By Carolyn Battista / Photos by Vincent Scarano

_dsc6206On a summer day, things were lively as usual at the new Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset  Beach State Park in Madison. Outside, little kids from a Y camp in Milford ate lunch. “We just met some reptiles,” one of their counselors said.  Other kids headed with nets toward the water. Inside, kids and grownups alike were meeting the sea critters that occupy the center’s big touch tank. As the MPNC director, Russ Miller walked through, he kept stopping. “That’s a channeled whelk,” he explained to a kid who held one up from a tank. Two birders waylaid him; they’d just spotted an unusual tern. What did he think it might be? “Hmmm…,” he said, listening carefully as they described it.

“I can’t walk through the building without someone having a question about wildlife,” said Russ, who’s  known to all as “Ranger Russ” and who welcomes every question. “People are learning, wanting to learn,” he said.

The new building opened this past Memorial Day weekend, providing much-needed bigger, more functional spaces all year for the MPNC than those of its former home, an old farmhouse. There the MPNC began as a small, seasonal operation, but over the years became a larger, year-round one, drawing visitors to its exhibits and to such events as fall foliage canoe trips, winter stargazing, and what was at first a spring marsh clean-up, but has lately taken place several times a year. (Often, kids compete to find the most litter). The MPNC has brought programs and exhibits to other locations, like schools and fairs, and has become what Russ calls, “a go-to place for wildlife questions.” Whatever the staff can’t answer or do, they know where to find someone who can.
“The Connecticut environment is special, and it matters,” Russ said; and the MPNC wants people to see how and why. Programs and exhibits show how different Connecticut’s coastline is from that of neighboring states, how varied and interesting the state’s animals are, how beautiful and productive the salt marshes are. Russ asks kids about the litter they collect—could that have been recycled? Is it harmful to animals? How many centuries will it take to degrade?

Ranger Russ

Ranger Russ

As the MPNC outgrew the farmhouse (where the popular touch tank was in the basement), the Friends of Hammonasset, a group devoted to the whole park, began raising funds and lobbying the legislature. A state/FOH partnership evolved; the state paid for construction of the new building, and the Friends raised money to design and build its exhibits.

The new building has natural shingles and white trim, has photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity, and has a geothermal heating/cooling system. The farmhouse still sees use; the MPNC has programs on its porch and hopes to improve indoor spaces for classrooms and storage. The MPNC office will stay there because by design, the new building doesn’t have office space. “The whole new building is for the public,” Russ said.

In the lobby, staff and volunteers welcome visitors, answer questions, and run a small gift shop. The lobby exhibit, “In the Air,” includes mounts of Connecticut birds suspended from the ceiling. Below, three live monk parakeets, bright green, peer from their big cage. Monk parakeets, originally from southern South America, have been present in Connecticut for decades. The MPNC took these in and raised them  by special state permit after their nest was destroyed. (It’s firm MPNC policy to keep permanently only animals that can’t survive in the wild because of injuries or other problems. Most animals stay only a short time; then they’re returned to their natural habitats, and others replace them.)

_dsc6266-copyThe centerpiece of the “In the Water” exhibit is the touch tank, nine feet in diameter. Kids and adults reach right in to encounter crabs, fish, even a lobster. “It’s cool!” said Skye Aceto, age 12, of Durham, who gently stroked a flounder.  A visiting grandmother recalled that last year her grandson, then age seven, got to meet a puffin fish in the tank in the farmhouse basement. He still remembers it.

A multi-purpose room, with space (and chairs) for group programs, houses the “At the Beach” exhibit, which includes a video about Hammonasset. The “In the Woods” exhibit is devoted to turtles and snakes, frogs and salamanders, trees and pests. Residents of the tanks include a northern brown snake, an eastern rat snake, a wood frog, a green frog, and a red slider. The turtle tank holds lots of turtles of assorted kinds. MPNC programs include “presentations” at which each turtle is introduced and discussed. The presentations also include advice on what to do if you come upon a hapless turtle on the road.

Russ noted that many a grownup visitor tells him, “I came here thinking my kids would learn a lot.  But I learned, too.” Russ wants it known that the MPNC is for all ages. “We’re educating the voters of tomorrow and of the present,” he said.

Though he clearly loves his work, he didn’t expect such a career. He grew up in Montville and took a regional vo-ag program in high school. “I was very shy,” he said, “more into animals than comfortable with people.” But after community college, he directed the seasonal nature center at Rocky Neck State Park. “For my first program I was to talk about snakes, which I really love,” he recalled. His boss enthusiastically promoted the program with posters everywhere. To Russ’s horror, more than 200 people showed up. “I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown,” he said. But in a few minutes, he realized that not only did he know a lot about snakes, he actually liked telling people about them.  He thought, “I could do this for the rest of my life!” Soon he was back in school, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. He became director of the MPNC in 2001.

By 2005, MPNC was a year-round operation; in 2014, its staff and volunteers gave 650 programs, and 33,000 people visited the center. Popular onsite programs include regular beach seining in summer (“Find out what you are swimming with,” the brochure says) and some seal-watching in winter when, Russ said, “Seals haul right up on the rocks here.” MPNC’s group programs have introduced kids to, among other topics, “owl pellet forensics.”Noticing how hard it was to keep teens interested in nature programs, Russ devised a volunteer program for ages 13-18.  Participants shadow interpreters, learn from them, and help run programs. “That connects them,” he said. Some go on to take seasonal MPNC jobs and to continue related study and work. MPNC “grads,” he noted proudly, include an entomologist in Pennsylvania, a fisheries biologist in Georgia, and numerous teachers.

The Friends group holds training sessions for folks who want to volunteer at the center. “The plan for the new building is to improve and expand our programs,” Russ said, as he continued his way through the exhibits. Then he stopped again. “Skates,” he said to some visitors peering into a tank.

“In three weeks, we might have baby skates here!”

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Caryn B. Davis Photography