Monday, November 12, 2018

Fall cleaning- don't get too fussy

By Beth Sullivan
As we wind up our fall cleaning, we often make piles of leaves that will compost, but sometimes we are left with fallen branches and limbs that are too big to compost easily, and we just don’t want to haul to the landfill. In my own garden I can make nice piles of sticks and branches and always notice that those piles are the first places that Sparrows and Wrens seem to choose when the day ends and the weather gets cold.
A Song Sparrow perches on top of a brush pile but later will find refuge inside it.

We are doing fall clean up on the preserves as well, but we do not try and get rid of all our woody rough debris. 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 birds, will inhabit the top levels. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator.
During the winter, the snow cover helps insulate the pile. 

Brush piles feed the soil

Over time, the leaves, small branches, and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, and 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.
In Summer, vines and plants grow in the brush pile.

Where tree limbs come down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it can be a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we are 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.
While clearing invasive species, the debris is left to cover the ground in many places.
To make a good brush pile, put bigger pieces on the bottom, making nice holes.

Then pile on brush for shelter. 

Look for brush piles as you walk

As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several and Perry Natural area as well. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy in 2012 and are still present and providing shelter. The Knox Preserve has been cleaned up and the bigger piles removed to get out of the way of our mowing efforts. You will notice piles along the trails that look messy and off the top of the knoll there is a dense pile of cut limbs. This is quite deliberate. We have cut invasive vines and treated the stumps to prevent regrowth, but the branches were left in place to provide the cover that the birds enjoy. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Later in the winter, when snow covers the ground, look for tracks and trails leading to and from the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success.
Woodchucks will make their entry holes at the base of a brush pile for greater protection.

I suggest making a small pile in your yard and garden where you can watch from indoors and enjoy the activity.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan. 
Don't forget to support Avalonia Land Conservancy through the Amazon Smile program. 

This post originally appeared November 30, 2015.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The season begins

By Beth Sullivan
When it comes to temperatures and “feeling the season” I think we will all admit a bit of seasonal confusion again this year. The first days of November were warm, even hot by many standards. I am not complaining about being warm, by any means, but it is a little frightening to notice the shift, and these changes are getting more obvious. Flora and fauna are responding by changing their cycles, and some of them are truly life threatening. I think of the spotted salamander I found while gardening on November 1 and hope it found a place to dig under before we had some heavier frosts on the following mornings. It is hard on everything to go from 70 degrees to hard winter freezing temperatures all in a couple of days or hours.
Another change I am noticing is that the commercial seasons are shifting as well. The little orange orbs were quickly removed from the shops and were replaced immediately by red and green ones. Christmas has now leaped to the day after Halloween. That is something I will complain about. It’s mostly because I enjoy the slow advance toward the big holidays, as much as I wish the seasons advanced more gently.
I can get quite disheartened by the barrenness I know is coming, but I am sure to enjoy the new visibility in the woodlands, the new birds that arrive at our feeders, and the relief from gardening duties. I enjoy thinking about Thanksgiving, and yes, I do start early. I host our family dinner, and the family is growing by big leaps and bounds. But as we start to think of what we are grateful for on this day , we are also bombarded by the ideas of Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, and Cyber Monday. While it is often about gift giving for the upcoming BIG HOLIDAY, it is all about the shopping and the deals.
Hopefully this spotted salamander has burrowed more deeply.

At least this red and green are appropriate.

Not really feeling like November, is it?

