Monday, February 19, 2018

Sea Grant - In Support of a Much Valued Program

By Beth Sullivan
My home town is Stonington, Connecticut, it is also where I do my stewardship for Avalonia Land Conservancy. Every day I am reminded of the importance of the shore line, the Long Island Sound, and our community’s connection to the sea. We have a fishing fleet, a shell-fishing industry, as well as entire educational programs and institutions built on our relationship to the sea and shore here in our hometown.
Even those who live farther inland, share in how the sea shapes our state. Connecticut has many opportunities for our children to learn about this special resource that many Americans do not have the opportunity to experience firsthand.
But, this special resource is being threatened by many factors. The habitats and ecosystems along the shore are impacted by undeniably rising sea levels, more frequent storms, and continued development in fragile coastal areas.
Anyone who enjoys our coastal resources has benefited from the Sea Grant program.

Protecting the shoreline

One of the bright spots in all of this, is a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association ( NOAA) called Sea Grant. According to a recent article in the New London Day, there are 33 university-based Sea Grant programs in the US, including all the coastal and Great Lake states, Puerto Rico, and Guam. In Connecticut, Sea Grant is based out of the University of Connecticut campus at Avery Point, and is funded by State and Federal money. It isn’t a lot of money, but the impact is huge. From supporting education for school children, and assistance for those in the fishing and shell fishing industry, the researchers also study all manner of coastal conditions, assess risks and propose solutions that are needed in the face of changing climate and rising seas. They assist efforts to make sure our shellfish is safe to eat, and that our fishermen are safe at sea.
I was unaware of how far reaching Sea Grant’s influence was. I only knew how the local Sea Grant program has helped me, in my little corner of Connecticut. When my children were young, I was first introduced to Marine Science Day for 4-H members, where children from all over Connecticut converged on Avery Point to learn about the Sound, its habitats, the life within and around it. A great program touching thousands over the years, courtesy of Sea Grant. When I began to learn about seaweed and marine life I relied on resources funded by Sea Grant. When I needed to study coastal plants, and how unique they need to be to survive in our natural areas, I turned to Sea Grant publications. I attended conferences hosted by Sea Grant that would help me, as a steward, understand the dynamics of our salt marshes and more recently, understand the significant dangers they, and we, all face from rising seas.
Sea Grant programs explore effects of rising sea levels on our coastal salt marshes. 

Sea Grant programs help ensure our shell fish is safe and fisheries are supported.

Sea Grant wrote the book that helps property owners manage their coastal properties.

Sea Grant programs engage the next generation.

Avalonia's connection to Sea Grant

Then, my experience got more personal. I was tasked with managing Dodge Paddock . Those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, know the struggle we face there. As a non-professional, volunteer steward, there was no way I could begin to try and understand the complexities of this place. Once again, I relied on Sea Grant, and in particular, a professor and Extension educator, Dr. Juliana Barrett. She was the one who wrote the books on all the coastal plants I had studied. She wrote the papers and delivered conference presentations dealing with sea level rise implications all along our coast line. She was the person who introduced me to the work Sea Grant was doing on resilient landscapes and living shorelines.
Over the last several years I have relied on her, and others who work with her, to develop the plans to revitalize Dodge Paddock. Along the way she helped me find my way with other collaborators such as DEEP, USFWS, and how to handle complicated grant processes. With all that help, we planned resiliency and replanted marsh grasses. We figured out what would work in a complicated habitat. She and her team are negotiating the crazy complexities of a major restoration grant that I have described before.
If Sea Grant is doing all that for one person, in one organization, in one town in Connecticut, can you just imagine how many other stewards there are out there like me? How far reaching their influence is? How can we, as volunteers, do an adequate job without support and guidance from professionals?
President Trump is proposing ‘zeroing out’ all funding for Sea Grant in his budget again. We fought this battle last year, and with community and legislative support, the funding was reinstated. But it is threatened again.
Think about how the sea affects your life in any way at all, and I can bet that it has been made possible in some way related to a Sea Grant program.
Please consider reaching out to your lawmakers, Representatives and Senators, no matter what state you live in. Request that they support the Sea Grant program funding in the face of cuts. I can personally attest to the value and importance of this program. Just walk along the shore, enjoy a seafood dinner, visit Dodge Paddock and see for yourself. You can learn more about the Sea Grant program here.
Thank you.
Dr. Juliana Barrett has been a mentor, as well as, an active steward with me

A Sea Grant intern helped me plan appropriate coastal plantings for a corner of Knox Preserve.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count is February 16 to 18.  It's a great opportunity to observe and count the bird life in your own backyard.  You can find out more about the count here.


