Monday, April 6, 2020

Time for some new ways of thinking

By Beth Sullivan
In less than three weeks the world has turned more upside-down and inside-out than anyone could have imagined. I am quite sure just about everyone feels as I do - overwhelmed, scared, frustrated and somewhat useless. Being considered “elderly” doesn’t just get me a senior discount, but pretty much mandates that I try to really stay home and stay safe. I am.
I am very grateful that I find solace in nature; solitude and quiet are not things I am afraid of. I have always embraced them. But it is not for everyone. It surely is a bigger change for so many other people, than for me. We are so lucky to live in an area with many available open spaces, to spread out, walk, sit and think or sit and not think. We can meet friends and keep our distance, but talk a little louder outdoors and get at least some sort of real un-pixilated face time.
We are lucky to live in an age of easier communication and connection. With the internet we can take classes, read books, see our grandchildren from afar and learn a million different things. It’s hard, though, for me to sit still at the computer so long now, especially since the weather is getting better.
This year my gardens will be cleaned earlier and that’s a good thing since things seem to be springing up earlier. This year more than ever, we should notice and cherish the coming of spring. We have the time. Take notes. Take photos. Write in a journal or do some sketching. I have suggested taking a child out with you, to explore, see things through their eyes and to embrace their sense of hopefulness. My little ones are out of my reach right now. It’s hard to face time with a 6 month old, and a toddler really doesn’t quite have the patience and understanding for conversation, but she does blow great kisses.
However my 5 ½ year old grandson and I have invented a game. When I am out and about in the yard or woods, camera /phone in hand as always, I am finding things to photograph. The most mundane things look so amazing when seen very close up. I challenge him to figure out what they are. Sometimes there is a story behind the photo: a shell from a cicada that emerged last summer, close up of woolly bear ‘fur’ which spent the winter under a pile of leaves. Somethings lead to a bigger conversation or a hunt in their own area to find the same. Sometimes he has to look things up. Sometimes we both do.
We have had a lot of fun and laughs together over this. We also created a Fairy House in the woods when he was here months ago. Now he has me check it to see what the fairy has left and take a photo so we can discuss the contents. That’s fun for both of us. That fairy is busy!
A magical fairy house.

An emerging rhubarb leaf.

Cicada larval shell.

It's a root, not a pile of poop.

Some items to keep in mind

This is all fun stuff, distracting activities, but we know there is underlying seriousness. I have a couple of requests.
While we are all worrying about the crisis at hand, we have needed to shift our priorities a lot. But while we are home worrying, there is still a climate crisis. There are many who believe that these two situations are intricately related. The global climate talks have ceased. Each day I read of new laws that dismantle former protections for our environment and public lands here in our country. This seems to be happening quietly and there is no one objecting. While you have the time to read, please take heed, you can take the time to become involved without being part of a crowd. Let your voice be heard, so that when we emerge from this crisis we will still have large unspoiled places, protected land that we can cherish and visit when we are free again to roam.
It is the small places we call home that we are using now. The Avalonia trails throughout SE CT are welcome havens for families and individuals. The preserves will remain open. There are several programs dedicated to family hiking and exploration: Avalonia’s Hike and Seek, and the local Hike Stonington. I am guessing other areas have similar programs. I have run into so many people out on the trails these last weeks. It is wonderful. Please keep in mind the rules of physical distance between people, avoid groups, and please keep your dogs on leashes. Our pets are therapy now but keep them close and beside you, for their sake, out of concern for others, and for the wildlife we are striving to protect.
A small ask: if you are now, newly enjoying Avalonia’s trails and if you are able, please support our work by becoming a member or offering a small donation. We still have to “keep the lights on” though the office is closed. Our small staff is working from home. We are still using equipment to maintain the trails and are raising funds and writing grants for several acquisitions that will become available to you in the future. Thank you.
I am personally wishing you all well. Be safe, stay home, but you can call the preserves home as you need.
Computers are used for connections on many levels.

