Monday, October 21, 2019

Fall Stewardship Decisions

By Beth Sullivan
Like any gardener, this time of year is when we, as stewards, size up the season, evaluate successes, challenges, and set priorities for what needs to be done before winter sets in. As usual, there are never enough people or hours to accomplish everything: Boundary surveys, trail maintenance, structure repair, and invasive management.
With recent wind events, we are faced with downed trees, blocked trails and damage. We need assess each situation, to set priorities, and do the best we can.
Deciding about what to do with our fields is also a challenge at this time of year. Maintenance of meadow habitat is probably the most labor intensive and costly stewardship need. In many cases we rely on the goodness of volunteers otherwise known as friends of Avalonia to mow for us. In other cases, we contract with local farmers who have the tractor and equipment to get around the old farm fields for us. But it is the strategy behind the timing of the mowing that is variable.
After recent wind events, we are cleaning up before winter storms occur.

We want grassy clumps like this one around to provide hiding places.

Different fields mowed at different times

A traditional farm field is mowed several times a season for hay. Frequent mowing like this encourages lush grass growth and deters the woody growth of other plants. However, mowing early or mid season is devastating for wildlife. The first and second cuttings of hay disrupt small mammals, rabbits in particular. Also, deer will bring their fawns to a field to hide for a day and they are often victims of the mower. Nesting birds require a longer season of grass for coverage, too. Many are ground nesters and arrive in the area in mid-April and are not done nesting until mid-August. That is not good if you need to make hay while the sun shines. In general, Avalonia does not mow any fields for hay crops.
Mowing in early September allows the animals to mature and leave their nests. But later summer and early fall is prime time for the field flowers and prime time for pollinators as well. Visit any field in September and October and it is awash with color and alive with all manner of insect life: Grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, and hundreds of bee and wasp species. Spiders abound. The skies above the field are filled with dragonflies feasting and then the birds take advantage of it all as well.
Mowing early fall also stops the spread of unwanted invasive plants like swallowwort, porcelain berry by mowing them down before they can produce mature seeds. A fall mowing also keeps woody invasives, like autumn olive, under control as well.
Mowing in November and December gives wildlife a chance to move out of their nesting areas, and most flowers have been killed back by hard frosts. There are plenty of seeds available. But cutting at this time may destroy praying mantis egg cases, wasp galls, and cocoons that may be attached to woody stems. Cutting in the very late fall will remove cover for overwintering small mammals and may even disturb those that have already begun to hibernate. Mice and other rodents are exposed as they scurry though the fields gathering seeds for winter. It leaves them wide open to predators like foxes and hawks. Good for predators, bad for prey.
If we leave the mowing until spring, we maintain the protective cover for mammals, do not destroy egg cases and cocoons, and leave seeds on stalks for birds to find. But spring weather can be wet and muddy, farmers have other chores to do, fields to till, gardens to plow. Invasive seeds have spread and spring green growth begins early.
Fields like this one at Wequetequock Cove have been mowed for hay for many years. Now are maintained for wildlife. 

Cutting early will prevent invasive porcelainberry from spreading its seeds.

Mowing early promotes grasses.

Leaving the mowing until later allows late summer flowers to bloom and attract pollinators.

If allowed to go uncut, the fields at Knox Preserve will go to seed with many plants, especially goldenrod, and provide food and cover all winter.

What is a steward to do?

The answer is a little of everything. We make the best decisions we can, based on science, biology and observation. Some fields are mowed in August to promote grass, some in September/October, some will be mowed when the ground freezes and others will be left up all winter. Take time to walk several fields and see what you observe in each. And, we are ever grateful for those who drive tractors and walk behind mowers to get the job done, whenever it gets done.
We want to encourage Milkweed to spread.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Makeover at Paffard Woods

By Beth Sullivan
The lovely Paffard Woods p off the west side of North Main Street is the first land Avalonia acquired with a big fundraising campaign. That road is often called the Gateway to Stonington because it is the main route from the highway down to the Borough. Preserving the scenic land along the road was a high priority. When Edith Paffard offered to sell the parcel for a bargain sale price, Avalonia applied for grants and then campaigned to get almost $300K in public donations. Thanks to a great team, efficient organization, and the generosity of many people, the 62 acre parcel was acquired in August of 2003. Since that time it has remained one of Avalonia’s most beloved and well-used preserves with a wide variety of habitats, vegetation, and topography. Trails go around granite ledge outcrops and glacial erratics, wind through woodlands, and border the Sylvia’s Pond Brook. Central wetlands drain into the brook, and ultimately at the southernmost tip, the preserve is salt marsh.

