Monday, August 3, 2020

Life in the Milkweed patch

By Beth Sullivan

Anyone who has spent time in fields , meadows, or wetlands is very likely to be familiar with at least one species of milkweed (Asclepias). Some of us, who spend a lot of time in those habitats are pretty familiar with several kinds of milkweed and many of the creatures that associate with it. A patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is quite robust and can form large colonies as its roots spread and stems multiply. Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is a bit more delicate, a uniform pink with slightly fuzzy leaves. As its name suggests, it prefers wetter soils. Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is a shorter bushier plant with bright orange flowers and favors sunny, drier sites. As a species, milkweed is known for its milky sap which is actually toxic to most things. We would not die, but would likely be quite sick if we ate a salad of milkweed sprouts or leaves, as the sap contains chemical compounds which can be fatal to smaller creatures. Most children know the story of how the monarch butterfly is poisonous to birds, and that this protection comes from the milkweed plant. The adult butterfly gathers nectar from many plants, but lays its eggs only on milkweed. When the eggs hatch, the larvae begin to feed on the leaves and ingest the toxins. This does not hurt them, but actually makes them toxic in turn. Very few birds will attempt to eat the fat, juicy monarch caterpillars, and when they emerge from their chrysalis, the adult butterfly is toxic as well. The bright orange and black markings are known to be warning signals to birds or other predators that there is a danger present. Other insects also display black and orange colorations and in turn are protected by mimicking the monarch.
A monarch will take nectar from many flowers but the swamp milkweed is favored for laying her eggs.

Beautiful common milkweed

Only one egg is deposited under a leaf, ensuring the monarch caterpillar an immediate food source.

 Not just for butterflies 

But it is not only monarchs that take nourishment and shelter in the milkweeds; many species of butterflies can be found just by observing one patch of plants. First, inspect the flowers: they are really quite beautiful in shape and form, and they can be very fragrant when they first bloom . Bees and wasps of all kinds are attracted to the beautiful flowers and abundant nectar as well. Inspect the leaves. Tell-tale signs of a caterpillar at work are the chewing patterns and holes in the leaves. Monarch caterpillars seem to make small holes right in the leaf as they get going. Other insects will nibble edges or the tips as instead. They also excrete a lot of waste, called frass, as they eat and digest. A real good sign of a caterpillar. Be on the look-out for other insects as well. Aphids of several colors are frequently found covering parts of the stems. They suck plant juices and excrete a sweet “honeydew” liquid that attracts ants. Ants are frequent climbers of milkweed stems as they tend to their aphid farm. Another very common find is the red milkweed beetle. They look like an elongated ladybug with extra long antennae. They like being up near the tips of the plant and are quick to drop to the ground when disturbed. If you feel like being brave ( they don’t bite), pick one of them up between your fingers and hold up to your ear-they make a squeaky-clicky noise. There are leafhoppers, snow crickets, and numerous kinds of flies that visit the milkweeds. One non-insect that I have noticed more recently is a snail, a small air breathing land snail, part of the amber snail family; these are likely European. I have discovered quite a number of them cruising , if you can call it that, along the leaves and stems of milkweed. I don’t remember them from my childhood.
Aphid colonies suck on the plant's juices then secrete a sweet liquid that in turn attracts ants.

As a full-sized caterpillar eats, it leaves behind tell-tale frass.

The red milkweed beetle is easy to identify with its bright color and black spots.

 Milkweed abounds 

The Knox Preserve and Preston Nature Preserve are two of the best places to easily find all kinds of milkweed along the trails. While I was moving through the big patch at Knox, I managed to trip into a well-disguised woodchuck hole, and as I tumbled awkwardly, I scared a rabbit out of hiding. With attention to the little things, you may be surprised at the variety of wildlife you will find associated with milkweeds.
Air breathing amber snails are now common on milkweed plants.

Can't beat the beauty of a red-banded leaf hopper.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Some things don't change

By Beth Sullivan
Having been the grandmother to the Purple Martins at Knox preserve for about seven years, I really look forward to every season and have come to know the stages of development that take place inside the secrecy of the nests. The miracle is just too wonderful not to share.
The scouts stayed with their parents, properly distanced and masked. Photograph by Rick Newton.

