Monday, September 24, 2018

Eyes on the skies

Eyes on the Skies
by Beth Sullivan
Certain times of year I find it hard to keep up with all that is going on. Eyes on the ground to look for mushrooms, is one of my enjoyments during this season. But eyes on the sky right now seems to be the most exciting
This is migration time. Many shorebirds have already passed through, but the young of the year are later travelers. They gather in flocks on sandy shores, Napatree and Sandy Point in particular, and when they move as a flock and take to the sky, they are usually mesmerizing to watch as they circle, rise, and fall again to walk the sand and waterline.
The hawks are migrating now too. On those clear, blue, crisp September days ( of which we have had very few so far), when the wind is out of the north, look up and then look higher. Sometimes it takes a while for our eyes to focus so very high, that birds are small dots. But the hawks circle up each morning on rising warming air currents, then drift south, being helped along in an energy saving glide. Locally I see them usually singly, but on a good day they will stream constantly if you are in a good coastal spot to watch. There are other areas where the winds are perfect, and hawks gather in masses, called kettles, and swirl in large numbers, ever upward and southward.
The young broadwinged hawk still screeches to be fed, but soon will join on of the large kettles of this species headed south.

Red shouldered hawks may catch the thermal winds but many will stay here through the winter. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Dragonfly migration

While you are looking up, you may notice dragonflies on the move. Our largest species, the Darners, both green and blue in color, are as big as some small birds. Only these biggest ones stage a true migration to beat the cold. They will also follow the coast. Here they fly westward rather than always heading south over the Sound. They also seem to fly at a variety of heights, some so low you can almost hear them, but look higher and you can see them so high they begin to disappear from sight. Anywhere along their route they are fair game for migrating birds to grab and eat. The purple martins have generally left their nesting areas, but high-flying dragonflies make up a big part of their autumn diet.
The martins, as well as the other swallow species, are some of the most spectacular migrants as they stage themselves in preparation for their long migration to South America. All along the coast, over salt marshes and dunes, hundreds and thousands of swallows seem to gravitate to certain spots where they converge and swirl in spectacular formations, sometimes for a long period of time, before they suddenly settle into the vegetation. The lower Connecticut River is one of the most famous staging areas. I have witnessed it several times, but more recently, at our own little Dodge Paddock, a group of us witnessed a small but no less inspiring demonstration by a flock of a few hundred birds, some of which flew so close we could feel their wings push the air by us. They converged and swirled and settled into the bayberry bushes that are one of their main food sources now.
Dragonflies are important food sources for the purple martins during nesting season and on migration.

Darner dragonflies may look imposing but are harmless and quite beautiful.
Clouds of swallows swirl and fill the sky as they stage on the Connecticut River before roosting for the night.

Swallow at Dodge Paddock.  A smaller flock but still impressive. Photograph by DEEP.



Monarch butterflies head south

One of the most famous and easily witnessed migration miracles is put on by the beloved Monarch butterflies. The species has been terribly threatened from so many fronts: habitat loss in Mexico, their wintering grounds, and loss of habitat and milkweed food source here in the north. Herbicides and pesticides and invasive plants all play a part in the demise of the species. This year seemed to be a better year for them locally. Citizen science observers noted more caterpillars and more adult monarchs. People have been purposefully planting and cultivating milkweed species for them too. At this time of year, the last generation will be hatching. They will be fueling up for their journey south, and then west across the US, and then further south into Mexico to their historic and ancient wintering grounds. As they seek nectar plants, they often find the best sources along the coast as the goldenrods are in bloom. Find a place along the shore (coastal dunes and saltmarshes have the best goldenrod), and on one of those blue September days, just sit and watch. They will feed a while, then lift off lazily, rising sometimes so high to as to be out of sight, and with all the other species, begin to make their way south on the winds from the north.
Keep your eyes on the sky to wish them all well, and then start looking for the northern migrants to begin arriving here for the next season of change.
This newly hatched monarch fuels up on the abundant seaside goldenrod.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Musings on dirt and mud

By Beth Sullivan
While we watched the skies open this week, you could almost hear the trees and shrubs sighing with relief. The heat and drought has taken a toll on many of the hardiest plants while outright killing more tender vegetation. Even deep-rooted trees have been showing signs of stress as their leaves have browned. It might be a premature fall. Mostly I have bid my gardens an early goodbye.
Offering free, improved immunity.

