Monday, October 7, 2019

Makeover at Paffard Woods

By Beth Sullivan
The lovely Paffard Woods p off the west side of North Main Street is the first land Avalonia acquired with a big fundraising campaign. That road is often called the Gateway to Stonington because it is the main route from the highway down to the Borough. Preserving the scenic land along the road was a high priority. When Edith Paffard offered to sell the parcel for a bargain sale price, Avalonia applied for grants and then campaigned to get almost $300K in public donations. Thanks to a great team, efficient organization, and the generosity of many people, the 62 acre parcel was acquired in August of 2003. Since that time it has remained one of Avalonia’s most beloved and well-used preserves with a wide variety of habitats, vegetation, and topography. Trails go around granite ledge outcrops and glacial erratics, wind through woodlands, and border the Sylvia’s Pond Brook. Central wetlands drain into the brook, and ultimately at the southernmost tip, the preserve is salt marsh.

It started with bridges

This rustic old log bridge was beginning to rot.

New planks were added to this old bridge

Two benches were made from one of the old logs.

Originally, the first stewards created some beautiful and unique bridges. One is a rocky crossing where you can hear the brook babble and tumble below your feet. Another bridge was created from a huge, impressive log, cut lengthwise and set over a stream. Other bridges were established in other places. Over the ensuing years, with high foot traffic, wear and tear, and also recent wetter than average conditions, we noted that several of the wetland crossings were becoming muddy, and the bridges themselves were breaking down. Much to our dismay, we discovered that the huge supports under the log bridge were no longer stable, and there was rot occurring. People love that bridge.
Thanks to the generosity of the original donors, there was a nice stewardship fund available for use on the preserve, so we knew we could get materials. But we never seem to have enough strong and willing bodies to tackle big projects. Luck came our way when our connection with the Mystic Aquarium allowed us to engage volunteers from Dominion Energy. Now we had the bodies.
Two of our town stewards, Jim F and John C, got their heads together to plan out the projects. A new bridge was designed to replace the log bridge, and a plan was made to actually lift and move another bridge to a more solid location, out of the mud. Another bridge had surface planks to be replaced.
On a beautiful September day, 22 employees of all ranks gathered at Paffard Woods at 7:30 am. Our stewards met them, as did MaryEllen, our Aquarium connection, and work commenced. Materials and equipment were unloaded and set up. It was as good as a shop in the parking lot. Order and organization was the key. Teams split up, and in a relatively short time, a great deal was accomplished. The log bridge was removed, but to retain the memory of the original design, one log was cut in two to create benches, set on stones, on either end of the new bridge. They are perfect. The other span was moved and placed in a much better spot, and the wood planks were replaced on the third bridge. And still there was a lot of time left.
This bridge was lifted out of the mud and re-positioned on solid stream banks.

A rock and a hard place

So a group decided to tackle a big rock that was sticking up in the middle of the driveway entrance. It has been a danger and nuisance for quite a while now, so the plan was to dig it out and fix it once and for all. What no one knew, was that the rock was a boulder, seemed to have its roots firmly in the ground and no amount of maneuvering and leveraging would budge it. Now we were stuck with a big hole, with a big rock, in the exit, and no one could get in or out.
Several of us put our heads together and tried a few local farmers to see if their equipment would be useful. No luck. In a last desperate brainstorm, we called a local contractor who was going to do some mowing work for us. He just happened to be in town, with his big excavator and trailer, and inside of one hour, JP Moore arrived with his equipment. It was impressive. He unloaded, and the driver manipulated that machine as deftly as fingers, picked up that rock in an instant and set it aside as if it was a pebble. While he was at it, he removed a few other troublesome rocks, backfilled the big hole, widened the entry way to make an easier access, and just happened to have some perfect small stone to resurface that part of the driveway. Talk about a lucky angel. Turns out JP also had worked at Dominion Energy and knew several of the work team. It was a happy reunion of sorts.
By the end of the day, bridges were all fixed with just a few details left to complete, piles of invasives had been cut or pulled from along the stream and trail, and unexpectedly we had a total rehab of the entry way to the preserve.
We owe many thanks to the original donors, our Avalonia carpenters, our friends at Mystic Aquarium, Dominion Energy and JP Moore excavating.
Go take a hike and enjoy the upgrades.
Volunteers from Dominion work on this new bridge.

