Monday, June 30, 2014

An Early Summer Update

By Beth Sullivan
Everywhere you turn at this time of year, wildlife species are busy. They're building nests and rearing young and we in turn are checking on all of them! As a steward for Avalonia, it is my ( happy) job to keep track of such progress.

Sandy Point

The Horseshoe Crabs have been busy on Sandy Point. An early May trip out with a group of Pine Point School students revealed a number of nests, and we were able to dig into one to show what the eggs look like. Due to uncooperative weather during the full moon cycle in June, we did not get out to the island, so the lucky crabs got to mate and lay eggs in peace. I will update more after our New Moon trip out for tagging and recording.

Horseshoe crab eggs look like miniature grey pearls

Scooping into sand searching for horseshoe crab eggs

The birds out on Sandy Point have been observed more closely. With a renewed and increased partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service out of Rhode Island, we have had a greater scientific presence on the island. American Oystercatchers and Piping Plovers are both rearing young there. They are in greatest danger at this point, as their nesting and fledging coincides with the most active season for human usage. Their nesting areas are roped off to protect them while still in the nest, but once those little ones get on their feet, they MOVE! They do not pay attention to roping, so it is our job to try to remind visitors to keep an eye out for them and let them have a wide berth. Fireworks, Kite Flying, any dogs, and general loud partying activities are seen as frightening and predatory for the birds, which may abandon their nesting areas. Avalonia volunteers, the stewards from the Stonington COMO, and the biologists from USFWS are all working together to protect the already threatened species.
Oystercatchers and their young are very vulnerable at this time of year

Knox Preserve

At the Knox Preserve, the Martins have been busy and successful! We have been monitoring 24 gourds this year. It always amazes me how tolerant the adult Purple Martins are. We have lowered and investigated the nests 3 times already. We monitored early nest construction, first egg laying ( 5/31), and first hatching (6/19). As of June 22, we had 18 babies! We are hoping for possibly another 15-18! DEEP biologists will return in a few weeks to band them as they did last year. Earlier, in May, I spotted three sub-adults with the orange/green band combination identifying them as “ours” from last year; That was thrilling! A full update will follow in a week or two.
A perfect Purple Martin nest

Tolerant adults return to the  as soon as they are raised

Vernal pools are drying slowly, so tadpoles will be making their transition to small frogs very soon. Wood Frogs and Peepers may have already done so. Keep an eye out for them leaping through the woods, as these two frog species don’t necessarily hang out by the ponds! The big bull frogs can be quite vocal now, declaring their territory. They are the last to lay eggs, but last year’s tadpoles overwintered in the ponds and will be developing legs soon.
A Bullfrog guarding its territory, they are the last to lay eggs.

Now the Spring Peepers move off into wet woodlands

Henne Preserve 

The Great Blue Herons out on the Henne Preserve have gotten quite big and look pretty silly standing up high in their nests. They will fledge soon.
Great Blue Heron triplets have gotten big since Mother's Day

Yes, it is a busy time, but it's ever so much fun to keep watch on all the developments!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stewardship, management, and a walk in the woods at Hoffman Preserve

The Hoffman Evergreen Preserve is one of Avalonia’s oldest and largest holdings. The original preserve was approximately 150 acres, and with additions over the years, it is now closer to 200 acres. The original land included several areas of planted evergreens in man-made forest areas of sorts, and the donor’s intent was to preserve and maintain the diversity including those plantations.
The entrance to Hoffman Evergreen Preserve.
The preserve is on the west side of Route 201 in Stonington, just south of the North Stonington border. It is lined by lovely and well-constructed stone walls that seem to accentuate the darkness of the woodlands behind them. There are several well-developed and maintained trails that loop and cover the entire main body of the preserve. In the near future we hope to complete an additional trail on the new portion added last year.

There is no doubt that a walk here is lovely, peaceful, and in many cases, green-even in the winter- thanks to the Pines and Hemlocks. The open understory is appealing to the eye. There are several species of woodland flowers that thrive in such an area, such as Rattlesnake Orchid and Pink Lady’s Slipper. In the humid wet season, mushrooms of all color and form abound on the decaying debris on the ground.
Fungi abound in the dark, moist forest areas.

Pink Lady's Slippers are very particular about where they can survive.

A 1984 Review

I had the opportunity to read an environmental review that was prepared in 1984. These documents are in-depth studies of geology, topography, and hydrology, as well as assessments of wildlife and habitats; It was interesting reading. I followed it up with a walk through the preserve to view it through the eyes of the report to think how it may have changed. And the change was huge!
In 1984 the evergreens were mature yet healthy. The forest was already changing with young hardwoods, deciduous Oaks, Beeches and Birches beginning to grow in amongst the Hemlocks and White Pines. Back in those years the big fear was the Gypsy Moth invasion and the effect on all species. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid had not yet appeared. Back in 1984 there were recommendations to start management. Preservation was defined as, “letting Nature take her course.” Results would be slow, and we would lose diversity. Conservation was defined as “Wise use of resources under management,” which was suggested to achieve the balance and diversity that was needed to maintain health in the system.


