Monday, May 22, 2017

Watching the Birds

By Beth Sullivan
What a great time of year this is! So many things to look at; So many directions to go in. Those of us who are naturalists by profession or passion can get easily distracted when out in the field at this time of year. There is just too much to pay attention to.
Almost everyone watches birds to some degree or another. I think I have been fascinated by them since my first pet parakeet back when I was a toddler. But there are varying degrees of watching birds, and then there are birders. Sometimes a bird watcher progresses to become a birder, sometimes the line is blurred.
Drinking, bathing, or just splashing, this Yellow-rump warbler was clearly enjoying itself. Photograph by Dennis Main.

I consider myself a watcher more than anything. I love watching the behavior of even the commonest little backyard Chickadee. I am quite content just keeping track of the birds that have become familiar to me in my area. However, when I have the opportunity to vacation in a spot I have never been before, I become a Birder-checking my lists, trying to study what I might encounter, and enjoying ticking off new species. I do not have a personal life list, or at least not one that is up-to-date and comprehensive. And with aging brain cells, I often forget what I may have encountered on a long ago vacation.
Common Mallards are easy to observe, and family groups are a joy to watch.

But watching, understanding, and deciphering birds is something you do not forget. It happens daily; it becomes part of everything I do-Just paying attention and keeping my eyes open.
The simplest behavior, such as lifting a head in song, can be so beautiful to watch.

Observations from this spring

Last spring, with many small Winter Moth caterpillars devouring my ornamental cherry tree and crab apples, I noted tons of birds in those trees. I had gorgeous Indigo Buntings glowing blue against the pink blossoms. There were Goldfinches, Baltimore Orioles, and Scarlet Tanagers all adding to the amazing color. They ate well, but there were few flowers due to the caterpillars. This year there were fewer caterpillars. The trees were beautiful, but there were far fewer birds for me to enjoy out the kitchen window. With caterpillars under control or absent, blossoms were pollinated, and the birds went elsewhere. But I also know that there will be more fruit on these trees for the birds of fall and winter to enjoy.
These Orioles landed by a garden pond and played together for almost an hour.

I admire the adaptability of birds. The Robins, Catbirds and Cardinals that seem to enjoy nesting close to the house. I watched a Robin frantically creating her nest outside a window, at eye level in an open Rhododendron bush. I enjoyed her technique for weaving grasses, and adding her mud. Then she tamped it all down with her feet and nestled her body into the cup to create a perfect fit, and there she sat. I was careful not to make sudden noises or to turn the light on at night. She was very tolerant. Then, one day, she was just gone. She left behind nothing; no eggs. I was so sad. Later that same day, I watched a Crow walk slowly along the gutter line of my roof, then peering down very deliberately into the bushes at the foundation below. I could easily understand how it could have walked right along, spying the mother Robin and dropping down to scare her off and destroy her eggs.
This Robin spent days perfecting her nest, only to be scared off by a Crow.

Now I watch as a Cardinal pair works to make a nest close to the same area, but they have chosen a very dense evergreen and are quite hidden from view. Their courting is lovely to watch as they sit together, sing to each other, and he frequently feeds her gently. I hope they succeed.
Hopefully the dense evergreen cover will protect this Cardinal from the eyes of the Crow.

The Crows, on the other hand, have been really noisy through the earlier part of spring. They declared territory and had gang wars with each other and Bluejays. However, now that they are guarding their nests and may have young, they are far quieter, and far more cautious about advertising their locations. Smart birds. I raised a Crow once; their intelligence and personalities are so amazing. I would have enjoyed watching that crow for years and been happy with nothing more exotic.
Crows are super smart and fun to interact with, but  are awful nest predators.

As the season progresses, take some time to just watch the birds around you. Get to know their habits and personalities. The experience will last longer than a quick spotting and a check on a list.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Next Generation of Environmentalists

By Beth Sullivan
We have just wrapped up the fifth year of collaborations with the Connecticut College Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment. For each of these past years, a group of sophomore students applied to be in the special program dedicated to the environment. Their major fields can be wide and varied, but each of them somehow ties their focus to some aspect of environmental study. In the spring semester the center has been teaming up with Avalonia, and the students get some insight into land conservation work. Together we work to shape projects that are of interest to the students, some of whom may carry over the study through their senior year. In return, their goal is to deliver a project that in some way benefits Avalonia and supports our mission.
A work party provide the youth and energy needed to move rocks.

Many projects this year

This year the projects were varied, and in many ways focused on outreach. As an organization we are always looking for opportunities to get the word out about who we are and what we do. We also want to engage a younger age group. Over the last several months the student teams fine-tuned and then implemented their projects. This past week I attended their final presentations, and some of the results were outstanding. Those dealing with outreach and education were right on target.
Amelia, Delilah and Chloe did pure outreach. They did three events where they set up tables, engaged with the public-adults and children alike. They passed out Avalonia information, introduced people to Hike and Seek for families, and presented a bright fresh face to the public. They set up at Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London, the Stonington Farmer’s Market, and did a really big Earth Day event sponsored by the Mystic Aquarium. When they did final reporting, they had collected nearly $100 in donations, got three new memberships on the spot, gave out applications for dozens more, and made hundreds of new friends for Avalonia . Best of all-they had fun.
At the Farmer's Market, the team got donations, recruited members, and made many friends for Avalonia.

