Monday, December 2, 2019

Communicating the value

By Beth Sullivan
Avalonia is a land trust. It conserves, preserves, and protects land and natural habitats. The other half of our mission is about communicating the value of these resources that once protected, will remain protected forever.
The Avalonia team works to communicate and educate in many different ways. This blog is one. We use social media such as Facebook and Instagram to convey our message. One of the best ways to really learn is by getting close to the subject, getting out and hiking, getting on your knees and looking closely, or joining a guided hike with a leader who can help teach.
Dealing with stronger storms and higher sea levels will be a topic of study for many.

Hoffman Evergreen Preserve hike

This past Friday, Black Friday, we challenged the turkey-filled to avoid the malls, and get out and hike. I have written extensively about the Hoffman forest restoration project. So, on Friday, stewards Jim Friedlander and Rick Newton, who are closely involved with the effort, joined by Phil Sheffield, a hike leader, and Sandy Alexander, our communications wiz, took about 50 people, kids and dogs as well, on a hike through the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve. Many hours of effort had already gone into getting the area more user-friendly: new blazes were painted on trees to be more visible and reduce confusion, and miles of trails were cleared by hand to remove large and small debris for safety and easier walking. With recent winds and rains, trees continue to fall, so chainsaw teams had gone out to remove even more blowdowns. Hikers had an opportunity to see the project and understand the planning behind it, as well as hear our hopes and plans for the future. Getting people to understand the issues, and become engaged with a project, allows them to feel like a true part of our conservation efforts. We will be calling on some of these same folks over the next months to help us with work parties.
Led by Jim F., hikers of all ages enjoyed the walk a Hoffman Preserve.

The pond a Hoffman Preserve remains full to the brim.

Some of the projects spreading our message

Some of us work with individual students to give input on projects or take on groups, from Cub Scouts to College students, to assist with educational efforts.
Cub Scouts planted seedling trees on The Woodlot Sanctuary. It is my hope that some of them will thrive so the kids can return years from now and locate them.
Maggie DeFosse is studying environmental policy and doing her final college internship with Avalonia. She remembers many years ago when I was doing classes in her elementary school and now has come full circle. We are working together.
This past week I met with a student from the Williams College Marine Program, to discuss coastal resiliency. He knows Avalonia has a number of coastal properties, including islands, and wonders about our plans for resiliency. He has studied our efforts at Dodge Paddock. He is concerned that there isn’t a state-wide plan to work together with towns and land conservancies and other agencies to address the looming sea-level rise crisis. He had some great thoughts, but in this case he will literally have to fight multiple city halls because each municipality in CT has its own rules and zoning plans.
I am working on scheduling a hike with a 13 year old, Gabriel, who is going to do a school project that will be educational, scientific, and oriented for community education. He has been inspired by hiking with naturalist Bruce Fellman. I will help him explore Knox Preserve, with a focus on how wildlife can prepare to adapt and survive the winter ahead. Once he gets the introduction, he will create his own educational hike and lead a group of his peers on a tour of the preserve to teach them what he has learned. Now, if the weather would cooperate, maybe we can get out next Sunday.
The program with Connecticut College's Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment, will begin in February. It will be yet another opportunity to educate smart young people about what we do as an organization and to learn from them as well.
These are the future stewards and policy makers for our world. Some will stay close to home, some will range far. All will, hopefully, see that their time with Avalonia helped shape their ideals and goals for the future we all share.
At Knox Preserve, we will discuss adaptations to survive the winter.

Connecticut College students are willing to get their feet wet.

Cub Scouts plant tree seedling. A hope for the future.

A fox den at Knox Preserve.


Photographs of Hoffman Preserve are by Phil Sheffield and Sandy Alexander. All other photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A soft opening for Hoffman Preserve



HIKE THE HOFFMAN PRESERVE


Friday, November 29, 1 pm

We invite you to join us on a hike: the day after Thanksgiving, walk off the calories, let the kids burn off some energy, get out of the house…but don’t go shopping!
Join a team of Avalonia stewards and friends to walk through Hoffman, and have some of your questions answered. Squint your eyes and imagine the new green this spring and prepare to help us document the changes.


By Beth Sullivan
The woods are finally quiet. You can hear the birds. The large, noisy machines are gone. The mechanical part of the forest restoration project is complete. The landscape is quite changed. The open areas are pretty stark looking and, combined with the late autumn gray and brown tones, it looks pretty somber.
Now the hard part for Avalonia volunteers, the boots on the ground part, is beginning. Even before the boots hit the ground, however, planning has been underway to outline our goals and priorities for the project. What do we want the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve to be in 50-100 years. There is a lot to think about.
A stump makes a great seat.