A little different this year

This year, with all the Covid concerns, just two of us have been monitoring the nests, and we haven’t been able to share the experience with anyone else. But last Sunday, everything aligned just perfectly, and I was able to introduce a new generation of Cub Scouts to the newest generation of Purple Martins on the Knox Preserve. Pack 37 of Stonington, under the leadership of Matt Ferrier, has helped out Avalonia on several occasions. With extra muscle from parents, they planted seedling trees on the Woodlot Sanctuary and have helped restore walls, make brush piles and clean up in Hoffman Preserve. It was time for their reward. With only a short notice to determine the weather would be ok, and several families would be available, we set a time to meet.
Five Scouts, each with a parent or two, and even a grandmother, arrived right on time. They spread out , properly distanced, and I was able to give them the first guidelines: listen, stay distanced, and always keep your mask on as there would be times when I would be close to them. We walked out the path to the colony site, and the martins could be seen soaring against the perfectly blue sky. We could watch them capture butterflies and dragonflies and return to their nests to feed their young. I had monitored them closely enough to know the age and stage of development of the nestlings in each gourd, so after watching me crank the winch to lower the set up, the boys could barely contain their curiosity. One by one, with their own parent, they carefully climbed the step ladder to be at the perfect height to peek into the first nest. Last time I checked, there were still eggs; this time there were three eggs, and one tiny pink nestling, just hatched. One of the scouts actually found the eggshell on the ground. Everyone, parents included, took a turn. Just amazing.
The first peek inside a nest. Photograph by Sandy Alexander

The first nest was amazing. They got to see a brand new hatchling.

Behind the mask they were grinning ear to ear.  Photograph by Rick Newton.

By comparing the live bird with the chart we could determine its age.

A hands-on experience

Then we moved to the next nest. Here the birds were about 9 days old. Using the growth chart provided by the Purple Martin Conservation Association, we were able to compare the live bird with the photos and look at feather development on its wings and tail to determine its age. Then, several of the scouts got to hold this bird. Ever so gently they cupped the creature inside their hands. They could feel the warmth, touch the stiff pin feathers and even see the holes in the head that are the ears. Over their masks, their eyes just popped with wonder. During the next half hour or so, others had a chance to hold different birds, use the chart to compare, ask questions and beg for more turns. They were hooked. As Scouts, they were ready and willing to help, so as we finished the first set of gourds, they stepped up to help me crank up the winch to raise the set high on the pole.
There were even more birds of various stages in the second set. More opportunities to peek inside. And when we found a wonderful nest of 4 newborns on the upper level, their parents helped lift them up to look. When the nest was jostled, the birds would raise their heads and open their really huge mouths, hoping for a morsel. Even with such large mouths, we were all wondering how a parent could deliver the biggest dragonfly we had ever seen, into one comparatively small mouth.
After they helped me crank up the last set, we all sanitized our hands, and they had a Scout mini-meeting in the field, still well distanced from each other. Before they left the field, each turned to witness that the parent birds returned very quickly, not at all disturbed by our activities, to feed their hungry young ones.
With a few adjustments, this event went on as it might have at any other time. The sun was shining, it wasn't  too hot, and the sky was a beautiful blue. The birds and insects carried on as normal. It is so reassuring to know that some things do not change.
The Scouts listened well to instructions and held the birds very gently. Photograph by Rick Newton.

We wondered how the little birds could eat a dragonfly this size, even without its head. Photograph by Sandy Alexander.

The parent birds waited patiently with their beaks full. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Nature's Hiding Places

One of the mixed blessings of all these wind storms we have had since last Fall, is the abundance of fallen limbs and trees. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes…and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and also birds. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator. 
Over time, the leaves, small branches and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants. 
Where tree limbs came down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it was a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we were able to make well-constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid-sized branches are criss -crossed on top next and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food: nuts, seeds, grasses, eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles. 
As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy. The Knox Preserve has a large dense pile of cedar boughs as well as many smaller woody piles along the field edges. If there is snow on the ground, look for tracks around the piles. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success. 
Written by Beth Sullivan

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Next Generations

By Beth Sullivan
With this extra time on our hands, I sure hope everyone is paying attention to what’s happening outside the windows, in the yards, in the woods. The season has changed from spring to summer and this is truly the time of new life. Plants, of course, burst into view during spring months, but the birds and mammals have taken a bit longer to get settled and start their families. Now it seems, everywhere we turn, there are youngsters out and about testing their wings, or legs, and bringing a smile to all who witness this wonderful stage of life. The next generation has arrived.
I seem to spend a lot of time at my kitchen sink, so I am glad for the distraction of the dogwood tree and its birdfeeders. We have left our suet up this year, longer than usual, because of the parade of young birds taking turns trying to figure it out. The young downy woodpeckers mastered it quickly, but they have little tolerance for siblings or other uninvited guests. The catbird parents have been carrying suet back to their nestlings, and now they too are attempting to get to at it themselves. They are less graceful than the woodpeckers. These birds are fully feathered and pretty independent now, but it has taken a while. Most birds are pretty helpless, and featherless, for a couple of weeks before they venture out on their own. They sit tight in the nest while their parents deliver the food. In the case of Purple Martins and other Swallows, the adult birds can be observed swooping over open meadows capturing food on the wing. It has been a banner year so far, for dragonflies. Great for the birds, not so good for the dragonflies.
Shore birds and waterfowl, on the other hand, are pretty much ready to run, or swim, the day they hatch. Most nest on the ground and are very vulnerable to predation or injury. They will not be able to fly for a while so they rely on other means of protecting themselves. The most important thing is their coloration, excellent camouflage in their habitat. The little shorebirds have legs that are like those of a kid with a growth spurt: long and gangly with big feet.
The water birds don’t look quite so awkward and are capable of darting quickly toward water and swimming to keep up with the rest. If you are lucky enough to be able to observe one of these species, be patient; watch for a while and you will be entertained by some truly funny antics as the birds learn how to search for food and try to preen.
A wide open beak at the door greets the adult tree swallows. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Day old purple martin hatchlings are totally helpless 

Those long legs really work! Photograph by Rick Newton.

These ducklings can swim and search for food within a day or two of hatching.

Young American Oystercatchers blend into their surroundings for protection. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Young mammals are even more fun

At the same kitchen window I have watched young squirrels do very awkward things as they try and figure out the best way into a squirrel-proof feeder. After a few embarrassing falls, the little ones just pop up from the bushes where they fell, look around as if to see if anyone witnessed their mistakes, and then try it again. They seem to be quite agile as soon as they emerge from the nest. Raccoons are the most inquisitive. Being able to witness the sibling relationships in a family of young raccoons makes it easier to see how they can figure out how to get into a locked, secured, tied-down metal can of birdseed. They plot together. Some of the most endearing youngsters I have seen are the young foxes. This year a number of people have reported dens very close to their homes. How lucky! It is thought that the adults choose to live closer to humans to protect themselves from the larger coyotes that would be dangerous to their young. They really are like a cross between a puppy and a kitten, in their appearance and their antics. Litters of animals have the benefit of learning by playing with one another, like kids in school.
Deer usually have a single fawn, or occasionally twins. Shortly after birth they are able to walk awkwardly and are very obedient when advised by the doe to stay put and bed down in the grass while she goes off to feed. It seems that only when mom is around, and deems it safe, that they will cavort and run.
A raccoon family can get into a lot of mischief. 

Fox kits offer the best entertainment.  Photograph by S. Sorensen

Summer is a good time to be a child

It is time to explore, to grow, and to learn. It is time to get legs underneath and wings strengthened to fly. Human children need their parents longer and learn life lessons over many years. Take this summer time, with your child or any child in your circle, and get out to teach them the wonders that we can experience now. Make this time count. Stretch their minds and their hearts with love and learning of nature. Take a lot of photos of the small things they see, so they can remember the stories and experiences this winter when we may be closed back in. Gather treasures in a special box to help them remember being young in the summer. It is good for the adult soul, too.
Take time this summer to explore and teach the young ones in your life.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Greening of Hoffman Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
It was a long winter, but we planned and had hopes for spring. Somehow, (we know how) our best plans for being organized and meeting and having groups together to get work done in the spring, never materialized. Some of us hiked; many of us researched; all of us thought a lot about what would be our next steps for the Hoffman Preserve.
We found some interesting research about planning our forests for the warming future. Where we live now could become much more like the climate of Maryland in another generation or two. In the mid 1900’s the preserve was planted with conifers: hemlock, pine, and larch, to re-create a northern forest habitat. We have the opportunity now, to think about a more southern forest, and if we choose to help mother nature, we may direct our thoughts to trees and plants that will thrive in the coming warmth.
With more sun this hemlock has healthy new growth.

