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.

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