Monday, October 22, 2018

Restoration of a Beloved Seaside Preserve

By Beth Sullivan

On a recent sparkling, crisp October morning, a group of Avalonia volunteers showed up at Dodge Paddock and Beal preserve for the next steps in an ongoing restoration effort .
Those of you who have been following this project know that Avalonia has been challenged by the changing conditions here for several decades now. Learn more here. We have battled invasive plants and continue to do so. We get bashed by Mother Nature, and also continue to be, but we are trying to work with her to restore certain areas and better prepare for a future that includes rising water, both sea level and ground water. We have banished most of the phragmites, and in their place, have restored native marsh grasses. When storms gave us a dune, we planted plants tolerating the high and dry conditions. When the water flooded in and was blocked up, we created a channel to release the water and encourage tidal flow to nourish the marsh.
Much of this was done with grant funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Long Island Sound Futures Fund. We have also had major support from CT DEEP, Mystic Aquarium, and Connecticut Sea Grant. Members of community groups and individuals have stepped up to help us as well. Labors of their love.
Already the area welcomed new wildlife this spring.

The plastic had been down for several months. Photograph by Judy Benson.

The soil was evened out and raked to make it ready for planting. Photograph by Judy Benson.

A continuing project

The project we tackled was the next step in restoration of the former gardens. Mrs. Shirley Beal and her husband had donated the property now known as the Beal Preserve, with the agreement that she could maintain her lovely flower and vegetable gardens on the property as long as she lived. We lost Shirley two years ago in September. Her gardens bore amazing vegetables, and her flowers were not only beautiful but also attracted birds and insects. But without a full time gardener or caretaker, we could not manage to maintain them. The decision was made to restore the area to native grasses and other plants. During last fall and this spring, the North Stonington Garden Club dug a huge number of perennial plants to offer at their famous garden sale. They have been very generous in turning funds back to Avalonia in several grant awards. Volunteers from Coogan Farm Giving Garden came and rescued Asparagus plants. Neighbors and friends were invited to share other flowers, tulip bulbs, raspberry plants and even horseradish roots. When the garden was as empty as possible, we mowed the remainder and covered it with plastic sheeting to cook for the summer, solarizing the soil and killing weeds and their seeds (hopefully).

We had purchased a variety of special seeds, selected to be tolerant of the specific conditions there at the preserve. They have to able to tolerate standing water at times, salt spray and occasional drought. After the seeds were sown, we added some mulch straw and then gave the area a mental wish for good luck.
In another part of the garden, a mound of old compost, we planted roots of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium), Snake root (Ageratina) , and distributed seeds of a special goldenrod ( Solidago), and butterfly weed (Asclepias). All of these are native, will be attractive to pollinators, and will create a mass of color especially in late summer. Even as we planted, we were visited by several Monarch butterflies and many birds of different species enjoying the flowers and seeds already available from plants on the preserve.
In just a few years, the area has gone from a quite uninviting area of Phragmites and invasive plants, to one that welcomes more native wildlife. Visitors have already noted wonderful new species. The new garden area will also do the same. We are quite sure, however, that Mrs. Beal’s tulips and asparagus will remain for decades to come, as they pop up in the grasses. We will welcome them too.

Everyone had a hand in distributing the seeds. Photograph by Judy Benson.

Mulch straw was added to help protect the seeds. Photograph by Judy Benson.

Where there was once nothing but phragmites, there is now a swath of native beauty.

We know Mrs. Beal's tulips will return for years to come.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Colorful, but not from around here

By Beth Sullivan

During this time of year, the scenery changes, seemingly minute by minute. Light changes: the angle of the sun creates shadows and details. Color changes; grasses go to warm browns and golds, meadows show off aster purples, goldenrods and Joe Pye weed magentas.
There are other colors showing up in hedgerows and shrub lands and along roadsides. This is the season for berries. Throughout the spring and summer we enjoyed the flowers, some showy, some discrete. Some are fragrant and others not at all. But now the great variety of berries, the fruits, creates a special show.

