Monday, December 29, 2014

Reds and greens in the winter woods

By Beth Sullivan

We are at the darkest days of the year. The woods can look pretty drab and it even makes me wish for just a bit of snow to change the scene. But take a walk and look closely, you will find some welcome color, red and green, to greet you for the holidays.
We all know our Pines, Spruce, Firs, and Cedars, the bigger evergreens of the woodlands. They provide great protection for birds and other small creatures when the winter winds blow and snows fall. Their cones hold nutritious seeds, high in fat and protein that the wildlife need to help them through the cold season. 

Some different evergreens

Look a little lower, the shrub layer in many of our woodlands is dominated in places by our State Flower: Mountain Laurel. Drive along many of our roads where the scenery is rocky and rough, you will welcome the sight of gnarled branches and leathery green leaves of this lovely shrub. While it doesn’t provide a food supply, the usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.
In some of the more remote wetlands areas, our native Rhododendron (R. maximum) will stand out, green against the brown. During the severe cold, you can note that the leaves droop downward and curl into tubes. This is the plants’ adaptation to protect the leaf surface from cold and dehydration in the dry winter air. 

Rhododendron leaves droop and curl in winter.

Bright winter reds

Native hollies provide winter interest. Our American holly, (Ilex opaca) the familiar Christmas decoration, has spikes on the leaves to deter deer but the berries are feasted upon by many birds, now and through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, and Bluebirds in particular will find a bush and claim it!
Native winter holy

Our other native holly, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)is deciduous, but its berries glow red on bare branches during this season. These berries often do not fully ripen until they have been cold for a long time, then they ferment, and the birds love them. This is true of many berries that remain on the bush through the winter: Viburnum and crab apple in particular. Those birds know how to wait until the vintage is perfect!

Winterberry with Mantis egg case.

Mosses for the season

Club Mosses ( Lycopodium sp.) such as Princess Pine and Ground Cedar ( They have multiple common names) will populate the ground in patches. Years ago they were harvested irresponsibly for Christmas decorations and the populations were nearly decimated. Garden Clubs have protected the species by refusing to pick it, or sell decorations using the club mosses.
Ground Cedar is a clubmoss.

Emerald green cushion moss brightens the landscape.
Many other species of moss seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year. Sphagnum moss, which holds the water in the wetlands, is more softly colored, but look closely at the structure of each plant: miniature Christmas trees!
There are a few evergreen plants, still holding leaves: Christmas Fern for one, each ‘leaflet’ on a frond has a “toe” creating a “stocking”. Partridgeberry is a sweet vining plan with delicate evergreen leaves. The occasional red berry remains on the plant as an invitation to a ‘Partridge’ who may favor the berries. Sadly our native partridge or quail, the Bobwhite is considered extirpated from Connecticut. Only to be remembered in Christmas song, being in a Pear Tree!
On the Christmas Fern, each leaflet has a stocking toe.

Partridge Berry.

Happy Holidays to all and enjoy the winter woods. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Stony Brook Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
Tucked off the south side of Sommers lane, between Wheeler Road and Taugwonk Road, is a nine-acre parcel of land owned by Avalonia Land Conservancy. Look for the small green and white Avalonia signs posted on trees along the stone wall frontage. Named for the stream that begins to emerge and come together here, Stony Brook is a pretty and varied piece of land. There are no formal trails but in most areas the woods are open enough to make a way through and deer have made paths as well.

In places Stony Brook runs fast and clear, in others it spreads out over the forest floor

Deer use the preserve and have created small trails to follow.

An old cemetery to explore

The East and West sides rise up quite steeply in places while the brook runs along a sandy bed in the deep center. If you enter from the western side, there is a break in the wall, an old barway which actually leads to an old cemetery that is on one the edge of the preserve. Members of the Beebe and Davis family are buried here, and the lovely old stones are very readable. Before reaching the cemetery, the rough path passes through an old Pine grove that took a devastating hit during the double punch of Hurricane Sandy and the following winter blizzard; Tree tops are cracked and broken. There are no plans to try and clear the grove as we will let nature take her course, and the trees and downed trunks provide food, forage, and shelter for numerous species of wildlife from insects to birds and small mammals.
The old headstones are still readable.

Pine trees in the grove suffered after the storms.

