Monday, October 4, 2021

Finding Fall Fungi

 by Beth Sullivan

Glistening purple gems

As we wind down summer and gardens are going to fruit and seeds, it is also the season of the Mushroom!  I can never get through this season without renewing my sense of wonder at the variety and resiliency of these organisms. Fungi fans are seeing the amazing results of all the rains we have had through the summer and early fall. These are the perfect conditions for the explosion of mushrooms we are seeing now.

As most people know, there are mushrooms that are considered edible and very desirable delicacies. There are also a huge number that are inedible and many that are actually deadly.    Mushroom hunting for food is to be undertaken only by the knowledgeable.   The rest of us can hunt with our cameras.

Look around your yard even, there are numerous small capped mushrooms that pop up after a rain.  In the darker, damper woods, they are present on the forest floor and on dead wood stumps throughout the late summer and early fall.

Like fairy umbrellas
Fungi are in a Kingdom of their own. They are not plants at all, and surely they are not animals, but you would be surprised at some of their characteristics.  They do not have true roots, or a vascular system, or flowers and seeds. They contain no chlorophyll so are unable to make their own “food” utilizing nutrients and sunlight. Have you noticed there are no real GREEN mushrooms?   They rely on obtaining their nutrients from the decay process that they are part of on the forest floor, within all the dead plant material that is present there. They absorb their food through this process, rather than eating it or making it.  Mushrooms are actually the visible, spore producing bodies of a largely underground network of rhizome threads that comprise a fungus.  The spread of the rhizomes extends great distances but only one or two mushrooms may emerge. In other cases, many will pop up in the same area.

 Some are very specific, dependent for their survival on certain species of living trees, dead trees, or in soil with very narrow ranges of pH, soil acidity.  But here’s a fun fact:  the outer tough skin of many mushrooms is made of Chitin, which is the same material as the shells of lobsters and crabs!  Strange organisms.

They are called turkey tails for 
a good reason!
Along with a wide variation in color, they also take many forms: the familiar umbrella, ruffles, shelves, “turkey tails” and puffballs.  If you have ever come upon a solid white ball on your lawn and think “Golf ball”, experiment a little. A firm young puffball will be white all the way through and have a pleasing earthy smell. But wait a few weeks and find a puffball that has become browner with age. A touch with your toe or a flick of the finger will make it “puff”, explode with fine black dust, which is all the spores contained within. All mushrooms reproduce by releasing dusty spores and the color and patterns of those spores, when collected and inspected, are essential identification traits.

Have a child draw 
them in a sketch
book - by Emerson
These first weeks of October are perfect for hiking, and perfect for mushroom hunting.  The Great Avalonia Trail Trek will be happening soon. Saturday Oct 16 through Sunday Oct 24. Please see the web pages and consider supporting our team Stonington Stewards, or any other team.  During the week I know I will be wandering the trails, doing routine stewardship, but also logging in miles for the Trek.  I will also be searching out more unique mushrooms to photograph.

Please keep your eyes open for some beautiful, colorful and very interesting inhabitants of the forest floor.  Avoid having children touch them and instruct them about proper caution. A good idea would be to use your camera or a sketch pad to enjoy them!  Have the kids draw them too.

Witch's Butter

Amanitas have bumps on their top
and are deadly.

What happens when a mushroom gets old?
It gets moldy!

Puffball-in-Aspic Yuck Jelly!

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Great Avalonia Trail Trek 2021

A peaceful early autumn trail.
It’s September and finally the weather has turned, to encourage outdoor activities.  We have waited patiently for these less humid, blue sky, comfortably cool days when a hike or any other minor exertion doesn’t leave you sweating and out of breath!

I would expect most of us don’t really need any other reason to head onto a trail but this is also the time when we are planning the second annual Trail Trek to benefit Avalonia’s mission to preserve, protect and manage open space here in southeastern CT.  

No two trails are the same.
At this point in time, Avalonia cares for almost 4,500 acres and the number of towns in which these preserves are located, is continually growing.  If you are anywhere between the Thames River and the RI Border, or south to Little Narragansett Bay and Fisher’s Island Sound, and north to Griswold and the Pachaug Forest area, there is an Avalonia preserve near you (

All of our preserves are open but not all are trailed. The Avalonia website is linked to the CT Trail Finder app and those preserves with trails are easy to find and well described.   Last year folks hiked, ran or did a bike loop connecting as many preserves as possible. You can bring your four footed friends along on most preserves ( there are a couple of exceptions) as long as they are on a leash and run along beside you. 

At Knox Farm, you can pull up in
your kayak and go for a hike.

 This year an added attraction will be a kayak component. Many preserves in Stonington and Groton have water access or are visible from the water.  Several years ago, I posted a blog with some directions and ideas. A Blue Trail.   Now we have some freshwater access in Griswold and soon may even have access from the Wood/Pawcatuck River to our new Sheets Preserve in North Stonington.

