Key bird habitat in Weybridge conserved forever


WEYBRIDGE RESIDENT GALE Hurd, center, has agreed to donate a 55-acre grassland off Sheep Farm Road to the Otter Creek Audubon Society, and Middlebury Area Land Trust will hold a conservation easement on the property. Shown with Hurd (center) are MALT Executive Director Jamie Montague and OCAS President Ron Payne.

WEYBRIDGE — A Weybridge resident has ceded her ownership of a 55-acre parcel of grassland off Sheep Farm Road so that it will remain forever open to wildlife and humans alike.

In a transaction that became official on Nov. 1, resident and former selectwoman Gale Hurd deeded the property to the Otter Creek Audubon Society, while the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) received a related conservation easement — all for $10 each.

The land would have easily fetched six figures had it been sold on the open market, according to MALT Executive Director Jamie Montague — some of the parcel lies within Weybridge’s high-density residential zone.

Now instead of homes, the property — part of the Middlebury/Weybridge gateway — will continue to host grassland, brushland and wooded hedgerows, as well as the many birds and people who have enjoyed the land for years.

“The formal conservation of the 55.33 acres of the grassland reflects my love of birds, dedication to the preservation of wildlife corridors and the enhancement of natural habitats for the purpose of protecting and encouraging native bird, animal, and plant species,” Hurd said.

“I am also an enthusiastic supporter of educational outreach and am pleased that the Hurd Grassland habitat and trails welcome everyone, from novice birdwatchers to expert naturalists and those who just want to enjoy the outdoors.”

Hurd bought the property in 2000 from the Tucker family. It had been farmed for many years, and Hurd had long admired the land from her window. Her 1-acre residential lot borders the parcel on two sides.

“It came on the market during the late 1990s,” Hurd recalled. “In 2000, I unexpectedly found myself in a position to be able to purchase it, thanks to my aunt.”

She had never walked the land prior to buying it, but Hurd saw it as quintessential Weybridge — pastoral and part of the community’s agricultural heritage.

She bought the land with the idea of simply preserving it for wildlife, including the many birds that gather there. But in later years, she decided to put out the welcome mat for other people.

“Basically, I got on my John Deere LT-170 lawnmower … and cut the trails,” Hurd said. “It took me a couple of days, because the field hadn’t been cut in several years. You mow two feet, stop, disengage the blade to throw off the accumulated grass, then do another two feet. It was a long process.”

She found the annual trail work both challenging and fun. But aches and pains began to take their toll.

Hurd, now 76, needed a break.

“I’d gotten to a point after five foot surgeries and bad knees that I was worrying that if I got stuck on the north forty, I’d be in trouble,” she said with a smile.

And that’s where MALT and the local Audubon Society stepped forward to lighten her load. Audubon Society members provided Hurd guidance for managing the 55 acres for grassland birds, such as bobolinks, Savannah sparrows and meadowlarks.

Then, in 2009, Hurd agreed to have her property included in a series of monthly wildlife walks that were established at the nearby Otter View Park in 2009. The 15-acre park, owned and managed by MALT, is located at the corner of Weybridge Street and Pulp Mill Bridge Road. It contains wildlife habitat, wetlands and access to Otter Creek.

Pleased with the environmental partnership, Hurd decided to will the 55-acre grassland to the OCAS. But she ultimately decided to convey the property even sooner, however, after learning the transfer could be more easily done while she’s still alive.

Ron Payne is the Otter Creek Audubon president. He praised Hurd for her generous gift.

“It’s part of a larger farm field system that continues along the west side of Middlebury,” Payne said. “All those fields are intensively mowed for agricultural purposes. Our little field here is hopefully going to act as a little refuge for the birds that can’t live entirely in that larger part of the landscape.”

He noted a narrow section of the grassland will be allowed to grow into shrubs, which will attract such birds as American woodcocks, golden-winged and blue-winged warblers, and field sparrows.

“It’s this whole other suite of birds that live on this transitional habitat that we’ll be managing for that purpose as time goes on,” Payne said.

Montague also gave big thanks to Hurd, and is pleased to be collaborating with the Audubon Society on the grassland parcel.

“There are some areas of overlap for us … But this really creates a clear plan of connection and I think it will only foster more points of connection down the road,” Montague said, adding, “It’s a vehicle for us to be collaborative and learn from each other. I think we’ll be able to mutually reinforce each others’ work.”

Officials gave special thanks to Bill Roper and Eben Punderson for their roles in the grassland conservation effort.

Visitors can access this Weybridge property by turning down Sheep Farm Road from Route 23 or from Hamilton Road, then entering the Terrace Heights neighborhood. A gravel parking area at the end of Meadow Lane serves the grass footpaths and trails. The land is open to the public from dawn until dusk for walking as well as skiing. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on a leash to preserve important bird habitat.

MALT and OCAS will host a joint ribbon-cutting ceremony at the property on Saturday, Jan. 25, from 10-11:30 a.m. Hot cider and guided snowshoe tours of the property will be offered.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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