Category Archives: Restoration Projects

July 18, 2015 – Forest Restoration Workshop – High Rock

Forest Restoration Workshop #227 July 18,  2015

By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

It rarely happens,  but this day the weather didn’t seem to favor us: it wasn’t hot – and that was good – but the sky was overcast and a moderate rain fell constantly during my commute to High Rock Park. Dom picked me up at New Dorp and we arrived early so we had time to sit in the car and wonder who might show on such an unpromising morning. Hardy souls began to arrive; first Elaine who dropped off refreshments, then Richard, Sandra and Jillian. We lingered a bit to see if anyone else would appear, then took ourselves and a few tools down slope toward Loosestrife Swamp… and the morning became just fine. The overcast melted away and, as weather reporters like to say, we began to “experience periods of cloud and sun.”

Today we planned to pull more Oriental Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) from the edge of the swamp close to the picnic tables. This wisteria has been resistant, it just refuses to lay down and die. Several years ago we noticed that it had gained a solid foothold there and had spread about 80 or 100 feet along the slope. At the west end of the patch wisteria had grown into the tops of several understory shrubs and was reaching higher. We pulled out as much as we could, and removed almost all the climbers from the that end of the patch. At the east end, however, the roots were deep and well entangled in glacial till underlying the soil, making it almost impossible to pull them out in one piece. Here the vines often broke, and we knew we’d have to come back again and again until the roots left behind had exhausted themselves and the plants died.

Then weather intervened and several trees fell in that precise spot making it impossible to get at wisteria underneath the tangle of fallen trunks and branches. We came back again and did what we could knowing each time that there were many root fragments left behind waiting to throw up new shoots. This time most of the storm debris had been removed, and we could get at most of the new vines. There was plenty of wisteria and also Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) as well, and we went after both. The soil was rocky but the bittersweet came out fairly easily; pulling wisteria, however, was still difficult, vines still breaking and leaving roots behind. Dom, who has been at every workshop at this spot said he didn’t recall it being so hard to get those vines out. We kept at it and made sure there were no vines left to blossom and seed next year.

Since this was a small spot we didn’t spend all our time pulling vines. For what remained of our session we set out with weed wrenches to uproot Devil’s Walking Stick alongside the road up to the administration buildings. We spent less than a half hour so we didn’t get all of these.

For the walk after we decided to make a loop from Lake Orbach to Pumphouse Pond and back. The clouds were back again, but no rain. There had been rain this week and last, so the woods were damp and fertile, apparently just the right amount of moisture in the soil to cause mushrooms to pop up. On the way we met lots of them: a variety of gilled mushrooms the most conspicuous of which were amanitas (the group that’s home to the most poisonous of our mushrooms) and russulas, and a number of boletes, the mushrooms that have pores beneath their caps instead of gills. We plucked one of these with yellow pores and watched how the yellow surface bruised green-blue when scratched or squeezed. If we were mycologists we’d use these various color changes as one of the clues to identifying the species.

We also saw a good number of ghostly white Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), both newly emerged plants whose waxy-white blossoms hung toward the ground to keep out the rain (otherwise the pollen might be washed away) and older pollinated plants whose flowers were turning brown and upright. Those not in on the secret think that these are some kind of mushroom, but they are real flowering, seed-bearing plants that lack chlorophyll. Because they don’t have chlorophyll (which gives the green color to most other plants) to produce their own nutrients from sunlight and CO2 they must find them it their environment, and so they steal those nutrients from the threads of fungi in the soil.

But there’s where things get interesting; we’ve known for over 70 years that many fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees in which the tree manufactures carbohydrates with its leaves and provides carbohydrates to the fungus, and the fungus provides the tree with more water and minerals from the soil than the tree’s root hairs could acquire on their own. In fact, the general belief today is that well over 90% of all green plants have such a fungal relationship, and that these fungal hairs unseen in the soil are a critical part of our environment. Some years ago scientists performed an experiment in which they exposed trees to CO2 in which the ordinary carbon had been replaced with a radioactive isotope that could be traced with instruments. Then when they looked to see where the radioactive tagged CO2 would show up again one of the places where they found it was in the tissue of the Indian Pipes. The tree supplied the fungus with carbohydrates manufactured with the radioactive carbon, and the Indian Pipe robbed the fungus to obtain its food. Really, you can’t make this stuff up!

