Monday, October 23, 2017

Autumn Hiking

By Beth Sullivan
Surely every season has its fans. Each one can be considered perfect for some reason, an excuse for being out on a trail. I would guess, though, that autumn is probably the top vote-getter for a lot of reasons.
Finally the air has cleared of the oppressive humidity. It’s actually been enjoyable to pull on a fleece in the morning, and more enjoyable to take it off in the afternoon warmth. We can happily don hiking boots that give us good footing to get out on rougher trails and put away the flip flops.
There is more light in the early autumn woodland.

An autumn meadow is most inviting. 

Clear skies

There is a clarity of color we haven’t seen for months. The blue of the sky is a perfect complement for the gold-hued leaves. And the perfect match for the Blue Jays acting like gangs of rowdy teens blasting noisily through the trees.
Because the leaves have begun falling already, the density of the green is lessened. There is more space in the woodland view, and those spaces are filled with sunlight. Some people complain that the “deep dark woods” of summer can feel too close, claustrophobic. I never feel that, but understand, and now that there is more light and an airy feeling, those folks can feel more comfortable with a longer view. While it is not as stark and open as it will be in another month, we can now see some of the more hidden treasures that summer covered up. The rocky outcrops covered in green moss, reflecting pools along the brook runs with leaves mirrored, and chipmunks that blend in with the leaves and hide in the walls. The autumn fields are at their most beautiful with grasses now at their peak.
Keep your eyes on the ground when the footing is tricky -

But, stop to look up at blue sky and golden leaves.

Enjoy, but stay alert

But there are some things to be wary of. Lest you become besotted by the beauty of an open field of gorgeous grasses and decide to wander in for a closer look, remember that the ticks have re-emerged now and seem to be more abundant than in previous months.
In the woods, the leaves are already falling and they can obscure rocks and roots that may be an accident waiting to happen. On trails that are not heavily traveled, the trail itself may be hard to discern, so keep your eyes out for the blazes. On a recent hike with a lovely group of senior residents from Stone Ridge, their grounds manager took it upon himself to actually blow off the leaves from the entire trail we were to walk. That was true dedication and care.
Cool and frosty mornings leave rocks slippery, and remember the rocks can stay moist or icy even after the rest of the ground has warmed up. You know the warning about “bridges freeze before roads”. That is true in the woods as well. Wooden bridges can be slippery when damp, so please be careful.
So don’t forget your bug spray, tuck those pants into socks, grab a hiking stick, and enjoy the next weeks of very beautiful hiking. Take a camera, too, and share your photos with us either on Facebook, Instagram, or send those special beauties to and we may be able to use them in our media.
Avalonia is your local land trust, and there is so much to see in your own back yard.
When leaves cover the trail, follow the blazes.

Bridges can be slippery, so hold on.

Chipmunks are in abundance this season.

Golden reflections in still water.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.   

Monday, October 16, 2017

Coming and Going: Transitions

By Beth Sullivan
A couple of weeks ago, my hummingbirds left. Right on time- on the first or second of October. There are still flowers full of nectar, we haven’t had a frost yet, but the time and light was right and their migration began. For a few days the Downy Woodpeckers and curious Chickadees used the nectar feeder. Bird watchers in my area have noted this behavior over the last years and we wonder if it is a local learned behavior. These birds will stick around, but the hummingbird feeder has been brought in and cleaned for the winter.
I am always amazed at migrations. As a kid ( okay...and as an adult) I watched the timeless journeys of the large mammals in Africa, always in awe of the volume, mass and energy of the large herds. But I am even more in awe of the smaller creatures and their abilities.
As we lose our nectar-sippers, the insect-eaters are not far behind. While it is hard for us as lay people to know the difference between one Common Yellow Throat and another, science has been able to inform us that those that were born in our area are moving on, heading south, and those we may encounter now as we walk a wetland thicket are likely from more northern origins.
Goldfinches will be happy with wild seeds and birdfeeder offerings. Photo by Rick Newton.

Hummingbirds have fueled up and left the area.

Shorebirds, like this Yellowlegs, have an extended migration period.

More on the coast

Because we live on the coast, we have greater numbers of migrants. It is also known that most birds, especially the young of the year, migrate along the shore line. It might be a visual cue, maybe there is something atmospheric as well. But as they follow this Atlantic shore line, flying most frequently at night, they “drop out” each morning for their R&R in the coastal thickets and shrub lands. Hiking at places like Barn Island, Bluff Point, and Knox Preserve, or visiting off shore islands like Fishers Island or Block Island is a bird watcher’s heaven. Be on the look out for a great variety of fall warblers, thrushes, vireos, and others making their way south through this month.
Shore birds have mostly finished passing through here. The adult plovers, sandpipers, and other shore bird species leave their nesting areas in the far north well before their own young can fly. They also migrate along the shore line so local beaches are often alive with the small birds, picking through seaweed and resting up. Their young will follow up to a month later, usually following the same route, and often landing on the same beaches in South America as their parents. Bird banding studies have proven this, and now radio telemetry has made it even more accurate.

