Northeast Coastal Areas Study
Significant Coastal Habitats
Site 21 (CT)
I. SITE NAME: Lower Housatonic River - Great Meadows Marsh Complex
II. LOCATION: This marsh/barrier beach/river complex is located on the southwestern Connecticut shoreline of western Long Island Sound between the mouth of the Housatonic River and Bridgeport Harbor. Portions of the lower Housatonic river are also included.
TOWNS: Stratford, Milford, Shelton, Orange,
COUNTIES: Fairfield, New Haven
USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Milford, Conn 41073-21; Bridgeport, Conn 41073-22; Ansonia, Conn 41073-31
USGS 30x60 MIN QUAD: Bridgeport 41073-A1
III. GENERAL BOUNDARY: The area boundary, outlined on the accompanying map, includes all of Long Beach, Pleasure Beach and Great Meadows Marsh, just east of Bridgeport Harbor, eastward to Lordship Beach, the mouth of the Housatonic River, Milford Point and the Charles E. Wheeler State Wildlife Area (Nells Island marshes) and from there northward up the river to Derby Dam.
IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTED STATUS: Most of the Great Meadows marsh is privately owned, with some municipal ownership. Long Beach is owned by the Town of Stratford. There is a colony of beach cottages at the western end of Long Beach that is leased from the Town. The Town cooperates with State personnel in managing the shorebird nesting area on Long Beach. Milford Point includes Federal (Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge) and State-owned (Smith-Hubbell Wildlife Sanctuary) parcels. Nells Island/Wheeler State Wildlife Area and several marshy islands upstream are owned and managed by the State Department of Environmental Protection.
V. GENERAL HABITAT DESCRIPTION: The Great Meadows marsh system, a remnant of a much larger system, includes both regularly-flooded and irregularly-flooded estuarine tidal marsh, of which about 60% is low marsh dominated by saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and 40% is high marsh characterized by saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens). In some areas the marsh is finely dissected by tidal creeks and channels, with several small ponds, salt pannes and tidal mud and sand flats. In the diked areas, common reed (Phragmites australis) is dominant except where the dikes have been breached to facilitate restoration of tidal wetlands. The barrier beaches in this complex generally contain several habitats, including: sparsely vegetated beach; sand dunes dominated by American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens); tidal wetlands mostly dominated by saltmarsh cordgrass; sand flats characterized by wormwood (Artemisia caudata), bitter panic-grass (Panicum amarum), purple love-grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and beach plum (Prunus maritima); and estuarine mud flats covered with sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca). The Wheeler State Wildlife Area marshes are dominated by saltmarsh cordgrass; this area is reported to be the only unditched low marsh in Connecticut, with many meandering tidal creeks and natural pools. Common reed is displacing cordgrasses in many areas of this marsh. There are extensive brackish marshes and meadows along the river, dominated by cattail (Typha angustifolia) and bulrushes (Scirpus pungens and other species). Wild rice (Zizania aquatica) occurs in the tidal freshwater marshes further upstream along the Housatonic River. Tidal range along the coast in this area is approximately 6.7 feet (2.04 meters).
VI. SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF AREA: Great Meadows is of high regional significance in that it contains the largest block of unditched high salt marsh (225 acres/91 ha) left in the State of Connecticut. The marsh provides an important wintering, nesting and migration habitat for many waterfowl species, including American black duck (Anas rubripes), green-winged teal (Anas crecca), canvasback (Aythya valisineria), and greater and lesser scaup (Aythya marila and A. affinis, respectively), and is heavily used during migration by several species of shorebirds, especially the mud flats. Wading birds breeding on the Norwalk Islands also utilize the mudflats around these marshes for feeding. The marsh is used as a feeding area by migrating and wintering raptors such as northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), green-backed herons (Butorides striatus), American and least bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus and Ixobrychus exilis, respectively) and pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) have been recorded as nesting in the Great Meadows marsh. Undisturbed portions of Long Beach support small nesting populations of piping plover (Charadrius melodus), a U.S. Threatened species, American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), common and least terns (Sterna hirundo and S. antillarum, respectively), killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) and spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia), as well as troublesome concentrations of great black-backed (Larus marinus) and herring gulls (Larus argentatus). Roseate tern (Sterna dougallii), a U.S. Endangered species, historically nested in this area. During migration, upwards of 5000 shorebirds roost on the beaches above high tide. Some of the State's best examples of backdune sandflat communities occur on Long Beach and Pleasure Beach. Nells Island/Wheeler State Wildlife Area is felt by State biologists to be one of the most valuable tidal wetlands in the State for migratory waterfowl and waterbirds.
