Monday, July 27, 2015

A special celebration at Knox Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
Over the last several years, the Knox Preserve, on Wilcox Rd in Stonington, has figured importantly in these blog pages. Several reasons: It is a very unique and special property; there has been a lot of attention paid to the habitats there; it has taken up a huge amount of stewardship time and effort, and it just happens to be a favorite of mine.
The fields continue to evolve providing habitat for pollinators and birds.

It is easy to work in such a beautiful place, where the results of our efforts are visible in the beautiful, cleared stone walls, the flowering fields, open trails and the abundance of birds, especially the Purple Martins. We have also shared the space with numerous academic and scientific groups interested in studying various aspects of the property and its management.

Academic research at Knox Preserve

This is the third year that researchers from Trinity College, led by Cameron Douglass PhD., have been on the site to study the bird and plant life, particularly in relation to the over growth of invasives and our attempts to eradicate, or at least control them and restore more native habitat. Last year he and his team concentrated on species connected directly with specific habitats at Knox.
The grand unveiling.

There is the small brackish marsh area that was dominated by Phragmites but is now returning to a healthier mix of native grasses and shrubs. As such, it is far more attractive to nesting and migrating birds.
There are the two fields, approximately 10 acres, that were cultivated with corn until 2010. Once that practice ceased we were faced with choices as to how to manage the area. The decision to let it evolve, slowly, on its own was the easiest route to take! The area is too small for the endangered grassland birds to nest in, so we are encouraging a wide variety of plants and flowers for insects as pollinators and as habitat for small mammals, and other birds that rely on seeds and insects. We have been very successful in hosting Purple Martins and Tree Swallows, both aerial insectivores which, as species, are on the decline.
The first sign illustrates the marshland habitat.

The shrubland is about 7 acres of woody bushes, vines, small trees and perfect hiding places for those creatures that need dense thicket habitat.
All of these areas were increasingly impacted by invasive plants and we continue our effort to manage them as best we can.

Informational signs describe the Knox habitats

Part of the Trinity study is to study these management techniques, record results, and look to the species that make use of them. To this end, last year Douglass and his team created informational signs to describe the habitats and the concept of active management. One of his students, Eunice Kim, did gorgeous graphics to accompany the educational text.
Cameron explained the site markers and how the area is being managed.

Last Saturday we installed and unveiled the beautiful signs. We had 30 people attend the event. While everyone enjoyed pastries and coffee, Cameron and I gave an introduction to the property and the project. Due thanks were given to the many people and organizations that helped us get to this point.
The DEEP has provided us with a management plan of action and many, man -hours and materials to help us combat the invasives. Our wildlife habitat manager from DEEP, Jack Berlanda, was present on Saturday.
The group walked to each sign to understand how the habitats differ.

The Stonington Rotary awarded us grant money to pay for the actual printing of the signs and materials for mounting. Billie Ward from the Rotary was also present. It was her first visit to Knox preserve and she commented on the easy walking trails.
We had officials from Trinity College as well as the study team.
We gave an introduction to the Knox Preserve's history, usage and problems.

We gave thanks to all the many Avalonia volunteers who have worked so hard the last several years, cutting, digging, planting, pulling, mowing, raking and hauling debris, rebuilding walls, and mounting the signs-all to get us to a point where we could be proud to show off the Preserve on Saturday.
Please visit, take an easy stroll and take some time to enjoy the beautiful new signs.

Photographs by Christoph Geiss and Rick Newton.

Monday, July 20, 2015

An Update from Dodge Paddock/Beal Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
We are in full summer mode now, and the best place to spend a day is at the shore, right? Well that’s where several of us have spent a LOT of time over the last month or so.
Juncus, a native marsh grass, has grown up in once empty areas.

The Long Island Sound Futures Fund Grant restoration project on Dodge Paddock is forging ahead. We watched and waited to see what native plants came back on their own after the Phragmites were eradicated. The land was so degraded by years of Phragmites overload, that it is pretty barren and the seed bank is not strong. But looking closely there are signs of hope: some grasses, annual “weeds,” and best of all native shrubs have sprung up in the bare areas. The green is creeping in from the edges as the native marsh grasses are recovering and getting stronger and filling in.
We have had several work parties to rake out debris, some remaining from as far back as Storm Sandy. We have hauled out truckloads of the woody matter and have created compost piles that we can use for planting.
Several work parties have cleared debris and made fast work of planting

Help from Mystic Aquarium

We have an Intern from the Mystic Aquarium working with us, who has jumped, boots and all, into the project doing soil testing, water testing, studying the areas, and making data charts. We put together an order of plants that formed our base plan. We knew it would be experimental. The site is so very complex: fresh water, salt water, wet soil, dry soil, hot sun exposure and storm tides and wind. The first plants were distributed in the wettest, bare areas to see what would survive best. Other plants were put up onto the dune/berm that was created when Sandy pushed it up. The plants there will help contribute to stabilizing the bank.
The viburnums seem to like where they were planted.

We also planted about 300 grass plugs! Our team of volunteers made 2 inch holes and popped in native marsh grasses in areas we believed they would thrive. So far the grasses have survived rain and tides and heat but not the CROWS! The local crows have discovered that if they pull out the plugs, there are plenty of tasty invertebrates in the holes! Several of us have spent countless hours replanting what the crows have pulled. The good news: while there are some losses, many of the grasses have rooted well and resist tugging.
A clump of Spartina alternifloria has taken root.

Crows continue to pull out the plugs.

High water problems

We did lose a few shrubs, probably due to drowning when the water was just too much for them after a heavy rain. That soil doesn’t drain well. We will not plant any more of those. But we have been very encouraged by several species of natives that have not only survived, but seem to be thriving in their designated spots.
It is  a complex site and not every plant is happy.

The planning for the next phase has begun. We assessed our efforts so far, will do more testing, and plan an order for fall planting. We have more work parties on the calendar, to clean the next areas, and we will have a DEEP professional come in to help us eradicate more invasives. We will also attack the poison ivy that seems exceptionally lush this year.
Our goal, a natural, beautiful marsh preserve.

Come down and enjoy the cooling breezes and check out the restoration.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Banner day for the Martins

By Beth Sullivan
The day we get to band our Purple Martins is the high point of the season. It makes up for all the observations and nest checks and messy nest changes of the last weeks.

This young bird is nearly ready to fledge.

This season has been an interesting one. As reported previously, our birds started earlier than last year. These were probably true experienced adult birds. These got down to business, laid their eggs, and as of banding day their young were close to fledging-about 26 days old. At the same time, a number of birds started later. These were likely the younger, less experienced birds, last year’s babies! On banding day we still had one nest with eggs in it!
Our colony on Knox Preserve.

Fresh nesting material provided

One of the housekeeping duties of a Martin landlord is changing out the nest material when the young are a couple of weeks old. Mom and dad are pretty diligent about removing fecal sacs, but accidents happen. And, as the babies get bigger, there is a lot more leftover food remaining: wings and legs and shells of various insects. Another revelation: the nests themselves are microhabitats for all sorts of organisms! As I removed layers of old nest material I discovered seething, moving masses of invertebrate life. That was not fun. But the birds do not mind being handled and seem to appreciate fresh pine needle bedding and added green cherry leaves, and I assume they don’t miss the bugs!
On July 8 the DEEP banding team led by Min Huang and Laurie Fortin, set up a tent for shade, work tables, and organized an assembly line for efficiency. A number of Avalonia volunteers joined the effort: more hands, faster process. I removed the birds from their nests and placed them in Cool Whip containers lined with cloth bags ( very hi-tech) . They were labeled with the gourd ID number and how many babies were inside. Those younger than about 7-8 days old were deemed too young to band. The rest were transported to the station where they were fitted with both the Federal band with a unique ID number, as well as two color bands that identify them as part of Knox Preserve Colony. In this case orange over green. Each bird was compared to a chart to determine its age and then was weighed carefully as a determination of health and feeding success. Knox has plenty of insect variety in the various levels of sky above the fields.
These siblings nestle in, waiting for their clean nest.

The nestling are compared to photos to determine their age.

Insects รก la carte

We have watched parents bring in HUGE dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, bees, spiders and flying ants. Amazing what is floating around up there. One nestling was discovered to have the biting mouth parts of a large ant attached to its beak! That ant never gave up! The ant mandibles were removed.
A parent returns with a large Dragon Fly.

