Monday, August 17, 2020

Ready for a fun challenge?

By Beth Sullivan

It is really only the middle portion of summer if you go by the calendar, which has Sept 20th more or less as the first day of Autumn.  But if you go by the meteorological calendar, with June, July and August considered summer, or if you are a child or parent, thinking about school, the summer is definitely winding down. It surely has been an unusual summer for so many reasons, and as the heat and drought continue, it doesn’t feel like we are ready to change gears. While many of us need to think about a school plan, which is causing understandable angst, there is still plenty of time to get out, to relax a bit, and explore the outdoors. Maybe we will need it now even more.  Hopefully it will cool down just enough to do some quality hiking.   This is where we come in. 

You never know where a trail will take you, until you travel it

A New Preserve

While everyone has been out looking for new places to hike, Avalonia has added several new preserves, and stewards have been busy caring for existing trails and creating others on the new properties.  The one that has caused so much excitement is the TriTown Forest Preserve. It has been open to the public for a while now, and many people have hiked it and reported back that it is AMAZING. Check the Preserve page on the website to see some of the photos for yourself.  Better yet, go for a visit. There are many loops, varied habitats, lots of wildlife, and some challenges for those who look for that kind of hiking. 

 In 2018, the TriTown Forest Preserve, which is a gorgeous 527 acre property in North Stonington, Griswold, and Preston, was acquired by the Avalonia Land Conservancy through a generous loan of $877,000 from the Conservation Fund.  The TriTown Forest Preserve was our largest acquisition ever and is considered a regional treasure.  We currently owe approximately $100,000 on the Conservation Fund Loan, which is due on March 20, 2021. Raising big amounts of money has always been a challenge. Our business is nature. Most of us hate fundraising.  But we now have a wonderful resource in Terri Eickel, who is our Director of Development and Programs, and she knows how to put the FUN in fund raising. 


On several preserves, you may discover some interesting history

At the TriTown Preserve, you get more of a vertical challenge. Photograph by Carl Tjerandsen.

At the Preston Nature Preserve you can stop and meditate.

Great Avalonia Trail Trek

 Join us for the Great Avalonia Trail Trek, a week-long fundraiser to support Avalonia's efforts to conserve land, protect watersheds, and address the climate crisis. From Saturday, October 17 to Sunday, October 25, 2020, you will have the opportunity to hike or run all of Avalonia's trails, or bike to your favorite Avalonia preserve, all to benefit the Avalonia Land Conservancy and the TriTown Forest Preserve. To participate, just visit the Great Avalonia Trail Trek and register for the activity that you would like to do. You can form a team, join a team, or go solo.  Registration is $30 for adults and $10 for kids – registration fees are tax-deductible and support Avalonia.  Once you are registered, you will automatically receive a personal fundraising page that you can personalize and e-mail to friends and family members so that they can support you with tax-deductible donations. 

More info can be found on our TriTown fundraising website or by e-mailing Terri Eickel at 

While the proceeds of this event will go first to pay off the mortgage on this beautiful property,  the ultimate goal of this soon-to-be-annual event will be to support future acquisitions and stewardship. Because we cannot have large, in-person events, the usual fund raising plans need to be re-imagined. But how hard is it to imagine being able to hike your favorite places. Or find some new ones. Or run, or bike, or possibly paddle as many as you would like, and still be raising money for a great mission. All on your own time frame.

So summer may technically be coming to an end, but there are still so many summer  things to see and do. We will all still need the respite we can find outdoors. As the days shorten and temperatures  begin to cool, plan to get out and get into shape, so you can rise to the Avalonia Trail Trek challenge this fall and help us burn the mortgage papers for the beautiful TriTown Preserve.  


Sometimes you can get a glimpse of wildlife from a trail.


Sometimes you just have to make a decision.

There are hidden places to be found at Hoffman, TriTown, Teffweald, and others.


