New Conservation Mapping Tool Helps Visualize Opportunities

The Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative has announced the launch of an exciting new interactive mapping tool designed to aid northeastern conservation practitioners and organizations, including regional conservation partnerships and land trusts in advancing conservation.

Using birds as its guide, the conservation mapping tool will support activities such as habitat management plan and stewardship development, land prioritization and acquisition strategies, and landowner and community engagement.

This unique and novel tool showcases Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird Status & Trends (S&T) data for 43 priority bird species across five different habitat types, including forest, shrub/young forest, coast/shoreline, grassland, and wetland/marsh, as GIS data layers. The S&T data can be downloaded to add into preexisting GIS and land prioritization projects or overlaid with layers such as protected open space, National Audubon’s Important Bird Areas, and The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient and Connected Landscapes data, helping paint a clear picture of the relationship between the land and birds.

The tool was created by partners in the Northeast Bird Habitat Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort between The Regional Conservation Partnership (RCP) Network, Audubon groups, Highstead, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. GIS experts at Harvard Forest and Highstead and scientists from the Cornell Lab created simplified versions of the eBird modeled abundance bird data and made it freely available.

eBird is among the world’s largest biodiversity-related science projects, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed annually by eBirders around the world. A collaborative enterprise with hundreds of partner organizations, thousands of regional experts, and hundreds of thousands of users, eBird is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Category: News

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Back by Popular Demand: Conservation Finance Learning Lab

After a highly successful and engaging series of webinars last year, Highstead and the Conservation Finance Network have announced the second annual five-part Conservation Finance Learning Lab. The free webinars are available to registrants and take place on the second Tuesday of each month, from December 2022 through April 2023.

The webinar series will feature panel discussions, case studies, and networking opportunities for participants to take a deep dive into tangible, innovative approaches to conservation funding and financing. The concepts and lessons learned from the case studies presented will be broadly applicable to practitioners everywhere. Each session will build on the previous sessions, culminating in the “Dolphin Tank” exercise where participants will have the opportunity to analyze and discuss solutions to real-world conservation problems.

Attendance to all / most sessions will ensure the full benefit of the series. Register for individual sessions below.

Participants who have not previously participated in Conservation Finance 101 are encouraged to watch this pre-recorded session.

Webinar Dates and Registration

For those unable to attend a live session, a recording will be available on this page after each webinar.

Part I: Carbon Markets: Past, Present, and Future – December 13, 2022 at 3 PM ET

This session will focus on various carbon revenue strategies, including regulatory and voluntary markets, corporate carbon insetting, pipeline development, trendlines for the coming years, as well as perspective from a land trust experimenting with carbon offsets.

Part II: Public Funding: How to Harvest During a Bumper Crop of Federal Funds – January 10, 2023 at 2 PM ET

This session will focus on underutilized sources of federal funding and financing, what to track, and how best to anticipate opportunities.

Part III: The Art & Science of Borrowing Money: Bridge Loans & State Revolving Funds – February 14, 2023 at 2 PM ET

This session will focus on the benefits and sources of short-term and long-term debt. First we’ll delve into the mechanics of a financed transaction and learn about the ins and outs of short-term bridge financing, including the perspective of a land trust borrower. Then we’ll explore Clean Water State Revolving Fund loans (SRFs), a source of long-term public financing including immediate opportunities and how to move forward projects where funds are available.

Part IV: Partnering with Companies: How to Find Alignment and Sharpen Your Partner Introduction – March 14, 2023 at 2 PM ET

This 90-minute session will highlight trends in corporate philanthropy, discuss how to find alignment and fit, and share an exercise on how to create a compelling partner introduction.

Part V: “Dolphin Tank” Project Consultations – April 11, 2023 at 2 PM ET

This last session will put the previous webinar lessons into practice where participants will have the opportunity to analyze and deliberate solutions to real-world conservation problems.

The Conservation Finance Network wordmark. Conservation Finance Learning
Highstead logo. Conservation Finance Learning

Category: Events

A Q&A with Highstead’s New Conservation Interns

Every year for nearly 20 years, Highstead has welcomed young and bright minds onto their team through their Fall Conservation Internship Program. The program gives aspiring conservationists, students, and recent graduates an opportunity to gain experience in the conservation field while also providing Highstead with fresh ideas and energy from the next generation. This September through December, Highstead welcomes conservation interns, Autumn Carson as the Communications and Events Intern, Sylvia Holland as the Conservation Finance Intern, and Cliff Sheehan as the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Intern.

