Monday, December 28, 2015

Some Year End Musings

By Beth Sullivan
As we have now come to the end of 2015, it is time to look back, as we always do, and review. It is time to recollect high points, accomplishments and also think of what we could have done better. And then set goals for the New Year.
Some of our goals are small and personal, some reach a bit farther into the landscape or community, and some can be global. Well, maybe a drop in the global bucket.
1. The stone wall along both sides of North Main Street around Fennerswood Preserve, have been restored.

One of my goals was to get out on all of Avalonia’s trailed properties to explore, photograph and then write about them and share with others. I did OK on those that were closest to home, but still need to reach farther into our northern towns to seek out a few special gems. I will make that a goal for 2016 and let you know!
2. Dodge Paddock is slowly returning to a very special tidal habitat. Photograph by Roger Wolfe, DEEP.

Into the woods

We ended up with a bigger effort to do complete boundary surveys on all of our properties, so that took me deeper into the untrailed areas, wetlands and thickets. Not always easy, but certainly an adventure. I am left with a better understanding of the properties we hold and need to steward: Beautiful and varied. Some of great value for wildlife, some of greater value for the opportunities they provide for people of all ages to explore. I have a greater appreciation for our local stewards who adopt a property and help keep roadsides cleaned up, walls maintained, invasives cut and trails opened. As always, I thank you.
3. The young forest is growing a Peck Preserve and the power line provides a New England Cotton-tail bunny trail.
Some of our projects have far reaching effects. The biggest undertaking this year was the restoration of Dodge Paddock. With support, funding, grants and generosity, the lovely area is well on its way to becoming the little jewel in the Borough it used to be. Not the same as it was historically, but adaptive to the changes and challenges that recent years have tossed at it, and the future certainly holds. The community around the Paddock will benefit by witnessing increased wildlife, native habitat and hopefully, less severe flooding impacts. The benefits reach even farther as local groups continue to study our efforts and results as a model for other projects. There will be opportunities for numerous student groups, from elementary age to college and beyond, to study there. We have come a long way, and still have more to do.
4. We ourselves may not be able to save a rain forest.

New England Cottontail habitat restoration

As a result of widespread efforts in the North East, The New England Cottontail was kept off the endangered species list. Keeping a species OFF the list is always the goal, as it is ever so much easier to work in the landscape before a species is in such decline that the most extreme measures must be taken to preserve it. The project on our Peck & Callahan Preserves, begun in 2012, has been deemed a success on many levels and contributed to the total acreage needed in the focus areas to provide vital habitat for the Cottontails.
5. We can work together to preserve forest land in our community.

Overall this year, Avalonia Land Conservancy added preserves and acreage to its protected holdings. There are more acquisitions being reviewed and priorities set. In a recent article in the New London Day, and a subsequent editorial, conservation efforts got a big boost by publicly proclaiming the absolute importance of preserving forest land. Not only in our own communities, for our personal health and well-being, but globally. Whether it is one acre of rain forest in Cost Rica, or a forest preserve like those Avalonia protects here in our corner of Connecticut, it is essential to life on our planet that we recognize the importance of preservation.
6. Some local preserved habitats are rare like Bell Cedar Swamp

It is something we all can support, where we can make a difference and have an impact, if we work together. A good goal for 2016.
7. Sometimes we just need a simple place to absorb the importance of the nature around us.

Happy New Year!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Winter Solstice?

By Beth Sullivan
Some of us have SAD…Seasonal Affective Disorder…a major craving for light and sun that is sorely lacking at this time of year. We are heading to the Solstice which marks the shortest, darkest days of the entire year. Generally things are pretty gray and brown outside as well. Some folks are lucky to head south, to the lands of warm sunshine, to replenish the spirit and try to banish the darkness. The rest of us don our winter clothes and head out to the open spaces and try to find a protected spot to raise our faces to the sunlight.
This is what December can be like

This year I think, we are also experiencing Seasonal Confusion Disorder. It helps just a bit: if there is not a lot of sun, at least it is warm! I feel just a little guilty enjoying this side effect of Global Warming. No doubt 50 and 60 degree days help make getting outside a lot easier. We had tried to put aside rakes and shovels, loppers and pruners, but they are still in use as we find ways to get into our gardens or walk the trails. There are walls to be cleared, paths to be maintained, invasive vines to be clipped. There are even opportunities to mow.

