Monday, June 18, 2018

Some history of how Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve were acquired

This week we revisit another posting from  students of Connecticut College's Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment.  This time about the history of Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve.

by Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

Much of this information comes from interviews with Shirley Beal and Anne Nalwalk, and we thank them for their time and great memories.
The Beal homestead and gardens.

A true grassroots effort

Shirley and Leonard Beal, owner of Dodson’s Boatyard, moved onto Main Street in Stonington Borough about 40 years ago. Their property looked out over a small piece of mostly wetlands that led up to Little Narragansett Bay. This was one of the last remaining pieces of undeveloped open space in Stonington Borough. This pristine parcel even played a significant role in the Stonington Borough community life, as it was the site of a historic and annual Easter day baseball game for Borough residents. Upon the passing of John E. Dodge, whose estate owned the land, there was great concern among the neighbors who abutted the property that it would be purchased and turned into condominiums. The Beals always had an interest in preserving land even before they became involved with Avalonia (or Mashantucket Land Trust, as it was called back then). 

A view from above of the gardens and the paddock.

With the Beals taking the lead, a fundraising effort began to purchase the pristine ocean front property and preserve it as one of the last remaining open spaces in Stonington Borough. In total, about 12 neighbors came together to purchase the land. Shirley remembers fondly how the efforts united the neighborhood, recalling the time a neighbor knocked on her door and insisted that though they couldn’t offer much, they wanted to help in any small way they could. It was no small task, involving many meetings and attorneys. The efforts ultimately ended in success, as they were able to purchase the land and preserve it through the Mashantucket Land Trust. The Beals then made another personal contribution to the preserve by donating a parcel of their own land and gardens that abutted the Dodge Paddock, creating an even larger parcel of land to be preserved.
Mrs, Beal's Garden in spring time.

Avalonia’s main task in managing the Dodge and Beal Preserves involves dealing with the drainage issues and the invasive Phragmites that have taken over the increasingly wetland. In recent years especially, the property has been flooding more and more as the tidal line and sea levels rise. The land originally had an open ended pipe to drain this flooding, though this simply facilitated flow of water both in and out of the preserve, and thus wasn’t terribly effective. Almost a decade ago a pipe with a clamshell-like device was installed that allowed water to flow out, but not in. This was moderately successful for several years, but the system was still plagued by frequent obstructions with sand and gravel after storms. As part of the massive destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the clamshell pipe was permanently clogged and secondary drain pipe fractured. In addition the storm deposited lots of debris around onto the property. It looks like it’s a good thing they never built condos there.
The historic walls still show the height of the debris after Sandy rolled through.

Pottery in the Past

Another interesting aspect of the Dodge Paddock preserve is the different industry that existed on the property over the last centuries. According to historical sources, beginning in 1811, cousins William and Adam State ran a pottery factory. Unfortunately, due primarily to technological developments in producing glass, the pottery industry began to lag and the States left the trade by 1835. Though the lifetime of their business may not have been long, the State cousins played a pivotal role in establishing the pottery industry in Connecticut and training several prominent apprentices. A steam powered saw mill was then run on the property until it burned down in 1865. Even to this day, pieces of pottery can be found on the property if one looks around close enough.
An example of States Pottery.

A mosaic made from States pottery shards.

Avalonia considers the Beals in the highest regard for their efforts in preserving this pristine and history-rich piece of land.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Stewardship, management, and a walk in the woods at Hoffman Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
The Hoffman Evergreen Preserve is one of Avalonia’s oldest and largest holdings. The original preserve was approximately 150, acres and with additions over the years, it is now closer to 200 acres. The original land included several areas of planted evergreens in man -made forest areas, and the donor’s intent was to preserve and maintain the diversity including those plantations.
The preserve is on the west side of Route 201 in Stonington, just south of the North Stonington border. It is lined by lovely and well-constructed stone walls that seem to accentuate the darkness of the woodlands behind them. There are several well- developed and maintained trails that loop and cover the entire main body of the preserve. Recently we added the orange trail which goes into a portion of the “add-on” and includes some interesting stone mounds and an old foundation. There is a nice diversity of habitats with upland woods and lowland wetlands and seeps. A lovely brook runs from one wetland down a steep slope to the wetlands and brooks that form the western boundary. Sometime this summer an Eagle Scout project will create some permanent bridges to cross the tricky brook crossing, making it safer for all.

Fungi abound in the dark, moist forest areas.

