Monday, December 26, 2016

The Christmas Bird Count

By Beth Sullivan
Not rain, nor snow nor sleet or hail: nothing can stop the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Well, almost nothing. One year there was a blizzard and it was reluctantly rescheduled. Not because folks were worried about driving about in the weather, but because visibility would be low and they might not get to see many birds and thus lower their tallies.

Bluebirds(above) and Robins often remain through the winter when there are berries available.

For 117 years birders around North America have joined forces to be citizen scientists on behalf of collecting data and increasing our knowledge and understanding about birds in a given area. By being consistent with the dates: always between December 14 and January 5, and consistent with the areas covered each year, data has been collected and studied to give ornithologists a better view of changes in populations of birds over time.

The New London Circle

The New London Bird Count was started in the 1940's. It is based on a circle centered at the intersection of Gardner and Ocean Avenues in New London. The circles are all 15 miles in diameter and are often created to include the greatest diversity of habitats, thereby increasing the greatest number of species possible.

Buffleheads(above) and Hooded Mergansers are found in many
quiet coves along the shoreline.

If you look on Google Maps for Christmas Bird Counts, you can see our area covered by the circle. It extends to include Rocky Neck in the West to Mason’s Island in the East. To the North it goes up the Thames River to Bartlett’s Cove in Montville and at its Southern most reach it includes the Western 2/3 of Fisher’s Island and includes the Island owned by Avalonia: South Dumpling. All of Avalonia’s Preserves in Groton are included, some from Stonington and a bit of Ledyard as well.
Our local CBC circle

Checking out all the hot spots

It includes just about every habitat possible: hardwood forests, shrub-land, fields and meadows, freshwater wetlands and reservoirs, brackish tidal areas, salt marshes, open water of the Long Island Sound, rocky islands and sandy shores. Much of the land covered is public land, but private landowners contribute observations and open their properties for the count as well. The area is covered by teams of birders who will move from place to place during the course of the day. Some start before dawn to find the owls as they roost. Many of these teams have been doing the count for decades and know the “hot spots” and come to expect certain species in certain areas. One team may hop the Ferry from New London to Fisher’s Island just to get a count of those open water birds that are rarely found close to shore.
Mallards are the ducks with the overall highest counts every year.

Bob Dewire has been organizing and doing compilation for the New London Christmas Count for more than 50 years. His teams will be spreading out on December 31. A good year will see the tally around 120 species. 
Several species will converge where the water is ice free.

Check the National Audubon CBC website for a lot more history and information. Then register to be part of the count and get out on Saturday, December 31. Don’t forget the binoculars Santa brought and a note pad. Have some fun and Merry Christmas to all.
Song Sparrows hide in brush piles and find seeds in meadows.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Year end thoughts

By Beth Sullivan
I do NOT like asking people for money. I am pretty good at asking for favors, services, bartering, begging, that’s all good. I would much rather be doing stewardship on the preserves than thinking about administrative stuff. I don’t mind writing and love educating, so that’s OK too. But I am not good at raising actual money.
Habitat management practices can be costly, but are essential for the health of the landscape.

After being a member of Avalonia for about 30 years and participating actively for the last 6 years, I have come to realize there is far more to land conservation than stewardship, and even good stewardship done by volunteers, comes at a cost.

Avalonia's expenses

Most of us use our own tools, but we do have some larger equipment to mow trails, maintain roadsides, and cut brush. The machines are expensive, and when they break down they are expensive to fix. Sometimes we are lucky and a volunteer can do maintenance, but we have to buy parts and fuel. Sometimes we have to call in licensed professionals to do tree work safely and contractors with larger equipment for mowing big fields. We have to store our equipment properly so it is safe and accessible for all stewards. So this year, thanks in part to a generous donation, we purchased a utility trailer. We needed to outfit it and get it set up for storage and it needs insurance.
Some things you just can't tackle completely by hand.

Sometimes you have to call in the contractors with the right equipment.

Insurance, who ever thinks of insurance while out on a lovely woodland trail, but we have to carry insurance to be safe. Such a gamble, like all insurance, but necessary. Insurance is also required to protect our easements. People ask us to protect land that they still own, and we need insurance to do so. Horror stories have been written about defending easements to protect land from illegal uses.
We are grateful for volunteer member who bring in their own equipment to get the job done.

And land itself, people don’t seem to be interested in saving large parcels of family land as often as they used to, at least not as pure donations. The cost of high quality land is huge, and it is understandable that people need to seek some financial gain from their land. We are constantly looking for funding sources and grants to help to protect as much land as we possibly can in our mission area. It is an investment in the future, but not an investment that will ever be drawn on for financial gain. With very few exceptions, the land we acquire is to be protected in perpetuity. We have been so lucky this past year to receive several wonderful donations of land, but even those come with costs.

