Path Finding

Path Finding

Located at the east end of the Lighthouse Point beach, Morris Creek is “one of the few remaining salt marshes in the area,” according to a New Haven Land Trust (now Gather New Haven) video featuring volunteer John Cox. Many other local salt marshes have disappeared under development: East Shore Park, Port of New Haven, Tweed New Haven Airport. “That makes this particularly special,” Cox says in the video.

My interest was piqued, so I coaxed my friend Heidi out into the cold, and we set out for Lighthouse Point. The Morris Creek trailhead is easy to find. A sign marks the spot, just across the drive from the main parking lot. On the frigid December morning of our walk, there wasn’t another car in sight. We headed down the frozen path under a powder blue sky with one wispy cirrus cloud lying on the horizon, the only sound the chatter of small birds hidden in the undergrowth and the rustle of the tasseled phragmites, which stood several feet taller than the two of us.

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We weren’t the only mammals to have followed the path of late. The deep, cloven hoof prints of deer were stamped in the mud and preserved by the freeze. According to Cox, one might also find raccoons, possums, foxes and coyotes here, too. What we found was much more than either of us had dreamed of seeing on a quiet near-winter morning.

But first, there were the usual suspects. Ducks floated and squabbled among the brown cordgrass, nearly submerged in a broad, sun-sparkled pool at high tide that probably becomes a complex maze of small waterways at low tide. Away from the ducks, the water was mirror-still, reflecting the image of homes on the opposite shore. A red-winged blackbird scolded us from the top of a tree. We wondered whether he was planning to stick around for the winter. A lone seagull followed the creek, wings outstretched, while in the distance a bird with a larger wingspan eluded our identification. A plane rose up from nearby Tweed New Haven Airport, momentarily disrupting the quiet.

The first flat run of the nature trail was sequined with frost in spectacular spiked patterns clinging to bits of dried grass underfoot. Farther along, we crossed a few wooden planks laid across a muddy stretch and climbed a small rise, a good spot for a few photos. And then, as I was turning away from the water, Heidi pointed: Look, look, look!

A barred owl squatted on a branch no more than 20 feet from us. He—or she?—turned to look at us over his brown- and white-striped shoulder and stared with serious, dark eyes. We stared back. A noise up the creek distracted him for a moment, and he looked away, then back again. I raised my camera, but my lens was too short to capture him as more than a buff-colored blob among the creekside trees. I lowered the camera and met his gaze again. Then he raised his wings and clumsily took off, exposing a fat, feathery belly as he soared among the close-set trees.

A few steps down the trail, we spotted him again, perched above us, watching, until apparently he decided it was better to be safe than sorry and lifted off again, this time for the other side of the creek.

That’s a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, as the trail turned away from Morris Creek and into the woods, we noted a few other natural beauties: the yellow shells of a bittersweet bush’s red berries strewn across the path, vines twisting around two trees and across our route like something from a Gothic fairytale, a row of granite stones that looked like some kind of boundary.

The wooded part of Morris Creek Trail is unblazed and harder to follow, especially with fallen leaves covering its way, but it isn’t a long walk back to the park drive. A few trail offshoots give hikers room to wander. At the end, the trail is marked “Woodland Birding Area.”

We wandered past the parking lot to the beach, where the creek’s entry into Long Island Sound is marked by a black iron fence. High tide had spilled past it, and gulls were bathing in the resulting pool. Hard to fathom, since my fingertips were numb.

The entire Morris Creek Preserve only comprises about 20 acres. According to Cox, the area was drawn into housing parcels in 1917, and all 40 plots were sold, but the Great Depression, World War II and, finally, stricter environmental regulations meant none of them were ever developed. The city has reclaimed them one by one for unpaid taxes and passed about half of them along to the Land Trust for preservation at $1 per lot—a small cost for the chance to enjoy priceless encounters with nature.

Morris Creek Nature Preserve
Accessible via Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This lightly updated story was originally published on December 19, 2018.

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