Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)  has begun another phase of a habitat restoration project on Charles Island.

This next phase involves planting salt-tolerant trees, such as red maple, basswood, sassafras, blackcherry, bitternut hickory and eastern red cedar, to provide future habitat for nesting herons and egrets.

Deer-proof fencing will be erected around the newly-planted trees and maintained for a period of three to five years to ensure successful plant establishment, officials said.

“DEEP has been collaborating with Audubon Connecticut, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station on a science-based plan to restore critical habitat on Charles Island that is essential to the long-term success of one of Connecticut’s primary heron and egret rookery (nesting) areas,” according to a state press release. “This past summer, DEEP staff conducted invasive plant control treatments on Charles Island using mowing equipment and herbicide applications.”

Trees on the island now are used by herons and egrets for nesting and raising young. However, scientists say that many of these trees have been impacted by non-native, invasive plants, such as bittersweet, multi-flora rose, barberry and autumn olive.

“These aggressive plants have out-competed native trees and shrubs, resulting in the direct death of nest trees and preventing regeneration of future nesting trees and shrubs,” state officials said. “This problem was further compounded by the presence of a soil fungus that attacks and weakens tree roots. Strong winter storms and hurricane winds have caused the blow-down of most of the trees needed by these long-legged wading birds to raise their young.”

Rookery impact

“Taken together, these issues have had a devastating effect on the perpetuation of the rookery,” said Rick Jacobson, director of the DEEP Wildlife Division. “Invasive plant control and habitat restoration are essential to preventing these state-listed birds from abandoning the rookery they have inhabited on Charles Island for decades.”

Charles Island, a 14-acre wooded island off the coast of Milford near Silver Sands State Park, was designated a Natural Area Preserve in 1999 and a Long Island Sound Stewardship Site in 2006 by DEEP due to its significant wildlife and coastal resources.

Funding for the Charles Island habitat restoration project is being provided by Connecticut’s Endangered Species/Wildlife Income Tax Check-off Fund. Connecticut residents support the fund by voluntarily donating a portion of their state tax refund to help Connecticut’s endangered species, natural area preserves, and watchable wildlife.

Some project materials are being provided in lieu of payment of civil penalties as a supplemental environmental project resulting from an enforcement action taken by DEEP in 2010.