This rock was a lot bigger than expected.

But the right equipment made quick work of the rock.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A project underway

By Beth Sullivan
Many of this blog’s readers have followed the Hoffman Preserve saga for years. If you don’t know the whole story, please check our website for details and history.
The project we have planned and studied and agonized over for years, has finally begun. The timing is perfect as the birds and mammals have completed their nesting and are moving on. The ground conditions are so much better than they were last fall, winter, and into the spring when the torrents of rain made a muddy mess of everything and delayed the work. It could not have waited much longer as even now there are more oak trees succumbing this summer. A recent forestry report stated that close to 75% of New London county’s oak trees have died. How sad.
After thinning, large healthy trees will have room to expand.

Many areas of the interior will remain untouched.

The forest is still dangerous in many places.

An unfamiliar landscape

Today, several of us, Avalonia stewards, walked into the preserve with permission of the forester. There was no work being done today. There is no doubt that the face of the landscape has changed. The roadways through the forest are wide enough for the big machinery to maneuver. They can then reach into the sides and extract individual trees for the thinning process. In some areas it is almost impossible to tell that work has taken place. If you look, you will see a stump, still marked at the base in blue, but around it the forest floor remains much as it was with just more light and room for the remaining trees to branch out and grow. As we walked the roadway, we were amazed how soft and fluffy the soil remained. It was churned up a bit, which is good, mixing in the organic material. Because they are using low ground pressure machines, the soil is not hard and compacted. It will be easy for seeds that have been dormant for a long time to germinate and get established.
We walked near one of the four patch cuts. These are more open areas, pretty much cleared of trees, but the understory small shrubs remain. These areas do look pretty bare, but the trees that were there were mostly crowded, dead, or dying. The new patch cut will grow in slowly, first with grasses and wild weeds. We hope to give Mother Nature a boost by getting funding for a more specialized conservation mix of seeds that will include flowers for pollinators, forage for small and larger mammals, and some shrubs with berries and fruits for birds. As these areas regenerate, they will grow in from the sides, with shrubs adding height and good cover. This is what is called creating soft edges: a tiered effect like bleachers in a stadium, which is attractive to all species of animals and birds. If we are lucky enough to be around to see this area in 5-10 years, the difference will be amazing.
In this area, the Mountain Laurel will regenerate thickly and with the sun will soon blossom. 

These hemlocks are not dead, just too crowded. Thinning will reinvigorate them.

Thinned areas are still forested, just more open, and soon small berry shrubs will thrive.

Still more work to do

We will hope to get professional assistance in monitoring and managing all the areas for invasive plants and not let them get established and take over. In this town, invasives are everywhere and their seeds are carried by birds, animals and even hikers. A professor from Connecticut College and his interns are monitoring several plots to study how regrowth occurs and how invasives get established.
As we walked, we mostly followed the new open areas, but we noted that the old trails remained and criss-crossed through the landscape. When the project is done, Avalonia stewards will walk all the areas, old paths and new, and decide where we will establish trails that will serve us for the next decades. There is a smart phone app called Explorer for ArcGIS . All of Avalonia properties are documented in a file called Avalonia Online Maps. It shows boundaries and trails. We used that today to help us orient ourselves within the landscape. Lots of old markers are gone, though there are still colored blazes on many trees. The app may be very useful in the beginning.
The work will continue into early October, and the preserve must remain closed to hikers until we are given an all clear. There are still many broken and leaning trees. It is easy to get disoriented. The forester is hoping to offer a walk through the area in early October as part of the Last Green Valley Walktober events. Details will be posted on our website.
We truly appreciate those of you have supported this project and have taken the time to read about it and understand our goals. It will take a lot of work to get it ready for the public. We all need patience and faith in the process. If you are interested in helping us with restoration, please call the office. When you get back in to the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve, please record your observations or take photos and send them in. It will be part of the education for all of us.
This toad still has plenty of good habitat. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A blue trail: Avalonia Preserves by kayak