Indian Pipe wasn’t the only parasitic plant we saw. At Lake Orbach some of the emergent vegetation was draped with a net of a thin, golden-brown vine called Dodder. Unlike the Indian Pipe, Dodder has a limited ability – very limited – to photosynthesize. When the Dodder seed sprouts, it is green and has tiny, anchoring roots. As it grows the tiny vine twists about seeking an acceptable host plant and when it finds one it spirals up, piercing the plant with tiny hairs called haustoria that penetrate the conductive tissue of the host. This is a necessary accomplishment; if the Dodder doesn’t latch on to a host soon after sprouting it will expire. Dodder uses its haustoria to absorb water and nutrients from its host. As the Dodder has accomplishes this vampire-like deed (well, not exactly, we all know that vampires – the bats that is – lap blood with their tongues from incisions that they furtively make) it abandons its infant roots and previous green existence, and pursues its new life as a free-loader. If you look closely at the vines you might see what appear to be widely spaced tiny scales; these are vestigial leaves, not functioning, but not yet entirely abandoned.

While at Lake Orbach, Pumphouse Pond and Hourglass Pond we looked for water lilies, but all the impressive White Water Lilies (Nymphea odorata) were just beginning to open after the previous rain and just a little too far away for a good view without binoculars. At Pumphouse Pond a few of the globular yellow blossoms of the Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar lutea) stood out of the water on long stems. Unlike the White Water Lily, these yellow globes never unfold their petals but open only at the very top to admit pollinators. I wonder why they remain ball-like; are they, perhaps, trying to keep certain ravenous insects out?

We returned along the shore of Lack Orbach, ducking under dense tunnels of Sweetpepper Bush, Highbush Blueberry and I don’t know how many other riparian shrubs, getting showered with water every time we bumped a low spreading branch. By then it was getting warm, and I at least found the sprinkles refreshing. Back at High Rock, our Restoration was over; it was good.


A Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) hanging out by Pumphouse Pond. These aren’t poisonous – we have no poisonous snakes on Staten Island – but if annoyed they will defend themselves vigorously (i.e., they’ll bite you if you grab them).

A nice Cauliflower Mushroom (Sparassus spathulata) on the Yellow Trail toward Pumphouse Pond: a good edible for foragers if found in good condition.

Below left: Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), flowering plants that lack chlorophyll so they have to parasitize threads of fungus in the soil.

Below right: Dodder (Cuscuta sp.), a parasitic vine that extracts nutrients from the plants it grows upon. If you look closely just left of the center of the picture you can see one of the haustoria with which it syphons nutrients from its host. (this photo was from October of a previous year)

Below left: the White Water Lilly (Nymphea ordorata)

Below right: a Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar lutea) [from NJ -I couldn’t get close enough to photo ours last Saturday] DfR 7-22-2015

March 21, 2015 – Forest Restoration Workshop Report

Forest Restoration Workshop (223),  Mar. 21,  2015 Note its been awhile since I got any reports out,  so this is an old report compiled from notes…

A soft snow had fallen overnight; with little wind, so all around branches were mantled with a 3″ layer of fluffy, white snow. The view from picnic tables at Loosestrife swamp was magic, a tracery in high contrast black and white. Looking across the swamp we could see precisely the wind shadow created by the surrounding hills; up to a certain level branches were mounds of white, but above they were bare and stood out starkly. It was almost as if an artist had been chalking them from bottom to top and abruptly stopped part way up for lunch.

We had gotten a “heads-up” that the Cub Scouts would join us again, and so they did, but this time for the most part a different group of kids. During the usual confusion while everyone greeted and sorted themselves out we got organized by circulating the sign-up sheet and opening the tool shed to get out what tools and gloves we though we’d need. It was swiftly warming up and piled snow began flaking off the branches in huge chunks. I pulled off my hat and plunked our paperwork on the trunk of a nearby car just in time to get a load of snow down my neck and all over the sign-in sheets. For some reason the others thought this was amusing…

We passed out gloves and pruners to the kids and weed wrenches and large loppers to the adults. After the obligatory warning to carry the pruners point down or let a big guy or girl carry them, we set off along the trail to Pumphouse Pond beside the Moravian Cemetery fence. We planned to cut and pull whatever invasive vines and plants we found along the way, and I feared we wouldn’t have enough for everybody to do some work. As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

It didn’t take long to encounter our first patch of Aralia sprouts, dozens upon dozens, all small. The melting snow and some rain the week before made the ground soft enough that most of the kids could uproot the smaller sprouts by hand. Many sprouts that could have been pulled were cut, I suppose just to use the tool. We didn’t have to go far to find larger plants that needed mechanical aid to uproot. Sometimes 2 or 3 of the scouts had to pull at a plant, and sometimes they called over of the adults with a weed wrench. Often they manipulated the wrenches by themselves and eventually produced several piles of thorny, tangled sticks which we left off the trail.

Had it been a little later in the year we could have harvested some of the Spring buds which I am told by foragers are quite good to eat. Almost everyone says they have to be new buds, however, thumb sized or so. (Should you search on the web, make sure that you are looking at recipes for the oriental plant, Aralia elata, and not our other Aralias – there are several very different native plants in the same genus. Most of the recipes seem to be for tempuras.) Walkingstick buds are a foragable food I’d like to try, but it seems I’m either too intent on rooting the plants out to think about collecting some, or I’m too late in the season for the delicate spring buds… Well, someday…

We continued to Pumphouse Pond where we took a break for cookies and oranges. A cursory look around indicated that we had pretty well cleared that spot of Araila, and that we could ignore it for the next few seasons until new shoots have sprouted. The temperarture was fast rising, and there was little snow left on the branches. The snow on the ground was wet and easily packed, so the scouts got busy rolling it up to build a snowman on the trail. It seemed appropriate to use cut Aralia for the arms, and some of the many fallen sweetgum seedballs for the eyes, etc. (Thanks, Brian, for the pic) To do anything else would have been anticlimactic, so we then gathered our stuff and went home.

 

February 21, 2015 – Greenbelt Nature Center

February’s Workshop proposed to be even less promising than January’s. The previous four weeks had been much colder than in recent years and in that frigid period what snow had fallen had little opportunity to melt. Saturday day broke cold and a bit gloomy and was likely to discourage additional volunteers coming out; moreover,  by some quirk of memory I had the idea that Dom would be back with us and that Elaine would be away,  therefore it was likely that there would at most be three of us. This Workshop had us scheduled to remove what we could of alien Devil’s Walking Stick seedlings and saplings from the small infested triangle between the two arms of the Department of Parks’ restoration site adjacent to Rockland Avenue.

I was wrong; that dingy day saw five of us ready to brave the snow and do what we could. The trails were icy and there were several inches of snow on the ground. Moreover the ground was hard. Three weeks of sub-freezing weather had hardened the surface in spite of an insulating blanket of snow, and that, I thought, would probably make yanking things out of the ground difficult. Lugging ponderous Weed Wrenches to the restoration site would have been arduous and a bit hazardous where we would have to negotiate eroded portions of the Red Trail. Weighing all up, Dom and I decided that it would be better to cut vines along the flat portion of the Nature Trail close to where it intersected the Blue, so on the way to the Nature Center we stopped at High Rock to gather loppers, gloves and pruners.

There we got our first indication that indeed, the weather wasn’t cooperating. When we tried to open the door of the storage shed we discovered that it hadn’t been opened recently and that several inches of icy snow prevented it from swinging. This snow and ice wasn’t stuff that you could just brush away; it was thick and hard. There were no suitable tools in the car (of course they were plenty of suitable tools in the shed that we couldn’t get into), so we went to the administration building and garage to see if we could find something that might serve. Nobody home and all locked up… We poked around and discovered the handleless head of a discarded broken shovel and as it was the only “tool” available took it back to the shed. It wasn’t a very effective implement, but five minutes of jabbing, scraping and prying provided enough room to swing the door open just enough to slip inside and fetch our tools.

At the Nature Center we crossed the bridge and followed the trail, cutting vines along the way. Dom, Chuck, Brian and Elaine took loppers and went ahead toward the trail intersection where we knew there were many large uncut vines. I lagged behind because I was determined to root out some Araila saplings we encountered in order to try out a new tool. Well, sort of a new tool…

In the past we had several workshops whose object was to remove small, new infestations of the alien Devil’s Walking Stick before they got out of hand. The best way for us to handle these plants was to yank them out of the ground with a lever called a Weed Wrench. Somewhat more than a year ago the manufacturer ceased production of this tool, and because no more were available the Parks Department would no longer loan us any of their Wrenches. Since we did not have many of our own it was impractical to schedule a workshop targeting these plants. Last year we purchased a competing device made in Canada called a Puller Bear, which worked on the same principle. After trying it out, it was my opinion was that although usable, it was a somewhat lighter duty tool more suitable for removing stuff like Multi-flora Rose. Recently I discovered that a company in the US had begun marketing a slightly improved Weed Wrench clone called The Uprooter, and Protectors promptly purchased one to try out. Long story short, it looks just like a Weed Wrench, colored white not orange, and it works just fine. Maybe now Parks will allow some of their Wrenches to come out and play with us.

Although I had to jam the tool down through the snow to get close to the base of the Aralia saplings, I was able to yank out a good number. In a few places hard and rocky ground won out and I had to leave those plants in place, and in others a few roots broke off in the hard soil. These roots may sprout again in the Spring and we’ll have to pull those out in future workshops.

