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.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Getting a Start on Summer

By Beth Sullivan

We are on the threshold of summer. So many of us wait so hopefully, each and every year, for the sunny warm days of spring. Though this winter wasn’t terribly snowy or cold, it did seem long and gray. And finally, spring arrived, only to be met with fear and uncertainty and lockdowns. We have learned a lot over these last months. We have learned how important our friends and family are. We have recognized how important the sun and fresh air are. We may realize that we have taken for granted our ability to just run outside to meet up with friends for a hike, plant sale, community garden effort, or a simple conversation on a beach.

But we have learned, and we have adapted. Most of us recognize the need for some changes and guidelines. Most people understand that we ourselves are responsible for our actions, and that our own actions can have great consequences for others.

Memorial Day has just passed, and we have received many posts and comments about how great it was to have shady trails, sunny benches with lovely views and cool breezes to enjoy. Families have posted photos on Instagram and on Hike Avalonia’s Facebook page. We can tell by full parking lots that many friends, old and new, are out celebrating the great weather and ability to be outdoors. I have truly appreciated the actions and smiling eyes of people I meet on the trails, as we nod, step aside, or get some distance so we can chat.

I am afraid, however, that in some situations, the high hopes for celebration, in combination with the beautiful weather, led to some significant lapses in judgement and behavior. We have had reports of groups of younger people gathering on some of the preserves to sit or enjoy each other’s company, but without masks and distance.
In Stonington on Dodge Paddock and other preserves, guidance is posted for safe interactions.

Some explorations are best done solo.

People and wildlife will find a balance. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Sandy Point this summer

One of our major concerns is Sandy Point. The island is such a special place, for so many reasons. Essentially and foremost it is a wildlife sanctuary. When it was deeded to Avalonia, the main purpose was to protect the nesting birds there, while also allowing the community to continue to share the space. Over many years, the Stonington COMO has provided some stewardship and oversight as they sell, distribute and check for passes required to access the shore. In more recent years, we have developed a great working relationship with the US Fish and Wildlife Service ( USFWS). They have taken on the stewardship and have done an amazing job protecting several species of birds that have suffered major declines over the years. Right now, Sandy Point has the best northeastern population of nesting American Oystercatchers, as well as several pairs of Piping Plovers. The USFWS has also provided education for our visitors. By all accounts, people really have enjoyed their presence and are interested in the care of the preserve and its wildlife.
As the summer ramps up, we know people will want to enjoy the island, but please respect the old rules as well as some of the newer ones.

As before, passes are required for daily or season use. These can be purchased from the COMO website and should be with you while on the island. They are digital so can be kept safely on your phone as well. There will be areas roped off to protect the birds, so please remain outside of them. Dogs are NOT ALLOWED at all on the island, even on leash, to protect the habitat and birds.

This year, however, we need to protect ourselves and each other as well. It is truly important to maintain your physical distance from one another on the beach. Families who live together, or share a family pass, may stay together, but we ask that gatherings of more than 5 people be avoided. Keep yourself and your towel inside of a nice 15 foot circle when with non-family members. No one really wants to wear a mask on the beach, so the best answer is to remain distanced but have it ready and available if you choose to walk. There will be different levels of oversight this year, with USFWS, Avalonia and even police boats making trips out and around the area.

We truly believe that being outside is the safest way to connect with friends and nature. We ask that wherever you are, you think about others who are sharing the same space as you are. We never know what challenges they or their family may be facing. Keeping ourselves safe translates into keeping others safe so that all can benefit from the upcoming summer season, wherever you are.

Enjoy and appreciate the stunning beauty of this season whether you are on a beach, a meadow, or woodland trail.
American oystercatchers usually nest before the busy summer season and are quite successful on Sandy Point. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Eggs lie exposed on a shallow sand nest. Loose dogs and careless footsteps can destroy them in an instant.

A perfect setup for Sandy Point.

This year there will be added wording to suggest safe practices for distancing on the beach.

Please help to protect the fragile habitat at Sandy Point.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The impact of a life-changing pandemic

Amelia Packard, a student at Connecticut College has written another blog, this time explaining how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her personally, and shares her thoughts about how it may affect things for a very long time. She recognizes the importance of nature and conservation of open space that has become so important to all of us at this time. We are lucky to have such insightful young people to take the reins from us. It is time, and they have the power to create a better world.

A couple of years back, these students didn't need to worry about social distance.

Hello Avalonia eTrail readers!

I hope everyone is well in light of the outbreak of COVID-19. When Connecticut College transitioned to online learning on March 25th it was a big adjustment. My rowing season was cancelled, and all my classes were modified so they would better fit the online format. I only have two classes, Classical Mechanics and the Goodwin Niering Seminar, that meet regularly now. My other classes have switched to readings and assignments online. I am hoping the online class format is not one that lasts for very long. I feel distant from my college community and my other classmates. COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on everyone. It has disrupted our way of life. People are turning to nature in this time of crisis, and I think we can learn some valuable lessons from its effects.

As a response to the pandemic, people are staying at home. For many this is a true disaster. But decreasing travel has been decreasing air pollution. According to NASA, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) has significantly decreased over the Northeastern United States. See figures 1 and 2 for a visual. Figure 1 shows the average NO2 pollution from March 2015-2019 and figure 2 shows the NO2 levels this past March. You can clearly see the difference. This is not, however, a permanent solution for air pollution. These visuals have shown me just how effective change made on the individual level can have a large impact if it is done by many people. But, we won’t be in lockdown forever. I think it shows clearly the connection between our economy and pollution. As the world comes to a screeching halt, air pollution significantly decreases, but at a huge cost. But we also know it can be done. We need to build a world that runs on things like sustainable agriculture and clean energy sources.

Figure 1 March 2015 to 2019 Average NO2 levels. Image from NASA.