Seasonal confusion 

It has been interesting to see in what ways Nature is expressing her confusion with the unseasonable warmth. This December I met up with a Garter snake at Knox Preserve, sunning on the lower trail. It should be hibernating in a rocky den. In my little backyard pond, a small Bullfrog continues to come out and sit on the rocks. I heard a Spring Peeper in the woods on December 17. I guess since there are still insects flying around, they can find some food, but surely frogs should be securely tucked into an underwater protected space, conserving energy to get through the winter. I worry for their survival.
Garter snakes should be denned up, not sunning themselfs

On a recent rainy morning, I counted 5 earthworms in wet puddles in the driveway. Not long after I noticed a Robin hopping in the same area, presumably devouring an unexpected delicacy.
A Robin in winter is lucky to get a few earth worms.

Unusually early blooming

On trees and shrubs, buds have begun to swell and in some cases, even break into flower. While it happens frequently to Rhododendron and Forsythia, I was surprised to see a beautiful Hellebore at the edge of my woods, and a Jack in the Pulpit in bloom in December!! I don’t believe these plants will have the energy to bloom again in the spring. I suppose it was equally surprising to find a honey bee on the Hellebore!
Hellebore and Honeybee in mid-December.

Jack in the Pulpet bloomed fully in December.

I do look forward to a little snow, to brighten the landscape and give a protective cover to the plants that can be damaged by severe freeze and thaw cycles. For now I will enjoy the warmth and rely on looking at photos of past winters to remind me to be careful what I wish for!
We will still enjoy a winter trail.

Happy Solstice to all.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Supporting What You Believe In

By Beth Sullivan
As we head deeper into the Giving Season, I find it very hard to make choices: choices about charities and causes. If you are of a giving nature, you peruse all the requests, listen to the phone calls, research the organizations, and try to make a decision with your head as well as your heart.
Often I head out for a walk; sometimes it clears my head during this busy time. I look out over a marsh and realize how the edge of the sea is such a dynamic special place. I appreciate the open sky, fields and forest. And then I realize where MY heart is, with the land.

Places to appreciate  

I find respite and peace, but also stimulation and adventure. I choose my own pace: fast for exercise or slow and meandering for meditation. I can choose to be alone, grab a friend on a leash or find a hiking partner. I can choose a trail that is clean and wide, or diverge into the woods and get off the beaten path. There is never an admission fee.
We appreciate the peaceful land

It is for this reason that I continue to support Avalonia Land Conservancy in its simple, honest mission to preserve and protect land through Acquisition and Stewardship.
We appreciate the next generation of stewards

We grow with your help

In the last several years, our organization has grown and strengthened. As we expand our reach through 8 towns, we are the largest and most diverse land trust in SE CT. We are working toward Land Trust Alliance accreditation - a daunting and challenging task considering how great our responsibilities are already. The vast majority of this work is done by volunteers who believe in the same goals. Our Executive Director and office manager/ book keeper are essential to the task of keeping us organized and all on the proper path! Another challenging task.
Together we explore the land

Trying to juggle our commitment to the environment and our relationship with the public, with funding sources, educational organizations and State and Federal groups that assist us takes a huge effort and we have all our volunteers, you, to thank.
Together we protect over 3500 acres for the purpose of providing habitat for varied wildlife. In doing so, that wildlife, those habitats, are there for you to explore and enjoy whenever you choose. It is only with your membership and your donations, that this is possible.
We appreciate the wildlife we so easily see.

