Monday, September 30, 2013

Preserving a rocky corridor

To a novice hiker, Babcock Ridge in North Stonington may seem daunting: steep hills, rocky ridges, walls and wetlands. To others, including wildlife and birds, it is a beautiful corridor of habitat, woodlands, hiding places, nesting sites and food sources. Those rocky ledges are denning sites for many types of creatures, from foxes, coyotes, and bats to possibly bears and likely some great snakes! Areas around rock ridges provide microhabitats for special birds like Worm-eating Warblers. Large unbroken areas of forest canopy are home to Scarlet Tanagers, Orioles, Thrushes, Warblers and Vireos. The mature large trunked trees and old snags can support woodpeckers, including the Pileated Woodpecker, our largest, and other cavity nesting birds. 
What might call this ledge home?

Perhaps the work of a pileated woodpecker?

 The wetlands include vernal pools, springs and seeps, all of which are fragile and imperiled habitats. In addition to unique plant-life to be found here, the wetlands support all number of amphibians, including Spotted Salamanders and Wood Frogs which lay eggs in the vernal pools. The adjoining forest habitat gives them perfect areas for dispersal.
Spotted salamander egg masses.

Upland woods are home to Great Horned Owls and Red Tailed Hawks, while the lowland areas have nesting Red Shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls. They prey on the abundance of small mammals present here, including squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other rodents.

A walk in the spring and summer will find the area lush with the green of a dense overhead canopy. Mosses and lichens cover the rocky ledges and cliff-sides. Look for special plants, ferns and others that make their homes in the cracks and crevices and seeps off the hillsides. As fall turns towards winter, the “bones” of the property are revealed: stone walls, abandoned foundations and more stark rocks and ledges. It makes for great exploring.

Avalonia Land Conservancy already owns one quarter of the 74 acre woodland, by virtue of a bequest from the late Ruth Goldsmith. It seeks to purchase the remaining portion to complete a large, 220 acre, unbroken greenway of protected Avalonia land. To the north is the recently acquired Erisman Woodlands on Reutemann Rd. To the south, across Babcock road, is the lovely Henne Memorial Tract of Avalonia’s Shunock River Preserve. The whole area is part of the protected watershed of the Pawcatuck River and hosts multiple varied habitats and unique wildlife, including native Trout in the Shunock river. If you were to look on a map of the area, the state-owned Assekonk Swamp, Pachaug Forest and the town-owned Hewitt Farm Preserve are all connected….as a crow might fly!

Donations from individuals and organizations, and funding from grants and State Programs are being sought. If you would like to walk on the Babcock Ridge trails to see how special it is, please join Avalonia for one one of the scheduled guided hikes listed in this post. Come take a look.

Please support the fundraising effort. You will help preserve something your grandchildren will be able to appreciate!

Written and photographed by members of Avalonia Land Conservancy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Creating a Young Forest

In early August the active cutting portion of the New England Cottontail Project was completed on Avalonia’s Peck and Callahan Properties in Stonington. Even as we were finishing, phase two was already in progress: regeneration. Shortly after a tree is cut, it responds by immediately sending energy into re-sprouting. It sends up multiple stems from the cut stump and begins leafing out. This is precisely the type of regeneration that will ultimately create the new, “young forest” that will attract and sustain the New England Cottontail and numerous other species. With sunlight now reaching the ground, seedlings that have been stunted and struggling can now begin energetic growth. Seeds that lay dormant in the soil for years will get the moisture and sun warmth they need to germinate. There was very little diversity in the understory of the Peck woodlands. Deep shade and deer browsing left little near the ground. Exposing the former forest floor to light has already begun to increase the variety and number of species present. We have noticed seedlings of sun loving plants such as Sumac and Greenbrier already visible, starting growth even this late in the season.

