Monday, March 25, 2019

By Beth Sullivan
Phenology…a word I have heard on multiple occasions in the last week. A word I pretty much knew the definition of, or the idea of, even more or less wrote about a few weeks back. But I decided to look it up to double check why it seemed to be a buzz word recently.
Phenology-noun: The science dealing with the influence of climate on the recurrence of such annual phenomena of animal and plant life such as budding and bird migrations.
We await the first Osprey in Mid-March.

Those of us who are nature watchers know the concept well, even let the word flow off our tongues frequently. We have kept journals and logs over years and decades, marking the cycle of seasons and annual “firsts” (Thoreau, Leopold and Teale did too). Over the last years of writing this blog, I have noted first occurrences of some of my favorites: “Return of the Osprey,” “The First Tree Swallow,” “First Purple Martins to return to Their Gourd Houses.” We wait for the Skunk cabbage to show itself from beneath the snow. We wait for the first warm rainy night when the salamanders and wood frogs leave their wintering spots and move to vernal ponds for egg laying. We eagerly listen for the first spring Peepers. I wait for the chipmunk in my stone wall.
Spring Peepers wait for the ice to melt and will call on warmer nights

It's not just the length of day

Many of these events are regulated by day length. Birds usually begin their Northward migration based on the length of the day, not necessarily the temperature. They do not know what the conditions are up North. Amphibians, deep in the ground, are stirred by temperature. Warming air temperatures translate to warming soil, and melting ice and stimulates them to move. The warming of the soil also dictates plant growth from seeds or dormant roots. Air temps as well as day light will determine tree budding and sap flow.
Populations of Canada Geese head north based on day length

This year we are all feeling a bit askew…whether or not we realize, it is phenology at work. The very cold, very late spring has everything off kilter. Ice is not off the waterways, and returning osprey need to fish. Overwintering water fowl are starving as the ice covers the shallow water, and they cannot graze on plants on the bottom. Sap flows are late, most insects are not emerging yet, and birds returning will not find food. We all know the Robins can’t find their March worms yet. If insects do emerge with the warmth, the blossoms are not yet present for them to feed on. Will the pollinators they need be out of sync when the flowers do open?
Persistent ice has starved many dabbling ducks

Those spring ephemeral wildflowers that should be well up by now are still dormant. Will their season be cut short? Will they be able to set seed in time? Will hibernating mammals respond to day length or warming before they emerge, and will there be plants readily available as food sources if the snow has not melted?
In warmer years, Blood Root could have been in bloom now

Think of how cold the water of Long Island Sound has been. We know it will affect our weather along the shore, but how will it affect the migration of fish and horseshoe crabs?

Temperature matters too

It is a delicately balanced web, and the seasonal cycles of temperature and light play a critical part of the balance.
It's a lot to think about. All we can do is continue to make our journal entries of our observations and wait and see what comes next. That is Phenology.
My Chipmunk made an appearance while snow was covering the walls

 Spotted Salamander 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
This post originally  appeared on March 30, 2015.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Water, Water, Everywhere

By Beth Sullivan
It is official. What we all knew from observations, this has been the wettest winter on record. While I am truly glad we didn’t get all 9+inches of rain as snow this season, the water is challenging in many ways. Trails are wet or washed out. Work is delayed. But it is not all bad.
Overall, I think this will be a great spring for amphibians. All the vernal pools and transient wetlands are completely filled. The water table is high. With an upcoming spell of warming weather, we might actually experience a few tentative movements of early amphibians as they break hibernation and head toward these inviting waterways. Keep an eye open on a warm, rainy evening in the next several weeks. I heard wood-frogs and a peeper March 15.
I grew up with my shoes off and feet in the water as early as possible. I have a very early memory of catching a small turtle, newly out of hibernation, on an Easter Sunday morning. Needless to say I wasn’t dressed appropriately for wading. It remains one of my favorite memories.
We did get into the woods this week, inspecting an area where we need to remove an old bridge. Not only is it becoming unstable, it is also blocking the flow of the little stream it crosses. Last year there were spotted salamander eggs in there, so we want to do this as soon as possible so as not to disturb the process in a few weeks. I was quite surprised and upset to see a really large, bright green algae bloom throughout several of the pools. It seems too early for such growth. This area is not truly close to homes, but it is apparent that there is some nutrient getting into the ground water and supporting this growth. If it expands too much, or thickens up in the water, it may be impossible to support the amphibians intending to lay eggs there.
Natural wetlands along waterways filter runoff and pollutants

Early algae blooms are a sign of too much nitrogen in water from runoff or even in ground water.

The flooding waters have had some serious consequences.

Impaired waterway

We have to be aware of how our presence in one place, may have a big impact farther down stream, literally. For the last several years, Wequetequock Cove, in Stonington has been listed as an impaired waterway. Its prime source of water comes from the Anguilla Brook, which has its headwaters just over the line in North Stonington, and travels through Stonington to its outflow by Greenhaven Road. Those of us who live in town know how the cove looks during the summer, with huge mats of foul algae choking the cove. There may be no one specific cause, but rather a combination of them.
The Eastern CT Conservation District group (ECCD) is planning a study of the Anguilla Brook watershed to help determine the sources of pollution. They are teaming up with other local organizations, including Clean Up Sound and Harbor (CUSH), Save the Bay, and CT Sea Grant, as well as engaging educators and land owners including Avalonia Land Conservancy that owns and protects many properties along the waterway. Through this spring, teams will sample water at a number of places from headwaters to outflow, to try and pinpoint pollution sources. Along with this effort, a group is beginning to organize a clean-up at several sites along the brook. Maybe there will be answers, and maybe in a few years, there will be a turnaround in the water quality of the beautiful cove.
Aerial photograph of Wequetequock Cove. Area labeled Crowley is now preserved by Avalonia. DEEP Photo.

The headwaters of Anguilla Brook emerge from a lovely wetland near the North Stonington border.
Anguilla Brook runs through Stonington, and with an old dam removed here, it flows freely through a newly created wet meadow.

Some good news

On another front, there is good news: a bill has made it through Congress and has been signed into law, declaring the Wood /Pawcatuck River complex as “Wild and Scenic” . This designation is a testament to a lot of hard work over the years to remove dams, clean up polluted sites, and a lot of dedication by the people who love the river, on both sides of the border.
It is a time of water. Be careful on trails where water may have washed away footings or where rocks may be slippery. Please enjoy the running streams and the quiet pools. Take time to look closely. The wetlands are where spring really begins.
Vernal pools will soon teem with amphibians.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Spring, please come back

By Beth Sullivan
While winter continues to keep its icy grip, we are all altering our efforts, activities and energies to make the best of things.
To be positive, the sun really is getting warmer. As it rises higher in the sky, days are surely lengthening, and the Vernal Equinox looms. Day light and day length trigger so much of life in spring.
Under the snow, the woodland ephemeral wildflowers may be delayed because of snow cover, but they have been protected from the severe cold and the destructive cycles of freeze and thaw. As the snow cover diminishes, light can actually penetrate to the ground and begin to trigger changes. They will be ready when conditions are right!

Early crocus provide nectar for emerging insects.

On the other hand, it is temperature that will cue the sap flow in many trees, most famously the Sugar Maples. Syrup-makers are having a hard time this year because it takes several days of thawing temperatures to trigger the sap rise. We have not had that yet.
The higher temperatures also bring certain insects out of hibernation. These are specialists, not only adapted to somewhat colder weather, but also adapted to food sources that are available during a thaw: sap itself.
Sapsuckers drill rows of holes to allow seeping sap to attract insects.

Winter Firefly

Last week, on a day that was well below freezing we discovered a Firefly sitting on a sunny snow bank next to the base of a tree. To the touch, the tree bark was actually warm as it absorbed the sun's heat. I sent the photo to a friend of Avalonia who has conducted insect surveys on Perry Natural area. The beast in question actually was a Winter Firefly (Ellychnia corrusca), a “diurnal, non luminous” species. So we found a firefly, active by day, on a frigid snow bank. It did not have the ability to blink and shine as our summer favorites do. But what to eat? Sap.
Winter Firefly on the snow.

As the sap rises, other insects will find their way to the nutritive liquid. Mourning Cloak Butterflies will do so as well. Watch the trees where branches have broken over the winter and look for dripping liquid. It will attract insects, which will then attract birds. Sapsuckers drill holes in trees to get the sap to flow and attract insects that they can then eat.
Mourning Cloaks will look for sap drips on leaves.

The journey north

Many of our migratory species of birds will begin their northward journey based not on warmth, but on day length. Most of these are insect eaters. Tree Swallows and Phoebes are some of the first to head north. It will be a terrible situation if the snow pack continues so deeply, keeping everything so cold and plantless, and insects not emerging to provide the food they need. Trees that blossom based on warmth will be delayed as well, and the nectar they contain will not be available for insects or returning birds.
Orioles arrive early, and if there are few flowers with nectar, they will use humming bird feeders instead.