After a short break – Clementines again, a nice break from bananas and naturally refrigerated! – we finished (no one was up for a walk afterwards this day) by cutting large Bittersweet vines that we saw further off the trail. There’s a lot to do on that section of the Nature Trail: more Oriental Bittersweet, Multi-flora Rose, Japanese Honeysuckle, Oriental Wisteria and even some Porcelain-berry. We’ll be back.

As I write this today we’ve had a series – thankfully! – of warm days. Spring is demonstrably on its way and the Greenbelt is threaded with rivulets of snow melt. Three weeks ago advance guards of Redwing Blackbirds were already “konk-a-reeing” and marking out territory in the marshes, and I’ve seen photos on the web of overwintering moths in New Jersey observed to have come out of their hibernating places (but I didn’t see these live, myself). Buds should be swelling and getting ready to break, and soon we can look forward to seeing Skunk Cabbage, Pussy-willow catkins, and Red-maples starting to flower. Spring Peepers sounding at the edges of vernal pools too! Spring just can’t get here any sooner.

January 17, 2015 – High Rock Park

I anticipated January’s Restoration Workshop to be an ill-attended,  cold affair. It was deep winter – a time when volunteers are typically few,  Dom, one of our regulars was away, and early weather reports suggested the day was going to be clear, but very cold. “Probably only four of us,” I thought, so I was somewhat surprised to find a volunteer waiting in his car by the shed at Nevada Avenue. I asked him what he was waiting for, expecting the answer to be that he was waiting for one of the many Greenbelt sponsored weekend events to begin, and was even more surprised when he said he was waiting for a group of Cub Scouts that were coming to some kind of a restoration project! No-one else was around so that would have to be us!

And so they did come. Eventually there were 10 of us, Protectors, kids, and parents included. We passed out gloves and tools – clippers to the small people and loppers to the others – and set off toward this month’s site on the Blue Trail south of Seaview. There was a lot of youthful enthusiasm to be handled, so on the way Brian explained what the colored blazes on the trees meant, and had a few of the scouts take turns following the blazes to lead the way. I had a needless worry that the distance might be a little far, that boredom might set in, but there was plenty of energy to get us there.

There was one young girl among the boys, perhaps a sister but I didn’t ask, who was perceptive and quite comfortable in the woods. As it turned out, one of the parents was active in Leave No Trace, and the scout leaders had done a good job of passing that organization’s values to the kids. Tenants of Leave No Trace is to stick to the trails, do no damage and leave no debris in the woods. Follow this link if you want to learn more: https://lnt.org/about.

Our work area has been heavily disturbed and infested with a variety of twining, woody vines and other, non-native and un-wanted plants. We could only make a dent there, so we concentrated out efforts on vines immediately adjacent to the trail – of which there were decidedly no lack. This allowed us to work in from the trail side and avoid some of the briars; none-the-less the thorns did cause some unexpected grief. In several places, especially where there were Pin Oaks close to the trail with skirts of descending branches, Bittersweet had twined up and almost covered the entire tree. The only way to disencumber these “teepees” of twisted vines was to begin from side accessible from the trail.

The adults used the loppers and went after the really big stuff, and the kids were set to looking for small saplings and shrubs encumbered with Japanese Honeysuckle. We explained that the small plants were much more vulnerable to being strangled by the vines than the larger trees, but that we went after the big vines too because they would otherwise keep producing seeds and make more trouble in the future.

At the break Elaine distributed cookies and fruit – clementines this time – and afterwards the rinds were collected to be brought back and discarded at High Rock. I’m afraid I usually break one of the rules of Leave No Trace when we have bananas; these I usually pitch off the trail out of sight, explaining that the skins will be brown and almost invisible in a day and will return some elements, especially nitrogen and potassium, to the soil. Citrus is a different matter however; it is both slow to rot (some sources say citrus takes 50 times as long as bananas to decompose) and remains very visible, so I don’t leave those peels behind.

We ended this workshop a few at a time, leaving according to our individual schedules. I was pleased to note that everyone leaving early was familiar enough with the Greenbelt to need little or no direction to find the way back. The last of us followed one of our young leaders who did a pretty good job of following the blazes – in fact a very good job considering that we chose to come back by a slightly different route than we had taken coming in. He got us to where we could see the parking lot from an upper slope and then we were all home free.

