Monday, December 5, 2016

Hoffman Preserve: Off the beaten path

By Beth Sullivan
The Hoffman Preserve in Stonington is one of Avalonia’s most beloved preserves. At almost 200 acres, it is nearly the largest, surpassed only by the Pine Swamp complex in Ledyard. Many decades ago, an earlier owner planted portions of the property with various species of conifers and evergreens to remind him of his favored forest areas in the north. There are areas of lofty Pines, Spruce, Hemlock and some Larch, each “plantation’ area with a unique feel. There are uplands and lowlands, vernal wetlands, and a small pond that holds water most all year long. Many of the special features are easily visible from one of the several trails.

Stewards walk the line

As stewards we will walk the trails any number of times during the year as part of general reviews and to do basic maintenance, but we don’t usually go too far off the trails unless there is a specific need to do so. However once a year we need to walk the boundaries, all the outer edges of a preserve, way off the trail, no matter what the conditions. We chose these last nice days to get out and explore all the corners of Hoffman Preserve, find the boundaries, and explore places I had never seen.
As we posted signs, we were grateful for stone walls marking the boundaries.

The frontage along Route 201 is highlighted by beautifully made stone walls, a true New England photo opportunity. The look is enhanced by the deep dark greens of the Hemlock ‘plantation’ that runs along behind them. Even in winter there is welcome green.
From there the boundary turns westward and goes upland into the deciduous woods. There are Oaks and many Beech trees, including one massive specimen that can be seen from the yellow trail. As we continued on our boundary walk we silently thanked the old landowners and farmers who built the stone walls we followed and were grateful that when the land was divided the divisions occurred along these walls.
This huge Beech has probably seen many decades of walkers through this woodland.

Along the south border we ran into the Bennet Yard, an old cemetery that is included within the boundaries of the Hoffman Preserve. The old headstones tell their stories, and the Yard can be reached on the blue trail. From there the boundary walls get harder to follow, and they are no longer straight. At this point we had to cut into the preserve a bit to get around a thicket and found ourselves in an amazing tumble of glacial till. There were rocks all dropped and scattered, all sizes and piled, and deep holes to catch a foot or provide a home for any number of small creatures. Some look like they were carefully balanced by some great hand. Near the bottom of the slope where we were able to pick up another stone wall, we discovered a lovely, healthy young Hemlock grove. It would be a perfect place for a small owl to perch ( note to self: get back there during the winter to take a look).
The Bennet Yard is a family cemetery with several generations honored within the walls.

In places large rocks are balanced as if they had been carefully placed by a very large hand.

Streams flow to the Mystic River

As land continued to drop, we noticed small seeps and springs from the uplands beginning to converge and flow downward to the western boundary. It is easy to understand the concept of a watershed when you follow the water trail. Find a place where the water seems to collect or emerge from the ground. After all the rain, there were small creeks running from several upland areas. They stream down hill, join and gather momentum. In several areas they pass under the wall and go off the property until they meet the larger Whitford Brook. We followed that western wall and could hear and glimpse this swift running waterway, a major source of the Mystic River.
In several areas the Hemlocks have died. They may be removed to make room for new healthy growth. 

Following the boundary walls and going off the trails, allowed us to experience parts of this lovely preserve not frequently noticed. We took down old Mashantucket Land Trust signs and replaced them with Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. We checked to make sure there were no encroachments along the property lines. We discovered one geocache. We discovered a new hemlock grove and a place where the pileated woodpecker did some major work on several big dead trees. We assessed where the habitats were healthy and areas where some management might be required to help restore the forest. We watched the progress of water from ground source to where it begins a march to the ocean.
Pileated Woodpeckers leave their mark as they seek insects in decaying snags.
In 1995 Mashantucket Land Trust was renamed Avalonia Land Conservancy. Some of the old signs still remain.
We didn’t get it all done in one day. But we look forward to the next leg.

 Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Be curious, be aware, again


We are re-posting an older entry this week. We hope you enjoy reading it. Remember, if you make purchases from Amazon use the Smile program to help support Avalonia Land Conservancy.

By Beth Sullivan

Little did I know, as I labored in my vegetable garden this summer, that I was working under a potential disaster. Not 12 feet over my head hung a huge hornets’ nest. 
Overhead all summer long.

Now that the leaves are falling, hidden treasures are revealing themselves in the trees we have lingered near all season. Walk along a favorite trail and look around. It is a new view. Nests that protected wildlife of all kinds are now becoming visible. Most nests are seasonal only; their creators have long deserted them and will not return the next year. This is only partly true of the makers of these lovely, large paper globe hornet nests.
The White-faced or Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate) are relatives of Yellow jackets we may be more familiar with. They are protective, aggressive and deliver a painful sting. At the end of the summer season, a hive like this can contain an average of 400-500 individuals. Never mess with a nest! You irritate one, you activate all. As the weather turns chilly the hornets become slower and go dormant, but if you were to find one of these nests on the ground now, and think to bring it indoors for examination, you could be in for a nasty surprise. The warmth may awaken the occupants and you could end up with a house full of angry hornets.
White-faced hornet.
Photo by Patty O'Hearn Kickham from Flickr.

