Monday, March 19, 2018

Are we there yet?

By Beth Sullivan
Why is it that the journey to spring seems so very long this year? The old groundhog was right: we got six more weeks of winter and got slammed.
I like the photographic opportunities that winter provides. The lighting, contrast and subject matter is totally unique. But it gets a bit harder to tolerate the cold when I want to get out and get those photos.

Ah, Springtime

We are all looking forward to getting out and doing stewardship, but good spring stewardship, not constant winter clean up. The number of trees down after these last three storms is depressing. The greatest toll was on the big Oaks twisting in the wind. Many snapped up near the tops creating widow-makers: big branches that didn’t come all the way down (yet) and continue to pose a danger. Many Oaks just uprooted because their shallow root systems were not able to hold on in the saturated soils.
The biggest trees in CT forests are white pines. They can often be seen clearly standing head and shoulder above the other forest trees, especially at this time of year. Their needle-covered branches held the snow and caught the wind, leaving large breaks and raw scars. This kind of devastation will take decades to heal. The deadwood down on the ground is ugly, but it will provide cover for many creatures and its rotting wood will invite insects to feast, and the birds will follow. The standing trunks will be the snags that woodpeckers will excavate for nests one year, and those will be used by numerous other birds and even some mammals, over the next years.
As the woody debris decays, it re-nourishes the soil for seedlings that will sprout in the places where the sun can now reach the ground. Over time, the new opening in the forests will be filled with new trees and shrubs and will create the variety of habitats that makes the forest healthy.
The bench at Simmons Preserve will be waiting and warming.

The osprey will return to this nest on Paffard Marsh even if there is snow on the ground.

The Pine grove at Hoffman Woods took a beating and the habitat will change. In a few weeks there will be salamanders under these logs. Photograph by Keith Tomlinson.

Tough clean up

That all sounds good, but it doesn't help make the clean up any easier.
After this last storm with significant snow cover, the poor robins which had only just arrived here had no access to open ground. No worms to be found. Small flocks of them swarmed the Hollies that still had berries left and staked out their territories on Viburnum shrubs that also had dried fruits still attached to the stems. The bluebirds came out of the woods and returned to suet treats.
In the small vernal pools, where only a couple of weeks ago wood frogs “quacked” and larval salamanders swam, there is now ice and in many cases, inches of snow. These creatures adapt without complaint. They get down into the mud and leaves at the bottom of the pool and patiently wait for the next warm spell to invite them to the surface.
Maybe we should take our hint from some of these creatures. When Mother Nature tosses us more winter, we adapt, change some plans, hunker down and wait for the warmth.
But it is hard.
Spring arrives on Tuesday, so take some time to look for those small signs of hope: Pussy Willows in full bloom, egg masses visible in thawing vernal pools, skunk cabbages breaking through the snow and robins being grateful for every bare patch of ground they can find.
Pussywillows are in full bloom despite the storms.

Skunk Cabbage flowers through the ice.

Robins had to resort to dried berries when snow covered the ground.

When Mother Nature insists on giving us snow, kids know how to make the best of it.!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Calling the Next Generation

By Beth Sullivan
Avalonia is a pretty amazing organization. It is kept running by the hard work and dedication of a volunteer army. Last year alone, Avalonia stewards contributed about 1,600 hours of volunteer time (that doesn’t include meetings, research, office and administrative work). And that is only what was recorded. We know for a fact that so many of our volunteers never record and submit their volunteer time.
The government provides a value for such volunteer time and that amount equaled about $45,000 in 2017. Again, that is only for the volunteer land stewards who actually recorded their time.
It is probably also true that the average age of most of Avalonia’s volunteers is a bit north of 60. And, I will say, we are just great! But where is the younger generation? That seems to be a question asked by many volunteer organizations. Certainly those younger people are truly busy with very active and obligation-filled lives: young families, jobs, aging parents. Most of us have come through those stages and are freer to give our time and energy. Our time is more flexible, even if our joints are not. We are looking for ways to attract and engage those who will come after us, who will continue the mission, and all it takes, into the next decades.

A GNCE team cleaned up Paffard Woods roadside walls.

An outreach effort at the Stonington Farmers' market was a great success.

