Monday, July 28, 2014

A Mid Summer Report from Sandy Point

By Beth Sullivan
Sandy Point is Avalonia’s lovely little gem of an island, situated East of Stonington Point, South of Barn Island and North of Napatree Point. It is a spot treasured by many for the sandy beach, clear cool water, and peaceful surroundings, but also as a premier wildlife preserve. Situated partly in CT and mostly in RI, it poses a unique set of issues for stewardship and preservation.

Oystercathers nest on Sandy Point.

Sandy Point. One island, two states.

Shorebirds flock to Sandy Point

The real Sandy Point season begins with the arrival of the shorebirds. Some just stop over on their way farther north. Others, like the Piping Plovers and the American Oystercatchers, arrive to make their homes here. These birds are federally protected ,and this little island is known as one of the most successful breeding areas for the Oystercatchers. Unfortunately the gulls, especially the Black Backed Gulls, present some real difficulties with competition and predation. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has had a keen interest in the island for protection of the shorebirds here. Their stewards arrive on the island when the birds do, note where they are setting up their nests, and will place signs and roping around large areas to deter people from walking through and disturbing birds or destroying nests. Avalonia has an agreement with the Stonington COMO which issues passes for usage of the private island. This helps fund their stewards who go out several times a week to help monitor the beach, look for violations of the simple rules, and to educate the public about the significance of the nature preserve. Not everyone appreciates the efforts to protect the birds. Sadly, the stewards are often harassed. Some visitors to the island will deliberately flaunt their disrespect for the rules, let dogs run loose, and set up within the roped areas. How sad that in this day of enhanced understanding about the environment and our increased roles as defenders and protectors, some people just refuse to be compliant, or to care.
These signs help protect the nesting birds.

Piping Plovers

Horseshoe Crabs in decline?

Another wave of wildlife arrives in May. During the new moon and full moon high tide cycles, the ancient species of Horseshoe Crabs arrive offshore and prepare to make the island their breeding grounds. Last year we reported on several nights of adventure on the island, when teams of us paddled out and spent hours counting and tagging the crabs. Look here, and here and see a video here. We tagged nearly a thousand crabs in the area over last year's late spring and early summer, reporting our data back to the scientists at Project Limulus at Sacred Heart University. This year we have been discouraged. We are all trying to make excuses and wonder why there have been so few Horseshoe crabs , not only at Sandy Point, but also at local beaches and Bluff Point. We had far fewer tags available to us this year, and we actually had a hard time coming up with enough crabs to use them on. Admittedly we had several nights of bad weather, with storms or rain and wind that made the kayak trip impossible. We spent one long night out there in late June; we walked from one end to the other and back again, and we found only 137 new crabs plus about 20 that had been tagged in previous years. Where are they all? Are they nesting elsewhere? Did we miss a big night? Or are we experiencing a terrible population crash? Scientists from DEEP and Project Limulus are all concerned. We continue to make trips out and count. It is not as exciting as last year.
Please report any tagged crabs you may see.

Black-backed Gulls are a serious threat to the Horseshoe Crab.

Horseshoe Crab with a visible tag.

So the birds have had a decent year, with good numbers of Oystercatchers fledged. Piping Plovers are about average with other years. Horseshoe crab numbers are way down, and human numbers remain high. We are grateful for all those visitors to the island that enjoy and respect the nature there, who offer their own efforts at stewardship to encourage understanding by others. We thank those who make reports, pick up trash, and help with public education. Every eye and helping hand counts!
A breach for nature and people too.

Let’s see what the second half of the summer brings.

Photographs by Rick Newton.

Monday, July 21, 2014

New England Cottontail project update

By Beth Sullivan
Last year at this time we were in the middle of a giant project on our Peck and Callahan Preserves. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, in combination with the CT DEEP, had helped us plan and prepare for what was one of the biggest projects Avalonia had undertaken to date other than acquisitions.

A New Approach to Stewardship

Over the years the goal of environmental stewardship has shifted from pure preservation to more active conservation and management of land entrusted to us, for its best usage and greatest value. We were convinced that turning 22 acres of mature forest, past its prime for supporting diverse wildlife, into a young forest restoration area was the best use for the land and our best action for the future of many species.
Female Bluebird visits Peck and Callahan Preserves.

