Monday, May 28, 2018

Purple Martin Season 2018

by Beth Sullivan
It has begun! Those of you who have followed this blog for several years, know of my commitment to (some say obsession with) my Purple Martins on Knox Preserve. You can catch up on recent history in earlier posts, here and here.
There are dedicated websites to document the Martins’ movement north, and it is always amazing the consistency that governs these migrations. For all of us, spring seemed to have gotten off to a very slow start, but by mid-April we were getting reports that the Martin scouts had been spotted in the area. We got up the first gourd system at Knox on April 21 and were immediately rewarded with several birds all checking out the best real estate. Established pairs tend to return to the same colonies each year, and the young, from previous years, get second dibs or move on to expanded colonies. The second set of gourds went up the following week. It was encouraging because at that point in time, it appeared that spring might actually stick around: there were flies, butterflies and other insects present in the air over the fields.
After being washed, marked, and stored for the winter the gourds were ready to hang in mid-April.

Adult males get first choice for nests

Purple Martins move in

I have been keeping watch for the last couple of weeks, and while the weather recently has not been optimal for flying insects or for anything flying, the birds are returning and are beginning to put their claims on various gourds. If you sit on the bench on the hill at Knox, and have a good pair of binoculars, you can actually follow their antics and aerial acrobatics. You will also see that there are House Sparrows also trying to get established in the gourds as well. Part of my job as landlord is to do periodic housekeeping when I will lower the gourds and remove the nests of the Sparrows. It is very easy to tell them apart: Martin nests are lovely and neat and lined with green leaves, prior to egg laying. House Sparrows fill up the entire gourd with a tangled mess of straw and debris which needs to be pulled out. In persistent cases we will close the hole up to keep them out, but we always fear they will be so aggressive they will fight and even kill a Martin, to displace it. Please: Do NOT encourage the proliferation of House Sparrows in your bird houses. As they are invasive and non-native; they are not protected and we are all encouraged to remove them.
House Sparrows tend to jam tons of straw into a cavity and their eggs are speckled.

Purple Martin nests less crowded and neater with pure white eggs.

New apartment house for Purple Martins

We do have a wonderful new addition this year. Through a couple of fortuitous connections between Purple Martin landlords, we were offered a complete Martin house set up from Menunkatuck Audubon. This Audubon group supports a number of great projects farther down the CT coast. Most notably, they support and monitor the Martin houses at Hammonasset State Park. They also monitor several Osprey nests, including one with a camera. You can find it here. We connected with landlords Lorrie and Terry Shaw and met them at Hammonasset one cold day in early April. They were in the process of updating their Martin housing so all would be the same style and function, making it easier for their volunteers to monitor. They had not one, but two, beautiful complete set ups for us to bring back to Avalonia territory. These are the more well-known style of apartment house nests but with all the high quality updates of easy winch and pulley system and easy to clean nest trays. We put up one at the Wequetequock Cove Preserve on Palmer Neck Road on the way to Barn Island. It is an ideal site, open fields yet near people and water, but because there are no other colonies in the area, it will be more of a challenge to attract the birds right away. We added a couple of decoy birds to attract attention.
It is arrival time right now. The younger birds will be a bit later and will be looking for new colonies. Our Knox preserve colony is active but we have not yet seen Martins at our new site, just House Sparrows. They will not be allowed to occupy this new abode. If you drive by, look for the house in the south field. There is room to pull over and spend a few minutes looking. The fields have been home to Bobolinks in the past. The wet areas have had Glossy Ibis and shorebirds recently and many Red Winged Blackbirds call from the grasses where they will nest. This is a known hot spot for birds in all seasons. Let’s hope the Martins will find the new home inviting and we can add to the species list.
We haven’t yet decided on the best place for house number two. We’ll see how this one does. Many thanks to the Menunkatuck Audubon Society for their amazing gift to us and the Purple Martins.
The new house is up on Wequetequock Cove Preserve.

Two sets of gourdes are up at Knox Preserve and already have residents.