Connecticut College students return to Avalonia

One way I have been involved, for the last six years, is by working with the Connecticut College students in the Goodwin-Neiring Center for the Environment (GNCE). In their second semester of sophomore year, their main focus has been making a connection with Avalonia. The intent is to let them see some of the inner workings and challenges of trying to keep a land trust running successfully. It isn’t all fun, trail clearing and tree hugging. It is a lot of work and in areas that they never really thought about. Areas like governance, finance, fund raising, development, membership, and outreach are all essential to the growth and success of the organization. It has been my privilege to work with these great students, to introduce them to Avalonia, and also to help them develop projects of their choosing, that will help Avalonia in one way or another, while giving them an opportunity to get their eyes opened a bit, to other aspects of land trust operations.
This year there has been a greater emphasis on outreach and membership building. Most of the projects are dedicated to this in one way or another. Over the next two months, you will be introduced to these students, as you have been for the last several years. One student will actually take over the blog writing (lucky me.) and give insights into what his peers are doing.
These students understand the need for fresh energy and ideas. While this student population will not necessarily be residing in this area after graduation, I hope that their insights can give us the boost we need to reach out to those generations coming after us.
Stewardship work isn't always easy...

but it can be fun.

A special GNCE team worked on Collier preserve as a community service project.

Enjoy their stories

They will be posted as part of the blog series and on Facebook as well. Please comment or write to Avalonia and let us know what you think. Tell us how you think we can engage the next generation. And if you are by chance of that younger age set, please let us know how best you can help while still juggling your other obligations and busy lives. Every person makes such a difference. Our challenge is to make sure we utilize every person who offers.
While we older-but-still-active group are doing ok, we welcome the energy and enthusiasm of those who can help us out and then take the reins when we are ready to give them up.
Getting into the community is so important.

Engaging the very youngest nature lovers is truly necessary.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Northward movement

By Beth Sullivan
Migrate: To pass periodically from one region or climate to another, as certain birds, fishes or animals.
March is a month of migration. In many places the process began much earlier and will not stop until everyone or everything is where it’s supposed to be, to breed and raise young, and then it begins all over in reverse.
Now that the day lengths are increasing, and daylight hours are nearly equal to night hours, many creatures are being inspired to make their migration, usually in a northward direction, back “home” here, to where they belong, in our opinion.
In the month of March, I usually begin my list of firsts: things like Peepers and Wood frogs are important firsts. Those are checked off. The first Painted turtles out on a log have been spotted. But they never ventured far. They just stayed down and under all winter. They emerged recently to greet the warmth, but will dig back underground in the face of the cold that is surely coming in this fickle month.
The first Purple Martins have arrived in places like Florida and Texas, but they will not reach here until April. So I don’t get my hopes up for them for a while. You will certainly be getting reports as soon as ours arrive.
Purple Martins have already begun housekeeping in Florida. Photograph by Dennis Main.

March migrants

The migrants of March are the Osprey, the Eastern Phoebe and the Tree Swallows, that I eagerly await. For sure there are many more, but these have always been my true indicators of spring. All three of these arrive within a week, more or less, around the Vernal Equinox- the first day of spring. So much, though, depends on the weather that either assists them or keeps them grounded. If we get a nice southerly flow, they will all catch the wind and arrive earlier. If we continue to be hit with Nor’easter type storms, they will hunker down where they are and wait.
Interesting to note though, even as we eagerly anticipate the first sightings of these new arrivals, we sometimes overlook those migrants who slip away quietly from our area, to return farther north to their own breeding grounds. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the last Hooded Merganser I saw on a cove, or, come later into March and April, when I no longer hear the Juncos twittering in the bushes.
 The bird I really wait for is the osprey, sometimes showing up for St. Patrick's Day.

This Phoebe in Florida, is a real sign of spring in New England, but won't arrive until it warms up and are there are insects to eat. Photograph by Dennis Main.

Tree Swallows will arrive in a few weeks. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Sometimes it's hard to remember when the last Hooded Merganser took off from our icy coves to return north.

