Monday, November 25, 2013

It’s all about the Turkeys!

The leaves are deep on the ground. It is impossible to walk quietly any more, nearly impossible to sneak up on wildlife. Unless of course they are making more noise than you are.
If you walk a wooded trail, especially one that borders open fields, listen for rustling leaves and what sounds like happy laughter. You will probably come upon a flock of wild Turkeys. They are quite abundant this year, and far more visible as they guide their now, nearly full grown, young through the woods moving from place to place.
Adult male in full display.
During the earlier parts of the year, while the young are so little and very vulnerable, they are quite secretive. You can literally stumble into a family group and they will not burst up and away until you are almost upon them. Even at a very young age, the little ones have the ability to leap high, flap and lift up into trees, high enough for safety.
Now, in the fall, they are bigger and bulkier. They are actually quite fast runners, when they want to be. However when you are in your car, waiting for a flock to cross the road, they stroll quite leisurely. They will also fly when they choose. Never assume the crossing is finished. There is always a straggler, dashing across at the last minute, being a danger to himself and your car.
Hen with two young.
During the fall, several family groups often join up into flocks of more than 30. They travel together for safety, always with one or two adults on alert and on guard. The rest forage actively eating just about anything they can find. Generally vegetarian, they will eat insects during the warmer seasons. Now it is all nuts and seeds and berries. Acorns are a staple in their diet. This year has not been a good mast year, meaning not a lot of acorns on the ground. Oaks tend to have irregular cycles of acorn production and the creatures that rely on them (turkey, deer, squirrels, and other small mammals) will have population cycles that follow the food source. This could be a difficult winter for those that rely on acorns.
Showing off.
Wild Turkeys are known to visit bird feeders, feasting on the ground on sunflower seeds. They also welcome corn, peanuts and even poultry food offered by some during hard winters. It is important though to not distribute feed that has had medication, hormones or growth regulators included. Plain cracked corn is probably the best.
In the woods, look for disturbed leaves, the Turkey-scratch sites, where they scrape the leaves aside to look for nuts and seeds. It is easy to spot areas where it looks like a great leaf fight occurred, and know it is really a turkey dining area.
Turkeys foraging through a field.
Turkeys were abundant when the first “Pilgrims” arrived, a staple for Native Americans. But over the following centuries, with forests cleared and human populations exploding, their own populations plummeted until they were extirpated from a lot of the Northeast. A reintroduction effort here in CT, in the 70’s, was successful because the State had returned to being heavily forested. Natural predators include coyotes and the young are prey for a number of other larger mammals and hawks as well.
Young turkey beginning to show adult plumage.
Wild Turkeys can be found on most Avalonia preserves. They are often spotted in the fields of Preston Preserve, Knox Preserve, Fennerswoods, Deer Run and Moore Woodlands among others. But they mostly spend time foraging in the wooded preserves: Hoffman, Perry, Henne, Tefftweald, Avery, to name just a few.
Rare, partly white, wild turkey. Photo by Beth Sullivan.

When you take your post-Thanksgiving dinner walk, go slowly through the woods. Listen for rustling and gobbling. They are giving thanks for being spared this holiday!

Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Written by Beth Sullivan.
Unless otherwise marked, photographs by Rick Newton.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Simmons Preserve: ”A Little Jewel”