A young white pine seedling will have no competition to grow tall.

New sights to see

Since the weather has warmed up, several of us have taken the opportunity to hike out and around to really explore what is happening since the project was completed last year. One thing we noticed was that everyone else was out exploring too. The preserve is getting a lot of visitors, and the good thing is that people are beginning to get a little idea of what we were aiming for. The new signs helped, too.
The first thing we notice is how much more light there is. Even with the leaves emerged, there are big bright sunny patches and places where the sun streams in at angles, creating some great atmosphere. You can also see the tops of the trees. No longer do you walk among trunks, but now you can admire the tallest of trees.
The birds also enjoy those open patches of light. Even the true forest dwelling birds like to come out to the edges, to the light, because that’s where they can find insects. The sunny patch cuts are now swarming with all sorts of flying insects, including different butterflies and dragon flies. Those aerial insectivores, like flycatchers and swallows have found themselves better hunting grounds. For the first time we have had bluebirds on the preserve. They nest in cavities. Over the past many years, with many trees dead or dying, woodpeckers have created numerous inviting spaces for those birds to claim. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches use holes as well, and their numbers have increased.
While there is still a lot of messy-looking wood on the ground, from branches and tree trunks that are still breaking and falling, that coarse woody debris is essential for so many reasons. It creates numerous nooks and crannies for all sorts of wildlife. We also have begun to create brush piles to tidy up a bit, but also to provide habitat. From medium-sized mammals like opossums , to chipmunks and mice, there are plenty of spaces to hide. Birds like wrens and sparrows will find shelter among the tangles of branches and will find plenty of insect food. As the wood decays, there are all sorts of insects, especially beetles, and other invertebrates, that come to feast on the rotting wood. Amphibians, particularly salamanders, rely on the damp dark areas under wood to find food and shelter. All the way down to the smallest organisms-bacteria and fungi-the soil under the old wood is alive.
There were many places in Hoffman, before the project, where the forest floor was barren. There was no understory and no diversity to support so much life.
Small mammals will have more places to hide in brush piles. Photograph by Rick Newton.

A garter snake has more sunny patches to enjoy.

Flycatchers are more abundant as they can find insects in the sunny openings.

New life to see

New life is most apparent in areas where the forest had been somewhat diverse before. A forest with a mix of tree species and shrubs in the understory will have a greater seed bank, which is years of seeds lying dormant in the soil, waiting for an opportune time to sprout. That time is now. A small lowbush blueberry that struggled in the shade has now sent out runners and spread its clones and offshoots in all directions, creating greater patches of green. These bushes already flowered and are developing berries for maybe the first time in decades. These berries will be available for many different birds and mammals later in the summer and fall. We lost many oak trees to drought and gypsy moth devastation in the last several years. In the open areas there are many, many seedlings sprouting from acorns produced before the trees died. Maybe when they are old enough, there will be a control for gypsy moths . We have to hope they can adapt to a changing climate.
Many of the trees that were cut to harvest are also re-sprouting from their stumps. This is most noticeable in the red maples where the young leaves crown the stump. Over time the strongest will survive and a multi-trunked tree will thrive.
We may have to help Mother Nature along in places where the very dense shade of the hemlock groves had no diversity and no seed bank. But that is the fun of watching and waiting. There is always something new to see there. We invite you all to enjoy the changes, take pictures, send us your observations, and watch the rebirth of the Hoffman Preserve.
It's easier now to see the tops of the trees.

This hillside is now becoming a patchwork of green, mostly young berry bushes and cherry tree seedlings.

This red maple has put up numerous stems and leaves already.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.