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.  

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Owls in winter

By Beth Sullivan
We haven’t had a lot of winter weather yet. Even this recent snow is already disappearing. At this time of year though, I always get thinking about how certain species adapt to survive during the cold and in an often snow-covered landscape. Being warm-blooded and covered in down, birds can survive the winter as long as they can find food. So, seed eaters can survive, insect eaters cannot. Owls prey on lots of things but rely on mammals during the winter, and mammals are quite available though not always easily accessible.

Winter Owls

We have several owls that are here during the winter only, migrating from their nesting grounds in the far north, usually in response to scarcity of food in their home ranges. We are always so excited to see them. Some of them can be quite difficult to find. It helps to know their landscape preferences. Most owls seem to like the cover and protection of evergreens. Through the fall and winter, it is always worth listening for the clamor made by groups of smaller birds: chickadees and titmice will advertise when they find an owl in hiding. Blue jays and crows will vocally harass a larger owl they may discover snoozing in the daylight hours. Keep your ears open while winter hiking, and spend a good amount of time looking in the evergreens.
In later October, the little saw-whet owl moves southward and relocates in our area. They are rarely seen unless you follow the announcements made by other birds. They will catch and eat small mammals and have been known to stash mice-meals for later consumption. There have been several occasions that we have discovered dead mice, up on a branch in a bush - a sure sign of an owl stashing a meal for later. In one photo included here, the saw whet was discovered while cleaning out a wood duck nest box. It had used the box as a safe roost and surrounded itself with plenty of food, well preserved by winter cold, for a time when maybe snow would be too deep to find them.
Less frequently, a long-eared owl can be discovered. They are quite beautiful and are well camouflaged in the brown fall and winter landscape. They are often mistaken for great horned owls, because of the characteristic feather “ear/horn ” tufts, but they are quite different in size and plumage characteristics. They like the dark quiet of a cedar grove, but will take the hunt to the open fields nearby.
Probably the most sought-after winter visitor is the snowy owl. They are quite aptly named, because the males are beautiful snowy white, while the females and young have more speckling. These birds nest and hunt on the wide open tundra of the far north. They do not associate with trees. When found here in the winter they are on wind-swept sand dunes, snow-covered fields or along bare rocky shorelines where they may take ducks for food. There are years when sightings are numerous. Often it is a year of poor winter food resources or the year following a big population expansion and they disperse farther in the winter. This is called an irruption event. Other years, they will be scarce. They are always amazing to see.
This long-eared owl was quietly camouflaged in the cedar trees

This little saw-whet owl picked a big birdhouse as a roost. It surrounded itself with plenty of food. Photograph by D. Lersch.

Finding a mouse stashed on a branch is a sure sign there is an owl nearby.

Snowy owls are found here only in winter, and never in trees.

Resident owls

Our resident owls maintain their territories all year and as early as late January, great horned owls are setting up on nests and will incubate eggs through February snowstorms. They often take over a nest site from an osprey or other large hawk, and will fledge their young by the time the original owner is ready to use it.
The little screech owls remain here through the winter and will roost in larger birdhouses and duck boxes. They may also use the same box to nest in as the season progresses.
My personal favorites are the barred owls. I have had several opportunities to interact with them and even got to know one pretty well. They are the ones I find most frequently on my woods walks. I know they see me before I see them, but with their wise dark eyes, they seem unafraid and often do not fly unless my movements are sudden. These owls seem to enjoy vocalizing all year long. And their hoots are widely varied and can be described as haunting or comical. They are indeed hooting already. They too will be setting up their territories soon and preparing to nest.
As much as I look forward to the winter visitors, I believe I enjoy our residents the best. Keep your eyes and ears open. It’s never too cold to spot an owl.
Barred owls line here all year and are frequently heard hooting almost any time of year. Photograph by R. Newton.

Screech owls will take over a wood duck box for its winter roost and will nest there in the spring. Photograph by D. Main.

Great-horned owls may take over an osprey nest in winter, protecting eggs and chicks through blizzards. Photograph by R. Newton.

This great-horned owl was already out of the nest in very early spring.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking forward with 2020

By Beth Sullivan
Happy New Year. A new year, a new decade, possibly a new way to think. Most of us try to start a new year with resolutions, or at least good intentions to do something different. It might be to exercise more, eat healthier, or lose weight. It also could be to take a class, start a project, or learn a skill. For others it is cleaning up, clearing out, purging papers, and reducing clutter in our lives.
I got thinking about a different path. Maybe it’s because ‘2020’ is also linked with good vision. We are able to look forward clearly but also be in the present clearly, consciously.

