Monday, August 29, 2016

Avalonia by Kayak

By Beth Sullivan
Many of Avalonia’s preserves include a water feature. There are ponds, marshes, streams, even rivers. You can walk along or around or even through many of these, but along the shoreline there is a better way to enjoy the view-by kayak. With the end of summer very near, crowds are diminishing, colors are intensifying, migrating birds move along the shore on their way south, and even some butterflies and dragonflies stage migrations over water along the coast.

Marsh access by kayak

Many of our coastal preserves are marsh lands, and it is difficult and unwise to walk on the fragile salt marsh. Usually the closest you can get is a glimpse from the road. To really appreciate the expanse of grasses, the wildlife along the inlets, channels and over the land, it is ever so much better to view from the water.
Paddle up the Quiambaug Cove to to to Knox Family Farm.

Sandy Point is an Island, so of course you need a boat. Put in from Barn Island Boat launch and paddle across little Narragansett Bay, and you can pull up close to shore and either paddle or wade, towing your boat along the North Shore. Now you can observe the staging of migrating shore birds, sandpipers, plovers and terns. Some of them are protected species so avoid undue disturbance. Also from the Barn Island Boat launch you can head far east to find the Continental Marsh Preserve with its new Osprey nest platform, or go west and up the cove to see the Wequetequock Cove Preserve and meadows full of milkweed and Monarchs.
From Dodge Paddock or Barn Island, Sandy Point is an easy paddle. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

Another launch spot is a small access area on the side of Wilcox Road, off Rt 1 in Stonington. From there you have some choices. Paddle under Rt 1, up the Quiambaug cove, and on the east shore look for Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. The Knox Family Farm runs along the cove for quite a ways and includes a small inlet area. On the gravel bank of the cove, volunteers have created a new kayak landing with tie-up rail and stairs up the slope. From there, you can do a nice loop hike on the preserve.
A new kayak landing was created and posted by our volunteers. 

From the same roadside launch, nearly the entire west shore, except the Cemetery edge, is the Knox Preserve-a totally different vantage point. The rocky shores are so different than the mowed trails. When the tide is low you can get onto a small beach that is hard to reach from the trail, due to massive poison ivy patches.
Along the rocky shore of Knox Preserve, people enjoy the water at low tide.

Paddle under the Rail Road Bridge and head east, around Lord’s Point, and the next big marshland area is the Woolworth-Porter Preserve. From this angle you can see the beautiful greens of the marsh grasses and can head up a little inlet or creek and wind deeper into the preserve. This actually extends quite a ways north, to the rail Road Tracks, but the waterway doesn’t extend very far.
For a longer trip, from the same launch site, you can head west along the shore and out and around Latimer’s point, remembering that the Knox preserve is just on the other side of the tracks. Look for the osprey nest high on a pole. Going west around Latimer Point, you will come to another large marshland area. This is a big expanse of Cottrell Marsh which extends all the way over to Mason’s Island Road. This area has some interesting high islands with trees and shrubs where Herons and Egrets love to roost at this time of year.
Cottrell Marsh has wooded knolls and extensive salt marshes to explore.

Go through the gate at the Simmons Preserve, on North Main Street in Stonington, to a little access area onto Quanaduck Cove. You can paddle up, under Rt 1, and find yourself at the marshy southern tip of Paffard Woods.
From Simmons Preserve it is a gentle paddle around Quanaduck Cove.

Respect the fragile marsh ecosystem

Getting out on any of the marsh areas is really not encouraged. The ground can be quite unstable, the habitat is fragile, and there are several species of birds that are in need of protection during nesting season.
You can pull up kayaks in several areas, but please be careful on fragile marsh habitats.

Take note of what a wonderful buffer the marshlands are, protecting the upland from storm surges and tides and providing a sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife. Avalonia is dedicated to protecting and preserving the marshlands along the coast line. Enjoy the view from the water.
Maps and directions to all these preserves can be found on our website.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Night noises

By Beth Sullivan
After an unbearably long period of heat and humidity, it has been wonderful to finally shut off the AC and open the windows at night. What a change from just a week or so ago. What a racket!
The volume of sound, the chorus, is a bit like stepping into the middle of a swamp of Spring Peepers. But the Peepers have long ago quieted and left the breeding ponds. The Bullfrog may bellow in the swamp, and Gray Tree frogs will sing before a rain. Occasionally the light and temperature in September will confuse a Peeper into singing a bit, but the chorus is gone.
Spring Peepers have ceased their chorus.

