Monday, December 25, 2017

Reds and Greens in the Winter Woods

By Beth Sullivan

We are at the darkest days of the year. The woods can look pretty drab, and it even makes me appreciate just a bit of snow to brighten the scenery. But take a walk and look closely, and you will find some welcome color, red and green, to greet you for the holidays.

Some different evergreens

We all know our pines, spruce, firs, and cedars-the bigger evergreens of the woodlands. They provide great protection for birds and other small creatures when the winter winds blow and snows fall. Their cones hold nutritious seeds, high in fats and proteins that the wildlife need to help them through the cold season.

Look a little lower; the shrub layer in many of our woodlands is dominated in places by our State Flower Mountain Laurel( Kalmia latifolia). Drive along many of our roads where the scenery is rocky and rough, and you will welcome the sight of gnarled branches and leathery green leaves of this lovely shrub. While it doesn’t provide a food supply, its usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.  
In wetlands of some of the more remote areas, our native rhododendron (R. maximum) will stand out, green against the brown. During the severe cold, you can note that rhododendron leaves droop downward and curl into tubes. This is the plants’ adaptation to protect the leaf surface from cold and dehydration in the dry winter air.   
Rhododendron leaves droop and curl in winter.

Bright winter reds

Our native hollies provide winter interest. Our native evergreen American holly, ( Ilex opaca) the familiar Christmas decoration, has spikes on the leaves to deter deer but the berries are feasted upon by many birds now and through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, and Bluebirds, in particular, will find a bush and claim it.
Native winter holy

Our other native holly, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)is deciduous, but its berries glow red on bare branches during this season. These berries often do not fully ripen until they have been cold for a long time; then they actually ferment and the birds love them. This is true of many berries that remain on the bush through the winter- Viburnum and crab apple in particular. Those birds know how to wait until the vintage is perfect.

Winterberry with Mantis egg case.

Mosses for the season

Club Mosses (Lycopodium sp.), such as Princess Pine and Ground Cedar ( they have multiple common names), will populate the ground in patches. Years ago they were harvested irresponsibly for Christmas decorations and the populations were nearly decimated. Garden Clubs have protected the species by refusing to pick it or sell decorations using the club mosses.

Many other species of moss seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year. Sphagnum moss, which holds the water in the wetlands, is more softly colored, but look closely at the structure of each plant: miniature Christmas trees.
Emerald green cushion moss brightens the landscape.

Ground Cedar is a clubmoss.

There are a few evergreen plants, still holding leaves-Christmas Fern for one, each ‘leaflet’ on a frond has a “toe” creating a “stocking”. Partridgeberry is a sweet vining plan with delicate evergreen leaves. The occasional red berry remains on the plant as an invitation to a ‘Partridge’ who may favor the berries. Sadly our native partridge or quail, the Bobwhite, is considered extirpated from Connecticut. Only to be remembered in Christmas song, being in a Pear Tree!

Happy Holidays to all and enjoy the winter woods.   

On the Christmas Fern, each leaflet has a stocking toe.

Partridge Berry.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Walking on the wilder side

By Beth Sullivan
Every steward with a land trust knows the importance of monitoring the boundaries of a preserve. It is important to view all aspects of the land, not just the trails. One of the main reasons for doing so is to make sure there are no encroachments onto the property. We are tasked with ensuring that the conservation of the land is carried out as we may have promised a donor, and in accord with our mission. As an accredited land trust, we are now obligated to review the boundaries, for every property, at least once a year. That is a lot of miles.
Historically, many properties were designated by stone walls. Those walls remained as demarcations through multiple sales and owners and are often listed in the deed. These walls are sometimes marked with drill holes to designate survey markings. As stewards we are always grateful for stone walls and drill holes. So much easier than trying to follow an irregular line through unmarked dense brush.
Sometimes we walk with maps and deeds and compass. More often now we walk with GPS or a smart phone with an app that allows us to visualize a map of the boundaries and our position as we move along them.
Finding a boundary line marker in dense thicket is almost impossible.

Historic stone walls, corners and drill holes are recorded in deeds and are easy to follow.

