Life & Death On The Mill River

Every Wednesday at 4:30, the company for which I work as the account manager for the Northeast of North America, SeeClickFix, pauses to engage in serious, or not-so-serious, as the case may be, team-building fun. Our “Summer of Dreams” activities range from music trivia, to quarter-spinning contests, to team-based logic puzzles, to clearing the last bit of the Mill River Trail, which was but a sparkle in Bill Brown’s eye some 30+ years ago when he first started running the Eli Whitney Museum in East Rock Park.

Our silly activities are enjoyable, but our socially and environmentally-minded activities are bonding, galvanizing, and deeply embedded in our devotion to the City of New Haven, a city we all love, and the city out of which the SeeClickFIx platform grew and flourished.

Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s co-founder and CEO, urged our team to use a couple of “Summer of Dreams” Wednesdays to clear the last 500+ feet of the Mill River Trail, a project he has been passionate about for several years, in conjunction with the Mill River Trail Group; and J.R. Logan, who heads the Mill River Trail Group and is the executive director of MakeHaven.

This last 500+ feet of the trail skirts under the 91 Northbound and Southbound overpasses and by our temporary SeeClickFix summer home at the Drive co-working site at District, 470 James St.

We spent the afternoons of Aug.15 and 29 clearing the Mill River trail in 85-95 degree temperatures with weed whackers, hedge trimmers of both the motorized and non-motorized varieties, branch cutters.—and yes, really, machetes of wildly varying lengths.

On the 15th, we tamed invasive vines, poison ivy and sumac, and collected various forms of plastic and non-plastic garbage that had been abandoned in the underbrush, ultimately leaving the stretch from State Street to James Street more than passable.

On the 29th, we returned with six weed whackers, five wheelbarrows, eight heavy-duty rakes, and a bevy of volunteers from SeeClickFix, the Edgewood skatepark, and the Mill River Trail Group to spread four giant New Haven city-deposited piles of wood chips along the trail to prevent the re-growth of weeds and poisonous plants.

Talk about satisfying! We had worked as a team of New Haven residents — both residential and commercial — to clear the last stretch of trail along one of the city’s most significant waterways, the Mill River, an environment rich in avian and aquatic life that traverses a number of Hamden and New Haven neighborhoods. We SeeClickFixers were all proud to contribute to such a “quality-of-life” improving project.

Toward the end of our time spreading wood chips on the 29th of August, my friend and colleague (and CEO) Ben Berkowitz set out to film the evolution of the trail between State Street and James Street. He returned excitedly to tell me, an avid bird watcher, bee and butterfly enthusiast and environmental activist, that there was a large colony of roosting birds hanging out down the trail on the branches of fallen trees in the Mill River.

I had been documenting the trail forging with my “nice camera,” a Nikon D500 with a Nikkor 18-300mm lens. After Ben’s encouragement to check out the roosting birds, I dashed down the trail to see what was up.

I found perched among the branches of trees that had fallen years ago into the Mill River a massive colony of juvenile Double Crested Cormorants, shore birds that are capable of diving 45 meters below the surface of the ocean to capture their fish prey. These juvies distinguished themselves by their tan-brown bodies and light colored chests. Adults tend towards charcoal or black with yellow beaks, two crests, and turquoise-aqua eyes. These bird are extremely hydrodynamic!

I was so excited. I snapped shots of a lone bird in one felled tree and eight to ten individuals in another. I had spent the entire summer observing and tracking the diversity of species on the stretch of river I had access to. It was a daily pre-occupation of mine.

Cormorant Trapped

Robin Ladouceur PhotosAt 6:45 a.m. on the 30th, I hooked my camera up to my MacBook Air only to find that my photos of the roosting colony of Cormorants from the day before revealed an upsettingly tragic image — the single Double Crested Cormorant I had noted the day before in low branches of the Mill River was stuck there only because s/he was tangled in fishing line and thus, inextricably trapped in a felled tree.

My heart sank. I have been an amateur birder since college in 1991. My passion for and knowledge of birding only flourished here in New Haven after graduate school, when I joined the New Haven Bird Club, started following the Connecticut Ornithological Association listserv, and started volunteering at A Place Called Hope in Killingworth. I could not see this image of a shore bird in distress and not do … something.

So, at 7:45 in the morning on Thursday, I put on my grubbiest clothes, gathered a mesh laundry basket, blanket, towel, and scissors in order to attempt a rescue.

Agitatedly, I drove to District, parked my car, grabbed the necessary supplies and then plotted how I would get to the cormorant trapped on branches in the Mill River.

I clambered over the James Street bridge railing. Grasping the chain linked fence, I slowly crept down the rocky bank to the river shore below. I was lucky that it was low tide, even if the river mud was a little like quicksand.

I wove my body and supplies through various felled trees and branches until I was near the tangled Cormorant. I tentatively stepped shod foot into river mud, gallumping sloppily closer and closer to the dangling bird.

Sadly, the green flies clustered on the bird’s body indicated that it was already dead. Most likely it had drowned overnight as the tidal waters rose on the brackish Mill River.

My heart sank again. If only I had looked at the photos the night before, I might have been able to save this precious life.

I firmly believe we are not stewards of the earth; we are but this planet’s cohabitants. Other species share this marvelous and magical world with us and we with them. We do not exceed or supercede them. We share. And we must share this earth better. Climate change, habitat loss, and pesticides are formidable antagonists, and we humans are driving all three. Really, truly, only humans can stem the tide of such onslaughts on the environment and our precious fellow creatures.

Mid-thigh deep in water and knee deep in mud, I tentatively moved through the thick river silt toward the dead cormorant. Grasping the entangled wing, I cut down the fishing line that had trapped this lovely, remarkable creature below the high tide line overnight.

With a heavy heart and disappointment in my fellow humans, I brought the dead cormorant, who had swallowed a fishing hook and then become irrevocably tangled in eight to ten feet of line, to the water’s edge. I cut away the fishing line, removing it permanently from the area.

The Price Of Ghost Fishing

Internally, I swore at the careless people who had abandoned this fishing line in the first place. “Ghost Fishing” like this is a horrific scourge to wildlife.

Ghost fishing is the term for the damage that abandoned fishing gear (line, hooks, nets, bobbers, etc.) does to wildlife near and far. It is human error. Period. That is all that it is. Human error. And it needs to be eradicated. This past summer saw far too many Osprey and other bird deaths from ghost fishing. For those of us who care about the environment and birds, these are senseless, frustrating, and enraging losses. To see a bird population that has rebounded so beautifully in the face of pesticide challenges experience losses due to the human error of “Ghost Fishing” is heartbreakingly sad and frustratingly senseless..

With awareness and education, Ghost Fishing can be eradicated in Connecticut (and beyond!). Given what happened on the Mill River this past Wednesday/Thursday and the other tales of Osprey lost to fishing line and twine this past summer, SeeClickFix and The Mill RIver Trail Group will be partnering to raise awareness about and stem the tide of Ghost Fishing with the Menunkatuck Audubon Society (which has funds for fishing line recycling bins and informational materials), the Connecticut Ornithological Association (which has micro-grants for projects like placing fishing line recycling bins along a stretch of trail), The New Haven Bird Club, Connecticut Audubon, and A Place Called Hope’s “Pick it Up” project,  which specifically underscores the need for people to remove fishing line, hooks, balloons, balloon twine, and other plastics from waterways.

A Place Called Hope’s video “Carry Me Home,” which chronicles the tragedy of Ghost Fishing for a juvenile Bald Eagle on the Connecticut River, had a profound impact on me and others last fall when the film was released. SeeClickFix and the Mill River Trail Group will soon be installing stations with fishing line recycling bins and informational materials that outline for people who fish the environmental hazards of Ghost Fishing.

2018 has been officially dubbed “The Year of the Bird.” This year also marks the 100th Anniversary of the single most important national bird protection law in existence: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBTA and other environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act are suffering at the hands of the Trump administration’s deregulatory fervor. This administration privileges big business over the environment and human health in every decision they have made thus far. Regardless, there are things you can do to protect birds and the environment. Call your Congressional Reps and Senators. Protest the rollback of regulations that conserve wildlife, limit pesticides, and endanger many and sundry wildlife species. Volunteer with International Coastal Cleanups, plant pollinator gardens, stop spraying for mosquitos, raise awareness among family and friends.

While larger scale projects are productive, nothing is better than individual action. As a citizen of this glorious planet we call earth — this magical blue marble hurtling through space that we call home —  you, too, can undertake effective actions of your own. My advice: Keep heavy-gauge garbage bags and rubber gloves or re-usable garden gloves in the trunk of your car. Maybe even invest in a set of garbage pickers, or long grill tongs. You can use these items to safely remove fishing line, hooks, balloons, balloon twine, and other plastics from your favorite waterways. Doing this really will make a difference. And making a difference will make you feel happier. You will feel like you are contributing to a solution.

Please be a part of the solution. And please, reach out to any of the organizations I have hyperlinked to find out more about their endless and amazing initiatives and contributions to our environment.

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posted by: tmctague on September 5, 2018  1:35pm

Where can we see pictures of the trailblazing?! 

Sad article, but thanks for raising the issue.  I’ll talk about this when I bring my students to the marshes at West River Park.

posted by: Nan Bartow on September 5, 2018  2:17pm

Yay, Robin.  You always do the right thing where birds are concerned.

posted by: LadyBird on September 5, 2018  2:30pm

Trailblazing photos may be found here:

and here!


PS - yes, indeed, a very sad tale, but we are building a coalition to help curb the effects of ghost fishing in New Haven along the waterways and trails!

posted by: LadyBird on September 5, 2018  2:36pm

Also - for more photos of the bird life along the Mill River, please see this album of mine:

And thank you, Nan, for your support and encouragement!

posted by: Seth Poole on September 7, 2018  11:03am

This is a great story!  I wish I had prior knowledge of this event. Great work Elm City!!!

posted by: LadyBird on September 7, 2018  11:11am

Thank you, Seth, for your comment and enthusiasm! We will be doing at least one more round of trail neatening and laying of wood chips. We will post something on the Mill River Trail Facebook page in advance of the event. Please join the group!

Also, I will be working with various groups to install Fishing Line Recycle bins - I will get the word out just in case you are interested in that activity as well.

Kind regards,
LadyBird (aka Robin)