What's in your backyard?









Photographs by Al Bach

Monday, February 12, 2018

Woodland Woodpeckers

By Beth Sullivan
Most readers have surmised, by now, that I love birds. I am not the best birder, as I hate getting up really early, especially in the cold season. So I really appreciate any opportunity to have quality birds come to me. There are those who constantly search for new, exotic and unique birds for their life lists (and, yes, I have a life list more or less). But I actually enjoy getting to know a bird species better over time and multiple observations, rather than counting a fleeting glimpse. In this way, I get to make every bird encounter special.

Unique woodpeckers

As a group I enjoy the woodpeckers with their many amazing adaptations which make them unique. We all have seen them simply smash their chisel beaks into hard wood yet never deal with concussions. No helmet required. From tiny flicks of sawdust to inches-long splinters of wood, they create feeding holes to get deep into the insect larva tunnels and ant colonies in the heart of a tree. Their nest holes are cavities excavated deep, and well into the center, of the tree wood. Some require dead soft wood, but many of the bigger woodpeckers will get right into the heart of living wood. Most will re-create their nest anew each year. Not a waste though as any number of other birds and mammals will use them. A generous species!
Their legs are short, and toes are long and strong, with two in the front and two in the back for better holding grips. All other birds have 3 toes forward and one in back. And take note of their tails. Their tail feathers are extremely stiff, and they are used to help steady and brace against the tree trunk where they are working or feeding.
Almost all of our woodpeckers are generally black and white and have a splash or more, of red on their heads, particularly the males. But not all can be named red-headed woodpeckers.
Hanging suet is probably the best way to attract our resident woodpeckers, and the occasional visitors. The most common one at our feeder is the downy woodpecker. Bigger than a sparrow, not as big as a robin, they are very agile and quick. A squeaky peep is their note, and a “whinny” their call. They are pretty scrappy and will challenge a bigger bird for a place at the suet. They are also known to sip at hummingbird feeders during the summer.
The hairy woodpecker seems to be a larger version of the downy. The difference is most noticeable if you could see them side by side. The best way to differentiate is to note that the beak of the hairy woodpecker is proportionally longer in relation to its head, as compared to the downy’s littler one. In both species, only the male has the splash of red on the back of his head.
The red-bellied woodpecker was a rarity in our region early in the 1980’s but has expanded its range northward over the last decades and is now very common. They are more of blue-jay size. A handful of bird. They have a very striking black and white ladder pattern on their back. Both males and females have red on their head; the male’s goes from nape to beak , over the top of its head. The female has a gray crown interrupting the red. Believe it or not, and it is really hard to see, they have a pale blush of red feathers on their underbelly. It is visible only in the best positions, but it is there.
The flicker is often mistaken for the redbelly as they are similar in size, but the flicker has a browner overall appearance, and a very striking yellow underwing color noticed when in flight. They also spend a lot of their time on the ground. They are the only woodpecker to do so, happily poking their beaks into ant hills. They do turn to suet in the winter.
Notice the sharp, little beak on this downy woodpecker.

The hairy woodpecker is larger overall, and the beak is longer and more substantial. 

This red-bellied woodpecker gives a glimpse of its red  belly, as well as, the toe arrangement displayed by most woodpeckers. 

The flicker is more brown toned, but you can see the yellow feather shafts that give the species its name.