Another kind of migrant

There is another interesting group of migrants: people, know as snow-birds - those who leave the colder climates, not necessarily to breed and nest of course, but to escape the cold and enjoy the climate farther south.
What is also pretty funny to think about, is that many of the birds that leave here in the winter, end up in the same area as our snow-bird friends. Those Osprey, Phoebes and Tree Swallows, as well as Egrets, Herons and many Warblers are all down south with our friends and likely will return around the same time.
Also, thanks to population shifts, many southern birds have expanded their range north, so birds such as the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren and Red Bellied Woodpecker have only recently, relatively speaking, become established here in Connecticut.
We may never see Wood Storks or White Ibis here in Connecticut, but that’s OK. I am always most eager to see that first Osprey of March and welcome them back to their nests here. And I will look forward to seeing friends return as well.
The Red Bellied Woodpecker only arrived in this area from farther south within the last four decades. Photograph by Dennis Main.

Some birds like these White Ibis, will probably never expand their range this far north, but who knows what climate change will bring. Photograph by Alan Brush.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration

by Beth Sullivan
Fifty years ago, Mashantucket Land Trust was formed ( learn more here), and to celebrate we threw ourselves a party at the Mystic Aquarium. Everyone was invited; so many wonderful people came.
“Hosted” by Chuck Toal, our Director of Programs and Development, his welcome set the tone for the evening. This event was, in part, a thank-you to honor those who gave shape to the organization over the last decades. A rolling montage of photos played on a screen, of faces from the past, some long gone. That drew many people who stood and watched and marveled at how young we all looked “ back then” . It brought back many memories of early work parties and hikes and pot luck dinners.
As videos rolled, visitors enjoyed drinks and appetizers and got to visit with old friends and make some new ones. Several of us staffed a members’ table, with brochures, newsletters and other information about the organization. Folks stopped to chat, introduce themselves, pick up name tags, and see what was new. I am not sure there were any people new to Avalonia at this event, but a lot of folks with renewed enthusiasm. On display at the members’ table was the beautiful commemorative platter created for the occasion by local artist Susan Scala highlighting the connection of habitats, wildlife, and people.
As people wandered and mingled they could enjoy enlarged members’ photos of several aspects of Avalonia preserves. A large screen computer played videos created by other members, one of which was a drone aerial tour of the Pequotsepos Brook Preserve adjoining the Stone Ridge Community. That was a hit for many. All of this was set against the backdrop of coral reefs and beautiful fishes. It was hard to take it all in.
At a member's table, people could stop, chat, and view our commemorative platter.

Beautiful photos taken on, or over, Avalonia preserves were on display for all to enjoy.

Old friends reunited.

Chuck Toal offered a welcome and introduction to all. 

Fifty years of conservancy

The event was also a recognition of where the organization is now, fifty years later. Many of our current Board of Directors were present to greet friends and members. Dennis Main, Avalonia President, explained the details of our mission and our challenge: to uphold the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices for excellence. It was no small task to gain accreditation, and it will be an equally big challenge to stick to the program and operate by these new guidelines for the next 5 years we have to get fully in line and prove we are worthy.
Representative Diana Urban is not a stranger to Avalonia, as she lives in and enjoys the open spaces of North Stonington. She presented Dennis with a citation, a State recognition of Avalonia Land Conservancy’s work over the years. Chuck also read a letter of special recognition from Stonington First Selectman, Rob Simmons, whose family has long been supporters of Avalonia as well.
The key speaker was Ct Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Commissioner Rob Klee. He outlined some of the challenges the State, and even the Nation, has in trying to defend the environment from so many threats, including defunding of programs and climate change. It was especially pertinent considering our location in the Mystic Aquarium, in the coastal town of Stonington, where we are noticing the effects of sea level rise right in town. His speech gave hope for the future, that with guidance and new energy from the next generation, our work will continue to be successful.
In conclusion the event was a look to the future. As an organization we need to embrace and encourage that younger generation, many of whom were present at the event. Our mission is for perpetuity. We can look over our shoulders and be grateful for those that had the vision to get the environmental movement going, but we need to keep our collective eyes firmly on the future, to plan and protect for generations of people and wildlife to come.
This was a great way to celebrate both!
Commissioner Rob Klee toasted to the next fifty years of conservation efforts.

Diana Urban presents the State Citation to Dennis Main.

The Aquarium exhibits were a perfect backdrop to the evening.

The guests were enthusiastic about the glowing praise from the key speakers. 

Photographs by Bruce Fellman.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sea Grant - In Support of a Much Valued Program

By Beth Sullivan
My home town is Stonington, Connecticut, it is also where I do my stewardship for Avalonia Land Conservancy. Every day I am reminded of the importance of the shore line, the Long Island Sound, and our community’s connection to the sea. We have a fishing fleet, a shell-fishing industry, as well as entire educational programs and institutions built on our relationship to the sea and shore here in our hometown.
Even those who live farther inland, share in how the sea shapes our state. Connecticut has many opportunities for our children to learn about this special resource that many Americans do not have the opportunity to experience firsthand.
But, this special resource is being threatened by many factors. The habitats and ecosystems along the shore are impacted by undeniably rising sea levels, more frequent storms, and continued development in fragile coastal areas.
Anyone who enjoys our coastal resources has benefited from the Sea Grant program.

Protecting the shoreline

One of the bright spots in all of this, is a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association ( NOAA) called Sea Grant. According to a recent article in the New London Day, there are 33 university-based Sea Grant programs in the US, including all the coastal and Great Lake states, Puerto Rico, and Guam. In Connecticut, Sea Grant is based out of the University of Connecticut campus at Avery Point, and is funded by State and Federal money. It isn’t a lot of money, but the impact is huge. From supporting education for school children, and assistance for those in the fishing and shell fishing industry, the researchers also study all manner of coastal conditions, assess risks and propose solutions that are needed in the face of changing climate and rising seas. They assist efforts to make sure our shellfish is safe to eat, and that our fishermen are safe at sea.
I was unaware of how far reaching Sea Grant’s influence was. I only knew how the local Sea Grant program has helped me, in my little corner of Connecticut. When my children were young, I was first introduced to Marine Science Day for 4-H members, where children from all over Connecticut converged on Avery Point to learn about the Sound, its habitats, the life within and around it. A great program touching thousands over the years, courtesy of Sea Grant. When I began to learn about seaweed and marine life I relied on resources funded by Sea Grant. When I needed to study coastal plants, and how unique they need to be to survive in our natural areas, I turned to Sea Grant publications. I attended conferences hosted by Sea Grant that would help me, as a steward, understand the dynamics of our salt marshes and more recently, understand the significant dangers they, and we, all face from rising seas.
Sea Grant programs explore effects of rising sea levels on our coastal salt marshes. 

Sea Grant programs help ensure our shell fish is safe and fisheries are supported.

Sea Grant wrote the book that helps property owners manage their coastal properties.

Sea Grant programs engage the next generation.

Avalonia's connection to Sea Grant

Then, my experience got more personal. I was tasked with managing Dodge Paddock . Those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, know the struggle we face there. As a non-professional, volunteer steward, there was no way I could begin to try and understand the complexities of this place. Once again, I relied on Sea Grant, and in particular, a professor and Extension educator, Dr. Juliana Barrett. She was the one who wrote the books on all the coastal plants I had studied. She wrote the papers and delivered conference presentations dealing with sea level rise implications all along our coast line. She was the person who introduced me to the work Sea Grant was doing on resilient landscapes and living shorelines.
Over the last several years I have relied on her, and others who work with her, to develop the plans to revitalize Dodge Paddock. Along the way she helped me find my way with other collaborators such as DEEP, USFWS, and how to handle complicated grant processes. With all that help, we planned resiliency and replanted marsh grasses. We figured out what would work in a complicated habitat. She and her team are negotiating the crazy complexities of a major restoration grant that I have described before.
If Sea Grant is doing all that for one person, in one organization, in one town in Connecticut, can you just imagine how many other stewards there are out there like me? How far reaching their influence is? How can we, as volunteers, do an adequate job without support and guidance from professionals?
President Trump is proposing ‘zeroing out’ all funding for Sea Grant in his budget again. We fought this battle last year, and with community and legislative support, the funding was reinstated. But it is threatened again.
Think about how the sea affects your life in any way at all, and I can bet that it has been made possible in some way related to a Sea Grant program.
Please consider reaching out to your lawmakers, Representatives and Senators, no matter what state you live in. Request that they support the Sea Grant program funding in the face of cuts. I can personally attest to the value and importance of this program. Just walk along the shore, enjoy a seafood dinner, visit Dodge Paddock and see for yourself. You can learn more about the Sea Grant program here.
Thank you.
Dr. Juliana Barrett has been a mentor, as well as, an active steward with me

A Sea Grant intern helped me plan appropriate coastal plantings for a corner of Knox Preserve.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan