Monday, August 28, 2017

A New Preserve at its Best

By Beth Sullivan
We have enjoyed a beautiful stretch of weather. About the best one could ask for as summer begins to wind down. While there is truly almost another month of formal summer, we can tell by sights and sounds that we are nearing the turn to Autumn.
This preserve was acquired months ago, and is at its peak right now.

By daytime we still hear Cicadas buzzing during the heat of the day. In the evening, the cricket chorusing sounds remarkably like a pond full of spring peepers. This is now the season of insects as those crickets and katydids take over the twilight.
On Saturday, a group of Avalonia friends gathered to explore the Samuel Lamb and Forsberg Preserve in Ledyard. It is one of Avalonia’s newest preserves, located on the corner of Shewville Rd. and Town Farm Rd. It was a generous donation by William Forsberg and his son, Daniel, in honor of William’s Grandfather, Samuel Lamb, a long-time resident and landowner in the area.
It is a small preserve, only about 6 acres, but it is true proof that some of the very best things do come in small packages. Years ago it was likely a pasture or farm field, and had grown up and become shrubby with less desirable plants and invasives. Upon donation, a plan was developed to manage it as a meadow to maintain plant species for wildlife, particularly pollinators. With only one season of mowing and an intense effort to cut out and remove the invasives, this year the meadow is already a haven for all manner of creatures.
Birds, insects, small mammals, and people all enjoy the preserve.

Dragonflies hunted, soared, and landed.

Amazingly diverse

The preserve is amazingly diverse for such a small parcel. From a higher, drier, field habitat, the land slopes to a wet meadow and the vegetation changes accordingly. In the dry meadow are a variety grasses and Goldenrods with a number of other wildflowers throughout. There were two kinds of milkweeds and we searched for Monarch caterpillars but didn’t find any. The adult Monarch butterflies, however, were present in good numbers, confirming that this is, indeed, a great comeback year for the species. As we walked toward the wetter end of the meadow, the Joe Pye Weeds and Iron Weed plants towered over our heads. We stood eyeball to eyeball with numerous butterflies that were nectaring on them. There were also hundreds of bees, hornets, wasps and flies that created a soft buzz and a sense of constant motion at the flower tops. There were wetland ferns: Sensitive, Marsh and Royal, as well as rushes, sedges and mosses that require wetter soils. At the edge of the field, the wetland shrubs began to dominate: Spicebush, Winterberry, Alder, Viburnums Dogwoods and Blueberries. Every shrub held the promise of an abundance of berries that will ripen in the next weeks and months to provide food for a great number of birds through fall and even into winter. A few yards deeper into the woods, ran a clear stream that makes its way into Old Mystic and ultimately the Mystic River.
The Goldenrod hosted numerous species of bees, wasps, and others, all intent on nectar.

The Monarchs favored the Joe-Pye Weed.

It is an easy walk

A mowed trail cuts a swath down the length of the preserve and a small loop curves toward the stream and wetland. A family with a stroller and some little ones who became enamored of the popping “Touch-Me-Not “ Jewelweeds, made their way with relative ease. And one hiker boasted of being almost 90, and managed with care.
One caution: as in most meadows, where all plants grow abundantly and lushly, so does the poison ivy, so be careful not to stray off the trail without being aware of this.
It will stay this way for several more weeks; the Goldenrod has yet to peak. With it will come even more butterflies. There is a lot to see in this little piece of Ledyard. While it will hold interest in all seasons, it is in the high summer time that preserve really shines. Take a little hike. It will not disappoint.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Wish Come True

By Beth Sullivan
Decades ago, when we moved to our home in Stonington, one of the biggest draws for me was our small, two acre woodlot. To me it was huge. Combined with everyone else’s two acres, and then the adjoining parcels, the whole forest area was probably more like 75 acres of woods and wetlands. It was heaven. Back then, a group of local women rode their horses through our yard to get to the trails up behind us. They assured us “trespassing” was OK, and we began to wander up to explore it ourselves.
The Big Rock is now cleared and waiting for the dedication plaque.

The beauty of a backyard forest is that it was a safe place to let kids learn to wander and observe: close but yet just far enough away to be adventurous. Of course when they were young we all walked together, listening for birds, learning the trees, turning over rocks and logs, and then fantasizing about forts and rock outcrops and wild animals. We learned how to be quiet and wait for deer and turkey families. We became familiar with our local birds, woodpeckers of all species, and waited for the spring migrants to arrive. It was a very special place, and we always whispered a mental “thank you” to the owners, whoever they were.
One year we found white PVC pipes: perc test pipes, and we feared we would lose this special area. We waited and waited but nothing ever happened.
In the spring, the vernal pools will fill and streams will run.

The forest is in good health with layers of understory.

