Monday, March 31, 2014

Putting more field in Track and Field

By Marina Stuart and Cian Fields
Connecticut College

 Every March, the Track and Field team at Connecticut College does two community service days. In recent years they have been at local farms or recycling plants, any place that could put fifty odd people to work. This year, they worked at two preserves owned by Avalonia Land Conservancy. 
The idea was started when the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment (GNCE) at Connecticut College teamed up with Avalonia for the second year, to give the new sophomores of GNCE projects to help them understand land conservancy and stewardship. One of the projects was to find ways and strategies to expand Avalonia’s member base and especially to reach out to younger people in the community.
After discussing details of times and places and numbers, the track and field team and Avalonia decided that there would be two work days: one at Paffard Woods Preserve and one at Dodge Paddock. Each day had the same main goals: remove brush and invasive plants and do any other work that needed to be done on the site.
Students from the Connecticut College Track and Field team work to clear the walls of the Paffard Woods Preserve.

The first work day was Tuesday March 18th, and 25 members of the team and one coach made their way over from Conn to the Paffard Woods Preserve along North Main street in Stonington. The team was met by Beth, Binti, and Anne from Avaloinia, and after distributing tools we set out. The main point of Tuesday’s work day was to clear the stone wall that lines the preserve along road. Parts of it had been cleared earlier, but huge sections were covered with multi flora rose bush, poison ivy, bittersweet and other vines.

There is a wall!

Everyone divided into small groups of four or five people and spaced out along the wall. We worked hard for about two hours, clearing off the majority of vines and plants from the rock wall. Even though it was cold and cloudy, the team members still enjoyed themselves. One member said that this work was much more rewarding than the community service projects done in the past, because we could actually see the fruits of our labors and pulling off weeds was fun and cathartic.
Twenty-five team members helped clear the wall at Paffard Woods.

On Thursday, which turned out to be a little warmer and sunnier, a new group of athletes traveled into Stonington to Dodge Paddock. With the waves crashing, everyone set to work clearing off the large, historic, stone wall in the back of Dodge. There were huge stalks of oriental bittersweet and multi flora rose everywhere but the team set to work with their clippers and loppers, pulling down vines from the rock wall. Some of the stalks of Ailanthus trees were so thick at the bottom we had to take a hand saw to them!
The north wall of Dodge Paddock after the Track and Field team cleared it.

We also removed large rocks and branches from the ground to clear the way for a mower. We set to work removing stumps, which was great fun for all of us and very rewarding in the end . There is nothing like the feeling of yanking out a stump and seeing all the roots that go with it, dangling in your hand. After the wall was cleared we set to work trimming back the multi-flora rose and also removing debris and vines from the lone tree that stands in the corner of the meadow. After another two hour period Dodge was cleared out, and we think the Borough of Stonington was a little surprised at all the logs and braches we carried out and piled up in the parking lot. Overall the work days were hugely successful and hopefully the start of a new partnership between the Connecticut College track and field team and Avalonia!
The north wall, looking toward the water.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spring cleaning and other signs

By Beth Sullivan
Winter has officially ended, and as this is written the meteorologists are getting all excited about yet another “Snow Bomb”. However, it is more important to review the last week of good days and recognize that things are indeed changing around us.
Because the weather has been so nice for the last several days, we have been out beginning our spring cleaning on several preserves. It has been great to be out and working again and, while doing so, it is impossible to not notice those spring signs. Last year at this time, I dedicated several blogs to spring firsts: Osprey,  Skunk Cabbage, among others. Go back and review…we may need reminders this year since so much is late! However, the first osprey for me arrived today on the nest at Paffard Marsh Preserve on Route 1 in Stonington. Another was reported on the Downes Marsh on River Road in Mystic. I have only heard one Phoebe. As insect eaters, I surely hope they remain down south until the next blast of weather is done. A quick stroll around Paffard Woods and Knox Family Farm revealed Skunk cabbage populating the wetlands there.
The Osprey returned to Paffard Marsh this week.

Skunk cabbage start growing with snow all around.

There have been a few reports of amphibians also. The couple of warmer days melted the vernal pools and softened the earth so a little stirring began: a few tentative peeps from the Spring Peepers, one very cold Wood frog uncovered by an excited child in the woods, and a few brave Spotted Salamanders moving into breeding pools. All of these will need to seek shelter when the temperatures return to frigid or their lives will be in jeopardy.
A Spotted Salamander in its wetland habitat. 

The cold did not stop us from getting a lot done this week. Our collaboration with the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment, at Connecticut College, provided us with willing hands: 50 students=100 hands! Their team leader will be guest writing this blog over the next weeks about their effort, so I will not go into details. All I can say is WOW! Please find some time to take a walk at Dodge Paddock in the Borough and notice the changes. Drive along North Main Street and the Paffard Woods Preserve and admire the gorgeous stone walls!
Students from Connecticut College work on clearing the stone walls at the edge of Dodge Paddock in Stonington Borough.

And while you are out, please notice that the fields at the Knox Preserve have been mowed, thanks to some wonderful volunteers with time, energy and the right machines! They uncovered mice and vole tunnels as well as discovering woodchuck burrows. The shortened grass will encourage the Woodcocks as they seek out the wet areas, and sparrows are enjoying gleaning the seeds now on the ground. Red-winged Blackbirds are singing at the little pond.

Red winged Black Bird.
Newly mowed Knox Preserve waiting for warmer temperatures.

I guess spring has arrived! Enjoy it.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, Rick Newton, and Roger Wolfe.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The History in Our Preserved Landscape

By Beth Sullivan
Those of us who regularly wander the Avalonia trails, are quite aware of some of the historical elements around us. We walk with our eyes on the plants, on the birds and on the natural surroundings, but we also recognize that human influence has played a great part in shaping the land we now have protected. Sometimes it is these elements that make a piece of land more valuable.

SCLA Picture
The stonewalls that criss-cross the land are probably the most familiar to us. Signs of the rural past, they speak of farming and pasturing livestock. Even rusted remains of farm implements, barbed wire, cart wheel rims, old buckets and tools add to the story of our land.
Fence posts and wire are signs of the past.
Some of our properties, such as Hoffman Preserve, Perry Natural area, and Stony Brook Preserve, among others, have old cemeteries within their borders. A meditative walk among the weathered stones will tell of the families who lived on the land in centuries past. These and others have stone foundations that dot the landscape complete with chimney bases, root cellars, hearth stones and stoops.
A mysterious structure that was likely a root cellar or shelter.
On Pequotsepos Brook Preserve there are cart roads, in places barely visible through the woody growth, and in other areas are still the foundation for the paths we walk on today. A practiced eye will trace their trail through barway openings in walls and then follow them as they cross the brook with sturdy stone bridges.
This stone bridge was part of a cart trail.
While Avalonias mission is to preserve our natural diversity, we also recognize the need to preserve these elements as well. Our stewardship goals often include clearing walls, exposing bridges and preserving foundations and artifacts while allowing visitors to appreciate the history of the land.
These stone walls marked out pasture land.
Over the last months, a new group has formed in Stonington to address the importance of these elements in our town This new group is The Stonington Cultural Landscape Alliance (SCLA). The group seeks to bring together numerous and diverse groups and individuals that represent all aspects of our towns past and future. From the Stonington Historical Society and the Denison Society, to land preservation organizations such as Avalonia and the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, to elected officials and members of various commissions, the group hopes to unite forces and focus on the history and culture that shaped our town.
This old well once provided water for local residents.
On Saturday, March 15 the SCLA stepped out into the town and offered three different excursions for interested invitees. A tour of the Coogan farm was one offering, a boat trip on the Pawcatuck river was another, and the third was an in- depth look at Dodge Paddock/Beal Preserve one of Avalonia’s most frequented and unique pieces of land.
The entrance to Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve.
Led by the Avalonia team of Beth Moore, to relay the interesting history and background of the area, and myself, to offer the environmental, ecological background, the purpose was to bring attention to the significance of the area and also address the changes that threaten such an area due to environmental conditions beyond our control. On that one small preserve we could outline the history, discuss the present issues, and explore our goals and options for the future. At least 15 participants joined us on the walk, asked questions and got a greater understanding of the complexities involved in good stewardship for a historical and ecologically sensitive site.
While some efforts to preserve land in Stonington get a lot of attention, Avalonia has been quietly acquiring land for over 45 years. We steward over 50 parcels, combined on about 40 preserves and nearly 1000 acres. Many of our larger parcels have lovely trails that allow visitors to appreciate the history as well as the nature. Even those without trails are open for those who like to get off the beaten path.
Over time, we hope to include the cultural and historical aspects to our descriptions of our preserves, here on the blog. We hope you will enjoy the added direction.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and SCLA.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Update on Babcock Ridge Acquisition