But in order to make the best of a rainy day, I worked on catch up, paperwork and reading. One article caught my eye (mostly it was the photo), and I felt the need to share the message.
Over the last couple of years, I am sure readers have picked up on not only my passion for being out-doors, but also my dedication to the idea that children are healthier in every way for their time spent outside in nature. Even from the earliest months, babies can be entranced by colors and textures, they feel the wind, they can hear the sounds. They can catch your enthusiasm. Early introduction to so much sensory input is stimulating, helps create new and wonderful pathways in the brain, all that serious science stuff. But mostly it lays the foundation for the Sense of Wonder as described by Rachel Carson. Wonder that cannot be concretely measured but we all know is there; we have felt it ourselves if we were so lucky to have parents that let us out and encouraged us to stay out. We have passed it to our children, and if we are blessed with grandchildren, we are now eager to share that wonderment.
Group explorations make the best memories.

No princes to be had, but it doesn't hurt to try.

The article I read today, in the Washington Post, was titled:
More evidence that the key to allergy-free kids is giving them plenty of dirt - and cows”. article here
It seems like we are constantly hearing of the difficulty of raising children today with so many allergens lurking to sicken them.
Rocks are free, can be sorted, rolled, stacked, lined up and put into pockets.

But Cows? … who knew ? But I bet my parents and grandparents had an idea. We had unlimited freedom on the farms, access to dogs and cats, brooks and ponds, mud, and barns full of hay and cows! We ran through fields, and I am sure we brought in our share of manure, on bare feet even. The same wonderful stuff I still try and find, naturally, for my gardens. I do not have bad allergies!
A quiet stream invites bare feet.

So, while Avalonia Land Conservancy cannot actually offer preserves full of cows, might I suggest some good dirt? After this week’s rains, little streams will be begging for bare feet. It is still warm enough to wade in. A flowing trickle is best when there are little dams to be placed, leaves to be sailed. Mud and sticks and rocks are the best outside toys. We can offer plenty of little twigs on the ground and bits of moss to make fairy houses, small forts, bug enclosures. No Legos needed. There are many logs to be turned over, salamanders to find, worms and slugs to be experienced. Slime never hurt anyone.
Children who are outside earlier,  are healthier , get  that Sense of Wonder and offer creative thanks.  A gift from Flanders Elementary School First Graders, 2014

Don’t be too quick to pull out the hand sanitizer. Think of all the nice microbes and healthy bacteria giving your child a Sense of Wonder along with a free, natural dose of an improved immunity!
Such joy can be had outside so easily. 


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

This post originally appeared September 14, 2015.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Natives, aliens, and invaders

By Beth Sullivan
The actual growing season is coming to an end. Plants are beginning to store their reserves for next year, and use their last bits of energy for seed production, ensuring a future generation.
We have different stewardship chores at this time of year, different management strategies to maintain the preserves as ideal (or close to it) habitats for native wildlife. As we think of our fall work, we are assessing the problems of non-natives and invasives-planning the best way to eradicate or keep them in control, and do so in a way that is safe, but also efficient.
Hard to resist the beauty of the beast- Porcelainberry
With invasives gone, beautiful wildflowers can re-establish

Non-native is not always invasive

Non-native, in itself, is fine. Aren't most of us more or less non-native? Many of our decorative shrubs and flowers and fruits and vegetables are not native to our area, but we welcome them into our gardens and they have the courtesy to stay in check. Elsewhere, however, some non -natives have chosen to go crazy and become invasive to the point of overwhelming our native flora and degrading habitat. It leaves us with some hard management questions. When we manage a preserve for ideal habitat and promotion of native species, both plant and animal, we need to decide how much invasion to tolerate, what the effect is on the habitat, and how to deal with it. The use of herbicides continues to be a sticky issue. I don’t think there is any one of us who enjoys using chemicals of any kind, but when faced with the daunting prospect of tons of bio-mass needing to be removed or controlled, sometimes it becomes necessary. When we have had to resort to the use of a chemical treatment, we do so using the best professional guidance. The right treatment for the right plant in the right area. We consult with DEEP and USFWS among others. Professionals are studying the effect of certain treatments on regrowth, seed banks, root regeneration, and species diversity and also investigating how long a chemical remains active in the soil.
At Dodge Paddock it was absolutely necessary to eradicate the Phragmites. After two years we have a handle on the management, yet they persist, and we will as well. In the meantime restoration has begun. If native plants can be encouraged to recolonize, they may be able to fend off invaders.
Phragmites choked the wetland in 2012.
In 2015 the area is regrowing with native plants and invites more wildlife. Photo by Jeff Callahan.

