Most people go to Southbury's Bent of the River nature sanctuary for the bird life — it's an Audubon Society preserve, after all. And don't get me wrong — I love "things with wings," I've been a Life Member of Audubon for decades, and the Bent is one of the best inland places for birds in Connecticut. You can watch goldfinches and grosbeaks, chickadees and catbirds, warblers and woodpeckers, nuthatches and flycatchers, dart in-and-out of an array of bird-feeders and the surrounding bushes, all from the comfort of a covered porch. But when I'm standing there, using Bent-borrowed binoculars, I'm also on the lookout for... snakes.
I volunteered in a zoo for a couple high-school summers, and one of my jobs was to feed the boa constrictors (ever wonder why the guinea pigs were near the Reptile House?). So I'm used to snakes... but when you're at an Audubon sanctuary, you're generally looking up for fast-moving creatures, not down for the slow-and-steady. At the Bent a few years back, though, I spotted from the corner of my eye, sliding smoothly along a stone wall, the biggest snake I'd ever witnessed in the wild.
A Bent staffer filled me in — he knew the black rat snake well, it lived in the nearby tractor barn. About six feet long, some six inches around at its widest, the thing must have weighed nearly 20 pounds... and was a little scary, since it seemed out-of-proportion for Connecticut (didn't monsters like that live in the Amazon Basin?!?!?). Only later did I learn that rat snakes are “gentle” (so says the state DEP), with the red rat snake — better known as the corn snake — probably the most common pet snake in the U.S.
I hope to see that rat snake every time I visit The Bent, which is monthly in good weather. But that's not the only reason I go back. It's a true nature sanctuary, and I've see any number of creatures there I've never seen (alive and wild, that is) anywhere else — hatchling turtles, woodcocks, weasels, certain migrating or nesting warblers. (One reason the wildlife thrives, no doubt, is the prohibition against dogs — I leave Delilah home.)
The woman who bequeathed the property to the Audubon Society, Althea Clark, wanted to retain the “mild wildness” of the land, and Audubon has been true to her philosophy... though has added to it, with regular nature programs. I saw the woodcocks during an early-spring-evening “Timberdoodle Walk” to observe the males' ridiculous mating dance; in summer the nature day-camps are in full swing, with one boy telling me in late July on the birding porch at the end of his two-week session, “I don't want to go home!”
Clark also insisted that managers of The Bent keep trail blazes and signs to a minimum, so while here you feel miles from civilization. There are too many trails — more than a dozen over more than 600 acres — to describe: suffice it to say they run the gamut from riverside to hill to forest to meadow trails, each with its own character.
I'm partial to the Weasel Swamp trail, for the name alone; you can easily get lost trying to find Sachem's Ridge Loop (I did, at least), and you'll put some good miles on you boots if you complete the Mitchell Farm trail (named after the family that sold the land to the Clarks). Most people start hiking The Bent by way of the meadow and riverside trails, as they're flat, scenic, and relatively short; you get the sense, as you walk past the bend in the Pomperaug River that names the preserve — and hear the water riffling over rocks and stones on the River Road trail — what life must have been like when the Pootatucks lived here in the 1700s. Surviving tribe members, the Bent's website notes, moved to Kent.
My most recent walk at the Bent was notable for a very tame flock of turkeys — they could hardly be bothered to move off the trail — and scores of butterflies. And, yes, a rat snake — dead, unfortunately, probably run over during a meadow-trail mow. The good news? Rat snakes are not endangered... indeed, can be taken alive, if you catch no more than one between May and September and use only a “hand or hand-held implement” (section 26-66-14-B, Connecticut Code). I'd like to see someone try to corral the Bent's tractor-barn snake, just to see how "gentle" it actually is...