By Beth Sullivan
Some things slow down during the winter, but behind the scenes a number of individuals have continued their effort to complete the fund- raising for the acquisition of Babcock Ridge in North Stonington. Our June 30 deadline is approaching quickly.
Even walking this land in the winter, during the quiet season, it is obvious what a gem this piece of land is. We wrote about it here last September. Through the late summer and fall there were guided walks through the preserve to explore and understand the habitats we aim to protect. The vernal pond is deeply frozen still, but over the last weeks, as the sun has gotten stronger, there have been moments of melting. By the end of this month ( we have to believe it will get warmer) the little pond will have thawed, the ice will have loosened its grip on the earth, soft evergreen sphagnum moss will welcome the Spotted Salamanders, Wood frogs and Spring Peepers will be drawn to the water for egg laying.
A sign of the coming thaw.

This vernal pool is still frozen but will soon be bursting with life.

Sphagnum moss covers portions of the wooded wetlands.

Through the winter, hikers have walked the trail and moved through the woods, exploring, to understand the rugged land. We have discovered Pileated Woodpeckers high on the ridge. They require large tracts of large trees, as their nest holes need to be really big to accommodate their crow sized bodies. The photo illustrates the unique almost rectangular shape of their nest holes which can be 6 to 9 inches in length. If you look on the ground near where a Pileated woodpecker has been working, the wood chips and shards are impressive-several inches long!
Pileated Woodpecker hard at work.

Wood chips from a Pileated Woodpecker's excavation

These rectangular openings are characteristic of the Pileated Woodpecker.
While the snow was on the trails we found deer prints, among others, using the same paths we did. We noticed mammal prints traveling along below the rocky ledges, leading to caves and dens.
Deer follow the same trails as the hikers.

As of this writing we have only $65,000 left to reach our goal. To this point we have received extremely generous donations from members and individuals. Dog Watch Café assisted with a great, fun, fund raiser bringing in $600. Some grants have been approved and added to our tally. Several more grants are outstanding, and we will hear about them in the next couple of months. We still need your help.

Our fund raising is entering its next phase. We are reaching out to corporations and businesses in the area asking them to Invest in North Stonington’s Future with Babcock Ridge with this message from Avalonia: Indeed it is in everyone’s economic interest to protect what is special about the place we call “home.” As the rate of growth increases in our area, it becomes ever more important as “value investors” to entrust our town’s natural and farm lands preservation, as well as historic sites protection, to an organization that helps guide and balance both growth and preservation activities in our county – “to protect what needs to be protected and build what needs to be built.”

The next scheduled walks on the preserve come up soon:
  • Wednesday, March 26 at 6:30 pm: to look for amphibians at the vernal pool.
  • Saturday, April 12 at 10:00 am
  • Saturday, April 26 at 10:00 am
Please plan on joining us for a walk. See first-hand why this is so important in the grand scheme of things. See our earlier post for location information. If you have donated already, we thank you sincerely, and invite you to join us on a walk to explore this area you have invested in. Even after the bone chilling winter, there is still much to see and appreciate and preserve.

All Photographs Copyright 2014 Bruce Fellman

Monday, March 3, 2014

Happy Anniversary

Dear Readers,
    Today's edition of Avalonia etrails celebrates the one year anniversary of our blog. We've had 70 posts, since our launch. The overwhelming majority have been written by Beth Sullivan.  I'm sure you'll join me in thanking her for her fine writing, interesting subjects, and wonderful photography. I'd also like to thank Rick Newton for his contributions to our blog. His ideas and stunning photographs helped make our first year so successful.
   Reviewing the last year, our most popular topic has been the horseshoe crab. Of the top three most popular posts, two are about horseshoe crabs.  You can find them here and here.
A tagged horseshoe crab.

   In our second year, in addition to Beth's continuing contributions, we expect to publish posts from students at Connecticut College's Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment as part of their studies of several Avalonia properites. And perhaps this is your year to contribute a post or photograph to Avalonia etrails as well.

Thanks for reading,
Al Bach

Winter Stewardship

By Beth Sullivan
Over the last months, we have all felt the desire to hibernate just a bit. Many stewardship activities have ceased. Mowers and clippers and trimmers have been cleaned up and put away. But winter is also a good time to catch up on some chores that are harder to do in the green seasons.
One of our obligations, as stewards, is to walk the boundaries of each property, at least once a year, to make sure it is properly and visibly posted and to make sure there are no encroachments from neighbors or signs of vandalism in the out of the way corners. Many of our preserves have trails, but they don’t necessarily hug the edges. Winter is a good time to follow the walls, find the boundaries and check the outside borders. One thing we may discover is that the boundaries have not yet been posted! That makes it more interesting.

Boundaries often cross streams
Posting the edges of our preserves is an important part of stewardship.
We arm ourselves with maps and deeds to start. Each property has a “Shape File” in our records and that can be used with a GPS device. However, to be accurate, we often need to bring the maps and deeds with descriptions of walls and features, drill holes, landmarks and such. Bringing a compass, and even better still, someone who is really knowledgeable with it, allows us to follow angles and lines. A 200 foot tape measure gets us from one point to another along a definite distance. All this might be hard enough in open land, but then we need to get it all done in the woods! There are always shrub thickets, briar patches, streams and wetlands with which to contend. Rocks and ledges get in the way of straight lines. If we are lucky the deed and maps agree, and the property lines run along a stone wall. Those farmers and landowners will never know how often we bless them as we follow their well-made and beautiful walls. However, there are many instances where the property line has no landmarks, and the line must be determined by compass sighting and measured. This has been a lot easier to do while the leaves are off the trees, and the ground and wetlands are frozen!
Checking deeds and maps is part of finding the edges.
What makes it most interesting is that we get a chance to see portions of the property that we may not otherwise visit when we make our usual hikes on the established trails.
Ledges and boulders get in the way of straight lines
Sadly we do find signs of encroachment: neighbors tossing lawn and yard debris onto our land, dumped bedding, appliances, old machines, hideouts where locals have had parties or camped out, forts built by kids that have become fortresses! It is often tricky to deal with such issues, but it must be done.
Sadly, dumping is often discovered on boundary surveys.

An illegal deer hunting stand discovered on a survey.
When we posted the boundaries of the new addition to the Hoffman Preserve, we found old stone foundations, rock cairns, lovely bogs and seeps where the water was open and unfrozen, even in the depth of winter. As we nailed one of our boundary signs to a big old tree, the hammering awakened a Flying Squirrel who launched itself off the trunk, straight at me and over my head to the next tree! A memorable encounter.
Avalonia signs need to be placed up high.

Stone walls and drill holes create legal boundary marks.
We have posted the boundaries on several new properties this winter and are catching up on posting some older ones. We have walked the outer edges, given thanks to the farmers who made the walls we follow and learned a bit more about some of our really lovely preserved land.

Photographs by Beth and Jim Sullivan.