Monday, March 30, 2015

Word of the Season

By Beth Sullivan
Phenology…a word I have heard on multiple occasions in the last week! A word I pretty much knew the definition of, or the idea of, even more or less wrote about a few weeks back. But I decided to look it up to double check why it seemed to be a buzz word recently.
Phenology-noun: The science dealing with the influence of climate on the recurrence of such annual phenomena of animal and plant life such as budding and bird migrations.
We await the first Osprey in Mid-March.

Those of us who are nature watchers know the concept well, even let the word flow off our tongues frequently. We have kept journals and logs over years and decades, marking the cycle of seasons and annual “firsts” (Thoreau, Leopold and Teale did too). Over the last years of writing this blog, I have noted first occurrences of some of my favorites: “Return of the Osprey,” “The First Tree Swallow,” “First Purple Martins to return to Their Gourd Houses.” We wait for the Skunk cabbage to show itself from beneath the snow. We wait for the first warm rainy night when the salamanders and wood frogs leave their wintering spots and move to vernal ponds for egg laying. We eagerly listen for the first spring Peepers. I wait for the chipmunk in my stone wall.
Spring Peepers wait for the ice to melt and will call on warmer nights

It's not just the length of day

Many of these events are regulated by day length. Birds usually begin their Northward migration based on the length of the day, not necessarily the temperature. They do not know what the conditions are up North. Amphibians, deep in the ground, are stirred by temperature. Warming air temperatures translate to warming soil, and melting ice and stimulates them to move. The warming of the soil also dictates plant growth from seeds or dormant roots. Air temps as well as day light will determine tree budding and sap flow.
Populations of Canada Geese head north based on day length

This year we are all feeling a bit askew…whether or not we realize, it is phenology at work! The very cold, very late spring has everything off kilter. Ice is not off the waterways, and returning osprey need to fish. Overwintering water fowl are starving as the ice covers the shallow water, and they cannot graze on plants on the bottom. Sap flows are late, most insects are not emerging yet, and birds returning will not find food. We all know the Robins can’t find their March worms yet! If insects do emerge with the warmth, the blossoms are not yet present for them to feed on. Will the pollinators they need be out of sync when the flowers do open?
Persistent ice has starved many dabbling ducks

Those spring ephemeral wildflowers that should be well up by now are still dormant. Will their season be cut short? Will they be able to set seed in time? Will hibernating mammals respond to day length or warming before they emerge, and will there be plants readily available as food sources if the snow has not melted?
In warmer years, Blood Root could have been in bloom now

Think of how cold the water of Long Island Sound has been. We know it will affect our weather along the shore, but how will it affect the migration of fish and horseshoe crabs?

Temperature matters too

It is a delicately balanced web, and the seasonal cycles of temperature and light play a critical part of the balance.
It's a lot to think about. All we can do is continue to make our journal entries of our observations and wait and see what comes next. That is Phenology!
My Chipmunk made an appearance while snow was covering the walls

This Spotted Salamander made his move on March 26

PS: On 3/26 I saw my chipmunk! And the Spotted Salamanders and Wood Frogs began their move!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bringing back an old friend

By Beth Sullivan
Many of us have a long connection with Avalonia Land Conservancy, some going back to when it was Mashantucket Land Trust, and there are still a few around who were there at its founding in 1968.
No one quite remembers when the first Winter Pot Luck Supper event was held, but by the 80s and 90s, it was a well attended and much enjoyed event during the January depths of winter. No one remembers when it ceased to exist or why.
A pot luck spread than couldn't be beat.

But during this past winter, a hard winter by all standards, a group of volunteers, many of them part of the original Pot Luck Crew, started thinking of ways to warm up winter and reconnect friends.

A revived tradition

After months of planning, the event was reborn March 14th.
True to spirit, it was held in a community space-no frills-this time in the St. James Episcopal Church in Preston. Guests arrived with arms full of platters and bowls and crock pots. Your last name dictated your dinner contribution. Also brought back to life was the “Scotch Auction,” “Basket Auction,” or “Teacup Auction”-known by many names but always the same: inexpensive raffle tickets rolled out in long streams. Guests donated everything from coolers and artwork to birdhouses and knick knacks.
While guests arrived and mingled, a super bluegrass group played and got the spirit warmed up. They called themselves the Avalonia Quicksteppers, at least for the evening…but they claim the name might stick!
The Avalonia quicksteppers entertained everyone.

