Monday, January 21, 2019

Where the bugs are

By Beth Sullivan
It’s really beginning to feel like winter. The temperatures have really taken the downward turn, and as I write this, we are anticipating a winter storm. We have had a few random warmer days when I have noticed small flies doing an air dance outside the window in the sun and the winter moths were out on warmer nights several weeks ago, but overall, the insects are not in evidence at this time of year. There are, however, birds that rely on insect protein to be part of their winter diet.

Spring or bust

Insect species have different ways of surviving the winter. In many cases, though, it is not in the adult form. With the exception of those that migrate, like some large dragonflies, or hibernate in their adult form like some bees and hornets, most are in some other stage of their life cycle. Many insects lay their eggs in the fall before they die. The eggs winter-over and hatch in the spring if they are not disturbed or eaten by birds. Most insect eggs are protected in ways to deter birds: think of praying mantis egg masses which are straw like and uninviting. Rarely have I seen a bird attack a mantis egg case. Other insects, most notably species of flies or small wasps, lay their eggs inside plant tissue which then modifies itself to create a protective casing around the egg and later, the developing larva. These are galls. The type most visible now is the goldenrod gall. The stem of the goldenrod forms a ball of tissue around the egg which stays intact all winter. They can be seen easily at field edges. They are not, however fully protected from the eyes and beaks of small birds. The downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees are noted for alighting on the sturdy stem and pecking into the gall to expose the egg, and then picking it out . Perfect protein.
Paper wasps, or white faced hornets, make the big gray nests that hang unnoticed overhead all summer and are only revealed when the leaves fall. Very often the colony is killed by the cold before all the eggs have hatched or larvae developed in the fall. I have watched several species of birds, including blue jays and titmice, go after such nests as they remain hanging or even rip at them once they fall. The frozen eggs and larvae are great sustenance.
The paper nest of the hornet may still contain unhatched larvae and eggs well into the winter.

Some flies and wasps will inject an egg into the goldenrod stem which swells around it, creating a gall.

Inside the gall, the egg and then the developing larvae are protected over winter.

Winter treehouse

Other groups of insects spend the winter under bark flaps and in crevices on trees. They can be adults, eggs, larvae, or pupae. Some are even embedded in bundles of lichen or deeper in holes where there may be some rot. This is also where the birds know where to look. Spend some winter day observing a tree, preferably from inside at a warm window. These persistent birds, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and kinglets, among others, will hop along branches, inspecting all surfaces. What is also interesting is observing how each species of bird approaches the task. The nuthatches will always work a tree going head first, down. They inspect bark flaps and cracks from this particular angle. Another very special, very small, bird is the brown creeper. They are not nearly as common as the other birds, and their camouflage is so good they are rarely spotted, except as they move around a tree trunk. This birds start at the bottom of the tree and work their way up the tree, examining the underside of everything and finding what the nuthatches may have left behind. They each have their own niche.
Of course the larger woodpeckers have the greatest advantage of having a big enough beak to delve deep into the heart of a tree, especially dead or rotting ones, to find the ants and termites and beetles in all stages.
The insects are out there. You just need to have a bird-brain to find them.
The tiny brown creeper goes headfirst up a tree then drops down to the bottom to do it again.

The white breasted nuthatch will go down the tree headfirst.

Woodpeckers with long, strong beaks can probe deep inside a tree looking for insects. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, January 14, 2019

A caring steward

By Beth Sullivan
Sometimes people make special connections to a certain piece of land. Maybe they live near by, maybe it is a favorite place to hike, maybe there is a historical tie to the property. Something draws them to a place, and they choose to devote time and effort and offer TLC to a favorite preserve.
The trail head
Our friend RB is one of those people. His family has ties, very close ones indeed, to the White Cedar Swamp and Deans Mill Preserves, accessed off Jerry Brown Rd. in Mystic. RB grew up on these lands as years ago his family owned a large farm, most of which is north of I-95. The Deans Mill Preserve is that portion of his childhood farmland that was cut off from the rest and is south of the interstate.
RB has taken us through those preserves and lovingly pointed out the historic features, walls, bar-ways, old roads, areas where trees were harvested and a lovely fresh spring. The area boasts ledges, bald rock faces underfoot, and some spectacular peeks over the Deans Mill/Aquarion Reservoir.
A stone bench waits for winter hikers.
One of the unique features of the area, is a rare, White Cedar swamp. Atlantic White Cedars grow in wet, acidic boggy areas. The plant community is quite rare this far south in CT. Over the last years RB noticed that the area was changing. The cedars were dying out; there were no new seedlings coming along to replace the old ones, and the entire ecosystem was evolving. Red Maple and Black Birch trees were growing into the sunny openings. They are rapid growers and quickly invaded and crowded the Cedars which cannot compete.
The boggy pond is frozen over.
Preservation and conservation are interesting concepts. They don’t always mean just letting nature take her course. Stewardship is where Avalonia makes decisions about the best way to manage and help preserve special habitats. Knowing that we would certainly lose the central gem of this preserve without some action, RB engaged on a personal mission to save the White Cedar Swamp. Over the last several years he has begun to cut down many of the smaller sapling Maples and Black Birch. He has also thinned out many of the larger ones to reopen the area to the sun that the Cedars need to thrive. Some of the larger trees have been girdled- a process that cuts around the tree into the bark. It ultimately will kill the tree but the tree remains standing as a snag, roost site and habitat for insects and birds.
Mature White Cedars
RB also transplanted seedling White Cedars from elsewhere in the preserve, back into the areas that were lacking, thus giving Mother Nature a jump start on the restoration of the swamp population.
A White Cedar seedling

Nature takes her time. Having a steward like RB gives her a boost and a gentle nudge in the direction we hope will be the most valuable for wildlife and overall habitat.
Small cones and scales of green mark a White Cedar in place of needles and large cones of other conifers.
A recent walk on a winter’s day gave us lovely looks of the swamp, the rock faces of ledge and trail which was slick with ice but with moss and lichen still visible. The stone bench overlooking the pond was covered with snow. We noted seedling cedars standing up bravely in the cold. With the opened up canopy and more sunlight, they will certainly grow quickly and continue the line of White Cedars in the Swamp.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
This post originally appeared January 13, 2014.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Walk with mindfulness

by Beth Sullivan
We all walk or hike with different intents, at different speeds and for different reasons. Many of us prefer natural trails through whatever scenery we choose on any given day. With so many habitats locally, and such wonderful, preserved, open space, we have plenty to choose from. We don’t live in a truly mountainous area, so most trails are generally easy to travel. We do not have the thousands of acres of wild landscape like out West, but some of the state lands, and Avalonia’s newer acquisitions, cover greater numbers of acres and offer better opportunities to rack up miles.
A Veery makes its nest on the ground.

Walk with common sense

However and wherever you choose to walk, there are some common sense guidelines to keep in mind to make your experience safe and enjoyable for yourself and for others and, respectful of the land and wildlife within it. The first thing to keep in mind is that Avalonia’s preserves are nature preserves and not parks. Their primary purpose is to provide sanctuary for wildlife, protect watersheds, and create greenways. In properties where it is appropriate, there are trails created to allow people to get close to nature, to experience what has been preserved. There is no better way to develop a conservation ethic than to get immersed in nature.
I love hiking with kids. Maybe it’s because they are closer to the ground and see more and are just enthusiastic open books, ready to experience everything. Experiencing the woods, fields, and shorelines with children is the best way to have your own eyes opened; however, care must be taken to also impart lessons of caution and to provide oversight. You can’t really keep a child on a leash (though I have encountered that) so care is always needed lest they scramble up an inviting rock, try to climb a tree, get too close to a water way, pick berries, or even decide to hug a tree that may be covered in poison ivy. Children run fast and with enthusiasm. Usually when they trip, they just get up, dust off and keep on going. But care is still needed.
I also like hiking with my dog. She leads me with her nose and often makes me look more closely at things she has discovered, even if it is gross, like a carcass or pile of scat. I know her well enough to know that she must be leashed because she turns off her ears and would be off and running into the next state before she realized I wasn’t with her. But the leash works for so many other reasons. I don’t WANT her to run off, I don’t want her to get lost, or get to the road, or get hurt. But I also do not want her running into another dog that may not be as friendly as she is, or to be over friendly to someone who doesn’t like or fears dogs. The prime reason to keep a dog on a short leash and under control is to protect wildlife. I have seen the aftermath of a dog ripping into a log to get in after some small creature. Ground- nesting birds and small mammals are particularly vulnerable. Some dogs just want to play and explore, but playing with a young creature often means death for the smaller animal, and can also put your pet in danger if the animal bites or carries a disease.
Climbing rocks is great adventure just make sure that an adult is nearby.

From puddles to coves, water features offer so many opportunities for exploration.

And walk with awareness

In the course of the seasons and storms, trees and branches fall. After the last years of stress on our forests, there are a lot more dead trees out there. Be careful! Be aware of your surroundings. It is our policy and practice to leave trees where they fall to provide habitat for all manner of creatures. They enrich the earth with slow decomposition and they become opportunities to observe and learn about that process in a forest. We only remove them if they completely block a trail. Most of the time a tree left across a trail is just an easy step-over, a nice place to sit, and it also makes the trails a little less inviting for ATV’s and motorized bikes which are not allowed.
When I walk, I manage to stumble around a lot. I like to look up and around, but I realize I need to watch my footing as well. I spend a lot of time looking down to watch my feet and explore things on the ground, but then I stop to look up to observe what I might be missing. I do fall down. I can’t look everywhere at once.
We do our very best to tend to issues but much is beyond our control. There is a lot of water out there this season. Brooks are overflowing, and trails may have washed out or be flooded. We are heading into winter with often snow-covered or icy trails. Please use appropriate footwear. Enjoying the outdoors in natural environments does have risks, and personal judgement and responsibility is required.
You can check maps on-line and assess trail length and terrain. There are new apps ( see our website for information) that detail all Avalonia’s trails and can pinpoint your location at any place on the preserve. You need to decide for yourself if a trail is good for you or your group. If an area presents a problem, turn around. There are many miles of trails to enjoy and many alternatives to choose from.
In this new year, enjoy our beautiful land, but please do it with mindfulness and you will not only be safe but enjoy it more.
Downed trees are cleared when blocking trails, but are left to create habitat.

The CT DEEP is posting signs suggesting vigilance while hiking.

This year trails are flooded in many areas.

Soon trails will be covered with snow and ice.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 31, 2018

“The Holy Land is everywhere.” Black Elk

by Beth Sullivan

Thank you for the role you play – every day – in protecting that which is Holy. Our descendants (and our ancestors) are counting on it.
May the conservation spirit burn brightly for you this Holiday Season and throughout the year in 2019.
Happy New Year!
David Allen

This email message caught my eye, and the words Holy Land really grabbed my attention. I am often overdosed with end of the year requests, and greetings from people or organizations with which I may have only a fleeting relationship. David Allen writes a weekly blog highlighting various aspects of development for conservation organizations. I often learn from his professional tidbits, about better ways to write to engage people with my own writing. The simplicity of this actually stopped me in my tracks. I know the same words went out to all his subscribers, but they spoke to ME!
A holy landscape rests at the heart of it all.


Holy Land

In this season of spirituality, most of us have a sense of some form of holiness. Most is related to a system of religious beliefs. But believing in the sacredness of our Earth puts a different emphasis on holy. I have always felt closer to God…in whatever form she or he takes, when immersed in nature. To me it is impossible to deny some kind of higher power at work when confronted with the simplicity and complexity of the natural world. The more scientists learn, the more profound the mystery of how interconnected everything is. I have a deep love for plants and am always just amazed at the way all species of them are working and living together to support one another and enhance their own environments. Are they really not conscious? They also are the source of all that we as humans need to survive on this planet: food, shelter, oxygen. They are constantly threatened by mankind’s assaults on the air and water and on the very organisms themselves. Yet they continue to adapt and strive to achieve balance. It is frightening to think of how unbalanced our environment has become, and how unbalanced our leaders’ efforts are in regards to protecting and preserving the very things that are essential to life.

Our Earth is indeed holy and in need of our protection. As David Allen’s quote points out: “our descendants ( and our ancestors) are counting on it.”

At this time, when one year ends and another begins, we all have the opportunity and moral obligation to think about some small thing we can do to keep this land and water preserved and holy for all that depend on it. I don’t believe that I alone, as one individual, can make a huge difference, but if each one of us makes a small effort, and sticks with it, and spreads the word so that the intent ripples out like small waves on a still pond, together we can make a difference.

I hope each one of us can make the resolution to cherish our Holy Land.

Happy New Year to all. With thanks to David Allen and Black Elk.


An annual miracle.

Each organism has a very special niche.

Many species are interconnected.

Some miraculous moments are fleeting. 

Future generations depend on our actions now.

May we all find a holy place.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Reds and greens in the winter woods

By Beth Sullivan

We are at the darkest days of the year. The woods can look pretty drab and it even makes me wish for just a bit of snow to change the scene. But take a walk and look closely, you will find some welcome color, red and green, to greet you for the holidays.
We all know our Pines, Spruce, Firs, and Cedars, the bigger evergreens of the woodlands. They provide great protection for birds and other small creatures when the winter winds blow and snows fall. Their cones hold nutritious seeds, high in fat and protein that the wildlife need to help them through the cold season. 

Some different evergreens

Look a little lower, the shrub layer in many of our woodlands is dominated in places by our State Flower: Mountain Laurel. Drive along many of our roads where the scenery is rocky and rough, you will welcome the sight of gnarled branches and leathery green leaves of this lovely shrub. While it doesn’t provide a food supply, the usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.
In some of the more remote wetlands areas, our native Rhododendron (R. maximum) will stand out, green against the brown. During the severe cold, you can note that the leaves droop downward and curl into tubes. This is the plants’ adaptation to protect the leaf surface from cold and dehydration in the dry winter air. 

Rhododendron leaves droop and curl in winter.

Bright winter reds

Native hollies provide winter interest. Our American holly, (Ilex opaca) the familiar Christmas decoration, has spikes on the leaves to deter deer but the berries are feasted upon by many birds, now and through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, and Bluebirds in particular will find a bush and claim it.
Native winter holy

Our other native holly, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)is deciduous, but its berries glow red on bare branches during this season. These berries often do not fully ripen until they have been cold for a long time, then they ferment, and the birds love them. This is true of many berries that remain on the bush through the winter: Viburnum and crab apple in particular. Those birds know how to wait until the vintage is perfect.

Winterberry with Mantis egg case.

Mosses for the season

Club Mosses ( Lycopodium sp.) such as Princess Pine and Ground Cedar ( They have multiple common names) will populate the ground in patches. Years ago they were harvested irresponsibly for Christmas decorations and the populations were nearly decimated. Garden Clubs have protected the species by refusing to pick it, or sell decorations using the club mosses.
Ground Cedar is a clubmoss.

Emerald green cushion moss brightens the landscape.
Many other species of moss seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year. Sphagnum moss, which holds the water in the wetlands, is more softly colored, but look closely at the structure of each plant: miniature Christmas trees.
There are a few evergreen plants, still holding leaves: Christmas Fern for one, each ‘leaflet’ on a frond has a “toe” creating a “stocking”. Partridgeberry is a sweet vining plan with delicate evergreen leaves. The occasional red berry remains on the plant as an invitation to a ‘Partridge’ who may favor the berries. Sadly our native partridge or quail, the Bobwhite is considered extirpated from Connecticut. Only to be remembered in Christmas song, being in a Pear Tree.
On the Christmas Fern, each leaflet has a stocking toe.

Partridge Berry.

Happy Holidays to all and enjoy the winter woods. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.