Hopefully ours will full up soon like this one at Hammonassett Beach State Park. Photograph by Terry Shaw.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Horseshoe crab, a living fossil

By Rick Newton
On the list of the Nature Conservancy’s top migrations is that of the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). It is truly a wonder to experience. Horseshoe crabs are called a living fossil; they have been around for over 350 million years virtually unchanged. It is not really a crab as it is associated more closely with spiders and scorpions. Worldwide there are four species of horseshoe crabs but only one in the United States on the east coast.
In late spring and early summer, mainly around the times of full and new moons and on the hide tide cycle, horseshoe crabs migrate from their wintering grounds to local beaches to lay their eggs. The female crab, usually with a male crab grasping on to the female’s shell with a pair of modified legs resembling boxing gloves, buries herself into the sand laying a cluster of around 4,000 eggs. Over several nights the female may lay as many as 100,000 eggs. About a month later, the eggs will hatch, and tiny horseshoe crabs will spend the first few years of life on tidal flats and marshes.
Horseshoe crabs molt many times before reaching maturity. 
Because horseshoe crabs have a hard shell they must molt to grow. They will molt around six times in the first year and up to eighteen times before reaching sexual maturity. Once the crabs reach sexual maturity, which takes about nine or ten years, the molting stops. When the male crab completes its final molt, the front claws take the shape of boxing gloves that he uses to grab on to the female for spawning. A horseshoe crab's lifespan is believed to be 20 – 30 years.
Horseshoe crab bodies are composed of three parts: prosoma (head), opisthosoma (central area), and telson (tail). Horseshoe crabs cannot hurt you. Many people think the tail is some kind of stinger, but it is mainly for allowing crabs to flip themselves over should they get turned upside down. Horseshoe crabs have ten eyes, and much of the research on human vision has been accomplished using horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs have book gills to get oxygen from the water and can live on land for up to four days if they get stranded. Their food consists of razor clams, soft-shelled clams, and marine worms.
Horseshoe crabs are important for a few reasons. First, shorebirds migrate from South America to the Artic. Most need to stop and rest and feed on their travels north to their summer breeding grounds. Their migration coincides with horseshoe crab spawning. Eggs that are exposed to air by wave or boat wake action or by the digging action of other crabs, quickly dry out and won’t hatch. But these eggs are the primary food source for the migrating birds allowing them to double their body weight in less than two weeks.

Not just a fossil

Second, horseshoe crab blood plays a vital role in human medicine. Their copper-based blood, which turns blue when exposed to oxygen, contains blood cells called amoebocytes. A testing reagent called LimulusAmoebocyte Lysate (LAL) is derived from the amoebocytes of the horseshoe crab. The LAL is used to test the sterility of vaccines, drugs, and other medical devices. However, recent biomedical developments have shown that a synthetic compound may be an alternative to using horseshoe crab blood, thus saving hundreds of thousands of crabs from being bled. You can learn more here.
Horseshoe crabs have few natural predators except for seagulls or raccoons that may feed on an overturned crab. Major threats are from harvesters (who sell crabs as bait for conch, whelk and eel), human disturbance, and loss of habitat due to beach development or shoreline modifications as communities harden the shoreline to deal with rising sea levels.
Avalonia’s Sandy Point Nature Preserve is one of the primary spawning areas for horseshoe crabs with hundreds of crabs coming to the beach on peak cycles. Volunteers from Avalonia, Mystic Aquarium, and others support Project Limulus (Sacred Heart University & USFWS) in southeastern Connecticut. These volunteers are citizen scientists counting, measuring, and tagging horseshoe crabs during the early spring and summer.

Be a citizen scientist

Anyone can help by just walking the beaches and looking for tagged crabs. If you see a tag on a dead crab, remove the tag and report the tag number, date, time and location to the number on the tag, or provide this information via the internet at: If you see a tag on a live crab, just write down the tag number and report it as above, leaving the tag on the crab. If you see any crab upside down, just flip it over by grasping it by the side of the shell (not the tail).
If you see a flipped Horseshoe crab on the beach.