The nearshore waters along the coast from Bridgeport to Milford often harbor large wintering flocks of scaup and scoters (Melanitta spp.). There are important natural shellfish beds at the mouth of the Housatonic River, particularly for American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) and hard-shelled clams (Mercenaria mercenaria). Northern diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys t. terrapin) nest on Long Beach and perhaps in other areas in this complex. They are found in large numbers in the tidal creeks of Great Meadows. Several State rare plant species occur on Long Beach, including prickly pear (Opuntia compressa). The coast violet (Viola brittoniana), a regionally rare species, occurs in Great Meadows marshes. High quality freshwater tidal marshes occur at the confluences of Turkey Hill Brook and Farmill River with the Housatonic River. Shorebirds frequent the tidal flats and shorelines of islands in the river. The river supports important anadromous fish runs for American shad (Alosa sapidissima), sea-run brown trout (Salmo trutta), alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), striped bass (Morone saxatilis), white perch (Morone americana) and Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus).
VII. THREATS: Private development, stormwater discharges, marine sand and gravel mining, marina construction and channel dredging are of immediate and potential threat to the habitats in this complex, particularly in the Great Meadows marsh area, both in reducing available wildlife habitat area and increasing the level of human disturbance and the risk of contaminants and degraded water quality in the general area. Lead is a major contaminant in the vicinity of Lordship Point, the result of this area being a popular trap and skeet range for over 60 years. During this time an estimated 4.8 million pounds of lead shot may have been deposited into the sediments around Lordship Point. Blood samples taken from ducks at this site indicate acute lead poisoning in over half of the birds. Non-point source pollution from the river watershed is thought to be a significant problem to the coastal waters in this area; studies are underway to further define this problem and to seek solutions. Populations of piping plover, common and least terns and other shorebirds nesting on beaches in this complex are subject to disturbance by people passing through the area or sunbathing on or near the nesting areas, and by predation from stray or unleashed pets. Aggressive plant species such as common reed threaten to displace cordgrass marsh vegetation in several areas.
VIII. CONSERVATION CONSIDERATIONS: Acquisition of the tidal marsh and barrier beach complex at Great Meadows-Long Beach is necessary in order to protect these valuable areas and their species of regional significance. Because long-term management and protection of these areas and their living resources will be required, inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge System might be the most appropriate protection strategy. This area and the Norwalk Islands and Menunketesuck Marsh and Island were the subjects of a November 1989 Environment Assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on proposed additions to the Stewart B. McKinney and Salt Meadow National Wildlife Refuges.
It is essential that nesting beaches of piping plovers and terns in this complex be protected from human-related disturbances during the critical nesting season (mid-April to August), using all available methods to exclude people and stray animals from these areas. Fenced exclosures, posting, predator traps, beach warden patrols and public education should all be considered in a protection strategy. Efforts should be made to identify and implement those tasks and objectives of the piping plover recovery plan that may be applicable to these beaches, including opportunities to restore or enhance degraded beach habitat. State and Federal programs to protect and enhance water quality in Long Island Sound and adjacent waters should continue to focus on protecting tidal freshwater and brackish wetlands and coastal water quality through the regulatory process and in addressing the problems of hypoxia, oil spills, non-point source pollution, sewage and waste disposal and heavy metal contaminants in these waters to restore and maintain important fish and wildlife habitat.
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