2022, both Jackie and Fiona have remained at Highstead as conservation associates, still in their respective roles of policy and communications/events, while Jenni is now working as a Project Coordinator for the National Audubon Society.

Jackie Rigley (Policy), Jenni Fuller (GIS), and Fiona Lunt (Communications and Events)

Category: News

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