Monday, July 26, 2021

End of July Already!

 

Mid-summer musings.

Thanks to volunteers,
this trail is open, 
but not for long in this weather.
It is the end of July already. To me that still means that summer is half over ( even though I don’t worry about school vacations anymore)  and we all know that August goes by faster than July.  It always seems like it is a good point to stop and assess where we are, what we have, or have not done, and what we hope to accomplish in the remaining weeks of summer.

It has been hot and wet!  Steamier than I can ever remember July being and with more days of rain than in other Julys on record. I am sure there are those that have been really disappointed in the weather, but I will have to admit, I have been grateful for every drop because the plantings we have done at the Hoffman Preserve are thriving and we have not needed to constantly worry about watering them.  That would have been truly challenging. 

Tall stakes and color-coded tape
help us locate
small seedlings at Hoffman,
Everything else is growing up too, so it has been hard to relocate some of those little seedlings.  Thanks to a youth group work party from the Mystic Congregational Church, each plant was given a tall bamboo stake and a colored flag to indicate its species.  Now that they are getting their leaves, it is a lot easier to distinguish a sumac from a viburnum but those stakes are a huge help!   The wet loving plants, tupelo ( Nyssa sylvatica) and dogwood ( Cornus species)   are loving the moist soils.




One of the lovely
coral mushrooms.
The humidity and rainfall have been a boon for those of us who love to search for unique mushrooms.  Some are prized edibles, but I would never suggest anyone go sampling any mushroom in any landscape unless they were well educated!  Photography is safer, and being able to document some of the colors and forms of these unique organisms is really an interesting activity. There are apps for smart phones that can help identify species but even the best apps have a hard time with some of those little brown ones!  A friend and I used the same app, on the same mushroom, and there were a couple of times when the IDs did not match up immediately, but very close. In many cases, to get a definitive ID, you need a spore print.   I am happy with my photos and iNaturalist app.

There is a trail in here
somewhere.

On most preserves, everything else is growing like crazy too.  Vines, briars and invasives all seem to be competing for space and in doing so, reach out into the trails!  Many of the woodland trails are pretty hardened. Broad and open. They are shady pleasures during the hot summer.  But some of the more open areas, meadows and thickets require attention. Our stewards are out and about trying to keep up with things, but the conditions are daunting!  Feel free to hike with clippers and snip the encroaching vegetations. And we give our thanks in advance.  The invasive species seem to be more robust and numerous than ever. Many of our volunteers will be doing some field research and identification studies to better learn how to manage these species which outcompete our natives and are not as valuable to our wildlife.

Over the last months, Avalonia has been growing as well.  We have added acres of new land, now protected open space. Please keep checking the website for updates. Many thanks to those who donated to make the acquisition of the Sheets Preserve in North Stonington, a reality.   Other new preserves are being studied to note wildlife, habitats, sensitive areas and points of interest.  A management plan will be made for each one which will outline the goals and activities for each property.  Boundaries will be walked and posted. Trails will be created, with safety measures or improvements as needed.  The trails will be marked and then the areas will be opened to the public.  All of this takes a lot of work and maintaining all of our properties is becoming a huge challenge, considering all of us are volunteers and most of us are not professionals in any area dealing with habitat management! 

Say hi to Toby when you see
him on the trails!
So, it  is with real excitement that I can introduce our newest “acquisition,” a dedicated Stewardship Coordinator: Tobias Glaza.  Toby is a Mystic native and resident, with a background in ecology and management with lots of field experience. He brings this experience and great ideas to our growing organization. Best of all, he will help us organize our volunteers  to utilize our time and skills more efficiently, to accomplish what needs to be done to provide proper stewardship for all our beautiful places.  You can read more about him here. 

Maybe growing our stewardship team will allow us to keep up with the growing vegetation!! 

Hike safely and enjoy what summer has to offer.



Many mushrooms look alike and
it takes an expert to distinguish them.

Beautiful but deadly Amanita.




A true beauty



Nothing appetizing about Dog Vomit Slime Mold.



Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Purple Martins 2021

 

The adults declare territory
and build nests.

This year started slow.   Our purple martin colony at Knox Preserve seemed to take a long time to get occupied and established, but, once it got going, it was amazing!   

