Monday, June 29, 2015

Caterpillars: Love ‘em or hate ‘em?

By Beth Sullivan
Pretty much any kind of wildlife intrigues me. I am not afraid of much but have a healthy respect for things that bite or sting. I am grateful we do not have venomous snakes to worry about in my area.
Tent Caterpillars are easy to spot in their web nests.

But I have to say I am getting pretty upset with caterpillars this spring! We have seen groves of trees denuded in a short time. Some trees never even had the chance to unfurl their leaves. Some never blossomed.

The Winter Moth

The first wave of problems was caused by the Winter Moth: A nondescript, smallish brown-gray moth that was noted in abundance last fall and into December, in pockets in southeastern Connecticut. They flew in clouds, caught in headlights, covered garage doors and patio windows. Then they disappeared, but not before laying millions of eggs on the bark and buds at the tips of branches of certain trees. They seemed to favor Oaks and fruit trees like Crab Apples and Cherries. Despite the bitter winter the eggs survived and as the spring enticed trees to begin their growth, the caterpillars hatched and ate into the developing buds. As leaves unfolded they were damaged and lacey. Their photosynthesis abilities were greatly diminished. The trees will suffer. The caterpillars were small, smooth and green, and while I felt helpless, I knew some birds were enjoying a spring feast. So there was a positive side to it…maybe. But if Oaks are too weak to produce acorns, other species will be impacted later. The trees that lost their blossoms will not produce fruit, so the birds dependent on the berries in the fall will be severely challenged.
When the leaves of infested trees emerged in spring, they were already damaged.

The birds being impacted are our own natives; the caterpillars doing the damage, are not.
This photo was taken in June not January.

The Winter Moth caterpillar cycle is nearly finished now. They will drop to the ground to pupate. There are foresters very interested to determine exactly how and where they complete this stage, as control may be possible. But, to add insult to injury, Gypsy Moth caterpillars have made a comeback in many areas, as well as Tent Caterpillars, easy to spot with their webby abodes. The poor trees that are trying to re-sprout leaves, are being eaten back yet again. There is only so much a tree can tolerate before it will be damaged beyond recovery. The Gypsy Moth caterpillars and Tent caterpillars are not as enticing to birds; they are too fuzzy to be palatable to most, except Cuckoos. We can wage war on them. Tent structures can be removed and destroyed. Gypsy Moth caterpillars often migrate up and down the tree trunks and can often be found clustering near the base prior to pupating. I have no problem destroying them!
Gypsy Moth caterpillars blend in to the tree bark.

Monarch Butterflies

But then we think of our Monarchs. The beautiful native that has enthralled people of all ages and cultures for centuries is under siege. Their home range for winter migration is threatened with climate change and forest destruction. The Milkweed they depend on here, for their caterpillar food, is being decimated by habitat change and widespread use of herbicides. There is a “lookalike” invasive plant, Swallowwort that attracts the butterfly to lay her eggs, but the caterpillars will not be able to survive.
Monarch butterflies are in serious decline.
Little Monarch caterpillars have big appetites.

So dedicated nature people like me go out to dig, propagate and save milkweed to establish big patches in attractive places for the Monarchs to use. We rejoice to see the chewed up leaves!
We protect the Milkweed plants so Monarch caterpillars can survive. 

Another caterpillar…a different response!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sandy Point: Ready for Summer

By Beth Sullivan
As the calendar indicates it is now summer, it is the season that will find more activity out on Sandy Point. The action began more than a month ago when the Piping Plovers arrived and began scraping nests in the sand. American Oystercatchers have staked out territories and set up nesting sites as well.

Oystercatchers have had great success this year. Photo by Rick Newton

Piping Plovers require everyone's protection. Photo by Rick Newton.
The dredging project that took place last winter changed the topography of the island by building up the sandy areas which is perfect for these birds and the Least Terns we were hoping would return. And they have.
The dredging project improved the bird habitat on Sandy Point.

New agreement protects the island

This year brings other positive changes to the island. Over the winter, Avalonia worked hard to come up with the “best-of-all–worlds” type agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and our little island is now included as part of the Stuart B McKinney Wildlife Refuge System. While Avalonia maintains full ownership of the Preserve, USFWS will take responsibility for stewardship and monitoring to best protect the birds. Already the success of the nesting species is far better than other years, which might be a coincidence or partly a result of the dredging and improved nesting sites. The USFWS stewards have erected informational kiosks explaining the guidelines they will need to enforce to manage it well, while educating the public and encouraging active participation in protecting the fragile areas.
Shorebird eggs are vulnerable to all sorts of dangers.

Roped off areas designate not only nest sites but also feeding areas. The birds must move from nest to shoreline to feed, and their path must be free of people, dogs, obstructions and dangers. As always camping and camp fires are prohibited. Kite flying is seen as a significant threat by the birds: hard to distinguish a flying kite from a potential aerial predator. Dogs are not allowed at all, even on leash. The birds that nest here are not exposed to mammalian predators which gives them much greater security as ground nesters.