Flocks are forming

The Swallows are still massing before they roost every night, but that spectacle is nearly over. Our Martins left first, making their own flocks. In more southern areas, their roost flocks are so large that they show up on radar. The same occurs with the mixed flocks of Tree, Barn and Rough Winged Swallows that collect in marshes, most notably at the mouth of the CT River. Each evening they gather and swirl, and then settle to rest and ready themselves for their push southward.
From this, it sounds like we will be birdless shortly. Don’t despair. The sparrow numbers are already increasing in the grass lands. At Dodge Paddock, Knox Preserve, and Fennerswood, the weedy fields are full of chirp notes as they search for seeds. More northern finches will arrive and populate the thickets. It is time to bring out the seed and suet feeders. It is also time to think about Project Feeder Watch here, which gives us all an excuse to get out and look for the birds of Autumn.
The process of bird banding gives us greater insight into migrations. Photo by Rick Newton.

Nightly, thousands of swallow mass in preparation for their migration. 

Soon the Hooded Mergansers will arrive in local coves.

Sparrows are in abundance in local grassy fields.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Birds and The Bees and Management Decisions

By Beth Sullivan
As summer winds up, our management goals and efforts change a bit. Growth is slowing, we no longer battle vines that grow in front of our eyes covering trails. Now we decide what stays and what goes for the next six months.
We try to cut back the invasive plants, no matter how beautiful, before they can spread their seeds and berries. It would be nice if we could keep them from growing back all together, but preventing the wind from catching the plumes and birds from eating the berries are the best we can do.
Along roadsides we will begin cutting back the summer’s growth to expose the stone walls that are so beautiful and become true works of art when coated with snow. Sadly, the clearing along the roadsides also exposes the summer’s litter left behind by thoughtless travelers. Litter pickup is an education and a blog in itself.

How to overwinter our fields

Grassy farm fields, managed for hay, are cut several times a year to harvest the best and most valuable grass for farm animals. A secondary benefit of multiple mowings each season is that it inhibits the growth of non-grass plants we refer to as forbs: flowering perennials and annuals that have different texture and are not desirable for inclusion into animals’ diets. A field managed for hay and filled with grass is also most attractive to certain bird species that require large open tracts for nesting. Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Eastern Meadow Larks all look for large grass dominated fields for nesting. Unfortunately their nesting coincides with harvest times, and most of these species have nest destruction and failure due to the haying activity. That is the main reason for these species being in decline now. The Wequetequock Cove preserve was a perfect example of a hay field for many years, harvested several times a season. After acquisition by Avalonia in 2010, the grassy fields were allowed to be undisturbed for the entire nesting period, and there were a number of pairs of Boblinks observed, and they successfully fledged many young.
Bobolinks nested in the tall grass meadows at Wequetequock Preserve. 

Haying practices destroy nest sites before young Bobolinks can fledge.

This year milkweed and other flowering plants have begun to replace grasses.

As time passed, and mowing was only done in the fall, these fields have gradually been reclaimed by the flowering forbs. The grasses are being overtaken by lovely Goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, Dogbane and the much needed Milkweed . All these plants change the composition of the field and attract new species. There are far more pollinators present now. The Monarch butterflies are more abundant this year than the past several, and the population is supported by all the Milkweed host plants.

Missing the Bobolinks

Walking around the fields this year was a very different experience from several years ago. Still beautiful. But one big change seems to be that there are no more Bobolinks. Other birds, such as Song Sparrows and Red-Winged Blackbirds, nested there and perched on the stiffer stems of Goldenrod. The wider variety of plants makes for a greater diversity of creatures using the areas. Small mammals like the small openings between stems and clumps of plants. A wide array of insects use the plants for green grazing as well as nectaring on the flowers. Different birds use the fields for eating the seeds and eating the insects. Larger mammals and birds of prey hunt the smaller mammals. It might be said that a diverse field is a more productive habitat. But then, what about those very special creatures that rely on the grasses? We need to support those species in decline. It is a management dilemma.
A more diverse field has more to offer pollinators. 

Goldfinches and others feast on seeds in fields through fall and into winter if not cut early.