A walk in the woods

There is no doubt that a walk here is lovely, peaceful, and in many cases, green, even in the winter, thanks to the Pines and Hemlocks. The open understory is appealing to the eye. There are several species of woodland flowers that thrive in an area such as Rattlesnake Orchid and Pink Lady’s Slipper. In the humid wet season, mushrooms of all color and form abound on the decaying debris on the ground.
I had the opportunity to read an environmental review that was prepared in 1984. These documents are in-depth studies of geology, topography, and hydrology, as well as assessment of wildlife and habitats. It was interesting reading. I followed it up with a walk through the preserve to view it through the eyes of the report to think how it may have changed. And the change was huge.
In 1984 the evergreens were mature yet healthy. The forest was already changing with young hardwoods, deciduous Oaks, Beeches, and Birches beginning to grow in amongst the Hemlocks and White Pines. Back in those years the big fear was the Gypsy Moth invasion and the effect on all species. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid had not yet appeared. Back in 1984 there were recommendations to start management. Preservation was defined as “letting Nature take her course”, results would be slow, andwe would lose diversity. Conservation was defined as “wise use of resources under management”, which was suggested to achieve the balance and diversity that was needed to maintain health in the system.
In the ensuing decades, the course of preservation was followed. The evergreen stands have over-matured and in some cases are dying. Deciduous oaks and beeches have grown larger and overtopped the Hemlocks and further decreased their vigor. The invasion of the Wooly Adelgid pretty much sealed their fate, and the large lovely stands of Hemlocks are no longer lush and healthy. The big Pine groves are still impressive, though somewhat damaged by recent hurricanes and blizzards. There are young seedlings in the understory, fighting to survive.
In many areas the forest floor is so shaded, and likely over browsed by deer, that there is no understory. That is not helpful for birds and wildlife that seek cover in the mid- and lower- levels of the forest.
Pink Lady's Slippers are very particular about where they can survive.

Over time the canopy has thinned, letting in more light.

Harsh weather

In the last two years we have had some tremendous wind storms that have toppled beautiful old Oaks, and the forest floor is strewn and littered. It has created openings that let in light, and added a lot of organic matter to the understory. Not pretty, but nature’s way of housekeeping.
Our walk that day was lovely, no doubt about it. We heard Pileated Woodpeckers calling and drumming. They love the big old trees in the forest. Acadian flycatchers, which are pretty uncommon, were seen and heard in the old Hemlock areas. There were Vireos, Ovenbirds and other woodland species. The vernal pond was shaded, but there were frogs present. The trails are wide, and evidence of an old cart path is visible in the stone bridge crossings. It is a beautiful preserve.
Maybe someday we can restore those lush evergreen groves and all that made their home within them. We may need to think hard about the best way to protect all that is there, to conserve and manage rather than just wait and see. Managing for the future is always an act of hope and optimism.
Windstorms have toppled dozens of  Oak trees.

The new orange trail has some interesting rock formations and an old foundation.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.


Monday, June 4, 2018

The history of Knox Preserve

This week we revisit a posting from students of Connecticut College's Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment about the history of Knox Preserve.

by Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

Like several of Avalonia’s land holdings, the Knox Preserve, which is located off of Wilcox Road between Route 1 and the train tracks, contains a rich, story-filled history. The piece of land came to Avalonia through a generous gift by David D. Knox who donated the nearly 17 acres of property so as to ensure that the land would not be used for industrial development. In an article from June 19, 1985 by Phil Rieth, editor of The Compass, Knox said that “Stonington is being over-developed; I hope that I helped stop that a little”. After a tumultuous battle in the courtroom levied by Stonington residents over the potential use of the land for a magnesium plant, Knox acquired the parcel in 1968 but continued to face troubles as the land was still zoned for industrial purposes. Some 20 years later Knox decided to make the land’s preservation official in conjunction with Avalonia (or Mashantucket, as it was called back then).

Former corn fields have reverted to a more natural state.

Fruit trees from an old orchard attract Orioles.
Native plants attract birds and other wild life to the preserve.

The story of the Knox Preserve history however, becomes even more interesting as one goes back a few hundred years further. The piece of land was originally owned by Thomas Minor, the settler that is one of several featured on the Stonington founders’ monument. Records show that Minor probably first acquired the land some time around 1652. In addition to being a prominent figure in the establishment of Stonington and the surrounding area, Minor is quite well known for his diary. This diary is one of very few that survived the ages since the 1600’s. Because of this, Minor’s diary is an important implement as it provides a rare look into the daily life of the very first settlers in New England. In addition to the unique vocabulary and spelling, and among the insight provided into the daily tasks of a 17th century famer, Minor recounts first hand interactions with Native Americans. Though banal at times, Thomas Minor’s diary is a worthy read for its significance in the local southeastern Connecticut history. One can even still go visit Minor’s land, at Knox Preserve, and walk the land that served as a starting point for Stonington.