The nestlings were returned to their own nest-now a bit refurbished and cleaned. The parents waited patiently with beaks full of food. We finished our colony after banding 36 and determining 16 more were too young to band. Our team of volunteers also did our neighbor’s colony, and then we all moved up to Pequot Golf Course to assist with their very successful and well established colony.
A great learning experience for all.

By color banding the birds, we are visually able to identify what colony they were born in and can determine dispersal patterns. Our colony hosts birds from the Golf Course, a Clinton colony and a Hammonassett colony. Martins are State listed as a species of concern. It is hoped that with better public support for the species, their population will rebound and they can be de-listed.
Band colors indicate this bird was born at Pequot Golf Course and makes his home at Knox.

A very good thing for a special species.

resources about Purple Martins:

Sightings of color-banded purple martins! If you see a purple martin with colored leg bands, please report it to and let us know 1) where you saw it; 2) when you saw it; and 3) the color of the legs bands. More information can be found here.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Take a walk on the (sort of) Wild Side

By Beth Sullivan
Many of us like the comfort of a well -hardened trail, maybe a map and an expectation of what lies ahead when we go for a hike. Often, though, I like to find a place without a trail, without too many expectations and plan on a bit of an adventure. Many of Avalonia’s preserves are as yet untrailed. And many never will be. It might be to protect a particular habitat. It is often because of fragile wetlands and the difficulties associated with building bridges and spanning areas that could be damaged by traffic. They are, however, generally open to the public.
Sometimes it is more about time and volunteers. To set up a trail requires mapping skills and a lot of time, depending on the size of the preserve.
The trail at Babcock starts out wide and open.

It has been a year since Avalonia completed the acquisition of the Babcock Ridge Preserve in North Stonington. During the acquisition period there were many hikes up there to introduce people to the area. Now it has settled into a lovely quietness.
Farther on it is indistinct and there are a few intermittent red tapes as markers.

Visiting again

We walked in recently, the first time since last fall. It is obvious it is not heavily used. The first portion of the loop trail heading east ( or right off main path in) remains pretty easy to follow as it is an old trail or roadway. There were a few flags on trees remaining from the organized hikes, but those became irregular and some faded and not easily spotted. The path narrowed down, the leaves covered what was the trail, and it began to look like a place that has been undisturbed. We decided to continue the hike anyway.
What we knew was that it was a loop. It rose up to the high ridge and descended back down to complete a circle. We also knew that at the top of the ridge was a stone wall as the boundary of this preserve and where it joined the Erisman preserve to the north. Getting lost was really not a concern.
At the very top of the ridge a stone wall marks the northern boundary.

As we walked counterclockwise into the loop, there were places to discover off to the side: the vernal pool was pretty low in water, but the green frogs squeaked and jumped in at our footfalls. We found wood frogs too, not far away from their water source. We found a grassy wetland glade at the base of the steep slope up. It took a while to decide our best route up-lots of rock and ledge, great holes and small caves. We could imagine why people claim to find bears and fishers and even big cats, bobcats or the rumored mountain lions, in this kind of an area. We saw none of those! One opening had the musky smell of possibly a fox den.
The vernal pool was pretty low when we visited.
The vernal pool may have been low, but we found a Wood Frog not far away.

It's easy to imagine what might live in these rocky hollows.

Signs of a majestic resident

We made it up to the ridge where we found signs of the Pileated woodpecker known to live up there: big rectangular holes and huge splinter chips of wood on the ground. There was too much foliage to allow any kind of real view but there was definitely a sense of height. The way down was not hard; we stayed along what must have been a boundary as there was old barbed wire embedded in tree trunks.
The Pileated Woodpecker leaves quite a calling card.

A stream crossing allowed study of another habitat, and an easy crossing. Another small rise and we were close to the road again.
Boundaries can be marked by ties, old barbed wire or drilled holes.

Babcock Ridge will someday be fully blazed-have an entrance sign, maybe a little stream crossing. But for now it invites some adventure, an opportunity to make your own walk and discoveries, off the beaten path.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.