Monday, August 19, 2019

Growing up in nature

By Beth Sullivan
This period of later-mid summer is really a great time to be a nature watcher, particularly of the younger generations. So many species had their young earlier in the season, and they are beginning to step out and explore a bit more. Like kids everywhere, their learning forays are often awkward and can be quite hilarious to observe. It is interesting to note the similarities and differences between species, including our own.
Baby rabbits are independent pretty early on, yet somehow know to find the tastiest morsels to nibble. 

Baby rabbits

This year I am over-run with rabbits, and I am quite sure they are not the cherished, protected, New England cottontails I spent so much effort on to protect on Avalonia’s Peck-Callahan Preserves. These common eastern cottontails are quite prolific but have never quite taken over my yard and garden as they have this year. My first discovery was that all the string beans I had in my garden were nibbled, and then gone. There is a fence around the garden that has always kept out larger rabbits, but these little ones seem to have an early talent for independent foraging and take advantage of their really small size to squeeze through the holes. They never seem to be with an adult rabbit. Besides, the parent wouldn’t fit. At first they seemed somewhat fearless, staying and nibbling as I approached, then scooting out when I got too close. Over time they began to tease my dog, sitting still to remain invisible. Then, with a flick of the ear, they would catch her attention, and wait until the very last moment as the poor dog gamely tried to get up some speed. She was never fast enough and I believe the torment is deliberate. How did that little rabbit learn so early, about string beans, fence holes, and the delicate timing it takes to torment an old dog and remain safe?
Raccoons on the other hand like to hang with their families. I think they learned as a gang, with parents teaching them how to open my metal can full of bird seed. My can has heavy pavers and bungee cords to hold on the cover. It takes a tribe to figure that out and accomplish the task. I have caught families on my deck, walking the rails, testing the seed feeders and learning how to guzzle the hummingbird nectar. You just know those kids are learning new tricks and loving every minute.
The young squirrels will sometimes come with siblings which is true fun. I believe the game of tag was invented by squirrels. But even solo, you can almost see the wheels turning as they try and figure out the best way to climb a pole, reach a feeder, or balance on a very small branch. They can be pretty clumsy, and watching them tumble into the bushes and rise out, sheepishly looking around, has made me laugh out loud many times. They never give up.
One evening we watched a doe come out carefully into the road. She was followed by her spotted fawn. In the middle of the road, the little one gave a quick jump and kick, apparently just for fun, then continued on its way past mom. I wonder what she was thinking.
Young raccoons always seem to be looking for some trouble to get into, and often do, as a gang. 

You can almost hear the gears turning as a squirrel tries to figure out the approach to a loaded bird feeder.

All legs and spots, fawns are often left alone, but show great playfulness when out and about with mom. Photograph by Rick Newton

And baby birds

This past week I have mostly enjoyed watching families of different birds approach the feeder outside my kitchen window.
The ones I have enjoyed most are the chickadees. A family of five has been coming to the same tree and feeder for over a week. The young ones remind me of inquisitive little monkeys, without the hands. They pick at everything. They explore the bark and lichen on the trees. They pick at leaves and try to catch bugs. They approach the feeder from every angle, and often times will be seen hanging upside-down from some part of a branch or feeder perch. One little one fit itself entirely into the hole of the hopper feeder, then emerged head first out a different hole. They are a bit impudent as they will fly at a much larger cardinal, for no apparent reason. The only bird I have seen stand up to a chickadee, is a titmouse. This family also comes in with a lot of energy and flits around all over the tree, at times diving down to the feeder to grab a seed or sometimes splashing around in the birdbath without a worry as to what other creature might be using it. A young squirrel was at the feeder when a titmouse dove in, frightening the squirrel into falling off the feeder he had just mastered.
The house wrens have had multiple broods in my birdhouse. They are unbelievably noisy when they are awaiting a parent with food. When the little ones exploded out of the house on the day they fledged, they scattered all over the yard and could be heard begging for food from all corners of the yard and seen popping up and down in the bushes. Busy parents!
Just for a moment compare all this wonderful energy and learning behavior to our own young ones. It is not all that different. Nature offers the best playground, and the best education, for all species.
Chickadees are acrobatic, nimble, and comical. Photograph by Rick Newton.

The titmice come in with attitudes and energy.

