Monday, June 27, 2016


By Beth Sullivan
What is it about moonlight that tugs at tides and hearts and horseshoe crabs?
The full moon has pulled at the Earth’s waters since the beginning of time. Creatures living in the ocean most certainly have responded and adapted to those tugs. People living near the sea are finely tuned into the changes in the tides. They know without consulting charts and apps when the tides will be full and what phase the moon is in.
Sunset from the island. Photograph by Mark Hibbard.

This past weekend the moon and sun and tides were in a unique situation, coming together in a way that doesn’t happen often. Monday was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. As the sun set beautifully in the West, a turn of the head revealed the huge Full Strawberry Moon rising in the East, within minutes. The tide was rising to full, and the Horseshoe crabs were following their ancient instincts to seek sandy shallows to mate and lay eggs.
All efforts are made to tag and measure the crabs while they remain close together. Photograph by Mark Hibbard.

A few of us were lucky enough to be out during this cycle and appreciate the beauty and mystery of the ritual that has gone on for millions of years. As long as there has been a spit of sand that is Napatree Point, which gave birth to Sandy Point, the crabs have sought out this protected place.

Project Limulus

In an effort to understand the life cycles, needs and drastic decline of the horseshoe crab population, Project Limulus has been studying these creatures by supporting teams which scout the shoreline along Long Island Sound to observe, count and tag the crabs. Volunteers are taught to measure and assess the condition of each crab encountered. Tags are to be placed in a specific area on the shell. On this night we were treated to a motorized ride out to the eastern end of the island. We usually paddle out, which certainly is fun, but this was a luxury. It was calm and beautiful.
Usually there is the greatest “action” on the protected north shore of Sandy Point. The crabs seem to seek out the quieter waters and gently sloping beach to make their nests. There were not many to be found. We did however get to observe two Piping Plovers which have protected exclosures over their nests. We also were met by the loud cries of several families of American Oystercatchers which are having a great success out there this year.
The Oystercatchers greeted us with lots of noise. Photograph by Rick Newton.

The Piping Plivers still struggle to nest successfully on Sandy Point. Photograph by Victoria Limi.

At the far east end, we were beginning to be discouraged, all that walking and effort for virtually no crabs. However, as we rounded the point and headed along the south shore, the current increased; there was more wave action, and hundreds of crabs.

Horseshoe Crabs on the beach

As far as we could see down the beach there were mounds at the waterline, each indicating a nesting pair. As we walked toward the first, we could see even more off shore, some already dug into the sand, in a couple of feet of water, others moving toward shore. There were many “piles” with one large female surrounded by as many as 4 smaller males, jockeying for the best positions.
Larger females are often joined by several smaller males as she digs a nest. Photograph by Tom Frohnapfelw.

The males usually try to connect with a female farther off shore and they will land together so that as she digs into a nest in the sand, he will be in the best position to fertilize her eggs as she lays them.
On this night, the crabs didn't seem to mind the waves. Photograph by Rick Newton.

We only had 100 tags to use. We used them all in a relatively short time, and there were still more crabs coming into the shore. We were tired; it takes a bit of muscle to manage the crabs, tools and equipment while bending into the water. It was getting late, and the tide was turning. We left the rest of them to nest in peace.
Moonlight gave us a bright glow to make our way back in the night.
The Strawberry moon rose over Watch Hill. Photograph by Ingrid Fedderson.

Sunset, Full moon and the tides tug on more than just the horseshoe crabs.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Time for Turtles

by Beth Sullivan
As the season warms up, the frog sounds begin to diminish. No more Peepers , no quacking Wood frogs. We still hear the Gray Tree frogs before a rain, and if we're lucky, we can hear Bull frogs chorus through the summer.
But now is the season for the silent turtles.
The frogs and salamanders can lay eggs in the cold water and they themselves can tolerate being nearly frozen. But the reptiles emerge from hibernation a bit later than most amphibians-they require warmth to fuel their life-drives-for feeding, mating and nesting. Because they do not stay with their nests, they rely on the warmth of the sun to incubate their eggs.
If you have lived near a pond or lake, you know you can count on Painted turtles to emerge first, finding their way onto rocks or logs or mossy banks, to sit in the March sunshine. Their dark shells capture the sun's warmth and fuel their cold blood to inspire them to move. If you have ever noticed a whole collection of turtles, all sizes, sitting along a log in a pond, these are the painted turtles.
Painted Turtles leave the pond to find a warm, dry spot to nest.

