Monday, October 26, 2015

Beauty can be a beast - again

The follow blog post originally appeared in October of 2013.

By Beth Sullivan

During this time of year, the scenery changes, seemingly minute by minute. Light changes: the angle of the sun creates shadows and details. Color changes; grasses go to warm browns and golds, meadows show off aster purples, goldenrods and Joe Pye weed magentas.
There are other colors showing up in hedgerows and shrub lands and along roadsides. This is the season for berries. Throughout the spring and summer we enjoyed the flowers, some showy, some discrete. Some are fragrant and others not at all. But now the great variety of berries, the fruits, creates a special show.

Take a ride along a back country road, or even along the highway, and it is impossible not to notice the bounty of berries. We have dozens of native shrubs and bushes that have evolved to provide the vital foods needed by small mammals and birds. Ripening over a succession of weeks and even months through fall and winter, they provide a food source for birds when insects are long gone. Migratory song birds will rely on shrub-lands full of cover and food as they stop after a long night of flight to rest and feast and refuel.

But not all berries are created equal!

Over the decades shrubs were imported and planted as ornamentals. Multiflora Rose created instant hedgerows and fragrant white flowers in spring. Those flowers turned into abundant fruits, rose hips, that were eaten by many species of birds. Seeds were dispersed in droppings and now the rose has become an invader, an aggressive spreader that is quick to colonize fields and roadsides. Even though it does provide food and cover, it will out-compete other native plants in our landscape.
Multiflora Rose

Autumn Olive was planted deliberately along our highways to create visual buffers, and also to be a quick cover to prevent erosion. Now that shrub dominates the roadsides. Red berries are abundant now and robins and thrushes are quick to find them. At this time of year we can witness great flocks of starlings, along the highways, swirling and circling as they descend into the medians and roadside edges to feast on the berries and further disperse the seeds.
Autumn Olive

We all enjoy the colors of autumn decorations, but beware of using the non-native and invasive Oriental Bittersweet. It is another truly lovely berry, but a menace when its seeds are spread. The resulting vines climb and twist their way up trees and over native shrubs, strangling and adding their weight and causing death to the plant that supports it.
Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet vine

Colorful but invasive 

One of the most outstanding plants for colorful berries is likely the very worst invader: Porcelain berry. A decade or so ago, it was a sought after nursery plant, a climbing vine with most unusual berries. They start creamy white, then to pale green, then light teal, deeper aqua, sky blue and then to purple when ripe. Porcelain berry vine is a vigorous grower, adding inches, if not feet, almost overnight. It covers everything in its path. Obstructing light, smothering plants beneath, it forms a dense monoculture allowing no diversity and changing the landscape and altering valuable habitat.
Porcelain berry smothering a ceder tree.

The colorful Porcelain berry.

Walk through the Moore Woodlands in Groton, Knox Preserve or Knox Family Farm in Stonington, Pine Swamp in Ledyard, Preston Nature Preserve and many other Avalonia Land Conservancy properties. Notice the berries. Take the time to learn the non-natives and notice the beastly effects they have on our landscape and avoid them in your own. Opt for natives instead and the birds will be happier you did.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A good reason to visit a ‘new’ preserve-Ram Point

By Beth Sullivan
As a Land Trust, Avalonia is held to standards and practices that ensure that we monitor our properties regularly to make sure they are being preserved and protected as intended in the deed at acquisition.
All Avalonia properties are open to the public. Some may have regulations about usage, and some may have restrictions about access into certain areas that may be fragile habitats or nesting sites.
Avalonia Preserve sign marks the island. Retrieving the tires will take a bigger boat.

Not the typical perimeter walk

As stewards it is our responsibility to get out to all preserves, walk and view the boundaries and make sure our neighbors respect our properties as well. Most of the time it is pretty easy to do the monitoring-trails loop through, and often the boundaries are viewed from the trail. Sometimes boundaries go right through a wetland, which is a bit tricky. Doing those when the ground is frozen is helpful. Sometimes the land lines run smack through dense thicket, briers and impassable vines. Those are downright impossible but often we can say that if we can’t get through, likely no one else can either!
A small pool, deep and clear, provides an interesting habitat.

