Monday, February 29, 2016

Bah Humbug!

By Beth Sullivan
As we come to the end of the month of February, we start to breathe a little easier. Maybe the back of winter has been broken. We may still get snow, but it will melt quickly. The recent warmth and rains have nearly banished the big banks of dirty snow and ice along the roadsides.
It takes effort to keep the trails so beautiful. 

Revealing … litter and trash as far as the eye can see.
What it is about a coffee cup that it cannot stay in a car for a few miles until a destination is reached? I tried to mentally tally the great variety of places serving coffee within a specified distance from North Main Street, and I couldn’t keep track. Dozens? Plastic, styrofoam, coated paper.
Water bottles? Soda in plastic or glass? Gatorade? Lots of Gatorade bottles. Why can’t they stay in a car?
Beer cans? There are more brands and interesting labels than I ever knew. I could start a collection.
Liquor bottles, big ones and little ones.
Dumping garden debris can introduce invasive species to a nature preserve.

Then all the paper and plastic wrappers and bags, from snacks, candy, sandwiches, doughnuts, and pizzas. What happens to an animal that comes along to investigate a sandwich wrapper and ends up with a wad of plastic in its digestive system?
I just don’t understand.
Part of our stewardship job is to do roadside clean up along our preserves. If the towns had to pay workers to clean up, it would be our tax dollars being wasted.

Nocturnal visitors - not welcome

Some of our preserves have off-street parking. These are small lots provided to make it easier and safer for hikers instead of parking along the roadside. They are not meant to be easier for those who want to park after hours, drink, party or rendezvous! Technically our preserves are closed at dusk. But what the morning light brings is pretty interesting. Items range from the usual food and drink, to occasional items of clothing! Who would leave the area without pants and a coat in the middle of winter?
A trash-filled party camp in the woods. Photograph by Rusty Morrison.

Then there are the special items: upholstered chairs, televisions, shelving units, mattresses, and once, even an entire toilet and tank! Maybe over time, someone was thinking of setting up a permanent home? Who do they think is going to come along and lift these things up and out? Not all of us are blessed with a pickup truck and a partner with muscles and patience to be running around cleaning up!
Just hard to understand.
We are lucky to have willing, strong stewards and a truck to help when needed.
Maybe they wanted some place to watch the TVs?

Sometimes the worst items are smaller, seemingly innocuous, yet contain toxic materials. Gas and oil, paint, containers that are aerosols, sealants and stains. A bottle of nail polish remover found empty along a stream. Where did the contents go? Did gas and oil leach into the soil? Get into the waterways? Who and what is downstream? There are designated hazardous waste days all around the area.
Just one of several bedding items found over the last few years.

A pet peeve may be a home owner, whose property adjoins a preserve, who feels it is just fine to dump leaves and yard waste over the wall. It may be organic, but it is a violation. And even worse are those who dump their trash, flower pots, outdoor furniture, broken tools, old kids’ toys over the wall, out of sight, out of their sight. But not out of ours.
Over the wall is just too easy for some people. Feet deep and years old, including a plastic Christmas tree.

Cleaning up is now required

Sadly, as stewards, we now have to walk with collection bags and heavy gloves, to pick up as we go. We now have to have work parties dedicated to cleaning up party camps in the woods.
It would be a lot nicer to be able to concentrate on the beauty of the preserve we try and protect.
Sorry for the Grinch tone…we have spent way too many precious hours, walking boundaries, volunteering as stewards of the lands, only to waste time on cleaning up the messes of others. I am sure this is “preaching to the choir” as readers of a blog like this are likely to already know what I am talking about. I am sure you already are part of the volunteer clean-up effort. Thank you.
I am looking forward to spring, and walking the trails, being a good steward of our beautiful lands.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.
There is a hazardous waste collection site near you.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Start thinking spring!

By MaryEllen Mateleska & Beth Sullivan
It is definitely not too early to start thinking spring.
If you are like us, spring doesn’t truly arrive until you start to hear the “peeps” of spring peepers and the “quacks” of wood frogs. These signals let us know that during a walk to the vernal pools of Pequotsepos Brook Preserve and White Cedar Swamp, we may witness the movements of frogs as they hop into the water and hope to see the telltale signs of amphibian breeding season – egg masses!
Spring Peeper-little frog with a big voice

Connecticut diversity

Connecticut is home to 23 amphibian species, including 12 species of salamanders and newts, and 11 species of frogs and toads (including the newly discovered Atlantic Coast leopard frog!). As spring changes into summer, the breeding calls will begin to change as well. The spring calls of the wood frogs transition to the bellows of bull frogs, to the haunting call of the pickerel frog, or the unforgettable squawks of the endangered Eastern spadefoot. What is amazing is that these calls not only create the nocturnal music we’ve all grown to love but provide valuable information on the health of our local wetland and forest ecosystems, including Avalonia preserves.
Bull Frog in full voice. Photograph courtesy of the Mystic Aquarium.

