Monday, July 26, 2021

End of July Already!


Mid-summer musings.

Thanks to volunteers,
this trail is open, 
but not for long in this weather.
It is the end of July already. To me that still means that summer is half over ( even though I don’t worry about school vacations anymore)  and we all know that August goes by faster than July.  It always seems like it is a good point to stop and assess where we are, what we have, or have not done, and what we hope to accomplish in the remaining weeks of summer.

It has been hot and wet!  Steamier than I can ever remember July being and with more days of rain than in other Julys on record. I am sure there are those that have been really disappointed in the weather, but I will have to admit, I have been grateful for every drop because the plantings we have done at the Hoffman Preserve are thriving and we have not needed to constantly worry about watering them.  That would have been truly challenging. 

Tall stakes and color-coded tape
help us locate
small seedlings at Hoffman,
Everything else is growing up too, so it has been hard to relocate some of those little seedlings.  Thanks to a youth group work party from the Mystic Congregational Church, each plant was given a tall bamboo stake and a colored flag to indicate its species.  Now that they are getting their leaves, it is a lot easier to distinguish a sumac from a viburnum but those stakes are a huge help!   The wet loving plants, tupelo ( Nyssa sylvatica) and dogwood ( Cornus species)   are loving the moist soils.

One of the lovely
coral mushrooms.
The humidity and rainfall have been a boon for those of us who love to search for unique mushrooms.  Some are prized edibles, but I would never suggest anyone go sampling any mushroom in any landscape unless they were well educated!  Photography is safer, and being able to document some of the colors and forms of these unique organisms is really an interesting activity. There are apps for smart phones that can help identify species but even the best apps have a hard time with some of those little brown ones!  A friend and I used the same app, on the same mushroom, and there were a couple of times when the IDs did not match up immediately, but very close. In many cases, to get a definitive ID, you need a spore print.   I am happy with my photos and iNaturalist app.

There is a trail in here

On most preserves, everything else is growing like crazy too.  Vines, briars and invasives all seem to be competing for space and in doing so, reach out into the trails!  Many of the woodland trails are pretty hardened. Broad and open. They are shady pleasures during the hot summer.  But some of the more open areas, meadows and thickets require attention. Our stewards are out and about trying to keep up with things, but the conditions are daunting!  Feel free to hike with clippers and snip the encroaching vegetations. And we give our thanks in advance.  The invasive species seem to be more robust and numerous than ever. Many of our volunteers will be doing some field research and identification studies to better learn how to manage these species which outcompete our natives and are not as valuable to our wildlife.

Over the last months, Avalonia has been growing as well.  We have added acres of new land, now protected open space. Please keep checking the website for updates. Many thanks to those who donated to make the acquisition of the Sheets Preserve in North Stonington, a reality.   Other new preserves are being studied to note wildlife, habitats, sensitive areas and points of interest.  A management plan will be made for each one which will outline the goals and activities for each property.  Boundaries will be walked and posted. Trails will be created, with safety measures or improvements as needed.  The trails will be marked and then the areas will be opened to the public.  All of this takes a lot of work and maintaining all of our properties is becoming a huge challenge, considering all of us are volunteers and most of us are not professionals in any area dealing with habitat management! 

Say hi to Toby when you see
him on the trails!
So, it  is with real excitement that I can introduce our newest “acquisition,” a dedicated Stewardship Coordinator: Tobias Glaza.  Toby is a Mystic native and resident, with a background in ecology and management with lots of field experience. He brings this experience and great ideas to our growing organization. Best of all, he will help us organize our volunteers  to utilize our time and skills more efficiently, to accomplish what needs to be done to provide proper stewardship for all our beautiful places.  You can read more about him here. 

Maybe growing our stewardship team will allow us to keep up with the growing vegetation!! 

Hike safely and enjoy what summer has to offer.

Many mushrooms look alike and
it takes an expert to distinguish them.

Beautiful but deadly Amanita.