Giving Tuesday

There is one more day added to the week of named holidays: Giving Tuesday. After we have celebrated with family and friends, then shopped and congratulated ourselves on the great gift deals we got, it is time to sit back and think of a different kind of giving: giving back in our community. #Giving Tuesday is now a global initiative, and it harnesses the power of generosity in communities around the world. There are so very many worthy causes to support right now. Each of us has our personal passion, and often more than one. We are in a time, right now, as we are heading into elections, where we need to know our one vote makes a difference, now and forever, in relation to the environment. It is under siege right now with preserved land being threatened, and open space being gobbled up and developed. We do have an opportunity, immediately, to Vote YES on question #2 which will add a layer of protection to our state-owned open space. It is also time to think where your candidates, on all levels, stand on the environment. Vote your conscience. Giving Tuesday can be Election Tuesday this year.
Sometimes we feel that we ourselves cannot do enough, or make a big enough difference in how we try and protect our home, our environment. Maybe you can’t think or act on a grand scale, but you can help on a local level and every single bit of help counts. That’s where #Giving Tuesday comes in to play. Your individual contribution to a cause may not feel like a lot of impact, but when joined with the efforts and donations of others, it does add up. It makes a difference.
Avalonia Land Conservancy operates locally, possibly in your town and even possibly in your neighborhood. In order to keep some things from changing, we need your help. To keep your local woodlands open for the next generations to explore, you can make a difference. To protect our waterways and keep them clean for drinking water and wildlife, you can make a difference. By contributing, large or small, you combine with everyone else who shares your concern for our local landscape and you WILL make a difference.
The official Giving Tuesday is just one day, November 27 th this year. You can add your voice to others as a contribution on that day itself. But it can be a season of giving, a year of giving, a habit of helping and in return you get back so much.
Please think of Avalonia on Giving Tuesday, and think of your future as well. Give yourself a gift.
The witch hazel blooms late, but usually the leaves are off when it does. 

Avalonia preserves the landscapes, habitats, and wildlife they support.

We want to ensure our waterways run clear and clean for the future.

Think of what you can give to the next generation by supporting our conservation efforts. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.
Don't forget to select Avalonia Land Conservancy as your Amazon Smile charity.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Getting oriented

By Beth Sullivan
Most people know left from right instinctively. I admit I have to think about it and sometimes look at my ring finger. Many people know North, South, East and West almost the same way; they just get it. Sometimes when I am outside I can feel it based on sun angle and position.
There are also those people who can look at a map whether on a trail, in a car, or on paper and know exactly where they are, which way they have come, and where they are going on the route or trail. I am definitely not one of those, and from what I hear from fellow hikers, I am not alone. When I see a trail map at an intersection in an unfamiliar woodland, it really takes me a while to sort out East and West, right and left,, and where I am. When I use my GPS or set my map on my car, I have to have my arrow going in the direction of travel pointing up. Can’t do that in the woods. Nor can I rotate the trail maps to get me headed correctly, so I am often found looking like I am standing on my head trying to figure it out. The easiest thing for me to do is to get to know the trails really well so I don’t have to consult the maps.
But that doesn’t help our visitors and our occasional hikers. In the town of Stonington, we have quite a number of beautiful properties with intersecting trails. As a steward, I am the one who gets the complaints from people saying that several of our maps in certain preserves are difficult to figure out. Maybe they were placed by those lucky folks who really know their directions. One problem we have is that we often do not have easy choices about where to actually place the posts for these maps. Our soil is so rocky, and in some places pure ledge. The volunteers who put up the signs in many of our preserves had to take that into mind too. A map on one side of the trail makes sense, that same map on the other side of the trail, facing opposite, makes no sense at all ( to me).
The map of Paffard Woods, when on one side of the trail was not oriented to East and West properly. On the other side of the trail it worked for me.

From our website, the trail map for Paffard Woods is available for viewing on your phone or can be downloaded and printed. It matches the signs found on the preserve.
The smartphone app opens with the entire area covered by Avalonia and dotted by all the preserves.