Currently, a third of the world’s amphibian populations are listed as threatened or endangered. While habitat destruction and pollution are the top causes for population decline in our region, invasive species, and diseases like chytrid fungus, are threatening populations not just locally but globally. Now is the time to take actions to help save these vanishing species! Programs like FrogWatch USA train citizen scientists (next training is on February 27!) on how to collect and submit information on frog and toad calls; these calls inform us of any changes in breeding seasons and an estimate of population size.
Green Frog
Jefferson salamander egg masses. Photograph courtesy of the Mystic Aquarium.

Not sure if you can learn calls? Participation in guided walks flipping rocks and logs will help us understand salamander and newt populations.
Spotted salamanders are silent, and not easily found except during breeding season.
Still not sure how you can help? Try washing your shoes, boots and nets after you leave a preserve – this small step will help to stop the spread of any invasive species from one area to another.
Toads prefer to be dry, but go to wetlands to trill and breed.

Although there may still be ice and snow covering the vernal pools and ponds, we are looking forward to the day that we hear the first sounds our local frogs and toads. Happy Frog Watching!
Pickerel frogs sound like a low pitched snore.
Wood frogs sound like quacking ducks.

Frog Watch USA

To get ready for the season, without getting your feet wet yet, please join many of us at the Mystic Aquarium on Feb 27th , from 6pm-9pm for an introduction (or immersion) into the art of listening for the sounds of spring amphibians and turning into Citizen Scientists by collecting and submitting data. The training is free but registration is required and participants must be at least 15 years of age This is a great family activity. Email  to reserve your spot.
Once you are ready to listen, search, and identify, head out to an Avalonia Preserve that has wetlands. There are many: Pequotsepos Brook, White Cedar Swamp and Deans Mill Preserve, Knox Family Farm, Knox Preserve, Paffard Woods, Preston Nature Preserve, Henne Preserve, Babcock Ridge, Bindloss Preserve, Hoffman Preserve. These are just a few of the easily accessible preserves with wetlands just waiting for Spring. Check the Avalonia website for preserve descriptions, locations and directions.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A flash of blue

By Beth Sullivan
Somehow blue is just more vibrant against the background of snow.
The bright blue is always more intense against the snow.

Our Eastern Bluebird population ebbs and flows during the winter. They do not truly make a big migration, but may move around in loose flocks. A winter walk in the woods will often be enhanced by their warble song and movements through the trees.

Equal opportunity eaters

During the summer season they are mainly insect eaters, catching crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars on the ground. Occasionally they will convince themselves they are fly catchers and snatch something on the wing. At this time of year they roam the woods, looking for insect eggs, larva and also berries. Many trees and shrubs have fruits that persist through the winter. Sumac is one of their favorites. A good place to look for wintering Bluebirds is a sunny patch of Sumac in an overgrown field. Knox preserve is a great spot; Fennerswood fields and Preston Nature Preserve are others.
Sumac berries persist well into winter.

During the cold times, Bluebirds will spend the night in a communal roost. Often in a nest box along a field edge, there might be a dozen Bluebirds crammed in for warmth. I have witnessed more than 6 Bluebirds flying out of one box, leaving me to scratch my head, wondering. A nest cam would be a great thing!
They are attracted to suet during these cold months, and in my yard, they seem always to show up in February. They can be feisty, defending a suet cage from other birds at some times, but also willing to share with other Bluebirds.
Bluebirds seem willing to share among themselves.

But unwilling to share with strangers.

House hunting time

At this time of the season, they are paired up already and are beginning to look for suitable nest sites. This past weekend, with snow on the ground, we watched a bright male fly to a house at Knox Preserve. He examined the hole, sat on top and sang, brought up a piece of grass, and sat atop the roof waving it around. Relatively easily we spotted the lovely female sitting high in a cherry tree. She watched, warbled back, and flew down to inspect, in and out several times. Then they flew off across the field together, presumably to check out other real estate offerings.
The male checks out the house first. Photograph by Rick Newton.
The soft-colored female waits nearby before passing judgement on a nest site.

Many years they have chosen a nest box, only to be forced out by House Sparrows. These sparrows are not native and are considered invasive. They are not protected by the same laws that protect our native song birds and therefore it is fair game to remove nest material when a house sparrow has taken over. It is also OK to remove eggs. House sparrow eggs are light and speckled. Bluebird eggs are “Robins egg blue” as are most of the Thrush family.
House Sparrows compete for food in winter and housing in summer.

We will be watching our boxes. If Bluebirds arrive we will make every effort to prevent the sparrows from attacking. But it is impossible to be ever vigilant. If the Bluebirds are persistent, they may be well established with their first brood when the Tree Swallows arrive at the end of March and start looking to share the same housing.
Tree Swallows also enjoy the same housing.

On many of our Avalonia preserves, we have made sure there is room for all.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Getting our house in order

By Beth Sullivan
Not everything a Land Conservancy does has to do with hands-on tree hugging! Though most of us wish it was!
We have so many places to share.

On the face of things Avalonia is about Land Conservancy, it’s our name. Our mission statement reads: “ We preserve natural habitats in southeastern CT by acquiring and protecting lands, and communicating the value of these irreplaceable resources.”
We acquire, we protect, we steward and manage, and educate. Yes, we even hug the trees.
We dedicate our special acquisitions.