We few remaining didn’t have a lot of time left, so after storing the tools and gloves we chose to make a quick loop to Walker Pond and back. This turned out to be a nice crisp, clear day to be in the woods, a day to enjoy… _ _ _ _ _

 

July 2014, LaTourette Bike Path

Eastern LaTourette Bike Path
By Don Recklies, hospital Naturalist
 

Forest Restoration #215 July 19, 2014

The July restoration was a casual walk along the eastern leg of the bike path at LaTourette, pausing to cut woody twining vines beside the trail.   We didn’t anticipate that the recent series of rains we would have caused any difficulty, but they did…

This month 3 new volunteers joined us, two of them students needing volunteer hours. We pointed out the vines we were after, and they set to cutting them from trees close by the trail. Poison ivy was abundant, and we tried to avoid it where possible, but it just doesn’t cooperate by growing distant from the vines we have to cut. Soon one of the ladies remarked that she had encountered some, and her exposed skin was burning. “That’s not right,” I said, “because unless you are very allergic to poison ivy it usually takes several hours for a reaction to occur.”

I looked at the tree where they were cutting away a net of strangling vines and discovered that not only was poison ivy present, but also stinging nettles. She was suffering from irritation caused by having brushed against the nettles. To ward off herbivores the nettles store a cocktail of chemicals in tiny, fragile needles on stem and leaves. When one brushes bare skin against them, they break off and sharp fragments inject the irritants. One of the main components in the nettle cocktail is said to be formic acid, the same chemical employed by many stinging ants, hence the burning sensation. Luckily the acute burning sensation lasts only a few minutes, although the skin remains sensitive for several hours. I doubt, however, that the volunteer considered that kind of “luck” to be of any consolation.

What discomforts the summer can bring! Not only must we put up with mosquitoes and ticks, but also poison ivy and nettles! Long sleeves and pants help, but not with the heat. You choose your poison (no pun intended), and I prefer to wear short clothes and deal with the irritants and not the heat. It doesn’t take long to develop a good mental image of poison ivy and stinging nettles, and I’d become pretty good at avoiding them, but hadn’t thought that we’d encounter stinging nettles along the bike path.   We expect them on the hillside above around the Hessian Spring, where they grow in profusion, but didn’t expect them – and probably should have expected them – below where the spring flows under and across the path.

After the workshop we made a walk west on the “bike path” and then returned by way of the Blue Trail on top of the hill. On the way we passed stands of Japanese Knotweed and on the downhill of side the path an extent of struggling trees and shrubs mounded over by layers of Porcelain-berry far too thick for us to attempt removal. We also passed colonies of Impatens, Touch-me-nots, that had been stripped of their tops by feeding deer, and that brings me to…


A small rant about the number of White-tailed Deer on Staten Island…   I have observed that our growing deer population has become more and more unsupportable. Every year we see more deer than the year before, and can hardly walk any wet trail in the woods without encountering hoofprints that betray their presence. About 15 years ago I encountered very few deer when I first started to nose about Clay Pit Ponds and Sharrott Shorelands, areas which are suspected to be where deer swam across the Kill to begin re-colonization of Staten Island. In 2008 the NYSDEC estimated the population of deer on the island to be about 25, although I am convinced it was then much greater!   Now it is not uncommon to read about collisions with automobiles (34 carcasses reportedly removed by the DOS in 2013 alone), and almost impossible to walk through a “Forever Wild” area without seeing a least one deer or occasionally even small herds. Recently the NYCDPR announced an attempt to more accurately measure the deer population by an aerial survey, and I await that new tally, although I must note that areas with some of the largest deer populations, such as many west shore areas, were not included in the initial announcement about the extent of the survey and may still underestimate them. Certainly deer on the island must number in the hundreds.

Even a lowball estimate of 50 deer is, I think, more than Staten Island can support without further impoverishing the natural ecosystem of which we are so rightly proud. For a long time study after study had shown that the natural areas of Staten Island retained more species diversity than any other borough of the New York City, but now an ever increasing deer population is combining with continued development to put more and more pressure on local plant populations.   Studies of the effect of deer browsing agree that one may have a diverse plant understory and healthy forest or can have a large deer population, but not both.

Pennsylvania, for instance, has managed deer herds in vast forest lands under state control since the 1930s. Organized hunters in that state insured that the aim of regulation was to produce the largest herds that forests could support, with little regard to maintaining the best, most diverse ecosystems. Since for the most part large deer predators had long been killed off, the only control on the number of deer – aside from the yearly bag taken by hunters – was disease and the amount of vegetation they could browse.   Increasing urbanization and fragmentation of the landscape favored the deer, which are creatures of forest edges, and restricted hunting seasons and buck-only hunting allowed their numbers to explode. The resulting browsing pressure on the diversity of forest herbs and shrubs was drastic; one study which compared selected forests in 1929 and again in 1995 saw the number of families of plants in the forest decline from 27 to only 10. These forests had become “deer savannas” in which the deer had consumed the understory of plants that ought to have been there. (In a few areas the species diversity actually increased due to an influx of alien species, often invasive, but the total number of native species declined.)