There's plenty of space out here. Photograph by MJ Hughes.

You can teach physical distancing with a good stick to allow social fun time. Photograph by Nick Young. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Look for Silver Linings: Go Hike and Seek

By Beth Sullivan
Even in the middle of a crisis, some things remain unchanged. What a difference in our outlook from a couple of weeks ago. At this point, there is no use in discussing how we got to this point in this public health crisis. But we can do our best to stay informed, take precautions seriously, and try to maintain as much normalcy as we possibly can, as a community and as individuals.
There are certainly things that are so totally impacted, that there is no way to avoid the consequences. Kids are out of school. Period. It is not like a vacation or summer break that was planned for. It is not like a snow day that was unplanned, but where playdates and special programs could keep groups of kids entertained and safe. Parents are home because their jobs disappeared, or because they don’t have child care. Maybe they are lucky and can actually work from home, if the kids will let them.
But here’s the good news, and we are all looking for that. We are heading into spring. We have really been lucky with good weather getting to this date and even if we get a late snow storm, we get over it quickly. Get those kids outside. Obviously, if they are ill, they need special attention, but getting them out into the air, roaming, running , being creative is one way to keep them engaged and happy as well as healthy.
Dirty feet don't need sanitizer.

Maybe you relax the rules a little. Or join the fun. Photograph by Emily Sullivan.

As we go through the flowering season, you can draw them, even dissect them. Get out the books to help.

Millipedes are easily found under leaves. They do not hurt. Check out those legs.

Be a teacher

Think of what great lessons, you, as an adult, can teach them about the new season. It is an opportunity to observe daily changes. Even the youngest ones can appreciate a new flower, or something getting bigger. Look for acorn caps; touch the moss. Let them pick a flower and then show them that you cherish it. Make it important. Slightly older children can do some drawing. Test their observation skills at their appropriate age level. Discuss color, texture, and comparative sizes. If they are ready to write, get them to use descriptive words. You can discuss weather conditions and keep a journal. Have them observe the sky, clouds, feeling of the ground, wet or dry.
Look at the differences in several kinds of plants. Are their stems hard or soft? Watch the changes in their leaf development. Pull a dandelion out of the ground and look at the roots. You probably don’t have to go very far to find a shrub with some buds already showing. Forsythia is everywhere. Before you know it, both of you will have become better botanists.
Then there are insects to watch for. Look under rocks and logs. Lift piles of leaves and see what’s under there. At this point in the year, there are already insects and their relatives, moving around. There are also amphibians to look for, and listen for. There are probably salamanders under those leaves. You can find a small wetland near your home and listen in the afternoon or early evening for frogs. Peepers and wood frogs are chorusing now.
And of course there are the birds. Spring is meant for birdsong. Kids never really like to sleep in, unless they are teenagers. Get up and sit outside on a nice morning and listen to the birds. Can you find them? Can your child describe them for you? Take notes together. Draw pictures.
This could also be the time to let them engage with a smart phone a bit more. There are so many wonderful apps available now that help you identify all sorts of wildlife, birds and their songs, and all aspects of plants. There are still amazing books.
No spring excursion is complete without checking out the skunk cabbage.  Watch as the plant changes through the season. 

Textures on tree bark can make great rubbings or abstract photos.

Trees have lovely flowers if you can look closely These are red maple.

Check out Avalonia’s Hike and Seek program

 Not every adult is really comfortable with all I have just suggested. Some people really want a guide. That’s what Hike and Seek is like. As a parent, take some time to review it. Find a preserve near you. Look at the preserve pages, maps and photos that are targets and clues. There is also a Resources section that allows you or your young student to look a bit deeper into a subject. It is all accessible on your smart phone. Take it with you on a hike. Take photos and write stories. Do it together. The trails are not crowded. The air is clean. It is almost spring. It is the very best way to stay physically and mentally healthy at a time of social distancing and isolation. Earth-Dirt doesn’t require sanitizer. Use this time with the child in your life, in a positive way and help them learn to look for that silver lining. It is a great de-stressor for grown-ups too.
We caught two wood frogs and a peeper recently. Keep them moist, observe them, then let them go.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Migrations and change

By Beth Sullivan
There is something about March that always makes me think of change. Looking back over all the years of writing this blog, there always seems to be one dedicated to this topic in March. Of course it is the transition time between seasons, and for many of us, it is a very welcome transition in both temperature and light.
Swallows stage magnificent migrations in the fall.