The active cutting part of the project was completed in August of 2013. In the fall there were several trips to the site for fine-tuning the landscape, opening a passable trail for machinery and work parties, and a huge effort to plant and then protect nearly 100 native shrubs, installed to add diversity to the landscape as it regrew. The ideal way to plant new shrubs was in groups of eight or nine, and then erect fencing around the whole plot to keep deer from browsing on them. Well, in rocky, upland Stonington, there were no places where we could dig nine adequate holes in a fashion even close to ideal! Then, trying to cart fencing material, more than a half mile into the rocky preserve which was now covered with slash and brush, became an impossible feat. So we improvised and used a light netting, draped tepee style over stakes near each plant. Then more branches were piled around the plant to make it even more difficult for deer to get close enough to eat the desirable shrub. The effort served its purpose for the winter.
The ground is covered with green.

Shrubs were protected by netting to prevent deer browsing.

Checking on Progress

We returned several times in the spring to check on different areas and were pleased at the progress. Tree stumps were re-sprouting robustly. There were shades of green covering what had been bare earth. Almost all the plants were showing signs of life and regrowth. Not many had been nibbled by the deer. Some were even blossoming, a promise of berries to come. We were, however, dismayed to find a snake had become entangled in the netting at some point and had perished. We knew the netting had to come off.
Native shrubs grow up through the protective branches.

This tree was left for the woodpeckers.

Well, the job to remove the netting was far harder than putting it on. First we had to find all the plants! With all the new growth surrounding them, even many of the orange tags and flags were hidden. Weeds and vines had grown up into the netting and the plants themselves were happily sending out new branches and leaves, so removing the netting became a surgical operation.
Much of the ground cover is Lowbush Blueberry.

We spent hours back tracking through all corners of the areas as we worked, examining new growth, becoming excited over resurgence of vines and thrilled at the ground cover of low bush blueberries. It was a wildlife heaven. Wild Turkeys foraged in the brush and took dustbaths in the trail. There were grasshoppers all over as well as dragonflies, bees and uncountable other insects. Fly-catching birds of several species were using the brush piles and tree snags to swoop and catch the insects. There were bluebirds singing everywhere. Eastern Towhees chorused from spots low and high throughout the area. The little vernal pond was still cool and shady, having been protected during the project. We found a small Wood frog in the fern glade nearby. The clear stream ran fresh through the moss covered boulders in the low land.
A Towhee sings from a low shrub. 

Turkeys forage in the open and retreat to the woodland edge.

The brook runs clear through the wooded and rocky lowland.

We ran out of energy before we had found and uncovered every bush. We will return again soon. But it was a reaffirmation, to me, that this project will bring new life and rejuvenation to an opening in the forest. It may be awhile before the New England Cottontails find it, but a lot of other wildlife already has.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Another successful year for Purple Martins

By Beth Sullivan
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while have by now realized I am quite fond of (addicted to maybe) my little colony of Purple Martins at the Knox Preserve. In all fairness, they are not “mine” but shared with all who enjoy the Knox Preserve and are a direct result of two Audubon IBA ( Important Bird Area) grants we have received.
Adult male(L) and female wearing bands from last year.
Knox fields, great for insects, great for Martins.

A Flying Snackbar

In the last two years we have managed the habitat at Knox so that the fields are lush with a variety of grasses and flowers that attract all sorts of insects. The aerial insects are what attract the Martins, as they only catch their food while flying. While it is a myth that Purple Martins are great consumers of mosquitoes, they eat all manner of flies, grasshoppers, flying ants, dragonflies and butterflies too. I guess we have to accept they eat some that we actually enjoy ourselves. While doing some research, I discovered that there are literally tons of insect/invertebrates that are caught up in the air column-even those that are not supposed to be in the air! Martins have been seen bringing non-winged ants and other non-flying insects into their nests. It is known that they do not hunt on the ground at all, even when nearly starving!
Since the end of April this year I have been monitoring the two sets of hanging gourd nests. These are equipped with crescent shaped entrance holes that deter starlings. They also have little “porches” on the outside, and in the new set on the inside also, to aid the adults in landing at the entrance and feeding the young. The birds seemed to like the new set better this year, as we had more nests in the newer ones than the set we erected last year.
Over the last months we watched the birds as they constructed nests, by lowering the sets to peek inside. Martins will use a variety of materials depending on what is available. We start them out with clean dry pine needles; they add small sticks and grasses. Several had seaweed/eelgrass, and they often use mud. Once we saw them arranging green leaves, we knew egg laying was near.
We used a diagnostic tool to compare when the first eggs were laid and anticipated when hatching would begin. An average clutch was 5 eggs. The first nestlings hatched around June 19, and continued through June 27, each nest being different. Most often all eggs in a nest hatch at the same time, but developmentally there are some real differences as they grow.
On Wednesday July 9 a team from the DEEP came out to band our birds. Avalonia volunteers joined DEEP volunteers and we met first at Pequot Golf Course on Wheeler Road. They have a very successful and mature colony and have produced over 90 young in 24 nests over the last years. Our nests produced 33 healthy young, and we added another 28 to our tally by including a neighbor’s Martin house occupants! That is considered a huge success for a new colony.

Banded for Identification

It is an amazing opportunity to participate. Each nest is identified with a number. The birds are removed from each nest into marked containers. It is essential that they are returned to their exact nest once banded. Each bird is fitted with a metal federal band with a unique number that will identify it for life. They are then given color bands on the other leg. Our colony has green/orange or green /yellow added this year. With binoculars the colors can be seen and the bird can be identified as from a particular colony. Pequot Golf Course has had blue/orange since last year, and this year I discovered one sub-adult female bird from Pequot had chosen to nest in our colony!
Removing the young and noting the nest number.

DEEP and Avalonia volunteers staff the banding table.

This Martin sports new colored bands.
The young are weighed, and their ages are determined by looking at feather development. Once all is recorded they are nestled back into their gourds, and they settle right in. The parent birds are waiting patiently, their beaks full of food for their hungry young.
This one is about nine days old. The feathers are barely coming in.

This one is closer to 16 day old with much more feathering.

The oldest hatchlings will fledge in another week. Others following suit over time. They will remain in the area, learning to catch their food and often return to roost in their nest gourds for a while. All too soon they will gather and fly south, well into South America, for the winter. We will await their return eagerly next spring and look for their color bands.
Adult Purple Martins return to their own nest, awaiting their young.

We are very grateful for the DEEP team, and all the volunteers that showed up at both sites. Many hands made faster work, and we got a bit dirty, but the experience was surely worth it.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

It takes a team

By Beth Sullivan
Sometimes when a property is acquired, it comes with structures in place, and sometimes issues come right along with them!
The Anguilla Brook is a lovely, long, clear running waterway. It has its origins up near the North Stonington Town line and winds its way through Pawcatuck. Portions of its path are protected by concerned and caring private owners. After it flows under Route 1 in Pawcatuck it winds behind what is referred to as Birdland-a neighborhood of bird-named streets. Several years ago, Avalonia acquired a tract of land now referred to as the Anguilla Brook Preserve-Birdland tract. Access is difficult, technically only a right of way along the railroad tracks off Green Haven Road-not the safest or easiest way in. In a special agreement with some private landowners, we are able to get in more easily when we need to do our annual reviews and posting.
We discovered it is quite a lovely and extensive wetland area that spreads out and beyond the actual brook. There were trails established throughout the area utilized by local residents and kids taking short cuts. What we also discovered was an aging and quite unstable bridge crossing a branch of the brook. It was quite obvious that kids likely rode bikes through there, and it was also obvious that it was an accident waiting to happen.

The bridge was deemed unsafe.

Debris blocked the flow and the railroad ties were rotted.

We made it a priority to get in and remove the bridge with the hopes of replacing it as soon as possible. However, the demolition and removal was going to be quite an undertaking! The span was more than 20 feet across, and over the years, banks had eroded. It was originally made with a stacked base of railroad ties that were now soaked and rotting. The whole thing needed to be dismantled.
Thanks to Yankee ingenuity, good heads, and team work, a posse of stewards took on the bridge last week. Five members of the Stonington Town Committee got to work; two spearheaded the effort and hatched the plan-complete with crowbars, pulleys, block and tackle, lots of strong rope, and a pick up truck! Two more donned boots to wade into the water to attack the base, and another hauled pieces out and up the trail.
The decking was removed.

Some of the decking was saved for use as wet trail crossing with the help of a pickup.
The decking was removed, and a large portion of it was cut and recycled to make ground level wetlands crossings on other preserves. The pieces were towed, like a big sled, out to the trail where they were stacked into trucks. Huge spikes were pulled from the railroad ties, and were left to line the trail. Maybe they will be moved when they dry and are lighter…or maybe not! The debris blocking the flow was cleared and rocks were set into place to protect the banks from further erosion. There are still some ties left in place to maintain the water level in the pond. Rock hopping will easily get you across the brook. We marked the trail with caution tape and left ties blocking the path, lest someone go biking along expecting a bridge!
Caution tape, signs, and trail barriers warn bikes that the bridge is out.

The brook can now flow freely yet can still be crossed on foot.
We are waiting for some long poles promised to us by our DEEP connections. That may be a while as this is busy season for all DEEP workers.
The water flows nicely now. We no longer worry that the bridge will break under the weight of a person or a bike. We still can’t get into the preserve easily; it will remain remote. We are very grateful for those land owners who allowed us to move our equipment through their roadway to access the site.
It takes a lot of cooperation to undertake such an effort. We will let you know when the bridge goes in. Thanks to all!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Binti Ackley.