Monday, February 23, 2015

Food for thought: Our Footprints

By Beth Sullivan
The mission statement of Avalonia Land Conservancy reads: “We preserve natural habitats in southeastern Connecticut by acquiring and protecting lands, and communicating the value of these irreplaceable resources.“

Many footprints can lead to great joy.

Since 1968 it has acquired over 3400 acres-properties as small as a quarter acre, to combined tracts making greenways of well over 300 acres. We protect them in a variety of ways depending on the nature of each parcel. Many of the preserves have trails that loop and wander, bringing hikers deeper into woods, closer to waterways, though fields and carefully over wetlands. The intent is always to get people of all ages closer to nature. The best way to instill an ethic of conservation, a love of the land, is to get close to it, be intimate with it. Starting earlier is always better, with kids and families learning together, walking safe and inviting trails. There will be holes to peek into, logs to turn over, curiosity to inspire!
A bench can provide area for quiet reflection.

A trail can help cross wetlands.

Rethinking an idea

I read an interesting article recently that left me wondering. Leaving Only Footprints: Think Again

We all know the advice to take only pictures, leave only footprints, but as this article points out, those footprints may have a greater impact than we ever thought. Even our quiet presence and passive enjoyment have been proven to be detrimental to wildlife species along our trails.
We must travel gently on the land.

Wildlife may share our trails.

As conservationists, protectors of wildlife and stewards of the preserves, we have a duty to the land and the wildlife that resides there. But we also have a duty to the future. We need to educate, to cultivate the love. We need to pass on our passion and our values along with the land. The only way to do this is to be present within the landscape and share it with the next generations.
Some areas are restricted to protect the habit.

Find a balance

Our challenge moving forward is to strike a balance. There may be properties better able to tolerate the varied usage. There may be habitats that need to be set aside and left alone. It adds another dimension to the efforts of stewardship, to truly evaluate every property to find the best ways to preserve, protect, educate and inspire.
Some areas are closed to protect nesting birds.

This Oven Bird's nets was just steps off a trail. Photo by Eric Hansen.

Our mission will always be to protect our acquisitions, large and small. And we will always be dedicated to communicating their importance and value in order that they will be available for future generations of people, and wildlife too.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sandy Point-Looking ahead to warmer days

By Beth Sullivan
What better way to spend a snowy afternoon, than to think about summer days and Sandy Point?
It doesn’t get much human usage during the winter. The channel dredging project was completed late this fall and considered successful. The sand material deposited up on the island has created additional habitat for the shorebirds who use the island as a nesting refuge. It will be interesting to see how many Least Terns, Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers will be able to nest, and fledge young successfully this next summer.
Flocks of Snow Buntings circle the sandy dunes looking for seeds.
The dredging project restored acres of sand to the island. 

At this time of year, Canada Geese may use the sheltered sides to congregate and feed offshore during lower tides. Winter birds like Snow Buntings and Horned Larks are probably using the bare flats. They seem to think this is comfortably “south”. They love windblown sand! There have been reports of Snowy Owls moving between Napatree Point and Sandy Point, so that special species also finds refuge there during the winter.
Well camouflaged, a Horned Lark, explores the sand.
Snowy Owls also find refuge on Sandy Point.

A thoughtful family donation

Thanks to the Gildersleeve family of Stonington, this island was donated to Avalonia Land Conservancy Inc. (then Mashantucket Land Trust) in 1982. The deed instructs that it to be used forever and primarily as a Nature Preserve. This family knew long ago what a special place it was, and how valuable to species in need of protection.
We also know it is beloved to many in the community as a place for rest and recreation, and that practice continues. It has always been a priority for Avalonia, to find the right balance between human enjoyment and wildlife protection. In the past years, it has become increasingly difficult to protect the special species from overwhelming human usage. Dogs and kites, and camps and parties are all seen as intrusive and threatening to the vulnerable birds. Horseshoe crabs also find refuge there for their nesting ritual that has gone on for thousands, if not millions of years and those areas are often disturbed.
The new sand makes a great base for this summer's nesters.
Horseshoe Crabs have been visiting Sandy Point for millions of years.

Avalonia and the Stonington COMO have teamed up for years to help monitor the usage and provide stewardship and oversight, but it has never been enough- not enough time and not enough money to hire knowledgeable stewards, and no ability to enforce the rules. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has helped us for the last several years, but also without the ability to provide enforcement. The wild life has suffered.

Avalonia-USFWS Agreement

There is good news on the horizon. Avalonia has been working with the USFWS to enter into an agreement to properly protect the island and its inhabitants. Sandy Point has been added into the refuge boundary of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. While the major portion of the McKinney Refuge is much farther west along the CT shore, we are lucky to have a USFWS branch close by in Rhode Island, and this group will oversee the Sandy Point as part of a new lease agreement. While Avalonia retains full ownership of the island, as desired by the donors, it will be properly managed as a Nature Preserve, with biologists to observe, survey and assess the wildlife. Recreational usage will still be encouraged. The USFWS stewards will also provide visitor services such as informational and interpretive signage and environmental education. By doing this, they can engage the public’s cooperation in their efforts. They will also have the ability to enforce the rules.
People and wildlife will find a balance. 

A permit will still be required, as in years past. The effort to provide staff and transportation and materials to the island is costly. But the pass will be less expensive. The USFWS has just issued a press release to outline the permit process and information will be available through the COMO as before. More information will be coming soon.
We can all work together to  protect the wildlife on Sandy Point.