It was great fun working with this team at eh Aquarium Earth Day out-reach event.

Ricardo and Emilio also did outreach but with a very unique spin. We discussed the need to reach out to other, more urban, communities where we may not have a physical presence, and invite children and families to freely explore Avalonia preserves and enjoy educational outdoor explorations. They joined with a group from New London’s Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School that has a connection at Connecticut College. They developed a scavenger hunt based on the model of Hike and Seek, and then took a group out into the Arboretum to explore. They followed up with a classroom session and gave informational materials to the students inviting them to explore Avalonia trails with their families. Great job fellows!
Ricardo introduced his group to the plan for the scavenger hunt.

Sydney and Sarah wanted to help us develop more educational signage for our preserves. They chose two properties with some very interesting historical significance. The Perry Natural Area has been the focus of student projects before. This time they documented the colonial families who owned the land and left their mark with foundations and in cemeteries. They also did significant research with a local team which has been exploring the Native American landmarks to be found in our area. Their signs for Perry will address both Colonial and Pre-colonial theories of usage. They also chose Pequotsepos Brook Preserve to document the Colonial ownership of the land and also to explore the extensive stone works, quarries, bridges, and walls to be found on the property. While the signs are still in the draft stage and need to go through edits and approvals, we are well on the way to adding to the educational experience of visitors to these areas.
Clean up efforts at Pequotsepos Brook netted an astounding number of beer bottles.

Jon and Nate chose to study and plan for the management of South Dumpling Island, an Avalonia holding in Long Island Sound. The island is subject to serious erosion and an invasion by Cormorants that have devastated the plant life. While they were unable to get transportation to the island, they hope to continue the project through the summer and see how their on-shore research will fit with what they find out there and see how their studies can help with possible restoration efforts.
On South Dumpling Island, the Cormorants have taken over and their excrement has burned the vegetation. 

Caroline and Ariane chose to explore an Avalonia Preserve from different viewpoints. Ariane studied the spread of Barberry as an invasive species and researched its effect on native populations. Caroline logged the mileage of the trail there and did a Go-pro video as she traveled them. If developed further, this could be a fun way to bring a virtual trail adventure to an online viewer.
Avalonia thanks the students for their time and enthusiasm. I always enjoy working with them. Each year we all learn a lot from our collaborations. The deliverables help Avalonia, and hopefully the students have learned that land conservancy efforts can be about so much more than just “Hugging Trees”.

Photographs by the students of the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Outdoor explorations are the best education

By Beth Sullivan
Tuesday dawned quite cool and gray, foggy, mist in the air, and windy. Not a real inspiring day to go outside for any length of time. But Mrs. N’s class of first graders was not daunted at all. Due to almost a school year of practice, each student had a bag of gear including rain coat, rain pants, and boots. They also were prepared to get wet, so each child had a bag of clean dry clothes. Their backpacks contained their paperwork on a clipboard, and their lunch and a drink. I remember how hard it was trying to get my own two children ready for an outdoor adventure, never mind an entire class of very active and excited 6 year olds. They were going to the POND.
The outdoor classroom.

Rain or shine classroom

I was thrilled to be part of this adventure. I had worked with this school and first grade team for more than 20 years, doing habitat classes and outdoor field trips. The teachers were absolutely amazing in the way they incorporated the habitat elements and outdoor discoveries into all areas of their curriculum: writing, reading, art, math, and science. This year Mrs. N has taken this approach to a new level. Every Tuesday, rain or shine, the students go to their Outdoor Classroom in the woods on school property. She is assisted by another teacher, Mrs S, who was also part of the outdoor learning team for two decades. The children know the drill. Everyone cooperates. There was a wagon full of supplies, buckets to be carried, and even a portable commode and pop-up tent for privacy. This was serious business.
Deep in the woods, we listened to frogs, birds, and splashing. Everyone was wet and happy.

As we hiked the trail to the classroom area, we observed newly greening plants, leaves on trees, sounds in the woods, and bugs on the ground. They remembered things from the previous week and could make comparisons. When we reached the classroom, a circle of stumps set under a tarp, it was time to settle and listen. With some special songs, verbal and visual cues, and a few deep breaths, the children began to quiet. A story about a tadpole and a caterpillar brought some laughs, but also some insight about how things change in nature. They ate their lunch while listening to review of the plans of action. For a period they were allowed to roam freely in the general area, boundaries having been set early on, but they chose their routes, and explored on their own. No one got lost; no one got hurt. Do you remember that feeling of being free in the woods? I sure do.
The nets were taller than the students.

