A Tour of Congdon Wood, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s Newest Wildlife Refuge

Protected land in North Kingstown means healthier ecosystems for wildlife and humans


A recent walk on a chilly spring day around Congdon Wood in North Kingstown offered a glimpse of the important natural habitats and wildlife uses protected on the 300-acre parcel, which contains a sizable stretch of the Saugatucket River. The swath of forested land is home to trees over 100 years old. “This time of year, a lot of birds are migrating north, so they need places like this to rest as they’re heading up to the Arctic, for example. These woodlands are very important for that,” explains Scott Ruhren, senior director of conservation at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI).

Thanks to a generous donor, the recently acquired wildlife refuge will be spared from future development and fills in a piece of the puzzle in a larger conservation greenway of land that ASRI protects. Ruhren notes that “there are some species that want a lot of land,” so for forest specialist birds like wood thrushes, veeries, pileated woodpeckers, and others, the large tract of land connected by the new refuge is significant.

There’s no public access point at Congdon Wood, so it isn’t open for visitors, but the lack of human disturbance presents its own benefits for research and management. Ruhren shares that the first step is taking a baseline of what’s living on the property, to serve as a point of comparison years from now. “Our goal is to keep it intact,” he says.

When we came to the headwaters of the Saugatucket River, a babbling section of stream that meandered and cut winding paths through the scenery, Ruhren pointed out that there’s very likely native brook trout that overwinter in deep pools in these banks. “If you sat here quietly, you would probably see mink, too, which love to fish the streams like this.” Pointing to log crossings over the stream, he explained, “even when the logs fall in the water, they create what we call debris dams, and those are actually breeding grounds for all the invertebrates, which then feed the fish, so the mayflies, beetles, crustaceans.” The presence of certain species of mayflies and stoneflies are also indicators of clean water.

Further south, the river opens up into a wide floodplain, and snowmelt and rain can make it run high. “If this were all developed, this river would flow faster, muddier, carry a lot of pollutants in it, and downstream would really flood even worse than it does,” Ruhren emphasized. Healthy wetlands, he explains, are the kidneys of a thriving ecosystem because of their role in filtering out pollutants. “We’re interested in keeping clean waters for wildlife as well as people.”

Along the walk, Ruhren, a botanist, identified the trees we passed and shared clues to deciphering the land’s past uses. Noticing a red oak, for instance, with wide, sweeping branches, he shared, “You can tell this had been a farm field because you’ll find a big oak like that. If you’re out in a field, red oaks grow really wide versus in the forest, they are naked all the way up and then have branches up at the top because they’re competing for light.”

There were also indicators of its current inhabitants, from coyote scat on the ground to the presence of vernal pools, or temporary ponds in the woods with no fish, where amphibians like the spotted salamander and wood frogs can safely lay their eggs. Ruhren mimics the call of  barred owls, which live in these woods – “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.”

Though the wildlife activity in Congdon Wood unfolds largely outside of human observation, ASRI executive director Jeff Hall emphasizes the importance of land donations to preserve wild open spaces. “Every piece of land has its own story and history to tell through the people donating it, and every acre of land is critical to help Audubon protect the natural biodiversity of the state.”


More Ways to Help

Volunteer opportunities with the Audubon Society of RI range from trail maintenance to helping survey species and monitoring vernal pools. Volunteer crew days take place once a month. Learn more at ASRI.org/volunteer



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