Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Other Half of Our Mission


by Beth Sullivan

Our Mission: We preserve natural habitats in southeastern Connecticut by acquiring and protecting lands, and by communicating the value of these irreplaceable resources.

Communicating the value of these
irreplaceable resources.
Everyone who is aware of Avalonia as a land conservancy in southeast CT,  understands the first part of that statement,  about preserving, acquiring and protecting.  Over the last several years Avalonia has acquired, or is in the process of acquiring, almost 1000 acres.  Now, over 4,300 acres are protected for the future, for generations of wildlife and people. From our shoreline, which is imperiled by rising sea level, to coastal forests that are being lost to development;  from small vernal pools, to swamps and bogs,  ponds, streams and rivers;  from meadows and thickets to forests with rocky ledges and towering old trees;  Avalonia has a wonderful and diverse cross section of habitats to share.

An illustrated sign captures the
interest of a young hiker.
That’s where the second part of the mission comes in: sharing these resources, communicating and educating all who will listen, about the importance of habitat conservation and diversity. Many of us took refuge in nature over this past year.  Our trails saw enormous increases in traffic.   It is always my hope that people truly think about where they walk, see with different eyes, keep their ears alert, when they are on a trail in the woods and not merely walk for exercise with ear phones securely plugged in! You can learn so much, just on your own, by paying attention.

However, sometimes we are lucky to be able to truly, actively, educate people about our preserves, and sometimes they educate us!    A few preserves have informational signage to point out special elements  along the trail.  We are hoping to do a little more of that.  There is a lot of information on our website about each of the preserves, and links to articles that may offer more insight. Hike and Seek has remained popular with children, families and even older adults who have found our trails and preserves to be sources of learning, respite and  exercise.

The students become the educators
This is the time of year when we also begin to think about some special programs that offer different levels of education.   The Conn College Goodwin Niering Center for the Environment will be joining forces with Avalonia for the ninth year!  Since 2013 I have worked with some of the brightest  young minds, enthusiastic, hopeful and eager to participate in some aspect of Avalonia’s work.  Over the years we have had projects from stewardship and on the ground research, to fundraising and social media efforts. We never quite know what direction their projects will take, but in the next semester, you will be introduced to some of them as we learn together.

I am also so very lucky to be working with a great team from UConn on the Hoffman Project.  Through these connections, I myself am learning a lot about forest management, climate change and also ways to impart that knowledge to others.  We are creating more informational signs for trail side learning.  Under the leadership of a Stonington Town Committee member, a professor from GWU,  Avalonia will be offering a series of webinars about how changing climate is influencing our forests and their ability to adapt.  Entitled “Finding the Right Trees for the Right Time”,  the seminars will discuss the planning and planting we are doing to ensure a resilient coastal forest at the Hoffman Preserve.   Find out more on our website here.  We are also planning to work with the local schools and teachers to offer Hoffman as a living laboratory for learning and field work.   At a time when classrooms are often challenging to keep safe, an outdoor classroom may prove perfect!

Putting heads together to explore
life found in a  vernal pool.
(Photo credit:Kim Bradley) 
There are also many Citizen Science opportunities for students and families to participate in, providing opportunities to learn,and to contribute data to the knowledge base about wildlife in our area.   There is an ongoing opportunity to record bird sightings on eBird   We have just finished the Great Backyard Birdcount   and Project Feeder Watch continues.  Both websites offer great information about observing birds wherever you may be.   Believe it or not, next month we will be watching for the return of the Osprey to their nesting sites. Osprey Nation offers great information and opportunities to monitor these magnificent birds. We will also begin to listen for and report,  those first sounds of spring, from frogs and toads in the Frog Watch Program,  sponsored locally by the Mystic Aquarium.

We may still be in the middle of winter, but we can think forward to spring. Avalonia provides the land and opportunities to communicate the value of these irreplaceable resources.

At Hoffman, educational signage helps
visitors understand conservation practices.

Citizen science activities can start early and last a lifetime.
Photo credit: Nick Young

Education and outreach can take many forms.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Musings on a snowy morning

Delicate pine needles held and 
then captured the even
more delicate snow.
We haven’t had a lot of snow yet this season. There are pros and cons to that and many would argue over whether it is good or bad. I myself am not fond of a lot of snow, but I would much rather see normal snowfall, in the proper time frame, to keep plants and animals in sync with their natural seasonal responses. In recent years we have had delayed starts to winter, we have had less snow cover to protect plants during winter. We have had warm spells way too early which trigger sap flows and bud swelling, only to be followed by late snow and deep freezes that wreak havoc on every one and every thing. 

