The Darien Land Trust hosted two special blue-feathered guests this summer: a pair of eastern bluebirds who fledged three chicks between May and July; and then they were gone.
The bluebirds’ arrival and departure were gratifying indicators of the health of Mather Meadows, and the stewardship activities of the Land Trust, which acquired the nine acres on Stephen Mather Road following a $3.8 million fundraising campaign in 2003.
Dennis Frelinghuysen, co-chairman of the Trust’s stewardship committee, oversaw the collaboration between the Land Trust, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Darien High School woodworking students that led to his mounting 12 wooden boxes on posts at various Land Trust properties around town beginning in May.
The idea was to attract the colorful eastern bluebird, a valued but threatened native species that nests in the wild in tree cavities. The birds are attracted to man-made boxes positioned atop poles at the edges of meadows near forestland. The Land Trust’s summer project was part of a nationwide effort to support native species.
With a grant from DEP, which has sponsored a bluebird box program for 40 years, the Trust delivered the building materials to the Darien High School woodworking department for students to fashion into nesting homes for transient bluebirds.
On May 9, Frelinghuysen installed the first box at the edge of the forest in the west Mather Meadow. Just moments later, he noticed a flash of blue descending on it. Taken aback, he met the gaze of a spectacularly handsome male bluebird who established himself with a mate without further adieu.
The pair devoted four or five days to the creation of an intricate nest resembling spun grass. Soon, three tiny light blue eggs occupied the nest, said Frelinghuysen, who monitored the bluebirds and the other 11 boxes on a weekly basis, frequently making rounds on his bike.
“Once the bluebirds’ nest is established, the parents are entirely focused and programmed to support their babies,” he said.
Nevertheless, the bluebird parents tolerated his interest. On one visit, they flew out of the box when he appeared and watched him quietly from a nearby branch. As he left, the male returned to the nest, a big fat caterpillar in his beak.
“I observed the bluebird chicks from the time they were the size of my thumb to their emergence with bright blue feathers, and then one day in late July they were gone,” Frelinghuysen says wistfully.
Bluebirds and nature have a faithful friend and advocate in Frelinghuysen.
A financial consultant in his other life, he waxes poetic when describing the “visual activity” and “symphony of sounds” and “living hum”—cicadas and crickets—teeming in the Mather Meadows.
“All these little creatures are a barometer of a healthy environment,” he says.
He stops a visitor standing at the waist-high stone wall lining the road to observe the activity just above the grasses: the flittings and dives of dragonflies and other insects and the acrobatics of tree swallows. He finds fascination there at any time of day and any season. He says that sunset brings the magical play of color through the flowers and grasses, and in deepest winter, frost upon the grasses breaks the light into a spectrum of colors that give him delight.
As he leads a tour (the meadows themselves are off-limits to the public but their sights and sounds can be readily appreciated from the road), he stops suddenly to notice a wild turkey strutting in grasses just over his head. Foxes, raccoons and other wildlife frequent the meadow, but Frelinghuysen had not sighted a bluebird there before he installed the bluebird box.
Another surprise awaited in the box at the east Mather Meadow on September 5: an intricately engineered nest of little twigs containing five tiny pink and brown-speckled house wren eggs.
“It is a bit late for a hatch to be successful but if the weather stays mild this fall there’s a good chance some will survive,” Frelinghuysen ventured.
Frelinghuysen said that the story of Mather Meadows is a great example of the Trust’s stewardship in action, which aims to promote a healthy living meadow that also serves as a vital resting place for the hundreds of species of migrating birds throughout the season. To discourage invasive species, meadows are mowed annually, even though wildflower proliferation suffers. It’s all about trying to achieve balance.
“The history of the property is an important component of its value,” Frelinghuysen adds. “This scenic landscape is also a gateway to Darien. Visitors from nearby New Canaan and Norwalk receive a beautiful first impression.”
The 1788 Stephen Mather House at the intersection with Brookside Road keeps watch over the meadow. The house has been occupied by the Mather family continuously for 221 years.
Stephen Mather (1867-1930), a descendant of Reverend Moses Mather (remembered for his capture and imprisonment by Tories during the American Revolution), made a fortune marketing “Twenty Mule Team” Borax and then turned his attention to his true love: conservation of nature.
Mather deplored the exploitation of natural resources occurring in the nation’s national parks and persuaded Congress and President Woodrow Wilson to create the National Park Service to serve as their vigilant steward. He was its first director. As assistant Secretary of the Interior from 1915 to 1929, he helped double the number of National Parks.
Of the 12 boxes that the Trust stationed in Mather Meadows, only one attracted bluebirds, but three were used by house wrens, 4 by tree swallows, and one 1 by chickadees, as Frelinghuysen reported to the DEP on July 23. All are considered beneficial native species and their use of the boxes is considered a good sign.
“The fact that nine of 12 boxes were occupied by nesting birds this summer shows how desperate these species are for habitat,” he said. “We see from this success that small things can be done to support our native species that are at risk in the wild in our community."