Wet lands rule

Many of our properties protect significant wetlands. There are headwaters of brooks, ponds, streams, and swamps. Many of our deeds refer to boundaries that “meander generally along the brook center “. That gets a little tricky. We try and post our boundaries as close as possible to the actual line, and in the case of such a meandering line, we use a tree that is inside the preserve and hopefully visible from the other side of the brook, Interestingly, over decades, brooks often carve out new paths, especially after floods making the line even more difficult to pin down.
We try to do as much as we can when the leaves are off the trees as it certainly improves visibility, but the briars, brambles, and multiflora rose thorns persist anyway. Beating through bushes to get to a boundary can actually be painful. At this time of year, the ground is beginning to harden with the cold, but even still it is tricky to walk through wetland areas. The ground is uneven, and a false step can land you through ice and into puddles.
The saddest part is finding encroachments. They are much more visible at this time of year. It might be a simple as someone dumping their Christmas tree on preserved land. No matter how organic it is, it is still illegal. Many places take trees to recycle into chips-a much better use.
Dumping leaves and yard debris is also not allowed. The worst is garbage: plastic, glass, and metal trash that somehow people seem to think is appropriate to dump over walls. What are they thinking? Just because the land appears unused, it doesn’t mean it can be abused. If people know we, as stewards, will be walking off the trails and closer to the boundaries, hopefully they will refrain. Often times it is the volunteer stewards who must return to remove the mess.
One false step will leave you with a wet foot.

Sometimes the boundary line is in the center line of a meandering brook.

Always watching

As we wander the outer edges of a preserve, we also need to look for illegal hunting stands and motorized recreational vehicle trails that may come from surrounding properties. It surely must be tempting to make use of large tracts of open space for such uses; however, these activities are not approved and most frequently are in direct conflict with our mission to preserve and protect the land and the wildlife within it.
This sounds like a lot of negatives, but it really isn’t always the case. The majority of our neighbors are very happy to have Avalonia as a neighbor. They understand our mission and recognize the increased value of their own property when protected open space is in their area. Many of our neighbors help us by being eyes and ears when we can’t be on site.
Walking off the trails and along the boundaries can be very enlightening. It can also be challenging and at times truly difficult. But we all enjoy doing it: getting to see parts of the land that others may not and sometimes finding surprises along the way.
If you are a neighbor of an Avalonia preserve, you may see us walking the boundaries. Please forgive us if we stray over the line. It might just be easier walking! Come out and say hello. You might be able to help us too.
If you are interested in joining our stewardship team, especially for a preserve near you, please contact us here. We would be happy to take you for a walk on the wilder side too.
If we hadn't walked off the trail, we might never have discovered this beautiful patch of Princess Pine.

Sometimes we just have to view the boundaries from afar.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 11, 2017

They’re back, the Winter Moths rise again

By Beth Sullivan
A couple of years ago we witnessed a new phenomenon: small moths in abundance, swarming and landing on garage doors and porch lights in December. Hardy little critters. We didn’t realize the full impact of this infestation until the following spring when many species of trees were leafing out, or more correctly, not leafing out. The leaves were distorted and chewed before they unfurled. Many blossoms were destroyed before the flowers could even open. In the season that followed, the pollinators were robbed of major nectar sources and without flowers and pollination, there were no fruits on many trees. The birds that relied on the fruits and berries in autumn lost out as well. Many trees were weakened significantly.
For whatever reason, last fall and winter there seemed to be fewer moths, and the trees had a chance to rebound a bit this year. At least those that were lucky enough to avoid the gypsy moth caterpillars.
The Winter Moth.

Very small caterpillars go dormant in the soil in masses, then pupate to emerge at this time of year.

Moths are attracted to lights and swarm on warmer evenings.

