Monday, March 26, 2018

Stone walls

By Beth Sullivan
This is a good time to get out and begin to stretch our legs and take in the landscape after winter. The woods are open still; the greenery hasn’t yet begun to obstruct our views of the infrastructure of our open space. The rocky ridges, ledges, and even cliffs of some of our more rugged preserves can be most appreciated now. A walk off the trail to get to the base of a slope for a closer look is not likely to be disruptive to nesting animals yet. It’s easy to imagine larger animals taking shelter in the caves and openings created by rocks and boulders.
A pile of shells at the base of a wall or on top of a rock is a sign of a Chipmunk or Squirrel using the safety of the rocks.

Tracks show travel between protective walls in winter.

This Chipmunk sits up high and is never far from an escape into the wall.

Openings in natural ledges and ridges create places for larger animals to shelter.

New England's stone walls

It is also time to enjoy the bones of our landscape, the stone walls that criss-cross both fields and forests in our area. Much has been written about the history of the walls in New England. Much has been debated about their age, origin and the intention of the builders. No matter what the theory, we all agree that the walls are man-made as opposed to the exposed ridges and outcrops that are nature-formed. A great book to read is Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson, which discusses history and construction of walls in New England.
A recent article in the Northern Woodlands magazine, offered me a new reason to look at the stone walls more closely and in a different light. Those walls themselves act as unique ecosystems running through the woods. They can act as highways of travel on various levels. Small mammals like mice, voles and chipmunks can safely move inside, along, on, and under the rocks to travel from one area to another. They will often have their tunnel openings along-side a base rock and several escape routes as well. Chipmunks, in particular, are rarely found far from a safe hole and most frequently they are near walls. Explore along a length of wall in the woods and you may find piles of cracked nuts and acorns. Sometimes they are even atop the highest rocks, which provides a picnic site with a great view, a lookout spot, and if danger threatens from any direction, it is a quick and easy dive for cover.
Even in the depth of winter, the stone walls offer a greater degree of cover and protection. You can often find small tracks leading to and from an opening at the base of a stone wall, whether in the forest or along a field.
Bigger mammals like foxes and coyotes, weasel family members, and bobcats are frequently spotted near stone walls. They know that their prey is often attracted to those areas. But they also like to travel along the top length of the walls. It is quieter than rustling leaves, offers a higher vantage point, and leaves no tell-tale scent on the ground.

It's not a wall, it's a micro-habitat

Stone walls also alter the ecosystem by creating micro-habitats. The sunny side of the wall will retain the warmth of the sun, so very welcome in the early spring. Snakes, such as the Garter snake, which may have hibernated underneath the piles, will often be found basking in the early spring, soaking up the heat of sun warmed rocks. Those same rocks will retain warmth longer into the autumn as well. The Mourning Cloak butterfly, the first to be spotted in the early spring, will often hibernate over winter in cracks and crevices of stone walls, to emerge on a sunny warm day in late March. It will return to the same type place for protection when the winter weather returns, until it is safe to emerge for good.
On the flip side, the shaded side of a wall will retain moisture during the heat of summer. The forest floor can get hot and dry, but amphibians that require some moisture and less intense heat will find themselves drawn to the cool side and damp ground along the base of the shady side of a wall. Wood frogs and Spring Peepers, as well as many salamanders, make use of these areas because the leaf litter that piles up along the wall harbors insects and other invertebrates that they choose to feed on and offers protection as well.
Next time you walk in the woods and encounter a lost stone wall, you can wonder about its origins and usage. But also think about it as a unique mini-habitat for many woodland creatures. Think about how much farther that Chipmunk can travel safely using only the forgotten stone walls in our woodlands.
Bobcats will hunt for small prey along stone walls. Photograph by Rick Newton.

A Garter snake emerges  early to soak up heat from sun-warmed rocks. 

A Spotted Salamander will seek out the cool, moist leaf litter on the shady side of a stone wall.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Are we there yet?

By Beth Sullivan
Why is it that the journey to spring seems so very long this year? The old groundhog was right: we got six more weeks of winter and got slammed.
I like the photographic opportunities that winter provides. The lighting, contrast and subject matter is totally unique. But it gets a bit harder to tolerate the cold when I want to get out and get those photos.

