Monday, April 17, 2017

New England Cottontail hops back

In honor of the unofficial start of spring, we re-post an earlier feature on Avalonia's work to restore habitat for the New England Cottontail.

By Beth Sullivan
Since 2013 I have been writing about our New England Cottontail project on Avalonia’s Peck and Callahan preserves in Stonington. Not accessible to the public, people have had to rely on written reports and photos to follow the progress.
We have laid out the welcome mat. Now we wait.  Photo from USFWS.

New England Cotton Tail returns

The New England Cottontail was determined to be in danger of needing Federal protection due to plummeting populations. They are out-competed by the non-native Eastern Cottontail that is highly adaptable to living near people and our homes and gardens. The New England Cottontail (NEC) needs shrubby, overgrown thickets of dense brush, of the kind found decades ago when farm fields were abandoned and were overgrown. Once the fields progressed into forests which are now abundant in our state, the NEC had less desirable places to live, they didn’t breed successfully (like rabbits are supposed to do) and thus the population dropped.
Studying the problem, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined it would be far better to try and stabilize the population, create habitat, rather than allow it to further decline and need federally mandated protection. Since 2012, we worked with USFWS, CT DEEP and the Wildlife Management Institute to help create a big block of habitat up in the woods between Pequot trail and Route 184.
Last year this area was low and sparse. Now perfect habitat. 

You can read about the progress and process herehere, and here.
Last week representatives from several federal agencies and teams from New England States met in New Hampshire to celebrate a success story. Because of all the efforts to study and restore habitat in focus areas throughout New England, it was determined that the NEC did not need to be placed on the Endangered Species List.
Plentiful berries of several species provide food.

The next question seems to be: Why is that a good thing: don’t they still need protection?
The NEC will continue to need protection and monitored to make sure all the work done to create habitat is successful in having the rabbits move in and thrive. Studies will continue over the next years as the project areas regrow into the young forest habitat they need. Teams will go out in the winter when the ground is covered to collect rabbit pellets to check for DNA confirmation of NEC presence. THAT will be success! Then plans can be made to continue to work with this habitat management system, keeping it in rotation of optimal size and level of growth, and work with other land owners to provide more of the same.
Under the powerlines, the habitat is dense and thick.

If the New England Cottontail had been placed on the Endangered Species list, there would have been a huge, bureaucratic need to install protections on large territories where the rabbits “might” be located and restrictions placed on areas where they are found. Private landowners could lose the choice of being able to create habitat or not, to develop their land, or not. The expense to list and then protect a species far outweighs the money spent to provide what it needs to keep it off the list.
A large Black Rat Snake probably finds many small mammals to eat.

The added benefit of the work, is that there are a number of other species, about 50 in CT alone that benefit from the newly created habitat. Some of them were heading toward that “E List” themselves.
Since our project was completed in August of 2013, we have visited a number of times. The area is almost impossible to walk through: Excellent for rabbits! Berry bushes cover the ground providing fruit for all manner of animals. It is teeming with more wildlife than ever before. We have counted new birds, noted many new insects in great numbers, and reptiles and amphibians as well.
Walking through the preserve in no longer easy.

On behalf of a special bunny, we are all grateful for funding by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Long Island Sound Futures fund ( LISFF), the efforts of the USFWS, CT DEEP and those supporters who had the vision to proceed with the project.
We will keep you posted.
Link to The Day article on the NEC is here.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Making a Difference

By Beth Sullivan
This is the fifth year that the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College has collaborated with Avalonia to provide students with first hand knowledge of how a land trust functions and to give Avalonia some much needed energy, assistance and strength.
In past years, one student has taken over writing the blog for me, as part of an outreach project and to introduce the students. This year no one decided to take me up on that, so I will be writing a few of these entries to describe what some of the teams have chosen as their projects.
The frontage was overwhelmed by brush and litter.

Ricardo Olea and Emilio Pallares recognized that our outreach efforts, publications and web photos were lacking in diversity. We discussed several ways to remedy this, and their goal will be to engage diverse students from New London schools near the College, get them outside at the Arboretum, and get some great photos for us to use to be more inclusive. They will promote the new Hike and Seek program and encourage city kids to venture out onto Avalonia trails not far from town for education, fun and, adventure. As they work toward this goal, Ricardo told me about his unique campus group: MEChA ( explanation coming shortly) which needed some community service time and offered to spend a Saturday morning with me, working at a preserve of my choosing.
Invasives were impenetrable behind the wall.

Collier Preserve Clean-up

Great. I never turn down strong young helpers, and it would give me a chance to talk a bit more with Ricardo about his project. We chose the Marjorie Stanton Middleton Collier Preserve, near the top of Quoketaug Hill on Pequot Trail. Over the winter a dedicated volunteer has hacked away at vines strangling the trees and covering the walls. (Thanks Jim.) There was so much dead wood, and dense invasive growth and brush, that the roadside walls were barely visible, and the frontage was a mess. The preserve was donated to Avalonia by the Collier family, one of the founding families living up on the hill far back in Stonington history.
A break of cookies and juice, and a therapy dog, was welcomed.
Ann Collier, art of the donor family, last visited about four years ago.

On a blustery Saturday, six students, including Ricardo, showed up to help fix up the walls. While none of us were stone workers by any stretch, with muscle and some good tools and team work, they were able to get fallen rocks lifted back onto the walls. Over decades these rocks had tumbled, then become grown over and buried. Now they are back out where they belong. The brush along the road and in a nice broad swath behind the walls has been cut down. It is more open and appealing. Litter was picked up by the bag-full, and the area is already drawing positive comments from the neighbors.
Big, fallen rocks were placed back on the walls.