We all can contribute

For years I have been writing about nature: how we interact with it, how we use it for various purposes-from exercise and recreation, to peace, tranquility and healing. What do we give back for these gifts? Sometimes I get overwhelmed because I feel as one single person, I can’t make a dent in the abuse of our Earth. We can walk on a beach and pick up trash, but it doesn’t begin to make an impact in the giant whirling seas of trash in our oceans. Our beach may look nice for a while, but what about the coastlines in other parts of the world, places too poor to send their own waste out of sight, like we do? Some of our politicians think “straws are small” and can’t cause damage, yet we know even smaller microplastics are filtering through our waters and into our food chain.
What can one person do to make any kind of a difference? Maybe not a lot, but if EVERY ONE person took a step, or two or more, and if like ripples, the effort expanded outward, there would be an impact. There are so many things that one person alone cannot accomplish, but with a team, with help and cooperation and with invention and creativity, progress is amazing. If each of us looked forward clearly, and took some of these small steps, our combined efforts will make a difference. The difference will be noted and others may heed the call.
Image from internet 

We look at the beautiful stone walls in our region and know that while one person could lift many of the individual stones, one person alone could not create the walls. However with collaboration, tools and creativity, the works of generations before us remain today and hopefully for the future.
The walls at Knox Preserve

Our vision for the future is entirely entwined with our children, the children of the world. Think of what we can teach them. What can we show them, both beautiful and inspiring, and not so beautiful but hopefully inspiring in a different way? All parents know you cannot force a toddler or a teenager to comply with our every wish, but what we can do is gently and patiently open their eyes to their potential and guide them on a 2020 path of clear sight to improve our world and make a positive difference. It’s just one year, concentrating not on ourselves, but having a greater vision and understanding that as one person, we can truly make a difference. Maybe it will become a new habit.
Happy New Year!
Image from internet

Knox Preserve photograph by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 16, 2019

A time to give

By Beth Sullivan
Those of us who are a bit older feel the fleetness of the passing years. The little ones, however, feel the time stretching too long from one year to the next. So much happens in one year. So many changes. One thing that does remain consistent, is that the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year is a time of looking outward, thinking of what we have been given and of what we can give in return.
For many of us with small children in our lives, it is easy to give material items. There are amazing new educational toys now, many based on science. There are wonderful new books that explain life, diversity, fairness, and kindness. We try to choose wisely.
But this year has made me, along with many others, begin to seriously wonder what life will be like for these children we cherish so much. There are so many frightening scenarios: social, political or economic. But the one that gives me the greatest fear is the environmental one. What will our Earth be like in the next decades when our young children begin to take leadership roles? More and more we see reports of warming, glaciers melting, seas rising, and storms intensifying. We read of extinctions of creatures we either never knew, or took for granted. Maybe we, ourselves, don’t witness all of these. But what we do witness is the loss of bees buzzing in our gardens; we notice fewer birds, either in the woods, along the shore or even at our feeders. We notice greater number of trees dying from disease or infestations. We, who are a little older, notice these changes. Our children’s children may never experience the same kind of nature that we did. We didn’t experience the nature of generations before us. It makes me sad.
Children merely need an opportunity and will rejoice in nature.

The very youngest find happiness wandering with a friend. Photograph by S. McLarney.

History is preserved here, but we don't know how long it will last.

There is hope

Now, this is not meant to be a Grinch tale of holiday woe. I am still a hopeful person. There are so many amazing places to explore, miracles to witness, experiences that we can share with our children to help them cherish what we have come to know and appreciate. The gift of teaching love for our Earth, the gift of experiences, great or small, are things we can still give. These things don’t cost a lot; many are absolutely free. Most don’t take a lot of time. Most do not require a great deal of expertise. They require patience in the moment and foresight to the future.
We all have the time to take a walk, take a deep breath of clean air, and encourage a child to look deep into a pool of water or listen to spring peepers. If you don’t have a child in your life, maybe an elderly person would appreciate the same opportunity. Maybe, most importantly, do it for yourself. Pay attention to Nature. Notice the changes. Notice the very small beauties close to our feet, and then look skyward and appreciate the sky and clouds we see through the trees.
But here’s the catch: we need to make sure these opportunities remain available for the future. We need to pass on our experiences and love, so that long after we are gone, there will remain people who remember, and places where they themselves can be refreshed and give the gift to others.
Here in our small corner of the world, we have the ability to change the way our future may look. We live in an area of great diversity of habitat and great opportunities to experience somewhat undisturbed nature. Organizations, like Avalonia, are dedicated to preserving what we can for future generations. Some of the areas are vast (by CT standards). Others are small gems easily explored. Over the last half-century Avalonia has protected over 4000 acres of land that will be an ever-present gift for you to share with your children and beyond.
As we face an uncertain future of changing climate that may indeed change the face of the land we love, we give thanks to those who can join us in our efforts to protect what we can, to preserve the waterways, the landscapes, the air we breathe and to give the wildlife a home so it too can be part of a future experience. We have to remain hopeful but act with urgency.

The joy of family explorations of a protected space is a great gift.
The face of our landscape, especially the shoreline, is being changed. 

Those in college now will be making very hard decisions in a few years.

Something for our children

We can give a valuable gift to our own children by giving them a membership to Avalonia, in this area, or another organization or land trust in your own area if you are reading this from afar. A membership doesn’t necessarily get you a mug, or a bag or a hat. We save our money to support our mission to preserve, protect, and educate. A membership for a family or a youngster can help begin the conversation about being in touch with nature, being part of a larger effort, and understanding the gifts that are present for all to enjoy, every day, not just at the holidays. It can sustain their commitment to watching and working toward a healthier environment.
It seems very fitting to me, that just this week, young Greta Thunberg was named the Person of the Year for 2019. I bet she spent a lot of her young life enjoying the gifts of the Earth.
Wishing you all a joyous holiday season, and a new year of peace and hope.
Together we can preserve the gift of place, so you can give the gift of time.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.