We know local kids would use ATV’s up there and snowmobiles in winter. They kept the trails open but sure were noisy. We did encounter deer hunters up there and found their stands and bait stations. That was hard to explain to the children. Soon though, it was posted “No Hunting,” and we felt safer.
Years passed, our dream was that it would never be sold, or never developed, or maybe that if it went for sale we could somehow buy it. Big dreams.
Imagine my absolute delight when I heard that someone had approached Avalonia to discuss a way to preserve a large portion of this land.
It became a somewhat complicated tale of complex negotiations, but due to the skill of negotiating and planning, and some very great generosity on behalf of owners and donors, Avalonia now is the proud owner of The Woodlot Sanctuary on Pellegrino Rd. in Stonington.
Finding drill holes and marking the boundaries  is a first stewardship chore.

A long history

I had the great opportunity to meet and talk with two of the donors , George and Nancy Bates, who have family ties to the land, and they explained the story. George and Nancy wrote a narrative for me that will be posted on the Woodlot page on our website.
The two front lots were owned by William and Ann Frohn, and the back lot was owned by the Freeman/ Biddle families from here in Stonington. Back at Christmas in 1935, it was literally gifted to Barbara Freeman Biddle by her father Clayton Eugene Freeman, to be her very own woodlot. To represent the gift, a log was wrapped with a big Red satin bow and presented to her. Over the years the woodlot was visited by the family for fun and for harvesting wood for the family compound on Elihu Island. The kids back then explored like kids now, and named “The Grandfather Oak”, a huge tree that has since fallen to drought, insects, hurricanes or all of the above. The stump remains. That lot was passed to their children, one of whom is Nancy Biddle Bates, wife of George Bates.
George Bates puts hands on the Old Grandfather Oak stump.

In later years the back lot was sold to the Frohns. William and Ann Morton Frohn were conservation minded as well. Avalonia was always on their radar.
In 2010 the plan was developed by George to be able to preserve the entire parcel, all three lots and two lots that were scheduled to be house lots. Thanks to the generosity of both the Bates family and the Frohns, close to 30 acres have now been preserved. The land will be dedicated to Ann Frohn and Barbara Biddle, and at a future date there will be a plaque attached to “The Big Rock” in their honor.
There are some ledges and rocky outcrops to enjoy.

We walked the boundary, passing through some pretty wetland areas.

A healthy forest to visit

I have walked the existing trails and bushwhacked the edges to explore the beautiful uplands which are healthy forest areas with great understory of thicket and berry bushes. There are two wetlands, on the North and South ends of the property. One drains directly into our reservoir; the other waters wander ultimately to Stonington Harbor. We will create and mark trails, develop a management plan, and begin our stewardship chores .
For me those chores will be a pleasure as I won’t be “trespassing” any more. My grown daughters can come back to explore and I can introduce my grandson to the Big Rock and Grandfather Oak who are old friends. My wish came true.
Thank you to the Bates and Frohn families for this generous and thoughtful donation.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Birds of Late Summer

By Beth Sullivan
This spring was lush. Vegetation grew overtime as if trying to make up for the lost time of the drought last year. This abundance supported an excess of flowers, fruits and seeds, as well as an excess of insects that appreciated all the growth. A great year to be a bird!
The early birds got not only the worms, but all the best nesting sites. Those species that nested first were those resident birds who had their territories all staked out before the migrants arrived. Our Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, Woodpeckers, and Wrens nested first and raised their young on the abundance of insects of early summer. But they also got off to a quick start because they were able to enjoy the seeds of late winter, and seeds at our feeders. Many of these species had second broods, and may occasionally try a third.
The busy House Wren filled several boxes with twigs and chose this as her first of three nests this summer

The resident Cardinal started early and raised two families under the kitchen window.

Migrants move in

The migrants came next to find their niche: the tree top Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, and Hummingbirds to name a few. These are not seed eaters; they rely on the plants to offer nectar in flowers and small insects in the foliage. They will not begin to nest until there is adequate food to support their nestlings. Each year we await the arrival of the Hummingbirds and Orioles which seem to be timed with the blossoming of my Quince bush. It’s a great nectar source for both birds. Of course we can’t resist offering the feeders with sugar water to bring them in close. Somehow the Orioles seem to vanish into the fields and shrub edges, but the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds have now fledged their two youngsters and the populations at our feeders and flower gardens have truly exploded. Hummingbird antics are great to watch and even ferocious at times. I can’t help imagining what these displays might be like if these little dynamos were as big as Robins.
The Orioles do not appear until there are flowering fruit trees. Photo by Dennis Main.

This young Hummingbird is learning her way around the feeder and the bees.

The young birds of prey are out now and are probably the noisiest. Osprey, Broad-winged and other hawks all have young fledged now. While they may be able to fly, they sure haven’t mastered the art of feeding themselves, so they call for parents who can deliver the fish and small mammal prey that also seem to be abundant this year.
This young Broad-Winged Hawk squeals all day, waiting to be fed.