Trails are reopening, but there are still areas to be cleaned up and debris will be left to decompose to nourish the land. Photograph by Jim Friedlander.

In one area, towering pines remain and young ones are already getting more sunlight. They will fill in the landscape over a few years.

Getting the trails open

One of our very first priorities was to get the trails opened and safe for hikers who have been looking forward to returning. Several teams of stewards have gone into the preserve over the last couple of weeks, to begin the job of cleaning up the trails and marking them. Overall, the layout of the trail system remains the same, but there are many areas where the trails were disrupted by the logging roads that needed to criss-cross through the land. Trees on several trails have already been re-blazed. The yellow and orange trails are done. Red is partly done, and blue will be completed soon. In places where there are no trees to mark, there are stakes with appropriate colors guiding a hiker across an open area to reconnect with the trail. As we have suggested in the past, using your smart phone and the Explorer for ArcGIS app is tremendously helpful now. Look for Avalonia on-line maps and the arrow icon will locate you.
The old pine loops will be removed from maps. The pines had been devastated by snow and wind storms and were completely removed. There are already white pine seedlings growing through the old needles. There are a few places where paths may be re-routed to avoid wet areas. When we have established the trail system, we will have new maps made and installed as they were before.
We do not want invasive plants to spread their seeds, so we are beginning a management effort.

The trees at the edge of the opening will provide seeds and sunlight will reach into the whole area. Photograph by Rick Newton.

In less than four years, the vegetation at the Peck Preserve has grown in densely, and is taking up carbon and providing better habitat for wildlife.

Counting the growth rings on a log  can be a great project for patient naturalists of any age.

Stop invasives from spreading

Another priority is to tackle the invasive species on the preserve. There is one large patch of invasive plants, on the orange trail near what was an old home site with disturbed ground. That’s where invasives come in first. We will try and get them cut and berries removed and bagged out, to prevent further spread into our newly opened areas. A team is already organized to start the effort ASAP. The effort will be ongoing.
As we all get familiar with the landscape, we are researching what may be the best way to help nature re-establish in the larger opened areas. As an example, in 2013, Avalonia conducted a young forest/restoration project on the Peck and Callahan preserves. It, too, was stark and barren looking at first, but as soon as the growing season began, the land just burst with new plants growing from seeds that were in the soil, waiting. In the first year the area became so dense with new, native plants, it was completely green. Now it is impossible to walk through. The wildlife has multiplied, there are greater numbers and species of plants, and we did very little to help Mother Nature. Mission accomplished. We expect the same at Hoffman.
The goal is to be able to introduce some native species that may not have been in the area, or may have died out in the half-century of evergreen darkness. We also have to consider that our climate is changing, is warming. Hoffman Preserve was planted to resemble a great northern forest that Mr. Hoffman loved. With the change that is already beginning, we have to think of plant species that will adapt and thrive in the new normal. We need to recognize what an important role forests play for our climate in taking carbon out of the atmosphere, and also balance the need for diversity in habitat to support diminishing wildlife populations. Both are at critical stages.
We still have a lot to research, a lot to think about, and many wonderful partners, scientists, ecologists and researchers are guiding us.
If you are interested in helping, contact the Avalonia office and we can add you to our list of volunteers for work parties there.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Colors of the season

By Beth Sullivan

A friend of mine, who knows my woods-wandering ways, sent me this little thought that had been circulating on Facebook:
“An essay in the Old Farmers’ Almanac divided autumn into four distinct foliage phases. The first is Scarlet Fever, when the first trees to change are the red swamp maples and sumacs. Next comes Conflagration, the riot of all colors at once. This is followed by the Empire of Gold, as the reds and oranges fall away, leaving the birches and beeches to hold the field. Finally comes the Tannery, where the oaks, the final holdouts, turn russet. “

Those of us who are observers of nature, cycles, and seasons, have consciously or subconsciously known this. As we walk or even drive along wooded lanes, we are aware of the changes in colors and tones of the landscape. We notice the light as it changes not only hour by hour, but season by season. To me, the later afternoon sunlight in the autumn is the absolute best. There is something that intensifies the clarity of colors. Maybe, in part, it is the beautiful blue of the sky for contrast with the warmer tones of the foliage.
At the edge of a swamp, the red maples show color first, along with blueberry bushes below them.

Sumac is a native shrub that provides beautiful red foliage and great food for wildlife.