Take a ride along a back country road, or even along the highway, and it is impossible not to notice the bounty of berries. We have dozens of native shrubs and bushes that have evolved to provide the vital foods needed by small mammals and birds. Ripening over a succession of weeks and even months through fall and winter, they provide a food source for birds when insects are long gone. Migratory song birds will rely on shrub-lands full of cover and food as they stop after a long night of flight to rest and feast and refuel.

But not all berries are created equal

Over the decades shrubs were imported and planted as ornamentals. Multiflora Rose created instant hedgerows and fragrant white flowers in spring. Those flowers turned into abundant fruits, rose hips, that were eaten by many species of birds. Seeds were dispersed in droppings and now the rose has become an invader, an aggressive spreader that is quick to colonize fields and roadsides. Even though it does provide food and cover, it will out-compete other native plants in our landscape.
Multiflora Rose

Autumn Olive was planted deliberately along our highways to create visual buffers, and also to be a quick cover to prevent erosion. Now that shrub dominates the roadsides. Red berries are abundant now and robins and thrushes are quick to find them. At this time of year we can witness great flocks of starlings, along the highways, swirling and circling as they descend into the medians and roadside edges to feast on the berries and further disperse the seeds.
Autumn Olive

We all enjoy the colors of autumn decorations, but beware of using the non-native and invasive Oriental Bittersweet. It is another truly lovely berry, but a menace when its seeds are spread. The resulting vines climb and twist their way up trees and over native shrubs, strangling and adding their weight and causing death to the plant that supports it.
Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet vine

Colorful but invasive 

One of the most outstanding plants for colorful berries is likely the very worst invader: Porcelain berry. A decade or so ago, it was a sought after nursery plant, a climbing vine with most unusual berries. They start creamy white, then to pale green, then light teal, deeper aqua, sky blue and then to purple when ripe. Porcelain berry vine is a vigorous grower, adding inches, if not feet, almost overnight. It covers everything in its path. Obstructing light, smothering plants beneath, it forms a dense monoculture allowing no diversity and changing the landscape and altering valuable habitat.
Porcelain berry smothering a ceder tree.

The colorful Porcelain berry.

Walk through the Moore Woodlands in Groton, Knox Preserve or Knox Family Farm in Stonington, Pine Swamp in Ledyard, Preston Nature Preserve and many other Avalonia Land Conservancy properties. Notice the berries. Take the time to learn the non-natives and notice the beastly effects they have on our landscape and avoid them in your own. Opt for natives instead and the birds will be happier you did.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
This post originaly appeared October 26, 2015.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Musings at the Woodlot

By Beth Sullivan
Today was a beautiful day. FINALLY! Blue sky, low humidity, but maybe a bit warmer than one might expect for October 5. I wasn’t complaining, because I was joined by about 10 residents of the Stone Ridge community for a hike on the Woodlot Sanctuary. It is an easy hike, and you can easily do one or both loops to add some walking distance. Today we opted for the very flat and lovely yellow loop.
For years I hiked with school age kids who have great questions and powers of observations. This was fun today because not only do these slightly more senior folks have the some of the same questions and great observations, but we had an opportunity to think more deeply as we conversed along the trails. Experience makes for great insight.
A great gang from Stone Ridge offered insights and meaningful discussions on the trails. Photograph by Chuck Toal.

Watching the ground

Today we seemed to focus a lot on mushrooms and some other unique plants that are most abundant in the autumn. They were impossible to ignore as they were everywhere we looked. Many of us have become more interested in edible mushrooms and foraging recently. It was a great opportunity to share ideas, experiences, and our combined knowledge of these amazing organisms. With adults I didn’t have to worry they were going to pick and eat them on the spot or try them another time. With kids I wouldn’t even use the word edible and wild mushroom in the same sentence. We saw the great variety of colors that are visible now, as well as singles, clusters, corals, and all types from turkey tails to boletes and many of the gilled varieties.
We also were able to explore the subtle differences in some of the plants that are saprophytic. They are true plants, unlike fungi which are in a kingdom of their own. But because they lack chlorophyll, they must take food from another source, and those sources are very specific fungi that live in the soil and dependent on being near the roots of other plants like pine or oak trees. A very interesting relationship. We found Pinesap, Indian Pipes and Beech drops.
But something else we talked about was history of the land: recent years, generations to centuries of land use, and back to ice age as there are glacial erratics on the property. We also talked about change-somewhat appropriate for Columbus Day weekend-What changes did Europeans bring centuries ago, and what were the woods like then?
I would never tell a school-aged child that this is edible.

Indian Pipe


Beech drops

A little of the past

We know the history of the Woodlot Sanctuary back several generations. We would have to dig deeper to go back to colonial times and uses. We noted the large stumps of trees cut decades ago to provide wood for the owners’ homes. We also noted downed trees that came down due to natural causes including hurricanes and invasive insects like gypsy moths. Sadly, we noted many trees exhibiting signs of stress and disease. We know there were many American chestnut trees on the property long ago, but now there are only a few small ones. Black birch, a favorite of “kids” of all ages for the root-beer smell and flavor, are showing signs of a disease that causes cankers to erupt under the bark, weakening the trees over time. We also saw the many beech trees, some massive and old, but most doomed due to yet another disease that is killing them off before our eyes. Many of the great oaks have been damaged by gypsy moths and drought years . The few hemlocks have been affected by the Wooly Adelgid. Whether it is virus, fungus, bacteria or insects, even this small woodlot forest is under siege. It is hard to imagine what it might look like generations from now.
The question arose: Is it due to climate change? Great question, great discussion. It is hard not to feel that on a warmer than normal October day, when we haven’t yet had even a light frost, that the plants are not affected. But even if the plants themselves can adapt to warmer weather and longer growing seasons, it is the diseases, the insects, that are surviving longer, with the warmth creeping farther north, affecting our forests. We also live in a world where our boundaries are more porous, which can be a great thing in many instances, but it also means foreign organisms, diseases, or insects can find their way into our woodlands where there are no natural predators or controls. Back to Columbus again.
It was fun to think of all the changes this small woodlot has already witnessed but a bit sobering to wonder what is in store for the next generations, of people who love the woodlands, and the woodlands themselves.
Please get out this lovely autumn and appreciate all that we have now. Some of the very best places are right in your own back yards, and Avalonia has preserved so many of them for us all to appreciate.
Great old beech trees are succumbing to ad disease.

We spend a lot of time looking at the ground for fun fungi.  Photograph by Chuck Toal.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Support our State owned open spaces. VOTE YES

By Beth Sullivan

We live in a beautiful area, in a beautiful state, in a nation of amazing diversity of land and resources. In many areas open spaces are owned by private land trusts, like Avalonia Land Conservancy, which can protect and steward these places for our enjoyment now, but also in perpetuity, for wildlife as well as people. In some cases, individual towns do a great job of protecting open space; some towns do not.

We rely on the State to acquire and protect often larger areas using our tax dollars to do so. These are usually open to the public, many developed as highly visible and extensively used State Parks. Many are wonderful trailed and accessible areas, such as Barn Island, Haley Farm, Bluff Point and Pachaug forest, to name a few local and well-loved areas. However, many others are lesser known but no less valuable places where wildlife is left generally undisturbed.

Presently there exists a legislative loophole that would allow the state to sell, swap or give away lands without necessarily notifying the public. I am copying, here, a letter to the editor which appeared on September 28, written by two local conservation advocates, and which brings this issue to light. More importantly, it informs us all of an opportunity we all have to close the loophole and protect these State lands, in perpetuity.