Winter Moths return

Driving home the other evening, it was balmy and wet. The kind of night I might have been looking for salamanders or frogs on the road if it was late March. But instead I witnessed clouds of moths in my headlights. They are back. Several nights of warmth again created perfect conditions for the emergence of the winter moths.
The life cycle of these moths is only now being understood. Right now the moths are flying in clouds, and those are only the males. They are small, boring and light brown. They usually land with wings spread, but they may be held together, which is unusual for moths. The females have small non-functioning wings, and when they emerge from the soil, they climb up the base of the trees where they are found by the males and mate. They then crawl up the tree to lay their egg masses in cracks and crevices in the bark, close to leaf buds. The moths die ,and the eggs overwinter. The caterpillars emerge very early and begin eating the leaves and flowers while in bud. They are not terribly fussy, and they will feed on many tree species, from mighty oaks, to blueberries and garden plants. When the caterpillars are done feeding, they drop to the ground where they remain dormant through the summer, to pupate in the fall. I discovered masses of these dormant larvae just under the leaf litter this fall as I raked out a new trail in the woods. They emerge, to continue their cycle, after a hard frost period and rewarming in mid-November and December.
During that last outbreak, the trees that had significant leaf damage were stressed for the entire season. Some were able to send out a second set of leaves later, but that is an enormous expenditure of energy. Then we had the later summer drought and heat which literally dried out the tender leaves well before they were due to fall. The affected oaks produced very few acorns locally, in an otherwise huge acorn year. We have seen a lot of die-off in the forests due to the combined attacks of winter moths and gypsy moths.

Several years of defoliation can kill many trees.

When leaves emerge in Spring, they are already damaged by the larval Winter Moth.

They can't be stopped

Until entomologists and landscape contractors can better understand the full life cycle, there may be no way to interrupt the onslaught. If you can check the bases of your trees now, it may be possible to find and destroy the females before they ascend the trunk. Smaller trees in the home landscape can be treated with a horticultural oil or insecticidal soap to kill the eggs or larvae early on. I go out and squash the moths by the hundreds, even thousands, when they collect by lights I leave on purposely to attract them. But that is a drop in the bucket. We cannot protect the entire forest. For now we hope that some natural predator or disease will be found that will stop their march.
Several years of stress from infestation and drought are causing trees to die, and we are seeing large areas affected, like after the Gypsy Moth invasion of decades ago. A disease evolved to help kill off Gypsy Moth caterpillars. Their egg masses are easier to find on tree trunks and can be scraped off. But those moths also reappeared last year in greater than expected numbers.
It seems to be yet another round of bad news for our already stressed woodland habitats.
By comparison Gypsy Moths are far larger and make their cocoons above ground.

Gypsy Moth egg masses are easy to spot now and can be scrapped off bark.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ask and ye shall... sometimes get really lucky

By Beth Sullivan
If you have followed this blog, or read through the website or newsletters, you will know that I have spent a lot of time and energy working at Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve. These two preserves, together, create a gem of a space in Stonington Borough that many people don’t even realize is there.
Tucked at the end of Wall Street, it is the last significant open green space in the borough featuring waving grasses and spectacular water views. It is also probably the most studied, most time consuming, most beloved, and most frustrating piece of property Avalonia owns. It is a compact example of a huge problem: the effects of climate change such as sea level rise and ever more powerful storms. In just the last five years we have seen several hurricanes, winter storms, historic rainfalls, and summer droughts challenge this already fragile spot.
The small area has quite a diverse set of habitats and ecosystems. It has immediate direct ocean front exposure and small sandy pockets, as well as rocky shore and tide pools. There are areas of renewed and regenerating salt marsh, as well as areas that are often flooded by fresh water, rain runoff from storms and Borough streets. A large portion is more upland meadow-a small, but unique grassland with some shrubs growing in. It also has a greater share of invasive plants than any small parcel should host. All in all though, it is an amazing, beautiful spot, a great place to observe so many natural changes. All of which are being impacted severely by the changing climate.
Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve make up the last open green space in Stonington Borough. Photograph by D. Boyle.

As recently as 2006, the Preserve was dry enough to mow and Phragmites were contained to the most wet areas. Photograph by J. Callahan.

By 2012 the Phragmites had filled the area.

We could never accomplish such tasks without DEEP assistance.

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy changed the landscape and the drainage forever.  You can read more here, here, and here about Dodge and Beal. Since that time I have been writing about the research and work we are doing there to try and preserve the preserve. As a volunteer with no professional background in the complex issues at hand, I am gaining experience rapidly. I am truly lucky to have some great resources who have helped, mentored, educated and worked alongside me there and have made a huge difference.
We have received major assistance from CT DEEP in their continued efforts to keep drainage open, to help create an environment where a healthy salt marsh could re-establish and diminish the mosquito population. They also wage the battle on the invasive plants that threaten to overtake everything!
Several years ago, with the Mystic Aquarium leading the charge, we were the beneficiaries of a big grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). This got the community involved in studying the conditions there and planting native vegetation to give Mother Nature a boost at restoring the landscape once the Phragmites were removed and water flow established. We have had student groups, from elementary age to college, working to help plant, clear, clean and study. We have had graduate students and their mentors from New England Wildflower society studying the vegetation and providing seeds to help us restore natives as well.

New grant award

Now, once again, we have been supported and rewarded with another big grant. I am thrilled to be able to let everyone know that because of the efforts and energies of CT Sea Grant Program, and extension educator Dr. Juliana Barrett, we will be the beneficiaries of another Long Island Sound Futures Fund grant from the NFWF. We made so much progress with their previous support, that when this new application crossed their desks, they were willing to give again, to support the work we have accomplished.
With this grant, and with the oversight and guidance of Dr. Barrett who will administer the grant, we will have the funds to finally get a professional engineering study done to assess what is the best way to protect the south shore from the ravages of storms and surges. Decades ago, no one recognized or truly anticipated the changes we are experiencing now. The hope is that this will give us a guide to follow for the next decades to come. She will help me revise the management plan for the preserve, to reflect these changes since the plan was first written 5 years ago. With new plans in hand, hopefully we will find support and funding to execute them.
We will also get assistance with planning and restoring the area that was formerly Mrs. Beal’s garden. We have to somehow reclaim the land and have decided that a bigger area of native plantings would be beneficial for the area and wildlife, can help filter water run-off , and also serve as an educational opportunity for people who visit. There will be growing numbers of residents along the coast who will be affected by rising waters and their homes’ garden landscapes will be impacted.
I honestly believe that asking for help is the only way to make big things happen. But just as important is following through and showing your donors and benefactors that you will make the best use of their support.
Ask, and you may receive. Just be sure to be thankful and follow through.
Previous grants provided funds for plantings and educational signage.

Juliana Barrett will administer the new grant but will also be by my side working in the field.

The restored Paddock will be healthy and even more beautiful.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise noted.

You can find out more about the Avalonia Land Conservancy here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dealing with Windfalls

By Beth Sullivan
Happily ( hopefully ), we still have some lovely days ahead of us to be out in the yard and woods. This year we seem to have an abundance of debris left on the ground by the wind storms of this past month. As stewards we can’t possibly take all the limbs and branches to the land fill. We know there are many good uses for what Mother Nature has left behind from her annual tree shake-out.
A Song Sparrow perches on top of a brush pile but later will find refuge inside.
A great deal of what has come down will stay on the ground, settling closer and closer to the earth and, gradually becoming composted, will re-nourish the soil. Bigger pieces take longer, but before they settle and rot they are of great use to wildlife. The bark and wood remain accessible, and are even more tempting to beetles, bugs and all sorts of creatures, which in turn attract woodpeckers and other birds to probe and poke. Under the wooden debris the earth often remains somewhat warmer and soft, longer into the cold season, making great places to shelter many kinds of invertebrates, salamanders, snakes, and other cold blooded creatures that will ultimately retreat deeper into the ground.
During winter the snow cover helps insulate the pile.