I invite you to explore our website to get an understanding of the scope of our work at this point in time - a big difference from a few decades ago. We invite you to come enjoy our lands, your lands, in whatever way helps you believe that we share the same goals. Think of what your home community means to you. If open space, freedom to explore, and the knowledge that land and wildlife is protected for future generations in your community, are important to you, then please join me in supporting YOUR land trust, during Avalonia’s Annual Appeal.
And, of course, we thank you now for a gift that will truly keep on giving.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Moths of Winter : Bad news for next spring

By Beth Sullivan
We had an incredibly mild stretch of weather these last weeks. Several days were warm enough to allow small gnats and flies to swarm and even a few butterflies to roam during the day’s sunny warmth. Out in the woods and thickets, a few lingering warblers and flycatchers got lucky enough to find sustenance later than usual.
Invasive Winter Moth

There is a down side. Several nights of warmth created perfect conditions for the emergence of the Winter Moth. This invasive, non-native, insect has been around for a while, but seemed to burst into our awareness last spring when leaves on numerous species of trees emerged deformed, eaten before unfurling. Ornamental and fruiting trees had their blossoms devoured before opening. Without the blossoms there was no pollinating and no fruits this past fall. Crab Apples, some Cherries, and Dogwoods never carried full loads of berries, and this Autumn the birds lost out.
Caterpillars go dormant in the soil in masses, then pupate to emerge at this time of year.
When leaves emerge in Spring, they are already damaged by the larval Winter Moth.

Swarming Winter Moths

The life cycle of these moths is only now being understood. Right now the moths are flying in clouds and those are only the males! They are small, boring and light brown. They usually land with wings spread, but they may be held together, which is unusual for moths. The females have small non-functioning wings, and when they emerge from the soil, they climb up the base of the trees where they are found by the males and mate. They then crawl up the tree to lay their egg masses in cracks and crevices in the bark, close to leaf buds. The moths die and the eggs overwinter. The caterpillars emerge very early and begin eating the leaves and flowers while in bud. They are not terribly fussy, and they will feed on many tree species, from mighty Oaks to Blueberries and garden plants. The affected Oaks have produced very few acorns locally, in an otherwise huge acorn year.
Gypsy Moth egg masses are easy to spot now and can be scraped off bark.

When the caterpillars are done feeding, they drop to the ground where they remain dormant through the summer, to pupate in the fall. I discovered masses of these dormant larvae just under the leaf litter as I did fall clean up in my gardens. They emerge, to continue their cycle, after a hard frost period and rewarming in mid November and December.
Male moths, like these brown Gypsy moths, must fly to find the more inactive females waiting on tree trunks.

The trees that had significant leaf damage were stressed for the entire season. Some were able to send out a second set of leaves later, but that is an enormous expenditure of energy. Then we had the later summer drought and heat which literally dried out the tender leaves well before they were due to fall.
Moths are attracted to lights and swarm on warmer evenings.

Check your trees

Until entomologists and landscape contractors can better understand the full life cycle, there may be no way to interrupt the onslaught. If you can check the bases of your trees now, it may be possible to find and destroy the females before they ascend the trunk. Smaller trees in the home landscape can be treated with a horticultural oil or insecticidal soap to kill the eggs or larvae early on. I go out and squash them by the hundreds, even thousands, when they collect by lights I leave on purposely to attract them. But that is a drop in the bucket. We cannot protect the entire forest. For now we hope that some natural predator or disease will be found that will stop their march.
Several years of defoliation and drought will kill many woodland trees.

Several years of stress from infestation and drought, may cause trees to die and we might expect to see large areas affected like after the Gypsy Moth invasion of decades ago. A disease evolved to help kill off Gypsy Moth caterpillars. Their egg masses are easier to find on tree trunks and can be scraped off. But those moths also reappeared last year in greater than expected numbers.
Seems to be another round of bad news for our already stressed woodland habitats.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, November 30, 2015

Don't get too fussy with Fall cleaning

By Beth Sullivan
As we wind up our fall cleaning, we often make piles of leaves that will compost, but sometimes we are left with fallen branches and limbs that are too big to compost easily, and we just don’t want to haul to the landfill. In my own garden I can make nice piles of sticks and branches and always notice that those piles are the first places that Sparrows and Wrens seem to choose when the day ends and the weather gets cold.
A Song Sparrow perches on top of a brush pile but later will find refuge inside it.

We are doing fall clean up on the preserves as well, but we do not try and get rid of all our woody rough debris. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and birds, will inhabit the top levels. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator.
During the winter, the snow cover helps insulate the pile. 