Babcock Ridge was our last acquisition purchase.

Each parcel of land comes with needs for proper surveys, legal costs, resource assessment, management plans and initial stewardship efforts. That really adds up. It costs about $250 per trail head sign, depending on size, even when installed by volunteers. And the paperwork is huge too: keeping all our lands’ papers sorted, filed properly, organized both in paper and digital files.
We would like to provide more informational signage on other preserves.

And that is just the actual land based costs. There are operating costs no one likes to think about but are very real: rent, heat, salary for over-worked, minimal staff, sorting out computer programs and data bases. And all those forms necessary for being an approved non-profit. Glad someone else takes care of that, not me. It also takes time and money to actually appeal for donations: mailings, newsletters, and reports are still going out to the majority of people who still like paper.
Stewards need to make sure the structures on our preserves are safe, and if not, replace them to prevent accidents. Photograph by Binti Ackley. 

I am sure this only scratches the surface. So much work goes on behind the scenes that I never see because I am in the bushes. We are blessed to have a great core of volunteers, a dedicated Board of Directors, and two part-time staffers who keep the whole thing organized.
We are so grateful for our members whose contributions keep us running. We would like to run a little faster and stronger. With donations we can think about upgrading equipment, purchasing more land, and taking even better care of the land we have.

Please help us by contributing to Avalonia

The end of the year is the time to review and reflect. How better to make a difference for the next year, the next decade, the next generation, than by helping us acquire and protect the land for you and your families. It does “take a village” to protect its resources.
We are counting on our villagers. Thank you!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, December 12, 2016


By Beth Sullivan
Birds are the most fascinating creatures. I do not know anyone who has not wished, at some point, that they could fly like a bird. The more one reads about birds - their lives, challenges, habits and skills - the more you have to be in awe of how such small, fragile creatures survive. Obviously volumes have been written, and courses of studies established, to try and understand the evolution and life histories of these marvelous creatures. Flight, feathers, development, survival strategies are all, to me, miraculous.
The Song Sparrow frequently nests on the ground, hiding under plant material.

Time to look for nests

At this time of year we are given the opportunity to look more closely into one aspect of their lives: their nesting. Leaves are off the trees, hiding places revealed and there is no issue of disturbing a feathered family.
Almost all birds make a nest. We have to say almost, because there are species that never make their own nests, but deposit their eggs into the nests of other birds. Cuckoos and Cowbirds are the most notable of these.
The Chipping Sparrow lines its nest with soft material, and in my yard it is always dog fur.

Some birds borrow the nests made by other birds. Owls have been known to nest on an osprey platform with material already in place from previous nesters. If the timing is right, the owls, which start laying eggs in the dead of winter, will have their young ready to fledge by the time the ospreys return to claim their platform. Other birds barely scrape out depressions in the sand of a beach, or lay their eggs on a rocky cliff edge neither with much additional material.
Terns and Plovers barely scrape a depression in the sand, and the nest is often in harm's way.

But no matter how or where the birds create or use a nest, it is all about where to deposit their eggs. The nests are not to store food; they do not “keep the babies warm” as little children like to assume. Some nests are more protective than others in relation to weather. Each species of bird makes nests characteristic of their species, but always with flourishes of individuality.
Cup nests are the most well known. With a deeper center and higher edges, the eggs are somewhat prevented from rolling out. The smallest bird we have is the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. Their nests are made as if by a fairy: with bits of Lichen, pieces of moss, the fuzzy material that comes from fern fiddleheads as they unfurl in the spring, and it is all wound together with spider-webs - amazing.
The Eastern Kingbird nest is built in a shrub over water.

Another cup nest is made by our American Robin. Every Connecticut school child knows it as our State Bird and that their nests are created first out of mud, carried in their beak and fashioned into a cup that hardens and becomes solid and strong when reinforced by woven plant material. The nest withstands winds and rains and a brood of restless hatchlings.

Sticky saliva glues a nest

The nest of the Baltimore Oriole is a creative mystery - a hanging pouch suspended from the end of a delicate branch often over water, or a road even. It has to be strong. A close up of the woven structure is nothing short of amazing, especially considering the birds have only their beaks and feet to do the weaving, all the while hanging onto the site. Part of the secret is in the birds’ saliva which acts as a ‘glue’ of sorts, to reinforce and strengthen.
The weaving done by the Baltimore Oriole is just amazing.

A Chimney Swift nest is the best example of this. Using only its special saliva, a Swift brings one stick at a time into a cavity, often a chimney. One by one he ‘glues’ the sticks to the wall of the chimney and adds them one by one into a half cup that is firmly adhered and solid.
Chimney Swift nests are held together with their saliva glue.