It starts with red

When I first read this, we were already well into the Scarlet Fever. There are areas nearby that are wetlands, and that is where the change seems to start. The red swamp maples are the first to show color, and that color is truly spectacular. There is something so eye-catching about a stand of red, marking a swamp or lake edge, where those maples reflect their color in the standing water. In the understory and thickets, there is nothing more striking than the native highbush blueberries and sumacs that are far more pure, natural red than the invasive, non-native “burning bush” euonymous.

The Conflagration slips up on us quickly. The reds just seem to shift into oranges. The sugar maples, that are sadly becoming more scarce here in southern CT, tend to go to a more orange-red. The sassafras trees tend to grow in colonies as they are somewhat clonal. Their foliage is all shades from red through orange to gold. A group of sassafras along a path, or near the shore line, tend to light up the landscape. Once in a while you will find a big, old sassafras tree in the woods, solitary and outstanding. Its leaves tend to hold on longer than some of the surrounding trees, and they wear their colors tall and proudly.
The late afternoon sun provides the most dramatic lighting.

The Woodlot glows with a clear yellow tone in the understory of spicebush, as well as from the canopy.

This big hickory is like a golden torch dominating the landscape.

An empire of gold


The Empire of Gold seems to have the largest number of members and lasts longer. That’s where we were when I began writing this. You can’t beat the late afternoon sun, slanting through the woodlands that are all tones of yellows and golds, from canopy to forest floor. The ferns have gone to yellow along with wild sarsaparilla. In the mid-level, the spicebush and sweet pepper bush create an eye level haze of warm color. The birches begin to fill the canopy. The hickories can tower like tall torches of gold, and at the same time, they are pelting down their nuts in abundance. The beeches are fickle. Sometimes they hold onto their green for a very long time. Some go to yellow and others go to a lovely beige and even hold a few of their leaves through the winter time. Another yellow to look for requires a sharper eye. The spidery yellows of the witch hazel flowers are beginning to show up. They are easiest to notice once the leaves are off.

Thanks to the severe wind and rain events of the last week, the woodlands have been stripped, pretty early, of all leaves except on some beeches and the oaks. We are in the Tannery now. I think it is an injustice to call all oaks russet or brown. The colors are so beautifully subtle, and varied. Some of the oaks will go to gold-/brown. Others orange-brown, and still others are truly a deep scarlet-brown. Drive down a road with a far horizon, or view of some hillsides. There are many areas where the forest is still in leaf, and almost all of the trees are oaks. Notice the variation. I am not sure an artist could capture all the shades of color of the Tannery.

We must not forget the evergreens that punctuate the forest or make large statements of their own. We will notice them most when the other colors are gone, and they alone stand out against the grays and white of winter.

Cherish the colors of the season.
The oaks at Cottrell Marsh show all the shades in the Tannery.

When the leaves finally fall, the spidery yellow flowers of Witch Hazel are easier to find.

In the winter, we rely on the evergreens to be our color focus in a landscape of gray and white.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.





Monday, October 21, 2019

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.
With recent wind events, we are faced with downed trees, blocked trails and damage. We need assess each situation, to set priorities, and do the best we can.
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 volunteers otherwise known as friends of Avalonia to mow for us. In other cases, we contract with local farmers who have the 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.
After recent wind events, we are cleaning up before winter storms occur.

We want grassy clumps like this one around to provide hiding places.

Different fields mowed at different times

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 of grass for coverage, 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.
Mowing in early September allows the animals to mature 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.
Mowing early fall also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants like swallowwort, porcelain berry by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds. A fall mowing also keeps woody invasives, like autumn olive, under control as well.
Mowing in November and December gives wildlife a chance to move out of their nesting areas, and most flowers have been killed back by hard frosts. There are plenty of seeds available. But cutting at this time may destroy praying mantis egg cases, wasp galls, and cocoons that may be attached to woody stems. Cutting in the very late fall will remove cover for overwintering small mammals and may even disturb those that have already begun to hibernate. 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. Good for predators, bad for prey.
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 spring weather can be wet and muddy, farmers have other chores to do, fields to till, gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
Fields like this one at Wequetequock Cove have been mowed for hay for many years. Now are maintained for wildlife. 

Cutting early will prevent invasive porcelainberry from spreading its seeds.

Mowing early promotes grasses.

Leaving the mowing until later allows late summer flowers to bloom and attract pollinators.

If allowed to go uncut, the fields at Knox Preserve will go to seed with many plants, especially goldenrod, and provide food and cover all winter.

What is a steward to do?

The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can, based on science, biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some will be mowed when the ground freezes 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.
We want to encourage Milkweed to spread.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Makeover at Paffard Woods

By Beth Sullivan
The lovely Paffard Woods p off the west side of North Main Street is the first land Avalonia acquired with a big fundraising campaign. That road is often called the Gateway to Stonington because it is the main route from the highway down to the Borough. Preserving the scenic land along the road was a high priority. When Edith Paffard offered to sell the parcel for a bargain sale price, Avalonia applied for grants and then campaigned to get almost $300K in public donations. Thanks to a great team, efficient organization, and the generosity of many people, the 62 acre parcel was acquired in August of 2003. Since that time it has remained one of Avalonia’s most beloved and well-used preserves with a wide variety of habitats, vegetation, and topography. Trails go around granite ledge outcrops and glacial erratics, wind through woodlands, and border the Sylvia’s Pond Brook. Central wetlands drain into the brook, and ultimately at the southernmost tip, the preserve is salt marsh.

It started with bridges

This rustic old log bridge was beginning to rot.

New planks were added to this old bridge

Two benches were made from one of the old logs.

Originally, the first stewards created some beautiful and unique bridges. One is a rocky crossing where you can hear the brook babble and tumble below your feet. Another bridge was created from a huge, impressive log, cut lengthwise and set over a stream. Other bridges were established in other places. Over the ensuing years, with high foot traffic, wear and tear, and also recent wetter than average conditions, we noted that several of the wetland crossings were becoming muddy, and the bridges themselves were breaking down. Much to our dismay, we discovered that the huge supports under the log bridge were no longer stable, and there was rot occurring. People love that bridge.
Thanks to the generosity of the original donors, there was a nice stewardship fund available for use on the preserve, so we knew we could get materials. But we never seem to have enough strong and willing bodies to tackle big projects. Luck came our way when our connection with the Mystic Aquarium allowed us to engage volunteers from Dominion Energy. Now we had the bodies.
Two of our town stewards, Jim F and John C, got their heads together to plan out the projects. A new bridge was designed to replace the log bridge, and a plan was made to actually lift and move another bridge to a more solid location, out of the mud. Another bridge had surface planks to be replaced.
On a beautiful September day, 22 employees of all ranks gathered at Paffard Woods at 7:30 am. Our stewards met them, as did MaryEllen, our Aquarium connection, and work commenced. Materials and equipment were unloaded and set up. It was as good as a shop in the parking lot. Order and organization was the key. Teams split up, and in a relatively short time, a great deal was accomplished. The log bridge was removed, but to retain the memory of the original design, one log was cut in two to create benches, set on stones, on either end of the new bridge. They are perfect. The other span was moved and placed in a much better spot, and the wood planks were replaced on the third bridge. And still there was a lot of time left.
This bridge was lifted out of the mud and re-positioned on solid stream banks.

A rock and a hard place

So a group decided to tackle a big rock that was sticking up in the middle of the driveway entrance. It has been a danger and nuisance for quite a while now, so the plan was to dig it out and fix it once and for all. What no one knew, was that the rock was a boulder, seemed to have its roots firmly in the ground and no amount of maneuvering and leveraging would budge it. Now we were stuck with a big hole, with a big rock, in the exit, and no one could get in or out.
Several of us put our heads together and tried a few local farmers to see if their equipment would be useful. No luck. In a last desperate brainstorm, we called a local contractor who was going to do some mowing work for us. He just happened to be in town, with his big excavator and trailer, and inside of one hour, JP Moore arrived with his equipment. It was impressive. He unloaded, and the driver manipulated that machine as deftly as fingers, picked up that rock in an instant and set it aside as if it was a pebble. While he was at it, he removed a few other troublesome rocks, backfilled the big hole, widened the entry way to make an easier access, and just happened to have some perfect small stone to resurface that part of the driveway. Talk about a lucky angel. Turns out JP also had worked at Dominion Energy and knew several of the work team. It was a happy reunion of sorts.
By the end of the day, bridges were all fixed with just a few details left to complete, piles of invasives had been cut or pulled from along the stream and trail, and unexpectedly we had a total rehab of the entry way to the preserve.
We owe many thanks to the original donors, our Avalonia carpenters, our friends at Mystic Aquarium, Dominion Energy and JP Moore excavating.
Go take a hike and enjoy the upgrades.
Volunteers from Dominion work on this new bridge.

This rock was a lot bigger than expected.

But the right equipment made quick work of the rock.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.