Horseshoe crabs return

The Horseshoe crabs have also returned to Sandy Point. The new and full moons in May through July draw them at the high tide, up to the beach for mating and egg laying. We have begun our tagging efforts and will give better reporting as the season goes on. The Horseshoe crabs rely on the Island to be a safe place to breed, a place where their nests will remain intact, their eggs can hatch, and the young can survive in the shallows. Migrating shorebirds rely on some of these eggs to fuel their journeys. It is a complex web of life to be experienced out there.
There are many treasures to be found on Sandy Point.

Sandy Point has always been a refuge for many species: human, bird, and others. At this point, we can all work together to share the refuge, enjoy the beauty it offers, and learn to understand and respect the interconnectedness of the birds and this habitat.
Sandy Point beckons.

Passes are again required to visit the island. Funding is needed to support stewardship efforts. Permits can be obtained through the Stonington COMO. Day passes are available, Season memberships are $70 for individual, $90 for family. Children under 18 are free with a paid adult. Stop in at 28 Cutler Street in Stonington, or visit their website . Visit Avalonia‘s website to read more about Sandy Point and why it remains such a special place. Enjoy.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Brunswick - special viewing

Avalonia Land Conservancy in partnership with Connecticut Land Conservation Council, Connecticut Farmland Trust, and Preston Conservation Council presents a screening of the film Brunswick by Nate Simms on Saturday, June 27 at 1:30 pm at Olde Mistck Village Art Cinemas, 27 Coogan Blvd, Mystic CT 06355.
The film will begin at 2:00 pm and will be followed by a Q &A session with Nate Simms.

Please RSVP by June 20th by contacting Avalonia at (860)774-3500 or

Brunswick is a film about landscape change, told through the personal story of a farmer's lifelong connection to his now-threatened land. The file weaves together the plight of Sanford Bonesteel, an aging farmer in his 90's with the dynamics of small-town politics as a residential development is planned on Sanford's former land.
The film takes place in Brunswick, NY, a small country town facing the challenge of balancing economic growth with the preservation of its rural character. It is a story both specific to Brunswick and yet recognizable to rural communities all over the United States.

You can learn more about Brunswick and see a trailer, here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Purple Martins 2015

By Beth Sullivan
Those of you who have followed this blog for the past years know that I am the grandmother to a nice colony of Purple Martins on Knox Preserve. Actually I share custody with all of Avalonia, but as the landlady and nest checker, I feel pretty possessive.

Purple Martin condominiums 

In 2013 we erected one super gourd system. You can read that post here. We applied for a grant through Audubon CT, and they were eager to help us establish a colony on our perfect coastal site. Martins need open space and fields around, necessary for catching all the aerial insects that make up their diets. They also like to be near a water source as they will use mud in their nests. Ponds and wetlands also attract insects to feed hungry young. They also want to be near people! It is the only species of bird that truly depends on humans now to provide nesting sites. We placed the first set of houses close to a couple of homes and a barn and also close to a neighbor’s exiting colony of Martins-a recipe for success! From that season forward we have hosted increasing numbers of pairs of Purple Martins which are species of concern here in CT as their numbers have greatly diminished. Last year we added a second set of gourds, also funded by Audubon CT, and we doubled our real estate offerings and our residents.
Adults do not mind disturbance and seem to enjoy watching our activities.

This year I have had some challenges. Non-native and aggressively invasive House Sparrows have invaded the colony. Each time I lower the nests to check on them, I remove large messy wads of grasses that entirely fill the cavity. As they are considered a danger to the nesting success of several species of native birds, the House Sparrows are not protected by federal laws as our native birds are. Martin Landlords, as well as those that monitor Bluebird houses, are encouraged to remove nests and prevent any future generations of House Sparrows. This species is known to not only take over good sites, but also aggressively fight native birds such as Martins, Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, remove eggs, kill nestlings, and even kill adult birds on the nests. Then they just create their own nest right on top!
A perfect view for a Purple Martin, fields full of insect habitat and open sky.

Martins return home

Martins are quite tolerant of human interactions and frequent nest checks do not disturb them. Frequent checks help keep an eye on the stages of nesting and egg laying and anticipate hatching dates. This year we had two pairs of more mature birds arrive early, one even sporting bands indicating he was born at this spot probably in 2013. They got right down to nest building, and their eggs were already present when I checked on May 28. That means that they will be hatching probably by the time this is posted!
Purple Martins are often found near people and their buildings.

Other pairs are taking their time. The nests are created using the base of pine needles I had provided. They don’t add much other material. Just before they begin to lay eggs, they bring in many green cherry leaves which are believed to help chemically deter mites which can be harmful to nestlings. Eggs are laid, one a day until the clutch is complete, and then the female begins incubation and they all hatch on the same day.
By the time this is posted, we will have hatchings.

Right now we have 9 active nests with 46 eggs. But there are four more lined with green leaves! Our hatching dates will span from June 13 to possibly later than June 23rd. I will keep checking, keep records, and let you know how things progress and when the DEEP will come to band them.
The green leaves are placed in the nest right before egg laying.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Sweet Short Stroll

by Beth Sullivan
Sometimes we get busy at this time of year. Lots to do, places to go, and we need to really remind ourselves to take a little break to enjoy the view. I would say, “Stop and smell the roses,” and in this case, it would be Rugosa Roses.
Rugosa Roses are re-growing along the bank.

