Thursday, October 27, 2011

Autumn Surprises at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT

This week I found myself driving through Madison, Connecticut, and when I passed the turnoff for Hammonasset Beach State Park, I noticed a sign for their Nature Center at Meigs Point.

That was enough to convince me to make a U-turn and drive down there on a partly cloudy, and not-too-cool late October day. I thought I had been to this park several years ago, but if so, what I found this day was nothing like my memory.

The place is huge, and there are three separate beach entrances with their own parking lots and shelters, so you have your pick of what spot on the 2-mile stretch of beach you want to enjoy. If you're not into sand and surf, there are hiking and biking trails, seasonal camping, fishing, and of course the Nature Center.

Since the Nature Center brought me in, I followed the signs to Meigs Point, the farthest area from the entrance, the southernmost point of the park where it meets Long Island Sound. There is a boat launch is this area, and I first explored the high rocky outcropping which the informational signage revealed to be a "recessional moraine," or a mass of rocks left behind by a retreating glacier.

Hammonasset describes their glacial boulders as "dump truck sized." For all you budding geologists out there, the glaciers long ago advanced as far south as Long Island before they retreated back along southern New England. So our coastline has a lot of deposits of massive boulders that were created during this retreat.

After I explored the view from the edge of Meigs Point, I followed a trail down the hill to the beach, where to my surprise I discovered beach roses, fragrant as they are in June, still blooming in earnest next to red-orange rose hips formed after earlier blossoms expired. Nothing brings me joy faster than seeing and smelling these wonderful beach roses.

Next, I snooped around the Nature Center. Here is a photo of the building:

Behind the building is a wonderful garden where I found monarch butterflies happily slurping nectar from the purple blooms on the butterfly bushes.

There are also walking trails, birdhouses, and some cool seashell sculptures on the grass. These were created by Chan Davis in 1986, and measure at least 4 or 5 feet across. You could sit a small child upon one. Since I was alone, I couldn't take a photo of myself beside one to show scale in the picture below.

This Nature Center is a neat little gem, an attraction within the park attraction. I love what I saw carved into driftwood on their front porch.

Further on, at one of the beach parking areas, I saw abundant juniper berries clustered on the tips of the evergreen branches. Such beautiful color!

I also saw a typical autumn sight around here, the yellow and red-orange of bittersweet berries, although this might be the first time I've seen bittersweet growing in sand!

I might also add that I evaluated the beach at each of the three points of entry, and I already figured out my favorite. I must say, the beach seems to have adequate width, good sand, and clean water, but I suppose I would have to confirm all this during high season.

The only thing that I did not like, which is not related to the park itself, is finding a bunch of balloons washed up on shore. There were three tied together, two of them partially inflated. There was the name of a high-end real estate firm stamped on the latex. Who knows how the balloons got loose. I popped the two inflated balloons before removing the whole thing from the beach, because floating balloons are very dangerous to sea life when, for example, sea turtles might mistake them for jellyfish.

If you enjoyed this post about Hammonasset Beach, read yesterday's post about the butterflies at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, CT. And for more information about Connecticut shoreline parks and beaches, my beach eGuide is available at the Beach Bath And Trash website.

What are you finding at your local state parks this fall?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Butterflies Galore at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, CT

Autumn in southern Connecticut hasn't been as spectacular this year because a lot of foliage near the shoreline died early or was damaged by the salt spray from tropical storm Irene at the end of August.

But I've made a couple trips recently to area state parks and was happy to see so much other living beauty that I forgot that there isn't much to look at as far as fall foliage.

This post will focus on the first journey, to Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Connecticut.

I have loved Harkness since the first time I ever went there, in the late 1980s. There is a small beach; a wide expanse of lawn where families enjoy kite flying and picnics; the remains of the Harkness estate buildings, which includes a seaside mansion available for weddings and other functions; and formal and cutting gardens that add to the picturesque beauty. Not to mention the acres and acres of marshland and other property.

(The loggia near the mansion's formal garden)

(One of several garden gates at Harkness.)

(The old pet cemetery under century-old Japanese maple trees.)

The day I visited was a rare fall day without excessive wind off the water. I remember a few years ago when I took the mansion tour that the guide said Mrs. Harkness detested the fact that it was often so windy there. I think I would agree if I had to live on that property, as shore points can be bitterly cold or uncomfortable because of the wind sometimes.

My plan was to explore the beach first, and I was glad to do so because they had just fixed the damaged boardwalk the prior week, one of the casualties of Irene. I walked the length of this short, sandy beach to the rocky, less popular end, and was amazed to discover two things:

1) The most ginormous amount of slipper shells I have ever seen in my life, and

2) A creative use of them, thanks to somebody named Adrian.

First, a look at part of the mass of shells:

Here is a closeup shot of the slipper shells (click to photo to make it even bigger!):

Then I turned around and saw that somebody had used piles of these thumb-sized shells to form a heart in the sand. Inside it said "Adrian" and something else below that, but I couldn't figure it out. It was so great to see the love on this remote end of the park! (Click on the heart to zoom in.)

I left the beach area to head back to the lawn and saw a few monarch butterflies gathered on some wild asters growing beside the marsh grasses. Being well into October, I was surprised to see so many butterflies still hanging around, but then I figured they probably know more than I do!

The butterflies must know that they are safe, since they go about their business and don't seem afraid of people going right up and touching them! How often does that happen in your backyard?
I continued on, to the formal and cutting gardens near the mansion, and found more...and more monarch butterflies!

(The cutting garden in full bloom.)

Butterflies on dahlias, butterflies on chrysanthemums, butterflies on straw flowers!

I am so happy with these photos I got!

I'll save the best photo for last:

Which just goes to show you that sometimes the best fall colors have nothing to do with tree foliage!

Check back tomorrow for my post about my visit to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT. More surprises await!

And for detailed information about Connecticut parks and beaches, my eGuide is available at the Beach Bath and Trash website.