Monday, May 3, 2021

A Journey to Community


Over the last 8 months or so, I have had the great pleasure of working with a Local Girl Scout Troop. These are middle school aged students, who have had to juggle a lot during this last year. In addition to their school upheaval, they had also planned to work toward their Silver Award, a high honor in Scouting circles.  Their proposal was to create a pollinator garden at the Parker Brothers Preserve on River Rd. in Pawcatuck.   This sweet garden-like preserve was a somewhat underappreciated parcel, and over the years, the invasives began to take over. It was looking a bit unloved.  As soon as the girls came forward with their ideas, it made me look at the preserve with new appreciation.  We ourselves began to try and uncover and recover its potential.   As the girls began their research and we consulted about their base plan, we stewards began to attack the greater problems.  Over this past year we have untangled many trees, rescued and rejuvenated berry shrubs and cleared some of the stone walls.   The pollinator garden took shape with help from parents and neighbors. Last fall they planted and this spring we have already welcomed pollinators to the early spring flowers.  In a few weeks, the scouts: Nora, Sierra and Kate and their families will celebrate their Silver Award Winning project. 

For them it wasn’t just about making a garden to fulfill a requirement. It truly was helping to create a benefit for pollinators, as well as creating a lovely spot for community members to gather and enjoy being outside again.

Please watch their video here.  Read their report and take some time to visit their garden at the Parker Brother’s Preserve.    Thank you to all involved.  Beth

A Journey to Community by Sierra Redfern

The star of the show - a Monarch!

We began the Pollinator Project looking to change our community for the better.  Make a difference together.  It started as a project for a silver award and became so much more.  We found that we could help others through this project. 

Last fall the preserve was
cleaned up and
the garden dug.
We started on planning our garden, researching on what plants
would work best. We divided the research between the three of us and attended a weekly meeting every Tuesday at 5.
  Once all of our research was finished we put our plan into action.  We dug up our garden and cleaned up the area around it.  Now we were ready to get our plants!

dog treat fundraiser!

One of our girl scouts, Nora, had raised money selling dog treats so we could fund our project, so we purchased our plants and began to plant them.
  They were all perennials so they could come back every year without our help.  We wanted our project to last a long time.  Our garden was planted but we weren’t done.  We still had to add our butterflies!  Because you can’t have a butterfly garden without butterflies!

We had to wait though because the best time to release these insects is near the end of April, so we decided we weren’t done quite yet with pollinators.  We all collaborated on a 3 part video explaining the importance of pollinators, why they’re going extinct, and how we can save them.  This was one of the most important parts of our project.  And once we were done we got to share it with local areas that wanted to help spread our message. (Editor's note: You can watch it here!)

Early spring bulbs welcomed the insects!
To bring some more passion to the garden we made signs for our plants, a care tip book, and painted rocks.  All to help bring our garden to life, and once our butterflies are released then our garden will have truly been completed.  Completed but not finished, the whole point of our silver award was to give back to the community, and our garden will help bring more pollinators to the neighborhood, bring people together, and make some new memories.

Getting donations from Stonington Gardens 
and Pequot Plant Farm

Planting in the fall

Later this season, there will be many more
welcoming flowers for bees!

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Spring Is Here!

 As in the past several years, I am getting a  fun break from writing the blog and turning it over to students from the Conn College Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment.  I enjoy the new voices. Sometimes they see the same things differently. They have different points of view. I always learn a lot from these enthusiastic and motivated young adults. This year has been more challenging due to Covid.  But they have adapted well.

These upcoming weeks will showcase essays for the blog post by different students. Some will highlight the project they are working on or offer their thoughts on different topics. The photos will be from various sources but the words are their own. 

Please enjoy their voices.  Beth


Blooming cherry blossoms
welcomingthe world to spring
The start of spring marks a new beginning. As the days get longer, the weather warms, and animals start to wake up from hibernation, we too crawl out from under our warm covers and start enjoying the sunshine and the outdoors. March 20 marked the first official day of spring this year and was welcomed wholeheartedly. As we start to leave cold, rainy days in the past and start to enjoy fresh air more, it is not unusual to encounter wildlife while taking a leisurely outdoor walk. Here are a few fun facts about common Connecticut wildlife during transitions from winter to spring.