It is a time of migration

Migration is defined as passing periodically from one region or climate to another. It is also defined as shifting: as from one system or mode to another. We think of the great migrations of large mammals on the plains of Africa. Locally, migration can be a bit more subtle, less earth shaking. In the fall, in particular, the movements can be quite large and impressive, as birds flock and prepare to go south. We have witnessed the magical formations of swallow species as they come to roost at night, in preparation for migration south. School children learn early about the migration of the Monarch butterflies from their northern birth places to the forest groves in Mexico.
The return migration, coming home here, or leaving here for more northern lands, is generally more gradual. There have been reports of large flocks of songbirds making their way north already, in masses so large they show up on radar. Scientists have said it is weeks early. By the time they arrive here, their numbers have scattered, and they are less impressive in their presence. We have to hope that their return here, possibly too early, will coincide properly with emergence of enough insects to fuel them.
These are annual, seasonal migrations. But there are other, more subtle ones. Only a half century ago, there were no red bellied woodpeckers in Connecticut. They were southern species that are now common at our feeders. Other familiar birds, like titmice and cardinals have moved slowly north over the last centuries to set up year round residence. Now they are our familiar favorites. This didn’t happen in one season, or one year, but very slowly as these species moved north where they found adequate food and habitat. In some cases they created a new niche for themselves. In others, they shared resources and even competed with those species that were here before them. The southern birds were not invasive; they were, technically native, just on the move, expanding their range.
But here’s a new one, one that you may not have thought about: plant migration, particularly trees. Obviously trees can’t get up and move when the weather changes; they don’t rely on seasonal food sources, and they need to tolerate and even adapt to sometimes extreme changes. If they can’t adapt, they will die. With the climate changing - warmer overall, less snow cover, periods of heavy rain yet drought in summer, as well as severe weather events the tree species are challenged to adapt quickly. In addition, invasive insects and new diseases are attacking our native tree species with frightening strength and frequency. Warmer winters have allowed these diseases and pests to survive. Chestnuts were among the first to go, over a century ago; then the elms. Beech trees are stricken by bark blight diseases. Birch trees have cankers. Our hemlocks are doomed by the woolly adelgid. Ash trees are being destroyed by the emerald ash borer. White pines are not surviving to maturity due to disease, insects, and the heavy wind events destroying and toppling them. Our mighty oaks cannot tolerate the years of defoliation by caterpillars, combined with summer drought and saturated soils smothering the roots during wet winters.
Beech trees are doomed by a bark infection called blight.

The great mammal migrations in Africa are famous.  Photograph by Binti Ackley.

National Weather Service radar picks up a migrating flock of songbirds over Florida. (National Weather Service picture)

Fifty years ago there were no red-bellied woodpeckers in Connecticut.

Assisted migration

When openings in the forest are created, either man made or nature made, what fills back in are often the same species from seeds that have been in the soil. They will be faced by the same challenges.
Scientists studying this issue are beginning to think of a concept called assisted migration. Trees can’t move far or fast on their own, like birds can. It takes centuries for plant species to expand their range northward as conditions change. One approach is the idea of assisting nature, by bringing north tree species that are native to areas just south of here, species that are adapted to conditions that we are now experiencing. There are oaks and pines that can occupy the same niches as our historically native ones do. Wildlife can make use of these more similar native species, much better than they can non-native species from other countries. Southern natives are less likely to ever become invasive.
We have a number of tree species that are present now, at the northern limit of their range, such as the tulip tree and tupelo (Black gum), and as climate warms they will be tolerant and spread. But we can make it happen faster by using such species to fill in openings and clearing.
As we begin our planning for the restoration of the forest at the Hoffman Preserve, we are beginning to research mid-Atlantic species that may grow and adapt and help create a forest that will last through the next century of change. It is very interesting and hopeful. Stay tuned.
Our mighty oaks and hemlocks are stressed and will not survive the warming climate.