House wrens make a huge amount of noise as they present their big yellow gapes waiting to be filled. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Every young creature needs to spread its wings. The best place to do it is in nature.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Collaboration, Community, Construction

By Beth Sullivan
A few months ago, I wrote about the power of water and some of the damage one of our beautiful trails had endured due to flooding conditions over several months last winter and spring, found here
The Pequotsepos Brook Preserve is home to several beautiful stone bridges which cross the brook. The bridges have been in existence for generations as old solid farm trail crossings. They are on the yellow blazed side paths off the main purple/yellow marked trail that runs from West Marine at Coogan Boulevard down to Mistuxet Avenue. Avalonia preserves the center part of this complex with a main access stairway and bridge off Maritime drive. The southern portion is Denison Society land.
The Connecticut College group got the effort started.

The Trails Team divided duties. This group used equipment to move bigger rocks into place.

A popular preserve

The preserve is well used by a wide variety of people: tourists staying nearby and visiting Old Mystic Village, and employees and families affiliated with Pendleton Health Care. Groups from the Aquarium hike through and monitor the wetlands for amphibians, and residents from the Stone Ridge community access the trails right from their back doors. When the main stone bridge trail became badly flooded, the power of the water over-washed and removed soil, plants, and small rocks. What remained were roots that were easy to trip on, and the huge old stones from the bridge itself. Footing was hazardous.
So we hatched a plan and got proper approvals and began a collaboration to get the job done. First, we were able to determine that there were plenty of rocks available from the quarry on site. Pretty lucky to have that resource. At the end of April, the students from the Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment at Connecticut College, had a work party and managed to haul several cart loads of rocks from the quarry to the work site. It was not an easy task as it was quite a distance, over muddy areas, narrow passages, and a couple of wooden bridges.
Next step: we needed bigger rocks to anchor the trail and break the forces of the water as it washed downstream. Avalonia’s new Trail Team leader Neil Duncan came out to evaluate with another volunteer who has a small tractor. They tagged a few good rocks, and on a hot sticky Saturday, about six members of the team and a few other volunteers showed up to place many of the smaller rocks and help position the bigger ones once the machine was able to extract them . Having the right equipment and many hands makes all the difference. By the end of several hours, we had a good portion of the washed-out area filled with rocks, stable enough to walk on, several larger rocks to serve as step stones and water breaks, and one flat tire. Seems no good deed goes left unpunished. We couldn’t do any more big rocks. Though we got a lot done, there was a lot more to do.
By hand the team placed the rocks to be as even as possible for stability.

More rocks moved and unloaded.

This group placed the smaller rocks to create a more solid trail base.

Pine Point School joins in

Enter Pine Point School and teacher Jon Mitchell who is Director of Social and Environmental Responsibility there. He was working with a dedicated group of teens in a summer program involving hiking and trail work. In an effort to help them really understand what it takes to maintain a trail system or do repairs, Jon contacted Avalonia to request some stewardship projects that would have a positive impact on the greater community. Jon himself was part of the earlier trails team effort on the Pequotsepos site, so he knew what our goals were and what the challenges were. On yet another hot sticky and rainy summer day, Jon and his team of teens added their energies to the project. They hauled more loads of rock from the quarry, and with patience of those who do jigsaw puzzles, they pieced and placed the rocks into a more solid trail base. They walked the walk to test for stability too.

The following day the remnants of Hurricane Barry dumped inches of rain on our area. It was torrential. I just had to go check on the trail work. Before I got to the bridge, I could hear the low roar of the rushing water. As I rounded the corner I could see that there was flooding upstream. The water was as high as the stones in the bridge. The overflow piled up and washed across the trail-but not over it, through it. The rocks stayed in place and allowed the flooding water to run through the porous layer and exit the other side, without washing away. It worked!

This is a great example of how community collaboration works. We are an organization of somewhat graying stewards, but with our experience and ideas, and ability to engage with students of all ages, we can get work done. We can teach the next generations of conservationists how important our work is and let them know how much we value their input and effort. Our Preserves will be in good hands when this next generation steps up.

Thank you to all who helped with this effort. I am sure all our hikers will be grateful.
A job well done.

As the water rose after the storms, it flowed through the rocks and didn't wash away the trail.

Photographs by Jon Mitchell, Phil Sheffield, and Beth Sullivan.