1. Welcoming New Life

Spring is often viewed as a symbol for new beginnings, for growth, and for new life. This can be seen in the regrowth of plants from winter, new flowers blossoming, and, many people’s favorite, baby animals! As the weather starts to warm, you can expect to see and hear signs of new life.
Baby birds also make their way
into the world in spring.

Many common mammals, especially wild herbivores such as deer and rabbits have babies during spring.

Baby rabbits are called kittens, females are called doe, and males are called bucks. Doe are only pregnant for 28-31 days and can give birth to up to 14 babies. Rabbits mature between three and six months of life, so by next spring, all of this year’s kittens will have separated from their mother and will be on their own.

Baby deer, or fawns, are usually born between May and June. They are usually found in meadows during spring and summer months. Mother deer, or doe, usually leave their fawns for long periods of time the first few days. Although this may seem harsh, it’s because fawns don’t have a scent, so it is actually safer for them to lay still alone to hide from predators. Fawns usually stay with their mothers for up to a year, much longer than kittens!

2. Migration Season

Purple martins returning
to their colonies.

The start of spring also marks the beginning of a new migration season. With warmer weather, many bird species start to make their way back to their homes up North. Connecticut is a great place to see birds such as Warblers, Hummingbirds, Purple Martins, and Tree Swallows. Connecticut is also home to birds such as  American Robins, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, and many more. Head over to an Avalonia Trail to enjoy nature and see some beautiful birds. Bring binoculars for the best views and don’t forget to take a moment to listen and enjoy the birdsong!

3. Spring Peepers

Saying hello to a small friend
Birds are not the only species to return for spring. Frogs, such as Spring Peepers also start to come out
more. These little frogs are known for their distinctive chirping. In fact, they have an especially pronounced vocal sac under their chin that looks like a bubble. The endless chripring you often hear at night is actually a spring peeper mating ritual. Males call out to females, who are attracted to the male’s chirping. After mating, females will lay their eggs underwater and wait for them to hatch approximately twelve days later.

4. Welcoming Wildflowers

Beautiful fruit trees bloom under
the spring sun.

After months of only seeing cold, grey outdoors, Spring finally reintroduces color back into our lives. Wildflowers can really help landscapes look more cheerful. From daisies, dandelions, clovers, and chicories, a variety of flowers start to color the ground. Spring is the perfect time for colorful, relaxing walks and taking beautiful pictures. Just remember to bring allergy medicine if pollen bothers you!

5. Saying Hello to Butterflies and Bees

Mourning cloaks are often the first
butterflies to be seen in the spring.
Warmer days and clear weather sure encourage people to go outside, but did you know that bumblebees 
feel the same way? Queen bees are the first to leave their underground hibernation sites in search of flowers to regain strength lost during winter. They search for the first spring flowers to feed on and rebuild their colonies throughout the season.

Butterflies are one of the most popular signs of spring. Their colorful wings and gentle nature delights people of all ages. Many butterflies emerge from their chrysalis in March or early spring, and some have overwintered as butterflies and hibernated. Most will continue to be active until fall. They usually become active as the day warms in the morning and can often be seen in the afternoon. Although butterflies start to appear in spring, peak butterfly season isn’t until summer, meaning that different kinds of butterflies continue to emerge throughout spring.

 Written by Madeleine Gassin




Monday, April 5, 2021

Spring Updates

Native wildflowers, like bloodroot
are quite used to pushing up through
leaf litter

There are lots of things, little and big, to report on. As usual this is a terrifically busy time of year. Some of us clean indoors and open  windows, to chase away the old winter air and sweep away cobwebs. At the same time we are drawn outdoors, to look for our favorite firsts of spring; peepers, bluebirds and butterflies or to clean out garden beds and look for the first green shoots and blossoms. There is never enough time, or energy to accomplish everything! 

Piles of leaves make great shelters
for salamanders who have
emerged from hibernation.
One short cut I have taken is to leave my garden beds messy! Unless it is in a corner where huge  volumes of leaves have accumulated so that they suffocate my plants, I am leaving leaves as a mulch. I have to get used to the look and in some places I will do a little more cleaning later. Right now though, these piles provide much needed shelter and insulation for all number of insects, invertebrates and even amphibians. You might say there are no bees and butterflies under the leaves, but their larval caterpillars and pupae are there. Many species of bees have overwintering populations, including the queen, and they are found under composting logs and leaves. So, tell yourself to take a breather. The plants will find their way up through the leaves, they always do. And they maybe all the happier for the natural mulch.

On a garden related theme: last fall Girl Scout Troop 61047 created a pollinator garden at the Parker Brothers Pre-serve on River Road in Pawcatuck. They wisely included some spring bulbs to provide early nectar sources for flies and bees. The flowers are a joy to see. The girls have created a wonderful You Tube video which will be released soon which is educational and amazingly creative. I am hoping that they, or others, will continue the effort and help expand the pollinator pathway project that the town of Stonington has begun. 

A task I have mixed feelings about is cleaning out bird houses. We leave them over winter for families of to shelter in. I have seen bluebirds and woodpeckers roosting in bird houses over winter as well. But now it the time to have them cleaned out and welcome mats extended for bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, among others, that will appreciate the cleanup job. It can be messy though. This year many of the east-facing nests were very soggy, probably from some wind driven rain or snow storm, and there were all sorts of muddy remains inside of them! There were also the mice that refused to be evicted. They scampered up and over, down and around, and one leapt straight over my head as I gently tried to remove them and their bedding. Interestingly, some of the houses were infested with ants. I wondered whether the birds would enjoy them or not. 

It took skill to tackle the 
project to restore the
osprey platform.
Talking about nesting, by now I hope everyone has noticed that the osprey have finally shown up at many of their nest sites along the shoreline. Some of us mark our calendars each year, and recognize the arrival at a particular nest site, as the true beginning of spring. On the Woolworth Porter Preserve, there are three nest platforms, two on the eastern side, and an older one on the west side closest to Lord’s Point. This one has been in tough shape for a while, and each year, attempts to nest there have not succeeded. This year, an Avalonia member volunteer and several other Lord’s Point residents, assessed the situation and asked permission to refurbish and reinforce the nest platform and structure. What an amazing job! With donations of materials, and volunteer time, a magnificent platform was erected last weekend. As if on cue, a pair of osprey flew over and circled as it was being put up. I can’t wait for reports! Another nest, on Downes Marsh, along the Mystic River, was reported to have monofilament fish-ing line draped in it. This is a terrible situation for adults and could be fatal for young when they hatch a few months. A neighbor there was able to get access and remove the line. We are grateful for all the monitors who keep track of the osprey in our area and on our preserves. 

In the next weeks, the Conn College student will begin reporting on their projects. One group has already started monitoring calling frogs. Another is preparing to explore a property that is soon to be part of our list of beautiful preserves in North Stonington. One group is continuing our study of climate adaptation for coastal forests and an-other is exploring ways for Avalonia to reach out to populations that are minorities or underserved in our area. Avalonia properties are for everyone! You don’t need to be a member, or a resident of a particular town. Two students are working on creating page translations of Avalonia website, into Mandarin and French and Spanish will be on the way. These translations will be further welcoming to visitors and new residents here in our area. 

We want to make sure that every family, in every town, of every ethnicity and background, knows that they are welcome, that our preserves are open for everyone to enjoy and find peace and inspiration. What a great time of year!

by Beth Sullivan
Lord's Point Osprey Platform Team

The tree swallows have returned
to clean houses on Knox Preserve.

Cleaning gardens now may uncover 
wooly bears that may have
preferred to sleep in a bit.


Monday, March 15, 2021

Bits and Pieces Coming Together for Spring


Like everyone else, I have found myself totally scattered and disconnected over the past year.  I have missed deadlines, have had days of total brain fog, and weeks  have flown by, despite days dragging, and I feel like I have not accomplished much at all.

The favorite of many through the winter, 
cardinals now declare their territory.

But it is feeling like spring and little bits are re-awakening.  While nature gets herself organized to begin the next season, we see there are disconnects in the seasonal changes too. We are not alone in feeling out of sync.  March is, in its very nature, a time of transition and change:  from winter to spring, from lions to lambs, from darkness to greater light.   To me, these transitions are positive ones. I much prefer the coming of spring and promise of warmth, than the cooling that comes with autumn. But both periods can be unsettling.

In vernal wetlands,
the skunk cabbage expands and opens.
Many creatures, including humans, respond to the lengthening days, more hours of sunlight. Others respond more to changing temperatures. Many react to both. It’s often a challenge, and  can be life threatening.

A day like today, as I write, was near 60 degrees. A gift of a day!   A day to burst out of the house and explore some patches of woodlands for thawed vernal pools and to check on the rapidly expanding skunk cabbages in the wetlands. It was a good day to rake out a few corners and uncover some woolly bears.   There were small gnats of some kind, bouncing in the air outside my window and there were houseflies and even a butterfly, a Cabbage white, nectaring on some snow drops.

The song sparrow will
sing a fuller song now.
Photo credit: Rick Newton

Listening in the morning, it is also interesting to note the different bird songs. For the most part, birds respond to day length. While a spring storm, or strong winds can sometimes alter their plans by a day or two, most are on a pretty consistent schedule. The juncos and white throated sparrows are singing their spring songs, but it is only a practice as they are getting ready to head back north.  In the same harmony, the cardinals declare their territories high from my dogwood tree and the house finches chatter  and sing. My favorite, the song sparrow, has raised its voice on occasion even during the cool gray days, but now tosses back its head and declares that it is spring with a fuller song. They have been here all winter and will be remaining here to nest.   A red-shouldered hawk screamed loudly today as it circled the woods. They are choosing their nesting sites. However, other  birds are just returning from their wintering grounds. Today I heard a killdeer, its distinctive call announcing its arrival. All are in transition, and today was a good day.

The plants are in transition too.  Many plants respond to the lengthening light of day. That really doesn’t change from year to year.  But the temperature swings that we experience at this time of year, can cause buds to swell too early, and a later, hard freeze can kill them. With our changing climate and changing temperatures, the plants and birds and insects are beginning to get out of sync.  We could always count on the quince to be blossoming at the same time the orioles arrive. They make good use of the nectar. But over the last several years, the quince have bloomed too early, and are pretty much done when the orioles arrive.   The robins arrive with the understanding that the ground will be softened and foraging for worms will be easy.  They can get pretty desperate when we get that hard freeze.

Pussywillows are a constant.


But they will transition, too

But, things always change. I think most of us have become a bit armored against certain changes. We have come to expect them. Some of them we can anticipate and deal with. We know not to put away the warm coats, or even the snow shovels yet.  Things change.  It is hard under normal circumstances, to adjust to seasonal transitions.  The climate changing has added some new challenges.  Being cooped up during the winter of Covid has made us even more restless. 

The best way that I can settle myself, is to try and embrace each day as it arrives.  It is not easy, nor am I always successful. But it is a goal, to see what each day brings and appreciate it. It can be another sunny warm spring day, or back to howling winter chill. Some days are quiet and others full of bird song.  But we know that, even though things may be unsettled from day to day, we can count on the greater cycles of nature to continue, and give us hope.

Please take care of yourself and others and our Earth as we head into our next transition. 

by Beth Sullivan

All photos by Beth Sullivan, except where noted.

They will stay until late April
but the white-throated sparrows will head north.

The oriole's arrival is timed to
coincide with the flowering trees.
The killdeer is really vocal when it returns in spring.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Other Half of Our Mission


by Beth Sullivan

Our Mission: We preserve natural habitats in southeastern Connecticut by acquiring and protecting lands, and by communicating the value of these irreplaceable resources.

Communicating the value of these
irreplaceable resources.
Everyone who is aware of Avalonia as a land conservancy in southeast CT,  understands the first part of that statement,  about preserving, acquiring and protecting.  Over the last several years Avalonia has acquired, or is in the process of acquiring, almost 1000 acres.  Now, over 4,300 acres are protected for the future, for generations of wildlife and people. From our shoreline, which is imperiled by rising sea level, to coastal forests that are being lost to development;  from small vernal pools, to swamps and bogs,  ponds, streams and rivers;  from meadows and thickets to forests with rocky ledges and towering old trees;  Avalonia has a wonderful and diverse cross section of habitats to share.

An illustrated sign captures the
interest of a young hiker.
That’s where the second part of the mission comes in: sharing these resources, communicating and educating all who will listen, about the importance of habitat conservation and diversity. Many of us took refuge in nature over this past year.  Our trails saw enormous increases in traffic.   It is always my hope that people truly think about where they walk, see with different eyes, keep their ears alert, when they are on a trail in the woods and not merely walk for exercise with ear phones securely plugged in! You can learn so much, just on your own, by paying attention.

However, sometimes we are lucky to be able to truly, actively, educate people about our preserves, and sometimes they educate us!    A few preserves have informational signage to point out special elements  along the trail.  We are hoping to do a little more of that.  There is a lot of information on our website about each of the preserves, and links to articles that may offer more insight. Hike and Seek has remained popular with children, families and even older adults who have found our trails and preserves to be sources of learning, respite and  exercise.

The students become the educators
This is the time of year when we also begin to think about some special programs that offer different levels of education.   The Conn College Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment will be joining forces with Avalonia for the ninth year!  Since 2013 I have worked with some of the brightest  young minds, enthusiastic, hopeful and eager to participate in some aspect of Avalonia’s work.  Over the years we have had projects from stewardship and on the ground research, to fundraising and social media efforts. We never quite know what direction their projects will take, but in the next semester, you will be introduced to some of them as we learn together.

I am also so very lucky to be working with a great team from UConn on the Hoffman Project.  Through these connections, I myself am learning a lot about forest management, climate change and also ways to impart that knowledge to others.  We are creating more informational signs for trail side learning.  Under the leadership of a Stonington Town Committee member, a professor from GWU,  Avalonia will be offering a series of webinars about how changing climate is influencing our forests and their ability to adapt.  Entitled “Finding the Right Trees for the Right Time”,  the seminars will discuss the planning and planting we are doing to ensure a resilient coastal forest at the Hoffman Preserve.   Find out more on our website here.  We are also planning to work with the local schools and teachers to offer Hoffman as a living laboratory for learning and field work.   At a time when classrooms are often challenging to keep safe, an outdoor classroom may prove perfect!

Putting heads together to explore
life found in a  vernal pool.
(Photo credit:Kim Bradley) 
There are also many Citizen Science opportunities for students and families to participate in, providing opportunities to learn,and to contribute data to the knowledge base about wildlife in our area.   There is an ongoing opportunity to record bird sightings on eBird   We have just finished the Great Backyard Birdcount   and Project Feeder Watch continues.  Both websites offer great information about observing birds wherever you may be.   Believe it or not, next month we will be watching for the return of the Osprey to their nesting sites. Osprey Nation offers great information and opportunities to monitor these magnificent birds. We will also begin to listen for and report,  those first sounds of spring, from frogs and toads in the Frog Watch Program,  sponsored locally by the Mystic Aquarium.

We may still be in the middle of winter, but we can think forward to spring. Avalonia provides the land and opportunities to communicate the value of these irreplaceable resources.

At Hoffman, educational signage helps
visitors understand conservation practices.

Citizen science activities can start early and last a lifetime.
Photo credit: Nick Young

Education and outreach can take many forms.