So on these cold winter days, we can think ahead to the summer, be excited to get out to Sandy Point for some passive R&R, and enjoyment of the wildlife we are now better able to protect.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, Rick Newton and USFWS. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Counting the birds we are already watching

By Beth Sullivan
We have been thinking a lot about winter survival for wildlife, particularly the birds. Hopefully you have looked at your yard to see where you have created places for cover and protection, noted natural food sources, and established some feeding stations offering a good variety of sustenance. Maybe you have been able to identify your common species and could note any uncommon ones if they arrive in your yard.
Carolina Wrens are one of the many species you might see this winter.

Maybe you have your binoculars close at hand, by the living room door or the kitchen window-wherever your feeders are located. And of course you have your field guides handy. Peterson, Sibley, Audubon and maybe even an app on your phone! And how about a piece of paper to record your sightings?

Citizen Scientists needed

Then you are absolutely ready to participate in this year’s Citizen Science events.
Since the beginning of winter, the Feeder Watch program has been in process. Even though it started back in December, there is still time to enroll and add your data. By enrolling now, you can finish out this year, and get free automatic enrollment in next year’s Feeder Watch. There will be no excuse for starting late next year.
Coming Feb 13-16 is the Great Backyard Bird Count. a similar endeavor, more intense for a weekend of birding observations in your own back yard ( or anywhere else you choose).
White Throated Sparrow can be bright or dull in color but it is not a gender trait.

Both activities have dedicated websites and excellent instructions for how to do the count and document your sightings. The GBBC will send you a packet of information that serves both efforts.
By enrolling in that program you also get free access to a very helpful online education program. This would be a great opportunity for families to sit together to learn about birds, their biology, and beginning bird watching techniques. There are tally sheets and instructions to download.

Interesting counting rules

And there are some interesting thoughts about how to count your birds. For instance, if you see three sparrows on the ground, you count three. Later you see two, and later you see four. You do not tally the total of all your sightings because there is no way to know if you are double counting a particular bird, so you only use the number 4 because it is the highest number seen at one time.
Count as many birds as you see in one place at one time.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some bird species are male and female identical-Chickadees for example. Others are easy to tell apart like Cardinals. But in this case, to level the playing field, if you see one Cardinal, a male, and later see one Cardinal, and it is a female, you still only count 1 as it was only one bird at a time. Doesn’t sound right to those of us who know the difference, but there would be no way to equalize for all the other species. However, if at one point you see both Cardinals together on the ground, you can then count two!
Chickadees are all identical.

We can tell the gender, but it still counts as one bird.

So check out the websites. There is time to enroll and to read instructions and prepare for the Great Backyard Bird Count. On these snowy cold days, the birds tend to congregate in larger numbers, and we humans tend to huddle closer, inside looking out. Grab your kids, a field guide, or an app…and start counting!
You may not be the only one watching the feeder.  Hawks count too.

Learn more about the feeder watch project here.

Learn more about the great backyard bird count here.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Under the snow

By Beth Sullivan
Before the blizzard, while most of local humanity was at the grocery store stocking up, the birds flocked to the bird feeders, scratched the leaves, and pecked under bark looking for every morsel they could find before they took cover. A few species of birds are known to stash food-Blue Jays do it-but most birds just rely on having food available when they need it, bulking up and adding extra fat to see them though. Then they hunker down in a protected site and try to expend as little energy as possible during the bad weather.
In the Fall, hunting is easier but foxes are quite successful despite deep snow. (Photo by Rick Newton.)

Life under the snow

Small mammals will actually thrive under the snow pack. Voles and mice have stored seeds and grains in their burrows since the fall. While most mammals will slow down a bit during the winter, many will remain active, tunneling shallowly under leaves and loose soil. It is not uncommon to see shrews or voles disturbing the soil under birdfeeders, like small earthquakes, as they search for seed remnants or insects. However, even such small movements are very noticeable to predators. But once the snow blankets the ground, they can actually tunnel more freely. They can move between protective hiding places and food sources and usually avoid detection. There are wonderful images of foxes triangulating their senses on an underground burrow, then leaping high and diving head first into the deep snow to catch their prey. I have witnessed it once, and it is truly a wonder to watch. Owls have hearing abilities that allow them to do the same, and while they do not hurl themselves head first into the snow, they can land with spread wings and thrust their talons deeply to latch their target.
One can imagine small creatures hiding in crevasses under the snow.

Dirty snow around the hole indicates the fox is active.

Light snow still allows birds to scratch for food.

When the snow melts in the spring, it is also easy to see trails etched into the grasses and dirt that point out the well-worn paths these creatures have used all winter.
When the snow melts, tell-tale signs of winter tunnels remain.

Winter hotel

This is the time of season when brush piles and tangled hedgerows are their most valuable as refuge for many creatures. The heavy snow catches on upper branches and preserves open areas beneath for hiding. Dense shrubs still living provide an extra bonus. Small mammals will seek living bark and gnaw it for valuable sustenance. However, the longer the snow is on the ground, the longer they have to gnaw, and when spring arrives, stems have been girdled, and the branch will die. Under the bark of trees, insects remain, some in a suspended state, some as larva, and some as eggs, but available as food for birds, if above the snow line, and for shews under the snow.
Brush piles, natural or man made provide vial cover for mammals and birds.
Stonewalls offer cover for small animals and hunting places for predators.

The deeper snow cover also offers insulation. Hard to believe but the snow pack remains warmer, closer to thirty two degrees, freezing, while the air above may have temperatures plummeting to zero. Plants survive bitter winters much better when there is a constant snow cover.
This stem was buried under snow for an extended period, and shows the teeth marks of a gnawing mammal.

Whether you observe from a window or strap on snowshoes and get out into the snow, take some time to think about what is happening below the drifts. Think of all the wonderful adaptations wildlife has to survive in the places we preserve for them.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless indicated.