Monday, November 4, 2019

Colors of the season

By Beth Sullivan

A friend of mine, who knows my woods-wandering ways, sent me this little thought that had been circulating on Facebook:
“An essay in the Old Farmers’ Almanac divided autumn into four distinct foliage phases. The first is Scarlet Fever, when the first trees to change are the red swamp maples and sumacs. Next comes Conflagration, the riot of all colors at once. This is followed by the Empire of Gold, as the reds and oranges fall away, leaving the birches and beeches to hold the field. Finally comes the Tannery, where the oaks, the final holdouts, turn russet. “

Those of us who are observers of nature, cycles, and seasons, have consciously or subconsciously known this. As we walk or even drive along wooded lanes, we are aware of the changes in colors and tones of the landscape. We notice the light as it changes not only hour by hour, but season by season. To me, the later afternoon sunlight in the autumn is the absolute best. There is something that intensifies the clarity of colors. Maybe, in part, it is the beautiful blue of the sky for contrast with the warmer tones of the foliage.
At the edge of a swamp, the red maples show color first, along with blueberry bushes below them.

Sumac is a native shrub that provides beautiful red foliage and great food for wildlife.

It starts with red

When I first read this, we were already well into the Scarlet Fever. There are areas nearby that are wetlands, and that is where the change seems to start. The red swamp maples are the first to show color, and that color is truly spectacular. There is something so eye-catching about a stand of red, marking a swamp or lake edge, where those maples reflect their color in the standing water. In the understory and thickets, there is nothing more striking than the native highbush blueberries and sumacs that are far more pure, natural red than the invasive, non-native “burning bush” euonymous.

The Conflagration slips up on us quickly. The reds just seem to shift into oranges. The sugar maples, that are sadly becoming more scarce here in southern CT, tend to go to a more orange-red. The sassafras trees tend to grow in colonies as they are somewhat clonal. Their foliage is all shades from red through orange to gold. A group of sassafras along a path, or near the shore line, tend to light up the landscape. Once in a while you will find a big, old sassafras tree in the woods, solitary and outstanding. Its leaves tend to hold on longer than some of the surrounding trees, and they wear their colors tall and proudly.
The late afternoon sun provides the most dramatic lighting.

The Woodlot glows with a clear yellow tone in the understory of spicebush, as well as from the canopy.

This big hickory is like a golden torch dominating the landscape.

An empire of gold

The Empire of Gold seems to have the largest number of members and lasts longer. That’s where we were when I began writing this. You can’t beat the late afternoon sun, slanting through the woodlands that are all tones of yellows and golds, from canopy to forest floor. The ferns have gone to yellow along with wild sarsaparilla. In the mid-level, the spicebush and sweet pepper bush create an eye level haze of warm color. The birches begin to fill the canopy. The hickories can tower like tall torches of gold, and at the same time, they are pelting down their nuts in abundance. The beeches are fickle. Sometimes they hold onto their green for a very long time. Some go to yellow and others go to a lovely beige and even hold a few of their leaves through the winter time. Another yellow to look for requires a sharper eye. The spidery yellows of the witch hazel flowers are beginning to show up. They are easiest to notice once the leaves are off.

Thanks to the severe wind and rain events of the last week, the woodlands have been stripped, pretty early, of all leaves except on some beeches and the oaks. We are in the Tannery now. I think it is an injustice to call all oaks russet or brown. The colors are so beautifully subtle, and varied. Some of the oaks will go to gold-/brown. Others orange-brown, and still others are truly a deep scarlet-brown. Drive down a road with a far horizon, or view of some hillsides. There are many areas where the forest is still in leaf, and almost all of the trees are oaks. Notice the variation. I am not sure an artist could capture all the shades of color of the Tannery.

We must not forget the evergreens that punctuate the forest or make large statements of their own. We will notice them most when the other colors are gone, and they alone stand out against the grays and white of winter.

Cherish the colors of the season.
The oaks at Cottrell Marsh show all the shades in the Tannery.

When the leaves finally fall, the spidery yellow flowers of Witch Hazel are easier to find.

