Monday, October 31, 2016

A Perfect Thicket

By Beth Sullivan
When we were young, we read about Peter Rabbit who got into trouble with a Farmer and a Fox, if I remember, and escaped only by jumping into a Briar Patch losing his shoes and clothes along the way.
Vines, shrubs, berries, and flowers make a perfect combination for a variety of wildlife.

Well, at least some of that is true-not the clothing part. Over the last decade or so there has been a great emphasis on large “briar patches”, or thickets. Such habitats are often referred to as early successional or young forest stands. They may be old farm fields that have gone fallow and grown up. They may be areas that have been cleared for timber and are now re-growing. The common denominator for all of these is that the growth is dense, low, and impossible for the “Farmer” or the “Fox” to get through. I have been told that the measure of an excellent thicket habitat is whether you emerge with bloody legs. Other wise it is not quite right.
There is no way a Farmer or a Fox could get through this thicket.

As humans, our tendency is to make things neat, easy to get through. We love the open woodlands; we love lush meadows with winding paths and wildflowers and grasses. We tend not to tolerate a landscape mess. With the advent of housing developments and malls and highways, came lawns and cleared woods, and a whole group of animals began to decline.
An open woodland glade is pretty, but not dense enough for ideal protection.

Small mammals, especially the New England Cottontail, require dense, woody thickets to thrive. Several species of birds will only nest in larger blocks of shrub thicket and without it, they have declined: like the Blue-Winged Warbler, American Woodcock and Yellow Breasted Chat. Certain species of reptiles and amphibians also depend on these same habitat types.
Birds find safety in brush piles and tall woody plants.

In 2013 Avalonia contracted to create such habitat on 28 acres of land in the northern part of Stonington on our Peck and Callahan preserves. Since then, yearly monitoring has shown an increase in several of the bird and snake species, a definite increase in pollinators, and more wildlife in general. And it meets the bloody leg test. The briars and brambles are now thick and impenetrable in many areas. You can read about the changes at Peck and Callahan here.
Small mammals prefer dense protection.

This winter will be the first year that the growth is considered dense enough to possibly support New England Cottontails, and wildlife biologists and volunteers from Avalonia will be out there with little plastic bags and scoops after a fresh snow and look for rabbit signs: pellets. These will be sent off to have their DNA analyzed.
As a result of a great deal of study to locate what are called focus areas, where many of these species already are located in small numbers, or were found historically, sites are being evaluated for protection of existing thicket habitat and appropriate lands that can be nurtured and managed to become thicket habitats.
Farm fields grow-in over time with shrubs and thorns.

In recent days, an announcement was made that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has created a new wildlife refuge. It is named The Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. You can read the press release here
It will be different than many refuges as we know them. Usually they are large blocks of land in one area that can be visited for passive recreation, nature study hiking etc. The Great Thicket Refuge will be spread throughout New England and New York and will have 10 Refuge Acquisition Focus Areas. The one in SE CT includes large areas of Stonington, Groton, North Stonington, and Ledyard.
The effort will take decades to accomplish. Land owners in the focus areas can contact the USFWS if they are interested in selling or donating or protecting their lands for this purpose. The lands Avalonia already protects will be assessed for management plans and options for working into this goal. Some over-mature forests may be reviewed for potential renewal and revitalization of habitat.
The boundary of the Pachaug-Ledyard focus area.

With our efforts at Peck/Callahan we are already well on the road to creating a great thicket ‘refuge’ here in town. And several of us have the scars on our legs to prove it is growing up just right.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Change of Scenery

I am a homebody. I love where I live. I love our landscape and habitats and wildlife. I never get tired of the change of seasons, although I admit I am getting a little tired of Connecticut winters. I especially love our coast with marshes, coves, inlets, water access, and water views everywhere.
Early Autumn is one of my favorite times in terms of light and color and temperature. Even though the change heralds the onset of winter, I enjoy the cooler weather and brisk air for getting out again and working in the yard or on the preserves.

California bound

This month we took a vacation, a whole- family trip out to Yosemite. None of us had been there; I had never even been to California, so we were looking forward to the adventure, and I was curious about the change of scenery.
The rocks seem to rise right out of the valley floor.

Not being thrilled with airplanes, and not being near a window, I never spent time looking out at the changing landscape as we crossed the country. I was unprepared for the view. When we landed in Fresno I was not impressed with the very flat , very dry, monochromatic landscape. Their drought is far worse than ours. The drive toward Yosemite was interesting as I tried to identify trees and shrubs in the landscape. The foothills rose slowly, covered with dry gold grasses and shrubs that were equally parched. These plants, however dead looking, are adapted to their climate challenges and will revive with the winter rains.
A wide open path is always an adventure, anywhere.