As we reviewed our list of preserves that still needed monitoring this year, there was one, Ram Point, that no one had been to or documented. A review of the maps revealed that the only way to access the property was by water. Land access was through someone’s very exclusive private driveway, and I did not have contact info.
We were very lucky that we happened to choose the most perfect October day to set out for our monitoring! We were grateful to Mystic River Marina for letting us launch our kayaks from their docks. On a beautiful warm late afternoon, the tide was very low, and it was an easy paddle, even against the wind and the tide, to the very tip of Mason’s Island’s most southerly and westerly point along the Mystic River.
Diverse habitats. from rocky shoreline and salt marsh, to shrub land and taller trees, support a variety of birds.

At low tide there were shoals surrounding the point that were quite cobbled, not sandy. They were occupied by Gulls foraging for crabs and flying over and dropping their clams onto the rocky substrate then swooping down to gather the feast. There were a few shorebirds still picking in the wrack lines. Most of the four acre parcel was of low elevation, but there was just enough of a rocky knoll to support some beautiful old Oak trees as well as Sassafras and Cedars. The thickets were alive with birds. Blue Jays were raucously flitting through the tree tops, while masses of Yellow- Rumped Warblers worked the Bayberry and Groundsel thickets.
The rocky cobble along the shore and tide pools full crabs are perfect foraging for Gulls and other shore birds.
A small rocky knoll of higher elevation supports larger trees.

Diverse habitat

Getting out and walking the perimeter, I was struck by the diversity on such a small piece. On the west side were the rocky shores, the south shore was more solid rock, like a headland, and around to the east side there was a band of lovely salt marsh with peat edges at the shoreline. Closer examination showed how the salt marsh edge is literally crumbling away into the water as higher tides eat at it and undermine it.
On the east side, the salt marsh shows signs of undermining and crumbling as a result of rising tides.

There was a lovely central area of wetland-a salt marsh with Spartina grasses and marsh plants . The Salicornia, Sea Pickle to most kids, was now red with cooling fall weather. I had hoped to walk in farther, but the entire area was “guarded” by a battalion of Poison Ivy plants! The most variable and tolerant plants along our coast, they were vining and twining, and some were actual full sized shrubs. Gorgeous red leaves, even at this time of year, promised a painful punishment if I chose to walk through any further, so the remainder of the boundary was viewed from a distance!
Large bushes of poison ivy provide lovely fall color, but prevent further exploration.

The center of the preserve is a salt marsh.

It is not too late in the season for a paddle out and around Ram Point. The water is warm still for wading in. But at the very least, remember it for a summer visit next year.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Member Appreciation Hike

On Sunday, October 18th at 2pm, Avalonia will host a hike on Tefftweald preserve. Entrance is at 282 Grindstone Hill Rd in North Stonington. Parking is down the dirt roadway. It will be led by naturalist and photographer Bruce Fellman. It is a great family hike, lots to see and explore. Easy trails, beautiful opportunities for photography. Don’t forget the binoculars: The woods will be more open and we are in the migration season now!

by Beth Sullivan
There is so much to see now and finally the weather is inviting us to get out and stretch ourselves.
A preserve I have not yet described, is a truly beautiful and special one in North Stonington: Tefftweald at Burchenturn.
A plaque dedicates the meadow as Lily's Lea.

The entrance to the preserve is down a gravel drive at 282 Grindstone Hill Road. A short way down is an area for parking and a sign describing the area and maps. Maps are also available on line at the Avalonia Web site.

This 77-acre preserve was once a Girl Scout camp, enjoyed by generations of Scouts and families. There are still reminders of those days as there are old outhouses, wood sheds, camp fire pits, gathering places and a lovely pavilion. When the camp came up for sale, resident and Avalonia Land Conservancy founder, Lois Tefft had the vison to purchase the land to preserve it from development. She later generously donated it to Avalonia so many more generations could enjoy it. Thank you to Lois!!
A stone bench invites you to rest.

Central in the preserve runs a stonewall-lined lane way with big trees all along. The trails loop off the sides making it easy to explore.
Follow the trail to a peaceful overlook.

Rocky ledges and outcrops are common throughout the preserve.