It started with bridges

This rustic old log bridge was beginning to rot.

New planks were added to this old bridge

Two benches were made from one of the old logs.

Originally, the first stewards created some beautiful and unique bridges. One is a rocky crossing where you can hear the brook babble and tumble below your feet. Another bridge was created from a huge, impressive log, cut lengthwise and set over a stream. Other bridges were established in other places. Over the ensuing years, with high foot traffic, wear and tear, and also recent wetter than average conditions, we noted that several of the wetland crossings were becoming muddy, and the bridges themselves were breaking down. Much to our dismay, we discovered that the huge supports under the log bridge were no longer stable, and there was rot occurring. People love that bridge.
Thanks to the generosity of the original donors, there was a nice stewardship fund available for use on the preserve, so we knew we could get materials. But we never seem to have enough strong and willing bodies to tackle big projects. Luck came our way when our connection with the Mystic Aquarium allowed us to engage volunteers from Dominion Energy. Now we had the bodies.
Two of our town stewards, Jim F and John C, got their heads together to plan out the projects. A new bridge was designed to replace the log bridge, and a plan was made to actually lift and move another bridge to a more solid location, out of the mud. Another bridge had surface planks to be replaced.
On a beautiful September day, 22 employees of all ranks gathered at Paffard Woods at 7:30 am. Our stewards met them, as did MaryEllen, our Aquarium connection, and work commenced. Materials and equipment were unloaded and set up. It was as good as a shop in the parking lot. Order and organization was the key. Teams split up, and in a relatively short time, a great deal was accomplished. The log bridge was removed, but to retain the memory of the original design, one log was cut in two to create benches, set on stones, on either end of the new bridge. They are perfect. The other span was moved and placed in a much better spot, and the wood planks were replaced on the third bridge. And still there was a lot of time left.
This bridge was lifted out of the mud and re-positioned on solid stream banks.

A rock and a hard place

So a group decided to tackle a big rock that was sticking up in the middle of the driveway entrance. It has been a danger and nuisance for quite a while now, so the plan was to dig it out and fix it once and for all. What no one knew, was that the rock was a boulder, seemed to have its roots firmly in the ground and no amount of maneuvering and leveraging would budge it. Now we were stuck with a big hole, with a big rock, in the exit, and no one could get in or out.
Several of us put our heads together and tried a few local farmers to see if their equipment would be useful. No luck. In a last desperate brainstorm, we called a local contractor who was going to do some mowing work for us. He just happened to be in town, with his big excavator and trailer, and inside of one hour, JP Moore arrived with his equipment. It was impressive. He unloaded, and the driver manipulated that machine as deftly as fingers, picked up that rock in an instant and set it aside as if it was a pebble. While he was at it, he removed a few other troublesome rocks, backfilled the big hole, widened the entry way to make an easier access, and just happened to have some perfect small stone to resurface that part of the driveway. Talk about a lucky angel. Turns out JP also had worked at Dominion Energy and knew several of the work team. It was a happy reunion of sorts.
By the end of the day, bridges were all fixed with just a few details left to complete, piles of invasives had been cut or pulled from along the stream and trail, and unexpectedly we had a total rehab of the entry way to the preserve.
We owe many thanks to the original donors, our Avalonia carpenters, our friends at Mystic Aquarium, Dominion Energy and JP Moore excavating.
Go take a hike and enjoy the upgrades.
Volunteers from Dominion work on this new bridge.

This rock was a lot bigger than expected.

But the right equipment made quick work of the rock.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.