Historic walls reflect the hard labor and effort of a century ago.

Knox preserve has been highlighted in this blog series over the last year. It has lovely vistas, easy hiking trails and attracts abundant native wildlife as stewards continue to restore the habitats there.
But the works not over, old wires need to be removed now that they serve no purpose.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Purple Martin Season 2018

by Beth Sullivan
It has begun! Those of you who have followed this blog for several years, know of my commitment to (some say obsession with) my Purple Martins on Knox Preserve. You can catch up on recent history in earlier posts, here and here.
There are dedicated websites to document the Martins’ movement north, and it is always amazing the consistency that governs these migrations. For all of us, spring seemed to have gotten off to a very slow start, but by mid-April we were getting reports that the Martin scouts had been spotted in the area. We got up the first gourd system at Knox on April 21 and were immediately rewarded with several birds all checking out the best real estate. Established pairs tend to return to the same colonies each year, and the young, from previous years, get second dibs or move on to expanded colonies. The second set of gourds went up the following week. It was encouraging because at that point in time, it appeared that spring might actually stick around: there were flies, butterflies and other insects present in the air over the fields.
After being washed, marked, and stored for the winter the gourds were ready to hang in mid-April.

Adult males get first choice for nests

Purple Martins move in

I have been keeping watch for the last couple of weeks, and while the weather recently has not been optimal for flying insects or for anything flying, the birds are returning and are beginning to put their claims on various gourds. If you sit on the bench on the hill at Knox, and have a good pair of binoculars, you can actually follow their antics and aerial acrobatics. You will also see that there are House Sparrows also trying to get established in the gourds as well. Part of my job as landlord is to do periodic housekeeping when I will lower the gourds and remove the nests of the Sparrows. It is very easy to tell them apart: Martin nests are lovely and neat and lined with green leaves, prior to egg laying. House Sparrows fill up the entire gourd with a tangled mess of straw and debris which needs to be pulled out. In persistent cases we will close the hole up to keep them out, but we always fear they will be so aggressive they will fight and even kill a Martin, to displace it. Please: Do NOT encourage the proliferation of House Sparrows in your bird houses. As they are invasive and non-native; they are not protected and we are all encouraged to remove them.
House Sparrows tend to jam tons of straw into a cavity and their eggs are speckled.

Purple Martin nests less crowded and neater with pure white eggs.

New apartment house for Purple Martins

We do have a wonderful new addition this year. Through a couple of fortuitous connections between Purple Martin landlords, we were offered a complete Martin house set up from Menunkatuck Audubon. This Audubon group supports a number of great projects farther down the CT coast. Most notably, they support and monitor the Martin houses at Hammonasset State Park. They also monitor several Osprey nests, including one with a camera. You can find it here. We connected with landlords Lorrie and Terry Shaw and met them at Hammonasset one cold day in early April. They were in the process of updating their Martin housing so all would be the same style and function, making it easier for their volunteers to monitor. They had not one, but two, beautiful complete set ups for us to bring back to Avalonia territory. These are the more well-known style of apartment house nests but with all the high quality updates of easy winch and pulley system and easy to clean nest trays. We put up one at the Wequetequock Cove Preserve on Palmer Neck Road on the way to Barn Island. It is an ideal site, open fields yet near people and water, but because there are no other colonies in the area, it will be more of a challenge to attract the birds right away. We added a couple of decoy birds to attract attention.
It is arrival time right now. The younger birds will be a bit later and will be looking for new colonies. Our Knox preserve colony is active but we have not yet seen Martins at our new site, just House Sparrows. They will not be allowed to occupy this new abode. If you drive by, look for the house in the south field. There is room to pull over and spend a few minutes looking. The fields have been home to Bobolinks in the past. The wet areas have had Glossy Ibis and shorebirds recently and many Red Winged Blackbirds call from the grasses where they will nest. This is a known hot spot for birds in all seasons. Let’s hope the Martins will find the new home inviting and we can add to the species list.
We haven’t yet decided on the best place for house number two. We’ll see how this one does. Many thanks to the Menunkatuck Audubon Society for their amazing gift to us and the Purple Martins.
The new house is up on Wequetequock Cove Preserve.