The loops to the East take you to uplands with rugged ledges, rocky outcrops and some pretty views from up high, down into the lovely woodlands below. The trails cut through mountain laurel groves that remain green even in winter. We will welcome that in the months to come. One of the Eastern loops goes by a very old cemetery with mostly unmarked stones. It is the Bell York Cemetery, and it would be interesting for someone to do some research, or find if it has already been done, to add to our knowledge base of the preserve.
Simple, unmarked stones are found in Bell York cemetery. 

Wyassup Brook to the west

The Western loops take you to the Wyassup Brook. This summer it was pretty dry, but at this point in the Autumn, after recent rains, it is likely to be flowing and beautiful. There are also Laurel glens and rocky ledges, small caves and overlooks. There is also the Poet’s Bench Trail which leads to a serene spot to meditate and muse. Maybe make poetry, paint a picture or take photos of the changing moods of the brook. Parts of the Western trails will lead you to the old Scout sites: the Pavilion is a lovely spot for a family picnic, but please carry out what you carry in. It also leads to a site called Lily’s Lea. This is a sweet open meadow which was the site of the Scout gatherings and the old campfire circle remains.
Wyassup Brook flowed quietly during the drier summer.

The very southern tip of the brook loop provides an overlook where the brook runs into a beautiful large boggy swamp. There is no access as it is privately owned, but a pair of binoculars certainly is helpful.
Return to parking area along the main trail and you will pass old stone foundations, a root cellar and the walls. Ferns along the path set off the trail as a gorgeous view.
Several stone foundations hint at the past.

A must see preserve in any season.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Feast or Famine: Drought or Flood

By Beth Sullivan
Conditions have been so terribly dry. Trees are dying; leaves are browning. Many plants seem to be succumbing or going into early dormancy. We have all been wishing for rain. The saying is: “ Be careful what you wish for…..”
Water floods and nourishes the salt marsh.

As I write this (Sept.30) we are wringing out from over 4.5 inches of rain for just today and now thinking to a hurricane impacting our weekend. While the plants seem so be grateful for the rinsing, we all hope the water has had a chance to soak in and be conserved, rather than flow off the terribly dry soil and too quickly flood the small streams ending up out in the sound. When water runs off that quickly, it takes along chemicals and pollutants from lawns, roads and many other sources, which requires closure of shellfish beds or swimming areas. A lovely long soaking rain is much more beneficial for all.

Super full moon raises tides

We are also just past the super full moon which brought extra high tides. During these phases of the moon when it is closest to the Earth and exerts its greatest pull on our oceans, the tides rise and fall with the greatest of extremes. Those of us lucky enough to live near the coast, and keep an eye on such things, are quick to notice how “full” everything feels during these high tides. It is almost like the entire surface of our landscape is riding higher.
High tides and flooding rains have filled Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve.

These tides bring great nourishment to the salt marshes. Many areas are only bathed in salt during the highest of tides. The waters bring nutrients that are necessary to support the marsh grasses. The tides bring in sediments and organic material so the grasses can capture them and let them remain at their roots. It is how marshes are built. The highest tides also bring in small bits of ocean life, from the planktons, and small invertebrates to fish.
During the dry times, the marsh dries and cracks.

Killifish are the fish of the marshes

They ride the currents and swim into the shallows and into the grasses. They tolerate a wide range of salinity from nearly fresh water to pure ocean water. When they arrive in the marshes with the flooding tide, they feed on the small creatures including mosquito larvae that have been thriving in the shallow pools on the marsh. When the waters recede, sometimes the Killifish remain behind in ditches and pools. They can survive the changing conditions, and even low oxygen in the water, until the next high tide flows in to refresh or release them.
Killfish are tolerant of changing water conditions, fresh or salt and thrive in the flood.

Mussels line the banks and edges of the marsh and rely on the high tidal flushing to deliver nutrients, food, directly to them as of course they cannot move. Fiddler crabs will burrow deeply while the tides run high, but when the tide goes out, huge swaths of mudflats are exposed, providing them a banquet that they have waited for.
At low tide, Fiddler crabs by the thousands emerge to scavenge the mudflats.

Holes in the marsh edges, exposed at lower tides, house mussels and crabs.

The high tides bring the salts, and the flooding rain brings the fresh water. Both mix and flow to create the unique ecosystems we know along our shoreline. It is all about balance. Now we wait to see if a Hurricane might mix things up again.
Newly planted Spartina grasses are holding on int the flood.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.