After adjusting to their new roles, Autumn, Sylvia, and Cliff sat down for a Q&A to share a bit about their personal and professional backgrounds, aspirations for the internship, and more.

Autumn Carson (She/Her) – Communications and Events Conservation Intern

A woman A selfie of a woman at the beach at twilight. A Q&A with Highstead’s New Conservation Interns.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born and raised in the metro-Detroit area of Michigan and moved to East Lansing, Michigan when I was 17 to attend Michigan State University. I graduated with a BA in Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities and a double minor in Religious Studies and Environment and Sustainability Studies. I did college ministry for a couple of years after I graduated, but I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the environmental field. Recently, I started grad school at Virginia Tech where I’m pursuing a Masters of Natural Resources.

A woman smiling next to a goat. A Q&A with Highstead’s New Conservation Interns.
Autumn with a senior goat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in San Diego, California

What drew you to the Highstead internship program and what do you hope to gain from your time here? 

I really appreciate Highstead’s commitment to environmental conservation and stewardship, especially through collaborating and partnering with individuals and organizations with similar missions. I’m excited for the opportunity to exercise and grow my communications skills while working with and learning from such experienced and passionate people at Highstead.

What skills and experiences will you bring to the Highstead team?

In my previous role as Care and Connection Coordinator at Riverview Church, a lot of my responsibilities mirrored those of my current position at Highstead. I was involved in a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for planning, organizing, and executing both online and in-person events. I was also responsible for running our social media accounts, so I have experience developing and curating engaging content for social media platforms. 

What are some of your hobbies and passions outside of work?

A woman smiles in front of a barrier and crowd facing in the direction of a stage.
Autumn at a Surfaces and LANY concert at the Michigan Lottery Amphitheater in Sterling Heights, Michigan

My favorite thing to do is go to concerts by myself! I love seeing my favorite artists live and on stage, and so far, I’ve seen 21 of my favorite musicians over the last 12 months (my favorites have been Lauv, With Confidence, Blake Rose and HARBOUR). 

Outside of that, I really enjoy swimming, hiking, hammocking, hot yoga and playing the guitar. During the first wave of stay-at-home orders in Michigan, I learned how to longboard and play the ukulele, so I also do those in my free time as well.

Sylvia Holland (She/Her) – Conservation Finance Intern

A woman smiles.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’m a recent graduate of Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies. I grew up in the Green Mountains of Vermont and later moved to mid-coast Maine where I raise goats and keep honeybees.

What drew you to the Highstead internship program and what do you hope to gain from your time here? 

A woman smiles and holds a salmon on a beach. A Q&A with Highstead’s New Conservation Interns
Sylvia holding the first salmon she ever caught while on Herring Cove Beach in Ketchikan, Alaska

Working closely with Highstead’s passionate and encouraging team has been the highlight of my internship so far. I’ve also enjoyed diving deeper into conservation finance research and engaging with projects with real-world ramifications. Highstead is also a hub of conservation activity, and I very much look forward to continuing to collaborate with people and organizations across New England.

A woman smiles through a porthole window. Behind her, another woman plucks a violin. A Q&A with Highstead’s New Conservation Interns
Sylvia on-board the SSV Corwith Cramer where she spent a semester sailing and doing marine biology with the Sea Education Association based out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts

What skills and experiences will you bring to the Highstead team?

When I graduated college, I wanted to become a scientific communicator. I’m skilled at reading dense reports or pieces of policy, pulling out key bits of information, and creating digestible presentations that empower communities and organizations. I’m also a good listener and am dedicated to hearing all the points of view on a topic and finding common ground. 

What are some of your passions and hobbies outside of work?

I love playing the fiddle, knitting, and biking, and have recently been trying to learn to pickle farmers’ market produce.

Cliff Sheehan (He/They) – GIS Conservation Intern

Tell us a bit about your background.

A man smiles.

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I first fell in love with conservation at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. I attended Duke University and graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science with a concentration in Marine Science and a minor in Biology. I spent my senior year at the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina where I took a number of field science courses and completed my senior thesis with the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory. After graduating, I worked as a field technician for the Seagrass Ecology Lab and the Craboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi.

What drew you to the Highstead internship program and what do you hope to gain from your time here?

Highstead’s focus on science-informed conservation, its collaborative approach to accomplishing its mission, and its intentional inclusion of diversity, equity, and inclusivity in all their projects is what drew me to their internship program. Through this internship, I hope to gain more experience working with diverse parties to advance equitable conservation, grow my GIS skillset, and explore potential career opportunities.

What skills and experiences will you bring to the Highstead team?

A man smiles and holds a net with octopus on a beach.
Cliff with an octopus he accidentally caught while fishing (the octopus was safely returned to the water)

I believe my time at the Duke University Marine Laboratory will benefit the Highstead team because it exposed me to the technical side of science and conservation. I was given the chance to explore the use of uncrewed aerial vehicles and remotely operated vehicles in environmental science and conservation, as well as spatial analysis using Esri platforms and open-source technologies, and machine learning. I hope to expand Highstead’s capacity to provide technical support for its partners.

What are some of your passions and hobbies outside of work?

A man smiles and wears race medals in front of a Disney World castle.
Cliff posing with all of his race medals in front of Cinderella’s castle in Disney world after completing the 2022 Dopey Challenge (running a 5k, 10k, 1/2 marathon, and full marathon on four sequential days)

I love rock climbing, especially in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I’ve been climbing since my Dad took me to the Gorge when I was 13.
Outside of that, I grew up swimming competitively, but took up running in high school for fun in the off seasons. I’ve never been particularly fast, but I’ve really enjoyed running long distances. In 2017, I ran my first half marathon, my first marathon in 2019, and my first multi-event running challenge in 2021. I also love learning new things! Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned to fish, bake, decorate cakes, knit, and crochet; I am now taking recommendations for new hobbies to try.

Category: News


Beyond Butterflies: Habitat Restoration and the Rare Northern Metalmark

Of the 117 butterfly species documented in Connecticut, the northern metalmark (Calephis borealis) features brown and delicate wings of ochre ringed with a hint of shimmery silver, with a wingspan of 1 to 1-1/4 inches, and two striped antennae with club-like tips. Without descriptive anchors, one might miss the tiny, locally endangered, and globally rare butterfly among its three known major populations in New York state, central Pennsylvania through West Virginia, and even near Highstead in Western Connecticut.nd even near Highstead in Western Connecticut.

An orange and gold butterfly perches on the brown center of a yellow-petaled flower. Northern metalmark.
Metalmark butterfly on rudbeckia. Photo courtesy of Faith Novella.

These isolated butterfly populations are indicators of a specific and aged land history, consisting of alkaline-rich limestone bedrock, eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), and ecotonal woodland habitat, all of which provide conditions for roundleaf ragwort (Packera obovata) to support northern metalmark larvae and nearby its adult nectar sources like fleabane and black-eyed Susan.

“Northern metalmark habitat is disappearing because of development and invasive species, threatening the existence of the butterfly,” said Highstead Executive Director Geordie Elkins. “Other species with larger dispersal areas can move, making them more resilient to change and habitat disruption. Since the metalmark has such a short flight range, it’s essentially immobile, making it less resilient and more vulnerable to habitat destruction.”

But the northern metalmark’s Connecticut story doesn’t have to end there. As it happens, habitat supporting a northern metalmark population was recently identified in Fairfield County, but not without the challenge of invasive plant competitors. For the past 30 years, Conservation Director Bob Eckenrode has served at the site and has aided in the restoration effort. He has recruited volunteers and partners to help in this work, including staff from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn, the Connecticut Botanical Society, and the Yale Peabody Museum. “It continues to be an honor to be working together caring for this special place,” he said.

With permission from the landowners, local lepidopterist and Connecticut Butterfly Association (CBA) board member Victor DeMasi, CBA volunteer restoration coordinator Faith Novella, Audubon Connecticut, and the Connecticut Botanical Society, along with Highstead, are together restoring the rare site for northern metalmark butterflies and the native plants they depend on.

 Yellow-petaled flowers and various green vegetation grow before a cliff edge. A lifeguard chair, colorful pattleboards, and a dock sit at the edge of an azure pond. Northern metalmark.
Metalmark restoration habitat. Photo courtesy of Faith Novella.

What began as an invasive plant management plan eventually grew into a comprehensive and collective effort. “You’ve got butterfly experts, landowners who are concerned about the environmental quality of their property, and Highstead, and each person is bringing their own expertise and capacity to what really is a genuine collaboration,” said Geordie. He described Highstead’s initial involvement. “The native plants that the butterflies need to survive were being outcompeted by phragmites, swallow-wort, bittersweet, and all the regular invasive plants. Victor and Faith began invasive plant removal, and then they wanted to come back and supplement with native plants. We felt it was important to get plants that actually came from that site and had the same genes that are suited to the highly specialized soil.” Geordie continued, “Additionally,  there are a number of Connecticut species of special concern that grow on the site. The entire site is unique beyond the metalmark. It’s the whole suite of plants that allow for the butterflies.”