Please read this letter and check this website, and use your vote to protect our special resources before they are lost.

On Nov. 6 we have an opportunity to vote for the first ever statewide Constitutional Amendment Ballot Initiative to enhance protection of Connecticut’s environment. A yes vote on Ballot Initiative No. 2 would correct a long-standing threat (the Conveyance Act) to our public lands, which has enabled the legislature, by majority vote and without a public process, to sell, swap, or give away state-owned lands to a local municipality or private company.

Many acres of our public lands have been lost using this loophole. A yes vote would improve accountability and transparency in our public land transactions by requiring a public hearing and a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

Our state parks and forests belong to everyone. They provide places for passive recreation, relaxation, inspiration, and education. They help to conserve the natural areas and forests critical to protecting our drinking water and wildlife.

Annually, they attract eight million visitors, generate over $1 billion in state revenue, and support over 9,000 jobs.

Last May, the state Senate and House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment; on Nov. 6, it’s our turn.

Liz Raisbeck

Eugenia Villagra


The writers are co-chairs of Groton Conservation Advocates

Please vote  yes on Question 2 this election day.

Salt marshes are protected all along the Connecticut shoreline.

Simple places deserve protection too.

State land includes upland landscapes.

State lands provide opportunities for all manner of  passive recreation.
State lands are managed for wildlife, too.

Unique plants are found in unique habitats.

We have incredible beauty and diversity in our state.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, September 24, 2018

Eyes on the skies

Eyes on the Skies
by Beth Sullivan
Certain times of year I find it hard to keep up with all that is going on. Eyes on the ground to look for mushrooms, is one of my enjoyments during this season. But eyes on the sky right now seems to be the most exciting
This is migration time. Many shorebirds have already passed through, but the young of the year are later travelers. They gather in flocks on sandy shores, Napatree and Sandy Point in particular, and when they move as a flock and take to the sky, they are usually mesmerizing to watch as they circle, rise, and fall again to walk the sand and waterline.
The hawks are migrating now too. On those clear, blue, crisp September days ( of which we have had very few so far), when the wind is out of the north, look up and then look higher. Sometimes it takes a while for our eyes to focus so very high, that birds are small dots. But the hawks circle up each morning on rising warming air currents, then drift south, being helped along in an energy saving glide. Locally I see them usually singly, but on a good day they will stream constantly if you are in a good coastal spot to watch. There are other areas where the winds are perfect, and hawks gather in masses, called kettles, and swirl in large numbers, ever upward and southward.
The young broadwinged hawk still screeches to be fed, but soon will join on of the large kettles of this species headed south.

Red shouldered hawks may catch the thermal winds but many will stay here through the winter. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Dragonfly migration

While you are looking up, you may notice dragonflies on the move. Our largest species, the Darners, both green and blue in color, are as big as some small birds. Only these biggest ones stage a true migration to beat the cold. They will also follow the coast. Here they fly westward rather than always heading south over the Sound. They also seem to fly at a variety of heights, some so low you can almost hear them, but look higher and you can see them so high they begin to disappear from sight. Anywhere along their route they are fair game for migrating birds to grab and eat. The purple martins have generally left their nesting areas, but high-flying dragonflies make up a big part of their autumn diet.
The martins, as well as the other swallow species, are some of the most spectacular migrants as they stage themselves in preparation for their long migration to South America. All along the coast, over salt marshes and dunes, hundreds and thousands of swallows seem to gravitate to certain spots where they converge and swirl in spectacular formations, sometimes for a long period of time, before they suddenly settle into the vegetation. The lower Connecticut River is one of the most famous staging areas. I have witnessed it several times, but more recently, at our own little Dodge Paddock, a group of us witnessed a small but no less inspiring demonstration by a flock of a few hundred birds, some of which flew so close we could feel their wings push the air by us. They converged and swirled and settled into the bayberry bushes that are one of their main food sources now.
Dragonflies are important food sources for the purple martins during nesting season and on migration.