Figure 2 March 2020 NO2 levels. Image from NASA.

Another effect of the pandemic is that so many people have been seeking exercise and inspiration outdoors. The parks are packed on weekends, and DEEP has shut down two state parks (Kent Falls and Seaside Park) due to the increased foot traffic and concerns for social distancing. Without work and school, people still need an outlet for exercise, both physical and mental. Nature has been available as a safe option for people to explore due to its allowance for social distancing. I am hopeful that people remember how important nature has been for people during this crazy time. I hope it will allow for more conservation efforts as many people have newly connected or rediscovered nature.

Reconnecting with the natural world is hardly a new concept. People have retreated to the countryside over centuries to find themselves again. There is something inexplicable about nature that allows people to slow down, find themselves, and answer questions about the world.

Appreciation of nature starts now.

If you isolate together at home, you can still share a bench outside.

Solitary exploration can be the best.

According to British newspaper, The Independent, young adults care a lot about environmental issues and often it is their highest priority. From a survey, it was found that 80% of teenagers feel pressure to save the planet, but 44% say they don’t hear about these issues or ways to solve them in the classroom. Environmental education is key to continuing future change. As we educate, more people will find passions in environmental fields. Many fields of study involve, or will involve, environmental aspects. In the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College, students have all found passions in different areas of study, but we all have one interest in common - the environment.

Maybe as a result of this pandemic, we, as a human race will have recognized a deeper importance of nature and our environment, for ourselves and future generations. Maybe our generation will find the power to take a stand.

The Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment has been helping us for  many years but this year we couldn't hold a work party.

Next month Amelia and I will share some of the student projects from this semester. It has been a challenge but the outcomes are excellent.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.


Blumberg, Sara. “Data Shows 30 Percent Drop In Air Pollution Over Northeast U.S.” NASA, NASA, 9 Apr. 2020,

“COVID-19 Updates CT State Parks and Forests.”,

Young, Sarah. “80% Of Teens Feel under Pressure to Save the Planet.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 5 June 2019,

Monday, May 4, 2020

Happy? Spring?

By Beth Sullivan
We are all painfully aware that some things are just not right. And we also have to be thinking that they may not be right, or normal, for a long time. But just for right now, let’s remind ourselves that this is truly a miraculous time of year, and some things do not change.
Maybe you have had some quiet time in the evenings to notice the chorus of our littlest frogs, the spring peepers as they wax and wane in their calling depending on the temperature. On the cold nights we have had, they hunker down underwater, in the vegetation, and stay silent. But with the rollercoaster of temperatures we have had, the very next lovely mild night, their sounds fill the wooded wetlands.
The birds have been busy and maybe you have had time to notice. Every year a pair of cardinals nests in a holly bush by the house. This year I can see the nest pretty well and hope to get some photos. Take some time to watch your yard birds and see where they go and what they are doing. I seem to have more titmice than ever before, and several of them have discovered little piles of dog fur stuck in my wood decking. They spend a lot of time picking and gathering the fur. I can spend a lot of time watching them.
Just as usual, the osprey have returned to their nest platform at Paffard Marsh. That site is noticed and photographed by so many. The Bluebirds at Knox are taking a stronger stand this year against the house sparrows, and we have several pairs nesting. We also put out the gourds for the purple martins and have had some activity, but the cold wet weather has been lethal for them.
The osprey return every year to the Paffard Marsh nest site. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Bluebirds have claimed several nest boxes at Knox Preserve. Photograph by Rick Newton.

The martins don't have to abide the rule about social distancing. Welcome mats are out.

Take a walk in the woods

A walk in the woods is completely acceptable activity. It should be mandatory. I have noticed that many of our trails are becoming very worn and hardened. Enjoy them gently and with attention. We have had Facebook comments on trailside flowers that were never noticed by people before. Right now there are many yellows: dog tooth violets or trout lilies, marsh marigolds or cowslips. Notice where the most beautiful yellow appears; it is often accompanied by some lovely purple violets. Artists know that these are complementary colors. Mother Nature is the best artist.
While we are considering yellow, have you noticed the goldfinches? People are asking: where did they come from? Where were they all winter? They were right here, often fully visible at our feeders, but only now, in the heart of spring, do the males transition to their brilliant yellow and black. Listen for their chatter in the trees. They will not be nesting for quite a while yet. They wait until mid-summer when there is an abundance of native seeds.
Trout Lily,  fleeting beauty.

Yellow marsh marigolds and purple violets. 

Male goldfinches are like rays of sunshine. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Or take a drive

I like to go out for some longer back country road drives. Looking at the changing scenery now is well worth the price of gas, especially now that it is so cheap. Head inland and uphill to get some overviews of the bigger landscape. You can still see the rocks and walls and ledges that give hard structure, bones, to the land. They are soon to be hidden by foliage, so enjoy them now. In many areas, usually wetlands, the red maples are still showing their red flowers, tinting the woodlands with misty rose color. Elsewhere Norway maples, while not native, are abundant, and their lime green-yellow flowers are truly outstanding when seen across a span. Over the last weeks there have been subtle changes in the succession of flowering trees. There were willows and the maples, now delicate shadbushes , several types of wild cherries or choke cherries. There are fruiting trees like crabapple and pear trees that have escaped cultivation and dot the wild landscape. Of course while driving around, you can enjoy everyone’s home landscaping and flowering shrubs. With the quince in full bloom, the hummingbirds should be arriving any day.
Normalcy is earlier sunrises and later sunsets. That means more daylight hours to get out and enjoy. So many things are not dependent on human presence, or absence, for so much of nature is on its own schedule, slow and steady. Take some time to savor that pace. It’s spring.
Flowering trees dot the landscape.

The hummingbirds are running a little late this year.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.