Last fall, Highstead collected seeds from black-eyed Susans, the primary northern metalmark nectar plant, as well as some of the other specialized plants that make this site so rare.  Last winter, Highstead staff germinated the seeds in the greenhouse, growing between 500 and 600 plant plugs. This spring, Highstead staff worked with Faith to plant them back into the site. “They look great and are mostly growing well and flowering despite the drought. We were kind of worried because the site’s soil is thin and dry due to the limestone ledge,” Geordie said. “However, when we planted the plants, there was about two weeks’ worth of intermittent rain which was enough to get them well established.”

The restoration team continues ongoing nectar augmentation, invasive plant weeding, and consistent care for native ecotype plants. Geordie emphasized the careful balance between working and making space for the northern metalmark. “Because the butterflies are always on the site in either butterfly form, egg, or larval form, we’re trying to be really careful about how many people are in there working at a time, so there aren’t people trampling the area.”

While significant progress has been made to restore and increase northern metalmark habitat, the site will require year-round maintenance to keep invasive plants from outcompeting beneficial butterfly flora. This past summer, Yale Conservation Scholar Beau Martinez worked with Geordie to develop a field identification guide to the invasive plants within the northern metalmark conservation area. The guide includes an annual schedule of invasive removal, by the season. While the guide was created specifically for site restoration volunteers, others may find it helpful in creating their own invasive plant identification guides.


Category: Stories

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Natural Disturbances Can Deliver Surprising Benefits to the Landscape

Climate change, along with species loss, is the leading environmental challenge of our time. Warmer temperatures, drought, and more intense rainfall and flooding characterize the changing climate, which in turn are associated with increased severity and extent of windstorms, wildfires, and insect outbreaks. Not surprisingly, tree mortality has increased dramatically in many parts of the world.

A grey barn obscured by slim trees with small leaves. Natural Disturbances Can Deliver Surprising Benefits to the Landscape.
The Highstead barn and oak-mountain laurel forest.

Highstead’s natural landscape is no exception. Several intense storms and a severe insect outbreak over the past dozen years have resulted in a sharp uptick in tree death in Highstead’s forest. In 2011-2012, two tropical storms and one severe ice storm knocked down dozens of trees, reducing carbon accumulation (i.e., climate mitigation). More recently, the invasive emerald ash borer beetle killed 99% of mature ash trees between 2016 and 2021, further slowing total forest growth and carbon accumulation.

A rabbit sits in grass. Natural Disturbances Can Deliver Surprising Benefits to the Landscape
New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)
Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The irony of increased natural disturbance is that despite being generally negative for ecosystem services such as carbon accumulation and wood products, it often increases landscape and vegetation complexity and therefore, habitat availability and biodiversity. For instance, at Highstead, the dense shrub layer that has developed in the gaps created by dead ash trees has contributed to a thriving population of the globally vulnerable New England Cottontail, which specializes in shrubby habitat. Were it not for these disturbances, this rabbit species would be much less likely to use this forest.

The exposed insides of a decaying tree with various soils, detritus, leaves, and twigs.
A downed ash tree at Highstead.

Even with increased tree mortality, Highstead’s forest – like New England and the temperate forest biome in general – is remarkably resilient and continues to grow and accumulate carbon. Indeed, carbon stored in live and dead trees and downed wood (“aboveground carbon”) reached its highest level in Highstead’s forest in 2021. A major reason for this is that carbon in trees killed by windstorms and insects is not lost as is commonly believed, but remains in dead standing and downed trees, often for decades as this ‘deadwood’ slowly decomposes. Meanwhile, nearby healthy trees respond with increased growth rates, and young trees regenerate in the gaps left by the dead trees.

Highstead’s 110 acres of forests store on average about 50 metric tons of aboveground carbon per acre, about 20% more carbon than the average southern New England forest. On a global scale, New England’s forests, south of Maine, store above-average levels of carbon. Consequently, New England’s forests are mapped as a global “climate stabilization area” in need of protection. Thus Highstead’s forest represents a small but important piece of that regional (and ultimately global) climate stabilization area.

A boardwalk winds through dense leaves of trees, swamp plants, and grasses.
Red-maple swamp.

