by Michael Richardson
Despite being the 3rd smallest state in the country, Connecticut actually has a fairly diverse variety of natural habitats that are important to the local ecology. Like the rest of New England, it consists mostly of residential/urban areas and mixed forests. Since it is a coastal state, it also includes beaches, tidal marshes, and other coastal habitats.
While not as mountainous as states like New Hampshire and Vermont, Connecticut does have a few mountains and hills which has a different ecology from the surrounding forests. While not a particularly wet state, Connecticut does have marshes, swamps, and bogs, as well as a number of lakes and smaller ponds.
Connecticut doesn’t have any deserts, or tundras, but there are a few unexpected relatively dry areas near the coastlines with sand dunes and waste areas. With such a great diversity of habitats in Connecticut, you really need to explore the whole state to see it all and discover the great diversity of species in each unique ecosystem.
Connecticut has approximately 96 miles of coastline along Long Island Sound. This includes Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex, and New London counties, and about 24 towns/cities. While there are a number of public beaches in Connecticut, many of them are private and restricted to town residents with permit or charge a parking or access fee during the late spring to fall months. Thus visiting Connecticut beaches during the summer can be difficult or expensive for tourists and visitors. During the winter, most local beaches do not charge an entry fee and can be easily accessed. Most of the coastal areas in Connecticut are managed and landscaped and include beach areas, protected wildlife habitats and often additional recreation areas such as tennis courts, community parks, golf courses, and picnic areas.
A tidal marsh is a type of wetland found along coasts and estuaries which are flooded according to the tides. Tidal marshes contain varying levels of salinity, including freshwater, brackish water (mixed), and salt water, depending on whether they are along coastal areas or along estuaries. A common feature of a tidal marsh is a tidal pool, which is a small rocky pool of salt water, often containing a variety of species such as barnacles, crabs, snails, clams, and even small fish which get trapped during the high tides. Protecting tidal marshes is very important to Connecticut ecology. Tidal marshes are especially sensitive towards pollution and encroaching development, and are a vital habitat for many birds and endangered plants.
Lakes and Ponds
Connecticut has approximately 25 named lakes, and many more ponds and small bodies of water. Candlewood Lake in western Connecticut is the largest lake, at 8.4 sq mi. Many lakes in Connecticut are also recreation areas, allowing for fishing, boating, kayaking, and swimming, which is a cause for concern for some environmentalists. As a result of pollution and contamination, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has recommended limitations on consuming freshwater fish. Connecticut lakes and ponds are an important habitat for many threatened and endangered species.
New England forests are temperate and generally mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. They have a humid continental climate (large seasonal temperature differences) with warm summers, but are perhaps best known for their vibrant display of autumn leaf colors. The landscape of Connecticut has changed greatly in the past 100 years, when it was primarily mixed pockets of forest and open farmland and fields. As a result, most forests in Connecticut are not very old and not very diverse in species as compared to old-growth forests. There is a great diversity of plants in Connecticut forests, including ground cover plants, wild flowers, and brier thickets. During the winter, most plants and tree leaves turn brown and die, however there are a number of evergreen plants and mosses that can be found year round.
Mountains and Hills
Connecticut is not well known for it’s tall landscape. However there are a few notable mountains and hills, mostly in the northwestern part of the state along the Appalachian Mountain Trail and in the Connecticut Valley area. The tallest summit in Connecticut is Bear Mountain with an elevation 2323 ft, however it is not the highest elevation, which belongs to the southern slope of Mount Frissell at 2379 ft. While not very high, Sleeping Giant in Hamden is a popular mountain and state park, offering excellent hiking trails and vistas.
Swamps and Marshes
Connecticut has many swamps, marshes, and wetlands that host a diverse ecology. A swamp is defined as wetlands that are primarily forested with trees, whereas a marsh is dominated by herbaceous rather than woody plants. Many Connecticut forests also have a wetland of some kind. In general, wetlands can be difficult to pass on foot, so many nature centers, parks, and open spaces have boardwalks, or wooden platforms that allow passage thru the wetlands.
Meadows and Fields
A field is an open grassy area, such as is commonly found livestock farms. A meadow is a natural field that primarily includes grasses and other non-woody plants such as wildflowers and invasive weeds. Meadows are important to Connecticut ecology because they provide areas for nesting areas for birds and small animals as well as sources of food and shelter for wildlife. In the late spring and summer they can grow quite thick with wildflowers, grasses, and weeds, which is both difficult and potentially dangerous to traverse due to risks from tick bites, poison ivy, and biting insects. However meadows and tall herbaceous plants in general generally die-off around late fall and can then be easily traversed.
Recreational Parks and Gardens
Connecticut has many public and private community parks and gardens through-out the state. As well, many state forests, beaches, and open spaces often contain a landscaped park or garden designed for recreational use. While the parks themselves generally do not contain a great diversity of native species, they are an excellent place for bird watching. Many nature centers and recreational parks also include gardens of native wildflowers and native trees and shrubs, as well as intentionally introduced species. Because parks and gardens are managed areas, they can also provide a good area for learning about invasive species which are often able to persist as well as garden plants that have escaped via seed transport caused by animals.