By Beth Sullivan
There is often talk of creating greenways through the inland landscape, allowing connectivity and longer hikes. The difficulty with that is the need to acquire land or easements to allow the connections to succeed. However, a blue trail, by water, already exists. Over the last years I have truly enjoyed kayaking along the shoreline and experiencing Avalonia from a different point of view.
Many of our preserves include a water feature. There are ponds, marshes, streams, even rivers. You can walk along, around, or even through many of these. With the end of summer very near, crowds are diminishing, colors are intensifying, migrating birds move along the shore on their way south, and even some butterflies and dragonflies stage migrations over water along the coast.
Many of our coastal preserves are marsh lands, and it is difficult and unwise to walk on the fragile salt marsh. Usually the closest you can get is a glimpse from the road. To really appreciate the expanse of grasses, the wildlife along the inlets, channels and over the land, it is ever so much better to view from the water.
From Simmons Preserve, it is a gentle paddle around Quanaduck Cove.

Sandy Point

Sandy Point is an Island, so of course you need a boat. Put in from Barn Island Boat launch and paddle across little Narragansett Bay, and you can pull up close to shore and either paddle or wade, towing your boat along the North Shore. Now you can observe the staging of migrating shore birds: sandpipers, plovers, and terns. Some of them are protected species so avoid undue disturbance. Also from the Barn Island Boat launch you can head far east to find the Continental Marsh Preserve with osprey nesting in both the trees and on a platform. Go west and up the cove to see the Wequetequock Cove Preserve and meadows full of milkweed and Monarchs.
Another launch spot is a small access area on the side of Wilcox Road, off Rt 1 in Stonington. From there you have some choices: paddle north, under Rt. 1, up the Quiambaug cove, and on the east shore look for Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. The Knox Family Farm runs along the cove for quite a ways and includes a small inlet area. On the gravel bank of the cove, volunteers have created a kayak landing, with tie up rail and stairs up the slope. From there, you can do a nice loop hike on the preserve.
From the same roadside launch, nearly the entire west shore, except the cemetery edge, is the Knox Preserve-a totally different vantage point. The rocky shores are so different than the mowed trails. When the tide is low you can get onto a small beach that is hard to reach from the trail, due to massive poison ivy patches.
Paddle under the railroad bridge and head east, around Lord’s Point, and the next big marshland area is the Woolworth-Porter Preserve. From this angle you can see the beautiful greens of the marsh grasses and can head up a little inlet or creek and wind deeper into the preserve which actually extends quite a ways north, to the railroad tracks, but the water way doesn’t extend very far.
For a longer trip, from the same launch site you can head west along the shore and out and around Latimer’s point, remembering that the Knox preserve is just on the other side of the tracks. Look for the osprey nest high on a pole. West around Latimer Point, you will come to another large marshland area. This is a big expanse of Cottrell Marsh which extends all the way over to Mason’s Island Road. This area has some interesting high islands with trees and shrubs where Herons and Egrets love to roost at this time of year.
Go through the gate at the Simmons Preserve, on North Main Street in Stonington, to a little access area onto Quanaduck Cove. You can paddle up, under Rt 1 and find yourself at the marshy southern tip of Paffard Woods.
From Dodge Paddock or Barn Island, Sandy Point is an easy paddle. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

Paddle up Quiambaug Cove to get to the Knox Family Farm Preserve.

Land on a sandy stretch of Knox Preserve's shoreline and explore for snails and crabs.

Watch your step

Getting out on any of the marsh areas is really not encouraged. The ground can be quite unstable, the habitat is fragile, and there are several species of birds that are in need of protection during nesting season. Best to bring your binoculars.
Take note of what a wonderful buffer the marshlands are, protecting the upland from storm surges and rising tides as well as providing a sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife. Avalonia is dedicated to protecting and preserving the marshlands along the coast line. As our shoreline is threatened by sea level rise, our marshes will be one of the casualties if there is no place for them to expand. They are vital to the health of the oceans and estuaries. Enjoy the views.
Maps and directions to all these preserves can be found on our website.
You can pull up kayaks in several areas, just please avoid fragile marsh habitats.

Cottrell Marsh has wooded knolls and extensive salt marshes to explore.

Woolworth-Porter Preserve has channels that can lead deep into the marsh at high tide. Photograph by David Young.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Growing up in nature

By Beth Sullivan
This period of later-mid summer is really a great time to be a nature watcher, particularly of the younger generations. So many species had their young earlier in the season, and they are beginning to step out and explore a bit more. Like kids everywhere, their learning forays are often awkward and can be quite hilarious to observe. It is interesting to note the similarities and differences between species, including our own.
Baby rabbits are independent pretty early on, yet somehow know to find the tastiest morsels to nibble. 

Baby rabbits

This year I am over-run with rabbits, and I am quite sure they are not the cherished, protected, New England cottontails I spent so much effort on to protect on Avalonia’s Peck-Callahan Preserves. These common eastern cottontails are quite prolific but have never quite taken over my yard and garden as they have this year. My first discovery was that all the string beans I had in my garden were nibbled, and then gone. There is a fence around the garden that has always kept out larger rabbits, but these little ones seem to have an early talent for independent foraging and take advantage of their really small size to squeeze through the holes. They never seem to be with an adult rabbit. Besides, the parent wouldn’t fit. At first they seemed somewhat fearless, staying and nibbling as I approached, then scooting out when I got too close. Over time they began to tease my dog, sitting still to remain invisible. Then, with a flick of the ear, they would catch her attention, and wait until the very last moment as the poor dog gamely tried to get up some speed. She was never fast enough and I believe the torment is deliberate. How did that little rabbit learn so early, about string beans, fence holes, and the delicate timing it takes to torment an old dog and remain safe?
Raccoons on the other hand like to hang with their families. I think they learned as a gang, with parents teaching them how to open my metal can full of bird seed. My can has heavy pavers and bungee cords to hold on the cover. It takes a tribe to figure that out and accomplish the task. I have caught families on my deck, walking the rails, testing the seed feeders and learning how to guzzle the hummingbird nectar. You just know those kids are learning new tricks and loving every minute.
The young squirrels will sometimes come with siblings which is true fun. I believe the game of tag was invented by squirrels. But even solo, you can almost see the wheels turning as they try and figure out the best way to climb a pole, reach a feeder, or balance on a very small branch. They can be pretty clumsy, and watching them tumble into the bushes and rise out, sheepishly looking around, has made me laugh out loud many times. They never give up.
One evening we watched a doe come out carefully into the road. She was followed by her spotted fawn. In the middle of the road, the little one gave a quick jump and kick, apparently just for fun, then continued on its way past mom. I wonder what she was thinking.
Young raccoons always seem to be looking for some trouble to get into, and often do, as a gang. 

You can almost hear the gears turning as a squirrel tries to figure out the approach to a loaded bird feeder.

All legs and spots, fawns are often left alone, but show great playfulness when out and about with mom. Photograph by Rick Newton

And baby birds

This past week I have mostly enjoyed watching families of different birds approach the feeder outside my kitchen window.
The ones I have enjoyed most are the chickadees. A family of five has been coming to the same tree and feeder for over a week. The young ones remind me of inquisitive little monkeys, without the hands. They pick at everything. They explore the bark and lichen on the trees. They pick at leaves and try to catch bugs. They approach the feeder from every angle, and often times will be seen hanging upside-down from some part of a branch or feeder perch. One little one fit itself entirely into the hole of the hopper feeder, then emerged head first out a different hole. They are a bit impudent as they will fly at a much larger cardinal, for no apparent reason. The only bird I have seen stand up to a chickadee, is a titmouse. This family also comes in with a lot of energy and flits around all over the tree, at times diving down to the feeder to grab a seed or sometimes splashing around in the birdbath without a worry as to what other creature might be using it. A young squirrel was at the feeder when a titmouse dove in, frightening the squirrel into falling off the feeder he had just mastered.
The house wrens have had multiple broods in my birdhouse. They are unbelievably noisy when they are awaiting a parent with food. When the little ones exploded out of the house on the day they fledged, they scattered all over the yard and could be heard begging for food from all corners of the yard and seen popping up and down in the bushes. Busy parents!
Just for a moment compare all this wonderful energy and learning behavior to our own young ones. It is not all that different. Nature offers the best playground, and the best education, for all species.
Chickadees are acrobatic, nimble, and comical. Photograph by Rick Newton.