As you drive up and down North Main Street in Stonington, always on the way to or from the Borough, you probably have passed the white gates of a little coveside plot. Right now there is no real signage. If you look closely, you will see a few white Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. Hopefully by summer’s end there will be a nice, more inviting sign proclaiming the name of this little piece of land as the Simmons Preserve.
Look for the inviting white gate on North Main Street.

Rich in history

I have written about it before-a place rich in local history. We visited it just recently, checking off our spring cleaning stewardship chore list. The beautiful white gates needed clearing; grasses and weeds grew up quickly this spring. Once inside, we were met by a large swath of green and white-the Lily of the Valley that was planted there probably a century ago. The flowers were going by, but the fragrance lingered. We mowed a simple trail; just enough to let a walker loop through, get close to some of the lovely ornamental plants, glimpse the shoreline, and return to the gate passing some large Rhododendron bushes. Most of Avalonia lands concentrate on preserving the native plants, but here, the ornamentals are part of the history and really are such a pleasure.

Waves of Lilly of the Valley greet you at the gate.

Old walls and Rhododendron hint at the past.

Fox den with water view

A peek over the side to the cove allows you to see the edge of the water, the marsh plants, and the tides. You might be lucky to spy a big hole that is most likely a Fox den. They seem to enjoy locations by the water as much as we do. Along the edge you will find some Rugosa Roses, otherwise known as Beach Rose, growing back. Last fall, we cleaned up a lot of vines and overgrowth to clear the view. In doing so, the roses have begun to re-establish and will lend their fragrance to the air through the summer.
Cove-side view shows a bit of salt marsh.

A Fox den near the edge of the preserve.

The huge old maples have big cavities, openings perfect for squirrels, raccoons, bats, or even owls.
This old Maple might host a squirrel or raccoon.

The blueberries are gnarled and ancient. They did have blossoms, but likely the birds will find the berries before any human visitors.
These ancient blueberries are gnarled.

It does not take long to stop, enjoy a little walk, take a few good deep breaths of air…then be on your way. If we try and install a bench, it might be harder to leave.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan  

Monday, June 1, 2015

Catch up time

By Beth Sullivan
This time of year is so amazing. With so much happening all at once, it is hard to know which way to turn to experience the changes. It certainly is nearly impossible to choose one thing to focus on, and sitting still and writing is not easy when there are trails to be walked, walls to clear, birds to observe, flowers to search for, and grass seed to plead with to grow! There are still domestic gardens to be planted, corners to be raked…everything needs attention.
May Apple is in bloom now.

In a nutshell, here is what has been happening:
We have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all the energy and efforts of the Connecticut College students. I hope you have enjoyed their “Guest Blogs”. The Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment has completed its third year with Avalonia as part of its service learning curriculum. We are all learning and benefitting from this collaboration. This year we had work parties, a children’s art project, historical documentation, new brochure design, and more. Each year we get inspired and encouraged by their enthusiasm and ideas, and they get some real life exposure to the efforts of managing an all volunteer land trust.
Cinnamon Fern Fiddleheads supply fuzzy fibers for Hummingbird's nests.

Student volunteers

Dodge Paddock has had the benefit of several work parties, both by Connecticut College and the Marine Science Magnet School. These students spent long hours raking, hauling debris, and moving and replacing stones along the walls. The area is being prepped for planting test plots which will occur in mid-June. We continue to receive assistance from multiple DEEP agencies to help us through the process of doing this project right as part of our LISFF Grant.
Dodge Paddock will be seeing a lot of activity in the next months.
At Knox Preserve, Trinity College studies have ramped up again. Areas are staked out for monitoring growth of weeds, natives, and invasives. All of this is part of a long term plan to assess response of the environment to removing invasive growth, and rebuilding native plant communities. We spread native grass seed over nearly an acre of prepared soil, then waited while the forecasts of rain simply dried up. After a little bit of recent rain, we are seeing signs of green blades emerging among the weeds.
Meadows are greening up...

but beware of the already abundant Poison Ivy.

Knox bird populations

Over decades, we have studied changes in the bird populations at Knox through migratory banding programs, and a new group is now observing breeding birds in the area. They will continue to watch trends that may correspond to improved plant resources and management techniques. All this activity has not bothered the Purple Martins that are back in the gourd houses. They are most active early in the morning when they sing and emerge for the day. It's certainly worth a trip to listen to them. A recent nest check has confirmed we have eggs in two nests already and several more being built. The Tree Swallows are occupying most of the wooden bird houses, but I continue to battle with House Sparrows, who are ruthless in their efforts to take over.
The Purple Martins at Knox Preserve have eggs in two nests, with more on the way.

We are making up for lost time from the winter, but all in good time. While we do these “chores,” we can enjoy listening for the returning birds or stumbling across a hidden Lady’s Slipper flower.
Time to begin trail maintenance.
Please take the time to go slow and enjoy this fleeting season.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.