Monday, April 29, 2019

Walking in the wet woods

By Beth Sullivan
It is spring, and we all know about April showers…but these downpours! They are making life a little difficult for some of us, but excellent for others. The drought is over; the water table is high; amphibians are very happy.
Some projects need to be delayed due to high water and very muddy conditions. The Hoffman Forest restoration project is still on hold until conditions can dry out more. Mud is terrible on heavy machinery. There are plans to do trail work and bridge repair on several preserves. Our second work party on Pequotsepos Brook was delayed, due to more down pours and flooding. Paffard Woods trails are also due for maintenance and bridge rebuilding, but with water so high it is nearly impossible. However, a walk in the spring wet woods is quite wonderful. So we put aside the projects and just enjoy the season as it is.
Avalonia preserves many beautiful wetlands which are productive and critical habitats. Many protect drinking water supplies. Wetlands also protect numerous species of special concern. In the not too distant past, wetlands were allowed to be filled and developed. Now they are protected and cherished.
Skunk cabbage flowers have been siting inconspicuously for months

Some projects need to wait for the water to subside.

In Paffard Woods

On a recent walk through Paffard Woods, we had time to enjoy this lovely area with rocks and ridges and a central beautiful brook. Generations ago the brook was named Stony Brook and the water flowed freely from farther north in town, all the way to Quanaduck Cove and into the Stonington Harbor. We have some old maps that show the passage of the waters. Then a dam was built to create what is known as Sylvia’s Pond. The main flow over the dam took a more westward route, and kept the name Stony Brook. It ultimately ends up in Stonington Harbor too, but in a different area. A smaller outflow follows the old stream bed and is mostly referred to as Sylvia’s Pond Brook. This is the lovely waterway flowing through Paffard Woods Preserve.
The wetlands in here are pretty typical for this area. They green up earliest in the spring. For months the skunk cabbage flowers have been inconspicuously present close to the ground. Those of us who know and love the plant, search for it every early spring. Now the flowers are dwarfed by their very conspicuous big green leaves that spread throughout the wetlands. Alongside them are the false hellebore plants, looking a bit like short corn stalks. Later, those that are in sunnier areas will have interesting flowers. My favorites are the marsh marigolds, or cowslips, that are glowing bright yellow right now. Along-side them are lovely and delicate purple violets. Mother Nature knew about complementary colors putting those two together.
We are also very excited to see several large areas covered with the speckled leaves of the trout lily, also called dog-toothed violet. These are very ephemeral wildflowers, their bloom doesn’t last long, and even their leaves die back after a few months. These and many other woodland wildflowers take advantage of the open canopy to enjoy the sunshine before the trees themselves leaf out. Spicebush is a shrub that is also taking advantage of the early spring sun, to create a lacey haze of soft yellow flowers at a higher level off the ground.
In this old map, Stony Brook runs its original course, before Sylvia's Pond was created. (Map of unknown providence.)

The best spring combination- marsh marigolds, purple violets, and big green skunk cabbage leaves.

Early Invasives

The only sobering fact about observing these woodlands now, is that it is obvious that the invasive plants are the very first to leaf out, green up and take over. It is their successful strategy for bullying their way to take over space in an area. Here in Paffard woods, the greenery now is deceiving. Much of the mass of delicate foliage is actually invasive Japanese Barberry. This plant is terrible: impossible to walk through, impossible to manage, and a known habitat for ticks.
Enjoy a walk along a trail in the wild, wet woodlands. Look for the delicate flowers; look for the hardy ones too. But stay out of the barberry. As we have all heard before: please take only photos and do not pick the flowers. That’s what a conservation mission is all about: the next generation of people and flowers.
The fleeting beauty of a trout lily.

Vernal wetlands are filled, and the yellow haze is created by the spicebush in bloom.

All the green in this photo is foliage of Japanese Barberry.

False Hellebore flowers are often overlooked but are quite pretty.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The power of water

By Beth Sullivan
Many of Avalonia’s trails are on properties that have some significant history. In so many areas we encounter huge oak trees, old stone walls, fence posts, and cart paths, all clues about the history of the land.
A stone span crosses the brook in a quieter season.

The brook in flood.