 But awakening to a beautiful January snowfall this past Wednesday was a well-timed gift. I don’t think anyone can deny the beauty of a light, fluffy snow; pristine in the morning hours, still coating every small branch. There is a pull to get out the door. Not necessarily to get the walkways and driveways clear, but maybe to be the first to set foot in the untouched snow on a favorite trail. 

I was not the first creature to 
set foot on the trails
Things just look so different in the snow, not just because of the whiteness, but because of the way some details are covered up and others stand out. Stepping into the woods, all the distracting details of leaves and browns and grays of rocks and wood, were covered. Instead the trees looked draped in lace with intricate patterns of delicate white threading through the branches. It was still early and there was no wind, no melting to disturb the snow on even the smallest twig. But when there was a motion of falling snow, it was an easy way to notice a bird or squirrel over head. 

I wasn’t the first creature on the path that morning. Several deer had walked through the woods before me, following their own trails. They seem to follow the same patterns of travel month after month, season after season, through these woods of the Woodlot Sanctuary. Then I found the tracks of a squirrel. It was fun to note where it had left the ground and jumped into a tree and also to note where it tried to uncover a hidden stash of seeds or acorns, by 
digging several holes in an area. At one point set of canine prints joined the trail. They were most certainly coyote tracks and it appeared that the animal was very comfortable using the same trail that I was now. It stopped and investigated where the squirrel had been digging. Snow allows us to see things that would be otherwise invisible. A month ago I wrote of needing to search for rabbit pellets on bare ground. They are so much easier to see with snow! 

I never would have noticed the 
stairstep patterns on this rock
if not for the snow.
But walking in the snow wasn’t just about tracking things. The snow made certain shapes and designs stand out in ways that we wouldn’t ordinarily notice. Against the snow white background, lichens on the rocks stood out more distinctly. The soft brown leaves on the beech trees took on a greater brilliance in the snow. Designs were created by ordinary objects when covered irregularly by the light snow. 

It’s fun to take photos and then look at them later to see what the camera has captured. But, always make sure you spend more time stopping, and looking with your own eyes, to fully appreciate a beautiful, fleeting, snowy morning. Be in the moment and cherish it. 

by Beth Sullivan

The soft brown beech leaves took on
a warmer, more outstanding glow.

The details of this lichen
just jumped out into
view against the 
background of pure white.
Some things are just a lot
easier to see in the snow!

Where a rock, covered in lichen and moss, retained
some heat from the ground, the snow receded
and left it in view.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Looking for Color in Winter by Beth Sullivan


A few deep blue berries on greenbriar are welcomed by birds.

We are at the darkest days of the year. The woods can look pretty drab and it even makes me appreciate  just a bit of snow to brighten the scenery.  But take a walk and look closely and you will find some welcome color.

We all know our pines, spruce, firs, and cedars the bigger evergreens of the woodlands.  They provide great protection for birds and other small creatures when the winter winds blow and snows fall.  Their cones hold nutritious seeds, high in fats and proteins that the wildlife need to help them through the cold season.

Mountain laurel thickets keep us green all winter.

Look a little lower, the shrub layer in many of our woodlands is dominated in places by our State Flower: Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia).  Drive along many of our roads where the scenery is rocky and rough and you will welcome the sight of gnarled branches and leathery green leaves of this lovely shrub. While it doesn’t provide a food supply, the usefulness as nesting sites for forest birds is often revealed in winter.  (Tefftweald in North Stonington, Hoffman Preserve in Stonington)

Wintergreen holly loses its leaves
and the berries are standouts! 

Our native hollies provide winter interest. Our native evergreen     American holly, ( Ilex opaca) the familiar Christmas decoration,  has    spikes on the leaves  to deter deer but the berries are feasted upon by many birds  through the winter, as long as they last. Robins, Thrushes, Cedar Waxwings and Bluebirds in particular will find a bush and claim it!

Our other native holly, Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)is deciduous, but its berries glow red on bare branches during this season.   These berries often do not fully ripen until they have been cold for a long time, then they actually ferment and the birds love them.  This is true of many berries that remain on the bush through the winter: Viburnum and crab apple in particular. Those birds know how to wait until the vintage is perfect!

Look in the most tangled thickets to find dark blue or purple berries of viburnum, greenbrier and Virginia creeper. All of these are sought after by birds.  At Knox Preserve the field cedars/junipers have blue fruits prized by many birds through the winter.