The winter winds will rip and tear it apart, the hornets will die, but each year we have more. It is an interesting cycle. At the end of the summer, each hive can have produced several new queens. They are fertilized by specially raised males. Before the cold sets in, these new queens leave the nest and by this time in November, they can be found under rotting logs in the woods. There they hibernate until spring.

Artful home

When the weather warms again, the new queens emerge from hibernation and disperse, each finding a new nest site. She begins creating a nest of a few cells and lays the eggs she carried all winter. She tends and feeds the larva until they become ready drones to begin the work of building and tending the nest. Each succeeding generation of workers goes out and chews wood products, bark, twigs, decks and siding as well. When they mix the wood pulp with their saliva, they then spread it out in bands onto the existing hive making it larger and creating more combs within. The combs can be 5-7 deep and up to 10 inches in diameter. A Papier-Mache’ project and a home for hundreds as well! It is truly a work of art, shades of grays and browns overlaid and combined. Amazing. 
Small chamber of the queen's first nest.

More chambers added into the comb.
New eggs are laid within the cells. These hornets do not store food, or make honey in their paper combs. It is strictly for egg and larva development. The adult workers go out and feed on a number of things, including nectar, but also other insects which they bring back to the nest, chew up and deliver to the larvae or queen!
A work of art.

Watch from afar

As the season progresses and the hive grows, you can often witness the activity from afar, if you can find the nest. Even birds stay away from an active hive. Some mammals are persistent enough to go after the hive to eat the larva within. But the positioning, way out on a delicate limb, often thwarts even the most determined.

It is the cold season now. The queens have left. Any remaining larvae or adults are dormant or dead. The gray paper nests hang more visibly over trails and at woodland edges. This morning I watched as two Tufted Titmice attacked the one over my garden. They ripped at the outer layers. One went in and out of the entrance hole. They were feasting on those inside that were doomed anyway. And so the cycle continues.  
A project for the birds now.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Giving Thanks

By Beth Sullivan
As we approach this most wonderful holiday, I always appreciate the ability to look back over the year and think of all the ways we have helped one another and been helped by so many.
We need to be grateful that there are organizations such as Avalonia, all across the state, country and even the world, working to preserve landscapes, large and small, so that they will be available for future generations of people and wildlife.
We are grateful for our members and donors who understand the need to support us with their time, membership, and donations to make sure this effort continues.
We need to thank those who spend countless hours caring for the land we protect.
The future is always uncertain; we need to protect our resources and encourage our leaders to do so as well. Parents need to show their children what it means to love the Earth, and we need to make sure there is clean water for them to explore, open land to visit, and trees to hug.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. With our sincere thanks to all who help us on our mission.

Photographs by Avalonia members and volunteers.

We are:

Blessed with seasons that change and bring beauty everyday.


Grateful for stewards who help maintain the preserves. 

Grateful for those who strive to teach the next generation about the wonders of our world.


Indebted to those organizations who collaborate with us to achieve our stewardship goals.


Thankful Avalonia continues to protect open spaces that invite everyone to walk and learn to love nature.


Thankful for founders and donors like Anna Coit.


We hope there will always be trees to hug and parents who encourage their children to do so.


We hope there will be clean water and fresh streams to explore for all generations.

Amazon Smile 

Remember you can support Avalonia Land Conservancy through the Amazon Smile program.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Early thanks and late planting

By Beth Sullivan
It is November, and it is a good month to take stock, clean up, and begin planning for next year. That is the essence of hope. But we have not had a really hard killing frost yet, and the ground is soft, moist from some beneficial rains, and we are taking advantage of these conditions to keep planting.
Fall is not just the time for planting spring bulbs.

Still planting season

We all know that this is still a good time to plant beautiful spring blooming bulbs because they still have time to settle in, put down roots before hard winter. Well, it is somewhat the same for other plants, and on the preserves we continue our efforts to restore natives to areas we have cleared of invasives.
On Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve, we have come to the end of our big grant from Long Island Sound Futures Fund from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the Aquarium’s generous efforts. There are still plants ready to go into the ground. Native Seaside Goldenrod is a natural to work the soil, break up old Phragmites roots, and begin to make the land more accepting to native seeds of marsh grasses and other plants. We have some beautiful Shad bushes, just gorgeous with autumn color, to go up on slightly higher ground to give the birds and bees some variety in pollen and berries and give the neighbors some lovely native shrubs to enjoy. These will go in with the help of Pine Point students who are beginning a new phase of collaboration and education on the site.
At Dodge Paddock the Seaside Goldenrod takes hold and works into the soil.



The roots of newly planted native marsh grasses will grow to support the sides of the channel.

