Last April, I packed my gear into my worn-out backpack, shoved some extra batteries for the GPS unit into my jacket pocket for good measure, and headed to the Hillis property. Nearly 170 acres of woods in Rindge and Winchendon, the Hillis land surrounds Robbins Brook and the human-made Robbins Pond, both of which are known to be home to a number of “species of greatest conservation need.” My job was to conduct a “physical site assessment”: to walk around, check boundaries, and take good notes. Our beloved plans and maps only tell part of the story. Nothing beats walking the land.
Sometimes I forget how many places there are around here where you can step off the road, walk for a few minutes, and then feel completely enveloped by the woods. The Hillis property is like that. No noise from roads or neighbors penetrated the quiet. I felt like a thunderous intruder crashing through the woods. A group of ducks floating in the brook instantly distracted me. Fumbling for my camera, I stumbled upon the bones of a wild turkey, the skeleton almost entirely intact. I slowed down. A little while later, I found a bone from a deer leg. Beyond that, deer scat and otter scat lying side by side. This is what “critical wildlife habitat” on my map looked like on the ground. I wondered how many creatures were watching me as I roamed “alone” through the quiet woods.
When I popped out of the woods to walk along the shoreline of Robbins Pond, the beaver patrol announced my arrival, slapping its tail to remind the neighborhood I was still there. Once I reached the mounded berm of the dam, I again saw a sleek dark head penetrate the pond’s surface. At first, I thought that this was a momma otter carrying her baby on her back. Then I remembered it was early April. The rambunctious, noisy, rolling water dance playing out before me was a decidedly pre-baby activity. This seemed like a good time to pick a comfy rock, eat my lunch, and—for the sake of a comprehensive assessment—record a few videos of the frisky otters.
Danny Hillis and Taylor Milsal see this land as a wildlife sanctuary, and it’s easy to see why. In December, Danny and Taylor donated conservation restrictions on their nearly 170 acres to Mount Grace, ensuring that countless generations of ducks, turkeys, deer, beavers, and otters will live in the woods and waters of this special place. Our entire region benefits from generous acts like these to protect and steward critical wildlife habitat.
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