50th Birthday Party for McKinney Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook on July 23

Common Tern with newly hatched chick (Mark Seth Lender)

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WESTBROOK – A celebration on Saturday will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge — land that contains more than 1,000 acres of protected crucial habitats within a 70-mile stretch of Connecticut’s coastline.

The refuge was founded in 1972 when Esther Lape, an English professor and journalist, and Elizabeth Read, a lawyer and financial advisor, donated 150 acres of land in Westbrook to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Salt Meadow Wildlife Refuge – renamed in 1987 in honor of Congressman Stewart B. McKinney. 

The 50th “birthday celebration” of Lape and Read’s founding of the preserve will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, at the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters at 733 Old Clinton Road in Westbrook.

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The program will highlight Eleanor Roosevelt — who was a frequent guest of Read and Lape at Salt Meadow in the 1920s — with a talk by National Park Ranger Kevin Oldenberg about Roosevelt’s interest in conservation and her visits to Salt Meadow. 

The celebration will include a birds of prey show by A Place Called Hope, a facility that rehabilitates birds of prey, plus arts and crafts, an air archery demonstration, face painting, a chance to meet Teddy Roosevelt Bear, a children’s storywalk, and birthday cake and ice cream.

Mark Seth Lender, a nature writer and photographer, will also read aloud his children’s book “Smeagull the Seagull,” based on a real-life seagull who lives at the refuge and has trained Lender to feed him. 

The refuge is made up of 10 units of land within a 70-mile stretch across the Connecticut coastline from Westbrook to Greenwich — with sites in Stratford, Milford, Branford, Norwalk, and Falkner Island — and includes marshes, woods and islands that serve as a crucial habitat for nesting and migrating birds and other animals, including the threatened piping plover and endangered roseate tern.

Lender,  a Friends of McKinney board member, said that while national wildlife refuges don’t have the prestige or funding of national parks, the work done at McKinney is just as significant in the protection of wildlife habitat, including birds, butterflies and mammals like seals.

“It’s not very high profile, and it’s not all that well known in the state, but it’s vitally important and I wish it was better known,” Lender said. 

The refuge recently completed a major restoration of the Great Meadows in Stratford — an area that hosts more than 270 species of birds — that will protect the habitat of birds that were being washed out as the waters rise, he said. 

People do “heroic” work at the refuge with small budgets and high workloads, Lender said, and often without recognition for the good they’re doing for everyone else.

“If you’re an angler, you owe the presence of striped bass to conservation efforts,” he said. “If you eat an oyster that comes from local waters, you owe that oyster to the efforts made to eliminate pollution in those waters.”

Lender said the refuge should be remarkable to Connecticut residents because of how much they can see and experience in such an accessible place.

He pointed out that it takes less than a tank of gas to traverse from one end of the refuge to the other, and in that space people can see and learn about hundreds of different animals that they are so close to, but typically disconnected from.

“We fit into something very vast, and gaining that perspective that we’re part of the web of life and not its master, I think that’s worth knowing,” Lender said. “And the refuge will show you that web, and it preserves that so you can see it right in front of you.”