The southern portion of the preserve is comprised of a wonderful red maple wooded swamp. The brook stays in its bed as it flows under the stone bridge opening in the wall, but before it does, it spreads out into hummocks of moss and holes of water. Not easy walking and best done with boots. Or, to preserve the area, avoid it all together! Typical wet woodland plants, ferns, violets, and several mosses can be found here. Even in December, the tight spikes of skunk cabbage break the ground well ahead of next spring. There they will remain, covered with snow and ice until March when they will flower. In spring these vernal pools will host amphibians that require early shallow water sources for egg laying.
Moss hummocks and wet holes hide Skunk Cabbage spikes.

An old snag is great for wildlife.

Rough ledges show Earth's force

The east side is very interesting as the land rises suddenly with a craggy upheaval of rocks. If you have walked the low center along the stream, you will find yourself at the base of a rough ledge, hung with ferns, and on a cold day, icicles. The slabs of rock are thrust up in a way that makes one wonder at the geological forces within Earth that pushed them up.
Craggy ledges have become covered with ferns and saplings.

A small parcel of land, that is at the head of the Stony Brook that runs from here all the way south, through Fennerswood and Paffard Woods Preserves and all the way out to the Quanaduck Cove, it makes for an interesting ramble . Enjoy it.

 Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Dodge Beal Project

By Beth Sullivan
Those of you have been reading Avalonia eTrails may have followed the saga of Dodge Paddock and Beal preserves--the last open space and true coastal preserve in Stonington Borough. Its history is rich, with generations of changes and uses, but in the last decade, it has truly been a sad example of how sea level rise can impact the shoreline we love.
After Sandy the entire Preserve was flooded with water and debris. 

Neighbors watched it become wetter and fill with invasive Phragmites. Hurricane Sandy devastated walls and flooded it with not just water but debris.
In the last 2 years, Avalonia has worked with CT DEEP to open a new drainage area, remove the Phragmites, create channels for better flow of floodwaters, and begin a plan for the future.
An emergency drainage culvert needed to be created.

There is more great news to share. Last month the National Fish and Wildlife service, which administers the Long Island Futures Fund, granted nearly $45,000 to the Mystic Aquarium in partnership with Avalonia to restore the landscape in Dodge and Beal Preserves. Planning has begun.

An adaptable landscape

Resiliency is a term we have all been hearing more frequently. As oceans rise and storms increase in intensity we all have to be prepared to change, to adapt. Shoreline towns are developing task forces to discuss and plan for the needs of the communities on many levels . Our landscape will have to adapt as well.
The brown areas will be replanted with native species.

The preserve area will be studied for elevation compared to sea level, soil salinity, water levels and direction of flow. A team comprised of consultants and experts from many areas will work to develop a specific plan for vegetation and plantings that will enhance the area. They will be able to withstand fresh water flooding and periodic salt water inundation. The plants will help filter pollutants that come from road run off from within the borough to prevent them from reaching the ocean. The native plants will replace the non-native Phragmites and provide much greater appeal, food, and shelter for native wildlife. Other plants in other areas will reinforce and support the land itself in the face of other storm events.
The walls around the Paddock speak of its history.

Many benefits from this grant

Wildlife will not be the only beneficiaries. The area, when completed, will be available as a model, a poster child for a resilient landscape. Local environmental groups will be able to bring volunteers to help with the project and to experience the landscape first hand. Educational signage will be installed that will enable others to learn from this effort, about the best ways to adapt to the changes that are surely in our future.
The pond will be healthier and attract more wildlife.

There will be public information meetings and active work will begin in the spring. We will keep you posted!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan. Aerial photograph by Roger Wolfe.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor, Part 2

By Mike Goodwin

If you missed part 1, you can find it here.

A Painful History 

In the center of the swamp is Pequot Island, scarcely half an acre in extent which rises 50 feet out of the water. The exact location of this island is uncertain. Soon after the destruction of the Mystic Fort of the Pequots by Major Mason in early colonial days, a ragged remnant of the tribe under the leadership of Pequot brave Squirrel Tooth, as he was known to the colonists, fought with the colonists along the east bank of the Thames River. The colonists drove Squirrel Tooth’s party into Pine Swamp where they took refuge on Pequot Island. Eventually the Indians were starved into submission and surrendered. The remaining 20 braves were bound hand and feet, put on a sloop and taken to the mouth of New London harbor and driven overboard. The women and children were placed in bondage to the colonists.