Help Mother Nature

We can assist the efforts by creating brush piles in areas where the autumn abundance has left us plenty of material. Believe it or not there is an art to making a good and longer-lasting brush pile that will welcome and shelter all manner of wildlife through the winter. The CT DEEP has a webpage dedicated to this. Their big projects often require BIG brush piles, but it doesn’t take heavy machinery to make a great protective place for wildlife. In my own woods I know the piles I make are not perfect, but they are always the places the sparrows and wrens seem to find first when the temperature drops.
Instead of loosely piled branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is more solidly structured for durability. Heavier pieces are placed lowest down to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid-sized branches are criss–crossed in several layers on top next, and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to add that final layer of insulation and protection. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food nuts, seeds, and grasses eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Larger predators cannot squeeze into the small spaces of sanctuary in the pile.
When you get out for a hike over these next months of cold, notice places where stewards have left piles along the trails. Some are simply piles which work fine for shelter, but some are more purposefully constructed to give our wildlife an extra hand.
Brush does not need to go to a landfill, but consolidated into useful piles.

To make a good brush pile, put bigger pieces on the bottom, making nice holes.
Then pile on brush for shelter

Watch that pile

If you still have the time and energy to do a bit more yard work, and you are lucky enough to have access to some woody debris left over from November storms, try out a deliberately created brush pile. If you can make it in in a place where you can observe it from a window, you will be rewarded with a new form of winter wildlife watching. Keep your eyes out for birds and check for mammal tracks. One friend had a young opossum find safety in her brush pile for the length of a long cold winter. I like to scatter bird seed, dried fruits and crumbled suet in and around my brush pile. It becomes a glorified bird feeder. Your can report your observations to Project Feeder Watch here. I often get a few unique birds at my brush pile feeder.
You don't need big equipment to make a brush pile but it helps.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Giving and Thanks 2017

By Beth Sullivan

Avalonia conserves land so future generations can experience it
We work to preserve the view and access to nature.

We provide a place for quiet contemplation.
We live in a time and place that gives us many reasons to be thankful. As an Avalonia Land Conservancy life member, advocate and steward, I have had a first-hand opportunity to be part of what the Land Conservancy has created and protected over the years.
We live in a beautiful part of the country. The variety and diversity of habitats and wildlife is amazing. Think of what you see every day as you go about your daily business. Think of the view to the water, a hillside in autumn, a woodland trail or a clean, clear stream. And think about what the alternatives could be: pavement and development, pollution or even lack of access.
We are thankful that Avalonia exists to protect and conserve these elements of our daily life that we may take them for granted. We are thankful that these areas will remain for the next generations to enjoy and appreciate.

You are part of the solution

In order to protect them we need your help. We are grateful to all the connections we have made in the last years. Collaborations have helped us purchase land, and also to maintain and manage it. We could not have accomplished as much as we have this past year without the help of CT DEEP, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, CT Sea Grant, and Mystic Aquarium, to name just a few. We have received funding from numerous sources that has allowed us to do bigger projects for greater good. We collaborate with educational institutions, too numerous to mention, that preform research which then supplies us with the information that helps us determine the best way to manage our lands. Proper management benefits the wildlife including such divers creates as New England Cottontails, Horseshoe Crabs, obscure beetles, Piping Plovers, and Box Turtles.

Protecting habitat protects wildlife.
But very importantly, we must thank those who work behind the scenes, not in the field but in the offices, trying to figure out finances, budgets, strategic plans, and accreditation standards. They are mostly all volunteers dedicated to helping the organization grow and function smoothly. While we depend on our volunteers, we also need help keeping the lights on. We are of a size that requires professional oversight in order to manage the acres and acquisitions that the stewards care for on the ground. We have ongoing expenses that help us raise the money we need to do the daily work of being a successful non-profit regional land trust. A well-known conservation development writer has addressed this several times, and to paraphrase:
It takes money to make money. You can always say with a clear conscience that every donated dollar goes toward the conservation of land. It just gets invested and directed in different ways to the same end.
I get that now.

Year End Appeal

At this time of giving and thanks, we are grateful for all our members and donors who continue to support our mission and our efforts. Our Year End Appeal will begin soon. The goal is to support all the work that goes on behind the scenes, to strengthen the organization and keep the lights on so we can see our way to preserving more wonderful spaces to share with you and future generations.
Thanks to all. Beth
Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Collaborations and connections help us succeed.

