Monday, April 28, 2014

A walk in a swamp

By Beth Sullivan
It may or may not be true that life began in a swamp, but for sure, Spring begins here. We look for the earliest spring plants, such as Skunk Cabbage and Hellebore in wetlands. We listen for the singing of the Red Winged Blackbirds in cattails and reeds as a sure sign of the season. Peepers and Wood Frogs chorus in the wet woods, and Spotted Salamanders attach egg masses to sticks in the shallow pools. The Red maples are the trees that most tolerate the wetlands and can grow in standing water for a while. Their bright red blossoms give the swamp a rosy haze.

Red Maple flowers

Spotted Salamander egg masses 
Several of Avalonia’s Preserves have beautiful wetlands, but it takes a special area to attract Wood Ducks. The Anguilla Brook runs from North Stonington through Stonington on its way to Wequetequock Cove and Long Island Sound. On its run it passes through several other Avalonia Preserves and protected open spaces. The waters flow fresh and clean. Historically they ran unrestricted, and American eels, for which the brook is named, traveled its length.
When the waters reach an area in Pawcatuck, before they collect in a pond then pour over a drop to the cove, they spread out in a big wetland area which is known as the Anguilla Brook Preserve “Birdland Tract” for its location behind the Birdland neighborhood. The marsh is large, shallow and almost eerie with skeletal trees, many dead from years of being flooded, shrubs draped in vines and hummocks of grasses.
Wood Duck Territory
This is Wood Duck territory. Normally the ducks will actually nest in tree holes. In a swamp like this with so many dead trees, there are often holes for their needs. When the young hatch, they use their special toenails on webbed feet, to climb the inside of the hollow and then launch themselves out the hole! If there is water below, they will float and immediately swim. If the tree hole is over dry land, the little ducklings will hopefully land softly on the leaves below. Videos have captured them bouncing lightly before walking off to find water with the rest of their family. As stewards of the marshland we have the opportunity to provide additional nest sites.
Marshy Wood Duck territory

Usually very secretive, this male Wood Duck showed up on a bird feeder. Photo by Bob Dewire.

Over the last weeks, four new Wood Duck nest boxes were installed. They are made from lumber donated by UBS and designed and built by member/volunteer Tom Frohnapfel and his family: Muireann, Ethan and Fiona . We went out on a chilly day, listened to peepers, looked for salamander egg masses, and found 4 perfect sites for the houses. Tom returned later with metal sheeting to act as predator guards. Thank you to Tom and his whole family for the effort, and for making it fun to get out and put them up!
Our generous volunteers!

Installed Wood Duck nest box

What we hope to find when we check the nests.

We walked back in yesterday. Access at this point is very limited, over private property. We did not see ducks actually in the houses, but saw a pair in the brook. We also enjoyed other colors of spring: green hellebore and red maple, yellow marsh marigolds and even blue…a great blue heron flew in to check out possible nest sites!
This Great Blue Heron looks awkward high in a tree.

We'll keep you posted!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Bob Dewire.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Visit Babcock Ridge Saturday, April 26

Join members of Avalonia Land Conservancy at Babcock Ridge, Saturday April 26, at 10am for a hike through this rocky corridor. While you're hiking, look for amphibians in the vernal pools; search the trees for migrating birds headed north to their summer breeding grounds, or resident birds looking for the perfect nest site on the Ridge. Look for moss and skunk cabbage, and maybe, finally, some leaf buds on the trees to prove that Spring is here.

Meet at 113 Babcock Rd., North Stonington. Look for the "park here" sign and other cars.

*Help us reach our goal*

And while your walking the trails, remember that we are only $25,000 away from reaching our goal to be able to purchase and preserve this property.
Please contribute what you can before the June 30 deadline. 

Written and photographed by the members of Avalonia Land Conservancy.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Finally-Spring at last!

By Beth Sullivan
Really what a joy it is to be able to finally see the changes happening. We all waited so long! As winter seems to have truly lost its strangle hold on everything, we can now begin to stretch a bit, get out and look around and checklist our “firsts” again.
We noted the first osprey a few weeks back, and by now most of the platforms have been staked out, claimed and the birds paired up. There is a lot of wheeling and screaming happening, and sometimes drama as the birds seem to be jockeying for position or partners. Avalonia properties offer many opportunities to observe osprey behavior. You can station yourself safely off the road on Mystic’s River Road by the Downes Marsh. The pair on Paffard Marsh on Rt 1 in Stonington is easily viewed from an adjacent parking area if there are no events at the venue. My favorite place to spy on the osprey is from the trail on Knox Preserve. You can either sit high on the rocky knoll and be almost at nest level, or be closer, almost under the nest, on the lower trail. It is mesmerizing.

Osprey are now paired at their chosen nest sites.

It is also time to welcome other new arrivals. While a few individuals of a species, such as Catbird or Mockingbird, may have hunkered down for the winter here, most are beginning to arrive from their winter homes and make themselves known with their recognizable calls as they take up residence in tangles of shrubs. A Catbird can be quite noisy under an open window at dawn’s first light!
Some Catbirds remain all winter, but most are returning from southern climates.

Mockingbirds may sing at night as they take up residence in a favorite shrub.

People often say “the Goldfinches are back” but in reality they have been here all along, in subtle dull plumage suitable for winter. It is only now that the males are molting their drab colors and showing up fresh and bright yellow with black cap and wings. He looks all -together different, but has been at our feeders, moving about the area, throughout the winter. Dandelions, Forsythia, Daffodils and Goldfinches, all herald spring with yellow.
The male Goldfinch now displays spring yellow!

We will start to miss our Juncos, one day here and the next they are quietly gone. White Throated Sparrows remain until well into May and in the morning and evening can be heard whistling their full spring songs.
Juncos will remain as close as northern New England for nesting season.
White-Throated Sparrows will stay here until May.

They too seem to slip away while we are paying attention to all the new arrivals of Warblers and others that will stream in during the next weeks.
Yellow Warblers will be arriving on warm spring breezes.

You may also one day notice that there are fewer ducks: no Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers on our coves. Some of our winter ducks fly to the far North and Northwest to arctic breeding grounds. Instead we can be entertained by the antics of male Mallards strutting and showing off glossy green heads, as they try to out-do one another to entice the females. Soon they will be nesting.
Buffleheads are returning to their far northern breeding grounds.

Hooded Mergansers have left already. 
Male Mallards will be competing for their mates.
Such an active time now: take time to observe. Find a spot and watch spring stream in, right before our eyes, on the wings of the birds.

Photographs by Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment has plans for Knox Preserve

By Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

The Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment is a prestigious interdisciplinary certificate program at Connecticut College in New London. Students in the program come from a wide range of academic backgrounds and work to tackle challenging sustainability and ecological issues through a research-based project on an environmental topic of their own choosing. The Center provides a series of seminars for the students as a foundation for them to build off of for their individual research project. For the sophomore Goodwin-Niering students, the seminar focuses upon land management and conservation.
Native plants from last year's projects at Knox Preserve.

Avalonia Land Conservancy is now in its second year of partnership with the Goodwin-Niering Center sophomore students. It is through this partnership that the students are able to complete mini land management projects as hands-on practice of what they learn in the sophomore seminar. This symbiotic relationship provides Avalonia with additional volunteers to help further management projects on the preserves, while simultaneously allowing for the students to gain invaluable experience as they plan and implement their own mini projects on the land.
In depth discussion of the students’ projects for Avalonia will be forthcoming, but here is a brief introduction to each of the students and their project:

Olivia Rabbit and Aly Cheney:

Aly and Olivia will be planting native plant species along a 30-foot section of stone wall near the entrance to Knox Preserve. They’re choosing plants based upon aesthetics and what will attract pollinators to the area.

Matt Luciani and Maia Draper-Reich:

Maia and Matt will be working at Dodge Paddock preserve where they’ll focus on rebuilding the dune vegetation that was knocked out by Hurricane Sandy.