The titmice come in with attitudes and energy.

House wrens make a huge amount of noise as they present their big yellow gapes waiting to be filled. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Every young creature needs to spread its wings. The best place to do it is in nature.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Collaboration, Community, Construction

By Beth Sullivan
A few months ago, I wrote about the power of water and some of the damage one of our beautiful trails had endured due to flooding conditions over several months last winter and spring, found here
The Pequotsepos Brook Preserve is home to several beautiful stone bridges which cross the brook. The bridges have been in existence for generations as old solid farm trail crossings. They are on the yellow blazed side paths off the main purple/yellow marked trail that runs from West Marine at Coogan Boulevard down to Mistuxet Avenue. Avalonia preserves the center part of this complex with a main access stairway and bridge off Maritime drive. The southern portion is Denison Society land.
The Connecticut College group got the effort started.

The Trails Team divided duties. This group used equipment to move bigger rocks into place.

A popular preserve

The preserve is well used by a wide variety of people: tourists staying nearby and visiting Old Mystic Village, and employees and families affiliated with Pendleton Health Care. Groups from the Aquarium hike through and monitor the wetlands for amphibians, and residents from the Stone Ridge community access the trails right from their back doors. When the main stone bridge trail became badly flooded, the power of the water over-washed and removed soil, plants, and small rocks. What remained were roots that were easy to trip on, and the huge old stones from the bridge itself. Footing was hazardous.
So we hatched a plan and got proper approvals and began a collaboration to get the job done. First, we were able to determine that there were plenty of rocks available from the quarry on site. Pretty lucky to have that resource. At the end of April, the students from the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College, had a work party and managed to haul several cart loads of rocks from the quarry to the work site. It was not an easy task as it was quite a distance, over muddy areas, narrow passages, and a couple of wooden bridges.
Next step: we needed bigger rocks to anchor the trail and break the forces of the water as it washed downstream. Avalonia’s new Trail Team leader Neil Duncan came out to evaluate with another volunteer who has a small tractor. They tagged a few good rocks, and on a hot sticky Saturday, about six members of the team and a few other volunteers showed up to place many of the smaller rocks and help position the bigger ones once the machine was able to extract them . Having the right equipment and many hands makes all the difference. By the end of several hours, we had a good portion of the washed-out area filled with rocks, stable enough to walk on, several larger rocks to serve as step stones and water breaks, and one flat tire. Seems no good deed goes left unpunished. We couldn’t do any more big rocks. Though we got a lot done, there was a lot more to do.
By hand the team placed the rocks to be as even as possible for stability.

More rocks moved and unloaded.

This group placed the smaller rocks to create a more solid trail base.

Pine Point School joins in

Enter Pine Point School and teacher Jon Mitchell who is Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility there. He was working with a dedicated group of teens in a summer program involving hiking and trail work. In an effort to help them really understand what it takes to maintain a trail system or do repairs, Jon contacted Avalonia to request some stewardship projects that would have a positive impact on the greater community. Jon himself was part of the earlier trails team effort on the Pequotsepos site, so he knew what our goals were and what the challenges were. On yet another hot sticky and rainy summer day, Jon and his team of teens added their energies to the project. They hauled more loads of rock from the quarry, and with patience of those who do jigsaw puzzles, they pieced and placed the rocks into a more solid trail base. They walked the walk to test for stability too.

The following day the remnants of Hurricane Barry dumped inches of rain on our area. It was torrential. I just had to go check on the trail work. Before I got to the bridge, I could hear the low roar of the rushing water. As I rounded the corner I could see that there was flooding upstream. The water was as high as the stones in the bridge. The overflow piled up and washed across the trail-but not over it, through it. The rocks stayed in place and allowed the flooding water to run through the porous layer and exit the other side, without washing away. It worked!

This is a great example of how community collaboration works. We are an organization of somewhat graying stewards, but with our experience and ideas, and ability to engage with students of all ages, we can get work done. We can teach the next generations of conservationists how important our work is and let them know how much we value their input and effort. Our Preserves will be in good hands when this next generation steps up.

