Monday, February 24, 2014

What would we do without winter?

By Beth Sullivan
Trying to think positive now. Sometimes hard at the end of February.
If it had not been winter we would not have walked into Paffard Woods and seen how beautiful the dark waters of the brook appeared in the deep white snow.

We would not have seen the frozen waterfalls at Fennerswoods. 

At Perry Natural Area we may not have noticed the patterns of the shadows on the snow. 

At Hoffman Preserve we might not have noticed the ice glistening in the tree tops.

At Knox Family Farm we might not have seen how the lovely and soft grays of the sky and ice blended together.

At Knox Preserve no one would have taken skis out on the trails and noticed that the fox made tracks along the wall and jumped over to its den. 

Along the cove at Cottrell Preserve the ice would not have created fantastic shapes over the rocks when the tide went out. 

At White Cedar Swamp, the path would not have looked like it led to a fairy land. 

The Snowy Owls would not have made such a spectacular appearance this year, and taken up hunting at Sandy Point.
Without winter we would not look forward to the first Pussy-willow or Snow-drop with such eagerness and gratefulness.

Be on the look-out. There are signs that winter will come to an end. Go take a walk and find some.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A College Connection

By Beth Sullivan
Just when winter has gotten me down, and it seems like there is little warmth or excitement other than the Weather Channel, along comes an exuberant and enthusiastic group of students!
Once again the Connecticut College Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment is teaming up with Avalonia Land Conservancy in Stonington. Last year we all learned a lot from the collaboration. It was a big first and a huge learning curve for me, having worked solely with elementary age students for 25 years. How wonderful to work with more adult minds that still have the same joy and enthusiasm for the natural world.

Anne Nalwalk (L, front row), Beth Sullivan, and Binti Ackley of Avalonia Land Conservancy meet with students at Conn College and Professor Doug Thompson (second from left in back row). 
Twelve students under the guidance and leadership of equally enthusiastic professors, Doug Thompson and Jennifer Pagach , met with us on February 4 at the college. Joined by Binti Ackley and Anne Nalwalk, our goal was to introduce the students to the organization of Avalonia as a non-profit land trust. We discussed the history of Avalonia, now 45 years young and holding nearly 3,500 acres in 8 SE CT towns. We explained how the Committees are set up: Stewardship, Acquisition, PR and Development, and Finances, as well as the formation of Town Committees that are a smaller version of the larger structure. This organization is fairly unique as Avalonia is one of very few regional land trusts and others look to our model. We had to be honest about growing pains, which are not unique to Avalonia, but are common to many such organizations. The students were quick to question our goals, our strengths and our weaknesses. During that discussion we talked about how the students could be of help regarding outreach, engaging the younger generation, and our need to develop a youth component within the organization. The meeting ran late, always a good sign as the kids came up with ideas: light bulbs all over the room!
2013 Project Knox plot with thriving native plants.
On the following Saturday, a frigid and windy day, we met the students on site at the two preserves that will be the focus of any field work they may choose for their projects: Knox Preserve and Dodge Paddock/Beal Preserve. These two were chosen because of their ease of access, variety of habitats, similar issues, and management plans that the students can refer to for background and details. The group was able to see the work in progress at Knox: the removal of invasives and restoration of the fields and shrub habitat. At Dodge they could see first hand the impact Hurricane Sandy had on the area and begin to understand the complexity, and cost, of trying to restore an area such as this.
At Dodge Paddock, the dunes were breached and native plants were destroyed.
At the end of the two hours, there were lots of chilled students, but Anne supplied hot chocolate and snacks! We had time for more questions and ideas. Everyone agreed that these two properties are absolute gems and cannot wait to spend some time on the sites.
Phragmites take over in flooded wetland at Dodge Paddock.

Cutting Phragmites at Knox Preserve. 
In the next weeks they will declare their interests and prepare their proposals. I will review and expect a lot of emails which I will welcome. So much energy, but so little time: the students will need to wrap up their work by early May! Some projects will be limited in their time frames; some are based on projects begun last year. But some will be the base for future projects as we hope this collaboration continues for many years.

At Knox Preserve, native shrubs have been cleared of invasive vines.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
You can learn more about the Goodwin-Niering Center at Connecticut College here, or on Facebook.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Citizen science

By Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan
Brrr... it's been cold outside.... very cold. It is probably keeping some of us from getting outside, or hitting the trails as often as we'd like, to enjoy nature. While we wait for the migrants to return, and the osprey to show up at their nests, we can still enjoy the birds of winter and actually enhance our understanding of our avian friends through Citizen Science projects. Participating might even make these last weeks of winter just a bit more bearable.
Male Northern Cardinal
Female Northern Cardinal
The Great Backyard Bird Count
This is an annual four-day event taking place this year on February 14 - 17. This is the 17th annual count, and last year about 134,000 people submitted lists of their observations.
This Sharped Shinned Hawk is also watching the backyard birds.
You can participate from anywhere, from inside your home or the warmth of your car, as long as you do at least 15 minutes of observation. Most people enjoy watching the birds at their feeders. The only other requirement is simply counting the number of each species of bird you see over that specified time period. By counting in the same place at the same time over years, you can create your own yard list and compare your lists from year to year. There are a number of “most commonly expected” yard birds as shown here and included in last week’s blog. But always be alert to surprises, like turkeys or even hawks! If you expand your range, you will be surprised at the great variety of birds you can find in a short period!
A Carolina Wren enjoying a suet feeder.
You may be thinking that submitting data for only 15 minutes of observation really doesn't matter - but it does. The data are gathered from tens of thousands of volunteers all over the world and can create a snapshot in time of species, distributions and populations. You may remember the Christmas Bird Count we discussed at the beginning of January. This is less intensive, much easier to do, but offers insight into changes in populations over time that may be correlated to weather trends and other environmental concerns.
A male House Finch is cracking open sunflower seeds from a backyard feeder.
It is pretty simple to participate. For details it is fun to peek around the Great Backyard Bird Count website. It will give you specifics about how to count your birds and more importantly how to submit your lists. Then you can spend more winter days exploring the data and maps and see how the trends are analyzed.
Song Sparrows are common in south-eastern Connecticut.
Binoculars are helpful, and a good field guide is pretty essential, especially when sorting out little brown sparrows! Sibley, Audubon, Peterson and National Geographic all have inexpensive and very useful guides.
Goldfinch in dull winter plumage.
Once you get started, you might just get hooked. In that case there is Project Feeder Watch and the ebird community of bird enthusiasts. These are also all on-line.
Tufted Titmouse
Go to the following website to get psyched!
Juncos come south for the winter and summer in Canada.  
And..if you decide you really are hooked, you can plan an enhanced habitat for the birds you will count next year with the Yardmap software!
Yardmap is a free mapping project designed to "cultivate a richer understanding of bird habitat". Essentially, it is making a map of your yard or other location using the on-line tools at their website. There are lots of tips to make your yard more bird friendly. You can learn about your local EcoRegion and view lists of native plants, native plant nurseries and seed companies and community gardens that are nearby.
Red-Bellied Woodpecker.
So as winter still grabs at us, and keeps us from easy hiking, think how you and your family can become more involved in understanding the birds we share our world with and become Citizen Scientists!
Other Citizen Science projects can be found in this article:

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Should we migrate this winter??

By Beth Sullivan
Isn't it just mind boggling to think that creatures as fragile and beautiful as birds, can survive such winter weather as we have been experiencing?
They not only survive, but many seem to relish the cold and snow. Nature has endowed them with numerous adaptations, physical and behavioral, that ensure that most will indeed make it through the winter.
You don’t have to go far to make observations. As lovely as a walk might be, out and about on a beautiful trail, you can learn plenty about birds from the comfort of your warm home.
Simply: if a bird can find food, it will remain here and survive the winter. With super high metabolisms, birds need constant fuel. They will search out the highest caloric foods. Nuts and seeds are high in fat and protein but often the effort to find and crack seeds seems to be greater than the value of the food. Watch a Chickadee fly back and forth to your feeder. Each time it grabs a seed, it must fly away to a hard surface, grab the seed between its feet and chip away at it until it opens. They seem to be in nonstop motion throughout the day.
Chickadee working to open a seed.
You may notice that there are still berries on a number of species of shrubs. The cold temperatures preserve them, even ferment them, making them quite warming to those birds who seek them out, like Robins, Bluebirds and Cedar Waxwings.
Most insect eaters will have flown south, but some Woodpeckers and Nuthatches know how to find insects, eggs and larvae hidden under bits of bark on tree trunks and branches.
Downy Woodpecker rests on the lee side of a branch.
Suet provides high fat, protein, seeds and even berries and will be visited by many birds in winter, even those usually not associated with suet feeding. With good food sources, birds will pack on the grams of extra fat to keep them warm and get them through the long nights.
Bluebirds enjoying a suet snack.

Grackle eating suet
Feathers: hard to believe those delicate feathers can provide enough protection to keep those little bodies warm. Birds actually will add a layer of down during the winter months. It doesn’t change their appearance. Watch a bird sitting on a branch and you might notice him fluff up a bit. By doing this, he can trap more warm air around himself. Think of us using several light layers instead of one heavy one, for most warmth.
White Throated Sparrow fluffs up to insulate himself.
Observe a bird on a tree trunk. In the wind and cold they will find the lee side or the sunny side to just rest and save energy. Birds do shiver. They contact their muscles, alternating groups, and create warmth from the action. That is really hard to see under all those feathers!
Brown Creeper looks for food under bark and lichen.
Cold Feet? Ever wonder how water birds, as ducks and geese and gulls can stand on ice and not suffer the consequences? The circulation in their feet and legs is quite unique, preventing truly cold blood from returning to the core, but warming it on the way! Watch as small birds in the snow or gulls and others on the ice, will stand on one leg and curl the other up into their breast feathers for warmth. That helps too.
Ring Billed Gull with one leg warming
So take a walk and search out the birds enjoying the winter. Or better still, find a window, get out your binoculars, learn your feeder birds and notice the small things that help them survive. It will help you with our challenge next week!

Photographed by Beth Sullivan.