Historical preserve

Our Pequotsepos Brook Preserve is one of those. We have had several research projects done on the property that help explain the history of the land in that area. Some of this information is on our website for easy reading here.
The center of interest on this preserve, and in its history, is the Pequotsepos Brook that has its origins up the Quoquetaug Hill where waters emerge and gently flow downhill until they merge more completely at Jerry Browne Road and Coogan Boulevard. Of course those roads were not present generations ago. But Jerry Browne Road may have been a roadway considering some of the older homes and farms along the lane.
Through the course of history, the brook needed to be crossed for farm or commerce, and in these areas bridges were made by positioning huge flat stones over the stream bed, allowing the water to flow freely and allowing easy, dry passage. The stone bridges are in existence today, and the old paths remain as the basis for several pathways collectively referred to as the Stone Bridges Trail. The entire trail system contains three brook crossings over stone bridges and offers views of several other beautiful stone spans .
We have to assume that there have been big rain storms over the last century that these bridges were in existence. We know there have been hurricanes and other destructive storms, but through it all the paths and bridges remained intact.
Until recently. Is it a sign of the changing climate that the weather has been wetter or that the storms in the last months have been more intense rain events? Maybe it is because of increased development upstream where the landscape has lost its vegetative cover which used to slow the rain and absorb the water slowly and gently. Whatever is the cause, the intense rain storms have caused serious flooding along the brook and in one area in particular, have caused serious erosion of the trail. One of the most beautiful and exposed of the stone bridges has now had the trail on either end of it washed away. Left behind are exposed tree roots and only the largest of the rocks. The power of the water washed away soil, gravel and smaller rocks. The footing is tricky. We need to repair it and the challenge is bigger than I can manage.
Near the quarry rocks are exposed and creations have been built.

Old trees, stone walls, and fence posts hint of the history in this preserve.

These huge stones were placed to cross the brook and allow the water to flow easily. 

Trails Team goes to work

Enter the Avalonia Trails Team and some hard working Connecticut College Students. We had the area properly reviewed by our wetland commission chairperson to make sure we could work in the area. Then the Trails Team leader came in to assess, and together with others, we tossed around some ideas. We don’t want to cover up the old stones with a wooden bridge, but we need to stabilize the footing and still allow the water to flow through in flood situations.
There is also an old quarry on the property with an abundance of rocks available in all sizes, and many with lovely flat surfaces. That is another piece of interesting history. The challenge was transporting rocks from one place, to another via a very bumpy, uneven, and often muddy path. On Saturday April 13, ten students from the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College arrived to experience a day of real stewardship. Of course it had been raining hard the night before, and the brook itself was once again in raging flood stage. In a move referred to as adaptive management, we changed plans. We approached from another entrance, and for several hours the students moved rocks-lots of rocks. Down a long and muddy path. Delivered to the site now, they await the next stage. The Trails Team will work on the next phase: wrangling some of the bigger rocks out of the quarry and down to the main path to use as stabilizers and step stones.
This whole process is likely to take more than just a couple more work parties. In the end, we hope to have a stabilized trail for walking, as well as a way to allow flood waters to flow around or through it without washing it away each time it rains hard.
If you have an interest in history, if you enjoy team work and want to make a difference to preserving the trail (or others) and maintaining a lovely area for many, many hikers, give us a call. The Avalonia website describes the Trails Team and we can get you in touch with the leader.
Those giant bridge stones remained intact, but the surrounding area needs a hand. Let us know if you can offer one. At the very least, come out sometime and enjoy the trails and consider the history.
It was a team effort to load and haul the rocks.

The team from Connecticut College after several hours of rock moving.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Spring Cleaning can be a pleasure

By Beth Sullivan
We all hope that we have truly seen the last of the snow. The weather remains fickle, but it doesn’t stop us from getting out and ramping up stewardship efforts. It is a good time of year to work outside. It is a time to notice things. Whether you are hiking or doing yard work or helping with a stewardship project, the tasks are always more enjoyable because of the new sights and sounds that pop up around us every day now. As you get out to hike on the preserves, enjoy these wonderful sensory treats.
A red winged blackbird stakes a claim at Paffard Marsh. Photograph by Dan Hall.

Ticking off my firsts

Red-winged blackbirds are fully vocal now and setting up territories near wetlands. They also will show up at birdfeeders and if you watch them, you will witness the flaring of their red shoulder patches when confronted by rival males, or an attractive female.
The nights are still filled with the chorus of peepers but the wood frogs are slowing down. Mission accomplished.
The Phoebes are looking for nest sites and calling their name. There are plenty of flying insects around now to sustain them, at least as long as the weather stays warm enough for insects.
In just the last days, I have reports of the first purple martins showing up at local colonies where the housing has been set up in peoples’ home yards. Because ours is out on Knox Preserve, and I can’t keep a close eye on it every day, I will hold off setting it up for a while to wait for a bigger wave of martins as they arrive and hope to dissuade the invasive house sparrows. The next month will bring the flood of migrants here for nesting or resting on their way further north.
Some of the spring ephemeral wildflowers are blooming, if you know where to look. Please do not pick them.
The warmer weather has also brought out ticks. After the wet winter and spring, we are being told to beware. Please take precautions while you are out in the woods and grassy areas.
The spring woodlands are still open and becoming delicately colored now.

