A Spectacular Day of Dining, and Admiring Waterfowl
It isn’t only the leaves that put on their most spectacular show of colors in autumn. It’s also waterfowl, who moult their dowdy summer plumage in October and November and put on their finest feathers, as their six-month mating and courtship period begins.
That’s what makes autumn the most perfect time of all to visit the Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy in Litchfield, Conn.
I traveled to Ripley last week, just as the ducks and cranes and swans were plucking at their old feathers, in preparation for the burst of autumn feather glory. Normally, of course, I wouldn’t have known that’s what was going on; I would have just thought they were, I don’t know, itchy or something. But I was lucky enough to have as my tour guide Andrew Ocampo, who is the conservancy’s director of aviculture and who is certainly the best informed expert on all avians of anyone I’ve ever met.
When I first drove up to Ripley, which turned out to be an easy 40-minute trek from my house in Lakeville, Conn.,I was greeted by Executive Director Gavin Berger (who lives in Millerton, N.Y., and is an advisor to The Lakeville Journal Co.) and Cate Hogan, the conservancy’s chief operating officer — and a pair of statuesque Siberian cranes, who had arrived at Ripley one week earlier from their home at Zoo New England in Boston, Mass.
“The cranes are extremely rare,” Hogan told us, and they had been sent to Ripley on sort of an avian couples retreat. The idea: To find the ideal environment for them to breed, and thus to help revive a dying breed. Once you’ve seen these birds, you know they’re eminently worth saving. They are tall and magnificent, mostly white but with black feathers on their wings, which they unfold to greet you when you enter the conservancy grounds. They live near the entrance — in a tented area, not just to protect the cranes from human visitors but also to protect the visitors themselves; these are very large, very strong birds.
At first I’d thought our visit to Ripley would be just a nice day outdoors looking at cranes and ducks and geese and swans. Once Ocampo joined us on the tour, however, it became clear that there is much more going on at Ripley than just paddling. Ocampo himself has an understated “aw shucks” quality; it takes Hogan to explain that he is one of the most sought-after bird breeders in the world. When I first heard this, I figured there would be test tubes and science involved, but as we walked around the grounds and the many ponds and pens, Ocampo explained that breeding birds has much more to do with creating the right mood, making sure the birds feel safe and that they are well-fed and comfortable. From there, nature does its thing (birds want to breed, Ocampo explained; like all animals, they have a biological imperative to replace themselves).
The next step is to keep the eggs and baby birds safe so they can make it to adulthood.
Ocampo won’t always be available to act as a tour guide, but there are plenty of signs at each of the ponds and pens explaining what’s what. You can also sign up for a guided tour, which will make your visit much more meaningful. There is a fee for the tour, however; but once you’ve spent a little time at the conservancy you’ll know for sure that the money you give will be well-spent. For tour information, go to the website at www.ripleyconservancy.org/guided-tours--field-trips.
You can also of course visit on your own, and you will still have a spectacularly good time, with lots of arresting visuals. This is a very quiet, low-key preserve, probably not a great place for kids who want to run energetically and chase the swans. Although it’s not stated explicitly, this is also not someplace you’ll want to bring your dog.
You can only visit on your own until the end of November, but you can arrange tours all year. You can also organize a special raptor tour, with Ocampo himself; the website offers information on the different raptor opportunities, but for one of them, visitors can have a raptor land on their arm, which I think would be about the most thrilling and terrifying experience ever.
The Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy is in Litchfield, Conn., on Duck Pond Road. Within an easy 10 minute drive are several culinary stops that will round out your visit and make it completely worth it to take a day trip to Litchfield:
• Thorncrest Farm and Milk House Chocolates, 280 Town Hill Road in Goshen, Conn.; www.milkhousechocolates.net. Handmade chocolates, created with milk from the cows on the (exquisitely clean) farm.
• Dutch Epicure, 491 Bantam Road, Litchfield, www.dutchepicure.com. A second-generation shop that is like a treasure trove of delicious baked goods, soups and curries, and European preserved goods (from pasta to jams) — and 30 varieties of licorice.
• The three Arethusa emporia, which include the ice cream and cheese shop, the sandwich and coffee shop (Arethusa a mano) and the luxury restaurant (Arethusa a tavola). All are within steps of each other.
• The sandwich shop is at 833 Bantam Road; you can park there, put in the order for your glorious sandwich, and while you wait you can walk next door to buy some loaves of exquisite, freshly baked bread from Bantam Bread, 853 Bantam Road, www.bantambread.com.
• For an old-school coffee house meal, you can go instead to the famous Patty’s, which is next door to Dutch Epicure and, for now at least, has outdoor dining under tents. Patty’s Restaurant is at 499 Bantam Road, www.pattyslitchfield.com.
• And if a visit to Ripley inspires you to seek out other nature preserves in the area, you will pass by the White Memorial Conservation Center as you leave Ripley and head to the more epicurean sites on this list. www.whitememorialcc.org.