Despite its relatively high carbon density, Highstead’s forest – like almost all temperate forests around the globe – is heavily modified by past human land use. Intensive timber harvesting occurred in the oak forest until the early 20th century, while forest clearance maintained the current maple forest in open pasture well into the early 20th century. The result is that Highstead’s forest stores only about 55-60% of its potential maximum carbon.

But Highstead’s roughly 39 acres of fields and meadow that were once forested are in much greater carbon debt than its forests. New England meadows store on average about 3 metric tons of aboveground carbon per acre, or only about 3% of the carbon they once stored in forest vegetation in the same location. Though comparatively carbon-poor, semi-natural meadows in New England provide other services including cultural heritage, expansive views, and habitat for species that specialize in open areas such as the purple milkweed and the globally “near threatened” eastern meadowlark

Given the size of trees relative to grasses and wildflowers, it’s not surprising that forests are the most carbon dense (and biodiverse) vegetation type on Earth. However, if we include soil carbon, one ecosystem surpasses all others in carbon storage on a per acre basis: wetlands. The absence of oxygen in saturated wetland soils greatly slows decomposition and allows for the accumulation of vast amounts of organic carbon in deep soil profiles. Highstead’s approximately 3 acres of forested wetland store an estimated 120 metric tons of carbon per acre in their soil profile, which combined with 50 metric tons of aboveground carbon, makes it the most carbon-dense ecosystem at Highstead.

The next 25-30 years are critical in the effort to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius and to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Thus an important question is how much more carbon could Highstead’s landscape accumulate if it remained protected? By 2052, Highstead’s existing forests could accumulate another 14.5 tons of carbon per acre or over 1500 additional tons across the entire forest. Naturally reforesting a portion of the grassy areas could accumulate about 30 additional tons of carbon per acre over the same time period. In other words, an important piece of the climate solution is simply managing less and letting nature do more.

A stand of brown meadow plants before a distant forest of trees beginning to change to their fall colors of yellows, oranges, and reds. Branches of changing leaves frame the image.
The barn meadow.

Category: Perspectives

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The Inflation Reduction Act: A Closer Look at Natural Climate Solutions and Environmental Justice Provisions

On Tuesday, August 16, 2022,  President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law following months of negotiation. The legislation is the single largest climate investment ever made by Congress with $370 billion towards climate and energy related funding. These investments are projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, making significant strides towards the nation’s Paris Agreement goals – a 50% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act will reduce emissions namely by speeding up the transition to clean energy with financial incentives, ultimately decreasing the cost of clean energy. The act also comes on the heels of the CHIPS and Science Act, a $280 billion package aimed at the American semiconductor industry. The Chips and Science Act could direct nearly $67 billion towards the growth of zero carbon industries and conducting climate research, making it one of the largest climate bills ever passed by Congress.

The Inflation Reduction Act also makes historic investments in natural climate solutions such as forestry and sustainable agriculture practices. These investments acknowledge the importance of forest landowners and farmers in climate solutions through land conservation, forest restoration, and climate friendly agriculture. Natural climate solutions will advance the nation’s carbon emissions reductions by implementing practices that improve soil carbon storage and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act allocates $20 billion to four different programs under USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The programs provide private landowners with technical and financial assistance for voluntary conservation efforts on agricultural land, and projects with climate related goals will be a priority. The following programs will receive an influx of funding:

The IRA’s funding for forestry totals $5 billion and includes forest management, planning, and restoration activities for both federal and nonfederal forests. Of the $5 billion, $2.15 billion is directed to the National Forest System and includes: 

  • $1.8 billion for the National Forest System to support wildlife risk reducing activities
  • $350 million for vegetation management, environmental reviews, and inventory of old-growth forests on National Forest System land

The remaining $2.75 billion in funding is for non federal forest management activities, including: 

  • $700 million for competitive grants through the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which permanently protects private forestland through conservation easements and acquisitions
  • $450 million to help private landowners manage forests more effectively 

The IRA also allocates $2.6 billion to NOAA to assist coastal communities in conservation, restoration, and protection efforts that increase climate resilience. 

The Inflation Reduction Act includes several measures aimed at advancing environmental and climate justice. These programs promote legacy pollution reduction and accessible clean energy. Two programs of note are:

  • $3 billion for Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants (likely administered by the EPA), which invest in community-led projects in disadvantaged communities to address environmental and public health harms related to pollution and climate change
  • $3 billion in Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants (administered by the DOT), which will fund projects that improve access to transit, walkability, and other infrastructure needs in disadvantaged communities

Several provisions related to clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions offer incentives for disadvantaged or underserved communities. For example, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a clean energy and sustainability accelerator funded at $27 billion, will allocate at least 60 percent of those funds towards disadvantaged communities. While the IRA does not address all environmental justice concerns, and federal agencies are still working on a concrete definition of “underserved communities,” the inclusion of EJ is seen as significant and an important step in the right direction.