The ill effects of this growing population of a top herbivore was repeated throughout the Midwest, and now where there once were 2 to 5 deer/sq. km. there were sometimes up to 20 – in the urbanized parks around Washington, Dc the density exploded even higher. ln all these places the diversity of plants that ought to be in the forest declined severely. And on Staten Island? Here the deer have found a paradise: lots of green protected edges in which to feast and no hunters or predators to fear – only automobiles – no wonder their numbers are exploding…

In just the past 5 years I have noticed that in many places where once I saw lush colonies of Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) and Touch-me-nots (Impatiens capensis), I now see many fewer blossoms, or almost none. The Touch-me-nots that survived in those spots display stems stripped by browsing deer and fewer blossoms that manage to produce seeds. Often they appear as if someone had walked through the patch with a weed-wacker, chopping off the tops of the plants and leaving a strangely level surface. I rarely see hummingbirds in those places anymore, and in spots the Touch-me-nots that provided shade have been so stripped back that the soil beneath them has become dry. The whole ecosystem is being changed.

In many places where once I saw carpets of mayflowers blooming in the Spring, I now see fewer plants and only widely scattered blossoms. The sweet nectar-bearing blossoms of Canada Mayflower are said to be a preferred deer browse. There are still lots of Canada Mayflower leaves – the plants are perennials and will sprout again year after year if the leaves are not too heavily browsed – but there is a reduction in the number of flowers that set seed. One wonders what the prognosis is for both the flowers and the insect pollinators that depend on them.

Spring becomes an especially rough time for flowering ephemerals. Spring wildflowers usually have to make the most of a very brief growing season.   They have to produce leaves, blossom, set seed and photosynthesize enough food to see them through the coming year before the trees above leaf out and shade slows their further growth.   It’s a kind of balancing act and many plants survive on the edge of getting just enough light to prosper.   Come Spring the deer are very hungry for soft greens, and when deer browse the new spring shoots they can leave the plant without enough leaves to enable them to put resources into producing seed or rhizomes or even to store food for the next season. As more and more barely surviving plants die off eventually scattered populations become too small to survive and yet another colony of plants disappears from the woods.

As the natives disappear their place is often taken by alien plants that the deer do not prefer. Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), for example, have tougher, more indigestible leaves than the native vines they replace, and Garlic-mustard (Alaria petiolata) makes itself unpalatable to deer by producing distasteful chemicals. Long stretches of moist trails in the Greenbelt have become corridors of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), a lush looking grass that the deer shun. The deer browse shrubs in the understory, sometimes trimming away branches and leaves as high as they can reach. What is most in reach, of course, are new, tender shoots. The deer eat these, and the shoots of trees that they prefer often can’t grow fast enough to put their leaves out of reach before they die.   The forest starts to loose these trees, and where the understory has been browsed away begins to dry, making survival of new sprouts even harder.

The dryer forest starts to favor Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), and colonies of that fern begin to grow greater in extent. Soon the fern, which is accustomed to grow in partial shade, becomes a ground-cover, and prevents other plant seeds from growing.   In moister areas Japanese Stiltgrass does the same, and builds up messy mounds of dead grass stems. Unless a catastrophe occurs to upset this new equilibrium, the forest becomes a kind of impoverished dead end with a small variety of taller and fewer trees lording it over expanses of fern dotted with a few shrubs unpalatable to deer.

Paradoxically some trees that are a preferred food manage to survive deer browsing, and American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one such. Forest ecologists have suggested that our local hickory-oak woodlands are slowly becoming dominated by Beech and Oak, in part because Beech is so successful in sprouting saplings from the roots of existing trees. It has been suggested that their ability to sprout this way probably evolved as a survival mechanism that enabled thin-barked trees of southern origin to survive forest fires; the above ground part of the tree might burn, but after the flames new shoots spring up from unharmed roots. Often these saplings begin to grow under the canopy of a still living parent tree, and survive in the shade because they are nourished by the parent tree’s roots. This “super power” of theirs also enables them to survive even when heavily browsed.   The deer might strip their leaves, but they continue to grow nourished by their parent’s roots until they are tall enough for their buds and foliage to be out of reach. Oaks don’t grow from suckers so readily, so that future beach-oak forest ecologists imagined may, if Beech-bark disease doesn’t intervene, become Beech dominated woodlands.