Club moss emerges
above the snow.
Club Mosses (Lycopodium sp.), such as Princess Pine and Ground Cedar ( they have multiple common names), will populate the ground in patches. Years ago they were harvested irresponsibly for Christmas decorations and the populations were nearly decimated.  Garden Clubs have protected the species by refusing to pick it or sell decorations using the club mosses.

Many species of true mosses seem to become more intensely emerald at this time of year.  Others take on softer tones. They are all welcome sights amid the brown and grays on the ground. They are especially lovely peeking through the snow. 

Partridge berry hugs the ground.
There are a few evergreen plants, still holding leaves: Christmas Fern for one, each ‘leaflet’ on a frond
  has a “toe” creating a “stocking”.  Partridgeberry is a sweet vining plan with delicate evergreen leaves. The occasional red berry remains on the plant as an invitation to a ‘Partridge’ who may favor the berries. Sadly our native partridge or quail, the Bobwhite is considered extirpated from Connecticut.  Only to be remembered in Christmas song, being in a Pear Tree!

Many people truly look forward to the pure and dazzling white of a pristine snowfall.  But, since we haven’t had but one this season, enjoy finding bits of color on your woodland walks.

A Cedar Wax-wing knows when the berries
are at the peak of their sugar content.

The brightest emerald in the woods!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Looking forward with 2021

 by Beth Sullivan

The littlest ones will always need a 
guiding hand.
Happy New Year. A new year, a new decade, possibly a new way to think. Most of us try to start a new year with resolutions, or at least good intentions to do something different. It might be to exercise more, eat healthier, or lose weight. It also could be to take a class, start a project, or learn a skill. For others it is cleaning up, clearing out, purging papers, and reducing clutter in our lives.

I got thinking about a different path. Maybe it’s because ‘2020’ is also linked with good vision. We are able to look forward clearly but also be in the present clearly, consciously.
Our vision for the future is entirely entwined with our children, the children of the world. Think of what we can teach them. What can we show them, both beautiful and inspiring, and not so beautiful but hopefully inspiring in a different way? All parents know you cannot force a toddler or a teenager to comply with our every wish, but what we can do is gently and patiently open their eyes to their potential and guide them on a 2020 path of clear sight to improve our world and make a positive difference. It’s just one year, concentrating not on ourselves, but having a greater vision and understanding that as one person, we can truly make a difference. Maybe it will become a new habit. 

Some contacts don't need masks. Encourage them.
Some contacts don't need masks.
Encourage them.
That is what I wrote for the first blog of 2020.   Who could have known what we would go through and witness with our “2020 vision”?  But I read those words several times and realized there was a lot of truth to them, but maybe not exactly what we imagined.  “A new way to think”: That’s for sure.  We all had to change how we thought about almost everything.  So many things we took for granted, now became focal points. People we may have taken for granted, were now recognized as essential.   Hugging and touching, basic human contacts became actions we had to pre-think and even avoid.  We were all finally getting on the right track to avoid plastics, disposables and bringing our own bags to the grocery store. Unfortunately, I am afraid the pandemic put some of the ecological thinking on the back burner for a while. Much of the large scale, international, and certainly national efforts to clean up the environment and reduce emissions became secondary to the pandemic affecting lives all around the world.

Maybe our new exposure to such places will increase our desire to preserve and protect them.
Maybe our new exposure to such places
will increase our desire to preserve
and protect them
 But think about the rest of it: there really were ways we  grew, and many more opportunities to observe and appreciate what we have. One of the most obvious side- impacts of 2020, had to do with people being more aware of the natural world. It was truly unfortunate that many people had to give up jobs, or work from home, and kids were out of school, but it created opportunities for many of us to turn to Nature for recreation, exercise, education, companionship and respite. As an outcome, just possibly, children may have come to greater curiosity, understanding and love for Nature and with that will come a caring for the environment, habitats and ecosystems in the future.

So, my hope for 2021 is that we have learned from 2020 insights.  We have learned the importance of people and services that are truly essential. We need to trust science in matters of health, and environment.  We will never take for granted a hug, a handshake or even a smile.   We have come to know our outdoor havens and how good nature is for the soul.  Let’s please resolve to keep other important things in our vision for 2021 to remain safe and grateful for the good in the world.

Wishing a Happy, Healthy New Year to all.  Beth

There are many mysteries to be unraveled this winter

The ultimate sign of hope that the winter
ahead will end.

Maybe when the bloodroot blooms this spring,
things will be a lot better.

Natural intricacies are not changed by human concerns.