Woody-the-Woodpecker comes to stay

In recent years, another woodpecker species is expanding its range and becoming a bit more visible-the pileated woodpecker. This is the big one. They are crow-sized, with a very striking black and white body pattern and the classic Woody-the-Woodpecker red crest on both males and females. When these birds drum on wood, it is loud. When they attack wood to get to food deep within, the chips fly fast, furious and big. They have a large home range and require larger tracts of woodland with large, mature trees. Just in the last several years, we have had a pair of pileated woodpeckers in our area, very visible on the woodland edges, but they have not yet made it to my suet. I am waiting.
Red headed woodpeckers, with their true, full, red head, are not common here at all. A few years ago a family took up residence at the Henne Preserve in North Stonington, much to the delight of bird watchers. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tend to migrate through and occasionally over winter here, also being attracted to suet and seed stashed by other birds.
Almost all wooded Avalonia preserves host woodpeckers. Hoffman and Babcock Ridge are the best places to find pileated, and the Knox preserve is a favored spot for flickers. A very interesting group to observe from the comforts of a window seat, but more appreciated out in the woods, foraging, calling and doing what they do to the trees.
The magnificent pileated woodpecker has become a more common sight in our area. Photograph by Dennis Main

The large chisel marks are tell tail signs of the pileated woodpecker's work.

Red-headed woodpecker at Henne Preserve. Photograph by Niall Dougherty.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Under the Snow

By Beth Sullivan
It has been an interesting winter so far. We have had some really terrifically, deep, cold spells - some when there was snow on the ground, another time when the ground was bare. It is the time of severe cold with no snow cover that is hardest on plants and animals. While snow can be a nuisance or a hazard or a chore for us, it is an important factor in survival during the winter for so many elements of wildlife.
After this most recent snow fall, 7 inches here, of lovely fluffy stuff, it was interesting to get out and look for tracks in the snow and evidence of life underneath . Small mammals will actually thrive under the snow pack. Voles and mice have stored seeds and grains in their burrows since the fall. While most mammals will slow down a bit during the winter, many will remain active, tunneling shallowly under leaves and loose soil. It is not uncommon to see shrews or voles disturbing the soil under birdfeeders, like small earthquakes as they search for seed remnants or insects. However, even such small movements are very noticeable to predators. But once the snow blankets the ground, they can actually tunnel more freely. They can move between protective hiding places and food sources and usually avoid detection.
My resident chipmunk emerged from her semi-hibernation, to pop her head through the leaves in perfect position under the bird feeder. I watched as she stuffed her cheeks full of seeds, several times, then retreated into the burrow. This was a day before the snow storm. I wonder how she knew. I have seen wonderful images of foxes triangulating their senses on an underground burrow, then leaping high and diving head first into the deep snow to catch their prey. I have witnessed it only once, and it is truly a wonder to watch. Owls have hearing abilities that allow them to do the same, and while they do not hurl themselves head first into the snow, they can land with spread wings and thrust their talons deeply to latch their target.
A Fox family made this den and the tracks and dirty snow indicated it was actively used.

A large bird of prey, likely an owl, was able to hear a small mammal under the snow cover. Photograph by Rick Newton.

When the snow melts, the  tunnels used by small mammals are revealed.

My resident chipmunk come out to snack in between storms.

Evidence appears come Spring

When the snow melts in the spring, it is also easy to see trails etched into the grasses and dirt that point out the well-worn paths these creatures have used all winter. It can be a problem when these trails wander through and under favored garden plants.
This is the time of season when brush piles and tangled hedgerows are their most valuable as refuge in the winter for many creatures. The heavy snow catches on upper branches and preserves open areas beneath for hiding. Dense shrubs that are alive provide an extra bonus. Small mammals will seek living bark and gnaw it for valuable sustenance. However, the longer the snow is on the ground, the longer they have to gnaw, and when spring arrives, stems have been girdled and the branch will die. Under the bark of trees, insects remain, some in a suspended state - some as larva, some as eggs - but available as food for birds if above the snow line, and for shrews under the snow.
The deeper snow cover also offers insulation. Hard to believe but the snow pack remains warmer, closer to the freezing point, while the air above may have temperatures plummeting to zero. Plants survive bitter winters much better when there is a constant snow cover.
Whether you observe from a window, or strap on snowshoes and get out into the snow, take some time to think about what is happening below the drifts. Think of all the wonderful adaptations wildlife has to survive in the places we preserve for them.
Twigs under the snow are gnawed by small mammals while protected by snow cover.

Don't you wish you could read the story these tracks tell.

Winter presents a bigger challenge for a fox who will need to locate food deep under snow. Photograph by Rick Newton.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.