Monday, August 27, 2018

A young forest

By Beth Sullivan
Back in 2012 we began with a small germ of a proposal to take the Peck/Callahan Preserve, a mature forest area with diminished benefit to wildlife, and create a new habitat, one that is scarce in Connecticut-a young forest.
These early stage landscapes are rare in Connecticut for many reasons. Farms that were abandoned grew into to young forests at first, but have now aged via the process of normal succession into more mature woodlands. Fires and other natural disasters have often been managed, so widespread forest destruction is rare. And, where woodlands are cut, it is often for development and the landscape becomes fragmented with suburban accessories such as homes, yards and roads. None of these support the wildlife that needs thick dense low-growing vegetation. There are approximately 50 species in Connecticut that rely on this type of habitat. The best example was the New England Cottontail that was one the edge of becoming endangered in our state.
So Avalonia embarked on an ambitious project, with guidance from USFWS and DEEP and large grants. Approximately 28 acres of older growth forest were cut leaving some tall trees to provide shelter and seed sources. It was a pretty barren and bleak landscape when the project was completed. There was very little greenery at the end of the cutting. There was woody debris laid on the ground. This is known as slash, and it provides soil nutrients as it decays. We also created dozens of brush piles with some of the debris, which provide immediate shelter for all kinds of wildlife.
Before the project, the trees were tall and there was no understory for wildlife.

This summer the growth is taller than a person and is dense.

Right after the cutting, the brush piles were easy to see and the group was bare. Photograph courtesy DEEP.

The same view, and the brush piles are covered with vegetation creating a lush landscape. Photograph by D. Young.

See our progress

We monitored the area yearly. You can read about our progress here.
Now fast forward to this summer. The young forest is developing beautifully. At age 5, it is prime habitat for providing dense cover for many species. There are no barren spots or unproductive openings. The vegetation is varied and includes small trees as well as vines and shrubs bearing fruits and many berries. The berries are favored by birds and mammals. Smaller flowering plants have popped up in the sunny openings providing nectar sources for all sorts of insects. The insects in turn attract more birds of various species. The only downside to all this wonderful growth, is that it is now impossible to walk through it at all. We used to be able to wander through the entire 28 acres with little difficulty. Now it is grown and tangled and dense-bad for people, but perfect for New England Cottontails and their friends.
In July, a team went into the area to assess the growth. One Avalonia member, brought his drone and we were accompanied by DEEP biologists who have followed this project from the beginning. We launched the drone and kept an eye on the video screen, and it flew in a zig zag pattern across the landscape and also followed the boundaries to places we could not get into. What we saw and photographed was pretty amazing.
A towhee is a target species that benefits from the young forest. There were several singing the day we were there.

It's easy to see why the landscape is great for wildlife and impossible for humans.

The drone comes in for a landing.

A burst of green

The entire project area was covered in green. From low growth ferns, the height rose to Low Bush Blueberries and Huckleberries loaded with fruits. Great for birds and small mammals, even Box Turtles . There were many mid-height shrubs and lots of vines. There were viburnum, more blueberries, wild grapes, blackberries with crazy thorns, and green brier with more thorns, all providing great hiding places and food as well. The cut trees had sprouted new growth, and many of them had new stems over our heads. There were also saplings of a wide variety of trees, from baby Oaks and maples and hickory and sassafras and many young tulip trees descended from the one beautiful tall one we left standing.
The brush piles were nearly obscured by greenery too. Perfect cover and homes. The biologists were thrilled with the growth. The drone was able to cover areas we couldn’t get to by foot and, we could pick out individual areas that we wanted to observe more closely. The photography was great.
While we stood and monitored the drone flight, we were so pleased to see a large number of dragonflies and other insects which attracted a number of birds. We watched tree and barn swallows, as well as chimney swifts and phoebes and peewees in flight catching their food. Indigo buntings and towhees sang from low shrubs. Bluebirds and gold finches also were heard as well as some of the other species we look and listen for along powerline cuts, and they can now spread into our young forest.
This report could go on enthusiastically for many more pages. It was gratifying to see the results. It was a hard decision early on, to do this kind of project, but seeing the vast new diversity was heartening. We were excited to use the drone as a new tool for monitoring difficult properties, and I know we will go back each year to compare.
The one thing we did not see was a New England Cottontail. But we did see signs that rabbits had nibbled several twigs and shrubs. Hopefully they are hiding in the brush piles.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Humidity Has Been Good For Something

By Beth Sullivan
After the last month of rain and high humidity, we are all feeling a little damp and mildewed. And mold indeed is thriving, along with all of its fungal relatives. It is now prime mushroom season, a bit earlier this year than usual, thanks to the conditions. In a typical year, peak mushroom season, and all the festivals celebrating everything mycological, happen in September.
Amanita mushrooms are characterized by the rough bumps on top. They are deadly to eat and should not be touched. 

Turkey tails are unique, often beautiful and will persist into winter.