Sun bathing for warmth

The Eastern Box turtle is strictly a land turtle. They may be found soaking in shallow puddles, but cannot swim. They walk acres of territory, hoping to encounter a mate, and if they are successful, they too seek sunny warm sand and gravel in which to lay their eggs.
A Box Turtle may choose to come out of the woods to dig in your lawn.

The male Eastern Box Turtles have bright red eyes.

The other aquatic turtle that is commonly encountered at this time of year is the Snapping Turtle. As every kid knows, these are the ones that look like dinosaurs: jagged long tails, plain gray/black muddy colored shell and beady eyes that just dare you to get too close. By the time they are of the age to lay eggs, they have reached a good size. And while they may be slow to move across a lawn or roadway, their heads are lightning-fast and their powerful jaws can do a bit of damage to one’s soft tissue on hands or feet. All species of aquatic turtles are dependent on warm sandy areas to lay their eggs. They leave the pond, sometimes to travel a short way to a sandy beach. In many instances, however, they seem to take a long journey away from their wetlands to find a perfect spot. It might be a sand box, compost pile, a vegetable garden, or your lawn.
This female chose the soft sand on a busy roadside to create her nest.
There are local legends-turtles that are huge, that return to the same area, year after year, for decades, to lay their eggs. Even if a building or a road has blocked the way, nothing will deter a mother Snapper on a mission.
When cleaned-up, there is beauty in a Snapping Turtle, but the sharp beak and powerful jaws are not to be treated lightly.

We know there is such a whopper living in the White Cedar Swamp Preserve, off Jerry Browne Road. I have seen her myself. Today while driving that stretch, we noticed a Snapper, not THE snapper, right at the edge of the road, with a well scraped-out hole for laying eggs. Surely a precarious place, and certainly not a good one for the young to hatch from later in the summer. We got out to check on her; another car also stopped to keep traffic away from her. We were not about to try and move her, but fairly quickly she decided on her own, that having gawking humans was not her idea of ideal circumstance for what she needed to do. So she turned around slowly and slid ungracefully down a grassy slope into the slow moving stream that led back to her pond. We can only hope she will find a safer, sandy place to nest.
You may encounter a Painted Turtle well away from water, likely a female in nesting season.

All Snappers snap

If you encounter a turtle on the road, you can stop, if it is safe to do so. All species of turtles can bite, so be careful and do not under any circumstance go near the head of a Snapping turtle, no matter what size. If you can safely do so, you can guide or assist the animal to the side of the road it was heading toward. Do not assume it was going to water, it may be a mom on a mission.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Another Purple Martin season has begun

By Beth Sullivan
It is that time of year again-when a naturalist wishes she had a clone to be able to be everywhere at once to observe and enjoy all the changes occurring. There is so much to do: stewardship on preserves, hikes, flowers, gardens, bird watching, horseshoe crab tagging, butterfly counting-the wonderful list goes on and on.
A perfect nest with a layer of green cherry leaves.

This week, the priority is the Purple Martin colony on Knox Preserve.
The first “scout” was reported on April 17. These are usually the fully dark adult males who make the trip up from the south, ahead of the rest to scout out the best locations and sometimes reclaim a good spot from the year before. That was my clue that is was time to get the gourds up.

High rise nests

There are 12 plastic gourds with crescent shaped entrances, designed to encourage the Martins but deter invasive Starlings. The have porches on the outside, and one set has an indoor porch as well. The systems are set up close to each other and close to buildings, as these birds actually prefer to live close to people. Centuries of dependence on humans for their housing has created an interesting bond between people and these birds, and the Purple Martins are truly tolerant of all activity around them.
The Knox Preserve fields are lush and attract insects.

The very cold, wet spell we all endured earlier this spring took a terrible toll on Purple Martins across the state. There were no insects to be found over field or water, and these birds depend solely on flying insects for their food. Many died. One bird, an adult that had been banded at another colony, was found dead at Knox, but I think most of our early birds did okay.
Little by little, activity resumed. Another wave of migrants arrived at the site. The weather warmed, insects hatched and took wing. Dragonflies and butterflies make up a large part of the Purple Martin's diet, as well as insects that get caught up high in the wind columns. The birds all look healthy and strong.

The Knox wetland supplies mud for the nests.
When I lowered the gourds the first time, I was happy to see nests in progress. This week revealed more nests and eggs. Each active nest was strengthened by enhanced by straw, sticks and mud, and all were lined heavily with green cherry leaves. Nine nests had a total of 38 eggs. Several had five eggs-a couple had one, which probably signals that there will be a new egg laid every day until clutch of five to six is complete. Incubation begins when the last egg is laid. The date of first egg laying was between May 30 and June 2 for the first nests, which puts estimated date of first hatchings around June 19 to 21.
From under the gourds, it is interesting to watch the activity as parents build nests.