To protect ground-nesting birds and small mammals, please refrain from walking into fields.

Some things to think about

As we get into late April, many species of birds and mammals will begin nesting in fields and shrubs. It will be time to exert good judgment and to refrain from walking through our field preserves. Please use only the trails that allow easier and better travel - better for you and for wildlife. This is especially the time to keep dogs on leash and under control. Loose dogs will frighten, threaten, and even kill vulnerable young animals and birds. They can cause adults to abandon their young or nest. Loose dogs in vernal ponds and in streams can destroy egg masses of Amphibians.
We have also our stewardship efforts: maintenance, clean up on trails, and walks to check for winter damage. If you spot a problem, please call the office. If you can help with a work party or want to work on your own, contact the office or sign up on line. You will be directed to a steward in your town or the trails team leader for advice and guidance. There are other things to be done as well, for example, our many signs can be freshened up with new coats of paint. If you have time, grab a garbage bag, don some gloves, and pick up some roadside eyesores to help anywhere you can.
Every little bit helps, whether it is an active act of stewardship or just walking the preserves with an open eye and understanding why they are preserves.
Enjoy the coming spring!
Loose dogs can disturb nesting creatures in brush piles, fields, and vernal pools.

Well camouflaged, the wood frog in this vernal pool was one of many chorusing earlier this spring.

Roadside litter along our preserve frontages is a never-ending issue.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Spring is for children of all ages

By Beth Sullivan
We all have different ways of recognizing spring. Some look at the date on the calendar, but many of us have our own personal spring triggers. We wait for the sound of peepers or wood frogs; we wait until we feel the warmth of the sun. We enjoy the longer days and time to enjoy sunlight at the end of the workday. We wait for the red blossoms on the swamp maples, the first pussy-willows or snowdrops. We look for the first robin or osprey or phoebe. We wait to lose the heavy coats and restrictive layers.
Exploring at night is all the more exciting. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Let her have an independent venture into the water.

Go outside

But the general theme here is that we are all just bursting to get outside! Lose the coats, get rid of snow boots but dress for mud and fickle weather. The only way to find those flowers or birds and hear those frogs is to GET OUT!
We all know that we just feel so much better when we can get the sun on our faces, stretch the muscles and reacquaint ourselves with the sights and sounds of the Earth. We feel rejuvenated, energized and truly happier. But did you know that there are a number of actual academic studies that have been published that prove these “gut feelings” are actual scientifically-based effects of the exposure to nature.
There are objectively measured effects from the better quality air outdoors, compared to the sealed up classrooms and homes of winter. Too much carbon dioxide can make you sleepy and even stunt mental functions. You can read about it here.  Open a window, or better still, get outside where the air is cleaner and more oxygenated and you immediately feel better. Sadly though, there are those with seasonal allergies and this may not always hold true for you.
Then there is sunlight itself, essential for life, photosynthesis, respiration and warmth. Sunlight is the best way for our bodies to create Vitamin D which is essential for the health of our bones. It is a known mood lifter, bio-rhythm regulator, and even if you just sit still in a warm sunny spot outside, you are benefiting. But who sits still when there are all the new spring things to explore? So now we add exercise and cardio into the outdoor equation.
Those of us who were lucky to have had early exposure to open space, water and dirt had the best education of all. We learned so much from our experiences outdoors. We were usually happier outside than in. We ran, we hid, we dammed up little brooks and caught frogs. We learned botany, biology, math and physics. We were content and usually that translated into better appetites, better focus on studies, better sleep at night.
It's never too early to start exploring.

