On the Trail – Paul Dolan
WildforaRI, Spring 2016
Powder Mill Ledges is one of the sixteen public wildlife refuges owned by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. This refuge also houses the headquarters for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
There are three separate trails on the property, taking 35 to 90 minutes, if you want to explore all of the trails. It is an easy to a slightly moderate hike; some areas have a little bit of slope and in the times of high water some muddy areas.
I have always enjoyed this area to hike and to use as a learning tool for the amount of change that happens in a short amount of time. The refuge is about 120 acres, and if the building is open, you may want to stop inside and get a map and a brochure that explains the area’s 15 marked stations. I have always found it to be an oasis just a step away from civilization. Another unique feature of Audubon refuges is that hunting is not allowed, so they are great places to hike in the fall.
The hike starts immediately after the parking lot, and at the begin- ning you are roaming past a first successional habitat where you can see remnants of old apple orchards, Red Maple, Big Toothed Aspen, and many other species associated with a transition zone.
Traveling a short distance, you come to a bridge looking over a vernal pool, and in the spring the peepers are very loud. In this area you can also view the area that the society manages as an open field habitat. This is managed on a two- year cycle of mowing to enhance open field species and not allow it to go into brush. Bluebird boxes can be seen in the field.
Continuing on, you pass stone walls and, looking to the east and up the slope, you see a quick change in species diversity with more White Pine, a clear indicator of when agricultural use of the area ended. Farther along the trail, legend has it, there is a mound that was an Indian lookout area, now home to a grove of Staghorn Sumac. You go by a swampy area and then see the transition of species; as you go up a hill, you see a variety of oaks and pines. When you get to one of the highest points, you cross a bridge going over an upland swamp, a very unique habitat and a testimony to the soils found in this area.
As you ramble further on, you start to see Pitch Pine, evidence of the area being burnt over the centuries. In this area you must decide whether to continue on the blue trail or cross the power lines where the yellow trail takes you. What is interesting about this intersection is that you have a major habitat change, which because of the power lines has to remain in a constant stage of being a brushy area, where one finds different species of wild- life including those on ATVs that sometime frequent the area (illegally).
Traveling back onto the blue trail headed for headquarters you past old wolf trees, remnants of past pasturing practices, plus more stone walls, where you can still see the barbed wire in the trees. As you make your descent into the open field, de- pending on the wind direction, you can sometimes smell the local food establishments and plan your lunch. Going through the open field in the spring, you can see the tracks of visitors to nesting birds. Even the landscaping around the building is unique in how in blends into the surrounding area.
This is a nice hike not far from your neighborhood.
Directions to Powder Mill Ledges, 12 Sanderson Road, Smithfield, RI
From I-295, take exit 7B onto Route 44 West. At the fourth set of lights, turn left onto Route 5 (Sanderson Road). Turn left at the second driveway into the parking lot.
Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island