Bull Frogs bellow out in the swamps throughout a hot summer night. Photograph by Al Bach.

Noisy insects

Now is the season of insects. Through the summer the insect population has swelled. They have eaten and grown and multiplied. The majority of the millions of species of insects on Earth are silent. But for those that are not, this is their time, and they are a making a loud noise in the summer night. Like birds, it is mostly the males that do the calling; they do so to declare territory and to find mates. But unlike birds, their song is not created vocally but with other body parts.
You may hear a Dragonfly whir by but they make no real noise.

Almost all the noise we hear from insects at this time of the season, is made by those of the genus Orthoptera-the Ortho meaning legs-and are familiarly known as Crickets and Grasshoppers, with impressive back legs. As adults now, these insects have developed wings. Not all are good fliers, but they make great music. By vibrating and rubbing ridged segments of their wings against one another, they create a variety of high pitched sounds. They hear one another by means of “ear drums” on their front legs. Unless you have had one of these insects stuck in the house, it is hard to single out one song. It is the combined efforts of millions of these insects that makes the ringing tones we hear now.
The easiest song to identify is made by the Katydid, which is actually a long horned grasshopper. The good sized insect has a flattened body of bright green, making it appear like a leaf on edge. Long hind legs allow it to leap, and they do fly when in danger. But they are nearly impossible to see, as their camouflage is perfect. Their song is the distinctive, low toned “Katy-did” “Katy did-n’t”. Repeated over and over.
When on a leaf, the Katydid is impossible to see. Photograph by Bruce Fellman

We all know of the common Field Cricket, black with brown wings folded over its back. They are the easiest to find in woods and gardens and paths in fields. Kids love to find and contain the black field crickets, but let one loose in a house, and you will become familiar with the song very quickly.
Field Crickets are found in woods and fields.  Photograph by Al Bach.

Small, delicate, and very loud

The ones that seem to make the highest, most consistent buzzing/ringing sound on summer nights are the Tree Crickets. These are small and delicate. With lacey wings, they are high in trees, up in bushes and in grasses. Their fast-paced and high pitched chirping is created by wing-on-wing motions. These create chirping noises that actually increase in frequency the higher the temperature. Some people believe you can actually deduce the actual temperature by counting the cricket chirps and applying a mathematical formula. If you can possibly count the chirps.
A Tree Cricket is small, rarely seen, and most frequently the noisiest. 

Of course with the windows open, we are also treated to the hooting of owls, yip and howl of coyotes, the occasional Gray Tree Frog and once in a while, the scream of a Fisher. That’s enough to break the peaceful hypnosis that comes when listening to the chorus of night insects.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Milkweed season

By Beth Sullivan
It’s been a bit too hot to really enjoy walking through bright sunny fields, but they are busy and full of life.
The flower of the Common Milkweed is really very pretty, and welcomes great numbers of insect pollinators.

The Goldenrods, Joe-Pye weeds, and IronWeeds are just beginning to bloom adding color to the white of Queen Anne’s Lace and later season greens . The grasses add their own fine textures with seed heads. As the fields become havens for pollinators-bees of all kinds, butterflies, flies, moths and numerous bugs and beetles-the birds are enjoying a feast, flying and foraging over the meadows catching their food on the wing. It is a joy to watch the Swallows and Martins at Knox preserve, swooping and soaring over the fields.
A wetland full of Swamp Milkweed is a beautiful haven for Monarch Butterflies.

Many types of Milkweed

Included in these fields are the flowers of the Milkweeds. Its family has many members. The bright orange Butterfly Milkweed has a pretty long flowering season; there may be some still visible in the fields but most have gone to thin pods. The same is true of the Common Milkweed with its looser pinkish flowers and plump warty pods. Right now the Swamp Milkweed is in full flower, bright pink and with noticeably fuzzier stems and leaves.
Orange Butterfly Milkweed is a favorite. 

The Swamp Milkweed is supporting a full-sized caterpillar, and a population of Aphids.