Category: News

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Endangered Monarch Make the Most of Milkweed

Recently, the IUCN listed the status of the iconic migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) to endangered. Monarch make their summer home at Highstead where their sole hostplant, native milkweed from the genus Asclepias grow in abundance. If you peek beneath a milkweed leaf or toward the top of the plant, you may find a monarch’s pinhead-sized egg attached by a secreted glue. This egg is one of 300-500 eggs laid over two to three weeks.

A single yellow monarch egg on the underside of a green leaf.
Monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf.

Asclepias are the only food source for the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars). As migratory monarch caterpillar chow down, they ingest the plant’s toxic chemical compounds (cardenolides) that will protect them as adults. The bright orange and black-striped wings they wear are concentrated with the poison and serve as a warning to potential predators while monarch pollinate milkweed and other native plants.

A field of milkweed plants with purple blooms and orange blooms.
Milkweed plants at Highstead.

The monarch’s time at Highstead is only one-half of its life story. The last generation of metamorphosized monarch butterflies may live up to 8-9 months and will spend up to 2 months on an almost 3,000-mile journey to their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The population in and around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is surveyed by the acreage of forest in which the butterfly colonies hibernate and overwinter. Their presence has grown from 2.10 hectares (5.19 acres) in December 2020 to 2.84 hectares (7.02 acres) in December 2021. Despite this growth, these numbers indicate a sharp decline from 1993-2001, when the average area occupied in Mexico was 8.7 hectares (21.5 acres).

Ongoing threats to the population include increased legal and illegal logging of overwintering forest habitat for agriculture and development, pesticides and herbicide application across monarch ranges, climate change, a loss of nectar source plants along migration routes, and milkweed habitat loss.

Are you interested in expanding opportunities for the monarch and increasing the biodiversity of your landscape? Planting local milkweed species native to your area is best. USDA Plants provides a list of the most frequently used milkweed species by monarchs in Eastern North America.

A butterfly on a plant. The butterfly wings are orange with black stripes and white spots at the edges and on its body.
An adult monarch butterfly.


Category: Stories

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How COVID-19 Sparked New Research at Highstead

Above the rafters of the lecture and display hall in the Highstead timber-frame barn, there is a loft that, among other things, houses a high-powered microscope. With COVID-19 restrictions keeping local butterfly enthusiast Victor DeMasi from his research site at the Yale Peabody Museum, that microscope has sparked a multi-year effort to identify the multitude of members of the order Lepidoptera that call the Highstead landscape home and has expanded to include a recent focus on members of the Apoidea family— bees and wasps.

 “I connected with Highstead, and they offered a microscope and a nice, isolated area, so I kind of opened up a little bee lab there.” And for the last two and a half years, Victor’s time at Highstead has been dedicated to studying pollinating bees and participating in the United States Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab to expand his knowledge of Apoidea. “In hindsight, it was just a wonderful thing to happen to me from the pandemic.”

Two and a half years later, the microscope has been joined by cases of various and intricately preserved insects that line every surface available.

In Search of Pollinators

Another recent collaboration between Victor and Highstead includes a survey of the pollinators local to Redding. “I was previously focused on butterflies up until about four years ago, but then I became interested in pollinating insects.”

Native plants and pollinators flourish in Roanna Metowski and Victor DeMasi’s meadow. Photo credit: Victor DeMasi.

Biologist Sammy Riccio, budding entomologist Lukas, and Highstead executive director Geordie Elkins teamed up with Victor to catalog pollinator insects and document the plants on which they are found. As an ongoing effort, the survey is maintained throughout the summer season. “Very few insects have been collected in western Connecticut. Connecticut insect collections mostly represent the center part of the state—near Yale and UConn and where students are located. So, we’re looking at an area that hasn’t really been scrutinized.”

The resulting census includes around 3,000 specimens and will serve as baseline data for future research and conservation efforts. “We made large collections and included special notations about where we found the insects and what flowers they were on. There are a lot of records of Apoidea, but the old records are not connected with specific plants. We’re now trying to record who is pollinating what, and what happens to that flower if its pollinator is not around.”