In the ensuing decades, the course of preservation was followed. The evergreen stands have over-matured and, in some cases, are dying. Deciduous Oaks and Beeches have grown larger, overtopped the Hemlocks, and further decreased their vigor. The invasion of the Wooly Adelgid pretty much sealed their fate, and the large lovely stands of Hemlocks are no longer lush and healthy. The big Pine groves are still impressive, though somewhat damaged by recent hurricanes and blizzards. There are young seedlings in the understory, fighting to survive.
Years ago this Evergreen lane was lush and dark.
In many areas, the forest floor is so shaded and likely over-browsed by deer, that there is no understory. That is not helpful for birds and wildlife that seek cover in the mid and lower levels of the forest.
Over time the canopy has thinned, letting in more light.

Our walk that day was lovely; no doubt about it. We heard Pileated Woodpeckers calling and drumming. They love the big old trees in the forest. Acadian flycatchers, which are pretty uncommon, were seen and heard in the old Hemlock areas. There were Vireos, Ovenbirds and other woodland species. The vernal pond was shaded, but there were frogs present. The trails are wide and evidence of an old cart path is visible in the stone bridge crossings. It is a beautiful preserve.
An old stone bridge on the lower trail.
Maybe someday we can restore those lush evergreen groves and all that made their home within them. We may need to think hard about the best way to protect all that is there-to conserve and manage, rather than just wait and see.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer begins

By Beth Sullivan
Whether you look at school calendars, lunar cycles, sun and solstice, or count from Memorial Day, one way or another , Summer begins this month. After the long, cold winter we are all breaking out the lightweight hiking shoes, tee shirts and bug spray! We are dusting off the kayaks and paddles and planning excursions that we have been waiting for.
Summer is not just about fun for us, it is breeding season for most of the wildlife that call our preserves home. While you are enjoying the trails, take some time to think about your surroundings and how best to share the habitats.

In the Woods

In the woods observe the nests: high in trees, holes above and below ground. Staying on the trail is important at this time of year as there are birds and animals that nest right on the ground and are easily frightened. Their nests and young are very susceptible to disturbance and danger. You may never see the Ovenbird’s nest in the leaves. Please keep your dogs restrained. While the small watery pools may look cool and inviting, the vernal ponds are now host to all kinds of amphibian young: salamanders, toads and frogs are all beginning life there and a muddy exuberant splash party does nothing to help them survive.
A vernal pool holds eggs and larval amphibians.
A well hidden Ovenbird nest.
Please stay on the trails in the woods.

Young chipmunks and squirrels are exploring now and are not quite up to par on how to protect themselves. They can run, climb and hide quite quickly, very early on. Other baby mammals are often left alone for long periods of time during the day: deer, rabbits and raccoons will leave their young, hopefully safe and hidden, while the parents find food for themselves. A baby left alone is not necessarily an orphan; do not touch it and leave your scent on it. A raccoon out walking in the daytime is not necessarily rabid, but likely a poor mom out to find some food and peace, away from her hungry brood. Watch, wait and be patient. Spending a long, quiet time in the woods is often very rewarding at this time of year.
Adult deer will leave their fawns alone for much of the day.

In the Grasslands

In the grasslands there are also nesting animals. Birds such as Song Sparrows, Meadow Larks, Bobolinks and Red-winged Blackbirds, among others, will nest deep in the tall grasses. They are also very vulnerable to disturbance and roaming pets. Most of Avalonia’s grassland preserves are posted as “Closed” beyond a certain point, to protect the nesting birds. Farmers who wish to protect their nesting birds will delay their first cutting of hay until nesting season is done.
A nest of Song Sparrows in the grass await a meal.
A Bobolink in the tall grass

In the Salt Marsh

Our salt marsh preserves are also full of new life. Many protected species of birds are those that nest in the fragile habitat. They are vulnerable to predation as well as the rising and flooding tides. Shrimp, crabs, fish and shellfish are all reproducing now in the sheltered shallows and they provide the sustenance needed for those higher on the food chain. Watch the Terns and the Osprey dive for fish and compare techniques!
Salt Marshes are fragile habitats and protect many vulnerable species.

We all love the water’s edge at this time of year. Whether you stroll the sandy beach, explore along the salt marsh, or kayak into coves and inlets, be aware of your surroundings. Go slowly, watch your step, look for nests that are barely scrapes in the beach, or a few strands of woven grasses. If a bird seems to explode from under your feet, stop, look, back away and observe closely: a nest or young may be nearby.
Eggs exposed in a bare sand nest.
Please respect the signs posted to protect the habitat. 