There may be distractions along the easy walk at Dodge Paddock.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Life in the Milkweed patch

By Beth Sullivan

Anyone who has spent time in fields , meadows, or wetlands is very likely to be familiar with at least one species of milkweed (Asclepias). Some of us, who spend a lot of time in those habitats are pretty familiar with several kinds of milkweed and many of the creatures that associate with it. A patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is quite robust and can form large colonies as its roots spread and stems multiply. Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is a bit more delicate, a uniform pink with slightly fuzzy leaves. As its name suggests, it prefers wetter soils. Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) is a shorter bushier plant with bright orange flowers and favors sunny, drier sites. As a species, milkweed is known for its milky sap which is actually toxic to most things. We would not die, but would likely be quite sick if we ate a salad of milkweed sprouts or leaves, as the sap contains chemical compounds which can be fatal to smaller creatures. Most children know the story of how the monarch butterfly is poisonous to birds, and that this protection comes from the milkweed plant. The adult butterfly gathers nectar from many plants, but lays its eggs only on milkweed. When the eggs hatch, the larvae begin to feed on the leaves and ingest the toxins. This does not hurt them, but actually makes them toxic in turn. Very few birds will attempt to eat the fat, juicy monarch caterpillars, and when they emerge from their chrysalis, the adult butterfly is toxic as well. The bright orange and black markings are known to be warning signals to birds or other predators that there is a danger present. Other insects also display black and orange colorations and in turn are protected by mimicking the monarch.
A monarch will take nectar from many flowers but the swamp milkweed is favored for laying her eggs.

Beautiful common milkweed

Only one egg is deposited under a leaf, ensuring the monarch caterpillar an immediate food source.

 Not just for butterflies 

But it is not only monarchs that take nourishment and shelter in the milkweeds; many species of butterflies can be found just by observing one patch of plants. First, inspect the flowers: they are really quite beautiful in shape and form, and they can be very fragrant when they first bloom . Bees and wasps of all kinds are attracted to the beautiful flowers and abundant nectar as well. Inspect the leaves. Tell-tale signs of a caterpillar at work are the chewing patterns and holes in the leaves. Monarch caterpillars seem to make small holes right in the leaf as they get going. Other insects will nibble edges or the tips as instead. They also excrete a lot of waste, called frass, as they eat and digest. A real good sign of a caterpillar. Be on the look-out for other insects as well. Aphids of several colors are frequently found covering parts of the stems. They suck plant juices and excrete a sweet “honeydew” liquid that attracts ants. Ants are frequent climbers of milkweed stems as they tend to their aphid farm. Another very common find is the red milkweed beetle. They look like an elongated ladybug with extra long antennae. They like being up near the tips of the plant and are quick to drop to the ground when disturbed. If you feel like being brave ( they don’t bite), pick one of them up between your fingers and hold up to your ear-they make a squeaky-clicky noise. There are leafhoppers, snow crickets, and numerous kinds of flies that visit the milkweeds. One non-insect that I have noticed more recently is a snail, a small air breathing land snail, part of the amber snail family; these are likely European. I have discovered quite a number of them cruising , if you can call it that, along the leaves and stems of milkweed. I don’t remember them from my childhood.
Aphid colonies suck on the plant's juices then secrete a sweet liquid that in turn attracts ants.

As a full-sized caterpillar eats, it leaves behind tell-tale frass.

The red milkweed beetle is easy to identify with its bright color and black spots.

 Milkweed abounds 

The Knox Preserve and Preston Nature Preserve are two of the best places to easily find all kinds of milkweed along the trails. While I was moving through the big patch at Knox, I managed to trip into a well-disguised woodchuck hole, and as I tumbled awkwardly, I scared a rabbit out of hiding. With attention to the little things, you may be surprised at the variety of wildlife you will find associated with milkweeds.
Air breathing amber snails are now common on milkweed plants.

Can't beat the beauty of a red-banded leaf hopper.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.