Arrow wood Viburnum planted for wildlife

Winged Sumac will make dense clumps and feed bluebirds

Volunteers in action

For every one tree that was cut, dozens of new stems have begun to colonize the area directly around the stump. Oaks and Maples do this. In some cases, such as with Beech trees, sprouts rise from the roots that have spread far from the main trunk. Where Beech trees have been cut, entire new dense thickets of only Beech saplings will grow. The density of the thicket is indeed desirable for cover and protection. But diversity is necessary to support the species we are trying to encourage.
Maple: rapid re-sprouting from cut base

Clearing slash

As part of the Funding agreement we had with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, we needed to replant the area with species that will provide diversity, grow in a way that creates cover and also provide food for many species. On Sept 21 a small but dedicated group of volunteers took on the first phase of the challenge. The entire project covers 28 acres of hilly and rocky terrain. The ground is strewn with “slash”, branches and woody debris left on site to provide cover and nutrients for the soil over time. Not easy walking!! We were joined by our DEEP Forester with his chainsaw, and a USFWS biologist with plants and supplies. We lugged in a large garden cart with shovels, rakes, bags of grass seed, plants, netting, flagging tape and miscellaneous small items as well as water in large jugs. We had to clear the skid trail as we went along, moving branches and large debris and ultimately made it a half mile in to the far east of the property where a steep slope needed attention. There we raked the earth to plant a special conservation seed mix of grasses to germinate rapidly and stabilize the soil on the slope. We dug holes…no easy task in the rocky earth, and planted dozens of small seedlings, plants known to be beneficial for the wildlife we hope to attract. However, all these new seedlings and sprouts are like candy for the deer. Each plant needed to be staked and netted and surrounded by slash to deter the deer from nibbling.
Winterberry Holly, a favorite shrub planted for thickets and food source

Impossible to walk through, for deer and people!
Dense thicket formed by Beech sprouts.

Nearly 5 hours later we walked out. Our load was lighter but muscles were sore! It rained the next night. Now we hope the grass will sprout, the plants will root and flourish and the deer will not discover them! Thank you to all who made the large effort!

Written and photographed by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Pair of Challenges

This week we offer a pair of challenges:
First: Take a hike! And we mean that with all sincerity. Find an Avalonia Preserve to visit and start walking. It may be one you know and love that you look at with new eyes, or one you haven’t tried yet. You can download our list of properties here. As you walk, do some thinking. Of course enjoy every step, but think about the piece of land. How might it have come to be part of our Preserve roster? Who donated it, or was it purchased? How were the funds raised if it was a purchase? And how is that land managed? Are the trails clearly marked? 

Is it full of invasive plants that grow and try take over everything? Can you see signs that trees have been cut back and cleared from the trails? Are there bridges and wetlands crossings? Who made those or hauled the wood in to place it? 

 How about signs, entry signs, information signs, boundary postings? Think about who does that. Are there fields on the property? They need to be mowed yearly to preserve them as fields, otherwise they will grow in and fill with invading vines, plants, shrubs then trees. The habitat is then lost. If there is water on the property, how does protecting this brook or pond or vernal pool affect a larger picture? Reflect upon the fact that through a great deal of effort, time and money, this piece of land is protected from development and preserved and cherished forever.

Second Challenge: Think a bit more. How can you as one individual help? Start with membership in Avalonia Land Conservancy. You may already be a member and, if you are thank you! You can still help by increasing your membership commitment, or invite a friend or ten to join too! Pass the word. Many people like to get out and work on the preserves and we have a growing list of volunteers, but we need people to really show up for work parties and maybe even do a little on your own. When you walk, bring some clippers and remove small obstructions. Move sticks and blow-downs along the trail for others. Pick up any trash you find. Sadly there is way too much of that. But if you have other talents: public relations, computer skills, data management, financial savvy, organizational skills-we need all those skills too. No talent is wasted! Each town has a committee and you can connect with one by calling the main office (860-884-3500) or by going to our website for more contact information. We will be having an educational event September 29. If you want to attend,  please RSVP by September 20 to the main office phone number. It will be a wonderful introduction to Avalonia for those who are new, and an opportunity to get a better insight into what we do and how we manage it. Please join us!   

Written and photographed by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Humidity Has Been Good For Something!

After the last weeks of rain and high humidity, we are all feeling a little damp and mildewed. And mildew indeed is thriving along with all of its fungal relatives! This is now prime mushroom season.

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. Some are very specific, growing only near certain trees, by certain species of other plants, and in 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.

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 if “puff”, explode with fine black dust, which is all the spores contained within. All mushrooms reproduce by releasing dusty spores.

