Monday, June 15, 2020

The Greening of Hoffman Preserve

By Beth Sullivan
It was a long winter, but we planned and had hopes for spring. Somehow, (we know how) our best plans for being organized and meeting and having groups together to get work done in the spring, never materialized. Some of us hiked; many of us researched; all of us thought a lot about what would be our next steps for the Hoffman Preserve.
We found some interesting research about planning our forests for the warming future. Where we live now could become much more like the climate of Maryland in another generation or two. In the mid 1900’s the preserve was planted with conifers: hemlock, pine, and larch, to re-create a northern forest habitat. We have the opportunity now, to think about a more southern forest, and if we choose to help mother nature, we may direct our thoughts to trees and plants that will thrive in the coming warmth.
With more sun this hemlock has healthy new growth.

A young white pine seedling will have no competition to grow tall.

New sights to see

Since the weather has warmed up, several of us have taken the opportunity to hike out and around to really explore what is happening since the project was completed last year. One thing we noticed was that everyone else was out exploring too. The preserve is getting a lot of visitors, and the good thing is that people are beginning to get a little idea of what we were aiming for. The new signs helped, too.
The first thing we notice is how much more light there is. Even with the leaves emerged, there are big bright sunny patches and places where the sun streams in at angles, creating some great atmosphere. You can also see the tops of the trees. No longer do you walk among trunks, but now you can admire the tallest of trees.
The birds also enjoy those open patches of light. Even the true forest dwelling birds like to come out to the edges, to the light, because that’s where they can find insects. The sunny patch cuts are now swarming with all sorts of flying insects, including different butterflies and dragon flies. Those aerial insectivores, like flycatchers and swallows have found themselves better hunting grounds. For the first time we have had bluebirds on the preserve. They nest in cavities. Over the past many years, with many trees dead or dying, woodpeckers have created numerous inviting spaces for those birds to claim. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches use holes as well, and their numbers have increased.
While there is still a lot of messy-looking wood on the ground, from branches and tree trunks that are still breaking and falling, that coarse woody debris is essential for so many reasons. It creates numerous nooks and crannies for all sorts of wildlife. We also have begun to create brush piles to tidy up a bit, but also to provide habitat. From medium-sized mammals like opossums , to chipmunks and mice, there are plenty of spaces to hide. Birds like wrens and sparrows will find shelter among the tangles of branches and will find plenty of insect food. As the wood decays, there are all sorts of insects, especially beetles, and other invertebrates, that come to feast on the rotting wood. Amphibians, particularly salamanders, rely on the damp dark areas under wood to find food and shelter. All the way down to the smallest organisms-bacteria and fungi-the soil under the old wood is alive.
There were many places in Hoffman, before the project, where the forest floor was barren. There was no understory and no diversity to support so much life.
Small mammals will have more places to hide in brush piles. Photograph by Rick Newton.

A garter snake has more sunny patches to enjoy.

Flycatchers are more abundant as they can find insects in the sunny openings.

New life to see

New life is most apparent in areas where the forest had been somewhat diverse before. A forest with a mix of tree species and shrubs in the understory will have a greater seed bank, which is years of seeds lying dormant in the soil, waiting for an opportune time to sprout. That time is now. A small lowbush blueberry that struggled in the shade has now sent out runners and spread its clones and offshoots in all directions, creating greater patches of green. These bushes already flowered and are developing berries for maybe the first time in decades. These berries will be available for many different birds and mammals later in the summer and fall. We lost many oak trees to drought and gypsy moth devastation in the last several years. In the open areas there are many, many seedlings sprouting from acorns produced before the trees died. Maybe when they are old enough, there will be a control for gypsy moths . We have to hope they can adapt to a changing climate.
Many of the trees that were cut to harvest are also re-sprouting from their stumps. This is most noticeable in the red maples where the young leaves crown the stump. Over time the strongest will survive and a multi-trunked tree will thrive.
We may have to help Mother Nature along in places where the very dense shade of the hemlock groves had no diversity and no seed bank. But that is the fun of watching and waiting. There is always something new to see there. We invite you all to enjoy the changes, take pictures, send us your observations, and watch the rebirth of the Hoffman Preserve.
It's easier now to see the tops of the trees.

This hillside is now becoming a patchwork of green, mostly young berry bushes and cherry tree seedlings.

This red maple has put up numerous stems and leaves already.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Getting a Start on Summer

By Beth Sullivan

We are on the threshold of summer. So many of us wait so hopefully, each and every year, for the sunny warm days of spring. Though this winter wasn’t terribly snowy or cold, it did seem long and gray. And finally, spring arrived, only to be met with fear and uncertainty and lockdowns. We have learned a lot over these last months. We have learned how important our friends and family are. We have recognized how important the sun and fresh air are. We may realize that we have taken for granted our ability to just run outside to meet up with friends for a hike, plant sale, community garden effort, or a simple conversation on a beach.

But we have learned, and we have adapted. Most of us recognize the need for some changes and guidelines. Most people understand that we ourselves are responsible for our actions, and that our own actions can have great consequences for others.

Memorial Day has just passed, and we have received many posts and comments about how great it was to have shady trails, sunny benches with lovely views and cool breezes to enjoy. Families have posted photos on Instagram and on Hike Avalonia’s Facebook page. We can tell by full parking lots that many friends, old and new, are out celebrating the great weather and ability to be outdoors. I have truly appreciated the actions and smiling eyes of people I meet on the trails, as we nod, step aside, or get some distance so we can chat.

I am afraid, however, that in some situations, the high hopes for celebration, in combination with the beautiful weather, led to some significant lapses in judgement and behavior. We have had reports of groups of younger people gathering on some of the preserves to sit or enjoy each other’s company, but without masks and distance.
In Stonington on Dodge Paddock and other preserves, guidance is posted for safe interactions.

Some explorations are best done solo.

People and wildlife will find a balance. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Sandy Point this summer

One of our major concerns is Sandy Point. The island is such a special place, for so many reasons. Essentially and foremost it is a wildlife sanctuary. When it was deeded to Avalonia, the main purpose was to protect the nesting birds there, while also allowing the community to continue to share the space. Over many years, the Stonington COMO has provided some stewardship and oversight as they sell, distribute and check for passes required to access the shore. In more recent years, we have developed a great working relationship with the US Fish and Wildlife Service ( USFWS). They have taken on the stewardship and have done an amazing job protecting several species of birds that have suffered major declines over the years. Right now, Sandy Point has the best northeastern population of nesting American Oystercatchers, as well as several pairs of Piping Plovers. The USFWS has also provided education for our visitors. By all accounts, people really have enjoyed their presence and are interested in the care of the preserve and its wildlife.
As the summer ramps up, we know people will want to enjoy the island, but please respect the old rules as well as some of the newer ones.

As before, passes are required for daily or season use. These can be purchased from the COMO website and should be with you while on the island. They are digital so can be kept safely on your phone as well. There will be areas roped off to protect the birds, so please remain outside of them. Dogs are NOT ALLOWED at all on the island, even on leash, to protect the habitat and birds.

This year, however, we need to protect ourselves and each other as well. It is truly important to maintain your physical distance from one another on the beach. Families who live together, or share a family pass, may stay together, but we ask that gatherings of more than 5 people be avoided. Keep yourself and your towel inside of a nice 15 foot circle when with non-family members. No one really wants to wear a mask on the beach, so the best answer is to remain distanced but have it ready and available if you choose to walk. There will be different levels of oversight this year, with USFWS, Avalonia and even police boats making trips out and around the area.

We truly believe that being outside is the safest way to connect with friends and nature. We ask that wherever you are, you think about others who are sharing the same space as you are. We never know what challenges they or their family may be facing. Keeping ourselves safe translates into keeping others safe so that all can benefit from the upcoming summer season, wherever you are.

Enjoy and appreciate the stunning beauty of this season whether you are on a beach, a meadow, or woodland trail.
American oystercatchers usually nest before the busy summer season and are quite successful on Sandy Point. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Eggs lie exposed on a shallow sand nest. Loose dogs and careless footsteps can destroy them in an instant.

A perfect setup for Sandy Point.

This year there will be added wording to suggest safe practices for distancing on the beach.

Please help to protect the fragile habitat at Sandy Point.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.