However, as with many other types of organizations, there are standards to be upheld and practices to be followed. And, in order to determine compliance, there is always “A TEST.”
The Land Trust Alliance (LTA) is the over-seeing organization that has put forth the Standards and Practices rule book. A huge collection of everything you could need, or want to know, and more. In order to become accredited with the LTA there is a daunting process that Avalonia has embarked on: making the commitment to adopt the polices, uphold the high standards and follow the practices that are recommended. This means at every step of the way.

Everything is scrutinized 

A lot of what goes on behind the scenes of a full-functioning land trust is paper shuffling, as much as we all hate to admit it. It is essential to being able to carry out the mission. The LTA is scrutinizing every thing we do from paperwork to posting signs and pruning vines!
We educate others about our special places.

Governance and Development happen behind the scenes. How the organization is structured and run and operates will be reviewed. All the things we as volunteers take for granted, like the rules and guidelines we seem to follow instinctively, must be spelled out and documented.
Strategic Planning is more than just a dream of where we want to see ourselves as an organization down the line, but an actual concrete statement of how we plan to get there, and stay there, in perpetuity. This land protection stuff is not for the short term.
We inspire the curious.

Of course there are Finances. No one likes to think about money. Everyone wants to play in the woods. Everyone wants their donations to go directly into the land and acquisition, but what most don’t know is that even raising quantities of money for stewardship and acquisition, takes money. Managing, organizing, and accounting for a land trust’s finances, takes special skills. Fundraising is another set of skills.
We need to reach out to our members, but that is preaching to a very wonderful choir. We are working to reach beyond our members, to convince others who use our trails, see our signs and love the land, to join us with their membership and donations. The open space we protect benefits the entire community.
Reaching out takes skill and time. Designs, graphics, data bases, mailings news blasts, social media management. (Can you help with these?)
Land doesn’t come freely anymore. Or at least not very often. Quality habitat comes with a hefty price tag, especially if it is deemed quality habitat for people as well. Our Acquisition team is on a solid base with volunteers who know how to get out to find the land, connect with the landowners, and reach out to find the funds. LTA will evaluate how we set up to Acquire land.
We care for each property as the donor would  wish we did.

Then there is Stewardship

The heart of the matter. Right now Avalonia protects about 3500 acres of land. I am not sure anyone has actually tallied the miles of boundaries that need to be surveyed at acquisition, posted with signs and walked annually. There's also maintenance, mowing, trail creation and upkeep, invasive species management, building bridges, and installing signage to perform. And, of course, Management Plans to write!
We develop management plans.

In order to get our Stewardship house in order, we are indeed checking boundaries, looking for proper posting, and documenting any encroachments. This is all good. Our management plans are done.

We make sure we know our boundaries.

And, we make sure others know our boundaries.

Check out our website for more information about the Land Trust Alliance, Standards and Practices to get a glimpse of what we, as a volunteer organization, your regional Land Trust, are striving for.
Cramming for an exam makes us really get to the details. We are learning a lot. But we still have time to get out and hug the trees!
We always have time to hug a tree.

You can find more about the Land Trust Alliance here.
To learn about the Standards and Practices of the LTA, look here.
Photographs by Avalonia volunteers.

Monday, February 1, 2016

In between winter and spring

By Beth Sullivan
Supposedly we are in the middle of winter. The mid-portion of January often boasts the coldest temperatures of the year. We have had some cold, for sure, and our big snowstorm last week, but already the grass is showing again and the last days have been warm. The Blizzard is a memory.
A little winter doesn't deter most of us from enjoying the trails in White Cedar Preserve.

A walk in the woods last week was quite a surprise. The wetlands were not frozen. Standing water filled holes among rocks and hummocks of moss. Spikes of Skunk cabbage broke through patches of snow . Fringes of ice-rimmed pools had swirls of bright green watercress breaking the surface.
In Fennerswood Preserve, delicate patterns appear in the melting ice.

The first spikes of Skunk Cabbage have broken through the snow at Parker Brothers Preserve.

A Cardinal sang its spring song while White Throated Sparrows rustled in the underbrush.

Bits of winter, bits of spring

I don’t believe in letting one’s guard down. Winer can still turn around and wallop us. But why not appreciate the little tease we are experiencing. What we discover this week during the thaw time, might be just enough to tide us over during the next storm or deep freeze. Each day we advance means winter loosens its hold a bit more and the effect of a storm melt away faster.
Let's hope the Groundhog doesn't see its shadow at Knox Preserve.

Pussywillows are already in bud and don't seem to mind the snow.

At Paffard Woods, someone just had a mid-hibernation snack.

So here is a quick challenge. Take some time this week to find those bits. Notice the contrast between winter and spring. Find the green in the snow. The soft in the hard. The melt in the freeze. The bird song in the winter stillness.
Sphagum moss in the wetlands is already soft and green.

Appreciate every little bit we get, because it gets us closer to the day when winter will let go and spring will win out and take over!
At Stony Brook Preserve,  the snow has melted on a sunny rock face, but icicles still hang on.

Without the snow cover at Knox Preserve, the rodent tunnels are easy to spot.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.