Guests could enter drawings for door prizes, read about Avalonia, take a debut peek at a beautiful quilt to be raffled over the next months (stay tuned, more to come, and it is worth waiting for) and catch up with friends. The Board Members and town Chairs were tasked to wear St Patrick’s style hats, and any one with questions about the organization were told to “ask someone with a hat!”

Great food for all

As with every Pot Luck, the food was tremendous with great variety and bounty, the colors and flavors were just beautiful. The “Kitchen Gang” deserved a big standing ovation for the planning and organizing, setting up, and sorting out. To me, what was wonderful was seeing some “old faces,” friends of Avalonia who may not have worked together in a long time, all really enjoying the occasion.
Some of the kitchen crewthat did a superb job.

After dinner, we settled back to a truly enjoyable journey through the natural year with terrific photos and narrative by naturalist, educator and photographer Bruce Fellman. We were reminded that spring always comes, and the seasons always follow a cycle, bumpy though it may be at times. Those of us who follow these cycles and take note of the little things always know to have faith in Mother Nature.
Red Shouldered Hawk, captured by Bruce Fellman, a part of the cycle of seasons.
The raffle was really fun; a lot of people went home with special items, and a few went home with several! In a surprise live auction: The Avalonia Quicksteppers allowed themselves to be auctioned to do a benefit concert for the winning bidder, but the proceeds went back to Avalonia. Thank you Quicksteppers!
Ann Nalwalk and Michele Fitzpatrick conducted the raffle.

Special guests included Board Members and past Presidents, including Lois Tefft Van Deusen, one of the founders of Avalonia and long-time director.
Lois Tefft van Deusen, founder and long-time director was the guest of honor.

The evening ended too soon. Already there is talk of another gathering in the summer. The word will spread, and the event will grow. It's a great way to rekindle both friendships and the spirit of love of land that binds us all.

Photographs by Bruce Fellman.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Preparing and Planning: Keeping Busy

By Beth Sullivan
While we wait for the snow to melt, we keep busy with planning: planning for stewardship efforts, restorations, outreach, education, and some fun.
We will wait for the snow to melt so we can rake and clean a couple of acres on Knox preserve. These areas were invasive mounds only 3 years ago. After massive efforts from many fronts, we are ready to try re-establishing native grasses. We will remove rocks and stumps, prep the soil and with help from the DEEP, do the seeding in late April or May. The goal is to have the native grasses grow in to cover the soil, and in turn that will deter seeds of invasives that may be in the soil from sprouting and growing. It will take work and diligence to tend these areas but it will be a great leap towards our goal for restoring native plants to support wildlife here.
Areas cleared of invasive species will be seeded with native grasses.

Trinity College scientists will continue their studies on Knox Preserve.

Long Island Sound Futures Fund Grant

We are also planning the restoration of Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve. The Long Island Sound Futures Fund Grant was awarded to the Mystic Aquarium last November, and since that time, we have been meeting and planning. We are at the point where we are understand the challenges of the site, and have formulated lists of plants that can adapt to the difficult and changeable conditions. Salt water, fresh water, hot sun, and strong winds always change. This project will ultimately demonstrate adaptability to the inevitable changes for this preserve in the near future
Areas now free of Phragmities and standing water will be restored on Dodge Paddock. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

We will be planning with teams of scientists who are also waiting for the snow to melt. Some will be waiting to get soil samples, and some to measure plant growth. Our friend the entomologist will be back on Perry Natural Area to resume his study of wood eating beetles, and he will expand his study into Hoffman preserve. The scientists at Sacred Heart University will be getting materials ready for the return of the Horseshoe crabs to nesting sites, and those of us who have been tagging them over the years will get out the waders and kayaks and hope the water warms up for our efforts in the next months.
Beetle traps on Perry  will yield new data.

Sandy Point protection

The USFWS will be gearing up to begin their monitoring of Sandy Point . The shore birds will be arriving, and we will hope they have better protection for their nesting efforts.
We hope the new USFWS stewards on Sandy Point will protect vulnerable nests.

We have permits in place to build and erect new osprey platforms on Cottrell Marsh and Woolworth Porter Marsh. Meanwhile we scan the skies as the osprey themselves are due to arrive in the next week or two.
This nest awaits the return of ospreys.

The Conn College students from the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment have chosen their projects and are doing their planning now. This year most of them will be concentrating on outreach, public relations, and social media efforts. You will be hearing from them soon.
A team of students will investigate the history of the stone bridges on Pequotsepos Brook Preserve.

