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.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Communicating the value

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

Hoffman Evergreen Preserve hike

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

The pond a Hoffman Preserve remains full to the brim.

Some of the projects spreading our message

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

Connecticut College students are willing to get their feet wet.

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

A fox den at Knox Preserve.

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

A soft opening for Hoffman Preserve


Friday, November 29, 1 pm

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

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

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

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

Getting the trails open

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

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

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

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

Stop invasives from spreading

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

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.