Brush piles feed the soil

Over time, the leaves, small branches, and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, and termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants.
In Summer, vines and plants grow in the brush pile.

Where tree limbs come down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it can be a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we are able to make well -constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid -sized branches are criss -crossed on top next, and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food-nuts, seeds, grasses-eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles.
While clearing invasive species, the debris is left to cover the ground in many places.
To make a good brush pile, put bigger pieces on the bottom, making nice holes.

Then pile on brush for shelter. 

Look for brush piles as you walk

As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several and Perry Natural area as well. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy in 2012 and are still present and providing shelter. The Knox Preserve has been cleaned up and the bigger piles removed to get out of the way of our mowing efforts. You will notice piles along the trails that look messy and off the top of the knoll there is a dense pile of cut limbs. This is quite deliberate. We have cut invasive vines and treated the stumps to prevent regrowth, but the branches were left in place to provide the cover that the birds enjoy. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Later in the winter, when snow covers the ground, look for tracks and trails leading to and from the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success.
Woodchucks will make their entry holes at the base of a brush pile for greater protection.

I suggest making a small pile in your yard and garden where you can watch from indoors and enjoy the activity.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan. 
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Monday, November 23, 2015

A Time to Reflect

By Beth Sullivan
Things tend to slow a bit at this time of year, at least in the natural world where we, as stewards, spend our time. We take stock in projects completed, those still in progress, and begin to think about those next in line. It always amazes me how much effort and energy it takes to maintain and manage even just one town’s properties. And then I sit back and am so grateful for all of those who have helped achieve our goals.
Angles fly over and give us a unique view of the work at Dodge Paddock.
Photo by Roger Wolfe, DEEP. 

It takes a village

It is often quoted: “It takes a Village.” I find this is true especially in relation to our land conservancy efforts. There are so many aspects to our mission to preserve, conserve and protect land, and to educate and inspire others to join us. It takes a village of varied talents, and skills to make it work.
As Avalonia Land Conservancy moves toward the goal of Land Trust Alliance accreditation, we have to thank those who seem to be adept at reading rules, creating policies, establishing procedures, dotting the “I”s and crossing the “T”s. There are those who understand Governance and Finance-not something I do-so I am truly grateful someone else is willing! We thank those who know how to create websites, spreadsheets and keep the rest of us updated about the bigger world of conservation.
Building a bridge made the trail easier and safer to travel.

It is the stewardship and management part that I always need help with, and I am grateful for everyone who has stepped up to help get the requirements done. Every year, every property has to have its boundary walked and that means off the trails and into briers and swamps, to check for misuse or encroachment. We have to make sure our signs are present and visible. Some properties have miles of boundaries! Each preserve has unique management needs: Invasive control, trail maintenance, safety checks, mowing roadsides, wall clearing, and litter pick up, even communication with neighbors. So much to do. This year we are making sure every property has a comprehensive management plan, another stewardship chore.
Having the right equipment and helping hands makes all the difference.

Guardian Angles wanted

In some cases a preserve has a special Guardian Angel, or team of them. There are volunteer stewards who take it upon themselves to adopt a preserve and do what is needed. It may be as simple as walking the trails regularly to make sure they are unobstructed. It might be managing invasives or doing roadside cleanup. It may be that they have the equipment to help with mowing and brush control. The Knox Preserve is a much loved piece of land and in the last year has received a great deal of attention, study and even dedicated donations to help with restoration there. Thank you to all who love Knox.
Sometimes looking for drill holes in stone walls is like looking for a needle in a hay stack.

Some of our assistance has been professional. The efforts at Dodge Paddock/Beal Preserve have been ongoing since Superstorm Sandy. The CT DEEP has been instrumental and generous in removing invasive species, managing mosquitoes, securing funds, and materials, and providing labor to get the drainage issue finally, under control. With the efforts of the Aquarium staff overseeing the major LISFF Grant, restoration is really happening. Then there are the personal angels, those who have offered advice and funds to help us with plants and those neighbors who have turned on their hoses so we can work more efficiently when we plant them. We are grateful for all the local support.
The tree is thankful for being released from these vines.