Vernal pools to explore

Since this was their first time working in the vernal pool, there was need for some special instructions. They would be in teams, with each pair sharing a long handled net (which could indeed be a danger in the hands of an exuberant, shorter, little person). When they were ready, we headed to the shoreline of the shallow woodland pond. At first there was hesitation: some were uncertain about their footing and depth in the water; some were a little concerned about what might be in the water. Then there was the scooping: bringing in big nets full of slimy, wet, old leaves and picking through to find the hiding creatures. It took a bit of coaxing for some of them to decide to dig in with bare hands to discover insects, larvae, amphipods, isopods, and other previously unknown critters. And yes, there were tadpoles, a very strange looking and behaving Fairy Shrimp, and the larva of a large Diving Beetle, the somewhat daunting Water Tigers, which had some impressive pinchers.
The brave ones dove into the nets with bare hands.

There were lots of questions, absolutely no boredom, and a great deal of respect for the creatures we caught. By the time we were done we all had water over the tops of our boots. The class regrouped shook out their nets and cheerfully, for the most part, emptied their boots and wrung out socks.
Once again, each child drifted to their sitting place in the woods, to meditate a bit, to record on a journal page the observations and insights from their hours in the outdoors.
Team work helped when searching for creatures. 

Being part of their day and accepted as a part of the group was a joy and an honor. I love watching those light bulb moments of understanding. The hesitancy to touch something being overcome, and a fearful child opening his hand freely, to hold a slimy tadpole or a wiggling beetle.
This type of learning, to me, demonstrates the best of all worlds. The time to enjoy childhood is so fleeting. The window of opportunity to discover the wonders of nature is too small.
A quiet time for reflection and recording observations.

I salute those teachers, and parents, who recognize this and dedicate themselves to making sure that the next generations will produce young people who appreciate nature and are willing to stand up for the protection of our natural world.
The names of teachers and the school are omitted and the faces of children have not been shown to protect their privacy.


Photographs by Kathleen Smith.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Protecting a new space: The Benedict Benson Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
We are thrilled to honor and be trusted by, a family that has been conservation-minded from the beginning of the last century. The descendants of Benedict Bengt Benson have donated 94 acres of beautiful forest land in North Stonington, to be preserved in perpetuity.
Benedict Benson's family members. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Mimi and Brad Borden have been in conversation with Avalonia for quite a long time, trying to determine the best way to donate land, preserve portions for their farm and family, and ensure that the entire area will be preserved for both people and wildlife to enjoy and thrive.
These acres are part of a large forest block, parts of which are also protected. It is a widely varied area, with fresh streams, many vernal pools, and abundant rocks-rocks that are ledges and outcrops, rocks that are glacial erratics, and of course the area is strewn with the stones from which the Stoningtons get their name. These have been gathered into all manner of walls and mounds and piles scattered throughout the area.
Any rock lover will be thrilled to walk here, observing the glacial effects of many thousands of years ago. Big boulders scattered seemingly at random throughout the landscape are covered with mosses. Many of them have cracked and split, in recent time, relatively speaking. During the natural process of water entering a crack in the rock, then freezing and expanding, the cracks are enlarged. Organic debris fills in the cracks, and over years there is enough to support the growth of a seed. The seed sends its roots, strong and persistently powerful, out and down, until the rock cracks a bit more. Over time the two parts of the boulder are completely separated. There are many examples to be found here of full sized trees growing within a rocky base.
It's easy to imagine kids making a fort in these rocks and woods.

Over decades, this tree has found a foot hold, or root hold, by cracking apart this bolder.

Appropriate Dedication

Appropriately, on Earth Day, the new preserve was dedicated with over 30 people in attendance, including descendants of Benedict Benson himself as well as the donors.
The North Stonington town committee has completed marking a trail through the woods on the west side of Swan Town Hill Road, with yellow blazes . But the orange tape on the trees is also a testament to Mr. Borden himself enjoying the property, hiking over many decades. A little bit of different family history remains deep in the woods. A very old car, probably a family first, remains in place, home to small creatures and greenery.
The old family car. Wonder what it was?

The varied habitats also support a wide range of very unique plants, spring ephemerals and other wildlife as well. The area is well known to birders as one of the very few breeding/nesting areas for the critically threatened Cerulean Warbler. As we walked the trails, we could hear bird song from well over our heads, announcing the beginning of spring migration.
Woodpeckers have abundant food and nesting opportunities.

The Lantern Brook flows through the property starting from a pond to the north, spreading into pools and wetland seeps, then tumbling down a stony rubble path making beautiful noise along the way. The wetlands were the greenest spots in the woods with Skunk Cabbage and False Hellebore following the waterway.
The early greenery of False Hellebore follows the flow of the Lantern Brook.

A map, directions and description will be on our preserves page shortly. We will also include a history of the property written by Mimi Borden herself. Take a ride into the country of North Stonington. Get a little lost in the woods and think about what Benedict Bengt Benson must have felt when he first arrived on the land and made it his home. His family says he would be happy to know it is preserved for others to enjoy as well.

Thank you Benedict. Thank you Mimi and Brad.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise noted.