What they all have in common is their importance to Monarch butterflies. The flowers are attractive to many species, and those bees and flies also contribute to pollination. For the Monarch though, these plants are essential to their life cycle. All members of the Asclepias genus contain a chemical, a cardiac glycoside, that is considered toxic to most other insects, birds and people. We would not do well to add Milkweed leaves into a wild salad. But not only do the Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves, and survive, they are protected by that chemical as it is stored in their bodies, and predators become sickened if the caterpillar is eaten. The chemical protection continues into the adult Monarch, and over time, birds have learned not to eat the “Black and Orange” butterfly.
Immediately after hatching, this caterpillar begins to eat and consumes the protective chemical in the Milkweed leaf.

The Monarchs have suffered greatly over the last decade, and their numbers have dropped dangerously. In part it is due to their wintering habitat in Mexico being destroyed. In part it is due to decreased availability of Milkweed here in the US. So, in an effort to support a much beloved butterfly, we are encouraging Milkweed to become established in whatever areas are suitable.

Not just for Monarch Butterflies

It has also been interesting to discover other creatures dependent on the Milkweed. One is a Milkweed Beetle, also colored red with black dots. They live in and around the Milkweed’s main stem and don’t seem to do a lot of damage. Aphids often colonize the Swamp Milkweed, and their sheer numbers, sucking sap from the bases of flowers, often does cause a decrease in seed production. There is also a fuzzy caterpillar, a Milkweed Tussock moth caterpillar which is also colored orange and black. When they attack a plant, they devour it completely, and I have witnessed them eating leaves that contain monarch eggs and small caterpillars. Another surprise finding was that there is a species of snail that seems to favor milkweed leaves. I can’t be sure if they are feeding on the leaves, or something else on the leaves, but we have seen this in several instances.
The Milkweed Beetle is another orange and black insect closely associated with this plant.

A small land snail is often found on Milkweed leaves.

Take some time to walk through a meadow with Milkweed. Think of all the associated wildlife with just this one special plant. Maybe you can find a place for a patch in your own yard.
Mating Monarchs are a sign of hope for their future.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A New View for Stewardship

By Beth Sullivan
Stewardship of varied lands and habitats can be very challenging. Some places are impenetrable due to heavy (and often painful) vegetation. Sometimes the habitats themselves are fragile. Some properties are so large that actual boundary walks are impossible to do in one day.
A slight rise in elevation has allowed wooded islands to remain tree covered.

Annual land survey

Our goal as a land trust is to survey all our properties annually. In part it is to inspect boundaries, but there are so many more things to look for: vegetation growth and health, project areas, wetlands, and areas off trails that are infrequently viewed. Boundary walks are actually best done in the fall or winter when the leaves are off the trees, making it much easier to find landmarks, small pipes, cement monuments, holes in walls and signs on tree trunks. However winter walks are not the best for assessing vegetation. They can also be dangerous as holes can be covered by snow and ice and wetlands may, or may not, be frozen and solid.
In the case of our beautiful coastal salt marshes we have the added challenges of monitoring sea level rise, changes on the marsh, and marsh migration. However the habitats are fragile, and for many parts of the year, the areas should be left undisturbed for wildlife usage.
From the ground or the sky, the view is beautiful. Photograph by Beth Sullivan.

Enter technology: the Drone. Together with Stonington resident and member, David Young, we are working on ways to view some of our properties from the air. The first is the salt marsh that lies between Lord’s Point and Wamphaussuc Point, a large portion of which is protected by Avalonia Land Conservancy as the Woolworth-Porter Marsh.
Natural channels were enhanced by man-made mosquito ditches that help with tidal flushing.

The marsh is bounded by private homes on the east and west, the Railroad tracks to the north, and the water along the south. Access is limited and difficult . Each year we try to kayak along the water’s edge to view how the marsh is faring from that perspective. Sadly we can see hunks of marsh being undermined and breaking off.
In the marsh, Fiddler crabs can be seen if approached quietly or they scatter. Photograph by Beth Sullivan.