Thank you to all who helped with this effort. I am sure all our hikers will be grateful.
A job well done.

As the water rose after the storms, it flowed through the rocks and didn't wash away the trail.

Photographs by Jon Mitchell, Phil Sheffield, and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Purple Martins 2019

By Beth Sullivan
This is our sixth year monitoring and stewarding the purple martin colony at Knox Preserve. I always start off the year with so much optimism and high hopes. The season started out great, with reports of scouts in the area as early as April 11th. We took the hint and got the first set of gourds up on April 14th. There were birds on the pole as soon as we pulled up the gourds. The second set went up soon after. The first days and weeks are all about scouting, with mature birds returning first, to territories they are familiar with and often taking first choices on their nest sites. We were enthusiastic and guardedly hopeful.
The adult males are usually the first scouts and arrive early to stake out their favorite spots.

Nests are complete with a cup of green leaves ready for the beautiful eggs.

A wet Spring

Those last weeks in April and early May were really wet. It was cloudy, cooler than average with frequent rain, and often even when it wasn’t raining, it was foggy and damp. That was not good. The insects that are the staple of the martins’ diets were not flying. Martins tend to feed at higher altitudes than other birds so maybe those closer to the ground and tree tops were doing ok, but the high flying dragonflies and butterflies were just not there. This had at least two bad effects. Many martins simply kept moving north. If it was too cool and damp at the shore, apparently inland sites were more acceptable, so they settled there. Lack of food weakened the birds, and their attempts to find mates, make nests, and establish themselves were less than successful in many cases.
In mid-May I like to try and check the gourds, to see if there is sign of nest building. This is simply extra material added to the pine needles I supplied. I was happy to find several enhanced nests and see birds in the area. However, we also found a pair, dead, inside one of the gourds. The female was actually banded and identified as one who had been born there at Knox several years earlier. When I reported to DEEP, they confirmed that it was likely due to the cold and wet. They likely had taken shelter together in the gourd and just starved. I was devastated.
Over the next weeks we watched and waited. The weather improved. A number of the gourds were filled with nesting material, but not nearly as many as in previous years. One sign I always look for is the addition of green cherry leaves to the central part of the nest. There are several thoughts about why the birds do this. Some believe they are insecticidal and deter mites. Out of our 24 gourds, we had 11 nests completed with green leaves, less than half occupancy. Meanwhile, reports from friends with inland colonies in Ledyard and Norwich, seemed to have an overflowing abundance-full houses.
Our first eggs were laid around the very end of May. The female will lay one egg a day until her clutch is completed. The average number of eggs is five, but occasionally six or seven can be found. There are instances of a second female sneaking an egg into an established nest. This will result in one hatchling being of a noticeable difference in size. Hatching begins about 15 days after the last egg is laid. Our nests were created over quite a wide span of time, and thus the eggs were laid over quite a long period within the colony.
We also had a few mysterious and sad occurrences. On two separate occasions, a nest was discovered completely empty of eggs. After being full on one check, a week later all were gone. We have predator guards against snakes and raccoons, so this predator may have been another bird. We have had problems with house sparrows ousting martins. This may have been the case.
In the other gourds, hatching began mid-June and has continued. We even had one new nest full of eggs at my last check July 8. I wonder if it was from a pair who lost their eggs early on.
They go from pink and helpless at hatching to feathered and alert in just a couple of weeks.

One of these birds is several days younger than the rest. It may have been an egg from another female.

Between two and three weeks of age, when the shiny blue-purple begins to appear on their feathers, they become more active and I stop monitoring them.

Egg to flying in 21 days

We are nearing the end of the time for checking nests. As the young ones go from pink and helpless, they grow rapidly with noticeable changes on a daily basis. The feathers emerge in predictable patterns so we can estimate age more accurately. Once they get to about 21 days old, they can become quite jumpy and could leave the nest before they are ready, so we do not peek as often. Usually though they are tolerant of disturbance and have gotten used to the intrusion and behave quite calmly. The parent birds always stay near, often waiting with an insect meal in its mouth.
At last count we had nine successful nests with a potential of 35 young. While I am a bit disappointed, I know that some of the inland colonies did very well this year. CT Audubon and DEEP report that due to caring stewardship of purple martin colonies, the birds are faring far better than they have for decades.
There are numerous online resources about purple martins, including one on the CT DEEP website. Check them out. You might get hooked.
This was just an off year, but I am happy with my small success. There will be next year, and hopefully these little ones will return and give me some full houses.
The Martins fly high to catch dragonfiles and butterflies to feed their young.