Beautiful Knox preserve

On Knox preserve we have accomplished so much with the help of an amazing group of volunteers who persist in tackling invasives, clearing walls, and preparing for restoration. Visitors to the preserve remark on the unbelievable transformation since 2011. We have had several very generous donations to help us fund our efforts. Over a year ago a member supported the purchase of high quality, native grass seeds to restore several large areas. Being frugal, I am still squeaking every last seed out of those bags, and the results are beautiful. Then last fall, another Avalonia life member joined a group from StoneRidge on a walk through the preserve, and all were enthralled by the views and overall enjoyment of the trails. Several of those hikers chose then and there to sign up to be Avalonia members. We always appreciate new supporters. But one couple chose to make a more generous donation of $500 for our efforts there. I knew what my plan was, and I held onto that. Then the Mystic Garden Club gave us a grant for another $500 to support the restoration effort and educational signage on the preserve. So this fall we ordered a number of native shrubs: Viburnum, Bayberry, native Rose, Blueberry, Beach plum, and some of those beautiful Shad bushes. Last week a group of hardy diggers were pleasantly surprised to find easy soil, no big rocks and obstructions and we got them all planted, watered, and mulched. We are working on another sign like the others there to help educate visitors on the importance of using native plants in any landscape and especially resilient ones along the shore.
A beautiful native, Shadbush is a perfect addition to the landscape at Knox Preserve. 


The pollinator garden benefited from some new plantings this fall.


After years of work to clear invasives, we were able to plant two dozen native shrubs.

This week, another member is digging from her personal nursery to supply Swamp Milkweed, Joe-Pye Weed, New England Aster, and others so we can add native diversity to the wet meadow at Knox.
We will dig them in, and they will have some time to settle, maybe extend some roots in the still warm ground. But then they will go dormant for the winter. When spring arrives the plants will be ready to send out new roots and growth, and we will be able to enjoy the flowers, and the wildlife that will enjoy them as well.
This Jack in the Pulpit, which grows from a bulb-like corm, was found blooming on Halloween. Trick or Treat!

Thank you to all who have supported these efforts.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Fall Stewardship Decisions

by Beth Sullivan
Like any gardener, this time of year is when we, as stewards, size up the season, evaluate successes, challenges, and set priorities for what needs to be done before winter sets in. As usual, there are never enough people or hours to accomplish everything: boundary surveys, trail maintenance, structure repair, and invasive management.
Deciding about what to do with our fields is also a challenge at this time of year. Maintenance of meadow habitat is probably the most labor intensive and costly stewardship need. In many cases we rely on the goodness of members or “friends of Avalonia” to do mowing for us. In other cases we contract with local farmers who have the traditional tractor and equipment to get around the old farm fields for us. But it is the strategy behind the timing of the mowing that is variable.
Bigger machines do the job quickly and efficiently but often cost more.

Always cutting grass

A traditional farm field is mowed several times a season for hay. Frequent mowing like this encourages lush grass growth and deters the woody growth of other plants. However, mowing early or mid-season is devastating for wildlife. The first and second cuttings of hay disrupt small mammals, rabbits in particular. Also deer will bring their fawns to a field to hide for a day, and they are often victims of the mower. Nesting birds require a longer season too. Many are ground nesters and arrive in the area in mid-April and are not done nesting until mid-August. That is not good if you need to “make hay while the sun shines!” In general, Avalonia does not mow any fields for hay crops.
Pollinators need a late summer meadow.

Mowing in early September allows the animals to grow up and leave their nests. But later summer and early fall is prime time for the field flowers and prime time for pollinators as well. Visit any field in September and October, and it is awash with color and alive with all manner of insect life: grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies and hundreds of bee and wasp species. Spiders abound. The skies above the field are filled with dragonflies feasting, and then the birds take advantage of it all as well.
Early autumn meadows supply seeds for many birds.

However, mowing at this time also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds, like swallowwort and porcelain berry and it keeps woody invasives under control as well.
Mowing in fall can leave small mammals vulnerable to predators. 

Mowing in November and December has allowed plenty of time for animals to grow up and move, has given pollinators a chance to feast before they migrate or lay eggs, and seeds are abundant for seed loving birds. But cutting now destroys Praying Mantis egg cases, wasp galls, cocoons and chrysalis’s that may be attached to woody stems. And cutting now removes cover for overwintering small mammals. Mice and other rodents are exposed as they scurry though the fields gathering seeds for winter. It leaves them wide open to predators like foxes and hawks. So, good for predators, bad for prey.
Without a hard frost, this Preying Mantis was still enjoying a November day.

If we leave the mowing until spring, we maintain the protective cover for mammals, do not destroy egg cases and cocoons, and leave seeds on stalks for birds to find. But springs can be wet and muddy, and farmers have other chores to do, fields to till and gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
Haying early is devastating for wildlife.

What is a steward to do?

The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can based on science and biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some are being mowed now, and others will be left up all winter. Take time to walk several fields and see what you observe in each. And, we are ever grateful for those who drive tractors and walk behind mowers to get the job done, whenever it gets done.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.