You are here  

We had noticed that some visitors had taken to printing “You are here” on some signs. Some had posted stick-on stars, which also works. It is hard and expensive to have truly individualized maps printed that designate individual intersections. Recently a couple of our town stewards decided to take matters seriously and assessed a few of the more complex trails in town and re-oriented the maps as best as they could considering conditions. In many places, simply placing the signs on the other side of a trail made it work. The positioning may not look as convenient or intuitive on first sight. But once you face the sign it is apparent that it is easier to get oriented. No uncomfortable head turning and consulting ring fingers for left and right, East and West.
Avalonia has all of our trail maps on our website. They are easy to download and print at home, if you want to have a paper map in hand. But they are also easy to access on your smart phone as you walk. And you can turn your phone any way you choose. You can find the maps here
Technology is changing and improving so rapidly that it is now possible to find our maps on-line in an interactive format, that not only shows you the preserve’s trails and some features such as stone walls as land marks, it also follows you along with GPS as you navigate the trail itself. No longer do you have to wonder where you are in relation to the next intersection, or try to figure out how much farther you have to go on a loop. You can see it in hand. For a better idea of how to use this map and download the app, visit our website page  here. There you will get a demo on how to use the maps on the app and you can then download it to your phone. You will have all the Avalonia trails in the palm of your hand.
Avalonia Land Conservancy recently received a generous grant from Chelsea Groton Bank. One goal of this grant is to create new trail signs for several properties where we have added trails and also create signage for some of our new properties. People will always welcome a map at a trail head and kids will need to learn maps skills too. But the present is in the palm of our hand.
And while you are hiking with your smart phone, be sure to try out Hike and Seek for some added fun. Find out more here.
We have weeks of lovely hiking weather ahead. Enjoy!
Zooming in lets you pick the preserve you want to explore. 

A closer zoom will reveal details like stone walls and wetlands. At this scale you can follow your movement along the trails.

Another helpful background shows the landscape.

You can also change the background to see the topography.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Restoration of a Beloved Seaside Preserve

By Beth Sullivan

On a recent sparkling, crisp October morning, a group of Avalonia volunteers showed up at Dodge Paddock and Beal preserve for the next steps in an ongoing restoration effort .
Those of you who have been following this project know that Avalonia has been challenged by the changing conditions here for several decades now. Learn more here. We have battled invasive plants and continue to do so. We get bashed by Mother Nature, and also continue to be, but we are trying to work with her to restore certain areas and better prepare for a future that includes rising water, both sea level and ground water. We have banished most of the phragmites, and in their place, have restored native marsh grasses. When storms gave us a dune, we planted plants tolerating the high and dry conditions. When the water flooded in and was blocked up, we created a channel to release the water and encourage tidal flow to nourish the marsh.
Much of this was done with grant funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Long Island Sound Futures Fund. We have also had major support from CT DEEP, Mystic Aquarium, and Connecticut Sea Grant. Members of community groups and individuals have stepped up to help us as well. Labors of their love.
Already the area welcomed new wildlife this spring.

The plastic had been down for several months. Photograph by Judy Benson.

The soil was evened out and raked to make it ready for planting. Photograph by Judy Benson.

A continuing project

The project we tackled was the next step in restoration of the former gardens. Mrs. Shirley Beal and her husband had donated the property now known as the Beal Preserve, with the agreement that she could maintain her lovely flower and vegetable gardens on the property as long as she lived. We lost Shirley two years ago in September. Her gardens bore amazing vegetables, and her flowers were not only beautiful but also attracted birds and insects. But without a full time gardener or caretaker, we could not manage to maintain them. The decision was made to restore the area to native grasses and other plants. During last fall and this spring, the North Stonington Garden Club dug a huge number of perennial plants to offer at their famous garden sale. They have been very generous in turning funds back to Avalonia in several grant awards. Volunteers from Coogan Farm Giving Garden came and rescued Asparagus plants. Neighbors and friends were invited to share other flowers, tulip bulbs, raspberry plants and even horseradish roots. When the garden was as empty as possible, we mowed the remainder and covered it with plastic sheeting to cook for the summer, solarizing the soil and killing weeds and their seeds (hopefully).

We had purchased a variety of special seeds, selected to be tolerant of the specific conditions there at the preserve. They have to able to tolerate standing water at times, salt spray and occasional drought. After the seeds were sown, we added some mulch straw and then gave the area a mental wish for good luck.
In another part of the garden, a mound of old compost, we planted roots of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium), Snake root (Ageratina) , and distributed seeds of a special goldenrod ( Solidago), and butterfly weed (Asclepias). All of these are native, will be attractive to pollinators, and will create a mass of color especially in late summer. Even as we planted, we were visited by several Monarch butterflies and many birds of different species enjoying the flowers and seeds already available from plants on the preserve.
In just a few years, the area has gone from a quite uninviting area of Phragmites and invasive plants, to one that welcomes more native wildlife. Visitors have already noted wonderful new species. The new garden area will also do the same. We are quite sure, however, that Mrs. Beal’s tulips and asparagus will remain for decades to come, as they pop up in the grasses. We will welcome them too.

Everyone had a hand in distributing the seeds. Photograph by Judy Benson.

Mulch straw was added to help protect the seeds. Photograph by Judy Benson.

Where there was once nothing but phragmites, there is now a swath of native beauty.

We know Mrs. Beal's tulips will return for years to come.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Colorful, but not from around here

By Beth Sullivan

During this time of year, the scenery changes, seemingly minute by minute. Light changes: the angle of the sun creates shadows and details. Color changes; grasses go to warm browns and golds, meadows show off aster purples, goldenrods and Joe Pye weed magentas.
There are other colors showing up in hedgerows and shrub lands and along roadsides. This is the season for berries. Throughout the spring and summer we enjoyed the flowers, some showy, some discrete. Some are fragrant and others not at all. But now the great variety of berries, the fruits, creates a special show.

Take a ride along a back country road, or even along the highway, and it is impossible not to notice the bounty of berries. We have dozens of native shrubs and bushes that have evolved to provide the vital foods needed by small mammals and birds. Ripening over a succession of weeks and even months through fall and winter, they provide a food source for birds when insects are long gone. Migratory song birds will rely on shrub-lands full of cover and food as they stop after a long night of flight to rest and feast and refuel.

But not all berries are created equal

Over the decades shrubs were imported and planted as ornamentals. Multiflora Rose created instant hedgerows and fragrant white flowers in spring. Those flowers turned into abundant fruits, rose hips, that were eaten by many species of birds. Seeds were dispersed in droppings and now the rose has become an invader, an aggressive spreader that is quick to colonize fields and roadsides. Even though it does provide food and cover, it will out-compete other native plants in our landscape.
Multiflora Rose

Autumn Olive was planted deliberately along our highways to create visual buffers, and also to be a quick cover to prevent erosion. Now that shrub dominates the roadsides. Red berries are abundant now and robins and thrushes are quick to find them. At this time of year we can witness great flocks of starlings, along the highways, swirling and circling as they descend into the medians and roadside edges to feast on the berries and further disperse the seeds.
Autumn Olive

We all enjoy the colors of autumn decorations, but beware of using the non-native and invasive Oriental Bittersweet. It is another truly lovely berry, but a menace when its seeds are spread. The resulting vines climb and twist their way up trees and over native shrubs, strangling and adding their weight and causing death to the plant that supports it.
Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet vine

Colorful but invasive 

One of the most outstanding plants for colorful berries is likely the very worst invader: Porcelain berry. A decade or so ago, it was a sought after nursery plant, a climbing vine with most unusual berries. They start creamy white, then to pale green, then light teal, deeper aqua, sky blue and then to purple when ripe. Porcelain berry vine is a vigorous grower, adding inches, if not feet, almost overnight. It covers everything in its path. Obstructing light, smothering plants beneath, it forms a dense monoculture allowing no diversity and changing the landscape and altering valuable habitat.
Porcelain berry smothering a ceder tree.

The colorful Porcelain berry.

Walk through the Moore Woodlands in Groton, Knox Preserve or Knox Family Farm in Stonington, Pine Swamp in Ledyard, Preston Nature Preserve and many other Avalonia Land Conservancy properties. Notice the berries. Take the time to learn the non-natives and notice the beastly effects they have on our landscape and avoid them in your own. Opt for natives instead and the birds will be happier you did.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
This post originaly appeared October 26, 2015.