A true beauty

Nothing appetizing about Dog Vomit Slime Mold.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Purple Martins 2021


The adults declare territory
and build nests.

This year started slow.   Our purple martin colony at Knox Preserve seemed to take a long time to get occupied and established, but, once it got going, it was amazing!   

It was late April when the first scouts arrived on the site, but it was into May before there were others coming in to make their happy chorus. The songs of happy purple martins are unmistakable.   Chattery and bubbly.      As the month of May progressed, the adults were busily constructing their nests.   Each year when I set them up, I put a nice layer of dry pine needles into each gourd. A little welcome mat. It’s always interesting to notice the difference in the follow up techniques though.  Most martins use moderately thick grass stems, some work up to straw blades, and then others carry in small twigs.   In some years, the birds will actually bring in mud to reinforce the nests. Some have speculated that it may help insulate the nest. So far this year, there was no mud used in our colony.  The nests are pretty neat. If I discover a really messy nest that fills up the entire gourd, I know it is a house sparrow and remove the material to discourage nesting. House sparrows are invasive and will fight and even kill martins (and blue birds and tree swallows) to get access to favored nesting sites.    This year it seemed that the martins got the upper hand and once I evicted a couple of sparrow pairs, the martins were quite effective at defending their territory.    By the first of June, most nest building was complete.  A sure sign that egg laying is imminent is a lovely layer of green cherry leaves that line the cup of the nest.   Some birds bring in just a few, others are quite enthusiastic in their layering. There is some thought that cherry leaves help deter or kill parasitic mites that can harm the young.

A perfect nest lined with green leaves
and filled with five eggs.

Once egg laying begins, the female will lay one egg a day, at sunrise, until her clutch is complete. Average is 5 eggs but this year we had one with 7!    Each week we checked the nests and counted eggs. There is a formula to use to calculate when eggs will hatch based on when they are laid. Most of the clutch hatches in one 24-hour period.   Once in a while a random female will ‘dump’ an egg into an established nest. Sometimes it works out quite fine. Sometimes they hatch much later, and the young bird is quite handicapped by its smaller size in the nest and feeding position and it will not survive.


This year promised to be the best in our 9-year history.    At the highest count we had the potential for about 87 young and eggs were still being laid!  As in other years, some of our birds started early nests, while other pairs were late starters.   There would be quite an age span as we started our monitoring over the next phase. 

So wonderful to
share this experience!
  I was able to bring my grandson out to check the nests with me one day. I let him peek first, into a nest I knew would have young birds.  His expression of awe and excitement was priceless!   From that point forward he insisted that he look in first, make the count of eggs and/or young and only then could I look in to confirm. Most of the time he was right!  Occasionally I had to sort out a jumbled pile of little birds in order to get a good count. 

Things were going well until that last few days of June when we had the terrible heat wave.  That was followed by the sudden drop in temperatures, into upper 50’s with rain for several days.   It is impossible to know what was worst: the heat, the cold or the rain.  In cold rain there are no insects flying and the parents couldn’t support their rapidly growing young ones. 

Today, July 5th, I was able to get out and check the colony. I was fearful of what I might find.    The first set of gourds seemed to be ok. A few birds seem weak or thin but were alive.   In the second set of gourds, I found such sadness.  Two full nests were lifeless, including the one with 7.   Those poor parents couldn’t keep up with the demand.  There were individual birds dead in other nests.  We lost a total of 13 young.  There were others that looked weak but hopefully will survive in the coming days of better weather.   We fared much better than some of the inland colonies where the temperature soared higher and mortalities were far higher as well. 

The gourds were set up at the end of April.

We can never really predict how a colony will do in a given year. The purple martins rely on human help for their housing, but only nature can truly provide the right conditions and food sources.  Erratic and extreme weather, combined with declining insect populations  is not a good scenario for survival for this and other species.

We still have the potential for a good year and good numbers in 2021, but we never know what conditions are in our near future.  And we certainly do not know what is in store in the next decades.

Hatching Day!

About 11 days old.