The census includes two sites— the Highstead barn meadow and Victor’s Redding home where he and spouse Roanna Metowski have cultivated and maintained a two-acre meadow to support butterflies and other pollinators.

Victor explains part of the process for monitoring specialized pollinators in his meadow. “Say you have black cohosh flowering. During its flowering period, black cohosh flowers over about a four-week period. I’ll make a sweep collection every one to two weeks to get the different pollinators that are coming to only black cohosh. And specifically, try to sort out if there are some specialized pollinators that just come to black cohosh and nothing else. So, there are a lot of specimens, and I have a lot of sorting out to do.”

Feeding the Appalachian Blue

Appalachian Blue butterfly. Photo credit: Carol Lemmon.

Victor and Roanna’s meadow is a multifaceted local source for local and native plants, including black cohosh. “We rescued these plants from a future building site (with permission) and transplanted them to our property,” Victor explains. ”There’s a very rare butterfly in the state of Connecticut, the Appalachian Blue, and it feeds exclusively on black cohosh. So, we’re trying to cultivate more black cohosh on our property.”

While not chasing pollinators, Victor fosters creativity and inspiration through his entomology, native plant maintenance, and active mural painting projects with local youth. “I led a recent mural where we painted pollinator insects. The kids learned about the pollinators and at the same time, they painted them on a wall. It’s amazing at the end of the week how much the kids know about pollinators, and they own their artwork. I’m not allowed to touch their mural—so it’s a lot of fun.”

With its base in Redding, Connecticut, Highstead is a place where curiosity about the ecological world around us inspires collaboration with a lively and dedicated cadre of people like Victor, John Mcleran, and scores of other professionals and amateurs whose curiosity drives knowledge and understanding.

Victor led a mural painting session at this year’s summer camp at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists.
How COVID-19 Sparked New Research at Highstead
Mural painting detail.
Photo credits: Victor DeMasi.

Category: Stories

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Taking a Closer Look at Forest Management

Highstead Senior Ecologist Ed Faison joined three other passionate scientists to discuss how different types of forest management can be used to protect forests for climate and biodiversity. The webinar, entitled Exploring Conservation and Proforestation Options for New Jersey Forests, was hosted by the New Jersey Forest Task Force.

In addition to Ed, webinar speakers included Bill Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University; Tony D’Amato, Professor and Director of the Forestry Program at the University of Vermont and William Keeton, Professor of Forest Ecology and Forestry Director at the University of Vermont joined the webinar.

The program explored the benefits of forests in mitigating climate change, with an emphasis on the value of leaving some forest as strategic climate and biodiversity reserves where forests are left to mature without intervention.

Ed and Bill Moomaw, who were co-authors with Susan Masino on the paper, Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good, focused on the benefits of passive forest management – sometimes called Proforestation, while Tony and Bill focused on the important role of more active management strategies, with all agreeing that maintaining New Jersey’s forest cover was essential.

The New Jersey Forest Stewardship Task force was announced in February 2022 with the purpose of studying and identifying ways in which the State can best manage its forests in order to fight climate change, prevent forest fires, improve ecosystems, and protect soil and water quality, among other things.

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Chasing the Fascinating Dragonfly with John McLeran

Redding and Highstead have been fortunate that John McLeran grew up on a New York State dairy farm, right next door to an elementary school environmental education teacher. “I was absolutely fascinated because he opened up doors to me by teaching me how to identify birds by sight and by their songs. By the time I was twelve, I could name pretty much any bird by its song. He put me in that direction, and I’ve steered there ever since.”

Serendipity also brought John to Highstead some 25 years ago, where he has been participating in a range of projects, including forest monitoring and conducting a survey of Highstead’s abundant dragonfly population. Asked why he ended up at Highstead, he explains, “Basically, as a great explorer once said, because it’s there…If it wasn’t Highstead, I would search out any environmental organization just to see what’s there and what’s going on.”

“I think some people are just wired to want to be outdoors and have a natural fascination. I am enamored by just about everything I see and hear and smell that’s outside my front door.”

John McLeran

A Lifetime of Community Science

A man with grey hair, a blue shirt, and round eyeglasses outdoors.
John McLeran

Without a formal environmental background except high school biology and a college major in English and American Literature, John seems an unlikely candidate to spend a lifetime exploring the environment and its many inhabitants. “I went to a very environmentally-oriented college, a little college called Middlebury up in Vermont,” he says. “I think some people are just wired to want to be outdoors and have a natural fascination. I am enamored by just about everything I see and hear and smell that’s outside my front door. And I always want to know, ‘why is it here?’ ‘How is it interacting with everything else in my yard?’ So, I don’t have to go far to find motivation.”