Two sets of gourdes are up at Knox Preserve and already have residents.

Hopefully ours will full up soon like this one at Hammonassett Beach State Park. Photograph by Terry Shaw.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Horseshoe crab, a living fossil

By Rick Newton
On the list of the Nature Conservancy’s top migrations is that of the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). It is truly a wonder to experience. Horseshoe crabs are called a living fossil; they have been around for over 350 million years virtually unchanged. It is not really a crab as it is associated more closely with spiders and scorpions. Worldwide there are four species of horseshoe crabs but only one in the United States on the east coast.
In late spring and early summer, mainly around the times of full and new moons and on the hide tide cycle, horseshoe crabs migrate from their wintering grounds to local beaches to lay their eggs. The female crab, usually with a male crab grasping on to the female’s shell with a pair of modified legs resembling boxing gloves, buries herself into the sand laying a cluster of around 4,000 eggs. Over several nights the female may lay as many as 100,000 eggs. About a month later, the eggs will hatch, and tiny horseshoe crabs will spend the first few years of life on tidal flats and marshes.
Horseshoe crabs molt many times before reaching maturity. 
Because horseshoe crabs have a hard shell they must molt to grow. They will molt around six times in the first year and up to eighteen times before reaching sexual maturity. Once the crabs reach sexual maturity, which takes about nine or ten years, the molting stops. When the male crab completes its final molt, the front claws take the shape of boxing gloves that he uses to grab on to the female for spawning. A horseshoe crab's lifespan is believed to be 20 – 30 years.
Horseshoe crab bodies are composed of three parts: prosoma (head), opisthosoma (central area), and telson (tail). Horseshoe crabs cannot hurt you. Many people think the tail is some kind of stinger, but it is mainly for allowing crabs to flip themselves over should they get turned upside down. Horseshoe crabs have ten eyes, and much of the research on human vision has been accomplished using horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs have book gills to get oxygen from the water and can live on land for up to four days if they get stranded. Their food consists of razor clams, soft-shelled clams, and marine worms.
Horseshoe crabs are important for a few reasons. First, shorebirds migrate from South America to the Artic. Most need to stop and rest and feed on their travels north to their summer breeding grounds. Their migration coincides with horseshoe crab spawning. Eggs that are exposed to air by wave or boat wake action or by the digging action of other crabs, quickly dry out and won’t hatch. But these eggs are the primary food source for the migrating birds allowing them to double their body weight in less than two weeks.

Not just a fossil

Second, horseshoe crab blood plays a vital role in human medicine. Their copper-based blood, which turns blue when exposed to oxygen, contains blood cells called amoebocytes. A testing reagent called LimulusAmoebocyte Lysate (LAL) is derived from the amoebocytes of the horseshoe crab. The LAL is used to test the sterility of vaccines, drugs, and other medical devices. However, recent biomedical developments have shown that a synthetic compound may be an alternative to using horseshoe crab blood, thus saving hundreds of thousands of crabs from being bled. You can learn more here.
Horseshoe crabs have few natural predators except for seagulls or raccoons that may feed on an overturned crab. Major threats are from harvesters (who sell crabs as bait for conch, whelk and eel), human disturbance, and loss of habitat due to beach development or shoreline modifications as communities harden the shoreline to deal with rising sea levels.
Avalonia’s Sandy Point Nature Preserve is one of the primary spawning areas for horseshoe crabs with hundreds of crabs coming to the beach on peak cycles. Volunteers from Avalonia, Mystic Aquarium, and others support Project Limulus (Sacred Heart University & USFWS) in southeastern Connecticut. These volunteers are citizen scientists counting, measuring, and tagging horseshoe crabs during the early spring and summer.

Be a citizen scientist

Anyone can help by just walking the beaches and looking for tagged crabs. If you see a tag on a dead crab, remove the tag and report the tag number, date, time and location to the number on the tag, or provide this information via the internet at: If you see a tag on a live crab, just write down the tag number and report it as above, leaving the tag on the crab. If you see any crab upside down, just flip it over by grasping it by the side of the shell (not the tail).
If you see a flipped Horseshoe crab on the beach.

Give it a hand and turn it over by its shell.

Tagged horseshoe crabs – Groton / Stonington area – 2009 to 2017
Note: some of the decline in tagged crabs is due to budget reductions to the USFWS with fewer tags being distributed. In general, however, volunteers are seeing fewer crabs each year.

You can read more about Horseshoe crabs in   The Underwater Secrets of Horseshoe Crabs, here.

photographs by Rick Newton