The tulip poplar tree is present in southeast Connecticut but is also tolerant of more southern conditions.

Photograph by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Bits and pieces

by Beth Sullivan
February is a weird month. I am not sure where January went, as I certainly didn’t tie up all my loose ends, nor did I accomplish a lot of usual January tasks. So now I am trying to both close the door on some projects and look ahead to others, not just in my own environs, but for Avalonia too.
Even in the brown season, there are things to enjoy along the trail. Photograph by S. Alexander.

Thanks to Sea Grant, the last Long Island Futures Fund Grant project has wrapped up at Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve. Over the last years and with multiple grants, literally since 2012, we have worked to eradicate Phragmites (an ongoing effort) and restore healthy salt marsh habitat to the area. It has been hugely successful as the marsh grasses have filled in, and tidal flow has restored flushing into the marsh allowing salt water and nutrients to support the system. Killifish now find their way into the water pools and manage the mosquito larvae so the infestation has diminished. The fields are getting wetter so we mow only what we can. We try to keep the woody plants under control and try to keep on top of invasive plants. Mrs. Beal’s garden has been transformed into an area of native plants: grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees that we hope will adapt to the changing climate and rising sea levels. Now we watch and wait. We will still monitor and maintain, but hopefully Mother Nature will take over.
The Hoffman restoration project is well underway, with the active cutting and thinning completed. The trails are marked well so hikers can continue to move through the preserve without getting too turned around by the change in scenery. It is pretty dismal in there now, but during the upcoming growing season, we will be watching to see what regenerates on its own. We are also deeply into planning ways to adapt the future forest to the climate change we know is coming. We have students and professors from UConn and Conn College already engaged. A great UConn team is researching management strategies and tree species that will tolerate the new normal that we expect in 20-50+ years.
At Beal climate adaptive plants have been introduced.

And the wonderful old vegetable garden has been transformed into a marsh migration buffer.

Back to college

Working with College students is always rewarding. They are motivated, concerned about the future of the environment and the future of the Earth. The Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment is a group I have worked with for eight years. This year their projects are varied, as usual, and over the course of the next months you will be hearing from them in this blog. It is always interesting to offer a new perspective on things, and will give me a break from writing. But they are also involved in outreach, research, and historical recordkeeping for Avalonia.
I am also excited to be working with a team from UConn as part of their Climate Corps program. Their professor, Juliana Barrett, is guiding them through a semester long project to research how our forests are dealing with climate change. They will study how best to implement management practices to help restore our Hoffman Preserve with tree and shrub species that, while being more southern in their range, allowing them to thrive in the next warming decades, will benefit local wildlife. There is a lot to learn.
One GNCE student will be researching the history of the Bennet Yard in Hoffman Preserve.

Still a tough winter

The winter may have been mild so far, but many of our preserves have taken hits with the heavy winds and waterlogged, unfrozen soils. Trees continue to fall, especially the heavy topped pines and the beautiful oaks that have been stressed over the last three years of insect infestation, summer drought, and winter wetness. It isn’t pretty, but it is nature at work. Everything has its own cycle. In the coming spring, look for new green growth in the places left open by falling trees. Look for more sun on the forest floor, and different kinds of wildflowers and shrubs taking advantage of that sun. Look for birds of different species using the new openings.
Our volunteer stewards continue to walk the trails and clean things up, to keep them open and safe. Enjoy the preserves. In all weather, there is something to appreciate. It is certainly too soon to think spring. We have had late blizzards in the past. But it is nice to think ahead. Tie up the loose ends of winter projects and make new plans for the upcoming spring.
The wind has taken a toll on pine trees, and keeps our stewards busy.