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. Many are quite specific about where they grow and the conditions they need for survival, but one thing is generally universal: they need moisture to thrive. They can dry down to a dusty mass, but add water and some will reconstitute as good as new! There are fungi in every ecosystem from the Antarctic, to deserts and jungles and cities, and even on our very own skin.

Take a hike in any shady cool woodland. The Hoffman Preserve is probably the best spot around because of the presence of evergreens and the deeper shade and moist ground. Look on the ground, in the leaves, on rotting tree trunks, branches and stumps. Notice the colors and textures and shapes. They may have the appearance of being nibbled. They are frequently eaten by small mammals, woodland turtles and insects and slugs. But don’t be tempted to pick and sample! Fungi are of great value for medicinal purposes, food processes, as in making cheese, and as prized edibles themselves. But be warned: there are also many mushrooms that are poisonous, or fatal, if eaten even in small quantities, so never mess with mushrooms unless you are with an expert! Bring a camera or sketch pad instead.
Hoffman Preserve

Written by Beth Sullivan.

Photography by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Monarchs of Summer

Those of us who were lucky enough to run freely through gardens and meadows during summer months, years ago, remember the Monarch Butterflies as the keystone of the season: ever present, drifting lazily on the breeze, never seeming to be in a hurry and always brightening our summers. They would begin to arrive in our area in June; dates always varied depending on weather conditions and southerly breezes. We could count on several generations of Monarchs in our area each year.

This year has been different. The Monarchs have not arrived in the numbers of the past. We never seemed to have the early first wave. We have had few if any eggs and caterpillars on our milkweed patches through the early and mid-summer weeks.
The wintering grounds in Mexico are in danger. The Monarch population there is rapidly decreasing. Some of their necessary stopping-over places have been hit by serious drought; there is increasing use of herbicides which reduces the milkweed populations and insecticides which wipe out caterpillars. As the population moves up from wintering grounds in Mexico they stop, feed, mate and lay eggs. Each successive generation makes its way farther north. Only now, in late summer, are we noticing more Monarchs, slowly filtering into our meadows of goldenrod and wild milkweed .
During summer it's a challenge to find the eggs and when possible, save them from mowing by bringing the leaves indoors, watching over them until they hatch and then begin the daily runs to find new milkweed leaves to feed the rapidly growing and ravenous ( and always “pooping”) caterpillars! ( photo 1) That phase can last a couple of weeks.

The next stage, the chrysalis formation, seems to happen behind your back or while you blink. If you are really lucky and attentive, you get to see the process: First they will find a sturdy stick to adhere to by creating a web-like, silken material to suspend themselves upside, down in the letter J formation. (photo 2) Then they straighten down and begin a fine quivering for just a short time and then they become still. (photo 3) It is then that the striped caterpillar skin begins to split from the bottom, its head end. (photo 4) In less than a minute, the skin spits entirely up, and beneath it, the pale clear green of the chrysalis casing is exposed. (photo 5) For a short time you can almost discern the features, head, proboscis, folded wings, of the changeling within.(photo 6) Soon the case hardens and becomes ringed with a crown of gold dots. (photo 7)The chrysalis is complete and we wait…and watch…for about 10 days. 
step 2

One day, the coloring changes. The skin of the chrysalis becomes transparent and the black and orange colors of the Monarch are visible. (photo 8) In that day, the emergence will occur. The chrysalis will wiggle, and skin will split. This time the splitting releases the butterfly within. (photo 9) It is wrinkled and compressed. It will hang from its case for several hours until fluid from its body fills the veins in its wings to harden and strengthen them. (photo 10) 

 It is very vulnerable during this time and needs protection, but by the end of that day, the Monarch will be able to fly off, seek out its nectar sources from our gardens and meadows. 
Hopefully it will find a mate and a milkweed patch to continue the cycle. As summer comes to an end and frost threatens, the Monarchs congregate along the shorelines, meadows and dunes that are covered with goldenrod blossoms. They will feed heavily before instinct takes them on a Northerly breeze, on their way back to wintering grounds on the mountainsides of Mexico.
We will keep you posted on the flight and plight of the Monarchs through this fall.

Text and photos by Beth Sullivan.