Planting the Seeds of Change in an Overlooked New Haven Neighborhood

Newhallville is a one-square-mile residential New Haven neighborhood that is home to 7,000 residents and has no library, no grocery stores, no community center, and no medical services. Though it is separated from Yale University by just one street and sits next to the popular Farmington Canal trail, until a few years ago, the neighborhood had no park and not one place to sit outdoors. A lot has changed through the leadership and partnership of Doreen Akubakar, Founder and Director of CPEN (Community Place-making Engagement Network).

Newhallville, a New Haven neighborhood, is home to the Urbanscapes Native Plant Nursery
Photo credit: Robin Ladouceur

That progress will be on display on June 11 from 10 am-1 PM, when Newhallville will be home to the second in a series of “All Things Pollinator” events. CPEN and Highstead are collaborating to bring a range of speakers to the event which will feature presentations about ecotype seeds, pollinators, birding, and more at the Urbanscapes Native Plant Nursery, 133 Hazel St., New Haven, CT. The day will also include a native plant sale featuring pollinator-friendly plants grown in the community’s new UrbanScapes Native Plant Nursery. The nursery was erected in 2021 through the efforts of Newhalville residents, volunteers, and partner organizations, including Highstead’s Operations Director Geordie Elkins and Grounds & Facilities Manager Jesse Hubbard.

A vision of a more vibrant community

When Doreen Akubakar first arrived in Newhallville it was as a parent engagement liaison in the community charged with encouraging more parental involvement in education. What she saw was a neighborhood that was “First or last in everything,” says Doreen. “Poverty, crime, and unemployment were among the highest in the city, and the number of businesses was limited to a couple of bodegas.” But what she actually saw was an opportunity.

Photo credit: Robin Ladouceur

“I’m a visionary,” says Doreen. “I can see the potential so clearly. And I’ve learned to make that vision a reality by inviting in partners that can share in the vision and help make things happen.” Her vision included a vibrant outdoor community hub centered on access to green spaces, community, and opportunity. “My career has centered around the environment, and I know that access to the outdoors changed my own life. I thought that we could begin to transform Newhallville’s residents by welcoming them to green spaces and building community around those experiences.”

She began with small beautification projects and quickly expanded to the creation of a dedicated community park adjacent to the greenway. What was once called the “Mudhole” is now a park and community outdoor space open to all neighbors from March to November. There are youth programs, community breakfasts and bike tours every Saturday, birding programs, and a soon-to-be-launched public Wi-Fi network.

Connecting with neighbors and partners

Key to the success in Newhallville is connection – with community members, partners in New Haven and beyond, and supporters who embrace Doreen’s vision. “We hope that people will make the trip to New Haven on June 11 to see the work in action, buy some native plants, or donate to support the All Things Pollinator event,” says Geordie Elkins, Highstead Operations Director.

All Things Pollinator

June 11
10 am to 1 pm
UrbanScapes Native Plant Nursery, 133 Hazel St., New Haven, CT.

During the event, the following presentations, displays and information tables will be hosted by CPEN and partners:

Highstead/Ecotype Project– Geordie Elkins – Sowing seeds and transplanting
NOFA/Eco59/Ecotype Project– Native ecotype seed- Food/Pollinator connection
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) – How to Survey a Flower
Pollinator Pathway – Pollinator Pathways in CT
Wiggle Room – Worms and Healthy Soils
Menunkatuck Audubon Society and Audubon CT – Bird-friendly native plants
WildOnes – Landscaping with Natives Information table
New Haven Free Public Library – Seed library

Save the Dates

Mark your calendars for these additional events in the series. All will be held at UrbanScapes Native Plant Nursery, 133 Hazel St., New Haven, CT. from 5:30 to 7:00 pm.

  • July 21st – How to assess a yard for pollinator habitat – Xerxes Society
  • Aug. 18th – Planting a 4×4 pollinator garden
  • Sept. 15th – Fall clean-up and seed collecting

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Infrastructure Law Includes Funding Opportunities for Tribal Governments and Entities 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes more than $15 billion in specific funding for Tribal Governments and Entities. Programs funded by the law span several sectors, including transportation, water, resilience, energy, environment, and broadband. 