Woodpeckers as a group, excavate holes in trees for their eggs and young. These nests are certainly more protected from the weather and deter more predators than an open cup nest. Other cavity nesting birds like Tree Swallows, Bluebirds, Chickadees, Titmice, and others, cannot make their own holes, so each year, when the Woodpecker makes a new hole, they leave behind a perfect cavity for another species.
This is a great time to go out and look for nests. While birds generally use their nests only once, it is illegal to remove nests or have them in your possession. Lift your child to look closer, peek inside the nests to look at soft lining, often feathers or plant down. Think of how those little hatchlings quickly turn into young birds eager to stretch their wings and fly. And think of how the marvel of the nest provided that place for them to get a safe start.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Hoffman Preserve: Off the beaten path

By Beth Sullivan
The Hoffman Preserve in Stonington is one of Avalonia’s most beloved preserves. At almost 200 acres, it is nearly the largest, surpassed only by the Pine Swamp complex in Ledyard. Many decades ago, an earlier owner planted portions of the property with various species of conifers and evergreens to remind him of his favored forest areas in the north. There are areas of lofty Pines, Spruce, Hemlock and some Larch, each “plantation’ area with a unique feel. There are uplands and lowlands, vernal wetlands, and a small pond that holds water most all year long. Many of the special features are easily visible from one of the several trails.

Stewards walk the line

As stewards we will walk the trails any number of times during the year as part of general reviews and to do basic maintenance, but we don’t usually go too far off the trails unless there is a specific need to do so. However once a year we need to walk the boundaries, all the outer edges of a preserve, way off the trail, no matter what the conditions. We chose these last nice days to get out and explore all the corners of Hoffman Preserve, find the boundaries, and explore places I had never seen.
As we posted signs, we were grateful for stone walls marking the boundaries.

The frontage along Route 201 is highlighted by beautifully made stone walls, a true New England photo opportunity. The look is enhanced by the deep dark greens of the Hemlock ‘plantation’ that runs along behind them. Even in winter there is welcome green.
From there the boundary turns westward and goes upland into the deciduous woods. There are Oaks and many Beech trees, including one massive specimen that can be seen from the yellow trail. As we continued on our boundary walk we silently thanked the old landowners and farmers who built the stone walls we followed and were grateful that when the land was divided the divisions occurred along these walls.
This huge Beech has probably seen many decades of walkers through this woodland.

Along the south border we ran into the Bennet Yard, an old cemetery that is included within the boundaries of the Hoffman Preserve. The old headstones tell their stories, and the Yard can be reached on the blue trail. From there the boundary walls get harder to follow, and they are no longer straight. At this point we had to cut into the preserve a bit to get around a thicket and found ourselves in an amazing tumble of glacial till. There were rocks all dropped and scattered, all sizes and piled, and deep holes to catch a foot or provide a home for any number of small creatures. Some look like they were carefully balanced by some great hand. Near the bottom of the slope where we were able to pick up another stone wall, we discovered a lovely, healthy young Hemlock grove. It would be a perfect place for a small owl to perch ( note to self: get back there during the winter to take a look).
The Bennet Yard is a family cemetery with several generations honored within the walls.

In places large rocks are balanced as if they had been carefully placed by a very large hand.

Streams flow to the Mystic River

As land continued to drop, we noticed small seeps and springs from the uplands beginning to converge and flow downward to the western boundary. It is easy to understand the concept of a watershed when you follow the water trail. Find a place where the water seems to collect or emerge from the ground. After all the rain, there were small creeks running from several upland areas. They stream down hill, join and gather momentum. In several areas they pass under the wall and go off the property until they meet the larger Whitford Brook. We followed that western wall and could hear and glimpse this swift running waterway, a major source of the Mystic River.
In several areas the Hemlocks have died. They may be removed to make room for new healthy growth. 

Following the boundary walls and going off the trails, allowed us to experience parts of this lovely preserve not frequently noticed. We took down old Mashantucket Land Trust signs and replaced them with Avalonia Land Conservancy signs. We checked to make sure there were no encroachments along the property lines. We discovered one geocache. We discovered a new hemlock grove and a place where the pileated woodpecker did some major work on several big dead trees. We assessed where the habitats were healthy and areas where some management might be required to help restore the forest. We watched the progress of water from ground source to where it begins a march to the ocean.
Pileated Woodpeckers leave their mark as they seek insects in decaying snags.
In 1995 Mashantucket Land Trust was renamed Avalonia Land Conservancy. Some of the old signs still remain.
We didn’t get it all done in one day. But we look forward to the next leg.

 Photographs by Beth Sullivan.