Diets of seeds and berries

But it is the birds of later summer that often intrigue me: specifically the Goldfinches and the Cedar Waxwings. While these birds do eat insects, they wait until their truly favored foods are most abundant before starting a family. Both of these species do not begin nesting until August.
It is this month that the grasses have matured, holding their seed heads high and offering their fragile stems to the fluffs-of-gold Finches so they can pick the ripening seeds. They also rely on downy material for their nests. It is only now that many of the field flowers are offering up their seeds with the fluffy down parachutes that will help the seeds disperse. It’s a little early for most of the Milkweed pods to be opened, but some are. There are numerous field flowers related to wild lettuce and Hawkweeds that have white fluffy seeds held aloft. Thistles, even the invasive ones, are beginning to open up and with Goldfinches on top, can be so beautiful: bright yellow near the purple flowers, picking seeds and down. A Goldfinch nest is a masterwork of softness.
The Cedar Waxwings prefer berries. Only now are some of our local bushes bearing fruit: Viburnums, Virginia Creeper Vine, some Dogwoods and of course some of our own favored blueberries and raspberries can attract Cedar Waxwings if they can beat the Catbirds. They are nesting during August and will feed their young an abundance of fruits as the summer advances.
Goldfinches can be seen on late summer grasses, picking seeds.

The Cedar Waxwing appeared to be attacking this spider web, but was pulling fibers for its nest.

The Knox Preserve and Preston Nature Preserve are two places to find these later-nesting birds. The Waxwings will be whistling higher among the shrubs and cedars and the Goldfinches will be calling and perching in the grasses in the field.
Take some time to sit still, listen to the sounds of the later summer: Cicadas, Crickets, and all the birds. Think of the cycles of the seasons and how everything has its place. Somewhat of a miracle to me.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise noted.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Monarch of summer

By Beth Sullivan

Back in 2013 we wrote about the plight of the Monarch butterfly, and how the loss of habitat had brought on a decline in population.  Now, four years later we still have to worry  about Monarchs.

Those of us who were lucky enough to run freely through gardens and meadows during summer months, years ago, remember the Monarch Butterflies as the keystone of the season: ever present, drifting lazily on the breeze, never seeming to be in a hurry and always brightening our summers. They would begin to arrive in our area in June; dates always varied depending on weather conditions and southerly breezes. We could count on several generations of Monarchs in our area each year.

This year has been different. The Monarchs have not arrived in the numbers of the past. We never seemed to have the early first wave. We have had few if any eggs and caterpillars on our milkweed patches through the early and mid-summer weeks.
The wintering grounds in Mexico are in danger. The Monarch population there is rapidly decreasing. Some of their necessary stopping-over places have been hit by serious drought; there is increasing use of herbicides which reduces the milkweed populations and insecticides which wipe out caterpillars. As the population moves up from wintering grounds in Mexico they stop, feed, mate and lay eggs. Each successive generation makes its way farther north. Only now, in late summer, are we noticing more Monarchs, slowly filtering into our meadows of goldenrod and wild milkweed.

Life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly

During summer it's a challenge to find the eggs and when possible, save them from mowing by bringing the leaves indoors, watching over them until they hatch and then begin the daily runs to find new milkweed leaves to feed the rapidly growing and ravenous ( and always “pooping”) caterpillars! ( photo 1) That phase can last a couple of weeks.

The next stage, the chrysalis formation, seems to happen behind your back or while you blink. If you are really lucky and attentive, you get to see the process: First they will find a sturdy stick to adhere to by creating a web-like, silken material to suspend themselves upside, down in the letter J formation. (photo 2) Then they straighten down and begin a fine quivering for just a short time and then they become still. (photo 3) It is then that the striped caterpillar skin begins to split from the bottom, its head end. (photo 4) In less than a minute, the skin spits entirely up, and beneath it, the pale clear green of the chrysalis casing is exposed. (photo 5) For a short time you can almost discern the features, head, proboscis, folded wings, of the changeling within.(photo 6) Soon the case hardens and becomes ringed with a crown of gold dots. (photo 7)The chrysalis is complete and we wait…and watch…for about 10 days. 
step 2

One day, the coloring changes. The skin of the chrysalis becomes transparent and the black and orange colors of the Monarch are visible. (photo 8) In that day, the emergence will occur. The chrysalis will wiggle, and skin will split. This time the splitting releases the butterfly within. (photo 9) It is wrinkled and compressed. It will hang from its case for several hours until fluid from its body fills the veins in its wings to harden and strengthen them. (photo 10) 

 It is very vulnerable during this time and needs protection, but by the end of that day, the Monarch will be able to fly off, seek out its nectar sources from our gardens and meadows. 
Hopefully it will find a mate and a milkweed patch to continue the cycle. As summer comes to an end and frost threatens, the Monarchs congregate along the shorelines, meadows and dunes that are covered with goldenrod blossoms. They will feed heavily before instinct takes them on a Northerly breeze, on their way back to wintering grounds on the mountainsides of Mexico.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.