When the nest is jostled a bit, the young respond by opening their beaks, expecting a meal.

Photographs by Mariano Librojo and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Birds and Bees

By Beth Sullivan
People are paying a little more attention to the birds and the bees in recent years. There is a growing awareness of the absolutely critical role they play in so many aspects of our life and economy. Finally even school children are being instructed on the importance of pollinators and are creating gardens and doing citizen science observations of bees and other creatures that are part of this chain of life.
There is greater awareness of the harm pesticides are doing, not just to the harmful insects, but to all insects, including bees. Broad use of herbicides affects not only the targeted invasives, but if used carelessly, they kill beneficial natives and host plants for all species of insects, including our beloved Monarch. Awareness is slowly growing; there are programs and websites and projects dedicated to pollinators, and hopefully more people will understand the connection we all have at the very basic level. It takes a while to make the connection between a pollinator and a hamburger, but these links are being spelled out and kids get it.
A gardener maybe tempted to spray for the aphids, but would also end up harming the monarch caterpillar as well.

The weather

One other factor in this whole process is climate change and the weather. There is an increasing discrepancy and disconnect with the changing seasons. In some places they are warmer too early, and in others remaining cool too long into the spring. It is climate change affecting wildlife and natural cycles. Plants bloom before, or after, their insect pollinators need them. Heavy rains destroy blossoms before pollinators can do their job. Both extreme heat and cold affect bloom time and also health of insect populations. This then affects crop success and fruit and berry production. This will not only affect us, but also the wildlife that depend on these fruits for survival later in the year. Enter the next level of creatures to be affected: the birds.
This has been a very strange spring with so much rain and cooler temps lasting longer through the spring and into summer so far, especially here along the coast. We may not all notice the changes in the bird populations, but as the monitor Mom of a Purple Martin colony, I have witnessed the effects first hand this year. While it is still too early to count my chicks before they hatch, I know we will be far below our other years in terms of success rate. By mid-July, I will have a better idea of our outcomes and will report to all dedicated martin lovers.
Earlier this spring the woods were a banquet of destructive caterpillars for the birds.

One person's weeds may be sustenance for native pollinators. Let them grow.

Kingbirds are flycatchers that rely on insects to satisfy their hungry nestlings.

Tree swallows catch insects on the wing and return to their nests. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Insects are needed too

It is not just the martins though. Think of all the insect-eating birds. Earlier this spring there was a new hatch of leaf-eating caterpillars in swaths of local forestland. These were small and green, not gypsy moths. The migrating warblers settled into the woods and feasted. But after each heavy rainfall, I discovered less activity for a day or so, as possibly the caterpillars were washed off the leaves. During rainy days, flying insects are grounded. Aerial insectivores such as swallows, martins, and flycatchers, were hard pressed to find their flying sustenance. If the adults are weakened, their nest-building efforts will suffer and egg production diminished. As the cold wet weather continues, it has been difficult to find food for those that did have young. I fear nest successes of many birds will be diminished.
Even larger birds, which rely on other food, are having difficulties. Osprey seem to have experienced more nest failures this spring. They catch and eat fish, so that should not actually be affected by weather, but maybe poor visibility at the water’s surface decreased their catch rate. But think of the poor hatchlings left uncovered during these torrential downpours and chillier days, while parents are out trying to find food for them.
The changes in weather patterns affect all levels of life, much like dominoes. Some effects are more visible than others. We can grumble and complain about spoiled plans, but for most of us the weather is not impacting us in an immediate life and death way on a daily basis. Take the time to think through some of the bigger connections and see where they lead. It is sobering.
Osprey eat only fish, but seeing them through rain-disturbed water may be difficult.

Dragonfly eat insects and are also food for Purple Martins.

Your can learn more about birds, insects, and bees at these links:

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.