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, 

Marshall, John. “Indicator Species: Using Frogs and Salamanders to Gauge Ecosystem Health.” GRIT: Rural American Know-How, 2021, 

Mosseso, John J. “Green Frog.” Connecticut Frogs and Toads, NBII, 

“Pickerel Frog.” Virginia Herpetological Society, Virginia Herpetological Society, 2021, 

Signs of the Seasons: A New England Phenology Program, The University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 




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.