Fungi are in a Kingdom of their own

They are not plants at all, and surely they are not animals, but you would be surprised at some of their characteristics. They do not have true roots, or a vascular system, or flowers and seeds. They contain no chlorophyll so are unable to make their own food utilizing nutrients and sunlight. Have you noticed there are no real green mushrooms? They rely on obtaining their nutrients from the decay process that they are part of on the forest floor, utilizing all the dead plant material that is present there. They absorb their food through this process, rather than eating it or making it. Some are very specific, growing only near certain trees, by certain species of other plants, in very narrow ranges of pH (soil acidity). After several days, they themselves begin to get slimy and moldy and smell terrible. There is a very definite smell of decay and over-ripeness in the woods at this time of year. Here’s a fun fact: the outer tough skin of many mushrooms is made of Chitin, which is the same material as the shells of lobsters and crabs. Strange organisms.
Along with a wide variation in color, they also take many forms: the familiar umbrella, ruffles, shelves, turkey tails, and puffballs. If you have ever come upon a solid white ball on your lawn and think golf ball, experiment a little. A firm young puffball will be white all the way through and have a pleasing earthy smell. But wait a few weeks and find a puffball that has become browner with age. A touch with your toe or a flick of the finger will make it puff, explode with fine black dust, which is all the spores contained within. All mushrooms reproduce by releasing dusty spores.
This chicken mushroom is hard to miss and prized by many.

Early on a puffball is firm on the inside. Later it will dry and  fine black spores will be released when disturbed.

It's easy to see where a coral mushroom get its name.

More than meets the eye

Mushrooms are actually the visible, spore-producing bodies of a largely underground network of rhizome threads that comprise a fungus. The spread of the rhizomes extends great distances, but only one or two mushrooms may emerge. In other cases, many will pop up in the same area. Many are quite specific about where they grow and the conditions they need for survival, but one thing is generally universal: they need moisture to thrive. They can dry down to a dusty mass, but add water and some will reconstitute as good as new. There are fungi in every ecosystem - from the Antarctic, to deserts and jungles and cities, and even on our very own skin.
Take a hike in any shady cool woodland. Avalonia has many of these. Look on the ground, in the leaves, look on rotting tree trunks, branches and stumps. Notice the colors and textures and shapes. They may have the appearance of being nibbled. They are frequently eaten by small mammals, woodland turtles and insects and slugs. But don’t be tempted to pick and sample. Fungi are of great value for medicinal purposes, food processes (as in making cheese) and as prized edibles themselves. But be warned: there are also many mushrooms that are poisonous, or fatal, if eaten even in small quantities, so never mess with mushrooms unless you are with an expert. Bring a camera or sketch pad instead.
The underside of most mushrooms is covered with gills which hold and release spores.

The underside of bolete mushrooms have a spongy appearance and will often bruise blue when touched.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, August 13, 2018


by Beth Sullivan
It happens to all species. Kids: you give birth, take care of them, feed them, clean up after them, teach them whatever you can, wish them well and then they are out the door. Sometimes they hang around a while. Sometimes they need more instruction, or just can’t find a place of their own, so return to roost.
Lest I get too far with this and you think I am talking about my own offspring…no, it is my Purple Martins again. This is the sixth year we have hosted Purple Martins at Knox preserve. Each of the first two years we were the recipients of an Audubon CT grant that funded the two lovely set ups of 12 gourds each, made especially for the Martins. Each year our colony has grown and each year has been very unique in one way or another. Each year I learn more about them, and each year there are surprises.
This year the birds arrived on time but actually began nesting earlier and in those first nests, eggs were laid a full week earlier than previous years. However, there were still stragglers. The youngsters from the previous year, or from other colonies, that arrive later and take what is left for space, get started later. That made for a colony that had a very wide span of ages of young once they began hatching.
A wide range of ages existed in the colony. These were about 11 days old on the same day the next door nest was just hatching.

Our Tree Swallow nest has three young in their feathery nest.

These four seem fully feathered and should be able to fly, but stayed put when the door was opened. Photograph by Mariano Librojo. 

Different nest building this year

Some of the nests were very unusual this year too. Most Martin nests are quite light and loose. They are created on a base of pine needles that I supply and are supplemented with other grasses, sometimes small twigs, and always lined with green cherry leaves which indicates egg laying is imminent. This year I discovered several nests were created with a lot of mud. Mud itself is not uncommon, but the volume used in these nests was surprising. Nearly half of each gourd was filled with it and straw embedded into the mud, before the green leaves were added. This didn’t seem to cause any problem for the birds, but for me as the care taker it was a challenge. Usually, when the young are about 10 -15 days old, it is advised to check them for mites, since these can be so numerous as to kill young birds with their blood sucking habits. I would do complete nest changes, removing old infested material and replacing it with new clean needles and green cherry leaves. But it was absolutely impossible to remove the jam packed mud. These nests did have insects living in them and as the heat of the season built up, these mud nests seemed to hold the heat and moisture making what I would think was a very uncomfortable environment. These nests, by the end of the season, were filled with excrement and insect parts. I’d want to fledge or flee from that home too!
This year the DEEP did not have the staff or funding to band our colony. In previous years they came and processed all our birds, checking age, condition, and outfitting them with aluminum federal bands as well as green/orange color bands. This provides a visual identification that birds with the green/orange come from our colony. This year I noted only one returning adult with our color bands. I did, however, notice three adult males who made their home here, who had only silver colored federal bands and no colored ones to help identify their colony or origin.
If you look closely you can see silver bands on on the legs of several of the dark males on the left.

Sometimes first flights are not successful, and a young one lands in the grass. 
This was our late nest but watching them hatch was a small miracle.

Most have fledged

We did do nest checks through the season and photographed the stages that are so amazing to witness. On the last day I checked them, August 4, most of the nests were empty. The young had gone. But in two nests, a few full-sized young birds huddled together as I opened the door, they didn’t move. I could touch their sleek feathers, and I wished them well. I wondered whether they had not taken their first flight yet, or if, like some youngsters, just returned to the comfort of home after experiencing the real world.
If you hike at Knox over the next weeks, you can still see the Martins soaring over the fields, catching insects and in some cases still feeding young perched in the trees. Their chatter is unmistakable. All too soon, they will be gone for good. Off to South America for the winter season. Then I will have to figure out how to clean out those huge, smelly mud nests.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Summer 2018 on Sandy Point

By Beth Sullivan
Some things never change: the beauty and lure of a pristine island, calm water, clean sand and nature all at our back door.
Sandy Point Island is one of two islands owned by Avalonia Land Conservancy. South Dumpling is much farther off shore, not easily accessed and very rocky. The inner portions are densely vegetated and full of poison ivy. For that reason wildlife has been less disturbed and less oversight has been needed.
For generations Sandy Point Island has been much loved by local families and visitors alike. It is easily accessed by any kind of boat and the sandy shores are inviting to all: people and wildlife. Over the years we have reported on the efforts to preserve the wildlife on Sandy Point while still allowing people to enjoy the unique opportunity for passive recreation and nature observation. You can read more here. For the last two years the USFWS has been responsible for management on the island and each year, we get updates and reports on the success of the project. Visitors have been introduced to and educated about the management plans for the island. For the most part, those who understand are engaged and eager to assist with our conservation efforts. We thank you.
When visiting Sandy Point, take some time to read about the island and our conservation efforts.

A family group of oystercatchers doesn't seem to be intimidates by the flocks of gulls. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Migrating shorebirds like this ruddy turnstone rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food.

Home to many species

This year, preliminary reports are very encouraging about the number of American oystercatchers on the island. Approximately 16 pairs successfully nested and fledged young. We do not know the finally tally yet. These birds are so entertaining to watch and listen too, as they raise their young and noisily call to one another. This colony is considered one of the largest of these birds whose existence is threatened. Endangered piping plovers also arrived, some attempted nests, but between predators, people and storms, success may have been limited to one hatchling and it is uncertain if it survived to full fledging.
One species we can always count on, is the horseshoe crab. A group of us have been studying, counting and tagging these crabs since 2009. We have witnessed the steep decline in their numbers in just this short time period. Less than 10 years ago we could count 1000 crabs in one night, now we may get to 100, or so. Sacred Heart University’s Project Limulus, was unable to provide the large number of tags as in previous years, but in two separate visits, we were able to tag over 100 crabs and document returnees by their tag numbers from previous years. They too favor these beaches for mating and nesting. We have noticed some changes though. In earlier years, the populations were greatest along the north, calmer water side of the island. There they came farther up on shore and nested in areas that would be dry sand during low tide. It was also the area that sees more human disturbance and is often impacted by large mats of algae covering the shoreline. In recent years we have noticed a shift, and now they seem to be arriving on the southern shore down on the eastern tip. The surf is decidedly rougher, water cooler and cleaner, and they seem to burrow into the sand in deeper water for nesting. We wonder whether the nests ever dry out, whether the eggs develop successfully under water, or maybe if they are more protected from people and predators. I am not sure we will ever know really. But on a new moon night at the end of June, several of us were able to enjoy a motor boat ride out to the island and with tags, calipers, and headlamps we walked the beach, waded in deeper than we planned, and enjoyed participating in yet another year celebrating the return of the horseshoe crabs to Sandy Point.
Grey pearl-like horseshoe crab eggs are laid in shallow sand. 

Often the crabs emerge from the water to nest on the high tide line, but then they are more vulnerable to predators. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Team work allowed us to tag 50 crabs that night, document previously captured crabs, and pick up litter. Photograph by Rick Newton.

The south eastern shore of the island has a rougher surf, but he horseshoe crabs seem to prefer nesting in the deeper waters found there. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Still time to enjoy Sandy Point

There is still a month of high summer, and almost two months until the autumn equinox. There is still time to enjoy Sandy Point. The shorebird migration has begun. If you are very, very observant, you may actually be able to find the larval, miniature horseshoe crab young on the mudflats in shallow water. They are a necessary food source for the birds.
Summer life on Sandy Point continues. Some things change, somethings never do. If you go out to the island, please respect the guidelines and make it your choice to help us protect the creatures that also need the island for their own R&R.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.