We are thankful for everyone who has offered to help in any way. We are thankful for our members who recognize that their donations are essential to our work and success as an organization.
We appreciate all the research efforts that reveal data about our preserves.

I am grateful for those I have met when I am out on the preserves working, and who tell me THEY are thankful for what WE are doing.
We would be grateful if folks picked up after themselves, so our volunteers don't have to.

Remember: do NOT go shopping on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. Support those stores that are closed for the day and get out on a trail!!!
Happy Thanksgiving. Beth

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Preservation, greenways and wild animals among us

By Beth Sullivan
By now we have all read about the beautiful Coyote or hybrid Coyote/Wolf/Dog that wandered through Mystic and Stonington within the last week. The number of articles, posts, photos and exclamations about this sighting is an example of how interested and concerned we are with the wildlife that we may encounter. It also underscores the need to help these creatures find a balance was we have moved into their space.
Raccoons are quite comfortable in edge habitats. 

Night visitors

This animal was healthy in appearance, calm in its demeanor, and not obviously diseased. Yet it was not where it belonged. More and more wild animals that have been pushed out of their area by our encroachment and development are becoming adapted to living on “the edge”. The edge where the woods meet the field, where the field meets a yard or a street, where the yard meets a neighborhood and that neighborhood turns into a town. The species that are most successful are those that have learned how to adapt. Think of our night-visiting Raccoons and Opossums. Think of wild Turkeys and Crows. Think of White-tailed Deer. They have become part of our suburban existence, not just rural residents. Now think of the others that seem to threaten us or our pets more: Fishers, Bobcats, Coyotes and Bears. They are also learning how to adapt, to survive, but it is also threatening their very own existence that they are becoming too adapted, too comfortable in close proximity to our homes and roadways.
Bobcats are secretive but sightings are becoming more common. Photo by Rick Newton.

Foxes prefer shrubby fields and hedgerows. Sometimes they will den near human dwellings. Photo by Rick Newton.

This underscores the increasing need to preserve land-land to be homes, habitats and safe zones for these species. If you look at an aerial map of the area covered by Avalonia Land Conservancy’s preservation efforts, you are at first struck by the general forested nature of where we live. But zoom in closer and it is obvious that all the new developments, homes, roads, business centers, are encroaching and breaking up the forest, creating more edges.
Larger areas of deep woodlands and varied habitats give animals room to travel safely.

Creating greenways for habitat

One of our main conservation strategies is to create greenways. Link parcels of land together to form corridors that wild life can travel more safely. Sometimes a greenway will follow a watercourse, a wetland corridor that protects a watershed as well as providing safe haven for wildlife. If you look at that map in a bit more detail, you will see that Avalonia has played a part in preserving lands and creating a number of greenways. In Groton, The Moore Woodlands and Town’s End connect with other protected lands to form a large cross town trail system that is accessible to people and wildlife as well. In Mystic/Stonington a large block of Aquarion Water Company land, Denison Society land, which is for now, open space, connects to Nature Center land, and several adjoining Avalonia Properties : Mistuxet Hill, Pequotsepos Brook Preserve, Perkins Wildlife Corridor, White Cedar Swamp and Deans Mill Preserve. This greenway protects our watersheds, brook sources which flow to Long Island Sound, and provides homes and habitats for numerous species of wildlife.
In Groton several organizations have partnered to create a long greenway of trails and open space.

In Stonington, a large amount of Avalonia protected open space protects the Stony Brook watershed, from our Stony Brook Preserve, through Fennerswood, to Paffard Woods and then to the Admiral Fife Naval recreation Area .
Avalonia has connected several parcels in North Stonington to provide a large corridor of diverse habitat.

In North Stonington a lovely large complex is comprised of Erisman Woodlands, Babcock Ridge and the Henne Preserve .
Each of these connected parcels took a great deal of effort to put together. The beneficiaries, of course, are all of us and future generations who will enjoy the vast open spaces. But the greatest beneficiaries will be the species of wildlife that would really prefer their large block of woodlands and wetlands, to the concrete world of down town Mystic.
See and read about the Coyote sighting in the Stonington-Mystic Patch.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.