Monday, December 9, 2013

A Changeable Season

by Beth Sullivan
Here we are in December. We have had several significant periods of hard freezing, and even some light snowfalls. Yet, we also have had days that are positively balmy-days near 50 degrees, great for hiking, working outdoors, squeaking out a few more of those chores we thought we were done with, stewarding our preserves.
It was on just such a warm, moist and quiet day this past week, that several of us donned waterproof footwear and headed into the Fennerswood Preserve on North Main Street in Stonington. The preserve is quite large and is comprised of several parcels acquired over time and spanning the roadway. The West side has several lots along the road that will be maintained as fields as we combat invasive vines. Another roadside lot will be reverting to young forest. The loop trail takes you west to a lovely waterway: Stony Brook, which is protected along much of its path, by Avalonia Preserves, before it makes its way to Quanaduck Cove.

The East side is un-trailed. The acres along the roadway were once pastures. There are a few older trees, many oaks, that have stood maybe for 100 years or more. But they are surrounded by many young trees, new growth, similar size, crowding in, competing for sun space. A stroll through this area reveals a number of trees with a very recognizable trait: the peeling bark of the Shagbark Hickory. The distinctive bark grows and flakes leaving crevasses and cracks. These are hiding places for numerous insects, spiders and even bats which will use the large flaps of bark as protective hiding places during the day, to remain out of sight, until nightfall.
Shagbark Hickory
Woodpeckers were abundant the day of our walk. Hairy, Downy, Red Bellied and Flicker were heard. These birds, as well as Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and others, work around the shag bark to discover insects or their larva hidden there. A pile of yellow shafted feathers spoke of a drama: a Flicker had fallen victim to a hawk.
Hairy Woodpecker
Yellow-shafted Flicker
Signs of a Hawk taking a Flicker.
As we walked further East into the preserve, the wetlands spread out in front of us. Mounds of sphagnum moss remain green throughout the winter. In many areas, spikes of Skunk Cabbage were already emerging and will be the first plants breaking through the snow in spring. And then we heard a familiar but out of place sound: a Spring Peeper,no doubt confused by the warm weather.
The ground was unfrozen; our feet slipped into puddles. This area will be impossible to navigate in the wet spring season, but now, following a dry fall, we could penetrate the wet areas and explore until we reached the sandy stream bed where the waters gathered into a flowing brook. Watercress was bright green even now. Small clumps of violet leaves dotted the mossy mounds. It didn’t seem like almost winter.
As we looked more closely we were truly surprised to spy a good sized bullfrog, quietly camouflaged and quite subdued. The warm weather can bring amphibians out of a hibernating state. This can be dangerous as they are likely too cold to be able to hunt and find food. They are too slow to evade predators, and their metabolism will be increased just enough to use up their valuable fat stores, meant to supply them the whole winter. Not a good situation. We moved him closer to water, covered him with leaves and wished him well.
Bullfrog on a warm December day.
A very strange December day but truly an interesting excursion into a lovely wooded wetland.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

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