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.