At Knox Preserve we have spent hundreds of hours clearing walls and removing aggressively invasive vines and shrubs. The habitat had been badly degraded. At this time of year, as plants start sending their sap back to the roots, it is the best time to use a targeted spray on the leaves of invasives. It will be transported directly to the roots, kill the plant, and the chemical itself will degrade , usually well before the next growing season. Again, not an easy decision. But one that needs to be made. Each season we see great improvement. But we cannot let our guard down.
Invasive Porcelainberry took over walls and shrubs.
We reclaimed the walls and natives offer natural beauty.

Start the battle at home

When we garden in our home plots it is always easier to pull a weed, keeping an invasion in check before it becomes overwhelming. It pays to know your plants, know the invasives and understand the best way to control them. Think before you purchase certain plants that may be beautiful but invasive and still on the market: Purple Loosestrife, “Burning Bush” Winged Euonymous, Barberry, Porcelain-berry. Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Oriental Bittersweet were once favored ornamentals that we now fight. If you have these plants in your yard, if you cannot eradicate them, think about pulling off seeds and pods to prevent their spread by birds and wind.
If you find Swallowwort,  remove the pods.
An area of Swallowwart properly treated.

We are in the season for Fall planting; choose wisely, think native.
You can learn more about invasive plants at the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

This post originally appeared September 28, 2015

Monday, September 3, 2018

Labor Day

By Beth Sullivan
Ask any mother and she will have a very specific idea and story to describe labor. It is hard work indeed, bringing a new human into the world. It is continued hard work to raise and nurture those same new humans in a world that struggles to protect them and the environment that they require to thrive and grow.
But there are lots of other labors as well. This weekend we honor those who labor each day, in various different ways, to provide food and shelter for families, and also to make this world a better place.
Not all labor is paid labor either. We hear of Labor of Love and I’d like to think that almost all those who support land conservation efforts, and are never paid, are laboring out of love.
Stewardship takes team work.

There are so many jobs to do.

Many skills contribute

Avalonia Land Conservancy relies on many, many such laborers. Whether you look at it from the top down, or bottom up, the efforts that are undertaken would be impossible without our volunteer laborers.
Our Board of Directors is comprised of individuals who wear many hats of many professions, all willing to give their skills, knowledge, and time to make Avalonia a well-rounded, well-informed organization. Meetings, planning sessions, and research are all labors of love to keep things running smoothly.
Standing Committee chairs are often quite specialized in their abilities: financial, environmental, related to governance and development or fundraising. Many of our leaders are retired from their first professions and have taken on second lives as organizers and leaders according to their skills.
Town Committee chairs and members are focused on individual towns. They know what’s happening in local government and what the issues are in the community. Town committees know their land, where the preserves are, where the best habitats are, and what the needs are. They have connections in the community and never stop thinking of ways to keep those connections working for the greater good.
The stewards are the base of the pyramid. They are the boots on the ground, and the labor is most physical. The stewards know their preserves and trails. They know what needs to be done, and to the best of their abilities get things done. Whether it is mowing, clearing trails, planting, planning, fighting invasives or picking up litter, there is always stewardship to be done. There are management plans to be written and boundaries to post after acquisitions, and those boundaries must be walked every year. There are issues and encroachments to be dealt with. Most stewards really love the land; the work they do is done out of a true desire to be outdoors and to help preserve and protect the land that the others have worked to acquire. Stewardship is a lot of labor.
College students embrace community service labor

Stewards offer skills and tools to get the job done.

Stewards take care of wildlife too.

All of this labor is voluntary-Labors of Love

So on this Labor Day, we honor all those who labor. But as an Avalonia member, and one who loves and cherishes our preserves, I wish to thank all those who labor to keep us going and make sure this land is available to explore and love by all the next generations. The lands we preserve now will be the healing places for all as things seem to become more uncertain in the changing world.
Volunteers get muddy and laugh.

We need to save the special places for the next generation of stewards.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A young forest

By Beth Sullivan
Back in 2012 we began with a small germ of a proposal to take the Peck/Callahan Preserve, a mature forest area with diminished benefit to wildlife, and create a new habitat, one that is scarce in Connecticut-a young forest.
These early stage landscapes are rare in Connecticut for many reasons. Farms that were abandoned grew into to young forests at first, but have now aged via the process of normal succession into more mature woodlands. Fires and other natural disasters have often been managed, so widespread forest destruction is rare. And, where woodlands are cut, it is often for development and the landscape becomes fragmented with suburban accessories such as homes, yards and roads. None of these support the wildlife that needs thick dense low-growing vegetation. There are approximately 50 species in Connecticut that rely on this type of habitat. The best example was the New England Cottontail that was one the edge of becoming endangered in our state.
So Avalonia embarked on an ambitious project, with guidance from USFWS and DEEP and large grants. Approximately 28 acres of older growth forest were cut leaving some tall trees to provide shelter and seed sources. It was a pretty barren and bleak landscape when the project was completed. There was very little greenery at the end of the cutting. There was woody debris laid on the ground. This is known as slash, and it provides soil nutrients as it decays. We also created dozens of brush piles with some of the debris, which provide immediate shelter for all kinds of wildlife.
Before the project, the trees were tall and there was no understory for wildlife.

This summer the growth is taller than a person and is dense.

Right after the cutting, the brush piles were easy to see and the group was bare. Photograph courtesy DEEP.

The same view, and the brush piles are covered with vegetation creating a lush landscape. Photograph by D. Young.

See our progress

We monitored the area yearly. You can read about our progress here.
Now fast forward to this summer. The young forest is developing beautifully. At age 5, it is prime habitat for providing dense cover for many species. There are no barren spots or unproductive openings. The vegetation is varied and includes small trees as well as vines and shrubs bearing fruits and many berries. The berries are favored by birds and mammals. Smaller flowering plants have popped up in the sunny openings providing nectar sources for all sorts of insects. The insects in turn attract more birds of various species. The only downside to all this wonderful growth, is that it is now impossible to walk through it at all. We used to be able to wander through the entire 28 acres with little difficulty. Now it is grown and tangled and dense-bad for people, but perfect for New England Cottontails and their friends.
In July, a team went into the area to assess the growth. One Avalonia member, brought his drone and we were accompanied by DEEP biologists who have followed this project from the beginning. We launched the drone and kept an eye on the video screen, and it flew in a zig zag pattern across the landscape and also followed the boundaries to places we could not get into. What we saw and photographed was pretty amazing.
A towhee is a target species that benefits from the young forest. There were several singing the day we were there.

It's easy to see why the landscape is great for wildlife and impossible for humans.

The drone comes in for a landing.

A burst of green

The entire project area was covered in green. From low growth ferns, the height rose to Low Bush Blueberries and Huckleberries loaded with fruits. Great for birds and small mammals, even Box Turtles . There were many mid-height shrubs and lots of vines. There were viburnum, more blueberries, wild grapes, blackberries with crazy thorns, and green brier with more thorns, all providing great hiding places and food as well. The cut trees had sprouted new growth, and many of them had new stems over our heads. There were also saplings of a wide variety of trees, from baby Oaks and maples and hickory and sassafras and many young tulip trees descended from the one beautiful tall one we left standing.
The brush piles were nearly obscured by greenery too. Perfect cover and homes. The biologists were thrilled with the growth. The drone was able to cover areas we couldn’t get to by foot and, we could pick out individual areas that we wanted to observe more closely. The photography was great.
While we stood and monitored the drone flight, we were so pleased to see a large number of dragonflies and other insects which attracted a number of birds. We watched tree and barn swallows, as well as chimney swifts and phoebes and peewees in flight catching their food. Indigo buntings and towhees sang from low shrubs. Bluebirds and gold finches also were heard as well as some of the other species we look and listen for along powerline cuts, and they can now spread into our young forest.
This report could go on enthusiastically for many more pages. It was gratifying to see the results. It was a hard decision early on, to do this kind of project, but seeing the vast new diversity was heartening. We were excited to use the drone as a new tool for monitoring difficult properties, and I know we will go back each year to compare.
The one thing we did not see was a New England Cottontail. But we did see signs that rabbits had nibbled several twigs and shrubs. Hopefully they are hiding in the brush piles.



Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.