Birds-eye view now possible

But thanks to the new video we are able to see the contours of the marsh; we will be able to make comparisons from one year to the next. We can see the beautiful bands of the green Spartina marsh grasses. We can see where the phragmites are trying to take over. We can also see the size of the pannes: the areas that are un-vegetated due to increased standing water between tides and subsequent increase in salinity making the areas less hospitable for plants. We can see the mosquito ditches and channels and assess tidal flushing. A beautiful view.
A wide view demonstrates the true beauty and complexity of the preserve and surrounding areas.

This video is the first of hopefully many, as we learn to fine tune the technology and techniques needed to accurately view our properties, assess where we may need to go in on foot for closer inspection, and to keep a record of changes over time to many of our preserves. In this case one of our most fragile coastal assets-the salt marsh.
You can watch the video here:

Photographs are stills from from video by David Young unless otherwise noted.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Our Coastal Grasslands

By Beth Sullivan
Some of the most beautiful sights to be seen in our coastal communities are the swaths of grasses along the shore.
The salt marshes, whether small pockets tucked here and there between rocky outcroppings or broad expanses of swirling green, are familiar sights to us lucky enough to live here. We appreciate their seasonal changes. We watch the tides rise and fall in the channels and know that as the waters rise in the grasses, the salt marsh buffers the uplands from floods and surges and storms. They host an ecosystem filled with unique plants and animals living and functioning together. Thanks to greater understanding of the importance of salt marshes, and laws preventing the filling and development of these fragile yet resilient habitats, these lands are more protected now than generations ago. Avalonia Land Conservancy preserves a number of these unique areas: Cottrell Marsh, Woolworth-Porter Marsh, Paffard Marsh, and Anderson Marsh to name a few.
The high tides flood the grasses, but the marsh is a buffer.

Many grasslands, each unique

But there are other grasslands that are maybe a little less obvious, a little less well understood or studied, and more susceptible to development. These are true coastal grasslands, elevated enough that they are not regularly impacted by tides and populated by species that are not dependent on salt water influence. Yet they have to be resistant and tolerant to an occasional salt event. To an inexperienced eye, these grasslands all look alike-big fields of uniformity. But you have to look closer and know a little history of how the fields evolved and the goals of management.
The grasses provide sees for numerous bird species.

At the Knox Preserve, the 10 acres of fields were cultivated in corn until 2010. Then the decision was made to let the land regenerate on its own: no chemicals, no deliberate seeding, and we would see what nature had in mind. Today those fields are a very diverse mix of grasses and perennial plants that offer shelter for the smallest creatures, resources for pollinators, and seeds for a wide variety of creatures, especially birds. The fields are alive. Yet they have to have a special resiliency; as sea levels rise and storms become stronger, these fields must withstand different threats. In 2012, during Super Storm Sandy, the Knox fields were awash with salt water. As a result vegetation did change a bit but was not destroyed. A special resiliency.
An aerial photo of the Knox fields shows how easily they can be impacted by rising seas. Photograph by Roger Wolf

More upland grasslands, like those are Knox Preserve, evolved with different vegetation. 

Hay field to grassland

The Wequetequock Cove Preserve in Pawcatuck is another coastal grassland. Those acres were farmed for generations, and quality hay was harvested for many years. That kind of management leads to better quality grass and fewer flowering plants. This is the kind of grassland that is most attractive to particular birds, specifically Grasshopper Sparrows, Bobolinks, and Meadowlarks, species in serious decline. As a hay field, however, the grasses were mowed before nesting was done. Now the fields are not cut until much later, and Bobolinks nest there. These birds have successfully fledged young for several years. The grasses remain on the ground instead of being picked up, and the soil is enriched. This year we noticed a huge increase in Milkweed plants. This is great news for another species in serious decline-the Monarch butterfly.
Salt marsh species begin to move inland at Wequetequock Cove.

Song Sparrows nest in the tall grasses.

These fields slope gently down to the water s edge. The closer you get to the water, the more the grasses start to change. It is apparent that the land closest to the water receives regular tidal impacts, not just a once-in-a-while storm. With increasing salt impact, the grasses are changing to truly salt marsh species. As sea levels rise, this coastal grassland will absorb the impact. It will be a home for Bobolinks now and also the seaside sparrow species in the future.
Take some time to look at the grasslands that line our shores. Support efforts to preserve them now, and they will be protecting us for decades to come.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.