As winter moves slowly toward spring, there are skunk cabbages already open in wet woods.

We may still get snow, but we can enjoy the new fallen beauty.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Some unusual Evergreens in the winter woods

By Beth Sullivan
This time of year can be pretty bleak, especially if there is no snowfall to brighten up the gray landscape.
The most widespread woodlands have been pretty colorless. Only a few fluttering beige beech leaves remain. The best place to find some green is to find a conifer forest with some pine trees or hemlocks to break up the scenery.
Snow can actually be essential to the survival of many organisms. With a normal snow cover, the ground remains somewhat insulated. Hard to believe, but remaining at a steady freezing 32 degrees is perfect for protecting plants, root systems, seeds, and seedlings, and even providing ‘warm’ safe passage for small mammals. Keeping the ground temperature stable also assures that the soil is not continually freezing and thawing causing upheaval and exposure all winter long. When we have sub zero temps for extended periods, and no snow cover, the ground surface freezes more deeply and solidly. But with temperature fluctuations as we have seen, a hard freeze may be followed quickly by a warm up, and changes in the soil moisture and texture create havoc for anything living or trying to live in those top inches of leaf litter or soil.

Green all year

There a number of organisms that stay evergreen through the coldest seasons, and most of us immediately think of trees and shrubs that we recognize pretty easily: pines and hemlocks, spruces and firs, laurels and hollies. These are all true vascular plants.
But lack of snow cover invites a closer inspection, and the ability to observe some gems that are often overlooked during the lush greenness of spring and summer. This is the world of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. They are hardy and can survive with or without snow cover in some of the most challenging conditions.

Most of us recognize mosses of so many varied textures. They remain green all year and inhabit a great variety of conditions. Most seem to like it moist and shady, but there are others that we can discover on bald rock faces, in places where just enough soil has built up to allow them to get the moisture they need. Mosses are, however, non-vascular plants. This simply means that they do not have the same internal structures that most plants do, to transport food, nutrients and water. They have no true roots, leaves, flowers, or seeds. Some mosses are dense cushions of green, soft to touch, and a startling color in the brown and gray leaves. Some are fuzzy, some spikey. Many display their spore cases on longer stalks still visible and held above the main portion of the plant. Clubmosses can look like individual mini Christmas trees, and the two most well known we call princess pine or running ground cedar.

Keep looking. Get down closer to the ground in wet areas, bases of rocks, and old wet stumps. Here you may find a couple of very strange organisms. They look like tiny, flattened, fleshy leaves or even ribbons of green, with spikes or horns rising above. These are the liverworts and hornworts. Botanists continue to change classifications and naming of these odd species. They are plants, they contain chlorophyll and they make their own food. But, like mosses, they are non-vascular and have very different reproductive processes. These plants were among the very first to come out of the water and colonize the drier earth. They are ancient. They are gems. They are worth getting close to, getting out a magnifying glass or your macro lens, and really examining. These plants inhabit all the climate zones on earth, from tropics to tundra. They provide moisture in dry places, cover for small organisms, and even food sources for others. Interestingly, I often find them colonizing the surface soil on potted plants I find at nurseries that have had them growing in damp, warm greenhouses.

Our photographers

The collection of photos here were taken by Carl Tjerandsen and his team on Avalonia’s Tri Town Forest Preserve. Some plants are named, others are yet to be identified. Botanists, naturalists, and photographers have been combing this huge, beautiful preserve for the last several years. They are exploring the unique habitats and the flora and fauna associated there. Check our website Preserves section to see more photos of this beautiful acquisition: . It may be hard to see past the dull colors of a snowless woodland, but look closely and you will find green in beautiful hues and unusual forms.

Avalonia protects unique properties with varied habitats such as this one. We can continue our mission to preserve these places and open them to you and future generations, but we can only do so with your support. If it matters to you, please support us with your membership and join us in our efforts.