Give it a hand and turn it over by its shell.

Tagged horseshoe crabs – Groton / Stonington area – 2009 to 2017
Note: some of the decline in tagged crabs is due to budget reductions to the USFWS with fewer tags being distributed. In general, however, volunteers are seeing fewer crabs each year.

You can read more about Horseshoe crabs in   The Underwater Secrets of Horseshoe Crabs, here.

photographs by Rick Newton

Monday, May 14, 2018

We have waited so long for this

By Beth Sullivan
Finally! While the Connecticut College students were busy doing their projects and writing the blog for the last several weeks, winter finally breathed its last and spring jumped in with both feet, making up for lost time. It is amazing to me, that despite the long extended cold, things seemed to catch up and happen on time, as they always have.

Spring has arrived

My Quince bushes were a little delayed in flowering, but my Hummingbird returned to the yard, looking for the feeder, right on target: April 27. The cold weather seemed to keep down the insect populations early in the season, and I truly hoped the insect-eating birds would take their time and maybe take a bit of an extended rest stop farther south. It seems they did. At least my Phoebe was a week later than usual in announcing her presence. But everything is on schedule now. We are beset with gnats and flies, and the sweet little bird spends hours at the edge of the woods, making quick upward and outward flights to grab her meals.
I hope I am not jinxing anything by reporting that many flowering trees seem to have come through the winter and early blooming time, without showing the devastation from the winter moths, as they have in previous years. Barring a severe freeze, this could be a bumper year for beautiful blossoms and later abundant fruits. Of course we also have to hope all the species of native bees have survived the winter to do the pollinating. We can also hope that last year’s severe die-off of Gypsy moth caterpillars will result in fewer areas of devastation this year. There is still time to search out egg masses and scrape them away. I found a number inside my birdhouses as I cleaned them for their feathered occupants.
This is just such a spectacular time of year, creating a welcome sensory overload for those of us who are truly passionate about watching every little natural change. Every day brings something new: the arrival of a new bird, the opening of a favorite woodland wildflower. Sometimes things happen over hours, like the unfurling of a fern fiddlehead, or the chorus of spring frogs starting slow then reaching a beautiful peak at sunset and for a few hours beyond. Every night is different as voices change over the weeks. The Wood Frogs seem to be finished, the Spring Peepers continue but less vigorously and have now been joined by Gray Tree Frogs.
The wetlands seem to be where spring life really begins, and over the weeks they have changed from brittle brown to lush green and yellow: Skunk Cabbage, False Hellebore, Sphagnum Moss and Marsh Marigolds. Standing pools are alive with water striders, swarms of small flies, and masses of amphibian eggs are that just days from hatching. The single heart-shaped leaves of thousands of Canada Mayflowers create a carpet of green occasionally dotted with the white or lavender-blue of violets. The very precious Dog tooth Violet makes a brief appearance in the moist wet woodland soils.
The Hummingbirds arrived right on time, finding a full feeder.

A Phoebe relies on warm weather hatches of flying insects to survive. Photograph by Dennis Main. 

Lush green with yellow and violet create a wetland mosaic.

Canada Mayflowers will carpet the woodland floor by the thousands. 

So much to see, so much to share

 The season is fleeting. The trees and shrubs will leaf out, closing our views and shading the forest floors. Wetlands will dry out and the chorus of frogs will change to the more solitary vocals of the larger species.
Please take some time for yourself to seek out a new preserve, or an old favorite, and make note of this wonderful season. We can be so grateful that Avalonia has, over the years, preserved 4000 acres of springtime beauty, just for us to enjoy. The website lists all the trails and Hike and Seek gives you a challenge to open your eyes and look for some very special features. Enjoy.
The Trout Lilly or Dog Tooth Violet is a fleeting gem.

Brooks and pools in the Woodlot Sanctuary teem with life.