Darner dragonflies may look imposing but are harmless and quite beautiful.
Clouds of swallows swirl and fill the sky as they stage on the Connecticut River before roosting for the night.

Swallow at Dodge Paddock.  A smaller flock but still impressive. Photograph by DEEP.

Monarch butterflies head south

One of the most famous and easily witnessed migration miracles is put on by the beloved Monarch butterflies. The species has been terribly threatened from so many fronts: habitat loss in Mexico, their wintering grounds, and loss of habitat and milkweed food source here in the north. Herbicides and pesticides and invasive plants all play a part in the demise of the species. This year seemed to be a better year for them locally. Citizen science observers noted more caterpillars and more adult monarchs. People have been purposefully planting and cultivating milkweed species for them too. At this time of year, the last generation will be hatching. They will be fueling up for their journey south, and then west across the US, and then further south into Mexico to their historic and ancient wintering grounds. As they seek nectar plants, they often find the best sources along the coast as the goldenrods are in bloom. Find a place along the shore (coastal dunes and saltmarshes have the best goldenrod), and on one of those blue September days, just sit and watch. They will feed a while, then lift off lazily, rising sometimes so high to as to be out of sight, and with all the other species, begin to make their way south on the winds from the north.
Keep your eyes on the sky to wish them all well, and then start looking for the northern migrants to begin arriving here for the next season of change.
This newly hatched monarch fuels up on the abundant seaside goldenrod.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Musings on dirt and mud

By Beth Sullivan
While we watched the skies open this week, you could almost hear the trees and shrubs sighing with relief. The heat and drought has taken a toll on many of the hardiest plants while outright killing more tender vegetation. Even deep-rooted trees have been showing signs of stress as their leaves have browned. It might be a premature fall. Mostly I have bid my gardens an early goodbye.
Offering free, improved immunity.

But in order to make the best of a rainy day, I worked on catch up, paperwork and reading. One article caught my eye (mostly it was the photo), and I felt the need to share the message.
Over the last couple of years, I am sure readers have picked up on not only my passion for being out-doors, but also my dedication to the idea that children are healthier in every way for their time spent outside in nature. Even from the earliest months, babies can be entranced by colors and textures, they feel the wind, they can hear the sounds. They can catch your enthusiasm. Early introduction to so much sensory input is stimulating, helps create new and wonderful pathways in the brain, all that serious science stuff. But mostly it lays the foundation for the Sense of Wonder as described by Rachel Carson. Wonder that cannot be concretely measured but we all know is there; we have felt it ourselves if we were so lucky to have parents that let us out and encouraged us to stay out. We have passed it to our children, and if we are blessed with grandchildren, we are now eager to share that wonderment.
Group explorations make the best memories.

No princes to be had, but it doesn't hurt to try.

The article I read today, in the Washington Post, was titled:
More evidence that the key to allergy-free kids is giving them plenty of dirt - and cows”. article here
It seems like we are constantly hearing of the difficulty of raising children today with so many allergens lurking to sicken them.
Rocks are free, can be sorted, rolled, stacked, lined up and put into pockets.

But Cows? … who knew ? But I bet my parents and grandparents had an idea. We had unlimited freedom on the farms, access to dogs and cats, brooks and ponds, mud, and barns full of hay and cows! We ran through fields, and I am sure we brought in our share of manure, on bare feet even. The same wonderful stuff I still try and find, naturally, for my gardens. I do not have bad allergies!
A quiet stream invites bare feet.