A unique mixture of habitats

Since colonial time there has been development around the fringes of PSWC but the swamp has never yielded to man. In the northern portion, there was a sand and gravel excavation that later filled with ground water to form a series of ponds. One of the major power lines in the area runs over a mile through the preserve. This is an important corridor because all large trees are continually trimmed to leave a shrub land providing a special habitat for birds and small animals. Laurels bloom in profusion here in early summer. The southern portion of PSWC contains stands of Rhododendron maximum, one of the largest of the rhododendron family. These bloom in early July and are likely to be several hundred years old.

PSWC started with a donation from Dow Chemical

PSWC began as a 97 acre parcel donated by Dow Chemical to celebrate their centennial in 1997, called the Dow Centennial Preserve. In 2003, Avalonia purchased and was gifted addition parcels from the descendants of Milton O. Slosberg and Harry Leiser. Additional parcels were donated by the Town of Ledyard in 2005 and 2014 to bring the preserve to its 387 acre current size.
The historic stone bridge over Tom Allyn Brook.

Avalonia Land Conservancy maintains an extensive trail system around the fringes of the swamp. Come for a visit and enjoy the beauty of this varied and timeless landscape.
Photographs by Mike Goodwin.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Add a Smile to your Amazon Shopping and help Avalonia

Do you know you can donate to Avalonia with every purchase you make on Amazon? 

 Join the Amazon Smile program, and 0.5% of every purchase will be donated to Avalonia Land Conservancy. Just navigate to and search for Avaloina, then click select to register your charitable organization.

It will just take a minute, and it will make you smile!   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor, Part 1

By Mike Goodwin
The Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor (PSWC).

Avalonia Land Conservancy’s largest preserve, Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor (PSWC), is located in the Gales Ferry section of Ledyard. Most of the property is a peat swamp that is little changed since from Colonial times. PSWC has beautiful ponds, a shrub covered power line right-of-way, morasses and quicksands, glacial moraines, and open forests. The southern portion of PSWC protects an important ground water recharge area supplying the drinking water needs of local households.

Created by a glacier

The Wisconsin glacier covered all of Connecticut and Long Island until about 13,000 years ago. As the glacier receded it left a belt of huge boulders across what is now PSWC from the NE to the SW known as the Ledyard Moraine. Some boulders are thirty feet in diameter. They are piled up 3 and 4 deep and form caves in which wildlife like fox and coyote make their home. In Colonial times wolves and bears also lived there. The rocks are covered with mosses and lichens and rock polypody ferns, some are hundreds of years old. Best viewing of the moraine is from the yellow and red trails.
In pre-Colonial times the swamp was well known to the local Indians who called it Cuppacommock which translates to a refuge, hiding place, or a close place or haven. It was also called Ohomowauke meaning owls’ nest, owl-place, or a resort of owls, (mhmmau-auke).

Known to ship-builders

Early colonist ship-builders, back in the sixteen hundreds, depended on pine swamps for masts and spars for their vessels. This pine swamp was known throughout the Connecticut colony as “Mast Swamp.” Mast Swamp furnished spars for more than a century. The last known pines were removed from the swamp in 1820, the final ones having been cut to supply ships in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Large pines have since regrown in the swamp.

Photographs by Mike Goodwin.
Look for part 2 next week.

Monday, November 24, 2014

To Be Thankful 2014

By Beth Sullivan
We live in a time and place that gives us a great deal to be thankful for. As an Avalonia representative, advocate, and steward, I have learned a lot in the last year, and some of that is related to what we have, and what we give thanks for.
Avalonia conserves land so future generations can experience it
We live in a beautiful part of the country. The variety and diversity of habitats and wildlife is amazing. Think of what you see every day as you go about your daily business. Think of the view to the water, a hillside in autumn, a woodland trail, or a clean clear stream. And think about what the alternatives could be: pavement and development, pollution or even lack of access.
We work to preserve the view and access to nature.

We provide a place for quiet contemplation.
We are thankful that Avalonia Land Conservancy exists to protect and conserve these elements of our daily life that we may take for granted. We are thankful that these areas will remain for the next generations to enjoy and appreciate.