From the memories of Rob Simmons.
Travel down North Main Street, south from Route 1 and you catch tempting glimpses of water through the trees and beyond the houses. Just about the time you are wishing you could get a little closer and see a bit more of the lovely cove, you might notice a strongly made stone wall with some lovely white farm gates. Pull over before you reach Palmer Street; the roadside is grassy and wide enough to park.
Quandauck Cove.
Peek over the wall, check the latch on the gate, and go on in. It’s OK. It is the Simmons Preserve belonging to Avalonia Land Conservancy. This little half-acre has more than its fair share of history and was once described as “a small but absolute jewel bit of ground which helps preserve the beauty of the area”.
The entrance gate to the Simmons Preserve.
Early land records show that in 1844, the small plot of land was conveyed by Samuel S. Denison to Benjamin S. States for the price of $150. This was apparently the first record of a plot of land that would become “The Mechanics Burial Ground”, the final resting place for numerous railroad workers who labored on the first interstate rail road from Providence to Stonington.
Old maple trees stand tall on this protected land.
The property changed hands over the decades, and in early 1900’s it was purchased by Elizabeth Eagle Simmons. She, however, was not happy to own and reside near a cemetery so she “prevailed upon her husband, Charles Herbert Simmons to purchase the deeds to all the cemetery plots from the families of the deceased”, and in 1906, he purchased land from Stonington Cemetery Association to relocate all the remains with permissions from the families. By 1922 the process was completed.
The land became a much enjoyed recreation area for the Simmons Family and was called “Bud’s Point”, after Charles Herbert Simmons, Jr. who later became the owner of the land.
Native shrubs grow along the shore.
Over the following decades the family enjoyed the lovely grounds. The area contained ornamental plantings from its years as a cemetery, as well as native shrubs and trees. The walls have withstood years of storms, and the original gates were designed by Charles Simmons Jr. himself, an architect who practiced in New York City, Connecticut and Vermont.
The main farm gate.
On Jan 29, 1986 The New London Day reported that the very same piece of land, bordering on Quanaduck Cove had been donated to the Mashantucket Land Trust, which later became Avalonia Land Conservancy. Over more than 100 years, that little piece of land accumulated history and lore and a great deal of affection. The Rob Simmons Family still lives just up the street and can view Bud’s Point out their south windows.
It is managed now as a nature preserve. Avalonia volunteers work to maintain the park-like setting, ornamental plantings and fend off invasives. The area is a meadow now, not a cemetery lawn, and in the early spring it is carpeted with lily of the valley that has spread wildly. You can walk right down to the water and find herons and egrets wading along the shoreline. Ducks love the sheltered cove and there has been a family of foxes seen over the years, enjoying the preserve as well.
Red Fox.
The antique gates have withstood storms and salt spray all these decades. This year, Rob Simmons, Avalonia member, donor and a steward of this property, arranged to have the gates replaced with exact replicas of the originals his father first installed. As a gift from the Simmons family, and built and installed by Dan Banning and Steve Burdick, these gates will stand as a welcome and a memory for all who chose to enter and visit the “little jewel” .
Dan Banning and Steve Burdick stand beside their handiwork.

My thanks to Rob Simmons. Most of the information in this piece was based on or quoted from his personal memoir of “The Simmons’ Preserve, Bud’s Point, The Mechanics’ Burial Ground”, based on historical documents and family lore.
Assembled by Beth Sullivan.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, Rick Newton, and Rob Simmons.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Work party at the Avery Preserve in Ledyard Saturday, Nov. 16

The Ledyard Town Committee will have a work day on the Avery Preserve on Saturday, November 16th, beginning at 9:00 a.m. 
Avery Preserve

We will be doing light trail clearing work.  This involves cutting low brush intruding on the sides of the trail and cutting some limbs hanging down into the trails.  We want to restore the standard width and height of the hiking trails (4’ wide x 8’ tall).  If you can come please bring your choice of loppers, pruners, or other cutting tools for stems up to ½ inch.  Also, bring gloves and appropriate clothing for the weather.  The long range prediction is for sunny weather with temps in the 40’s.  Expected duration is 2 hours.  We will also do some minor repairs on the bridge over the stream near the sheep wash.

The Avery Preserve parking area is located at 32 Avery Hill Road in Ledyard.  This is about ¾ of a mile north of Route 214 (Stoddard’s Wharf Road).  Additional parking is available at the ball field just west of the cemetery at the corner of Route 214 and Avery Hill Road.  There is a path from the ball field back to Avery Hill Road and it is a short walk  up the road to the meeting area which will be at the West Tract entrance sign across from the parking area.

For additional information call Mike Goodwin at (860) 464-2685.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Be Curious…Beware

Little did I know, as I labored in my vegetable garden this summer, that I was working under a potential disaster. Not 12 feet over my head hung a huge hornets’ nest. 
Overhead all summer long.
Now that the leaves are falling, hidden treasures are revealing themselves in the trees we have lingered near all season. Walk along a favorite trail and look around. It is a new view. Nests that protected wildlife of all kinds are now becoming visible. Most nests are seasonal only; their creators have long deserted them and will not return the next year. This is only partly true of the makers of these lovely, large paper globe hornet nests.
The White-faced or Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate) are relatives of Yellow jackets we may be more familiar with. They are protective, aggressive and deliver a painful sting. At the end of the summer season, a hive like this can contain an average of 400-500 individuals. Never mess with a nest! You irritate one, you activate all. As the weather turns chilly the hornets become slower and go dormant, but if you were to find one of these nests on the ground now, and think to bring it indoors for examination, you could be in for a nasty surprise. The warmth may awaken the occupants and you could end up with a house full of angry hornets.
White-faced hornet.
Photo by Patty O'Hearn Kickham from Flickr.
The winter winds will rip and tear it apart, the hornets will die, but each year we have more. It is an interesting cycle. At the end of the summer, each hive can have produced several new queens. They are fertilized by specially raised males. Before the cold sets in, these new queens leave the nest and by this time in November, they can be found under rotting logs in the woods. There they hibernate until spring.
When the weather warms again, the new queens emerge from hibernation and disperse, each finding a new nest site. She begins creating a nest of a few cells and lays the eggs she carried all winter. She tends and feeds the larva until they become ready drones to begin the work of building and tending the nest. Each succeeding generation of workers goes out and chews wood products, bark, twigs, decks and siding as well. When they mix the wood pulp with their saliva, they then spread it out in bands onto the existing hive making it larger and creating more combs within. The combs can be 5-7 deep and up to 10 inches in diameter. A Papier-Mache’ project and a home for hundreds as well! It is truly a work of art, shades of grays and browns overlaid and combined. Amazing. 
Small chamber of the queen's first nest.

