Monday, August 8, 2016

A New View for Stewardship

By Beth Sullivan
Stewardship of varied lands and habitats can be very challenging. Some places are impenetrable due to heavy (and often painful) vegetation. Sometimes the habitats themselves are fragile. Some properties are so large that actual boundary walks are impossible to do in one day.
A slight rise in elevation has allowed wooded islands to remain tree covered.

Annual land survey

Our goal as a land trust is to survey all our properties annually. In part it is to inspect boundaries, but there are so many more things to look for: vegetation growth and health, project areas, wetlands, and areas off trails that are infrequently viewed. Boundary walks are actually best done in the fall or winter when the leaves are off the trees, making it much easier to find landmarks, small pipes, cement monuments, holes in walls and signs on tree trunks. However winter walks are not the best for assessing vegetation. They can also be dangerous as holes can be covered by snow and ice and wetlands may, or may not, be frozen and solid.
In the case of our beautiful coastal salt marshes we have the added challenges of monitoring sea level rise, changes on the marsh, and marsh migration. However the habitats are fragile, and for many parts of the year, the areas should be left undisturbed for wildlife usage.
From the ground or the sky, the view is beautiful. Photograph by Beth Sullivan.

Enter technology: the Drone. Together with Stonington resident and member, David Young, we are working on ways to view some of our properties from the air. The first is the salt marsh that lies between Lord’s Point and Wamphaussuc Point, a large portion of which is protected by Avalonia Land Conservancy as the Woolworth-Porter Marsh.
Natural channels were enhanced by man-made mosquito ditches that help with tidal flushing.

The marsh is bounded by private homes on the east and west, the Railroad tracks to the north, and the water along the south. Access is limited and difficult . Each year we try to kayak along the water’s edge to view how the marsh is faring from that perspective. Sadly we can see hunks of marsh being undermined and breaking off.
In the marsh, Fiddler crabs can be seen if approached quietly or they scatter. Photograph by Beth Sullivan.

Birds-eye view now possible

But thanks to the new video we are able to see the contours of the marsh; we will be able to make comparisons from one year to the next. We can see the beautiful bands of the green Spartina marsh grasses. We can see where the phragmites are trying to take over. We can also see the size of the pannes: the areas that are un-vegetated due to increased standing water between tides and subsequent increase in salinity making the areas less hospitable for plants. We can see the mosquito ditches and channels and assess tidal flushing. A beautiful view.
A wide view demonstrates the true beauty and complexity of the preserve and surrounding areas.

This video is the first of hopefully many, as we learn to fine tune the technology and techniques needed to accurately view our properties, assess where we may need to go in on foot for closer inspection, and to keep a record of changes over time to many of our preserves. In this case one of our most fragile coastal assets-the salt marsh.
You can watch the video here:

Photographs are stills from from video by David Young unless otherwise noted.

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