Many Help Us

In order to protect them we need help. We are grateful to all the connections we have made in the last years. Collaborations have helped us purchase land, and also to maintain and manage it. We could not have accomplished as much as we have without the help of DEEP, NRCS, USFWS, Mystic Aquarium, to name a few. We have received funding from numerous sources that has allowed us to do bigger projects, for greater good. We collaborate with educational institutions, too numerous to mention that study, investigate, and supply us with information that helps us understand the best way to manage our lands for the benefit of the wildlife: from New England Cottontails to Horseshoe Crabs, and from Piping Plovers to Box Turtles.
Collaborations and connections help us succeed.

Protecting habitat protects wildlife.

We are grateful for all the stewards who step up to help us on our properties. Many times they go unrecognized as they work quietly and efficiently to keep trails open, brush cut, walls repaired, invasive species under control, and litter picked up.
We thank those who work behind the scenes, not in the field but in the offices, trying to figure out finances and budgets and strategic plans and accreditation standards. They are all volunteers dedicated to helping the organization grow and function smoothly.

Our Members make Avalonia Successful 

Most importantly we need to thank our members and donors. Without your financial support, we would not have the ability to acquire the land as an investment in our future. We could not afford to manage and protect it. Like so many other non-profit organizations, we rely on the goodness and generosity of those who believe in our basic mission, to acquire, protect and manage the lands we cherish, so that the future generations (of wildlife and humans) will benefit.
Volunteers in the field, or marsh get the job done.

Thanks to all. Beth

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sandy Point sees a different kind of activity

By Beth Sullivan
Early this past week, while a giant blast of frigid air descended on the mid west, we were graced with a lovely respite, days in the 60s , sun and a few last days to pretend winter was not on its way.
Two of us intrepid (crazy) Avalonia Stewards decided to paddle out to Sandy Point. The breezes were light and the water was still warm, and there was a lot of activity to check out on the Island.
A calm, warm, grey November day.
All last spring and summer we kayaked together to search for Horseshoe crabs and tag them. Then we waited for shorebirds to arrive: Piping Plovers, Oystercatchers, and Terns. We watched them build nests, counted eggs, helped set up roping and signs to protect their fragile beginnings. We thrilled with every report from the USFWS stewards who reported fledglings. We also tried our best to educate the people who also love the island as to why it was so important for us to dedicate our time and energy to protect this special little piece of land and its inhabitants.
Dredging map of the navigation channel
On this November day there was different activity on the island, and we needed to check it out. This time it was barges and pumps and generators and other heavy equipment that we wanted to watch. In a joint effort by the Army Corps of Engineers and with oversight by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the navigation channel north of the island and around the western tip is being deepened. Over years of storms and winds, and high tides removing the sand, the center part of the island has diminished in height. There are times during super high tides in the spring, it completely over-washes. If there are nesting birds in that area, they are lost. Depending on the timing, they may not try and attempt to re-nest. It is the sand that the island has lost, that has filled in the channel.
Hurricane Sandy changed the contour of Sandy Point

Deepen the Channel- Raise the Island

This effort is not just about deepening that channel, but also restoring height to that lowest portion of the island. As the big barge maneuvers its way slowly along its course, it pumps huge volumes of water and sand through a large diameter pipeline, that extends more than half the length of the island: all the way to the low over-wash area. After only a few days and nights of work, there are mountains of sand piled high in the area. Other machines move and spread it out. The operators of these machines are working around the clock, bright lights illuminate the site though the night. There is a short window of time to complete the effort so that the habitat was not disturbed during the fall migration of shorebirds or the spring movements of horse shoe crabs.
Main barge with massive pumps sends sand and water back to the island

Rough Weather Work

In less than three months, months that can be the most brutal, weather-wise, the channel will be dredged, sandy soils re-deposited and spread and the island readied for the return of its inhabitants. The added sand may not make much difference to the Horseshoe crabs, but by late March and April when the first shore birds arrive, some of the Plovers will seek sandy dunes where there are grasses and shrubs to partially protect their nests. But others of them, and the Oystercatchers, and especially the Least Terns, will find a higher ground, open sand, and hopefully more safety from being washed away during high spring tides. We will continue to depend on the USFWS stewards and monitors, to protect and preserve the island, and we, Avalonia stewards will await the spring activity before we head out again.
Newly filled areas are being visited by opportunistic gulls; before long it will be Piping Plovers visiting.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan. Maps from USFWS.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Art, Science and The Unfeathered Bird