It was late April when the first scouts arrived on the site, but it was into May before there were others coming in to make their happy chorus. The songs of happy purple martins are unmistakable.   Chattery and bubbly.      As the month of May progressed, the adults were busily constructing their nests.   Each year when I set them up, I put a nice layer of dry pine needles into each gourd. A little welcome mat. It’s always interesting to notice the difference in the follow up techniques though.  Most martins use moderately thick grass stems, some work up to straw blades, and then others carry in small twigs.   In some years, the birds will actually bring in mud to reinforce the nests. Some have speculated that it may help insulate the nest. So far this year, there was no mud used in our colony.  The nests are pretty neat. If I discover a really messy nest that fills up the entire gourd, I know it is a house sparrow and remove the material to discourage nesting. House sparrows are invasive and will fight and even kill martins (and blue birds and tree swallows) to get access to favored nesting sites.    This year it seemed that the martins got the upper hand and once I evicted a couple of sparrow pairs, the martins were quite effective at defending their territory.    By the first of June, most nest building was complete.  A sure sign that egg laying is imminent is a lovely layer of green cherry leaves that line the cup of the nest.   Some birds bring in just a few, others are quite enthusiastic in their layering. There is some thought that cherry leaves help deter or kill parasitic mites that can harm the young.

A perfect nest lined with green leaves
and filled with five eggs.

Once egg laying begins, the female will lay one egg a day, at sunrise, until her clutch is complete. Average is 5 eggs but this year we had one with 7!    Each week we checked the nests and counted eggs. There is a formula to use to calculate when eggs will hatch based on when they are laid. Most of the clutch hatches in one 24-hour period.   Once in a while a random female will ‘dump’ an egg into an established nest. Sometimes it works out quite fine. Sometimes they hatch much later, and the young bird is quite handicapped by its smaller size in the nest and feeding position and it will not survive.

 


This year promised to be the best in our 9-year history.    At the highest count we had the potential for about 87 young and eggs were still being laid!  As in other years, some of our birds started early nests, while other pairs were late starters.   There would be quite an age span as we started our monitoring over the next phase. 

So wonderful to
share this experience!
  I was able to bring my grandson out to check the nests with me one day. I let him peek first, into a nest I knew would have young birds.  His expression of awe and excitement was priceless!   From that point forward he insisted that he look in first, make the count of eggs and/or young and only then could I look in to confirm. Most of the time he was right!  Occasionally I had to sort out a jumbled pile of little birds in order to get a good count. 

Things were going well until that last few days of June when we had the terrible heat wave.  That was followed by the sudden drop in temperatures, into upper 50’s with rain for several days.   It is impossible to know what was worst: the heat, the cold or the rain.  In cold rain there are no insects flying and the parents couldn’t support their rapidly growing young ones. 

Today, July 5th, I was able to get out and check the colony. I was fearful of what I might find.    The first set of gourds seemed to be ok. A few birds seem weak or thin but were alive.   In the second set of gourds, I found such sadness.  Two full nests were lifeless, including the one with 7.   Those poor parents couldn’t keep up with the demand.  There were individual birds dead in other nests.  We lost a total of 13 young.  There were others that looked weak but hopefully will survive in the coming days of better weather.   We fared much better than some of the inland colonies where the temperature soared higher and mortalities were far higher as well. 

The gourds were set up at the end of April.

We can never really predict how a colony will do in a given year. The purple martins rely on human help for their housing, but only nature can truly provide the right conditions and food sources.  Erratic and extreme weather, combined with declining insect populations  is not a good scenario for survival for this and other species.

We still have the potential for a good year and good numbers in 2021, but we never know what conditions are in our near future.  And we certainly do not know what is in store in the next decades.


Hatching Day!










About 11 days old.


Monday, June 21, 2021

Sandy Point: Getting Back to Sharing the Shore

 

by Beth Sullivan

American Oystercatchers 
Photo credit: Rick Newton

There is so much going on right now. There is so much beauty at this moment in time. Such life and rejuvenation, birth and growth, freedom and the ability to breathe more openly and hopefully.   I am quite sure that this spring seems extra special because of the year we have all been through.   We have holed up, curled in and in many cases, kept our heads down.   It is time now to grow outward and explore and remind ourselves how lucky we all are.

Nature has provided solace and sustenance for so many of us over the last year and a half.   It is time now to look at where we have been and see how we can restore and support some of our natural areas. To give back a bit.   As stewards we have begun getting back onto the preserves and working as teams, to maintain and monitor.  Over the summer we will make the rounds and I will report on what is happening.