As I approached the nests, the birds chattered. Yes, I chattered back. None seemed alarmed. They flew off and circled when I lowered the gourds and immediately flew back to them as soon as I raised them back up again. No stress, no dive-bombing.
Mom and dad stay nearby and wait for the nest cleaning to finish. 

More nest visits planned

I will check the nests again within a few days to get a sense of increasing numbers of eggs and to get a greater accuracy of hatching dates. My duties will continue as a nest cleaning occurs when the young are between 10-15 days old to get rid of parasitic mites. Our hope is that the DEEP biologists will return this year to band the young.
We have a few great photographers in our midst, and I hope they will be able to get some better shots that I can share with you as the season progresses.
As soon as the gourds were raised, the parents return.

We suggest viewing the Purple Martins from the trails with binoculars, so as not to disturb other birds nesting in the fields. The ticks are terrible in the tall grass as well. But even from the distance, you can enjoy the Purple Martins' movement and song. I hope you get out and enjoy all that this season has to offer, including the song of the Martins.
This nest had thick straw added to a deep base of mud.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The eating season

By Beth Sullivan
As the season gets lush and everything is juicy and tender, I am noticing, with much dismay, everything getting chewed up!
It's a beautiful time of year.

We all know critters need to live, but there are situations arising now where the feeding habits of these creatures are at best annoying but many have devastating impacts.

Gypsy moths return

Last fall we noticed a large infestation of Gypsy moths on North Main Street at Fennerswood Preserve. There isn’t really much an individual can do. We “squished” caterpillars when we could find them, and removed cocoons before they hatched, when they were in reach. And earlier this spring an adventurous group of Pine Point Explorers joined me on a hike through the woods, weapons in hand. They used sticks to scrape off egg masses on the tree trunks. I would like to think we destroyed several zillion potential caterpillars, but they are back in force. They spread themselves over acres of canopy by ‘ballooning’: being carried on the wind immediately after hatching on silken threads. What leaves and blossoms were not eaten by the early hatching Winter moths are now being consumed by the rapidly growing Gypsy Moth caterpillars, eating, digesting, and “dropping” in a constant patter that can be heard as you stand in the woods.
Pine Point Explorers armed with their sticks at Fennerswood.

We scraped hundreds of egg masses off the trees.
One hope: the fungus that naturally kills the caterpillars is activated and enhanced by moisture. The recent rains, and those in the next week, will hopefully spread that fungus and infect them, preventing them from continuing the cycle. Look for the caterpillars hanging limp from the branches and trunks of trees.
Tent caterpillars, though hairy, are enjoyed by Cuckoos.

I have a little friend who loves butterflies. Part of the lesson to be learned is that, to be able to enjoy the beauty of the butterfly, we have to come to peace with some caterpillars. We do not mind the munching on Milkweed of our beloved Monarch caterpillar, but I am a little less enthused by finding the well camouflaged green larvae of the Pretty White Cabbage Butterfly. Check your early Broccoli and Kale for caterpillars.
We can share Milkweed with Monarch Caterpillars.

The upside to a multitude of caterpillars now, is that they provide a banquet for the birds. Cuckoos are one of the few species that eat the hairy Gypsy Moth and Tent caterpillars. Warblers and many other species are enjoying the feast of the smaller caterpillars high in the tree tops. As they are nesting now, we know their young will benefit.
Gypsy Moth Caterpillars are in a feeding frenzy now.

Ticks and mosquitoes- a part of summer

Unfortunately we are often on the menu as well. Ticks and mosquitoes can really take some of the fun out of a day outside. As we head out to enjoy the summer season, we cannot allow ourselves to be panicked and crippled by the potential harm to be done by these creatures. Try to avoid very brushy areas, especially areas dense with the invasive Barberry which ticks seem to really favor. Stay on the trails our stewards try to keep clear and well mowed. It is a good time to stay out of tall grass meadows anyway: Birds and mammals are nesting. In the beautiful wetlands, be aware that the mosquitoes love the wet and lush vegetation in these areas too. We have to be proactive: proper clothes, bug spray and a vigilance at shower time for ourselves and children.
Adult Ovenbirds will fill these hungry mouths with caterpillars. Photograph by Dennis Main.

We are in the most beautiful time of year. Please get out and enjoy the beautiful lands Avalonia has preserved for all to enjoy-including the caterpillars.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.