I believe the situation on Staten Island is becoming critical and that the changes now occurring may be irreversible, at least in our lifetimes. Once the forest balance has shifted toward dry fernland, it can take hundreds of years to re-introduce species that will produce a more humid and varied woodland – if it can happen at all.   Once a moist herb layer has dried out because the deer have eaten the understory that shaded it, how are the Touch-me-nots and other plants going to return? We have long known that populations of animal and plants on islands, especially small islands, are particularly susceptible to extinction. Once a local population has been killed off, often there are no others within reach from which to recruit new inhabitants.   Well, Staten Island is a small island, but we are very close to New Jersey, and it would not be difficult to imagine plant seeds and animals somehow crossing the Kill – after all, that’s probably how deer reintroduced themselves after they themselves were extirpated by the early 1800’s.   However, Staten Island is a patchwork of small natural oases in the midst of a sterile urban and suburban environment fragmented by development, and the Jersey side of the Kill is almost completely industrialized. There are no reservoirs of uncommon native plants anywhere nearby from which to recruit those which are lost. Anything that disappears from our palate of plants (and some animals) will have to be reintroduced by us – nature by itself just isn’t going to be able to accomplish all of it.

But are we going to value our woodlands and grasslands to the extent that we will devote vast amounts of money and energy to restore them as they once were, even if it were possible to effect such restoration?   At best we might clear some areas at great expense and replant some of that which has been lost, as in the ongoing major restoration effort of the NYCDPR in Buck’s Hollow – a very, very labor intensive and expensive proposition. This assumes, of course, that we could find viable populations of native plants growing in similar environments to replace those lost species.   For the most unusual plants that’s very unlikely; as an extreme case, some 30 varieties of orchids were found historically in New York City, and if I recall correctly 26 of these occurred on Staten Island – now there may be but 8 growing in small and vulnerable populations. Orchids have extremely demanding requirements, and it is unlikely that they can ever be brought back. Lost habitat, not deer, extirpated the orchids – as well as other plants such as Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) – and now deer are putting additional pressure on those that survived.

As you can sense, I’m not a fan of deer, especially on Staten Island; there’s just too many of them for our diminished open space to support. They do have devotees. Who doesn’t admire suddenly coming across these large, charismatic animals in the woods and watching their flashing white tails as they bound away? To be honest, I would too – IF THERE JUST WEREN’T SO MANY OF THEM! What’s the problem one might ask, they were here before the European settlement and now they are back. The island supported their numbers then, and it should be able to do it again.   But it can’t. There are no longer large predators and indigenous hunters; there is nothing to control their numbers other than disease, encounters with automobiles and the ability of the remaining open space to feed them.   They threaten much of the native flora remaining, and I’m afraid that in part because of them and untrammeled development Staten Island is no longer the great plant refuge in New York city that it once was. Unless the number of deer can be controlled Staten Island is likely to become just another ecologically impoverished NY borough. Unfortunately we have not yet found a solution. Our woods have not been enriched by the advent of White-tailed Deer.

DfR 7-2014

March 2014, Yellow Trail

Yellow Trail
By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop #210
Saturday March 19, 2014

Saturday proved to be a mostly sunny, warm day, perfect weather for our Workshop and one that would lead us to believe that Winter was truly over. However, those of us with any experience whatsoever knew that this was just a teaser with more cold weather and possibly snowstorms to come.   None-the-less, we just had to enjoy the day knowing that beneath our feet spring bulbs were stirring and that all around us trees were pushing sap up from their roots to fatten buds getting ready to break.

It was because of those trees that 5 of us were in the woods with small loppers and pruners, setting out to cut woody vines down from the trees along the Greenbelt edge of Rockland Avenue.  We started where an old branch of the Yellow Trail exited to Rockland Avenue, just south-east of the intersection of Rockland and Manor Road. There a mixture of European Bittersweet and Porcelainberry wound about and rose into the trees like tropical lianas. We noted that some of the vines were dark brown and shaggy – obviously species of grape – and carefully left those untouched. The others we proceeded to cut high and low and where possible unwrapped them from saplings and trees. We concentrated on Bittersweet, which in some cases was thick enough to require the largest loppers in our arsenal, but also pruned Japanese Honeysuckle where we found it twining up the smaller saplings and shrubs.

Once we had that edge clear, we proceeded up Rockland toward Nevada, noting that for the most part there was little Bittersweet except at road intersections. At the corner of Rockland and Florida was an exceptionally dense vineland; there much of the Bittersweet was too large even for our largest loppers. A few of these vines lay on the ground, growing through a tumble of downed trees, and we wondered if the load of vine and leaf that had grown up into the canopy had been instrumental in bringing these trees down. The vines had rooted repeatedly where they had lain on the ground for sufficient time, and each rooted section will send up new vines as Spring progresses.   Presumably the new young, smaller vines will not be able to supply as much nourishment to the roots as did the vigorous growth in the canopy, and the entire plant should be more easily shaded out and weaker for us to cope with in the future.