Higher into the foothills of the Sierras, the landscape became more tree covered, but barely greener. It was hard to tell if it was just seasonal occurrence or the drought, or both. I tried to remind myself that in a few weeks our landscape here would be pretty barren and bleak looking too, but also still found myself missing the different greens and changing hues of Autumn here. The views were vast there. I missed the comfort and embrace of the trees along our back roads.
The drive into the park was a journey into huge evergreens-tall, erect, and spiky green along winding mountainous roads. It did remind me a bit of Maine with conifers dominating the forests. The mountain meadows were still green but not lush. There was little or no water in roadside falls and seeps.
Ladybugs are the same on both coasts.

And then we entered the heart of Yosemite and wound through mountains and overviewed canyons. We drove through a tunnel and emerged to the most amazing views. Nothing here in New England can really compare with the vastness and majesty of the mountain formations we were viewing. From the heights, the mountains stretched forever. From the valley, you could literally walk up to their bases and touch the rock wall where it emerged from the earth and rose skyward in straight angles, challenging plants to even get a root hold. There was still no water in the falls, disappointing, but it was easy to imagine the strength and force of water as it would spill from great heights in the spring. Yet the valley meadows were serene with a much reduced and gentler river flowing through it.
The river ran shallow and gentle, perfect for picking and tossing rocks.

We also sought out the Sequoias: the ancient and massive trees that have witnessed changes to their earth for over 2000 years. Mind boggling and beautiful.
BIG trees still appreciate a good hug.

What a child sees

Vacationing with a joyous two year old gave me a different perspective. “BIG TREES” and “BIG ROCKS” he announced with his BIG voice. We all marveled at the bigness of the western view. Yet we took time to look at little things as well: Crayfish in the river; pinecones; Milkweed pods; deer along the trails-just like home. And rocks are for throwing in the river no matter where you are.
We also took time to explore the smaller treasures.

We live in an amazingly diverse and beautiful country. Our Government has preserved these iconic lands in perpetuity for all Americans, and visitors to enjoy. We loved the diverse people we met along the trails, from all countries. We are so blessed.
Yet back here in Stonington, the leaves are changing; the air is crisp. The trees hug us close and our big vistas are when we look southward to the water. It is softer and gentler. And there is no place like home.
But there is no place like home.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Climate Change is an Issue for all

By Beth Sullivan
Most of the readers of this blog have a deep respect and love for our natural resources. You love the forests and meadows and coastal vistas, marshes, beaches, and waterways. And most of you are aware that our coastlines are imperiled by changes in our environment and rising sea levels.
The marshes along our coast protect us now, but will be inundates in the future. Photograph by David Young.

As climate changes, storms increase and waters are already rising in areas that have never seen such flooding. People who live along the coast are constantly made aware of the dangers and responsibilities of living in a threatened area. There is insurance. There are ways to raise houses and roads.
But what about our land? What about the marshes that naturally protect our neighborhoods and infrastructure? What about the plants that are being drowned by rising water, and plants that are being killed by slowly increasing salinity in ground water? What about the wildlife that resides only in these habitats? Birds that nest on the ground on low beaches or in salt marsh grasses are in danger of losing the only habitats where they can survive.
As marshes retreat, the salt water will begin to impact the edges of the upland woodland.

Big hunks of peat fall off the marsh edge and the land recedes.

Many towns along the CT coast have already begun to develop plans, to map out vulnerable areas, and seek out advice and grant monies to help deal with the enormous expenses of protecting our homes, “our habitats”.
The beautiful meadows at Knox Preserve are mostly dry now...
...but rising tides and storms have increased the wetland areas.
Dodge Paddock was forever changed by Hurricane Sandy. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

Restoration at Dodge Paddock had to include plans for resiliency and higher water levels.

The towns of Stonington and Westerly are working on public awareness programs to discuss resiliency in the face of rising water, both along the coast and along the Wood-Pawcatuck River. Please take time to attend one or more of these upcoming events.
Stonington will present the first of its public information sessions on October 20 at 6pm at Mystic Aquarium. Visit for more information. That same day, at 10am in the morning, the Wood-Pawcatuck River resiliency plan will be discussed at the Westerly Library. Visit the Wood-Pawcatuk Watershed Association's web page here for more information.
We need to be fully aware of the impacts of climate change, not just in the next century, not the next decade, but in the next year. We were lucky to have missed the most recent hurricane, or we would have been experiencing those impacts today.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Short history of Knox Preserve

Publisher's Note:  Beth Sullivan is away this week, so below is a contribution on the history of Knox Preserve by students from the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College that first appeared in 2014.

by Cian Fields and Marina Stuart

Like several of Avalonia’s land holdings, the Knox Preserve, which is located off of Wilcox Road between Route 1 and the train tracks, contains a rich, story-filled history. The piece of land came to Avalonia through a generous gift by David D. Knox who donated the nearly 17 acres of property so as to ensure that the land would not be used for industrial development. In an article from June 19, 1985 by Phil Rieth, editor of The Compass, Knox said that “Stonington is being over-developed; I hope that I helped stop that a little”. After a tumultuous battle in the courtroom levied by Stonington residents over the potential use of the land for a magnesium plant, Knox acquired the parcel in 1968 but continued to face troubles as the land was still zoned for industrial purposes. Some 20 years later Knox decided to make the land’s preservation official in conjunction with Avalonia (or Mashantucket, as it was called back then).