So, while Avalonia Land Conservancy cannot actually offer preserves full of cows, might I suggest some good dirt? After this week’s rains, little streams will be begging for bare feet. It is still warm enough to wade in. A flowing trickle is best when there are little dams to be placed, leaves to be sailed. Mud and sticks and rocks are the best outside toys. We can offer plenty of little twigs on the ground and bits of moss to make fairy houses, small forts, bug enclosures. No Legos needed. There are many logs to be turned over, salamanders to find, worms and slugs to be experienced. Slime never hurt anyone.
Children who are outside earlier,  are healthier , get  that Sense of Wonder and offer creative thanks.  A gift from Flanders Elementary School First Graders, 2014

Don’t be too quick to pull out the hand sanitizer. Think of all the nice microbes and healthy bacteria giving your child a Sense of Wonder along with a free, natural dose of an improved immunity!
Such joy can be had outside so easily. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

This post originally appeared September 14, 2015.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Natives, aliens, and invaders

By Beth Sullivan
The actual growing season is coming to an end. Plants are beginning to store their reserves for next year, and use their last bits of energy for seed production, ensuring a future generation.
We have different stewardship chores at this time of year, different management strategies to maintain the preserves as ideal (or close to it) habitats for native wildlife. As we think of our fall work, we are assessing the problems of non-natives and invasives-planning the best way to eradicate or keep them in control, and do so in a way that is safe, but also efficient.
Hard to resist the beauty of the beast- Porcelainberry
With invasives gone, beautiful wildflowers can re-establish

Non-native is not always invasive

Non-native, in itself, is fine. Aren't most of us more or less non-native? Many of our decorative shrubs and flowers and fruits and vegetables are not native to our area, but we welcome them into our gardens and they have the courtesy to stay in check. Elsewhere, however, some non -natives have chosen to go crazy and become invasive to the point of overwhelming our native flora and degrading habitat. It leaves us with some hard management questions. When we manage a preserve for ideal habitat and promotion of native species, both plant and animal, we need to decide how much invasion to tolerate, what the effect is on the habitat, and how to deal with it. The use of herbicides continues to be a sticky issue. I don’t think there is any one of us who enjoys using chemicals of any kind, but when faced with the daunting prospect of tons of bio-mass needing to be removed or controlled, sometimes it becomes necessary. When we have had to resort to the use of a chemical treatment, we do so using the best professional guidance. The right treatment for the right plant in the right area. We consult with DEEP and USFWS among others. Professionals are studying the effect of certain treatments on regrowth, seed banks, root regeneration, and species diversity and also investigating how long a chemical remains active in the soil.
At Dodge Paddock it was absolutely necessary to eradicate the Phragmites. After two years we have a handle on the management, yet they persist, and we will as well. In the meantime restoration has begun. If native plants can be encouraged to recolonize, they may be able to fend off invaders.
Phragmites choked the wetland in 2012.
In 2015 the area is regrowing with native plants and invites more wildlife. Photo by Jeff Callahan.

At Knox Preserve we have spent hundreds of hours clearing walls and removing aggressively invasive vines and shrubs. The habitat had been badly degraded. At this time of year, as plants start sending their sap back to the roots, it is the best time to use a targeted spray on the leaves of invasives. It will be transported directly to the roots, kill the plant, and the chemical itself will degrade , usually well before the next growing season. Again, not an easy decision. But one that needs to be made. Each season we see great improvement. But we cannot let our guard down.
Invasive Porcelainberry took over walls and shrubs.
We reclaimed the walls and natives offer natural beauty.

Start the battle at home

When we garden in our home plots it is always easier to pull a weed, keeping an invasion in check before it becomes overwhelming. It pays to know your plants, know the invasives and understand the best way to control them. Think before you purchase certain plants that may be beautiful but invasive and still on the market: Purple Loosestrife, “Burning Bush” Winged Euonymous, Barberry, Porcelain-berry. Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Oriental Bittersweet were once favored ornamentals that we now fight. If you have these plants in your yard, if you cannot eradicate them, think about pulling off seeds and pods to prevent their spread by birds and wind.
If you find Swallowwort,  remove the pods.
An area of Swallowwart properly treated.

We are in the season for Fall planting; choose wisely, think native.
You can learn more about invasive plants at the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

This post originally appeared September 28, 2015