Monday, July 24, 2017

The Invaders Among Us!

By Beth Sullivan
This has been a spectacular year for plants. The wet spring encouraged lush, vigorous growth. It would seem that all things are rejoicing at the end of the drought and adding life giving extra foliage to every branch and stem. We are also learning that most plants benefit from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which also encourages plants to photosynthesize more, adding more growth. I guess that is a good way to try and balance the CO2. However, we are also being told that vines, in particular, seem to respond most robustly to these growing conditions. Sadly, it appears that the non-natives are more efficient even still. It seems that right in front of our eyes, no time lapse needed, invasive vines are beginning to dominate: the woods, the trails, structures, native plants, and even each other. One native also enjoying the growth spurt is Poison Ivy, which seems to be the happiest of growers. It seems to be thriving better, growing larger and also seems to be more irritating.
Poison Ivy is a native that is behaving aggressively under ideal growing conditions.

Take a walk on one of several of our most beloved preserves, the ones with variable habitats, with fields, and open sunny patches along the trails and beautiful stone walls. These offer the most extensive look at how the invasives have altered the landscape. The Knox Preserve is a best (or worst) case example.
Walking down the trails along the field, and into the shrub land area, and along the shore, the variety of invasives is educational and daunting. Vines can be woody and persistent, growing bigger each year, such as Oriental Bittersweet which can entangle and strangle, and the monster Porcelain Berry that covers and smothers entire trees.
Oriental Bittersweet vines twist their way up and then strangle the supporting tree.
Porcelain Berry is a beauty of a beast that will cover and smother entire trees and walls.

Another invasive vine that has become a true problem for us is Black Swallowwort. The vines are delicate in appearance; they do not survive the winter. But underground their roots form a very dense, impenetrable mass. They are impossible to pull out successfully, and once established they form huge colonies, and other plants cannot get a foothold into the ground where the roots take over everything. The pods, which are visible now, look like slim, hanging milkweed pods. It is the similarity to milkweed that makes this plant especially loathsome. Monarch butterflies are somehow attracted to this plant and will deposit their eggs on the leaves. However their caterpillars cannot survive on them. Monarchs are having enough trouble in their life-cycles; they don’t need an added villain decimating their numbers.
If you find Swallowwort, at least remove the pods to prevent seeding

Other invasives are woody shrubs, like Multiflora Rose, Winged Euonymus (Burning bush), Japanese Barberry and Honeysuckle, or small trees like Glossy Buckthorn and Autumn Olive. Each of these plants might seem to offer some positives for wildlife: Multiflora Rose provides nesting places and habitat. Honeysuckle and Buckthorn offer appealing berries. Once again, there are hidden dangers. Birds rely on native berries for their nutrients for all aspects of growth and development. In a recent study, it was found that birds who took a greater proportion of their diet from non-native berries may get filled up, but the nutrients are not adequate to fill their essential needs-like “fast food” for birds. Birds that ate too many Honeysuckle berries had poorer feather development, poorer colors, and those colors act as attractants to females, as indicators of good health and vigor.
These are just a few. There is Japanese Knot weed, Spotted Knapweed, Mugwort and large Thistles. There are invasive grasses like Japanese Stilt Grass and Reed Canary Grass that take over and ruin grassland habitats. And there are flowers that have been planted in our gardens, like Lesser Celandine and Garlic Mustard, that have now run rampant, excluding other plants with the strength of their growth and even harmful chemistry. The list is, sadly, way too long.
Check out the CT Invasive Plant Working Group web site here.  The working group is a consortium of individuals, organizations, and agencies concerned with invasive plant issues. The website is quite an education. Their plant list is here.
Take some time to look around your yard and woodlot. This is the time now to identify them most easily. Then pull, cut, treat and remove as many as you can before they spread. Don’t let those berries be eaten; don’t let the seeds blow. Dispose of plants in your trash, and do not put into yard waste containers that will be sent to compost.
We have introduced these plants to our native habitats. They threaten native plants and are detrimental to native pollinators, birds, and other animals. I believe it is our responsibility to try and control them the best we can.

 Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Another Great Year for Purple Martins at Knox Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
Those of you who have read this blog for a while have come to expect a Martin update around this time of year. I have shared my journey and passion ( maybe obsession) with these birds for several years now, since our first grant award in 2013 from Audubon Connecticut, to start our colony.
Purple Martins are the only species of bird that is completely reliant on humans for their survival. We provide adequate nesting sites which are hollows, in a colonial setting. We just don’t have enough empty tree holes in close enough proximity to satisfy the needs of dozens of pairs of these birds. Since pre-colonial days, Native Americans provided natural gourds for Purple Martins. Now there is an entire industry built around attracting and providing for colonies of these birds, and the effort has brought the species back from the brink of being extirpated from many areas.
Perfect habitat for Purple Martins can be found at Knox Preserve.

The Knox Preserve colony

At Knox Preserve we provide two set ups, totaling 24 gourds. A close neighbor has a classic Martin House also hosting 12 pairs. Since the end of April, when we set up the housing, we monitor it. Early scouts come to check out the area. Mature birds come first, usually males, to stake out their spots from previous years. If they have a successful breeding experience in a location, they will be very loyal to their site. Females join them, and then younger birds, the hatchlings from the previous year, return later. They often find no room at the inn, so they are likely to fly farther looking for new colonies and vacancies.
As Martin landlords, we have teamed up with the DEEP to band these birds each year for the last four, in order to be able to identify and study them as they move between nesting grounds and wintering grounds in South America. By fitting them with an aluminum band with a unique number, much like our Social Security number, these birds are identifiable as specific individuals. That number is often difficult to discern, however, color banding is a way to visually mark these birds so they can be easily traced to a particular colony. Each colony in CT has a unique color combination: Ours at Knox is Orange/Green. Nearby Pequot Golf Course is Orange/Blue. It has been very easy to see when our populations intermingle, which is great.
The banding team weighs, ages, and assesses health, as well as placing the bands.

Showing off its new bands, this little one goes back into the nest.

On a blazing hot, humid day last week, the DEEP team arrived at Knox Preserve, efficiently set up their work station under a tent, and got to work. It was our job as landlords to get the birds out of their nests and delivered to the table for processing. It is a very precise practice using Coolwhip containers with little handmade liners for transport. Each individual was weighed and observed carefully for development in order to assess age and overall health. Our Colony had birds that were as old as 19 days, yet we had one nest that was only hatching that day - way too little to band.
A beautiful, typical nest.

These are day-old hatchlings.

The birds were fitted with bands and all data recorded accurately to be later added to a full database for all colonies. Each little one needed to remain with its nest-mates and returned to its exact nests in an appropriately marked Coolwhip container. The parents waited patiently, often with an insect in their mouths, ready to fill a hungry mouth on return.
These are about a week old.

Several of us had done this process a number of times, yet it never ceases to be amazing. This year we had several new observers, including a two year old who was able to peek inside the nest and see the babies and even touch one. Other volunteers were able to participate in the banding process. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how often we do this, it is always so awe-inspiring.
It takes a lot of work, to prepare nests and monitor them frequently, to collect data even before the banding day. Cleaning out the gourds at the end of the season is really an awful job. But getting to see my babies fledge and fly off to the nearby trees makes it worthwhile.
They get little feathers before they are two weeks old.

It is even better to spot one with Orange/Green color bands , coming back to the colony it where it was born, and calling it home again.

Photographs by Kent Fuller, Beth Chapin, Jim Sullivan, and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Horseshoe crab season 2017

By Beth Sullivan
There are some things you can rely on, events that happen at a certain time, under certain conditions, every single year. Some for hundreds or thousands and even millions of years.
One such occurrence is the arrival of the Horseshoe crabs along the sandy shores here, in the places we humans now call home. For millions of years, these ancient species have been pulled by the tides and phases of the moon, to seek mates and find their way to the safe coastal areas for spawning.
Certainly the shoreline has changed over that time. Sandy beaches have eroded, disappeared, and reappeared in new areas. Barrier beaches have been washed away, and islands have moved, literally. And new islands and sandbars have appeared in shallows along the edge of the sea. But what has not changed is the cycling of the moon, its constant pulling on the waters of the Earth, and the effect it has on the Horseshoe crabs which, as a species, has remained almost unchanged for many millions of years.
Gently sloping beaches and low surf areas are ideal for Horseshoe Crab nests.