Former corn fields have reverted to a more natural state.

Fruit trees from an old orchard attract Orioles.
Native plants attract birds and other wild life to the preserve.

The story of the Knox Preserve history however, becomes even more interesting as one goes back a few hundred years further. The piece of land was originally owned by Thomas Minor, the settler that is one of several featured on the Stonington founders’ monument. Records show that Minor probably first acquired the land some time around 1652. In addition to being a prominent figure in the establishment of Stonington and the surrounding area, Minor is quite well known for his diary. This diary is one of very few that survived the ages since the 1600’s. Because of this, Minor’s diary is an important implement as it provides a rare look into the daily life of the very first settlers in New England. In addition to the unique vocabulary and spelling, and among the insight provided into the daily tasks of a 17th century famer, Minor recounts first hand interactions with Native Americans. Though banal at times, Thomas Minor’s diary is a worthy read for its significance in the local southeastern Connecticut history. One can even still go visit Minor’s land, at Knox Preserve, and walk the land that served as a starting point for Stonington.

Historic walls reflect the hard labor and effort of a century ago.

Knox preserve has been highlighted in this blog series over the last year. It has lovely vistas, easy hiking trails and attracts abundant native wildlife as stewards continue to restore the habitats there.
But the works not over, old wires need to be removed now that they serve no purpose.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 3, 2016

International Coastal Cleanup Day

By Beth Sullivan
Every year, about the third weekend in September, groups of all ages hit the beach! No, not just a last ditch effort to squeeze in a few more minutes of summer fun, but a collective community effort to clean up the beaches and shoreline areas that were “well loved” all summer.
Gulls eat just about anything. A crab is far better than a piece of plastic.

Inevitably even the most natural of seaside areas bear the signs of summer-litter. In many cases it is the remains of picnics, parties, and events on the beaches themselves. In other cases, the litter has washed up on shore from being discarded out to sea. Some littering is possibly accidental: windblown bags fall into the water; Kids' lost balloons drift far from home and land in the water; Someone’s shoes, shirt, or hat flies off the deck and is irretrievable.
Plastic bags are some of the most dangerous types of litter.

Litter causes many problems

But so much litter is just pure laziness and lack of caring. Ignorance. Why people can’t take home their soda, water or other beverage bottles and cans, I don’t understand. Is it so hard to hold onto a coffee cup or sandwich wrapper and bag until you get home? So much stuff that is not biodegradable ends up in our oceans endangering wildlife. Probably only a small portion of it ends up on shore where it continues to cause problems. Gulls and other shore birds are particularly susceptible to the dangers from garbage on the beach: cigarette butts can be toxic; strings and ribbons and fishing lines entangle feet necks and wings; plastics choke and fill stomachs, frequently causing slow and painful deaths.
Rubber flip flops float and do not degrade. They would be around for many years if not collected.

So, back to the clean up. On that September weekend, groups spread far and wide along the coasts, and not just across CT but across the country and internationally.

Volunteers to the rescue

Locally, a group organized by Pine Point School teacher Gay Long and Save the Bay Volunteer Manager July Lewis, headed out to Sandy Point for partial school day of clean up. It takes some major effort to get students and boats all organized to get out to the Island and hope for good weather conditions. The original date, Sept 19, was rained out so the event took place on the next day.
Being safe on the beach included wearing PFDs and gloves. Photograph by Gay Long.

Seventeen students with seven adults spent an hour and a half walking the beaches of Sandy Point. It is approximately a three mile round trip. They collected over 36 pounds of trash in that short time, and they bagged it up and hauled it home. This year we didn’t get any reports of extra large objects. The USFWS had already dismantled a lean-too and picked up some party debris.
Garbage was bagged and hauled off the island. Photograph by Gay Long.

Sandy Point is a special place. It is cherished by generations of people from the area and most have learned to share the beautiful Island with the wildlife we strive to protect. It was a good summer for the shore birds, Oystercatchers in particular. But on our stewardship trips we saw several gulls with wing damage and feet tangles. Littering doesn’t help anyone or anything.
Kids have great eyes and are limber and bendable. Photograph by Gay Long.

We are truly grateful for the energy and effort of the younger generation who is coming up learning to be proactive in caring for the Earth. I will bet that, after cleaning up, those students will not be likely to littler themselves and will be more likely to pick it up and pack it out.
One of the groups of dedicated stewards. Photograph by Gay Long.

Thank you to Pine Point School, Save the Bay, and all volunteers who worked to clean up our coasts on International Coastal Cleanup day. Every little bit helps.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.