Ah, Springtime

We are all looking forward to getting out and doing stewardship, but good spring stewardship, not constant winter clean up. The number of trees down after these last three storms is depressing. The greatest toll was on the big Oaks twisting in the wind. Many snapped up near the tops creating widow-makers: big branches that didn’t come all the way down (yet) and continue to pose a danger. Many Oaks just uprooted because their shallow root systems were not able to hold on in the saturated soils.
The biggest trees in CT forests are white pines. They can often be seen clearly standing head and shoulder above the other forest trees, especially at this time of year. Their needle-covered branches held the snow and caught the wind, leaving large breaks and raw scars. This kind of devastation will take decades to heal. The deadwood down on the ground is ugly, but it will provide cover for many creatures and its rotting wood will invite insects to feast, and the birds will follow. The standing trunks will be the snags that woodpeckers will excavate for nests one year, and those will be used by numerous other birds and even some mammals, over the next years.
As the woody debris decays, it re-nourishes the soil for seedlings that will sprout in the places where the sun can now reach the ground. Over time, the new opening in the forests will be filled with new trees and shrubs and will create the variety of habitats that makes the forest healthy.
The bench at Simmons Preserve will be waiting and warming.

The osprey will return to this nest on Paffard Marsh even if there is snow on the ground.

The Pine grove at Hoffman Woods took a beating and the habitat will change. In a few weeks there will be salamanders under these logs. Photograph by Keith Tomlinson.

Tough clean up

That all sounds good, but it doesn't help make the clean up any easier.
After this last storm with significant snow cover, the poor robins which had only just arrived here had no access to open ground. No worms to be found. Small flocks of them swarmed the Hollies that still had berries left and staked out their territories on Viburnum shrubs that also had dried fruits still attached to the stems. The bluebirds came out of the woods and returned to suet treats.
In the small vernal pools, where only a couple of weeks ago wood frogs “quacked” and larval salamanders swam, there is now ice and in many cases, inches of snow. These creatures adapt without complaint. They get down into the mud and leaves at the bottom of the pool and patiently wait for the next warm spell to invite them to the surface.
Maybe we should take our hint from some of these creatures. When Mother Nature tosses us more winter, we adapt, change some plans, hunker down and wait for the warmth.
But it is hard.
Spring arrives on Tuesday, so take some time to look for those small signs of hope: Pussy Willows in full bloom, egg masses visible in thawing vernal pools, skunk cabbages breaking through the snow and robins being grateful for every bare patch of ground they can find.
Pussywillows are in full bloom despite the storms.

Skunk Cabbage flowers through the ice.

Robins had to resort to dried berries when snow covered the ground.

When Mother Nature insists on giving us snow, kids know how to make the best of it.!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Calling the Next Generation

By Beth Sullivan
Avalonia is a pretty amazing organization. It is kept running by the hard work and dedication of a volunteer army. Last year alone, Avalonia stewards contributed about 1,600 hours of volunteer time (that doesn’t include meetings, research, office and administrative work). And that is only what was recorded. We know for a fact that so many of our volunteers never record and submit their volunteer time.
The government provides a value for such volunteer time and that amount equaled about $45,000 in 2017. Again, that is only for the volunteer land stewards who actually recorded their time.
It is probably also true that the average age of most of Avalonia’s volunteers is a bit north of 60. And, I will say, we are just great! But where is the younger generation? That seems to be a question asked by many volunteer organizations. Certainly those younger people are truly busy with very active and obligation-filled lives: young families, jobs, aging parents. Most of us have come through those stages and are freer to give our time and energy. Our time is more flexible, even if our joints are not. We are looking for ways to attract and engage those who will come after us, who will continue the mission, and all it takes, into the next decades.

A GNCE team cleaned up Paffard Woods roadside walls.

An outreach effort at the Stonington Farmers' market was a great success.

Connecticut College students return to Avalonia

One way I have been involved, for the last six years, is by working with the Connecticut College students in the Goodwin-Neiring Center for the Environment (GNCE). In their second semester of sophomore year, their main focus has been making a connection with Avalonia. The intent is to let them see some of the inner workings and challenges of trying to keep a land trust running successfully. It isn’t all fun, trail clearing and tree hugging. It is a lot of work and in areas that they never really thought about. Areas like governance, finance, fund raising, development, membership, and outreach are all essential to the growth and success of the organization. It has been my privilege to work with these great students, to introduce them to Avalonia, and also to help them develop projects of their choosing, that will help Avalonia in one way or another, while giving them an opportunity to get their eyes opened a bit, to other aspects of land trust operations.
This year there has been a greater emphasis on outreach and membership building. Most of the projects are dedicated to this in one way or another. Over the next two months, you will be introduced to these students, as you have been for the last several years. One student will actually take over the blog writing (lucky me.) and give insights into what his peers are doing.
These students understand the need for fresh energy and ideas. While this student population will not necessarily be residing in this area after graduation, I hope that their insights can give us the boost we need to reach out to those generations coming after us.
Stewardship work isn't always easy...

but it can be fun.

A special GNCE team worked on Collier preserve as a community service project.

Enjoy their stories

They will be posted as part of the blog series and on Facebook as well. Please comment or write to Avalonia and let us know what you think. Tell us how you think we can engage the next generation. And if you are by chance of that younger age set, please let us know how best you can help while still juggling your other obligations and busy lives. Every person makes such a difference. Our challenge is to make sure we utilize every person who offers.
While we older-but-still-active group are doing ok, we welcome the energy and enthusiasm of those who can help us out and then take the reins when we are ready to give them up.
Getting into the community is so important.

Engaging the very youngest nature lovers is truly necessary.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Northward movement

By Beth Sullivan
Migrate: To pass periodically from one region or climate to another, as certain birds, fishes or animals.
March is a month of migration. In many places the process began much earlier and will not stop until everyone or everything is where it’s supposed to be, to breed and raise young, and then it begins all over in reverse.
Now that the day lengths are increasing, and daylight hours are nearly equal to night hours, many creatures are being inspired to make their migration, usually in a northward direction, back “home” here, to where they belong, in our opinion.
In the month of March, I usually begin my list of firsts: things like Peepers and Wood frogs are important firsts. Those are checked off. The first Painted turtles out on a log have been spotted. But they never ventured far. They just stayed down and under all winter. They emerged recently to greet the warmth, but will dig back underground in the face of the cold that is surely coming in this fickle month.
The first Purple Martins have arrived in places like Florida and Texas, but they will not reach here until April. So I don’t get my hopes up for them for a while. You will certainly be getting reports as soon as ours arrive.
Purple Martins have already begun housekeeping in Florida. Photograph by Dennis Main.

March migrants

The migrants of March are the Osprey, the Eastern Phoebe and the Tree Swallows, that I eagerly await. For sure there are many more, but these have always been my true indicators of spring. All three of these arrive within a week, more or less, around the Vernal Equinox- the first day of spring. So much, though, depends on the weather that either assists them or keeps them grounded. If we get a nice southerly flow, they will all catch the wind and arrive earlier. If we continue to be hit with Nor’easter type storms, they will hunker down where they are and wait.
Interesting to note though, even as we eagerly anticipate the first sightings of these new arrivals, we sometimes overlook those migrants who slip away quietly from our area, to return farther north to their own breeding grounds. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the last Hooded Merganser I saw on a cove, or, come later into March and April, when I no longer hear the Juncos twittering in the bushes.
 The bird I really wait for is the osprey, sometimes showing up for St. Patrick's Day.

This Phoebe in Florida, is a real sign of spring in New England, but won't arrive until it warms up and are there are insects to eat. Photograph by Dennis Main.

Tree Swallows will arrive in a few weeks. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Sometimes it's hard to remember when the last Hooded Merganser took off from our icy coves to return north.

Another kind of migrant

There is another interesting group of migrants: people, know as snow-birds - those who leave the colder climates, not necessarily to breed and nest of course, but to escape the cold and enjoy the climate farther south.
What is also pretty funny to think about, is that many of the birds that leave here in the winter, end up in the same area as our snow-bird friends. Those Osprey, Phoebes and Tree Swallows, as well as Egrets, Herons and many Warblers are all down south with our friends and likely will return around the same time.
Also, thanks to population shifts, many southern birds have expanded their range north, so birds such as the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren and Red Bellied Woodpecker have only recently, relatively speaking, become established here in Connecticut.
We may never see Wood Storks or White Ibis here in Connecticut, but that’s OK. I am always most eager to see that first Osprey of March and welcome them back to their nests here. And I will look forward to seeing friends return as well.
The Red Bellied Woodpecker only arrived in this area from farther south within the last four decades. Photograph by Dennis Main.

Some birds like these White Ibis, will probably never expand their range this far north, but who knows what climate change will bring. Photograph by Alan Brush.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.