Sandy Point has drifted over centuries, but continues to offer sanding nesting areas for Horseshoe Crabs

So, when we head out to Sandy Point and other local beaches to find and tag the Horseshoe crabs, we always anticipate that some things will not have changed.

Unusual year

This year was just an odd year for lots of reasons. The weather did not cooperate around the times of the full moon and new moon in May. Those are the times when the tides are most extreme and best for nesting crabs. It is not just that we humans don’t like going out in windy wet weather, but the crabs do not like it either. They do not like to come ashore when the surf is rough. A lot of freshwater-rain runoff into their favored nesting sites will also keep them away. So May really was a wash-out. I don’t know where they went, but they were not at all the places I expected them to be.
Too much surf can flip a crab or pair of crabs and expose them to predation.

The early full moon in June really wasn’t much better for conditions, but we paddled out to Sandy Point and cruised along the shore. In past years, the north side of the island would have been the most desirable stretch of sandy beach for nesting. We found a few pairs along that north shore, and a few more down toward the extreme eastern tip. But it was discouraging. We tagged about 15 that night, certainly not close to the dozens or hundreds of only a few years ago.
Each crab is assessed for size, condition, and gender. The tags are placed with a peg, into their shell, the carapace, in an area that will not impede their functioning. We make notations about certain physical characteristics including injuries or damage to shell, and also note all the “baggage” they carry: hitch-hikers that are mollusks of varying species and seaweeds. The tags bear a number that can then be tracked when they are recovered at a later date. When we look for crabs, we always note the “recaptures” and document their condition and tag number. It reveals interesting data.
Finding an old tag helps provide data on longevity and and travel patterns.

Once more we tried with the new moon phase at the end of June. Technically this should be the real high point. We have, in the past, counted over 1000 crabs jostling for space in the sand, jostling for mates, and jostling off competitors. But not this year.

End of June excitement

Three of us paddled out to the island. A bit of a wind and rolling waves made it interesting, but on the north side it was calm and quiet. We got caught in a sudden downpour but were rewarded by a spectacular rainbow and beautiful sunset. We noted more pairs of crabs, making their way to shore. Large females followed closely by their smaller mates.
The crabs often carry a lot of marine baggage. 
Tagged crabs are inspected closely for damage and condition. 

We were only allotted 50 tags for the whole season out on Sandy Point, and we used them up by the time we got to the eastern tip. And then the action started. Around the tip and out to the south side where the surf was a little rougher, we began to count more and more crabs. Singles, pairs, triples and even a few quads-one female with multiple males. We found several with older tags, and later investigation showed that some of them had been tagged more than three years ago, a couple right there on the island.
As we walked we counted: more than 100 more crabs, all participating in that ancient ritual, on that particular night. It was a far cry from that year of more than 1000. Something has changed. But for a smaller population, the moon still pulls them to this island. And something pulls us out to share in that ritual.
The adventure provides rainbows, sunsets and moon rise views.

Whatever pulls the crabs to Sandy Point, pulls us as well.



Photographs by Mike Charnetski, Rick Newton, and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Celebrate the Fourth of July!

By Beth Sullivan
Explore and celebrate all our beautiful area has to offer us. Take some time on this holiday to search out things that make you smile, and things that make your heart sing with the freedoms we have. We are so blessed to be graced with plenty of RED, WHITE and BLUE.
RED capped mushrooms at Hoffman Preserve.

RED Trillium in rich woodland.

RED Maple flowers at Henne Preserve like fireworks.
WHITE blossoms of the Native Rhododendron at Avery Preserve.

WHITE Mountain Laurel at Paffard Woods Preserve.

WHITE Purple Martin eggs at Knox Preserve.
BLUE Fringed Gentian along a wet meadow trail.

Great BLUE Herons at Henne Preserve.

And with a little imagination RED, WHITE, and Blue.



Photographs by Beth Sullivan.