It is a wonderful, life-filled time, the beginning of summer: a great time to be born, to grow and also to explore and appreciate the cycles of all life.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, Rick Newton, and Chris Jackson.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Look at the History of Knox Preserve

by Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

Like several of Avalonia’s land holdings, the Knox Preserve, which is located off of Wilcox Road between Route 1 and the train tracks, contains a rich, story-filled history. The piece of land came to Avalonia through a generous gift by David D. Knox who donated the nearly 17 acres of property so as to ensure that the land would not be used for industrial development. In an article from June 19, 1985 by Phil Rieth, editor of The Compass, Knox said that “Stonington is being over-developed; I hope that I helped stop that a little”. After a tumultuous battle in the courtroom levied by Stonington residents over the potential use of the land for a magnesium plant, Knox acquired the parcel in 1968 but continued to face troubles as the land was still zoned for industrial purposes. Some 20 years later Knox decided to make the land’s preservation official in conjunction with Avalonia (or Mashantucket, as it was called back then).

Former corn fields have reverted to a more natural state.

Fruit trees from an old orchard attract Orioles.
Native plants attract birds and other wild life to the preserve.

The story of the Knox Preserve history however, becomes even more interesting as one goes back a few hundred years further. The piece of land was originally owned by Thomas Minor, the settler that is one of several featured on the Stonington founders’ monument. Records show that Minor probably first acquired the land some time around 1652. In addition to being a prominent figure in the establishment of Stonington and the surrounding area, Minor is quite well known for his diary. This diary is one of very few that survived the ages since the 1600’s. Because of this, Minor’s diary is an important implement as it provides a rare look into the daily life of the very first settlers in New England. In addition to the unique vocabulary and spelling, and among the insight provided into the daily tasks of a 17th century famer, Minor recounts first hand interactions with Native Americans. Though banal at times, Thomas Minor’s diary is a worthy read for its significance in the local southeastern Connecticut history. One can even still go visit Minor’s land, at Knox Preserve, and walk the land that served as a starting point for Stonington.

Historic walls reflect the hard labor and effort of a century ago.

Knox preserve has been highlighted in this blog series over the last year. It has lovely vistas, easy hiking trails and attracts abundant native wildlife as stewards continue to restore the habitats there.
But the works not over, old wires need to be removed now that they serve no purpose.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A History of the Acquisition of Dodge Paddock and the Beal Preserve

by Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

Much of this information comes from interviews with Shirley Beal and Anne Nalwalk, and we thank them for their time and great memories.
The Beal homestead and gardens.

A true grassroots effort

Shirley and Leonard Beal, owner of Dodson’s Boatyard, moved onto Main Street in Stonington Borough about 40 years ago. Their property looked out over a small piece of mostly wetlands that led up to Little Narragansett Bay. This was one of the last remaining pieces of undeveloped open space in Stonington Borough. This pristine parcel even played a significant role in the Stonington Borough community life, as it was the site of a historic and annual Easter day baseball game for Borough residents. Upon the passing of John E. Dodge, whose estate owned the land, there was great concern among the neighbors who abutted the property that it would be purchased and turned into condominiums. The Beals always had an interest in preserving land even before they became involved with Avalonia (or Mashantucket Land Trust, as it was called back then). 

A view from above of the gardens and the paddock.

With the Beals taking the lead, a fundraising effort began to purchase the pristine ocean front property and preserve it as one of the last remaining open spaces in Stonington Borough. In total, about 12 neighbors came together to purchase the land. Shirley remembers fondly how the efforts united the neighborhood, recalling the time a neighbor knocked on her door and insisted that though they couldn’t offer much, they wanted to help in any small way they could. It was no small task, involving many meetings and attorneys. The efforts ultimately ended in success, as they were able to purchase the land and preserve it through the Mashantucket Land Trust. The Beals then made another personal contribution to the preserve by donating a parcel of their own land and gardens that abutted the Dodge Paddock, creating an even larger parcel of land to be preserved.
Mrs, Beal's Garden in spring time.

Avalonia’s main task in managing the Dodge and Beal Preserves involves dealing with the drainage issues and the invasive Phragmites that have taken over the increasingly wetland. In recent years especially, the property has been flooding more and more as the tidal line and sea levels rise. The land originally had an open ended pipe to drain this flooding, though this simply facilitated flow of water both in and out of the preserve, and thus wasn’t terribly effective. Almost a decade ago a pipe with a clamshell-like device was installed that allowed water to flow out, but not in. This was moderately successful for several years, but the system was still plagued by frequent obstructions with sand and gravel after storms. As part of the massive destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the clamshell pipe was permanently clogged and secondary drain pipe fractured. In addition the storm deposited lots of debris around onto the property. It looks like it’s a good thing they never built condos there!
The historic walls still show the height of the debris after Sandy rolled through.

Pottery in the Past

Another interesting aspect of the Dodge Paddock preserve is the different industry that existed on the property over the last centuries. According to historical sources, beginning in 1811, cousins William and Adam State ran a pottery factory. Unfortunately, due primarily to technological developments in producing glass, the pottery industry began to lag and the States left the trade by 1835. Though the lifetime of their business may not have been long, the State cousins played a pivotal role in establishing the pottery industry in Connecticut and training several prominent apprentices. A steam powered saw mill was then run on the property until it burned down in 1865. Even to this day, pieces of pottery can be found on the property if one looks around close enough!
An example of States Pottery.

A mosaic made from States pottery shards.

Avalonia considers the Beals in the highest regard for their efforts in preserving this pristine and history-rich piece of land!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.