The result of a collaboration among First Light, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and Highstead Foundation, the project was designed to aggregate the funding opportunities and programs from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that are most relevant to the needs of  Tribal Governments and Entities. The collaboration arose out of conversations between the Highstead team and Ciona Ulbrich regarding the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and funding for Justice 40. “While this particular initiative focused on opportunities for Tribal communities working with First Light, we thought that this set of information might be of interest to Tribal governments or entities around the country,” says Ciona Ulbrich, Senior Project Manager at Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Catalyst with First Light.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides funding for approximately 380 new and existing programs, making it difficult and time-consuming to navigate. Highstead’s Tara Whalen, Manager of Conservation Finance Programs, and Jackie Rigley, Conservation Finance Associate, pared down the list and provided contacts, important dates, and website links to program information with the aim of making this new federal funding more accessible.   

Among the programs highlighted were the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Climate Resilience Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Passage Program. The Highstead team also announced the release of the Biden Administration’s “America the Beautiful Challenge,” which will fund $1 billion in ecosystem restoration projects over the next 10 years. 

The resources above include programs from a range of categories and federal agencies. Information such as funding amount, deadlines, contact information, and relevant links are compiled in the PDF. The presentation highlights 10 programs that were most relevant to the audience.  

Programs were organized by category (eg. water, resilience) and funding type. Funding type refers to eligibility. “For Tribes Only” means that only Tribal governments and entities are eligible to apply for and receive this funding. “Set aside” means that a certain portion of funding for this program must be allocated to Tribal governments and entities, and a competitive program means that Tribal entities are eligible to apply for and receive this funding alongside other entities such as states. 
If you’re interested in learning more, please reach out to us at:

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Highstead Visitors Gain First-Hand Look at Migratory and Resident Birds

More than two-dozen visitors met at the Highstead Barn in Redding, Connecticut, on May 14 for a morning among the newly arrived long-distance travelers and resident birds on this year’s World Migratory Bird Day.

A group of people gather outside a barn.
Guests were first invited to the Highstead barn to connect and split into groups.

Local farmer, naturalist, and neighbor Bill Hill; Highstead Operations Director Geordie Elkins; and Highstead Senior Ecologist Ed Faison led two groups on walks through the Highstead forest and up to the grassland meadow. They traversed beneath keystone native oak trees, passed blooming native wildflowers, and stopped by the Highstead deer exclosure to observe how White-tailed deer and insect species like the emerald ash borer continue to shape the forest.

The Highstead deer exclosure.
The Highstead deer exclosure.

Abundant birdsong provided the morning’s melodic score. While some avian species remained elusive, the groups gained glimpses of some less common visitors like the yellow-breasted flycatcher in the shrubby understory, and the recently arrived bobolink appeared among 40 acres of carefully-managed meadow habitat on the clay drumlin.

Migratory Bird Density - KOKX Radar Extend in Connecticut weather radar image. Migratory and Resident Birds.
Weather radar image from a National Weather Service station in Upton, NY on a clear night. Colors indicate bird migration, not a stormfront. The brighter the color, the greater the bird density.

The walks took place in the middle of one of the planet’s most significant annual mass migrations—when birds travel from their winter retreats to their spring and summer habitat in the northern hemisphere. The night before the event, over 400 million birds were estimated to have flown over the United States, and more than 360,000 of them flew over Connecticut. This mass migration will continue through the summer and will repeat in the fall when migratory birds make their return journeys, following the changing seasons and their available food and habitat resources.

A bobolink perches on a tree branch.
A bobolink perches on a tree branch.

As Geordie explained to walk participants, researchers use weather radar to assess bird densities and trace their pathways. These routes often coincide over the most densely developed parts of the Northeast region, putting them at risk for limited stopover locations, collisions with buildings, and confusion caused by artificial light. Unfortunately, researchers estimate an overall 25% reduction in North American bird populations since 1970, highlighting the critical importance of conserved lands like those at Highstead, throughout Redding, and beyond.

On-site events like bird and ecology walks provide opportunities for neighbors and the wider conservation community alike to learn together and to connect with the land and each other. Even more, sharing time among the birds and in our natural environment may inspire further actions toward protecting our interconnected planet. Those steps may include joining a local environmental effort like your nearest Audubon or land trust. It may even involve changing how you care for your landscape to have more natural and wild characteristics to provide valuable habitat for birds and pollinators.

Sign up for the Highstead E-News and receive the first word on upcoming in-person events and updates on Highstead’s happenings and projects.

A group of people walk away through grass toward a wal of trees. Migratory and Resident Birds.
Guests make their way down the clay drumlin.

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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.

Category: News

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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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