Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dinosaur comes home to East Windsor

East Windsor, CT--As discoveries of dinosaur bones go few are more distinguished. Yet, if not for folks like the local residents who gathered here at the Library at Warehouse Point on Sunday, The Bones from the Well might just as well be buried all over again.



Nancy Masters (above) stands next to the new display of casts of The Bones from the Well and a wooden sculpture of Anchisaurus that were unveiled at the Library at Warehouse Point on Sunday. The displays were dedicated in recognition of her twenty-five years of service as a member of the library's board. Ms. Masters resides at the site where the bones were first discovered nearly two centuries ago. She hopes that in addition to its new library display, East Windsor will one day have road signs commemorating its dinosaur as well. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Foley.)

Few in Connecticut--and for that matter the world--have ever heard of The Bones from the Well. Even among paleontologists there are those who are ignorant about East Windsor’s fossils and the role they continue to play in the progress of dinosaur science.

Fragments of the forelimbs of a small plant-eating dinosaur that lived early in the of the Age of Dinosaurs, The Bones from the Well stand as the earliest verifiable discovery of dinosaur bones in North America. They remain as little more than chalk marks in the sandstone, but have been the subject of continual study from the time they were first unearthed in 1818.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1896 that famed Yale Peabody Museum curator O. C. Marsh first pronounced the bones to be those of a prosauropod dinosaur—a delay that contributed to the bones languishing in obscurity ever since.

Despite the fact that Benjamin Silliman first published accounts of the discovery of the bones in his American Journal of Science in 1820, and that the latest in a long series of studies of the bones was published by paleontologist Adam Yates just three years ago in 2004, The Bones from the Well have until now been largely forgotten.

The glory of having made the first scientific description of dinosaurs went instead to Sir Richard Owen--an Englishman with the disdainful countenance of a mad scientist and a personality to go with it. Owen first coined the term dinosaur (fearfully great reptile) in 1842, based on fossils found in Britain.

That’s not to say that Owen, who was renowned for his ability to reconstruct previously unknown animals, as he did with a six-foot tall extinct bird known as Dinornis with nothing more than a six-inch fragment of its leg bone, doesn’t deserve recognition for many extraordinary accomplishments.

Rather, it is to argue that the impacts of many local discoveries, and the contributions of local scientists such as Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock are too often unrecognized—or even unknown.

If not for the interest of folks in East Windsor, the facts about how Connecticut Valley dinosaurs shed light on the greatest beasts ever to walk the earth might not see the light of day.

Few would hear about how the dinosaur-bird connection has its roots in the valley and the work of local scientists such as Edward Hitchcock. We might not recognize that proof that birds are dinosaurs came from New Haven with studies made by former Yale Peabody Museum curator John Ostrom or that Ostrom's findings were confirmed by his successor, Prof. Jacques Gauthier, using modern methods.

Thanks to The Library Association at Warehouse Point and its supporters, such as Nancy Masters, (casts of) The Bones from the Well can be found in East Windsor again--for the first time in nearly two hundred years. If you ask, they’ll be happy to tell you the story.

Editor’s Note: Casts are also on display at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, near the side door to the auditorium. The actual fossils are in the collection of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, identified by the catalog number YPM 2125.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

New CT Amphibians Video!

We've just released a new video documentary that provides a view of Connecticut's frogs and salamanders that has never been available before! Clips and information are available at cttrips.com.



Taped entirely in Connecticut, Between Land & Water documents the lives of native amphibians over an annual season. Beginning with the thawing of vernal pools in spring, this documentary follows native frogs and salamanders to depict critical times in their life cycles such as spring migrations, calls and breeding seasons and developmental phases from larval forms to new “metamorphs” to adults.



Videotaped and narrated by Connecticut naturalist Brian Kleinman, Between Land & Water also describes aspects of vernal pool, stream and woodland habitats and amphibians’ roles in the functioning of local ecosystems.

Insightful and informative, this DVD provides a new resource for educators, libraries and museums—and for parents and families. It makes familiar calls such as those of Spring Peepers, Gray Tree Frogs or American Toads into invitations to explore native wildlife and habitats.

Visit cttrips.com to order your copy. Educators and libraries get a 25% discount.

Monday, April 09, 2007

NetSquared Innovation Award Vote

CT EarthNet has been nominated for a NetSquared Innovation Award and your vote can help provide a powerful network resource to community environmental groups around our state.

CT EarthNet is proposed as a dynamic portal for connecting community-based environmental organizations in Connecticut.

The NetSquared Project is seeking projects that utilize the technologies, tools and communities of the web to create societal impact in a sustainable fashion. Winning proposals will be chosen this week based on the vote being held at its web site.

To vote, click here. You must register, which is free and quick, and vote for a minimum 5 projects. Guidelines are on this page. Voting closes Friday!

To view the CT EarthNet proposal click here.

NetSquared Project hosts include Cisco, Symantec, Yahoo, Microsoft and bright, exactly the sorts of organizations that can help us build a robust and vital environmental network for Connecticut.

Please forward this blog post to all those you feel might be interested in CT EarthNet and the NetSquared Project.

Vote for my Project on NetSquared

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Amphibian enigmas

Stamford, CT--Ask Dr. David Skelly how Connecticut’s frogs are doing and he’ll tell you there are more questions than answers.

Horrific deformities have become increasingly common among frogs over the past decade or so--to the point that missing, deformed or shrunken limbs (and worse) have now been reported among frogs in 46 states across the US. According to Dr. Skelly, no such deformities have shown up in Connecticut (except for a 1997 incident where a boy collected 60 deformed frogs from Porter Pond in Sterling), but cases elsewhere in New England ought to get our attention.

Originally a local kid who grew up fascinated by frogs, Dr. Skelly has made the search for causes of amphibian deformities a major focus of his work as an ecologist and professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.



Dr. Skelly spoke about his work at the Harry Bennett Branch Library in Stamford recently for members of the Mianus River Watershed Council.

“TV frogs:” A nature-horror show

Frog deformities became front page news in 1995 after a group of school kids in Minnesota went on a field trip to look at pond ecology and found nearly a dozen leopard frogs with twisted, missing or extra limbs. The sight of such monsters led many to wonder if whatever was causing frogs to grow extra legs and withered stumps might have similarly freakish effects on people.



A healthy Leopard Frog photographed in Connecticut last summer. Photo by Brian Kleinman.

Scientific research into the phenomenon has since focused on fungal infections, microparasites, human environmental impacts and pollution (i.e. “something in the water”) as possible causes. A notably innovative study pointed to several quite nasty little parasites, flatworm type things whose life cycles conjure up sci-fi imagery, and led to the worms being tagged as the leading pathogens causing frog deformities.

The parasites look for ways to crawl inside potential hosts. Once in, they lodge in the host’s internal organs. When the worms find their way into frog tadpoles, they can block normal limb development or prevent kidney function--to produce sideshow oddities biologists in Dr. Skelly’s lab dubbed “TV frogs,” infected frogs that in their wretchedness have a shock value perfect for televised news.

Were the worms acting alone?

The parasitic infection theory offers a surprisingly neat account. It’s based in part on lab tests that showed how parasitic worms can cause deformities in young frogs like those occurring in situ in wetlands around the country. Another component is that environmental effects associated with human development of natural landscapes can favor worms and increase the “parasitic burden” in impacted habitats. In may ways, it seemed scientists had their worm.

But, the theory also begs a question: why is it that in the 400 million years or so since amphibians first emerged from primordial seas to inhabit terrestrial environs frogs should all of a sudden succumb to worms trying to crawl up their cloacas (the all-purpose opening found near the base of the tail in many amphibians, birds and reptiles)?

One has to imagine that parasites have been after frogs’ guts across the ages--and that frogs learned long ago about the need to keep things watertight. As tight a case as has been made, it was hard not to wonder if some other factor or combination of factors might also present threats to frogs and amphibians.

Amphibians under pressure

As awful as six-legged frogs appear, deformities are only part of an increasingly bleak outlook for amphibian populations worldwide. So-called “cryptic” or “enigmatic” declines among significant numbers of amphibian species have been reported around the world—as well as in Connecticut.

Worldwide, over a third of amphibian species are in decline. The first global assessment of 2004 found that amphibians are “more threatened and are declining more rapidly than either birds or mammals.”

Last year, the Connecticut Wildlife Conservation Strategy found nearly half of the state’s amphibian species were in long-term, non-cyclical decline.

Is it nature’s way?

Potentially the most seductive aspect of the parasite theory is the possibility it raises that frogs’ woes are a natural phenomenon--and simply indicative of the way of the world. If you can’t figure out how to deal with worms crawling up your butt you ought to be history.

On the other hand, it’s hard to look at wholesale changes in local and global landscapes over the past one hundred, fifty, twenty-five or even 10 years and not suspect that human activities are playing a role in recent and relatively sudden declines in the health and numbers of the world’s amphibian species.

Human impacts?

Studies Dr. Skelly and his teams are making of wetlands in eastern Connecticut suggest that local declines are linked with patterns of growth and urbanization increasingly apparent in the state over the past few decades.

Development has increased the amount of impervious surfaces, such as roads and driveways, reduced or removed natural buffers and shade from around wetland areas, and led to increased pollution of wetlands by fertilizers and septic system wastes.

Dr. Skelly’s team has evidence to support associations between such impacts and increases in conditions favorable to amphibian parasites. A strong predictor of a wetland’s parasite burden, for instance, is the density of snails found within (young parasites invade snails as well, growing bigger and bigger until the snail finally bursts from the insides out). Findings suggest that the more urbanized a wetland, the more snails it supports--and the more parasites there are to infect frogs.

The “missing” link…

But does an increase in a wetland’s parasitic burden result in an increase in the rate of parasitic infection among resident frogs? In the rates of frog deformities? Are observations made in the wild consistent with findings from lab tests?

To look for answers, Dr. Skelly and his colleagues began making surveys of wetlands in the Green Mountain State, where as many as 30% of frogs were found to be deformed. Given the high rate, the Skelly team expected to find significant numbers of a worm considered to be the most likely suspect, the trematode parasite Ribeiroia, in samples they collected from affected areas.

They tested ponds in undeveloped areas, around dairy farms, in people’s backyards--even beside the offices of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s. What they found--or didn’t find--came as a bit of a shock.

There were no worms. Anywhere. There were lots of deformed frogs, but no Ribeiroia worms.

The team went back over their data to look for clues. One observation stood out. Deformities they had recorded in the field differed in an important way from the results of lab experiments with Riberoia. In Vermont ponds, frog deformities were overwhelmingly of the shortened and missing limb varieties. Those produced in lab experiments predominantly resulted in extra limb deformities.

The team’s conclusion was the only one possible: In Vermont at least, Ribeiroia was not the cause of frog deformities in the state. Something else had to be going on. Something other than worms was responsible for TV frogs found there. A hypothesis not involving Ribeiroia had to be considered.

Something in Vermont’s water?

The case of the missing worm led Dr. Skelly and his colleagues to go back and reconsider other scenarios, including those in the “something in the water” category. Of these, Dr. Skelly says that some sort of chemical agent or agents need to be considered, perhaps agricultural fertilizers or herbicides, things running off farm fields and into local wetlands.

Dr. Skelly is quick to point out, however, that he is an ecologist and since frog deformities in Vermont turned out to be something other than a parasite-host story, he’s increasingly out of his element.

For help sorting things out, the ecologist reached out to a physician, Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, a specialist in the emerging field of environmental health. Dr. Skelly hopes that by forming an interdisciplinary team of biologists, ecologists and physicians, the team might come to understand the true root causes of frog deformities--and whether any associated environmental conditions also pose risks to human health.

Moving up the food chain

Dr. Rabinowitz has in recent years been cataloging an increasing number of scientific studies about environmental effects on animal health using a web-based, searchable index called The Canary Database. (See our earlier post about Dr. Rabinowitz and the Canary Database here).

The database takes its name from the birds that coal miners once relied on to warn them of poisonous gases that accumulate in mines. If a canary fell off its perch miners knew it was time to get out--fast.

The purpose of the Canary Database is to determine whether other such “animal sentinels” might also warn of other pathogens in modern day environments. For example, the database includes numerous studies of dead crows looking for what may be clues to threats posed by emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) such as West Nile Virus or H5 N1, the so-called avian flu or bird flu.

What goes around comes around

In addition to the usual suspect water pollutants, attention is also being paid to other man made chemicals finding their way into the water. Search the Canary Database, for example, and one will find numerous studies of reproductive deformities and failures affecting alligators in Florida and elsewhere.

So-called “endocrine disruptors,” inorganic chemicals and organic compounds such as hormones and related medications, are being studied for their potential to cause effects such as those found among Florida’s alligators.

Among potential pollutants under investigation are medications and metabolic by-products of medications that are finding their way into river, stream and wetland ecosystems from waste water discharges and faulty septic systems.

In Connecticut, concerns about medications polluting the water supply led to one community-based environmental management group, The Farmington River Watershed Association, holding a free unused medication collection day in Simsbury. In one weekend, the group collected nearly 60 gallons of pills and medications that would otherwise simply have been flushed.

The Association has joined forces with local clean water advocacy groups such as Rivers Alliance to muster support for a new bill before state legislators. Proposed H.B. No. 5292, an act prohibiting the disposal of medications by hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions to public or private waste water treatment facilities, is among protective legislations under consideration in the current legislative session.

A need to know more

If the thought of TV frogs isn’t enough to make us queasy, imagine the potential for worse. While Dr. Skelly says he has yet to find a frog with limb deformities in Connecticut, what he has noted recently is perhaps more chilling.



A Green Frog photographed near Granby, Connecticut. Photo by Brian Kleinman

Dr. Skelly says he doesn’t know what to make of hermaphroditic Green Frogs he and his team have begun finding in the state. These are individual frogs with characteristics of both male and female frogs. Dr. Skelly warns that the data is provisional, but that he and his colleagues have found cases of Green Frogs with ovarian tissue in their testes, perhaps as many as 1 in 8, or up to 12% of individuals in some populations being affected.

Scientific analysis of such a finding remains a way off, but it raises important questions about amphibian health and human health--which are, for now, in greater supply than answers.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bottom-Up Environmental Planning: CT EarthNet

Traveling around Connecticut one hears similar discussions in towns from Greenwich to Thompson, Stonington to Salisbury.  More and more people are expressing concerns about the pace of change in their communities. In churches and synagogues, schools, libraries and meetings of community groups, the talk is about how local surroundings have enriched peoples' lives for centuries--and about how decisions we make today will determine the sort of place Connecticut will be in the future.



This series of posts describes an idea to establish CT Earthnet, a network to support community-based environmental management in Connecticut, to foster real change from the bottom up.

The network would serve to assist community-based groups with fundamental needs, facilitate the sharing of information, learning and experience, build political support and foster collaboration toward the accomplishment of shared objectives. It aims to benefit all groups in Connecticut involved with environmental education, planning and management in ways that government cannot.



I've spent the past three years traveling the state speaking to people about local natural history. Afterwards I have a chance to listen. I've heard what people have to say about what they feel is special about Connecticut. Many recall combing freshly plowed fields for arrowheads, turning over rocks to looke for salamanders and exploring nearby woods and streams as some of their most treasured memories. All wish for the state to remain the kind of place where their grandchildren can grow up having similar experiences.

There is a dissatisfaction with our current direction and a frustration that not enough is being done to protect what we have and change the way we're planning for our communties' and the state's future, and a real recognition that changes need to be made--and quickly.

"Countless residents have come to see their towns at a crossroads. So is the state. Sprawl diminishes open lands that support agriculture, water supplies, wildlife habitat and the character of the Connecticut countryside. It isolates poor and senior citizens, and limits housing variety…" Relentless, helter-skelter development is chewing up CT landscape, The Hartford Courant, editorial, October 10, 2005.

"It’s great to live in Connecticut; we have a quality of life that is the envy of much of America…but that quality of life is threatened…"As we held public hearings in municipalities across the state, we heard from Nutmeggers...We noted that expensive infrastructure is crumbling and going unused in our core cities while being rebuilt at great expense in formerly rural areas.  Connecticut is losing open space at a rate twice the national average…"Growth management should come from the bottom up, not the top down…now is the time for a bold agenda for transportation and land use in Connecticut." Groundwork’s Been Laid For Smarter Growth,The Hartford Courant, commentary,July 9, 2006. By Lewis J. Wallace, Jr.Chairman, Planning & Development Committee, Connecticut General Assembly

"A wide variety of recent reports, polls and policy documents agree that Connecticut is at a crossroads...The overriding conclusion is that Connecticut must improve how it manages its public resources if it hopes to…maintain its quality of life.  All types of communities—central cities, fully-developed suburbs, newly developing suburbs, and even affluent areas—are hurt by the way Connecticut is growing…Current land use, zoning and tax laws encourage sprawl, traffic, pollution, and poor planning, and contribute to increased segregation of poor people and racial minorities in a few towns and cities." Connecticut’s Future:  An Emerging Consensus, CenterEdge ProjectOffice of Urban Affairs, Archdiocese of Hartford.
 
"The most significant threats to Connecticut’s land and waterscapes include habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation from development;  changes in land use;  and competition  from invasive species. "Other threats include insufficient scientific knowledge regarding wildlife and their habitats (distribution, abundance, and condition);  the lack of landscape-level conservation;  insufficient resources to maintain or enhance wildlife habitat;  and public indifference toward conservation." Connecticut Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, November, 2005. State of Connecticut, Department of Environmental Protection.

In light of such local environmental debates, there are questions to be asked about what is the best approach to addressing environmental issues facing Connecticut. Will the answer be in top-down governmental regulation? Is it in bottom up community-based collaborations, or some combination of both? This series of posts aim to inform consideration of such questions.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (10th in a series): Eco-Theology

To find a bright spot in the otherwise gloomy outlook for the environment Professor Roger Gottlieb of Worcester Polytechnic Institute argues that advocates need to look at an historic and unprecedented movement underway in religious communities around the world. It is a movement that, according to Gottlieb, may be able to accomplish things secular environmentalism cannot.

Gottileb spoke before a group of a hundred or more people from religious congregations around the state who gathered at The Sacred Trust Forum in West Hartford Wednesday night. The forum was organized by the Interreligious Eco Justice Network, a coalition of local religious communities whose mission is "...to encourage faithful living that reflects a right relationship between humankind and the environment."



In his remarks, Gottlieb (above) described ways that attitudes among religious traditions towards environmentalism are changing rapidly.

"Anne Frank wrote in her diary about how as long as people can go outside and be alone in God's natural world things will always be all right," Gottlieb said. In recent years, he suggested, there has been a growing feeling among people that things are no longer all right and a greater realization that we are about to lose many of the vital things nature provides for us.

It has been a long time coming, Gottlieb said, but now religion is also responding. Religious traditions have begun to realize the crises of health, of social wisdom and of spirituality that are following on a half century or more of human degradation of the earth and natural environments.

Eco-theologians are thinking differently about long held beliefs to reinterpret old writings, critique traditions, and be inventive about how new ideas may be applied to old ways. Where old texts such as the Bible were read to give man dominion over the earth and living things upon it, new interpretations hold that the natural world has its own ethical, moral and spiritual standing.

Similarity between the Hebrew word for earth, Adamoh, and the name given to the first man, Adam, supports the view that Adam's name serves to remind us that we are little more than the dust of the earth, not masters of it. Rather than giving the garden to Adam, God's intent was that man should serve as steward for His creation.

Even more inventive interpretations are being put forth. Gottlieb described how some Jewish scholars are extending ideas about eating kosher to nourish one's body and soul to standards for environmental protection. To them, "SUV's are no more kosher than a ham sandwich," Gottlieb said.

"The idea that the human spirit is fundamentally different [from nature] is being questioned," Gottlieb said. New ideas say that nature matters, leading to changes in religious traditions' attitudes not only toward nature, but also towards who we are as people. "There is some dimension of ourselves that can feel an affinity, a kinship, with the rest of the world."

Gottlieb points out that the environmental justice movement in the US, "the idea that the way we treat nature connects with people and the way we treat people connects with nature," grew out of conferences convened by members of religious communities in the 1980s.

"It led to a kind of politics, a wonderful synthesis about environmental justice, where we now see that human justice, racial justice, civil justice and environmental justice are all one. It's not a special interest group brand of liberalism; it's about all of life."

It is a movement that Gottlieb argues has distinct contributions to make to meeting the challenges of modern day environmentalism. Religious tradition can be persuasive in ways nothing else can. It has a language of sin used to "express a certain depth, an ultimate kind of crime" that is compelling, a "rootedness," or a structure between government and family, and is a means for looking seriously at otherwise scary, intimidating problems and eventualities--attributes that have proven uniquely effective at getting people to change their behavior.

Perhaps most important is that religion "is a source of information about the positive values about alternate ways of life." According to Gottlieb, eco-theology offers an opportunity to inspire people for the greater good--rather than browbeating them with gloom and doom imagery often associated with secular environmentalism.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Grasslands & Green Snakes

Connecticut is home to a variety of snakes that are striking in appearance, such as the Eastern Milk Snake, Northern Ringneck, Worm Snake, Northern Redbelly, and the Smooth Green Snake. For the past two seasons, Brian Kleinman has been capturing images of these remarkable reptiles, working under the supervision of leading herpetologists and with the appropriate state permits.



Brian Kleinman holds the Smooth Green Snake he came across during a visit to a grassland area in Rhode Island last week. Photo by Brian Kleinman.

"After two summers of searching I finally found a smooth green snake for the DVD!" he wrote in an email, referring to the two videos about Connecticut amphibians and reptiles being produced by Perry Heights Press using scenes he has taped of the animals in the wild. The videos provide remarkable glimpses of the life cycles of local frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, snakes and lizards and comprise one of the most remarkable portrayals of native wildlife available.

The Smooth Green Snake Opheodrys vernalis has declined in southern New England over the past half century according to Amphibians and Reptiles of Connecticut by Michael Klemens, State Geological and Natural History Survey, 1993. It "favors open, unforested habitats including meadows, pastures, fens, coastal grasslands [and] mountaintop 'balds.'" Today, they are most common in our region in southeastern Connecticut, into Rhode Island.

The decline in green snakes mirrors a decline in grasslands in general in Connecticut over the past century, as "agricultural lands was abandoned and reverted to deciduous forest," says Klemens. Many wildlife species, from plants to invertebrates to reptiles and birds, that were characteristic of native grassland communities have come under increasing pressure as habitat has been lost.

Like the Green Snake, their "survival is closely tied to land management practices which maintain fields and meadows," says Klemens. "Open fields and meadows in state parks, forests, and game management areas that contain smooth green snakes should be maintained..."

By protecting grassland habitats populations of these remarkably beautiful snakes will be protected, along with entire communities of wild things adapted to surviving in Connecticut's open field ecosystems.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (9th in a series): Community Greenways

Chaplin, CT--Rusty Lanzit is in his element here beside the Natchaug River where it runs past his Christmas tree farm. "There's something about living along the water that all of us can appreciate," he says. "Clean air and clean water are what people want."



He should know. As First Selectman of Chaplin, Rusty (above) has long been a leader in efforts that communities in eastern Connecticut are undertaking to protect local rivers such as the Natchaug and its headwaters, Bigelow Brook and the Still River.

Seven towns, Ashford, Chaplin, Eastford, Mansfield, Union, Windham and Woodstock marked a milestone earlier this summer when the river system became an officially designated Connecticut Greenway, the latest of about forty natural areas within Connecticut to be given special status by the state.



A view of the Natchaug River in late summer (above). The state describes greenways as corridors of open space that may protect natural resources, features, landscapes, views or historic sites and serve to connect protected areas or biotic corridors.

For a municipality to submit an open space corridor for designation it must formally endorse the greenway with a resolution or compact, include it in its Plan of Conservation and Development and agree to undertake improvements. Designation earns communities "bonus points" that can give them a leg up when applying for state grants for projects such as improving trails or habitat or acquiring open space within a greenway system.

Rallying points

While mustering votes for resolutions can be a daunting task, in the Natchaug watershed the process worked to rally support for community-based environmental protection, tapping what many describe as a groundswell. "Development pressure has made [land use] a front burner issue," Rusty says. "Our goal [for the greenway in Chaplin] is to protect and preserve it--and the time is right. We have all our boards involved."

"There has been a tremendous amount of grassroots support for protecting these resources," says Holly Drinkuth, conservation commission liason for the Green Valley Institute. Holly was the point person on the greenway application and coordinated the towns' efforts to protect the watershed for the past five years. "The designation creates a rallying point and serves to let people know what a wonderful resource we have in the river and what they can do to become part of its protection. Citizen involvement has been terrific."

Holly is well known in eastern Connecticut for her efforts to inform community land use boards and commissions here about landscape-level conservation. On any given day, Holly and her colleague, Steve Broderick, co-director of the Green Valley Institute, may be out surveying local forests, rivers, even roadway storm drain sedimentation around the Quinebaug Highlands region.

By night they can often be found at meetings at one town hall or another, sharing with people who volunteer to serve on local planning, zoning or conservation commissions what they have learned about managing and preserving the rural, pristine nature of the Quiet Corner.



Steve Broderick and Holly Drinkuth (above) pointed out features of the Natchaug River Greenways corridor on a map outside Ashford Town Hall on Thursday.

Waypoints

Community plans to protect the Natchaug watershed began taking shape in 2001 when local leaders such as Rusty and the Green Valley Institute set out to study conservation needs in the Quinebaug Highlands region. "We began to wonder how do we maintain quality forest land?" Holly says. "The quality of the water in rivers in northeastern Connecticut has always been high so another question was how do we protect the quality of our water systems?"

In 2004, Green Valley Institute partnered with The Nature Conservancy Connecticut to identify essential natural resources in the region and conservation tools that could be used to protect them. Based on findings of its staff scientists in the northeast region, The Nature Conservancy offered answers to key questions. "We began to recognize that you need to protect the rivers that run through the forests to keep the whole system working," says Nature Conservancy Connecticut Chapter Director Lise Hanners.

"What's critically important is that conservation plans are based on science," says Steve. "That's where The Nature Conservancy's ecologists have been so helpful. It's great to talk about protection, but what does that mean? That's what The Nature Conservancy and their scientific resources have been helping us to understand."



Lise Hanners (The Nature Conservancy Connecticut), Holly Drinkuth (Green Valley Institute), Leslie Lewis (Connecticut DEP/Greenways) and Steve Broderick (Green Valley Institute) at "Diana's Pool" a popular swimming hole on the Natchaug River in Chaplin.

Community-based: going beyond governmental regulation

Since the state officially designated the Natchaug greenway in June, the real work of protection has begun. "In the end it's up to the local communities to assume responsibility and take the lead on protecting the greenway," says Steve.

The reality is that the state designation by itself isn't enough to protect a natural resource or corridor. "It's voluntary," says Leslie Lewis, Greenways Coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. "It has no teeth. There are no 'shalts,' only 'shoulds.' I believe the real benefit is that designation can serve as a blueprint for plans of conservation and development without the negative impacts of government overregulation."

"There are opportunities for towns to integrate ideas in the plans with their zoning and conservation work," says Holly. "There is some potential to put in additional restriction such as setbacks, but the real opportunity is for towns to work together to adopt similar strategies and to promote informed, voluntary stewardship."

The idea is to provide people with relevant information, to inform landowners along the river about best practices such as maintaining buffer zones that help cleanse runoff and provide shade that helps keep river water from getting too warm. By fostering a stewardship ethic, a community-based approach can succeed where government regulation often fails.

"The hope is that the guy who has a pile of car batteries in his yard will be made to feel like the outlier," says Steve, "and that we can create an environment where peer pressure and community pressure work to protect natural resources on a voluntary basis.

"And that's a do-able thing, but you have to keep up the drumbeat. It's a continual process of outreach and awareness building. Outreach is a key part of a successful plan."

Steve's insights (and optimism) comes from seeing the results of the outreach work he and Holly have already done, and the knowledge that environmental stewardship has long been a part of the culture of eastern Connecticut. Standing at Diana's Pool, a spot along the Natchaug where legend has it that the forlorn sobs of a broken-hearted Chaplin woman "who jumped to her death in the icy waters" can still be heard, Steve talks about the real tradition of environmental conservation that exists here.

"This is an area that has its roots in private citizen conservation," says Steve. "It's a favorite spot that has been protected since the 1930s, when James L. Goodwin (for whom the state forest and conservation center in Hampton is named) bought the property downriver from an old mill and held it until the state could acquire it. Now we have an opportunity to continue that legacy."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (8th in a series): Protecting Private Lands

Brooklyn, CT—As a forester and conservationist, Steve Broderick knows better than anyone that it will be private owners who decide the future of much of Connecticut’s remaining undeveloped landscape, especially grasslands, farmlands and forests. He’s also smart enough to know better than to try and tell anyone what they should do with their land.

“The only ‘should’ is that [private landowners] should make informed decisions based on a knowledge of what’s out there on the ground,” Steve says. He’s learned over the course of his career with the UConn Cooperative Extension System about the power of providing people with essential information--and letting them make up their own minds about what to do with it.

You have to be in things for the long haul to be a forester. There’s a place for passion--and talking to Steve you come to know that he is passionate about conserving the rural nature of towns here in the Quiet Corner--but growing trees, and the work of protecting private land from development, requires patience.



Forester Steve Broderick (above) stands beside a sign commemorating the memorial forest he helped establish through his work with the property’s former owner, the late Lester Williams of Brooklyn.

Outwardly, Steve is controlled, thoughtful, articulate. He has an easy smile and easier laugh--qualities that make him unimposing, trustworthy and quietly effective. He is easy to listen to and many do, from individual landowners to conservation commissioners, to local environmental organizations. So many that since 2001 Steve and his colleagues at the Windham County Extension Center, Ruth Cutler and Holly Drinkuth, have facilitated the protection of 5,156 acres of privately owned land in eastern Connecticut.

The Process Of Protection

Owners can choose to protect lands by selecting from a number of different legal tools. Conservation easements that extinguish rights to subdivide and develop a parcel are among the most common tools used to protect family land. Alternatively, owners may choose to sell or give land to a town, state or an environmental organization and require it be maintained as they wish.

“When you own land you own a bundle of rights,” Steve says, “like a bundle of sticks. You may have one right to hunt, one to fish, one to mine gravel, one to grow and harvest timber, a right to subdivide and another to develop. As a landowner, you can pull one or two of these rights out of your bundle and extinguish them--burn those sticks in a fire. You still own the other rights. Nothing else has changed. A conservation restriction takes out rights to subdivide and develop and extinguishes these rights. All others, including how the land will be managed, remain.”

As a conservation strategy, private and family land protection is one that holds tremendous potential. According to Steve, 85% of Connecticut forestland belongs to individuals and families. Decisions the owners make about whether to conserve or develop their property will go a long way toward determining the character of the state in years to come.

In reality, private land protection is a process that often takes twists and turns and can get thorny. “No two situations are alike,” Steve says. “We’ve had success stories and heartbreakers, where somebody really wanted to do it, but the family couldn’t agree. That’s the way it is.” As much as a landowner may want to see their land protected, their retirement needs or wishes to provide for heirs often make it impossible for them to pass up gains to be had by selling to developers.

“Some people just can’t afford to,” says Steve. “I worked with a fellow who has been a hard working man his whole life. His job had no pension plan. He’s sitting on a beautiful hundred-acre farm--and this is his 401K. You can’t expect somebody like that to give land away, give development rights away. We have funding programs, but there is never enough to go around.”

Clearing The Path

“Half of landowners intend to protect some or all of their land from development,” Steve says, referring to results of a survey he conducted, ”but experience shows only a tiny fraction of landowners do it. Why? Lots of reasons. Some of it is money and family, some don’t get around to doing it, but the big reason is that protecting land is very complex. It’s not straightforward. It’s intimidating. Owners don’t know where to turn or how to decipher information.”

As a result, opportunities to protect a parcel come and go quickly. It’s essential to connect with landowners when they decide to sell and want to understand their options. “It one of those ‘teachable moments,’” Steve says. “People have to be ready. When they are they have to know where we are and how to get hold of us.

“That’s what got us involved with education. We offer a workshop called ‘Protecting Family Lands.’ It’s designed for people in this mode of ‘I’d like to know my land will be protected, but I don’t have a clue what to do.’ We also have a publication with questions owners can ask themselves to begin a protection plan and things they need to think about.

“We talk about tools for protecting land, bundles of rights, what a conservation easement is, and end with tax breaks and funding programs for people who want to protect their land.” Recently, they added a course for real estate brokers. “Other than owners, the development community has the most impact on the landscape. We can’t ignore them.

“We teach realtors to use natural resource maps to get a feel for environmental concerns. We teach about protection and development options from finding a conservation buyer, to writing conservation restrictions, on down to so-called cluster subdivisions that protect what my friend [conservation attorney] Fritz Gahagen calls the ‘integrity if not the entirety.’”

Listening To What Owners Want

Steve’s goal is to help people make their own, informed decisions. He offers assistance in navigating the process, but owners set the terms. “We ask owners ‘who do you want to see own the land when it’s protected?” Steve says. “Do you want to own it with reserved life use? Do you have heirs that you want to own the land? Would you rather a conservation organization own the land or would you rather your town or the state own it?”

In establishing the Lester Williams Memorial Forest, great care was paid to honoring the owner’s legacy, and his stewardship ethic. Together with The Wolf Den Land Trust, a subsidiary of a non-profit association, The Eastern Connecticut Forest Landowners Association, a plan was developed based on the owner’s legacy.

“Lester was a farmer, the First Selectman of Brooklyn at one point, and President of the Brooklyn Fair,” Steve says. “He cut wood on the property and sold pulp to the local mill. He was also an outdoorsman and ardent bird watcher. The Land Trust developed a profile of how Lester Williams managed his land and why. What motivated him? Then, a forester was hired to develop a stewardship plan built around Lester’s interests so that the property will be managed the way Lester would have wanted it managed.

“Every landowner is different, so every stewardship plan [written by the Wolf Den Land Trust] is based on a combination of two things: the particular forest and ecosystems on the ground, and the goals and interests of the owner. These are matched to create a good plan.”

Leading Change At The Community Level

It’s easy to see that helping protect land like Lester Williams’ is work that Steve finds personally rewarding. When asked he’ll recall other examples he cherishes. There’s the parcel in Thompson that preserves a bog and its unique Black Spruce tree and pitcher plant community, a case he worked on with Dick Booth of the Windham Land Trust.

There is the 140-acre former Boy Scout camp that straddles the line between Eastford and Woodstock that is now a park the two towns steward together. “It’s a beautiful property,” Steve says, “which is, in fact, a key part of a much larger block of protected open space. It’s just a stone’s throw from Yale Forest to the north, and the Natchaug State Forest to the south.

“It was a very nice success. The two towns and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection each came up with a third of the purchase price. The Nature Conservancy paid the closing costs and survey costs. It was a true partnership.”

Rather than dwell on individual successes, however, Steve keeps the bigger picture in view. “The scarcer land gets the more concerned people are,” Steve says, “but it’s hard to get people to perceive landscape fragmentation, a more nebulous issue, as the problem. The challenge is to mobilize them to protect land resources.”

In addition to working with landowners, he also works to inform communities about setting conservation priorities. Just as his experience can inform owners about their land protection options, he sees a need to inform communities about protecting parcels of larger, regional importance. Fit together like pieces of a puzzle, local decisions can protect wildlife or biotic corridors also imperiled by the pace of development in Connecticut today.

“We also work with land use commissioners at the municipal level. In Connecticut, responsibility for planning and regulating growth is delegated to towns,” Steve says. He works with the Green Valley Institute to provide information towns in eastern Connecticut along the Quinebaug-Shetucket National Heritage Corridor can use to make land use decisions.

“We’re working to make sure that people have good information on which to base their land use and environmental decisions, whether you’re talking about an individual landowner, a town, a land use board or commission, or whomever it may be.”

It seems there isn’t a part of land protection that Steve isn’t thinking about or involved with. “My role is that of a front man who gets things rolling,” says Steve. “I sweep the media. I bring in landowners who have interest, give direction and education. I connect them with conservation commissions or land trusts. Those folks get the deal done while I go on to the next case.”

Friday, August 04, 2006

Heat bugs: all the buzz

"Heat bugs" may never show up on Google's list of top keyword searches, but in the last week we've had more hits on a post about cicadas we put up last summer (Heat bugs: the sound of money) than any topic to date.

It's typically on hot summer days that male cicadas produce their raspy, buzzing mating calls, earning this group of insect families their nickname, heat bugs. Given the steamy weather that came with the Bermuda High that stalled over Connecticut this past week it's easy to imagine why so many people were searching the net for information about them.



Above: The recently shed exoskeleton, or carapace, of a cicada or heat bug.

Cicadas come in two varieties, the so-called annual cicadas, generations of which generally emerge from the ground as nymphs, shed their skin, mature to adults and mate every couple of years, and the periodical, (also known as locusts) which have generations that emerge all at once, together, in cycles of between 13 and 17 years. Cicadas are harmless, unless you're a plant, in which case they may well try to suck the juice out of you.

A great site with lots of (useful?) information about cicadas (e.g. don't eat 'em because they're loaded with mercury!) is Cicada Mania by Dan Century.



One of the best sites for information about periodical cicadas is The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Insect Division site. Two UConn researchers, John Cooley (above left) and David Marshall (above right) and Mark O'Brien are the authors of the site. Cooley and Marshall were featured in Cicada Subtleties, an article about periodical cicadas posted on Science News Online.

So, the next time you're sweating out another heat wave and trying to figure out what makes heat bugs call on hot days, try visiting a couple of these sites. And if you find yourself really getting into it, check out UConn Professor Chris Simon's site for the skinny on cicadas and their broods' cycles around the world.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Heat, Humidity & Mushrooms

Hot and humid weather is good for at least one thing: mushrooms. In the age of air conditioning some might lose touch with goings on during the dog days of summer, but for those of us who rely on open windows and thundershowers for cool air it's easy to recognize when mushroom hunting season in Connecticut has arrived.



After several nights of sticking to the sheets the boys and I looked for a place to hunt mushrooms. We decided to walk the Weir Pond Trail at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Ridgefield and Wilton (below). The trail rewarded us with a fungi bonanza, the nearby woods strewn with spectacular mushrooms such as Red Chanterelle (above) and representatives of many mushroom families.



Armed with a dog-eared copy of "Common Mushrooms of New England", a wonderful guide and key to local fungi written by John C. Cooke and published by and available through the Connecticut College Arboretum, we did our best to try and sort out those that we might.



On our way in, at the margin where what were open farm fields when 19th century American painter J. Alden Weir lived here have yielded to deciduous forest, we found what seemed to be a Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris), that grows in pastures (above).



Among nearby trees were other mushrooms, such as the one pictured above, that seemed from the scale-like patches on its cap to be an Amanita, perhaps Amanita pantherina, commonly called the "Panther" amanita, or Amanita virosa, with the ominous sounding common name of "Death Angel".



Even to our amateur eyes it was easy to pick out the many clusters of Red Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) (above) we found growing on the forest floor around the trunks of trees further down the trail. Bright orange, they stood out among the green ferns and grasses from at least ten feet away.



Perhaps most abundant in the forest were white and tan forms of milk caps (Lactarius piperatus) (above) that show funnel shaped caps that are depressed in the middle and have long gills underneath (below). The more of them we found, the more it began to rain, at time causing the lens of our trust Canon ELPH camera to fog over.



We found mushrooms similar in form to the milk caps, but showing different colorations, in areas around the forest floor. There were many Red Russula (Russula emetica) (below) scattered widely about along with groups of Green Russula (Russula virescens) off to one side of the trail where it approached Weir Pond (second photo below).





Along with the "gilled mushrooms" we found two varieties of "pored-fleshy mushrooms." These are distinguished by the pored surface they have beneath their caps rather than gills.



The first of these we found was a sort of two-colored bolete, with a red cap and stem (above), but a distinctly yellow pore surface (below).



Another tan-colored pored mushroom found nearby looked to us to be Bitter Bolete (Tylopilus felleus) (below).



Also in the area where the trail approached the pond, where grasses patches exploited areas not yet fully filled by trees, we found coral mushrooms, named for the way they resemble marine corals, of the genus Clavaria (below).



Many downed tree trunks decomposing on the forest floor provided ideal conditions for bracket fungi.



We found varieties of polypores that looked to us like False Turkey-tail (Stereum ostrea) (above),



and Chicken-of-the-Woods (Polyporus sulphureus) (above).

Of course, there were two mushrooms that we couldn't even guess at. One is common, and probably familiar to most, but had us perplexed (below). Yellow mycena, perhaps?



The other was a remarkable violet color, small and relatively squat, and apparenly just emerging (below).



Toward the end of the hunt, after a heavy summer rain had come and gone and cooled things down a bit, we were rewarded with two unexpected finds. The first was to the right of the trail on our way back from the pond, we found several specimens of a plant known as Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) just emerging (below). A ghostly white plant known for its lack of clorophyl, it could easily be mistaken for some kind of fungi.



In searching for more we also encountered several apparently newly metamorphosed Spring Peeper frogs (below) barely one-quarter of inch long. They were so small they almost seemed like some sort of jumping flea, but were already such accomplished hoppers they could launch their tiny bodies twelve inches or more in a single bound.



A truly remarkable trip we might have missed out on had we been spending our summer in the alternate reality that comes with cool, dry, conditioned air being blown into tightly insulated spaces.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Forest Buried Alive

Newport, Oregon—Beach sands come and go. Along the central Oregon coast recently, unusually low tides scoured beaches down to their lowest sand levels in years, perhaps centuries. So much was removed that remains of ancient forests, buried alive by building sands thousands of years ago, once again saw the light of day.



Fossil tree root masses such as those exposed at Moolack Beach, Oregon, (above) tell tales of ancient seaside "ghost forests" that thrived here thousands of years ago.

In Connecticut, we’re accustomed to tides and wave action reshaping beaches and sand spits at places such as Bluff Point State Park’s Bushy Point, but the erosion and pace of change along Oregon’s central Coast has been several orders of magnitude greater.

During our summer vacation, we found the Marine Gardens beach at Otter Rock, Oregon, practically scraped bare, down to the marine sediments underlying it, rocks normally buried beneath several feet of medium-grain sand. Finding it in such a state, with its headlands significantly eroded in the past six months and ordinarily abundant tide pool fauna such as anemones forced further seaward, was distressing.

“It looks like some unusual erosion is going on--erosion that has not happened much in 4,000 years,” geologist Roger Hart of the Oregon Dept. of Geology and Mineral Industries and an expert on central coast tree remains told the Newport News-Times.



At many beaches here, from Moolack Beach (above) to neighboring Beverly Beach, to others further north, such as Neskowin Beach, recent erosion has exposed very large root masses and great tree trunks, particularly where creeks excavated even deeper. Low “minus tides” of –1.4 feet resulted in extraordinary views of these prehistoric fossil tree parts and tree bases, some as much as thirty or forty-feet across.

The roots, stumps, trunks and cones are between 4,100 years old (based on radiometric dating) and 2,500 years old (based on archaeological studies of Native American sites around Newport’s Yaquina Head). They are the remains of what were great seaside forests of Sitka Spruce trees, titans of the primordial Northwest rainforests and ancestors of Sitka Spruce that dominate coastal forests today.

Following the retreat of glacial ice, forest trees had spread over Oregon’s Coast Range Mountains and down to the Pacific coast. Roger Hart says that about 4,000 years ago, vast amounts of sand (which Yaquina Head reveals to have been piled hundreds of feet high) came to quickly penetrate the forests and bury them alive. Dunes grew to entomb trees so completely they were protected from decay by oxygen and bacteria and preserved for the millennia.

Hart and fellow researcher Curt Peterson have reported 14 fossil sites and 520 fossil stumps or root masses. They describe a three-part process of forest advance, sand burial and erosion/exposure. The cycle began long ago with the seaward advance of the forest; was followed by its burial and preservation by deep deposits of beach and/or dune sands; and brought full-cycle with the removal of the sand, and re-exposure of the forest, by wave action and the landward erosion of coastal headlands today.



It’s hard to imagine that geologic change can sometimes be so quick as to bury giant trees alive, but the pace at which surficial features along the Oregon coast have been eroded in the past six months reveals how such events can sometimes be as swift as they are catastrophic.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

CT Wildlife Conservation Strategy

Looking for the post about Connecticut's new wildlife conservation strategy that Peter Applebome wrote about in his column in Sunday's NY Times? You can scroll down to it (second post below) or click on the link above.

Read the other posts in our "Search for the Magic Bullet" series for more about environmental advocacy and community-based environmental protection.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Back To The Devonian Seas

The boys and I had a chance to hunt for fossils in what 400 million years ago were mud flats beneath a shallow Devonian sea that have since become known as the Catskill Delta, courtesy of Fairfield Woods School teacher Vinny Carbone and University of Bridgeport geologist Dr. John Nicholas.

Vinny is well known to Fairfield students and parents for his love of the natural world, from the stars in the night sky, to local minerals, to the marine fossils of New York State. His passion translates into a magical ability to engage his students and to fill school buses with kids and parents for one of his now legendary field trips. Vinny and Dr. Nicholas, better known as Doc Rock, have been leading trips to this site in the Catskills area for years now, carrying on a tradition Doc Rock says began in the 1950s, when he was a student at NYU, and before modern geological concepts about continental drift, seafloor spreading and plate tectonics were fully accepted.



Doc Rock (above) pointed out a relatively narrow band of shale in a hillside with many different stripes of sedimentary layers and we quickly went to it. Clad in work gloves and safety goggles, the group of roughly 50 kids and parents were rewarded with many fine fossils of marine animals that existed not long after life began its great expansion in the oceans of the deep past. (Photo by Vinny Carbone.)



There were all sorts of clam-like shelled brachiopods (below), horned corals, and crinoids. Once we found a good spot the boys and I pulled out fossil after fossil in a sort of gold rush frenzy. (Photo by Vinny Carbone.)



A separate horn coral fossil shown to the right of one of the blocks of fossils we found (below). The boys decided to donate another particularly fine specimen of horn coral to a seventh grader named Aaron who had yet to find one, and had earlier contributed several of his best brachipods to our buckets.



A great day, made memorable by the experience of unearthing the remains of animals from a sea that disappeared hundreds of millions of years ago, yet still appear to be fresh from the mud.

Thanks Vinny and Doc Rock!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Search For The Magic Bullet (7th in a series): Where The Wild Things Are

It was amazing to witness. Connecticut's leading experts on all things wild taking turns to report on the status of the state's wildlife--and what could be our last chance to preserve nature pushed to the brink.



Some 250 people, including wildlife biologists, government agencies, environmental groups, teachers, students and the public, came to UCONN Storrs yesterday for the First Annual CT Wildlife Conservation Conference. The day capped a multi-year team effort to answer a challenge from the US Congress to assemble our knowledge of the state's wild species, population trends and threats, research needs and tools and implement a new conservation plan that addresses urgent conservation needs.

For anyone with even a passing interest in wild things, the knowledge team members shared was both inspiring and stunning. Together, they told a story of the state's remarkable natural diversity with a passion that was often starkly revealing. Many habitats that have for centuries enriched our lives, and species that have long symbolized the best of wild Connecticut, now teeter on the brink of extirpation from the state, if not extinction from the earth.



On the dais were a team of biologists and conservationists who worked to prepare Connecticut's Wildlife Conservation Strategy. From left, Tom Savoy, CT DEP, spoke about marine fisheries; Chris Elphick, UConn, landbirds; Milan Bull, CT Audubon, waterbirds; David Wagner, UConn, invertebrates; CT State Environmental Conservation Police Officer; Bill Hyatt, CT DEP, inland fisheries; Jenny Dickson, CT DEP, bats and small mammals; Julie Victoria, CT DEP, freshwater mussels; Steve Broderick, UConn, community outreach; Hank Gruner, Science Center of CT, reptiles & amphibians; Chet Arnold, UConn/CLEAR, land use education and research. Not pictured: Paul Rego, CT DEP, large mammals; Nancy Murray, CT DEP, natural diversity database; Karen Terwilliger, challenges & opportunities.

Current Trends

Chris Elphick noted that one in three of Connecticut's landbird species for which data is available have declined over the past 35 years. Once familiar birds such as the Wood Thrush, Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager and Woodcock are a few that should now be given top priority in conservation efforts. Milan Bull spoke about how waterbirds such as loons, grebes, ducks, rails, herons, bitterns--key indicators of wetland health--are also of greatest conservation need.

Jenny Dickson described how bats are showing dramatic population drops, with seven of the eight local species in need of conservation. Hank Gruner spoke powerfully about the diversity of Connecticut reptile and amphibian species, the genetic diversity represented by several salamander species and hybrid salamanders, and the unique challenges presented by the conservation needs of reptiles such as bog turtles, wood turtles and timber rattlesnakes. Nearly half of the state's amphibian species show evidence of population declines, while more than half of native reptiles are of conservation concern.

David Wagner made an impassioned plea that invertebrates be given greater recognition by talking about the plight of tiger beetles at the ends of successional habitat continuums in Connecticut. He spoke about how tiger beetles have occupied the state's sand plains since the Holocene, a time at the end of the last Ice Age when Glacial Lake Hitchcock drained and left areas such as Windsor with wind-driven sand dunes 40-50 feet tall. Today, some species of tiger beetle cling tenously to existence in a few populations as small as a few hundred individuals. Wagner noted that glacial sand plain ecosystems have evolved into highly unique systems, devoid of plants, where invertebrates wage fierce struggles to survive, but are now among the state's most endangered habitats.

Wagner gave efforts to conserve butterflies a "D," noting that 25% of local species are now imperiled or gone altogether. As for the decline of honeybees, a "keystone taxa" for pollination services, the situation is critical given that many natural communities, as well as farmers, are dependent on bees for pollination of wild plants and domestic crops. Wild bee populations disappeared decades ago and pollination is now dependent on domestic hives and beekeepers.

Mobilizing Change

Following the presentations, Karen Terwilliger, who consulted with the team and the state on the development of the plan, led a discussion of key issues. "The greatest threats include habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and habitat degradation," said Terwilliger, with the aggressive pace of development in the state over the past several decades a culprit in each. "I also heard from practically everyone that there is currently not enough information available about conservation needs, and that we need to look for commonalities as we seek to gather more."

New approaches must be based around landscape-scale planning, such as the Biodiversity Mapping Project that the Farmington River Watershed Association has undertaken on behalf of its communities, based on research by biologists such as Michael Klemens and Hank Gruner. The project is featured in the book, "Nature-Friendly Communities, Island Press, 2005.

Steve Broderick suggested that putting such information about key conservation areas in the hands of local conservation commissions is essential to any plan to protect larger scale wildlife corridors. "They are among the least appreciated and under supported groups in the state," said Broderick. "We need to do more for them than print brochures. They need our ongoing support. We need to be there with them, in the meetings, when important decisions are made."

Chris Elphick spoke about the utility of tools such as GIS satellite images and modelling, methods which require fewer data points to make projections about land use and habitat changes, species distribution and population trends. Together with the progress the CLEAR project is making in using satellite images to track land use and land cover changes to inform decision making, GIS modelling could be invaluable to addressing informational needs.

Elphick also made a plea for greater cooperation between groups. "Coordination is critical," said Elphick. "There may be many agendas, but we all share one goal."

A Call To Action

"The time for us to act is short," Jack Barclay, Director of The Wildlife Conservation Research Center at UConn pointed out in his remarks, "ten years or less. We must make a commitment to implement a cohesive strategy to preserve ecosystems and all things wild.

"Can we achieve the levels of understanding and success of the environmental heroes of the previous century, such as Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Gifford Pinchot? I call upon each one of you to participate. We must listen, learn, care, take action and speak out. All voices are essential. We must be heard on all levels. The public needs to hear from us. The legislature needs to hear from us. We must give them the details and tell them with passion and meaning."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One night during salamander migration

Early spring is a time when salamanders and amphibians wake from winter slumbers and migrate to upland wetlands where they lay their eggs. Once overnight temps get above 38-degrees and soaking rains come, you can expect local salamanders, frogs and toads to be on the move, and for herpetologist Brian Kleinman to be out with them, monitoring how the spring salamander migration is succeeding, and helping many across busy local roads to safety.



During one evening this month, Brian (above) had a night to remember. In a few hours, he watched as hundreds of migrants made their way across wet roads in northwest Connecticut. Equipped with a Handicam, he came back with some remarkable images of the animals he found moving during the first soaking rain of this spring.



An unexpected migrant was this Four-toed Salamander (above), the first Brian has seen in many years spent watching spring salamander migrations at this one spot in northwest Connecticut.



The Jefferson Salamander (above) is found throughout western Connecticut. Hybrid combinations between the Jefferson Salamander and its cousin, the Blue-spotted Salamander, (such as the one below) are also found in this range.



Hybrid Salamanders such as those found in Connecticut have evolved some of the most unique and intriguing reproductive adaptations in the animal kingdom.



The Spotted Salamander (like the one above that Brian taped as he helped it across the road) is one of the largest species found in forested areas, and can begin the breeding season by migrating in large numbers.



Moving along with the salamanders were other amphibians such as the Spring Peeper and Wood Frog. These frogs are able to tolerate partial freezing over the long winter, and in spring are among the first to emerge to lay their eggs. (Visit Dr. Ken Storey's page about freeze tolerant vertebrates.)



Also on the move this night were two rather cold and sluggish amphibians, an American Toad (above) and Green Frog (below).