Sandy Point: One Island, Two States

The first update is about Sandy Point Island: Avalonia’s gem of a wildlife refuge in Little Narragansett
Bay, between Stonington and Napatree Point in Rhode Island.  The history of the island and Avalonia’s ownership can be found in earlier blogs and on our website.  Its primary purpose is as a nature preserve.  It is acres and miles of shifting sand and beach grasses and shrubs. The island itself has shifted dramatically over the decades, a fact which can be seen easily on a series of aerial maps and Google Earth.   But even with the movements of the land over time, the island has remained a historical nesting and refuge area for a wide variety of very special species.

If you find a tagged horseshoe crab,
take a photo and report it
Photo Credit: Beth Sullivan

The most ancient of these species is the horseshoe crab: Limulus polyphemus.  These relics of the dinosaur era return to the same areas of sand at the edges of the oceans around the world, somehow following some magnetic compass in their own bodies, to come ashore during the full and new moons of May and June at the high tides, to mate and lay their eggs.  For almost a decade, Avalonia volunteers made multiple trips each season, usually at night and by kayak, out to the island to count and tag the horseshoe crabs. This was part of Project Limulus, a study conducted by Sacred Heart University. The tagging part of the project is completed, different parts of the study continue, and the crabs continue to return to the sandy island each late spring into summer.  If you find a tagged horseshoe crab, take a photo of the information on the tag, and report it on the website link below.   

https://www.sacredheart.edu/academics/colleges--schools/college-of-arts--sciences/departments/biology/project-limulus/

 

Piping Plovers
Photo Credit: Rick Newton
The island is also an important nesting site for several threatened or endangered species of birds.  Piping plovers, American oystercatchers and least terns make their homes and raise their young on this strip of sandy island.   All these species make very simple scrape nests on the sand, amid the pebbles and shells on the beach. They are very vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. High storm tides can wash the nests away, there are predators that target the eggs and the young, including the gulls that also nest there, and crows.   Sadly, some of the worst disruption is human caused.    The island is much loved by many people for its beauty, beaches, and wildlife.   But people and wildlife do not always mix well.   Our simple presence near a nest can cause a parent to abandon the nest or eggs.  People can inadvertently step on, or land their boat on, a nest or eggs.    When the chicks hatch, they can run but they cannot fly so they must get to the water’s edge to feed by finding their way through whatever obstacles there may be on the shore. On busy summer weekends, that can be people, blankets, chairs, kids and coolers.  Dogs are not allowed on the island at all, even on leash, because their mere presence terrorizes the birds.

They have a narrow window of time, when they nest, incubate their eggs then have the young wandering around like toddlers; vulnerable to all sorts of dangers and hard to control!

Signage is provided for all visitors
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has provided an amazing partnership with Avalonia to monitor the
wildlife, provide fencing to help remind visitors to avoid nesting sites, create educational signage and offer trained biologists to be on the island to teach visitors about the importance of the habitat.   For permits and passes which are required, please visit https://rhodeislandpermits.recaccess.com/

We are at the Solstice.  The longest days of the most lovely of seasons. We all want to enjoy our new freedom to get back out in nature with our friends. Please remember that wildlife on all our preserves, needs to be protected. At Sandy Point the protection is critical to the survival of 3 species. Please help us, and the wildlife, by observing the guidelines and looking out for and enjoying the other beings that use the island.

 

USFWS biologists monitor the nesting sites
and roped off areas.
Photo credit: Rick Newton


All creatures seem to be drawn to the 
gentle, shifting shoreline of Sandy Point.
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan


When young shorebirds need to run to the
water, they can encounter many obstacles.
Photo credit: Beth Sullivan





 

 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Caterpillars: Love 'em or hate 'em?

 

Tent caterpillars are easy to
spot in their nests.
Pretty much any kind of wildlife intrigues me. I am not afraid of much but have a healthy respect for things that bite or sting. I am grateful we do not have venomous snakes to worry about in my area.

But I have to say I am getting pretty upset with caterpillars this spring! We have seen groves of trees denuded in a short time. Some trees never even had the chance to unfurl their leaves. Some never blossomed.




When leaves emerged this spring,
they were already damaged!



The Winter Moth

This photo is from June -
not mid-winter

The first wave of problems was caused by the Winter Moth: A nondescript, smallish brown-gray moth that was noted in abundance last fall and into December, in pockets in southeastern Connecticut. They flew in clouds, caught in headlights, covered garage doors and patio windows. Then they disappeared, but not before laying millions of eggs on the bark and buds at the tips of branches of certain trees. They seemed to favor Oaks and fruit trees like Crab Apples and Cherries. Despite the bitter winter the eggs survived and as the spring enticed trees to begin their growth, the caterpillars hatched and ate into the developing buds. As leaves unfolded they were damaged and lacey. Their photosynthesis abilities were greatly diminished. The trees will suffer. The caterpillars were small, smooth and green, and while I felt helpless, I knew some birds were enjoying a spring feast. So there was a positive side to it…maybe. But if Oaks are too weak to produce acorns, other species will be impacted later. The trees that lost their blossoms will not produce fruit, so the birds dependent on the berries in the fall will be severely challenged. The birds being impacted are our own natives; the caterpillars doing the damage, are not.



Gypsy moth caterpillars
blend into the bark.


The Winter Moth caterpillar cycle is nearly finished now. They will drop to the ground to pupate. There are  foresters very interested to determine exactly how and where they complete this stage, as control may be possible. But, to add insult to injury, Gypsy Moth caterpillars have made a comeback in many areas, as well as Tent Caterpillars, easy to spot with their webby abodes. The poor trees that are trying to re-sprout leaves, are being eaten back yet again. There is only so much a tree can tolerate before it will be damaged beyond recovery. The Gypsy Moth caterpillars and Tent caterpillars are not as enticing to birds; they are too fuzzy to be palatable to most, except Cuckoos. We can wage war on them. Tent structures can be removed and destroyed. Gypsy Moth caterpillars often migrate up and down the tree trunks and can often be found clustering near the base prior to pupating. I have no problem destroying them!



Monarch Butterflies


Monarch butterflies are in
serious decline!

Little monarch caterpillars have 
big appetites!
But then we think of our Monarchs. The beautiful native that has enthralled people of all ages and cultures for centuries is under siege. Their home range for winter migration is threatened with climate change and forest destruction. The Milkweed they depend on here, for their caterpillar food, is being decimated by habitat change and widespread use of herbicides. There is a “lookalike” invasive plant, Swallowwort that attracts the butterfly to lay her eggs, but the caterpillars will not be able to survive. So dedicated nature people like me go out to dig, propagate and save milkweed to establish big patches in attractive places for the Monarchs to use. We rejoice to see the chewed up leaves!

Another caterpillar…a different response!

 

 

We preserve and protect Milkweed
so that the Monarch butterfly can survive!

Monday, May 17, 2021

Amphibians As Indicators of the Environment

by Edin Sisson and Alaine Zhang 

Green frogs sound like a banjo
being plucked!

Avalonia Land Conservancy owns a large variety of wild habitats and local ecosystems and its mission is to steward and manage these habitats in a way that benefits both their ecological health and the  communities surrounding them.  In order to aid in these intentions, one crucial group of animals must be considered as both a concentration of care and a tool to gain insight on environmental health within Avalonia’s Preserves: Amphibians.  Frogs, toads and salamanders are complex organisms that are not only intriguing but are important to focus on when studying local ecology. During the past semester as students at Connecticut College, we partnered with Avalonia to help create awareness of amphibian life on our local preserved lands. In order to do this, we collected data weekly regarding the intensity of frog calls and wanted to create a blog post that reflects the significance of frogs within the areas studied. 

 

Vernal pond at White
Cedar Swamp
There are three main groups that Amphibians are categorized into; urodeles, anurans, and gymnophiones.  Urodeles are composed of newts and salamanders, anurans include frogs and toads all of which are vertebrates.  Gymnophiones are also vertebrates but have no limbs, and are otherwise known as caecilians. Amphibians are one of the oldest types of vertebrates and are distinctive because they live on both water and land at some point during their lives. Frogs and toads spend their early stages of development with gills, and then develop lungs and limbs to be able to survive on land as well. This unique development is what makes vernal pools, swamps, and shallow areas of ponds such great habitats for them to live. In addition to lacking hair and laying eggs, frogs and toads are exothermic, meaning their internal temperature is externally regulated by factors such as the sun. Frogs and toads are active during the spring and summer and hibernate during the rest of the year, usually in the mud of ponds. What we hear most frequently in the spring are the male mating calls, sung to attract females. The males fertilize the eggs after they are laid, during a process called external fertilization. In order to gain the upper hand over other males during mating season, they practice amplexus, in which they climb onto the female and wait for her eggs to be laid so that they can be the ones to fertilize them. Depending on the frog species, mating happens at different times during spring, the duration fluctuates as well depending on factors such as temperature and climate. There are some key differences between true frogs and true toads. True frogs are skinny with smooth, slimy skin and long legs. They leap and jump fairly long distances, and they have an upper jaw with small teeth. Frogs also lay eggs in large, often round, clusters. Toads, on the other hand, are generally warty and dry, live mostly on land, have fat bodies with short legs, and don’t hop that far. They also do not have teeth and lay their eggs in long strands rather than clumps. 

 

White Cedar Swamp is great habitat 
for frogs!

This spring we focused on frogs specifically, which can be hugely beneficial to us as humans, and to the ecological systems on Avalonia’s lands. They control insect populations as they are the main part of their diet, as well as providing food for predators such as fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. With their skin and eggs being especially permeable, frogs are very sensitive to factors such as pollution, UV light, disease, and microscopic organisms. The pores on their skin allow them to absorb gasses like oxygen through their skin to breathe, but they also make the organisms prone to environmental changes in the water or air. When the pH of water or soil, for example, becomes too low and therefore acidic, materials such as heavy metal dissolve more easily, and therefore create toxins that are unhealthy for the local ecosystem. When exposed to these toxins, frogs are some of the first animals to die, or have mutations. Their small size also makes them susceptible to fatal environmental factors before larger animals like humans even become aware of the issue. There are many reasons for frog population decline including habitat loss, non-native species, climate disruption, parasites, and over-collection by humans. However, where  frogs are generally locally abundant, they are a great, accessible resource for scientists to use to study the changing environment. By recognizing fluctuations in frog populations and breeding time, we can observe what environmental issues might be problematic within our area here in Connecticut, and if possible, address them in productive manners. 

 

Pond at Pequotsepos Brook Preserve

While exploring both Avalonia’s Pequotsepos Brook Preserve and White Cedar Swamp, we heard three main species of frogs: The Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), the Green Frog, (Rana Clamitans), and the Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris). Spring Peepers are small frogs active from the end of the winter until the late fall and the most abundant frog species that we heard at our Avalonia sites. The Green Frog is a green or brown colored frog that feeds on insects as well as small amphibians. Green Frogs usually mate in April and early May but can continue into the summer months. Their call sound similar to the buckling of a banjo, which we heard during our final visits to White Cedar Swamp. Finally, we heard the Pickerel Frog at Pequotsepos Brook Preserve, which is a medium-sized frog with a lower-pitched call. It is also dark-colored somewhat rectangular dark spots and yellow or orange on the underside of its legs.


We performed research on the intensity of frog calls this spring under the protocols of the national Frog Watch USA organization. This organization calls upon trained volunteers all over the US to collect data on local populations of frog species and use it to monitor population decline, environmental changes, and potentially make positive steps to protect species countrywide. With the mission statement of Avalonia being to “[preserve] natural habitats in southeastern Connecticut by acquiring and protecting lands and by communicating the value of these irreplaceable resources,” these goals align extremely well, especially when applied to the conservation of the wetland habitats that Avalonia protects. By monitoring frogs on Avalonia’s lands, we can observe and analyze behavioral and population changes that could correlate with environmental concerns that negatively impact the ecosystems we cherish. 

 

Works Cited:

 

“Frogwatch Training Manual.” FrogWatch USA, www.aza.org/frogwatch?locale=en. 

Marshall, John. “Indicator Species: Using Frogs and Salamanders to Gauge Ecosystem Health.” GRIT: Rural American Know-How, 2021, www.grit.com/departments/indicator-species-zm0z13jazgou/. 

Mosseso, John J. “Green Frog.” Connecticut Frogs and Toads, NBII, wildlifeofct.com/green%20frog.html. 

“Pickerel Frog.” Virginia Herpetological Society, Virginia Herpetological Society, 2021, www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/amphibians/frogsandtoads/pickerel-frog/pickerel_frog.php. 

Signs of the Seasons: A New England Phenology Program, The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, extension.umaine.edu/signs-of-the-seasons/.