At least one preserve will allow mountain biking for part of the event.

The TriTown Ridgeline Forest trails
are more challenging.
Last year Trail Trek helped complete our funding for the Tri-Town Ridgeline  Forest.  This preserve is Avalonia’s largest, most diverse and ecologically unique property. There are majestic trees, rocky ledges, clear streams, pre-colonial stone structures and even a true mountain!  It now has literally miles of well marked trails, some easy and some challenging, and all beautiful. They are perfect for hiking and trail running. Everyone had fun last year, and we exceeded our fund raising goals with great gratitude to all who donated. 

Those of you who have come to know me, through the blog or otherwise, know that I need no extra incentive or reason to be outdoors.  It is a passion, and some might say an obsession. A healthy one.  I don’t always need to be on a trail.   Boundary work gives me a good excuse to go off trail and check out more remote corners.   This is my favorite time of year for kayaking.  The water is warm and really clear, and the colors of autumn reflect so beautifully with the September-blue sky.  I hope I can launch my little boat during the trail trek week but surely will be out hiking.  This year “my team” will be the Stonington Stewards, dedicated to all the people who help me here in town, build bridges, pull invasives, mow trails populate the work parties, and who support all the projects we are involved in.

Please support Avalonia in all aspects of the good work that is being done.  More land preserved, more trails maintained,  more outreach and education.  It is all good.



A bike route may take you past untrailed
properties that you didn't know about!

Some trails open up to amazing views!

A bench welcomes tired trekkers.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Invasive Species: the saga continues

 by Beth Sullivan

Multi-flora rose offers some protection
for nesters and berries for food, but can
take over a field in no time.
Over the last years I have written about invasive species, plant, animal and insect.  It is a challenge to actually define the term as there are many species that have been brought to our habitats that are not truly native or were not here before European contact.   Many species of animals have been domesticated such as cows, sheep, horses, pets. Most don’t become an invasive problem but could, like feral cats. Some species, like the Eastern Cottontail, have been introduced  purposefully and now have taken over a niche that was occupied by their native relative the New England Cottontail.  They have become naturalized, a nuisance, but not many people would refer to them as invasive.

Invasive insects have become a bigger problem. As products from foreign countries come to our shores, they contain plant material or insects and their eggs associated with the wood or packing material.  Once these insects are released into a new environment, they do not have native predators to control them.  Often, they find sources of abundant food and appropriate habitat.   Then they go to town, unimpeded and often leave a path of destruction. We have witnessed this most recently with gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer, Asian long-horned beetles and now spotted lanternfly.  As climate warms, many of these pests are not affected by winter temperatures anymore, so they survive. In most cases there are few, if any, natural insect controls. I don’t think many of our native birds are fully adapted to eat invasive insects, but we know cuckoos eat gypsy moths and woodpeckers will go into wood for various beetle larvae.   As a result of invasive insects, we are losing our hemlocks, ash trees and many of our oak trees.

Porcelain berry, a beauty of a beast
that will cover and smother entire
trees and walls.

Invasive plants form another real threat.  People have been intrigued by plants and their uses, probably forever!  Moving plants around for food, medicine and decoration is an ongoing activity.  Centuries ago, people, and plants, didn’t move quite as far or as quickly as they can now.   Settlers introduced grasses for their livestock that have become integrated into farm fields. Food plants were introduced to give us all greater variety.  But most of these kinds of plants have “better manners”.  Most don’t spread widely or aggressively.  In the last century, ecologists have noted new plants becoming monocultures in some areas, taking over habitats, killing native species with various methods, and ultimately enticing native wildlife to make use of them and spread their seeds far and wide.   Some of these plants are beautiful,  and the uninformed are also responsible for their spread.  Some plants were deemed useful in landscaping and no one really knew how aggressively they would spread beyond their intended use.

Oriental bittersweet twist 
their way up and then 
strangle the supporting tree.
So, here we are, as stewards for Avalonia, hoping to maintain habitats that are appropriate for all kinds of wildlife and reflect, as closely as possible, native species in their natural habitats. Sadly, as we look closely and learn more, it is hard to see the native forest…for all the invasive trees and shrubs and vines in the way!  There are several places where I feel the landscape would be completely barren, if we were able to remove all the invasive plants.  On some preserves, we have worked tirelessly to remove invasive shrubs such as multiflora rose and autumn olive and bush honeysuckle. However the minute the area is opened to sun, new invasives take their place.  We got bittersweet, reed canary grass and porcelain berry. When those were tackled, swallowwort, bindweed and stilt grass have began their destructive march.

A habitat overrun by invasives may offer some minimal shelter for wildlife, but the food value is often very poor. In some cases, nothing eats an invasive plant. In the worst case, our native and endangered Monarchs are fooled into laying their eggs on black swallowwort but when the caterpillars emerge, they cannot eat that plant, and they die.

Stilt grass has taken over the banks
of the Pequotsepos Brook and will 
spread downstream.