Behind the scenes there are many other people working to ensure the organization runs smoothly so the rest of us can work in the field.

Shop Amazon Smile

Did you know that all your Amazon purchases can benefit Avalonia? Use the Amazon Smile portal to designate Avalonia and a portion of your purchase price will be donated to Avalonia Land Conservancy.  

Monday, November 13, 2017

Thanks to our woodland Stewards

By Beth Sullivan
We were lulled into a false sense of comfort during the warmer days of early November. But with the recent big wind and rain storm and then the arctic cold front dropping like a ton of ice-cubes, we now can acknowledge it is truly November.
Thank an Avalonia steward for a cleared and safe trail.

If you are an observer of the woodlands, you know that even without a true hard freeze, the leaves began to turn in October, and within a few weeks the density of green was diminished. One thing that is apparent though is the difference in how the different species of trees respond at this time of year. The Red Swamp Maples in the wet woods are the first to turn their lovely reds and are the first to lose their leaves. It is really obvious in some places now, where the wetlands are, by the appearance of stark gray trunks and branches.
Up a little higher in elevation are the Beeches. In the drier woods their overall appearance can be quite different. Beech trees have southern genetics. They tend to hold their leaves longer than most of our other native trees. On a recent walk in the Woodlot Sanctuary, portions of the trails felt like early summer with spring-green leaves on both sides of the trail-all young Beech trees. Others are beginning to turn yellow which precedes their coppery color. A walk through the beech woods can be quite bright and cheery at this time of year, and later, when all other leaves have fallen, those papery copper leaves remain and rustle even when snow is on the ground.
The trees that have had the most trouble during these November storms are the Oaks. They also hold their leaves a long time, sometimes well into spring when the new budding leaves push off the old brown ones. As they grow in a woodland setting, their trunks rise straight and tall. When they reach the height of their neighbors, they push up a bit farther and spread out their crown. And that crown is loaded heavily with leaves. When the storms last weekend hit, those exposed crowns got caught in the wind. They twisted and bent. The abuse they took was frightening to watch. Most were resilient but, sadly, a great number of them succumbed. Many just twisted and cracked high up the trunk. We think of Oaks as so solid and strong, but they were no match for this wind. There were some that uprooted. The wind in their crowns tugged and pushed. These trees are surprisingly shallow rooted, and if the core wood didn’t give and break, they gave up at the roots.
The Beech in the front remain green, while the Red Maple wetland behind is leafless. 

The tallest Oaks have shallow roots.

This ancient Oak at Paffard Woods has lost its final battle.

Here’s the plug for all our stewards

When the winds finally ceased, we all crawled out of our powerless homes and began to assess the damage. First to our own homes and yards and woodlots. But a large number of us have responsibilities to our preserve visitors: we had to make sure the trails were safe, first and foremost. And then we needed to clear them.
As one steward put it: “There can’t be anything left loose up there. Everything was shaken out and dropped”. The woods and trails were littered with wooden debris, small sticks, medium sticks, branches of all sizes and big main hunks of trees. Even entire trees from crown to root. As we walked through the woods, it was pretty amazing to see sticks impaled into the ground several inches deep. That takes a lot of force.
Over the next week individuals and teams spread out and kept in touch with me; reporting who went where, who saw what, and who was able to accomplish some clearing.
My heartfelt thanks to those who spent time struggling with hang ups, blockages, stuck chains and temperamental chain saws!
Thanks to Jim S, Jim F, Mark H, John C, Fred E. and Tote S and his sons and students, who fought with the big obstructions to open the trails. Thanks to all the many walkers who kicked aside debris, picked up limbs and helped clear the smaller stuff.
It is the spirit of volunteering that runs stewardship, and stewardship manages the land so all can enjoy. And that is what runs Avalonia and our wonderful 3500 (and growing) acres.

Please volunteer

Please let us know if you can help with stewardship efforts. With Mother Nature being cranky lately, we will need a lot of assistance!
A broken snag will create a place for wildlife.

Dealing with the tangle of tree tops is a challenge. 

Debris along the trailside is now a protective brush pile.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.