You can almost see the fiddlehead ferns uncurling in front of your very eyes.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Semester wrap up

A note from Beth: This has been a super year with the students of the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment. Their projects were diverse and energetic. We got some great deliverables, from an amazing Barberry harvest to 1000 likes on Facebook. I always learn so much from these students and their energy and enthusiasm gives me hope for the future. I hope you enjoyed hearing from them as well.

 by Alan Lau
As the spring semester comes to an end, all of the sophomores at GNCE have enjoyed the time spent collaborating with the Avalonia team.
One day Emma Brooks and Julia Neumann ‘20 went on a boundary walk of the Moore Woodlands in Mystic with longtime volunteer Joellen Anderson. They were very lucky to also have Margot Greener, who is a part of the family that originally donated the property, accompany them. Boundary walks are important to make sure that the property isn't being encroached upon and that the wishes of the original landowners are being upheld. Each property should be walked at least once a year (which is a huge undertaking). Joellen had handheld GPS units with the layout of the preserve loaded up so they could follow the boundary all the way around. One way surveyors indicate boundaries is by creating drill holes in stationary rocks as permanent markers. As the day went on, they did their best to pick up some trash as they went but mostly just tried to keep up with Joellen's fiery pace. She made sure to educate them with lessons in history, ecology, local lore, and land conservancy. It was an absolutely beautiful day and a great reason to get outside and help Avalonia.
While we have some students working outside on the land, one student, Haruko Tateyama, has been researching the history of that land. Haruko has been working on a history project that could potentially be used for newsletters and archived on the website. As of now, she has conducted research on Pine Swamp and Avery Preserve both in Ledyard. She also interviewed Ms. Nancy Avery in the course of her research for the Avery Preserve. Furthermore, she will be working on condensing earlier documentation done by past GNCE scholars on Perry Natural Area and Pequotsepos Brook Preserve. All of these properties have great trails and are open for exploration-check the website for more information.
Bailey Aust and Sarah Stephanset up outreach tables at the Stonington Farmers’ Market and at the Mystic Aquarium Earth Day event. They did a great job informing people about Avalonia and even recruited some new members.
Yiyan Ma is working on getting some elementary students out onto a preserve to enjoy the trails and introduce them to Hike and Seek.
Last but not least, the two masterminds that have been running social media for Avalonia this past couple of months are none other than our Marcus Vinicius Pinto Pereira Jr. and Jennifer Rojas, both class of 20’. They have been working on social media outreach for Avalonia, specifically on Facebook. Their objective has been to analyze weekly posts and see which kinds of posts generate more attraction from the pages’ followers. Their goal was to get 1000 likes on Facebook and they achieved that on May 2. They will continue to post until their semester is done. Hopefully Maureen Dewire, Chair of the Communications Committee who has been mentoring them, will be left with information on which types of posts are the most productive. This will benefit Avalonia greatly in the long run because outreach is one of the most important aspects when dealing with non-profit organizations like Avalonia which relies on its volunteers and members.
In conclusion, it has been a wonderful semester for all of us sophomores. Time has flown by so quickly; it feels like I met Beth for the first time yesterday, but it has been several months. As we move forward in our personal lives, we often have a tendency to take the smallest things for granted. Therefore, on behalf of all the sophomores of the GNCE class of 2020 I would like to thank all of the amazing teachers like Beth Sullivan, Jennifer Pagach, and all the mentors who have guided us on this wonderful journey.
Blogger Alan Lau did a great job filling in for me.

At the Aquarium Earth Day events, Bailey, Sarah, Anna, and Avatar presented their projects.

Bailey and Sarah answer questions about Avalonia.

Connecticut College students doing boundary survey at Moore Preserve. Photograph by Joellen Anderson.

Emma and Julia learned Avalonia history from Anne who provided cookies and juice at all the work parties. Photograph by Rick Newton.

History researcher Maruko Tateyama

Haruko has written about the history of the Pine Swamp preserve. If only these old trees could talk.

Photographs by Avalonia volunteers.