In the winter, we rely on the evergreens to be our color focus in a landscape of gray and white.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Fall Stewardship Decisions

By Beth Sullivan
Like any gardener, this time of year is when we, as stewards, size up the season, evaluate successes, challenges, and set priorities for what needs to be done before winter sets in. As usual, there are never enough people or hours to accomplish everything: Boundary surveys, trail maintenance, structure repair, and invasive management.
With recent wind events, we are faced with downed trees, blocked trails and damage. We need assess each situation, to set priorities, and do the best we can.
Deciding about what to do with our fields is also a challenge at this time of year. Maintenance of meadow habitat is probably the most labor intensive and costly stewardship need. In many cases we rely on the goodness of volunteers otherwise known as friends of Avalonia to mow for us. In other cases, we contract with local farmers who have the tractor and equipment to get around the old farm fields for us. But it is the strategy behind the timing of the mowing that is variable.
After recent wind events, we are cleaning up before winter storms occur.

We want grassy clumps like this one around to provide hiding places.

Different fields mowed at different times

A traditional farm field is mowed several times a season for hay. Frequent mowing like this encourages lush grass growth and deters the woody growth of other plants. However, mowing early or mid season is devastating for wildlife. The first and second cuttings of hay disrupt small mammals, rabbits in particular. Also, deer will bring their fawns to a field to hide for a day and they are often victims of the mower. Nesting birds require a longer season of grass for coverage, too. Many are ground nesters and arrive in the area in mid-April and are not done nesting until mid-August. That is not good if you need to make hay while the sun shines. In general, Avalonia does not mow any fields for hay crops.
Mowing in early September allows the animals to mature and leave their nests. But later summer and early fall is prime time for the field flowers and prime time for pollinators as well. Visit any field in September and October and it is awash with color and alive with all manner of insect life: Grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, and hundreds of bee and wasp species. Spiders abound. The skies above the field are filled with dragonflies feasting and then the birds take advantage of it all as well.
Mowing early fall also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants like swallowwort, porcelain berry by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds. A fall mowing also keeps woody invasives, like autumn olive, under control as well.
Mowing in November and December gives wildlife a chance to move out of their nesting areas, and most flowers have been killed back by hard frosts. There are plenty of seeds available. But cutting at this time may destroy praying mantis egg cases, wasp galls, and cocoons that may be attached to woody stems. Cutting in the very late fall will remove cover for overwintering small mammals and may even disturb those that have already begun to hibernate. Mice and other rodents are exposed as they scurry though the fields gathering seeds for winter. It leaves them wide open to predators like foxes and hawks. Good for predators, bad for prey.
If we leave the mowing until spring, we maintain the protective cover for mammals, do not destroy egg cases and cocoons, and leave seeds on stalks for birds to find. But spring weather can be wet and muddy, farmers have other chores to do, fields to till, gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
Fields like this one at Wequetequock Cove have been mowed for hay for many years. Now are maintained for wildlife. 

Cutting early will prevent invasive porcelainberry from spreading its seeds.

Mowing early promotes grasses.

Leaving the mowing until later allows late summer flowers to bloom and attract pollinators.

If allowed to go uncut, the fields at Knox Preserve will go to seed with many plants, especially goldenrod, and provide food and cover all winter.

What is a steward to do?

The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can, based on science, biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some will be mowed when the ground freezes and others will be left up all winter. Take time to walk several fields and see what you observe in each. And, we are ever grateful for those who drive tractors and walk behind mowers to get the job done, whenever it gets done.
We want to encourage Milkweed to spread.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Makeover at Paffard Woods

By Beth Sullivan
The lovely Paffard Woods p off the west side of North Main Street is the first land Avalonia acquired with a big fundraising campaign. That road is often called the Gateway to Stonington because it is the main route from the highway down to the Borough. Preserving the scenic land along the road was a high priority. When Edith Paffard offered to sell the parcel for a bargain sale price, Avalonia applied for grants and then campaigned to get almost $300K in public donations. Thanks to a great team, efficient organization, and the generosity of many people, the 62 acre parcel was acquired in August of 2003. Since that time it has remained one of Avalonia’s most beloved and well-used preserves with a wide variety of habitats, vegetation, and topography. Trails go around granite ledge outcrops and glacial erratics, wind through woodlands, and border the Sylvia’s Pond Brook. Central wetlands drain into the brook, and ultimately at the southernmost tip, the preserve is salt marsh.

It started with bridges

This rustic old log bridge was beginning to rot.

New planks were added to this old bridge

Two benches were made from one of the old logs.

Originally, the first stewards created some beautiful and unique bridges. One is a rocky crossing where you can hear the brook babble and tumble below your feet. Another bridge was created from a huge, impressive log, cut lengthwise and set over a stream. Other bridges were established in other places. Over the ensuing years, with high foot traffic, wear and tear, and also recent wetter than average conditions, we noted that several of the wetland crossings were becoming muddy, and the bridges themselves were breaking down. Much to our dismay, we discovered that the huge supports under the log bridge were no longer stable, and there was rot occurring. People love that bridge.
Thanks to the generosity of the original donors, there was a nice stewardship fund available for use on the preserve, so we knew we could get materials. But we never seem to have enough strong and willing bodies to tackle big projects. Luck came our way when our connection with the Mystic Aquarium allowed us to engage volunteers from Dominion Energy. Now we had the bodies.
Two of our town stewards, Jim F and John C, got their heads together to plan out the projects. A new bridge was designed to replace the log bridge, and a plan was made to actually lift and move another bridge to a more solid location, out of the mud. Another bridge had surface planks to be replaced.
On a beautiful September day, 22 employees of all ranks gathered at Paffard Woods at 7:30 am. Our stewards met them, as did MaryEllen, our Aquarium connection, and work commenced. Materials and equipment were unloaded and set up. It was as good as a shop in the parking lot. Order and organization was the key. Teams split up, and in a relatively short time, a great deal was accomplished. The log bridge was removed, but to retain the memory of the original design, one log was cut in two to create benches, set on stones, on either end of the new bridge. They are perfect. The other span was moved and placed in a much better spot, and the wood planks were replaced on the third bridge. And still there was a lot of time left.
This bridge was lifted out of the mud and re-positioned on solid stream banks.

A rock and a hard place

So a group decided to tackle a big rock that was sticking up in the middle of the driveway entrance. It has been a danger and nuisance for quite a while now, so the plan was to dig it out and fix it once and for all. What no one knew, was that the rock was a boulder, seemed to have its roots firmly in the ground and no amount of maneuvering and leveraging would budge it. Now we were stuck with a big hole, with a big rock, in the exit, and no one could get in or out.
Several of us put our heads together and tried a few local farmers to see if their equipment would be useful. No luck. In a last desperate brainstorm, we called a local contractor who was going to do some mowing work for us. He just happened to be in town, with his big excavator and trailer, and inside of one hour, JP Moore arrived with his equipment. It was impressive. He unloaded, and the driver manipulated that machine as deftly as fingers, picked up that rock in an instant and set it aside as if it was a pebble. While he was at it, he removed a few other troublesome rocks, backfilled the big hole, widened the entry way to make an easier access, and just happened to have some perfect small stone to resurface that part of the driveway. Talk about a lucky angel. Turns out JP also had worked at Dominion Energy and knew several of the work team. It was a happy reunion of sorts.
By the end of the day, bridges were all fixed with just a few details left to complete, piles of invasives had been cut or pulled from along the stream and trail, and unexpectedly we had a total rehab of the entry way to the preserve.
We owe many thanks to the original donors, our Avalonia carpenters, our friends at Mystic Aquarium, Dominion Energy and JP Moore excavating.
Go take a hike and enjoy the upgrades.
Volunteers from Dominion work on this new bridge.

This rock was a lot bigger than expected.

But the right equipment made quick work of the rock.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A project underway

By Beth Sullivan
Many of this blog’s readers have followed the Hoffman Preserve saga for years. If you don’t know the whole story, please check our website for details and history.
The project we have planned and studied and agonized over for years, has finally begun. The timing is perfect as the birds and mammals have completed their nesting and are moving on. The ground conditions are so much better than they were last fall, winter, and into the spring when the torrents of rain made a muddy mess of everything and delayed the work. It could not have waited much longer as even now there are more oak trees succumbing this summer. A recent forestry report stated that close to 75% of New London county’s oak trees have died. How sad.
After thinning, large healthy trees will have room to expand.

Many areas of the interior will remain untouched.

The forest is still dangerous in many places.

An unfamiliar landscape

Today, several of us, Avalonia stewards, walked into the preserve with permission of the forester. There was no work being done today. There is no doubt that the face of the landscape has changed. The roadways through the forest are wide enough for the big machinery to maneuver. They can then reach into the sides and extract individual trees for the thinning process. In some areas it is almost impossible to tell that work has taken place. If you look, you will see a stump, still marked at the base in blue, but around it the forest floor remains much as it was with just more light and room for the remaining trees to branch out and grow. As we walked the roadway, we were amazed how soft and fluffy the soil remained. It was churned up a bit, which is good, mixing in the organic material. Because they are using low ground pressure machines, the soil is not hard and compacted. It will be easy for seeds that have been dormant for a long time to germinate and get established.
We walked near one of the four patch cuts. These are more open areas, pretty much cleared of trees, but the understory small shrubs remain. These areas do look pretty bare, but the trees that were there were mostly crowded, dead, or dying. The new patch cut will grow in slowly, first with grasses and wild weeds. We hope to give Mother Nature a boost by getting funding for a more specialized conservation mix of seeds that will include flowers for pollinators, forage for small and larger mammals, and some shrubs with berries and fruits for birds. As these areas regenerate, they will grow in from the sides, with shrubs adding height and good cover. This is what is called creating soft edges: a tiered effect like bleachers in a stadium, which is attractive to all species of animals and birds. If we are lucky enough to be around to see this area in 5-10 years, the difference will be amazing.
In this area, the Mountain Laurel will regenerate thickly and with the sun will soon blossom. 

These hemlocks are not dead, just too crowded. Thinning will reinvigorate them.

Thinned areas are still forested, just more open, and soon small berry shrubs will thrive.

Still more work to do

We will hope to get professional assistance in monitoring and managing all the areas for invasive plants and not let them get established and take over. In this town, invasives are everywhere and their seeds are carried by birds, animals and even hikers. A professor from Connecticut College and his interns are monitoring several plots to study how regrowth occurs and how invasives get established.
As we walked, we mostly followed the new open areas, but we noted that the old trails remained and criss-crossed through the landscape. When the project is done, Avalonia stewards will walk all the areas, old paths and new, and decide where we will establish trails that will serve us for the next decades. There is a smart phone app called Explorer for ArcGIS . All of Avalonia properties are documented in a file called Avalonia Online Maps. It shows boundaries and trails. We used that today to help us orient ourselves within the landscape. Lots of old markers are gone, though there are still colored blazes on many trees. The app may be very useful in the beginning.
The work will continue into early October, and the preserve must remain closed to hikers until we are given an all clear. There are still many broken and leaning trees. It is easy to get disoriented. The forester is hoping to offer a walk through the area in early October as part of the Last Green Valley Walktober events. Details will be posted on our website.
We truly appreciate those of you have supported this project and have taken the time to read about it and understand our goals. It will take a lot of work to get it ready for the public. We all need patience and faith in the process. If you are interested in helping us with restoration, please call the office. When you get back in to the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve, please record your observations or take photos and send them in. It will be part of the education for all of us.
This toad still has plenty of good habitat. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A blue trail: Avalonia Preserves by kayak

By Beth Sullivan
There is often talk of creating greenways through the inland landscape, allowing connectivity and longer hikes. The difficulty with that is the need to acquire land or easements to allow the connections to succeed. However, a blue trail, by water, already exists. Over the last years I have truly enjoyed kayaking along the shoreline and experiencing Avalonia from a different point of view.
Many of our preserves include a water feature. There are ponds, marshes, streams, even rivers. You can walk along, around, or even through many of these. With the end of summer very near, crowds are diminishing, colors are intensifying, migrating birds move along the shore on their way south, and even some butterflies and dragonflies stage migrations over water along the coast.
Many of our coastal preserves are marsh lands, and it is difficult and unwise to walk on the fragile salt marsh. Usually the closest you can get is a glimpse from the road. To really appreciate the expanse of grasses, the wildlife along the inlets, channels and over the land, it is ever so much better to view from the water.
From Simmons Preserve, it is a gentle paddle around Quanaduck Cove.

Sandy Point

Sandy Point is an Island, so of course you need a boat. Put in from Barn Island Boat launch and paddle across little Narragansett Bay, and you can pull up close to shore and either paddle or wade, towing your boat along the North Shore. Now you can observe the staging of migrating shore birds: sandpipers, plovers, and terns. Some of them are protected species so avoid undue disturbance. Also from the Barn Island Boat launch you can head far east to find the Continental Marsh Preserve with osprey nesting in both the trees and on a platform. Go west and up the cove to see the Wequetequock Cove Preserve and meadows full of milkweed and Monarchs.
Another launch spot is a small access area on the side of Wilcox Road, off Rt 1 in Stonington. From there you have some choices: paddle north, under Rt. 1, up the Quiambaug cove, and on the east shore look for Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. The Knox Family Farm runs along the cove for quite a ways and includes a small inlet area. On the gravel bank of the cove, volunteers have created a kayak landing, with tie up rail and stairs up the slope. From there, you can do a nice loop hike on the preserve.
From the same roadside launch, nearly the entire west shore, except the cemetery edge, is the Knox Preserve-a totally different vantage point. The rocky shores are so different than the mowed trails. When the tide is low you can get onto a small beach that is hard to reach from the trail, due to massive poison ivy patches.
Paddle under the railroad bridge and head east, around Lord’s Point, and the next big marshland area is the Woolworth-Porter Preserve. From this angle you can see the beautiful greens of the marsh grasses and can head up a little inlet or creek and wind deeper into the preserve which actually extends quite a ways north, to the railroad tracks, but the water way doesn’t extend very far.
For a longer trip, from the same launch site you can head west along the shore and out and around Latimer’s point, remembering that the Knox preserve is just on the other side of the tracks. Look for the osprey nest high on a pole. West around Latimer Point, you will come to another large marshland area. This is a big expanse of Cottrell Marsh which extends all the way over to Mason’s Island Road. This area has some interesting high islands with trees and shrubs where Herons and Egrets love to roost at this time of year.
Go through the gate at the Simmons Preserve, on North Main Street in Stonington, to a little access area onto Quanaduck Cove. You can paddle up, under Rt 1 and find yourself at the marshy southern tip of Paffard Woods.
From Dodge Paddock or Barn Island, Sandy Point is an easy paddle. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

Paddle up Quiambaug Cove to get to the Knox Family Farm Preserve.

Land on a sandy stretch of Knox Preserve's shoreline and explore for snails and crabs.

Watch your step

Getting out on any of the marsh areas is really not encouraged. The ground can be quite unstable, the habitat is fragile, and there are several species of birds that are in need of protection during nesting season. Best to bring your binoculars.
Take note of what a wonderful buffer the marshlands are, protecting the upland from storm surges and rising tides as well as providing a sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife. Avalonia is dedicated to protecting and preserving the marshlands along the coast line. As our shoreline is threatened by sea level rise, our marshes will be one of the casualties if there is no place for them to expand. They are vital to the health of the oceans and estuaries. Enjoy the views.
Maps and directions to all these preserves can be found on our website.
You can pull up kayaks in several areas, just please avoid fragile marsh habitats.

Cottrell Marsh has wooded knolls and extensive salt marshes to explore.

Woolworth-Porter Preserve has channels that can lead deep into the marsh at high tide. Photograph by David Young.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.