Stilt grass is relatively new here. However, in the more southern/mid Atlantic states, the grass has spread so rapidly, and destructively, that it carpets entire forests and parks, preventing any native plants, flowers, or tree seedlings, from germinating.  The seeds originally came in packing material that protected Japanese ceramics.  It is now wreaking havoc in our area. 

Avalonia stewards are determined to learn the best way to control this grass, and other invasive species. We are conducting workshops, and compiling data/fact sheets for our stewards to use. These, we hope will soon be available on our website.   Right now, Japanese stilt grass is being tracked into preserves by hikers and bikers.  It has spread along the roadsides and vehicles carry seeds to parking lots and other preserves. Landscape equipment can carry and spread seed.  This is the time to identify it and begin to wage war.   As an annual grass, it relies on self-seeding, so removal now, before the seeds are set, is imperative. It is easy to pull.  If seeds are present, already, it should be bagged and not put into compost.   It can even be “weedwhacked”  down close to the ground at this time of year, to inhibit the seeds. The plants will die.  But sadly, seeds from previous years are already in the seed bank and can last up to five years.  Too bad we didn’t start, didn’t know, years ago!

There is a lot to learn. Identification is the first step.  Then learning about the best ways to manage or treat infestations will take time and thought.  We, as an organization are working on finding the right balance. 

This is a great resource:   Good luck in your own home areas.

Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group:

If you find swallowwort, at least remove the 
pods to prevent seeding. 

Autumn Olive berries make great jam, but there
are just too many of them!

Stilt grass is not too hard to identify,
once you know it.

Monday, August 9, 2021


The landscape is created by the water.
Photo credit: David Young

by Beth Sullivan

The swamp is an indistinct edge between
land and water.

Not sure exactly why I have been thinking so much about water.   Probably a dozen different reasons.  One is a book I am reading about the 1930’s Dust Bowl era and drought and how everything, and everyone, simply dried up.  Physically and emotionally.  Maybe it is because as I am sitting and writing, my window is open and I can smell the rain as it is falling outside.  Though we had an unusually wet July  after even a week of typical summer heat and bright sun, my gardens wilted and I was grateful to have a hose and a reliable source of water to remedy the situation.   I cannot imagine the vast plains of our country dried and dusty. Dead.

Recent news headlines and photos report on the drastically low levels of water in the reservoirs out west.  Resources are simply not there.  Enough snow didn’t fall in the mountains or it melted earlier and faster and the slow steady replenishment has ceased.   The massive fires are just mind boggling and the airlifted loads of water transported and dumped on the flames seem so ineffectual It is so impossible to think of where that water is coming from and how much energy it takes to transport it to the fire site. 

The smallest drops conquer thirst.
Instinctively we understand our bodies are made up of a lot of water. We recognize, without thinking,  when we need to drink. Even the smallest infant has that instinct.  All levels of organisms from complex beings to the most microscopic single celled life forms, are reliant on water.  We know that our planet is mostly water. It is the Blue Planet.  Many of us turn to water in some form or another, for our rest, peace, tranquility. Vacations.  We head to the ocean for inspiration, we sit by rivers, wade in ponds, dabble in brooks, paddle in swamps and are mesmerized by waterfalls.  Water has the ability to sculpt rock and create landscapes.

The smallest of frogs was
nurtured by a vernal pool.

We really need to think even a bit deeper though, especially as the climate is changing. Think about water that is a bit less obvious but equally as essential.  Maybe even more.  As I walked in the woods earlier this week, the path ahead of me seemed to be alive with movement. On closer inspection, I counted dozens of really, really, small spring peepers!   It was obvious that these were this year’s young, newly transformed from small tadpoles. Where had they come from? There is no pond nearby. But this spring, thanks to continuous rains, the vernal wetland in the woods stayed waterfilled long enough to support a full hatch of peepers.  It also probably supported many other creatures that depend on the same lucky circumstances.

However, this one wet spring wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit of drought experienced over the last several summers. We are still seeing mighty Oaks, whose roots extend far and deep, succumb to the stresses of the last dry years.  That is related to ground water. Deep resources, springs, aquifers, and headwaters where the earth’s waters merge, purified and restored to hydrate the deepest roots and to replenish our reservoirs.

Streams refresh.
Part of Avalonia’s mission to preserve and protect the land we love, also includes the waters both above and below ground, which the land itself protects. Most of our recent acquisitions include significant wetlands or offer buffers to important waterways in our area.  We need to really give more thought to the water we are blessed with, follow it back from the tap to the reservoir to the stream to the aquifer or spring. What replenishes that?  Please visit some of our preserves with a different view. Think of the life-giving water that is present. Think of how the water creates the habitat. Think of all the organisms that depend on that water. We know about greenways. Think blue ways too.




Still water reflects.

We are drawn to water for its ability
to soothe.

All photos by Beth Sullivan, except where noted.  

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

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.