Summers Seeking Dragonflies

With summer’s peak unfolding around Highstead, you’ll see dragonflies everywhere. You just have to look for them. In the insect world, butterflies may be one of the most familiar and common insects, but dragonflies are a close contender. “And there is a lot to know. There has been a great deal of research, especially on dragonfly flight patterns.”

As a biodiversity hotspot, the northeastern United States is buzzing with dragonfly species, with over 180 in New England alone. This season marks John’s eleventh summer seeking dragonflies as part of an ongoing population study in partnership with Highstead’s senior ecologist, Ed Faison. John describes his fieldwork process, “I visit Highstead four times a summer, usually for about 2 to 2.5 hours in the barn meadow, down to the pond, around the pond, and then back on the boardwalk going into the woods.”

A dragonfly with a green abdomen and green and black striped tail, four transparent wings, and black eyes perches on a rock surface.
Photos by John McLeran (Left to Right): Female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis)
A dragonfly with black wings and an emerald body stands on a rock surface.
Male Ebony Jewelwing damsefly (Calopteryx maculata)
A dragonfly with a blue tail and black abdomen hovers against a plant. Its four wings are spread and show black ends along the abdomen and white to transparent out ends.
Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa)

Species diversity, reappearances or disappearances, date, time, weather, and location are all tracked in a spreadsheet for documentation while following Highstead’s protocols. “I don’t catch the dragonflies. In most cases, I can identify down to the species; some I can’t. I’d have to have it in hand and look at it in a magnifying glass or a microscope.”

As a means toward identification, John also observes dragonfly behaviors including flight patterns, wing position, and perching position. “Some are perchers and only fly up to catch prey, while some hang from a branch, or perch on the highest standing dead plant.”

So far, John has witnessed 29 different dragonfly species, “And there are probably another half dozen that I’ve seen but haven’t been able to identify.”

The dragonfly inventory contributes to Highstead’s ongoing research about the ecological health of systems across the landscape. As bioindicators, dragonflies and other members of the Odonata order (dragonflies, damselflies, etc.) can tell us about freshwater ecosystem integrity and changes in the ecosystem over time. Some commonly observed species include eastern pondhawk, clubtail, swamp spreadwing, and blue dasher. “And others are elusive—the common whitetail is on virtually every pond around here. For years I wasn’t seeing it at Highstead, and then all of a sudden, I think three years ago, it started to appear, and now it has become common to this pond.”

As insectivores, Highstead’s dragonflies live off a diet mostly consisting of mosquitos and midges, but will also eat butterflies, moths, bees, and other dragonflies. “When people say, ‘Talk to me more about your work with pollinators,’ and then, ‘Well, how about dragonflies?’ It’s always a little bit embarrassing because dragonflies are probably the fiercest pollinator eaters around. To my knowledge, I’ve never read that they’re involved in the pollination process.”

A calico dragonfly perches on the tip of a blade of grass. The dragonfly has large red eyes, a tan and black striped ody, and transparent wings with tan-ringed black dots.
A male Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa). Photo Credit: John McLeran.

The Thrill of the Unexpected

John’s approach to science and collaboration at Highstead speaks to the organization’s guiding mission, “inspiring curiosity and building knowledge about plants and wooded landscapes.” When asked if he has learned anything new or unexpected, he quickly answers, “Well, I think just about everything. If I learned something I didn’t know before, that’s always exciting for me. I never know who’s going to appear that I’ve never seen before, or who I can’t find that was here a year or two ago. It’s exciting to know there are still species out there that I’ve not seen. So that’s always fun.”

Underlying all of John’s work is a passion to encourage people to spend time outdoors. And it’s more than the potential for finding dragonflies and making discoveries out your door. “I think in this day and age, if you grow up looking at a screen, and you’re indoors 95% of the time, I can see how it would be difficult to find a kinship with what’s outside your front door.” After a career in leading environmental education centers, John continues. “My great hope is, reach as many as you can as often as you can, and then maybe that’s the best you can do.”

When he’s not chasing dragonflies, John serves as the Open Space Manager for the town of Redding and the Redding Land Trust. Highstead’s neighbor and partner, New Pond Farm Education Center, also hosts John’s dragonfly photography, and some of his specimen collections are housed at the University of Connecticut Storrs and the American Museum of Natural History.

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