More chambers added into the comb.
New eggs are laid within the cells. These hornets do not store food, or make honey in their paper combs. It is strictly for egg and larva development. The adult workers go out and feed on a number of things, including nectar, but also other insects which they bring back to the nest, chew up and deliver to the larvae or queen!
A work of art.
As the season progresses and the hive grows, you can often witness the activity from afar, if you can find the nest. Even birds stay away from an active hive. Some mammals are persistent enough to go after the hive to eat the larva within. But the positioning, way out on a delicate limb, often thwarts even the most determined.

It is the cold season now. The queens have left. Any remaining larvae or adults are dormant or dead. The gray paper nests hang more visibly over trails and at woodland edges. This morning I watched as two Tufted Titmice attacked the one over my garden. They ripped at the outer layers. One went in and out of the entrance hole. They were feasting on those inside that were doomed anyway. And so the cycle continues.  
A project for the birds now.
Written by Beth Sullivan.  Unless otherwise indicated, photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Dodge Paddock: A year later

A year ago this week, we were still shaking our heads over the enormity of the impact of Super Storm Sandy. The hurricane force winds combined with extreme high tides, and a huge storm surge hurled water and debris throughout the Dodge Paddock at the end of Wall Street in Stonington Borough.
Water surging into the parking lot.
No one ever remembers the water being so high and so forceful. Boulders were tossed like pebbles, and logs burst through the old seawall like battering rams. The breach allowed more debris to flow in. The higher marsh and meadow were covered with all manner of litter: logs, boards, docks ropes, glass and plastic, as well as about a foot of seaweed and other vegetation. The small brackish pond was completely flooded and the drainage outflow, a clamshell covered culvert, was broken, filled and slammed shut with rocks too big to move. Water flowed all the way back toward the houses on Main Street, and Wall Street was under several feet of water. It was almost too unbearable to witness and impossible to try to figure out what to do first.
The breach in the seawall.
Debris on the Meadow.
The obstructed clamshell drain pipe.
The water did recede some on its own. It flowed out the same way it flowed in, leaving behind a terrible mess. Avalonia volunteers and a contractor with a small tractor were able to move rocks and create a trench to uncover the clamshell and dig it out enough to let some of the flood to flow out. This reduced the level of water throughout the preserve. Again volunteers banded together to clear a huge fallen tree and collected bags of litter and trash and made piles of wooden material. Another contractor with a larger machine came in and did a day’s work moving the vast mat of vegetation and organic debris off the meadow and piled it along the undermined seawall . He moved the boulders and large logs and in some areas was able to move sand and gravel in ways to recreate some dune structure that had been destroyed.
The drain pipe dug out and working.
The CT DEEP stepped in to give more help and support and was able to grant emergency permission to accomplish much of the work. This kind of effort in a coastal zone often requires extensive permitting, but due to the emergency nature of the situation after Sandy, they helped us expedite matters.
Things seemed to stay on an even keel for a while, but spring storms reclosed the clamshell. In June we had massive rainstorms that refilled and flooded the Paddock. With summer and mosquito season imminent, the DEEP agreed to step in once again to create an emergency “swale”: a ditch out to the south side of the preserve to drain the flood waters. What a difference! Within hours the flood waters receded. Within a few days the meadow and marsh began to dry out.
After June rains, more flooding.
Creating the swale to release the flood waters.
Throughout the season the area began to recover. DEEP has begun a program to eradicate the invasive phragmities.  The pond will remain a small, shallow, brackish pond that will serve to hold run off from the town streets, but now it will not flood to the height it had. Native plants will begin to establish themselves along the perimeter and will also contribute to the health of the area and create a better habitat for wildlife. As the meadow grass grew back, it covered the scars left behind by Sandy, and the area took on a look of health and beauty.
Cutting Phragmites.
Looking at it a year later, some scars are visible. The seawall remains broken and cannot be efficiently repaired. Storms will continue to batter the shoreline. Water may flow in with a big storm, but now it can flow out. A healthy marsh and meadow can help buffer the impacts of storms and surge. Wildlife will return to the Paddock.
There is still work to be done and we are grateful to the CT DEEP for their help and generosity in restoring the area. It will take a while, but there are already lovely paths to walk again and the water views cannot be beat! Enjoy!
The entry way to Dodge Paddock.
Written by Beth Sullivan.   Photos by Beth Sullivan and Binti Ackley.