Jessica Wright and Natalie:

Natalie and Jess will be tackling a particularly difficult corner of Knox Preserve. They’ll be looking to de-root invasive species, such as Tree of Heaven and Bittersweet, and utilize that dead invasive to create a large brush pile that will benefit wildlife until native species can be re-established.

Anna Marshall and Caitlin Persa:

Caitlin and Anna will be evaluating the best spots in Knox Preserve to establish native plant species habitat. They’ll be determining soil salinity levels to match locations with plants that enjoy that particular salinity level.

Emma Rotner and Emily MacGibeny:

Emily and Emma will be clearing 3 plots in which they will then plant a variety of native species. They will analyze how well each native species survives when in competition with the encroaching invasive species from outside the plots.

Cian Fields and Marina Stuart:

Marina and Cian are your humble authors of this particular blog post! They’re working on public outreach and relations for Avalonia as a means to increase membership, especially among younger generations. Check out past (and future!) blog posts to see more of what all the students are up to! 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Building a better brush pile

By Beth Sullivan
The problem with a partial “ beauty makeover” is that the untouched parts really look awful by comparison!! Over the past weeks you read of work parties giving a face lift to the stone walls along Paffard Woods. They look great. But it made us realize the rest of the area needed a face lift too! There was still a lot of post Hurricane Sandy debris, drying and browning all around the parking area. A couple of us decided to continue the make over before things got growing.
This preserve is in a place of high visibility, passed by residents and visitors to our town as they travel North Main Street. It is beloved by hikers of all ages as it has a great variety of habitats and scenery. There are geocaches and fairy houses. Wood frogs and Peepers are making their chorus now. Pine groves line the road on the eastern edge; the trails lead down to a beautiful clear and often swift running stream, Stony Brook. Views of rocky ledges, small caves, large beech trees, glacial erratic boulders and vernal pools meet the eye around each corner. The loop trails follow stone walls with old Oak “Nooning trees”, allow places to stop along the brook and then pass over interesting stream crossings before leading back up and around to a field edge and back along the pines to the entrance and parking area.
Stony Brook in Paffard Woods Preserve.
Beech trees and rock ledges are common features in the Woods.
Sadly it is often a “night time” meeting spot and dumping area so we were faced with an odd assortment of litter and debris. Pretty awful. We decided to dismantle the huge brush pile that was thrown together haphazardly after the storm, in order to get to bigger pieces that needed better cutting to be more manageable. What to do with it all? Well, we made another brush pile! But this time it was created in a way to encourage wildlife. Yes, there is a way to build a better pile!
Dumped garden waste detracts from the beauty of these woodlands.
Starting with the largest pieces, small logs, we laid them down as a base, parallel to each other with at least 10-12 inches between them. The next layer was slightly smaller pieces, but still solid, and laid in a cross hatch manner over the base. The next layer above that was more or less placed the same as the first. This produced great nooks and crannies, holes and openings, near the ground, that tunneling mammals so love. Mice, voles, chipmunks and rabbits will nest inside the protected base areas. After those layers, things get a little less organized and brush is smaller and lain atop the base. It can be angled up from the sides, but the smaller branches on the top then make a denser cover for birds to fly into. Some birds, like wrens, will nest in the piles, but they are essential cover for many species of fledglings. We ended up with quite the wildlife resort!
The base layer should be the largest logs.
The second layer should be cross hatched over the first.
The third layer should make another cross hatch.
Top with brush, piled high for shelter.
There is still more to be done. Some really big pine trunks need to be cut and moved. A work party will follow soon. It still looks pretty brown and broken in places, but soon the green season will soften the edges and cover the winter gray.
There's always more to do, consider helping at the next work party.
Look at the brush pile for signs of life and think of it as a safe haven. Children enjoy making little Fairy houses in the woods. Avalonia Volunteers think BIG…and make more brush piles for wildlife. Get your kids to help you do the same in your yard or wood lot!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.