Poking into a pool can be a bit daunting. Using a stick is okay. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Even alone, go outside

Interestingly, not all outside play has to be social. Some of the very best lessons can be learned alone. Learning about yourself and your place in the world, and how to be happy without a big group of friends and gadgets, is probably the best life lesson of all.
You don’t need all the scientific data to make you know how wonderful it is to be outside now. But there's one more study here.
As “my generation” grows up a bit, it is time to make sure the next generations have the same opportunities to learn and explore and be healthy and happy. We may be blessed to even influence the next generation after that. I feel we owe it to them to try and give them the best of our world even when, sadly, we are leaving it dirtier and more broken than when we were kids.
Most of us have children in our lives in some connection. Think of what you can share with a child: your experiences and wisdom and joy in the outdoors. Teach them to listen and smell and enjoy touching even those things deemed “gross” or “dirty”. They will survive. They will thrive. They will be happier and so will you.
Being alone increases self reliance and creativity.

You can learn plenty by joining a kid on an adventure.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The next generation

By Beth Sullivan
Once again we are excited to have the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment (GNCE) teaming up with Avalonia. We had our introductory meeting in early February. The students were well prepared as they have the new and improved website for reference. Archives, news stories, preserve descriptions, and management plans are all easily found online now. The first students, in 2013, didn’t have that resource. This group also has the benefit of upper class students who have done projects with Avalonia in previous years, to guide and answer questions. That is a huge help to me as their mentor and connection to Avalonia.
This year the second semester sophomore students are already deeply entrenched in their chosen projects. Despite the fact that everyone wishes for opportunities to get out onto preserves and do stewardship work, this time of year is so impossible. You can’t do plant or wildlife surveys in mid-winter. You can’t do much with invasive removal or native plantings. It’s even hard to plan a good work party as we have had snow on the ground every March for the last couple of years. This year the teams are dedicated to outreach and education.
The map of the Tri-town Ridgeline Forest Preserve is complex, but the students will break it into easy family hikes. 

At the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest, there are a number of fun artifacts and formations to seek out.

Student teams - hard at work

One team is working with our Communications Committee to enhance our Instagram presence. They are seeking photos and doing postings for us. I have also requested that they write a blog piece that explains some of the finer points of Instagram posting, for those of us who are still not sure when to use # or @.
Another duo has chosen a project that may not seem exciting, buty is also very important: it’s about scanning documents. These documents are old newspaper articles about Avalonia from as far back as 1968. They have been kept in folders, the way old news clippings always were, but no one ever sees them. This team is taking the time to scan these articles of our history and have them as digital files, labeled and sorted, so we can have them on line for all to enjoy. It will also ensure that they are saved and not in danger from some kind of natural disaster, flood, or fire. Their work will really save us a lot of time and money. I hope they are enjoying reading through some of them, and I look forward to their final report to hear if they found anything really interesting.
One team of four students is getting out onto the new Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest Preserve. While miles of trails have already been laid out, these students are looking at easy-to-moderate trail loops that can be incorporated into the Hike and Seek program. They are out with cameras looking for targets that can be found even at this time of year. There are plenty of stone structures, water features and amazing old trees up there. The trail map is already posted on line.
This group was also planning to set up a table at the Stonington Farmer’s Market on March 30th and again on April 6. They will be available to answer questions, talk about Hike and Seek, and invite folks to become members. Stop in and meet them.
The last team is also working on enhancing our on-line resources, particularly the Hike and Seek wildlife links. If you haven’t explored Hike and Seek, please do so. We are trying to engage children and families to get out on Avalonia preserves with an educational focus. By giving them targets to search for on our website, they can use their smart phones and look for special goals and take photos. We have linked certain targets to external links to allow deeper investigation and understanding. This student team is creating cards that highlight the wildlife of all kinds, to be found on local preserves. It will not be all-inclusive, so don’t expect full bird check lists, but an overview of things that may be living near or found along a hiking trail in various habitats. I am looking forward to this one.
The bird list will not be a full checklist, but a way for kids to identify more common birds, like this red-winged blackbird.

With wildlife identification cards a youngster may recognize a red fox during a hike. Photograph by Rick Newton.

For several years, a favorite project has been a table set up at the Stonington Farmer's Market.

Maybe we can all learn more about posting our Avalonia photos on Instagram from one of the teams. 

As diverse as can be

These students are amazing, so diverse in their backgrounds and in their major fields of interest. All have chosen, and been chosen, to be part of this GNCE special program. Their majors include Neuroscience, Economics, Botany, Math, and Government, as well as Environmental Science. Their far-reaching visions are great and their opportunities for study so outstandingly different than when I was in college. This is our seventh year of collaboration. With this generation coming along to take charge, I have hope that the Earth will be in good hands.
The may be some riddles to seek and solve- like what made these scratches on the signs we posted.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.