Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge

Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge, Coventry, RI

On the Trail – by Scott Rurhen
WildfloraRI, Spring/Summer 2013

Located in the beautiful rolling landscape of western Coventry, the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge is the newest public refuge owned by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Attractive and rewarding in any season, the 295-acre Mays Refuge is a popular spring and early summer destination. Open from dawn to dusk, the Mays Refuge is marked by a large refuge sign along Victory Highway, Route 102, just north of Route 95. The approximately three miles of trails are clear, comfortable and well blazed. The shorter loop can be completed in 45 minutes to an hour; the full trail system takes two to three hours depending on speed and how often you stop.

This special place is named in honor of the long-time resident and refuge donor, the late artist Maxwell Mays. Mr. Mays donated the property to Audubon to preserve what he cherished for over sixty years. Looking from the parking lot you can see Maxwell Mays’s former home, owned at one time by Caleb Carr, the last colonial governor of Rhode Island.

All trails at Mays start and end at the trailhead across from the parking lot. A kiosk displays facts about seasonal natural history. As you enter the refuge, trail maps and brochures are available in a box on the fence beneath a canopy of large White Pines (Pinus strobus). White Pines come and go along the hike but may be the most abundant tree species at Mays. As in many areas in Rhode Island, Red Pines (Pinus resinosa) were planted fifty to sixty years ago along this driveway. Stumps are evidence of these former residents.

The Carr Pond Trail (white blazes) runs along what used to be the pasture for Mr. Mays’ pony. Introduced and native grasses such as Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grow with native and introduced forbs. Some of the late spring to summer wildfl owers are Fragrant Bedstraw (Galium spp.), large clones of spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium), the great butterfl y plant, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), small White and Heath Asters (Aster vimineus and A. pilosus), Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) and a host of beautiful naturalized wildfl owers including Deptford Pinks (Dianthus armeria), Birds-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Crown Vetch (Coronilla varia) and Butter-and-eggs (Linaria vulgaris).

Entering the next field, a hayfield, you are steered along the northern edge. Soon you will make your first hiking decision: to head into the forest or to continue south along the field edge, across the private driveway and into another section of forest? This is a complete loop trail so you will see the entire Carr Pond trail with either choice. Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) line the sheltered edges of the forest.

If you choose to stay in the sun, you will see that in the drier forest edges, Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), Deer-tongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Tick Trefoils (Desmodium sp.) and Bush Clovers (Lespedeza sp.) thrive.

Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge

A peaceful field in the Maxwell Mays Wildlife Refuge.

Pink Lady-slipper Orchids (Cypripedium acaule), or Moccasin Flowers, are surprisingly common in the sun-dappled pine duff of the woodlands at Mays. Look also for the delicate green and white rosettes of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) on the forest floor, nourished by decaying leaves of hardwood trees. Though not as abundant as other woodland perennials, when you find one of these orchids you typically find several.

The discrete Cow-wheat (Melampyrum lineare) and the showy white Canada Mayfl ower (Maianthemum canadense) and Starflower (Trientalis borealis) are common in May and June. Year-round color is provided by the ubiquitous Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), best known for its evergreen leaves with a white center streak. Look too for its completely green relative, Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), with neatly whorled leaves. Both of these woodland plants produce a few white to pinkish flowers in summer. The pleasant tasting Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), also known as Teaberry, is identifiable by its glossy dark-green leaves and red fruit. Look for it creeping along sunny woodland trails.

Later in the summer, expect to find Indian Pipe (Monotropa unifl ora), that fascinating fungus-like plant that lacks chlorophyll. As summer wanes, White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus) picks up the pace.

Carr Pond is your destination and a chimney from a long-lost house is the decision point and beginning of the Hammitt Hill Trail (yellow blazes) on the western shore of the pond. You can either do the rest of the Carr Pond Trail or head to Hammitt Hill, the 22nd highest peak in Rhode Island at 609 feet. You can imagine Native American and later European colonist, soldiers and farmers meeting at this summit or using it as an overlook of the formerly cleared landscape.

On the Hammitt Hill Trail notice the boulder fields, glacial erratics and an oak forest thick with Huckleberry (Gaylusacia spp.). Huckleberry is a sign of poor soil fertility and prior disturbance. History is sparse for this land but the rocky land was likely cleared for wood and charcoal and grazed by sheep and other livestock. In higher, drier forest patches along the way you will see other hardwoods including American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), as well as Pignut (Carya glabra) and Mockernut Hickories (C. tomentosa). Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginianus), some very large, arch over the trails in places and grow up and down slope.

As you descend into cooler, moister portions of the trail look for new species. Though its flowers may be fading in early summer, Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolium) pops up along moister sections of trail. Pink to white flowers of Pinkster Azalea (Rhododendron nudifl orum) decorate random sunlit spots along the way in the sunny month of May. Wet, cool spots and stream sides harbor Sphagnum Moss (Sphagnum spp.), Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum and Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Beneath the canopy are shrubs and groundcovers such as wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) with its clusters of greenish white flowers, patches of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), scattered Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) and High-bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).

Ferns are also a big part of the Mays understory. Boulders on the Hammitt Hill Trail are often graced with a green mantle of Common Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), or Rock-cap. Rock outcrops may harbor Spleenworts (Asplenium sp.), mosses and countless lichens. Large swaths of Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) carpet the forest floor beneath Red Maples and oaks. Look also for Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) and New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), as well as several species of clubmoss, such as Shining Clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum), Ground Pine (L. obscurum) and Running Cedar or Creeping Jenny (L. digitatum). Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is predictably found in the sunny edges of meadows, trails and roadside at Mays, often joined by resilient Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum).

Hammitt Hill Trail reconnects with the Carr Pond Trail, and you can follow this home. As you leave the forest and enter the meadows you are back where you started, with a short walk back to your car.

Scott Ruhren, Ph.D., Senior Director of Conservation with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.