Cutting fields early will help prevent invasive, though beautiful, Porcelain berries from spreading.

This field has been mowed and the seeds on the ground and the piles of grass will provide food and cover for small mammals over the winter.

What you will notice, is that Avalonia manages their fields in a variety of ways. Some are cut early in the fall to encourage more grass but still allow the flowering plants to finish their job for the pollinators. Often, patch areas are left tall just for a little cover. Other fields will be cut in the spring, allowing the seeds to disperse from the flowering plants and grasses, but also to provide habitat for overwintering insects and small mammals.
All are great places to investigate over the cold seasons ahead. Wequetequock is mowed now, we will encourage grasses to lure back the Bobolinks. In the winter and spring, water will stand in low areas and attract shore birds and waterfowl.
Next time you visit a field area - Wequetequock, Dodge Paddock, Knox, Fennerswood, Preston Nature Preserve, or Walton Meadows - take a moment to look a little closer, and see if you can detect what the management plan is.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan

Monday, October 2, 2017

Memory at Tefftweald

By Beth Sullivan
On September 21, 2017, our community lost a great lady, a true defender of nature and farsighted conservationist.
Lois Tefft VanDeusen was one of the Founding Mothers of the Mashantucket Land Trust in 1968. The organization’s name was later changed to Avalonia Land Conservancy, which is celebrating 50 years of conservation next year, with greatest thanks to Lois.
As a founder, director, and life member of Avalonia, Lois remained active and connected to the land she loved right until her last years. In 1994 she had the foresight to purchase the large Girl Scout Camp in North Stonington rather than see it be developed into a large tract of homes. She recognized the significance of the ecology and the habitats there and arranged the donation to Avalonia Land Conservancy to be forever preserved and known as Tefftweald at Birchenturn.

As a tribute to Lois, I would like to invite one and all to visit this preserve, hike the trails, and find the spirit of a lovely lady. I described this beautiful place in October of 2015. It is fitting to re-post this  in her memory.
Back in 2015 I had not yet described this truly beautiful and special preserve in North Stonington: Tefftweald at Burchenturn.
A plaque dedicates the meadow as Lily's Lea.

The entrance to the preserve is down a gravel drive at 282 Grindstone Hill Road. A short way down is an area for parking and a sign describing the area and maps. Maps are also available on line at the Avalonia Web site.

This 77-acre preserve was once a Girl Scout camp, enjoyed by generations of Scouts and families. There are still reminders of those days as there are old outhouses, wood sheds, camp fire pits, gathering places and a lovely pavilion. When the camp came up for sale, resident and Avalonia Land Conservancy founder, Lois Tefft had the vison to purchase the land to preserve it from development. She later generously donated it to Avalonia so many more generations could enjoy it.  Thank you to Lois!!
A stone bench invites you to rest.

Central in the preserve runs a stonewall-lined lane way with big trees all along. The trails loop off the sides making it easy to explore.
Follow the trail to a peaceful overlook.

Rocky ledges and outcrops are common throughout the preserve.

The loops to the East take you to uplands with rugged ledges, rocky outcrops and some pretty views from up high, down into the lovely woodlands below. The trails cut through mountain laurel groves that remain green even in winter. We will welcome that in the months to come. One of the Eastern loops goes by a very old cemetery with mostly unmarked stones. It is the Bell York Cemetery, and it would be interesting for someone to do some research, or find if it has already been done, to add to our knowledge base of the preserve.
Simple, unmarked stones are found in Bell York cemetery. 

Wyassup Brook to the west

The Western loops take you to the Wyassup Brook. This summer it was pretty dry, but at this point in the Autumn, after recent rains, it is likely to be flowing and beautiful. There are also Laurel glens and rocky ledges, small caves and overlooks. There is also the Poet’s Bench Trail which leads to a serene spot to meditate and muse. Maybe make poetry, paint a picture or take photos of the changing moods of the brook. Parts of the Western trails will lead you to the old Scout sites: the Pavilion is a lovely spot for a family picnic, but please carry out what you carry in. It also leads to a site called Lily’s Lea. This is a sweet open meadow which was the site of the Scout gatherings and the old campfire circle remains.
Wyassup Brook flowed quietly during the drier summer.

The very southern tip of the brook loop provides an overlook where the brook runs into a beautiful large boggy swamp. There is no access as it is privately owned, but a pair of binoculars certainly is helpful.
Return to parking area along the main trail and you will pass old stone foundations, a root cellar and the walls. Ferns along the path set off the trail as a gorgeous view.
Several stone foundations hint at the past.

A must see preserve in any season.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan.