Monday, February 17, 2020

Bits and pieces

by Beth Sullivan
February is a weird month. I am not sure where January went, as I certainly didn’t tie up all my loose ends, nor did I accomplish a lot of usual January tasks. So now I am trying to both close the door on some projects and look ahead to others, not just in my own environs, but for Avalonia too.
Even in the brown season, there are things to enjoy along the trail. Photograph by S. Alexander.

Thanks to Sea Grant, the last Long Island Futures Fund Grant project has wrapped up at Dodge Paddock and Beal Preserve. Over the last years and with multiple grants, literally since 2012, we have worked to eradicate Phragmites (an ongoing effort) and restore healthy salt marsh habitat to the area. It has been hugely successful as the marsh grasses have filled in, and tidal flow has restored flushing into the marsh allowing salt water and nutrients to support the system. Killifish now find their way into the water pools and manage the mosquito larvae so the infestation has diminished. The fields are getting wetter so we mow only what we can. We try to keep the woody plants under control and try to keep on top of invasive plants. Mrs. Beal’s garden has been transformed into an area of native plants: grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees that we hope will adapt to the changing climate and rising sea levels. Now we watch and wait. We will still monitor and maintain, but hopefully Mother Nature will take over.
The Hoffman restoration project is well underway, with the active cutting and thinning completed. The trails are marked well so hikers can continue to move through the preserve without getting too turned around by the change in scenery. It is pretty dismal in there now, but during the upcoming growing season, we will be watching to see what regenerates on its own. We are also deeply into planning ways to adapt the future forest to the climate change we know is coming. We have students and professors from UConn and Conn College already engaged. A great UConn team is researching management strategies and tree species that will tolerate the new normal that we expect in 20-50+ years.
At Beal climate adaptive plants have been introduced.

And the wonderful old vegetable garden has been transformed into a marsh migration buffer.

Back to college

Working with College students is always rewarding. They are motivated, concerned about the future of the environment and the future of the Earth. The Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment is a group I have worked with for eight years. This year their projects are varied, as usual, and over the course of the next months you will be hearing from them in this blog. It is always interesting to offer a new perspective on things, and will give me a break from writing. But they are also involved in outreach, research, and historical recordkeeping for Avalonia.
I am also excited to be working with a team from UConn as part of their Climate Corps program. Their professor, Juliana Barrett, is guiding them through a semester long project to research how our forests are dealing with climate change. They will study how best to implement management practices to help restore our Hoffman Preserve with tree and shrub species that, while being more southern in their range, allowing them to thrive in the next warming decades, will benefit local wildlife. There is a lot to learn.
One GNCE student will be researching the history of the Bennet Yard in Hoffman Preserve.

Still a tough winter

The winter may have been mild so far, but many of our preserves have taken hits with the heavy winds and waterlogged, unfrozen soils. Trees continue to fall, especially the heavy topped pines and the beautiful oaks that have been stressed over the last three years of insect infestation, summer drought, and winter wetness. It isn’t pretty, but it is nature at work. Everything has its own cycle. In the coming spring, look for new green growth in the places left open by falling trees. Look for more sun on the forest floor, and different kinds of wildflowers and shrubs taking advantage of that sun. Look for birds of different species using the new openings.
Our volunteer stewards continue to walk the trails and clean things up, to keep them open and safe. Enjoy the preserves. In all weather, there is something to appreciate. It is certainly too soon to think spring. We have had late blizzards in the past. But it is nice to think ahead. Tie up the loose ends of winter projects and make new plans for the upcoming spring.
The wind has taken a toll on pine trees, and keeps our stewards busy.

As winter moves slowly toward spring, there are skunk cabbages already open in wet woods.

We may still get snow, but we can enjoy the new fallen beauty.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Some unusual Evergreens in the winter woods

By Beth Sullivan
This time of year can be pretty bleak, especially if there is no snowfall to brighten up the gray landscape.
The most widespread woodlands have been pretty colorless. Only a few fluttering beige beech leaves remain. The best place to find some green is to find a conifer forest with some pine trees or hemlocks to break up the scenery.
Snow can actually be essential to the survival of many organisms. With a normal snow cover, the ground remains somewhat insulated. Hard to believe, but remaining at a steady freezing 32 degrees is perfect for protecting plants, root systems, seeds, and seedlings, and even providing ‘warm’ safe passage for small mammals. Keeping the ground temperature stable also assures that the soil is not continually freezing and thawing causing upheaval and exposure all winter long. When we have sub zero temps for extended periods, and no snow cover, the ground surface freezes more deeply and solidly. But with temperature fluctuations as we have seen, a hard freeze may be followed quickly by a warm up, and changes in the soil moisture and texture create havoc for anything living or trying to live in those top inches of leaf litter or soil.

Green all year

There a number of organisms that stay evergreen through the coldest seasons, and most of us immediately think of trees and shrubs that we recognize pretty easily: pines and hemlocks, spruces and firs, laurels and hollies. These are all true vascular plants.
But lack of snow cover invites a closer inspection, and the ability to observe some gems that are often overlooked during the lush greenness of spring and summer. This is the world of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. They are hardy and can survive with or without snow cover in some of the most challenging conditions.

Most of us recognize mosses of so many varied textures. They remain green all year and inhabit a great variety of conditions. Most seem to like it moist and shady, but there are others that we can discover on bald rock faces, in places where just enough soil has built up to allow them to get the moisture they need. Mosses are, however, non-vascular plants. This simply means that they do not have the same internal structures that most plants do, to transport food, nutrients and water. They have no true roots, leaves, flowers, or seeds. Some mosses are dense cushions of green, soft to touch, and a startling color in the brown and gray leaves. Some are fuzzy, some spikey. Many display their spore cases on longer stalks still visible and held above the main portion of the plant. Clubmosses can look like individual mini Christmas trees, and the two most well known we call princess pine or running ground cedar.

Keep looking. Get down closer to the ground in wet areas, bases of rocks, and old wet stumps. Here you may find a couple of very strange organisms. They look like tiny, flattened, fleshy leaves or even ribbons of green, with spikes or horns rising above. These are the liverworts and hornworts. Botanists continue to change classifications and naming of these odd species. They are plants, they contain chlorophyll and they make their own food. But, like mosses, they are non-vascular and have very different reproductive processes. These plants were among the very first to come out of the water and colonize the drier earth. They are ancient. They are gems. They are worth getting close to, getting out a magnifying glass or your macro lens, and really examining. These plants inhabit all the climate zones on earth, from tropics to tundra. They provide moisture in dry places, cover for small organisms, and even food sources for others. Interestingly, I often find them colonizing the surface soil on potted plants I find at nurseries that have had them growing in damp, warm greenhouses.

Our photographers

The collection of photos here were taken by Carl Tjerandsen and his team on Avalonia’s Tri Town Forest Preserve. Some plants are named, others are yet to be identified. Botanists, naturalists, and photographers have been combing this huge, beautiful preserve for the last several years. They are exploring the unique habitats and the flora and fauna associated there. Check our website Preserves section to see more photos of this beautiful acquisition: . It may be hard to see past the dull colors of a snowless woodland, but look closely and you will find green in beautiful hues and unusual forms.

Avalonia protects unique properties with varied habitats such as this one. We can continue our mission to preserve these places and open them to you and future generations, but we can only do so with your support. If it matters to you, please support us with your membership and join us in our efforts.