Good thing they did not choose stewardship projects this semester. We still can’t see the ground!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Coastal Resiliency: Restoration of the Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve

A presentation at the La Grua Center

Located in Stonington Borough, Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve protects community history and wildlife biodiversity.  This presentation will begin the discussion on how through the use of climate adaptive planting, a team representing community organizations (Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc. and Mystic Aquarium), consultants and landscape designers will prepare this hidden jewel for an ever changing coastline and environment. - Find more information here.

Sunday, March 15, 5 pm at the La Grua Center. 32 Water Street, Stonington, CT 

Learn more about Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve here, and here.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Everything's waiting for Spring

By Beth Sullivan
While winter continues to keep its icy grip, we are all altering our efforts, activities and energies to make the best of things.
To be positive, the sun really is getting warmer. As it rises higher in the sky, days are surely lengthening, and the Vernal Equinox looms. Day light and day length trigger so much of life in spring.
Under the snow, the woodland ephemeral wildflowers may be delayed because of snow cover, but they have been protected from the severe cold and the destructive cycles of freeze and thaw. As the snow cover diminishes, light can actually penetrate to the ground and begin to trigger changes. They will be ready when conditions are right!

Early crocus provide nectar for emerging insects.

On the other hand, it is temperature that will cue the sap flow in many trees, most famously the Sugar Maples. Syrup-makers are having a hard time this year because it takes several days of thawing temperatures to trigger the sap rise. We have not had that yet.
The higher temperatures also bring certain insects out of hibernation. These are specialists, not only adapted to somewhat colder weather, but also adapted to food sources that are available during a thaw: sap itself.
Sapsuckers drill rows of holes to allow seeping sap to attract insects.

Winter Firefly

Last week, on a day that was well below freezing we discovered a “Firefly” sitting on a sunny snow bank next to the base of a tree. To the touch, the tree bark was actually warm as it absorbed the sun's heat. I sent the photo to a friend of Avalonia who has conducted insect surveys on Perry Natural area. The beast in question actually was a Winter Firefly (Ellychnia corrusca), a “diurnal, non luminous” species. So we found a firefly, active by day, on a frigid snow bank! It did not have the ability to blink and shine as our summer favorites do. But what to eat? Sap!
Winter Firefly on the snow.

As the sap rises, other insects will find their way to the nutritive liquid. Mourning Cloak Butterflies will do so as well. Watch the trees where branches have broken over the winter and look for dripping liquid. It will attract insects, which will then attract birds. Sapsuckers drill holes in trees to get the sap to flow and attract insects that they can then eat.
Mourning Cloaks will look for sap drips on leaves.

The journey north

Many of our migratory species of birds will begin their northward journey based not on warmth, but on day length. Most of these are insect eaters. Tree Swallows and Phoebes are some of the first to head north. It will be a terrible situation if the snow pack continues so deeply, keeping everything so cold and plantless, and insects not emerging to provide the food they need. Trees that blossom based on warmth will be delayed as well, and the nectar they contain will not be available for insects or returning birds.
Orioles arrive early, and if there are few flowers with nectar, they will use humming bird feeders instead.

It is really amazing to pay attention to the seasonal cycles and to understand the interconnectedness of species -plants, insects, birds, animals - and how changes in climate, warmer or colder than usual in a particular area, can be really disruptive to the health of the entire cycle. Mother Nature will continue despite these bumps in the road. Species will adapt and survive or they will diminish…for a year, for a decade, or maybe for a lot longer.
Hummingbirds will not arrive until there is a greater certainty of abundant nectar. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 2, 2015


By Beth Sullivan
This winter has been truly challenging. There just does not seem to be an end in sight.
We are trying to plan work parties for March, but I am sure the snow banks will still be high and hard along the roadside walls.
Brush piles are deeply covered by snow and frozen into the ground. Rocks that need to be moved are solidly stuck. Ground we want to prepare for seeding is so covered that we cannot even dream of raking.
It is hard to believe that spring is around the corner and there really is life waiting under the snow.
So maybe we dream……….
Dreaming of this ....

but stuck with this.

This is pretty but...

we would rather see this.

We're looking forward to this...

while trying to enjoy this.


We're waiting for...



Really a long shot...

but we really appreciate this.


These are under the snow...

but when the snow melts, we will welcome these.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.