Thursday, March 28, 2013

Another First - The Osprey



Spring struggles to arrive. Winter has done its best to thwart us: snow, cold, wet, dark and gray. Yet spring does arrive; birds return; amphibians emerge; plants begin to break ground and their buds swell.
Many spring events are triggered by daylight and day length; others respond to warmth. Some need both. Avalonia volunteers spend a lot of time outdoors, all year long, and we respond to day light and warmth too. As we are out and about, we are looking for signs of spring and continue to count “FIRSTS”.

                                                        Photo by Rick Newton


Birds that have spent the winter in southern climates don’t know what the weather is like up here, so they rely on day length to trigger their impulse to return north. Of course, a nice southerly breeze is a big help and frequently in mid to late March we experience a period of warm teasing weather. It is during these times we look for our returning birds, and the most eagerly awaited are the osprey. Many of the osprey from our area winter in Central and South America. As the hours of daylight begin to increase and reach equality with hours of dark at the Spring Equinox, these birds are making their return. Here in Southeastern CT we count on them arriving around St Patrick’s Day, give or take a few days. Ospreys are very loyal to their nest sites. While males and females do not spend the winter together, banding records and studies have shown that bonded pairs will return to the same nest site, usually at different times, and one will wait for the other to renew that bond for another year.
Despite the strangle-hold of winter, the first osprey was reported locally on Saturday March 16th. Right on time. As “fish hawks” they rely on open water to find food. While the ice has melted from most bodies of water, fish often tend to swim deeper to find warmer temperatures. If the weather continues cold with freezing nights, the newly arrived osprey may have a hard time finding food. However, as the next weeks go by, temperatures are bound to warm up. With southerly breezes, more osprey will return to their nest sites along the shore, and there will be plenty of food.

                                                        Photo by Rick Newton

Take some time to look for the very visible platforms used for nesting. Decades ago, osprey nested on big dead trees, called snags, along marsh edges, and along the shore. Those sites have nearly disappeared and now osprey rely almost exclusively on man-made platforms for nesting. They will reuse and enhance and enlarge the nest each year, some reaching quite impressive sizes. After the super storm Sandy last fall, and the blizzard and wind storms this winter, the returning osprey may have more work to do.

Now that the weather is finally warming, go find a nest site, and observe from a distance. Several Avalonia properties in Stonington have osprey nests, including Cottrell Marsh, Continental Marsh, and Paffard Marsh which may have the most visible one. There is also one just over the railroad tracks very visible from the Knox preserve. Many others are on private or state properties all along the shore. Enjoy the return of the osprey!

Written by Beth Sullivan

Learn more about the osprey at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Our Water: Upstream and Downstream

 

Our Water: Upstream & Downstream

Sponsored by the Groton Public Library & Avalonia Land Conservancy 

 The Groton Public Library and Avalonia Land Conservancy will present a series of programs about our local brooks, rivers, and Long Island Sound at the Library during April.  As WE ALL LIVE DOWNSTREAM, plan to join us to learn more about the quality of our water and how it impacts both marine animals and us! Join us Tuesday April 2 at 7pm at the Library for the first program: 

From Filter to Fish! 

 Scott Gravatt, Executive Director of the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District, will describe the wide variety of natural resource conservation projects his organization manages. Two current projects are a simple system used to catch and filter storm water runoff and a newly installed fish ladder in Preston that assists migrating fish get over a 15’ high dam. 

 Free, no registration required. For more information call the Library at 860 441 6750.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Video Test

In our last post, some readers saw the link to the youtube video on vernal pools, and some did not.  It seemed to depend on what device was being used to read the post.
I'm trying a different way to embed the video link with this post.  Please use the comments to let me know if you can see the video.




Chasing Away the Winter



Winter always seems to be reluctant to give up and go away. Many of us who spend a great deal of time outside count not just the days until spring but more significantly count “firsts”. Everyone seems to notice when the daffodils and crocuses break the ground in our gardens, and it is often still quite definitely winter. Skunk cabbage flowers, oddly shaped and waxy, have been “in bloom” since January. A plant whose chemistry creates heat around it can actually melt the winter snow it stands in. Look closely at this time of year, you might find an insect or two, a bee or fly, emerged a bit too early or sometimes even a salamander taking refuge inside the sheltering flower. Those are some things we have been looking at for weeks already and are now eagerly awaiting new “firsts”.
                                                     Skunk cabbage 

By Wednesday, March 13, we had experienced a stretch of some wonderful warmth: a spring tease. That day was rainy, heavy at times. The warm rain soaked the earth, softening and soaking deep into the soil, running into holes and burrows, melting the ice on vernal pools. The FIRST wood frogs emerged from the leaf litter in the woods and found their way to shallow melted pools and began to “quack” in the late afternoon sunlight. The FIRST Spring Peepers began their calling a bit later that night from marshy ponds and wet meadows. A bit tentative to start, the chorus will grow and swell over the next weeks as the weather becomes more consistently warm. Spotted Salamanders don’t make any noise and are far more secretive. They too emerge from woodlands where they have hibernated deep in burrows. All of these first ‘emergers’ are heading to the same habitat- vernal pools. These very special wetland areas are shallow ponds. They usually only hold water during the winter and spring and are too shallow to have predatory fish. They protect the eggs and larva just long enough for them to mature then most of these ponds dry up in the summer as the amphibians move onto land.
This three minute video features the creatures that get their start in vernal pools.

Vernal pools can be found on a number of Avalonia properties. In Stonington, you can visit the Hoffman Preserve, Knox Family Farm, Paffard Woods, White Cedar Swamp, and Deans Mill Preserve among others. It is important to leave these ponds undisturbed. The busy amphibians can be easy prey for predators. Their egg masses are fragile. It is important not to wade into these wetlands and to keep dogs on a leash when in the area. Many amphibian species, including those that emerge later, are in decline. Look and listen for these FIRSTS and you will know spring cannot be far away.  
Written by Beth Sullivan.

You can learn more about vernal pools at www.vernalpool.org

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Nature's Hiding Places





One of the mixed blessings of all these wind storms we have had since last Fall, is the abundance of fallen limbs and trees. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes…and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and also birds. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator. 
Over time, the leaves, small branches and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants. 
Where tree limbs came down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it was a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we were able to make well-constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid-sized branches are criss -crossed on top next and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food: nuts, seeds, grasses, eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles. 
As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy. The Knox Preserve has a large dense pile of cedar boughs as well as many smaller woody piles along the field edges. If there is snow on the ground, look for tracks around the piles. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success. 
Written by Beth Sullivan