The right tool and a great team made all the difference.

But now about MEChA. As I talked with Ricardo and his friends, they explained that their group was comprised of students of similar ethnic backgrounds going back to indigenous people in Mexico, before Spanish influence. I was intrigued. I will quote Ricardo here as he described his group:
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) is a student organization that promotes higher education, culture, and history. Each word in MEChA symbolizes a great concept in terms of la causa (the cause). Movimiento means that the organization is dedicated to the movement to gain self-determination for our people. Estudiantil, identifies the organization as a student group for we are part of our Raza's future. At the heart of the name is the use of the identity: Chicanx. At first seen as a negative word, now taken for a badge of honor. In adopting their new identity, students committed themselves to return to the barrios, colonias, or campos and together, struggle against the forces that oppress our people. Lastly, the affirmation that we are Indigenous people to this land by placing our movement in Aztlán, the homeland of all peoples from Anahuak.
The term Anahuak is more of a general term often used interchangeably with Valley of Mexico , and both Aztec and Mayan civilizations fall under the umberalla of Anahuak. It is the core of ancient Mexico. This is generally where Mexico City is located today. Essentially, it is where the indigenous peoples of Mexico are said to have originated from.”

What a change!
I found it refreshing to meet and learn about a group of young people who take pride in their heritage. They set great examples for others too as they support the greater community and promote diversity and understanding. Thanks for all the muscle too.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Warm Gathering on a Cold Night

By Beth Sullivan
It snowed all day. Threatened to turn bitter cold and windy. But the word had gone out, the committee had been planning for so long. So when the snow stopped, roads were cleared, the decision was made to go ahead and Avalonia’s Winter Potluck Gathering was ON!
March 10 was getting pretty close to spring. We were all hoping that the lovely warm weather we had briefly experienced would hold on. But it didn’t. The anecdote for winter blues has always been good food, good friends, and a good cause.

Winter potluck dinner

Avalonia Land Conservancy has held a Winter Potluck event for decades. There were years when it was a huge event, and then years when it was smaller and more intimate. But always there were shared home-made dishes and friends looking forward to connecting with each other. Part of the tradition has been to have a basket or tea-cup raffle and folks donated all manner of treasures. There were home-made birdhouses, garden baskets, books, and jewelry. There was also the usual assortment of knick knacks, small appliances and treasures that someone would absolutely need to have.
A big table of donated treasures to be raffled 

This year there was also a silent auction of smaller works of fine art. There were several framed pieces: watercolors, oils, and acrylics. There was a lovely quilted table runner and the bidding was lively for that. There were also packs of nature- themed cards, just perfect for those who still believe that a hand written note will never go out of style.
Items of fine art for the silent auction.

While people trickled in, several wonderful Girl Scouts and Avalonia volunteers met guests, explained the evening, and took steaming pans of food and covered salads and desserts to the kitchen. As everyone mingled, and bid on items, there were opportunities to look at displays of Avalonia projects including the new Hike and Seek program. Guests were encouraged to seek out those with Avalonia name tags, indicating people who might have answers to their questions.
Displays of Avalonia projects were on view.

The food came out, people found tables with old friends and new friends, and enjoyed music provided by The Avalonia Quick Steppers. They were fun-spirited, foot-stomping good, and inspired a few people to dance.
Old friends and new enjoyed dinner together.

The Avalonia Quick Steppers.

After dinner speaker

After dinner we were educated and entertained by an excellent presentation by Russ Cohen, author of “ Wild Plants I Have Known….and Eaten”. For those of us who are nature lovers, as well as gardeners, and who love to eat too, foraging is a natural extension of our interests. And what is fun, is that can be a positive, natural outcome of some of our stewardship efforts-eradicating invasives. Russ presented a great program, concentrating on wild-growing plants, many of which we constantly battle. How satisfying it was to see that instead of just cutting down, and swearing at, Japanese Knotweed, that there are a number of very delicious and easy recipes to be made from young tender stalks. They can be used like rhubarb. Autumn Olive berries can be as nutritious and tasty as cranberries in jellies and spreads. Maybe we should open up our work party days to foragers?
Author and forager, Russ Cohen.

Other plants provide roots that are tasty when prepared , like Chickory and Burdock. Leaves of Sheep Sorrel, Violets, and Lamb’s Quarters are excellent replacements for other farm-produced greens.
Russ also discussed other native plants that have produced foods that were appreciated by Native Americans and colonists such as Acorns, Hickory Nuts, and Black Walnuts. He even took the time to share some of his secrets for extracting the nuts in big edible pieces, rather than the smash up job I have been using.
Of course he offered the important cautions about foraging certain foods, Mushrooms as an excellent example, and the need to be absolutely certain of your identification. He also cautioned about harvesting plant populations that may be too small or scarce to sustain a harvest. All of this information is available in his book.
Desserts ended the evening with a very special creation by one of the Girl Scouts: Earth as a gem with a cake baked to appear like the jewel encrusted formation we see in geodes. Really creative!
The baker and her creation-Earth as a geode.

Included on the dessert table were creations offered by our guest speaker. No offense intended to all the other delicious treats, but his were spectacular.
Everyone went home happy. We made new friends, new members, and enlisted some new volunteers for our efforts. We went out into a cold night, warmed by a special event.



Thank you to the team who planned this event, and Bruce Fellman for his photographs.