It is really amazing to pay attention to the seasonal cycles and to understand the interconnectedness of species -plants, insects, birds, animals - and how changes in climate, warmer or colder than usual in a particular area, can be really disruptive to the health of the entire cycle. Mother Nature will continue despite these bumps in the road. Species will adapt and survive or they will diminish…for a year, for a decade, or maybe for a lot longer.
Hummingbirds will not arrive until there is a greater certainty of abundant nectar. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
This post originally appeared March 9, 2015.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Planning with Natives: a Snowy Day Tonic

By Beth Sullivan
As we sit and await yet another snow event, I can’t help but wonder if the groundhogs were wrong. The best antidote to a snowy day is a trip to the mailbox to discover some seed or plant catalog full of colorful and enticing entries, bound to warm one’s soul, and warm up the credit card.
A while ago I began to switch my own gardening choices to more native plants. Not always, but more often now than when I first began to beautify the barren landscape we found when we first moved here. My yard and gardens are pretty full, and now I am looking to downsize a little, make things easier. However, I have become involved with landscape restoration on larger scales for Avalonia. We have had a number of projects over the last many years, where we were often getting rid of invasives and then re-planting.
Choose local native flowers for their amazing colors.

Native plants can truly be more beautiful than a cultivated garden.

Clearing out invasives

At Dodge Paddock, the effort is ongoing. After the Phragmites were mostly eradicated ( they are so persistent), we replanted much of the areas with plugs and seeds of native Spartina marsh grasses. In just a few seasons, those grasses have behaved like they are supposed to in their home habitat: they have grown and spread and colonized all the appropriate areas, re-creating a normal and more healthy salt marsh. In doing so, it is attracting far more wildlife, of all kinds, to the area. We were told that Mother Nature would accomplish this on her own, but with funding and energy, it sure was gratifying to give her a hand and a head start.
At the Knox Preserve, we cleared out the southeast corner that was a tangle of an entirely non-native, invasive mess. Granted, it served as some habitat for animals and birds, but the quality was not there. It has been proven that a bird may be very happy eating a berry of a non-native or ornamental plant, but the quality nutrients are not nearly the same. This can pose a real problem when birds expend a lot of energy foraging and not getting the nutrients and calories they need. It is much the same with bees and pollinators. They may be less attracted to non-native flowers and therefore need to fly farther and longer to find their food sources. If they choose to indulge in a non-native nectar source, it may suffice in the short term, but once again, the quality of the nutrients is not the same.
Birds, bees and native plants evolved together. They rely on Nature’s time clock to hatch and feed young and find food according to the stimuli of the seasons-temperature and daylight hours. Non-native plants do not always follow the same timetables.
At Dodge Paddock native marsh plants have established diversity and wildlife flourishes. 

Native viburnum berries are for more nutritious for birds. 

Pollinators survive better when native plants abound.

A true native environment

We are beginning to plan for the Hoffman Evergreen Preserve project. We know that once the heavy work is completed, there will be areas in need of restoration. We also know we will need to give Nature a hand again. Leaving areas open to sun after disturbance is a big open-arm welcome for invasive plants to establish. They are always the bullies of the plant world and will out-compete the natives in every aspect. We need to fill that void quickly. Already we are looking at our options: native grasses, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees that we can use to replace and restore what has been removed. It is essential that we find true native resources to do so. In a home garden or a smaller landscape garden, it is OK to use occasional ornamental plant. There are also many wonderful native plants that have been developed by plants-people, to be more floriferous or often prettier than the true natives. These are called cultivars and often have names following the species in the label. These are good choices for the home gardener working on establishing basic native gardens, but even these pose problems when it comes to longer term stability in a larger landscape. For Hoffman, we are looking for true natives, the kinds that have grown here always. They will be pollinated by native pollinators and their seeds will be true to their species. It will be the first steps to restoring a forest that will last for generations.
So on a snowy day, I am not only looking at seed catalogs of luscious vegetables and amazing flowers. I am learning more about our own native plants, trying to find where they can be purchased, and think ahead to a bigger garden landscape. A whole forest.
Take a walk on the real wild side. Plan your gardens with natives.
Porcelain berries may be beautiful, but they are not a valuable food source for birds.
Porcelain berry vines invade and smother whatever is in their way.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.
You can find out more about native plants and pollinators at these websites: