January & February 2016

With the completion of five full years, Students Taking Action for Tomorrow’s Environment launched into its sixth year by diving into our now-typical and beloved winter projects in the Avalon Park and Preserve barn. In January, the snow kept us from a few weekends of productivity, but we were delighted to take a first pass at this year’s batch of  bee habitat boxes. Made of scrap wood, logs, and bamboo, we chopped, snipped, drilled, and assembled until we began to see little native bee homes coming into form. We increased our goal of final products from last year’s 16 to 22! Our other January task was a grand and important one: planning our organic vegetable and herb garden, Arcadia. Volunteers gathered to discuss the productivity of last year’s garden, improvements that could be made, crop-rotation plans, new plants to be introduced, a planting schedule, companion plantings in the raised beds, and most brilliantly, the concept of beginning to donate the majority of the produce we grow to a local non-denominational food pantry, Island Harvest.

In February, we returned to our efforts collaborating with the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Meadows to make burlap ‘tortillas,’ using their templates to cut circular burlap pieces with 10 holes each to be used later in the year as a medium for weaving and planting eelgrass just off of Long Island shorelines. This work is tough on the fingers, but time flies with a movie on the big screen while we work, and before we know it, there are hundreds of finished burlap circles ready to bag up and bring out east! Work continued on our ‘bee-boxes’ as we kept on track to produce more than ever this winter, getting roof pieces assembled and really starting to see what it was we were making. Hand in hand with the bees go the birds, so we finished the month by creating 10 native eastern bluebird boxes for our local Four Harbors Audubon Society. These will be installed by our volunteers or donated to local parks and preserves to provide habitat for the struggling species, or for other birds, who help control insect populations and delight us with their songs.

March 2016

March began with an exciting workshop, collaborating with the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Ward Melville Heritage Organization on a long-term project to create educational signage at the Mill Pond adjacent to Avalon Park. Concerned with the health of the ecosystem in and around the pond, and seeing great opportunity in the large number of visitors the pond sees on a daily basis, educational signage seems like a home-run! At this workshop, 16 volunteers learned about many aspects of the pond and its surroundings from experts in history, hydrology, wildlife, and more. The volunteers took notes on the most important and interesting facts from the day, and then collaborated on first drafts of the signage. We even stepped outside during our lunch break to soak up some sun and clean out the bluebird boxes in the fields. Overall, it was a brilliantly productive day!

Our month continued with another round of ‘tortilla’-cutting for CCE’s Marine Meadows, totaling over 900 burlap circles! With the warmer weather returning, we were able to get outside for our annual praying mantis egg hunt, where 18 volunteers found 159 nests. As each contain between 100 and 400 baby mantis, that means that between 15,900 and 63,600 mantis lives were saved by the hands of STATE volunteers. Great work, team! We look forward to putting those back into the fields after mowing and seeing the adults in the garden later this year.

Towards March’s end, the signage team gathered again to further their drafts. Finally, we snuck outside for our first day in Arcadia, planting the first seeds of the year in the garden and in our seedling trays. Nothing solidifies the end of winter like the first plantings of the year!

April 2016

This brisk month started with a breezy spring cleanup of one of our new favorite projects: the native habitat garden by Sand Street Beach in Stony Brook. We are so grateful to have this piece of land to work with, through the Stony Brook Rotary Club, as it’s such an important ecological barrier between the road and waterway, as well as popular public space to feature the beauty of native plants. Going from the seaside to the forest trails, we next headed to Smithtown to do work on the Greenbelt Trail just south of Route 347. Clearing vines from struggling trees and cutting back encroaching shrubs, volunteers left a significant stretch of trail healthier and more usable than they found it.

Festival season starts in April, kicking off with Seatuck Environmental Association‘s Eco-Carnival. Volunteers love to participate in this event: helping children find young children about tiny woodland and pond critters; inspiring them to write or draw poems or pictures to tie into trees (on biodegradable paper with natural fiber string, of course); and facilitating the event’s other games and activities. Following the carnival, volunteers teamed up with our friends at the Cornell Cooperative Extension to kick off a summer-long collaboration project, growing Spartina grass from seed. We are excited to have a hand in this important project to protect Long Island’s shorelines and build vital habitat.

The month ended with three tree-themed events: two Department of Environmental Conservation coordinated tree plantings and one habitat check-in at the Three Village Garden Club Arboretum. In total, our volunteers put over 700 tree and shrub ‘whips’ in the ground this last week. While constructive destruction of invasive species can prove to feel fulfilling and fun, tree, shrub, and perennial planting is an effort that speaks to a hopefulness about our future, and offers realistic glimpses of the world we want in 15 years, because of our actions taken today.

May 2016

With the heat more reliably turned on outside, we were emboldened to get outdoors more in this month of May! First, we had our second session with our Cornell Cooperative friends, this time digging all of the soil out one of our largest raised beds in order to fill it with sand and plant native Beach Grass so that it can multiply over the course of the summer and be replanted in the dunes alongside our Spartina grasses. Next, we wrapped up our bee habitat box project, painting half of them (artists’ choice of designs) and leaving half au-naturale, to be donated to the Long Island Native Plant Initiative for them to sell at their annual spring plant sale, raising funds for the operating costs of this wonderful nonprofit. Soon thereafter, we headed out to LINPI’s headquarters in Riverhead to help them prepare for their plant sale, potting-up root-bound plants, moving flats around, and weeding last year’s hearty stock.

Then it was the perfect time of year to head into the park section of Avalon Park and Preserve and tackle the invasive Garlic Mustard population. The amount diminishes every year, so we must be making progress! Volunteers are always thrilled to learn that we can actually eat this invasive plant. Continuing with festival season, we helped out at the Smithtown Historical Society‘s Spring Farm Festival, in all of its old-timey fun! To finish the month, we planted the second round of seeds and transplanted our seedlings into our volunteer garden, Arcadia.

June 2016

With summer just around the corner, everyone has been so very excited to be outside! June began with participation in the Port Jefferson Maritime Explorium’s Maker Faire. This eclectic gathering of innovative ideas and inventions always leaves us feeling inspired. Twice this month, we dove into one of our favorite projects of the year: horseshoe crab counting and tagging outings with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s monitoring program. This event never fails to delight us as we stroll the beach chatting about these amazing creatures and the importance of studying their movement. Our tireless volunteers stayed up until the wee hours of the morning tagging over 600 horseshoe crabs at these two events!

During the daylight hours, we returned to work at our Sand Street habitat garden project, delighting in the early flowers and signs of great successes to come throughout the year. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization/Four Harbors Audubon Society/STATE team re-joined forces to work on another round of signage drafting, bringing the concepts far enough to move onto board review by the associated organizations. Getting back outside, we worked again in Arcadia, seeing the first signs of a harvest while planting many more seeds.

After two years, we revisited our Kings Park native bird and butterfly habitat garden to split and move around some plants. It’s incredibly encouraging to see how impressive tiny seedlings become while you’re busy doing other things! Speaking of which, we had another session with our Cornell Cooperative Extension friends, helping to split and pot up some of their more mature Spartina plants. At the month’s end, we collaborated with Friends of Flax Pond for our first Tracking the Terrapins event: seeking signs of the turtles, and if we’re lucky, the turtles themselves. Citizen science is always important, but we’re fortunate when it’s as exciting as these instances!

July 2016

The outdoor thermostat has finally leveled out at a steady high heat, and volunteers came out in droves this month to our programs to soak up the sun and help all sorts of causes.

Twice more this month, we worked alongside folks from the Friends of Flax Pond for more Tracking the Terrapins efforts. We found many turtles to measure and tag, as well as predated nests to add to our data sheets. The volunteers equate this work to detective’s job: piecing clues together to tell a story of what goes on when our eyes are not on the beaches.

Of course, we kept up our organic gardening at Arcadia here at Avalon Park and Preserve, deciding this summer to begin donating the produce to Island Harvest, a non-denominational food bank providing for those in need. The volunteers are very excited by this new routine and work a little harder to help our plants along so that our neighbors can enjoy the bounty.

July is a great time to visit our ongoing native habitat restoration/garden projects, so we stopped by to do maintenance and plantings at Sweetbriar Nature Center, Smithtown Public Library, Sunken Meadow State Park, and Nesconset Public Library. It’s amazing to see how much the native plants mature over the course of one year! Volunteers split and relocated plants which had grown into large clumps, amongst other tasks, tidying and spreading out the ecologically beneficial habitat. We saw a wide variety of birds, butterflies, and native bees while accomplishing our missions in these gardens, reminding us of why we do the work that we do!

Every other week, we also helped at the beautiful community gardens located at Sweetbriar Nature Center. This lovely spread of flora provides a sanctuary for anyone looking to escape the busy day-to-day pace of life, as well as a learning center for Sweetbriar’s campers.

Finally, we trekked out to Riverhead to help our friends at the Long Island Native Plant Initiative re-stock their shelves with new baby native plants after a very successful plant sale in June. Volunteers find the task of “potting up” tiny seedlings quite meditative, passing the time quickly with quiet conversation in a serene environment.

August 2016

The “dog days” kicked off with all hands on deck in Arcadia, tending to rapidly growing tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and of course, weeds! Throughout the month, the garden really took shape, and by the end of August, it was producing an incredible amount of goods for donation at Island Harvest.

Our Tuesday mornings at Sweetbriar Nature Center continued, creating a new path through one of the larger beds, which feels to the littlest visitors like a fairy-tale escape. Volunteers get to see the impact of a sizable group on a vast garden space, and reflect well on the importance of group volunteerism during these particular events.

This is the month where we tackle one of Long Island’s newer invasive species: Mile-a-Minute weed. As one might guess from its name, it grows at an incredibly fast rate, but thankfully, it pulls up without much struggle– though volunteers will tell you of the larger thorns and poison ivy that it likes to keep in its company. We seem to have nearly eradicated it from the Three Village Garden Club Arboretum, and couldn’t be more proud to say so! Unfortunately, we found a few very large patches in the East Farm Preserve portion of Avalon Park and Preserve and need to create a management strategy for next year.

Of our native habitat gardens, we stopped by the Sand Street Beach and Caleb Smith State Park projects to conduct maintenance and light plantings, very pleased with each gardens’ progression.

One of our more rare but delightful sites to visit for a volunteer day is Hallockville Museum Farm. Located on the North Fork, this functioning historic farm educates the public about homestead and modern farming. We stopped by to help spruce up some fences– and enjoy homemade ice cream!

Near the end of the month, we had another session with our Cornell Cooperative Extension friends, helping again to split and pot up some of their more mature Spartina plants and planting a bed of beach grass in our own Arcadia so that we can perpetually produce seedlings for transplanting into dunes for restoration purposes.

Another one-off, exciting event this month was an invasive water chestnut pull in conjunction with the NY DEC in Massapequa. Volunteers gloved up and climbed into kayaks, then paddled out into Massapequa Lake to clear the invasive plant from the water’s surface, making room for native flora and allowing the lake’s normal oxygen cycles to function and support the fauna.

To end the month, we had our annual volunteer reward trip to New Paltz, taking the 6 most active volunteers of the spring and summer upstate for a day of hiking and rock climbing. As always, they had a fantastic time of it, recreating in the great outdoors: enjoying the very thing they work so hard to preserve.

September 2016

Just before school started up again, we joined the Friends of Flax Pond for an adorable second season’s session of Tracking the Terrapins efforts: documenting and releasing baby Terrapins! Volunteers measured, took DNA samples from, and documented dozens of baby turtles before releasing them into the harbor on a beautiful late-summer day.

The team then headed down to the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge to help educate the public at Pine Barrens Discovery Day. We also assisted at Caleb Smith State Park‘s annual Fall Festival, getting our hands dirty exploring the pond with curious young environmentalists. Volunteers enjoyed helping people of all ages connect with nature and facilitating this important event amongst other presenters, hiking guides, and the great outdoors.

Our Arcadia work continued, harvesting many dozens of pounds of food for Island Harvest. Volunteers are often surprised at the large yield in September, as fresh produce is often most strongly associated with the height of the summer.

Mid-month, we helped our friends at the Long Island Native Plant Initiative with their first autumn plant-sale, which was a huge success. Arguably, Long Island native plants are at their prime in the autumn!

We put in our final Mile-a-Minute efforts, seeing as this plant is an annual (unlike most invasive plants, which are perennials) and it drops its berries in early September. Pulling it after that point is quite pointless.

There was a fantastic local effort for International Coastal Cleanup Day where volunteers headed down to Port Jefferson’s Pirates Cove to clean up the beach. We enjoyed the concept that at the same time and throughout that day, volunteers were covering beaches all over the globe, picking up tons and tons of garbage, from micro-plastics to abandoned boats.

October 2016

October started off with a splash into the Stony Brook Harbor as volunteers paddled to Young’s Island to clean rubbish that had washed and blown onto its shores over the previous year. Once a year, we make this journey, after the shore-nesting birds have come and gone from the preserve. It’s always fascinating to see the array of garbage that has made its way to the island!

For native habitat efforts, we installed a garden at the end of West Meadow Beach, which educated volunteers on the array of Long Island natives that have the capability to grow in 80-100% sandy soil. We also visited our Sand Street Beach project, which looked golden and gorgeous with its grasses and late-season flowers.

The Arcadia harvest began to dwindle as the threat of frost picked up but peppers still trickled in, carrots stayed strong, kale was at an all-time high, and our second round of snap-peas were sweeter than ever.

Another exciting annual project in October is the Day in the Life of the Nissequogue River event. Our crew gathers in Smithtown and conducts a series of tests and observations, while other crews of middle- and high-school students do the same up and down the river, to create a scientific snap-shot of the river.

Mid-month, we headed over to Sweetbriar Nature Center to assist with some late-season plantings and winding up of garden projects there. It was a wonderfully mellow afternoon in the warm autumn sun as we reflected on all the work done there throughout the year.

Volunteers helped their home-base organization with a foot-traffic survey, counting the number of visitors at various locations within the park to help determine where and when security staff should be monitoring the public. This is helpful in keeping the park’s thriving ecosystem and the visiting public at a harmonious balance. The following weekend, volunteers were back at Avalon Park and Preserve directing traffic of their own, and handing out water, too: we stationed ourselves at a runner’s refreshment and cheering station along the breast cancer awareness and fundraising Walk for Beauty, which comes through the park.

November 2016

As the weather begins to close out our season, volunteers tend to bundle up and brave the cold for the last opportunities of the calendar year, for which we are most grateful. The month started at one of Long Island’s quirkiest attractions: the Big Duck. The Peconic Estuary Program has a native habitat garden project on the grounds surrounding the large walk-in bird, so volunteers helped to prep it for the winter and, in that, the spring ahead.

We also visited the gardens in front of the welcome center at Nissequogue River State Park, tidying up the fall plantings, trimming bushes, greeting all of the slow-moving pollinators hanging around late-season flowers, and generally making the impressive entrance to the park even more welcoming. It’s a fantastic feeling for the team to stand back and feel proud of their hard work’s results, knowing that each of the park’s patrons will enjoy them, too!

The volunteers did another round of foot-traffic surveying at Avalon Park and Preserve, this time on a week-day holiday, to see how the number of visitors varied. There were certainly worse things to be doing on a gorgeous autumn day than lounging in a lovely park counting folks passing by.

It was our pleasure to visit the North Shore Land Alliance’s fairly new Wawapek Preserve to beat back some invasive vines from their native trees. The work was more fun than expected, with lots of tugging and laughing, and the results were impressive.

For the second year, STATE volunteers attended Coastal Steward‘s coordinated Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. This is a wonderfully inspiring gathering of middle- and high-school students working with ocean experts to speak about the greatest problems facing our marine environments and the best strategies to mitigate these issues. It’s inspiring to me to see the first sparks of brilliant projects; I truly hope that each of these young people know of the immense power they hold in their minds and hands.

The final event of the year was a beach cleanup in Mt. Sinai, accompanied by a small team from Stony Brook University who is studying micro-plastics. We were shocked and horrified by how many tiny pieces of plastic are lurking in the reeds and sand when we stopped to take a closer look. The effects on the marine life are just beginning to be seen but we can hope that technologies to collect micro-plastics and stop their creation will develop quickly to put an end to this problem before it becomes even greater.

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