Next Tuesday evening, artist and naturalist, Katrina van Grouw will be speaking at the Wheeler Library in North Stonington about her recent book, The Unfeathered Bird.  Details for the free presentation are given below.  Don't miss this opportunity to see and hear Katrina van Grouw.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Planning for the Future : Connecticut’s Wildlife Action Plan

By Beth Sullivan
On November 8 several of us from Avalonia attended a meeting, with Ct DEEP biologists, to discuss issues confronting the wildlife here in CT: specifically Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), habitats that are imperiled along with their flora and fauna, identifying threats, both specific and broad to our wildlife and the beginnings of action plans that can be initiated to prevent further declines.
Free flowing streams are imperiled in CT.

The CT DEEP website

There is a wealth of information on the CT DEEP website. Personally, I love seeing that some of my tax dollars are going to issues I feel strongly about: conservation of land and wildlife. On the website, it is easy to get lost in all the varied areas of interest. The information about the discussion today can be found here. These dedicated wildlife biologists are working to identify species, abundance, threats, needs, and are asking for the public’s help to give them ideas of what we perceive are the greatest needs.
A salt marsh along the Stonington shore.

As a non-profit, all volunteer land trust, for us it was pretty easy to generalize: FUNDS! Funds for research, funds for staff, funds for stewardship, funds for acquisition. Without funding, so much is at stake. We cannot begin to protect the least or greatest of these species without the funds to do so.

Building public awareness

The next biggest need identified was public awareness. We all expressed great concern and frustration that not enough people seem to care. Or at least they don’t show up and demonstrate that they care. There was seating today for more than 30 people. There were really only 5 attendees if we don’t count the involved but captive staff of the Stonington Free Library! How do we get people concerned, interested, and involved? Good PR helps, and education would be fantastic. But even those things take money and time-and more people to do those things.
Avalonia is trying to do everything on a shoestring, with a small dedicated core of volunteers who act as executives, decision makers, PR staff, educators, wildlife watchers, stewards and laborers, and writers of plans and grants.
The good news is that even on that shoestring, Avalonia has succeeded in preserving over 3200 acres, most of those include the very habitats that the DEEP was talking about today.
We have many forested preserves that include wetlands, bogs, seeps, and vernal pools. Take a peek at Paffard Woods for forests with vernal wetlands and flowing streams. In the future there may be an effort to remove a downstream dam or create a fish ladder to improve the health of the Stony Brook that runs along its western edge all the way up to Fennerswoods and beyond. Free running streams are one of the habitats of concern.
Vernal pools are a very unique habitat.

Go to any of our coastal properties, from Stonington to Groton and even up to Ledyard along the Thames River to discover tidal wetlands, salt and brackish marshes and intertidal beaches, flats and shores. Avalonia holds offshore Islands: Sandy Point and South Dumpling that are of special concern for nesting shore birds.
The fragile habitat at Sandy Point needs protection.

Knox Preserve is unique as a Maritime Shrubland, and it also boasts coastal sandy habitats as well as mixed warm and cool season grasslands.
An example of coastal shrublands at Knox Preserve.
The Henne Preserve is a most wonderful example of a freshwater inland swamp, some of which is forested with Red Maple, some is shrub swamp, and some freshwater meadow and marsh.
Hoffman Preserve boasts mixed hardwoods and coniferous groves.
Dense evergreen groves can be found at Hoffman Preserve.
The Peck Callahan Properties are now prime to become early successional shrub to young forest land that will be habitat not just for the New England Cottontail but all the other species that depend on that special and quickly disappearing habitat.

Everyone can help

To start your own action plan, support Avalonia if you are in our area, or support your local land trust if you are not. Get involved. Make a statement; make a commitment. Look at the DEEP website and see what you can identify with and then go out onto a preserve and see what you think. See what strikes a chord and think how you can invest in your future by supporting land conservation in whatever way you can.
It is a good investment.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.