The largest vines, of which there were many, had to be cut with a saw, and the going was slower than when loppers alone sufficed. Remember that these are woody vines, as strong and tough as small trees, and it is only their habit of twining, twisting growth that makes their woody cores commercially useless as stick lumber. Many of the largest vines were lumpy and stringy, appearing as if they were vines that had been braided together and compressed into one.   This was indeed the case; when cut with our saw we often saw that the stringier vines had several centers and had obviously been created by multiple individual vines twining about one another to better reach above the ground. We were making good headway until our saw broke at the very end of our work session, and that was justification enough to stop for the day.   There is more to do there, and we will probably schedule to go back in the Fall or next Spring.

After the work session we took a brief walk up the ravine to look at where we will be performing a clean-up in the next Restoration Workshop. Other than our annual beach clean-up in September for the Ocean Conservancy’s Annual Coastal Cleanup, we usually don’t engage in this activity, but we had noted that many of the recent winter storms had washed trash into the ravine and the portion of Richmond Creek above and below the Bluebelt pond and thought it would be a good project to remove it. We proposed this project to the Richmond County Savings Foundation and received one of their Green Challenge Grants for this work and for a later clean-up at Walker Pond. If all goes well with these we might continue to schedule a cleanup each year in the Greenbelt, and for next year I already have in mind the vernal ponds and road edge along Rockland Avenue close to Forest Hill Road.

After February’s Restoration we had looked at the leafless trees and tried out Michael Wojtech’s field guide to bark, finding that it did not include Sweetgum (that tree was out of the geographic range of the guide). I mentioned that I was sure that the many residual Sweetgum seedballs that litter the ground at the end of Winter must contain at least a few seeds on which birds and small mammals might forage. Had I been more observant I might not have made that statement. A week later I had occasion be at Long Pond and Mt. Loretto, and I took the opportunity to collect Sweetgum balls. I picked up seven from different locations (and therefore from different trees) making sure that they were relatively shiny and fresh, not dull old seedballs surviving from winters past, and took them home to examine closely. I shook them out into a tray and counted…. zero seeds. I even cut one open to see if any were somehow lodged in the bottom of the cone-like capsules that had contained the developing seeds, and all I found was a tough, fibrous core that makes these balls so durable and uncomfortable when trod upon. Each ball bore numerous split cone-shaped capsules – on one I counted 68 – and each capsule might have held one or two tiny winged seeds.   Although possible, it is unlikely that all of the seedballs I collected had been infertile (a paper found on the web from the Holden Arboretum noted that on average each seed ball in a favorable habitat would produce 56 viable seeds, or as few as 7 if conditions were poor – and our trees seemed very healthy), so flailing about at the tips of branches in windy weather these dehiscing seed capsules must be very efficient indeed at distributing their seeds (dehiscent: a botanical term referring to a dry fruit that splits open along a seam) leaving few seeds to fall in the shadow of the parent tree.

We had no use for Weed Wrenches on this last Restoration, but during our walk I informed our volunteers that due to the manufacturer shutting down with no more available for purchase we would no longer have access to the Weed Wrenches owned by the Department of Parks. For the time being we would have to make do with just the two that we owned, certainly making extraction of reasonable amounts of Arailia elata (the alien Devil’s Walking-stick) difficult for us, but that I had found on the web a Canadian company that was making a similar product called a Puller-bear. We have purchased one to try out to see if we could recommend it to the NYCDPR. I had hoped to have it for trial at this last Restoration, but haven’t received it yet. It won’t be of much use next month, but I’m anxious to see if it’s durable and works as well as the very efficient Weed Wrench.

DfR 3-23-2014

 

 

 

September 2013, High Rock and Sharrotts Beach

High Rock and Sharrott’s Beach
By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

Forest Restoration Report – September 29,  2013

Saturday began quite cloudy, but weather reports during the week had altered and rain was not expected until the evening, so I had hopes that our numbers might improve, even though Elaine was away and Chuck was committed to the ICC beach cleanup at Sharrott’s pier. Dom appeared promptly at 10:00, but there no others, so we decided to go to Sharrott’s beach in case Chuck was short handed there (My wife. Adele, informed me that she got a phone call after I had left from a late volunteer who wanted to join us if she could find us, but Adele was unable to tell her how to locate us).

Before the time appointed for the workshop I and Judy T., who had given me a ride from the ferry, took a moment to check whether the Turtleheads I had found blooming last September in the vicinity of High Rock were still there. We went a few hundred feet counterclockwise around Loosestrife Swamp looking uphill for signs of ”bloom in the gloom,” and were disappointed not the see the flowers low in the herb layer. I supposed that we had missed their blooming season, or that they had not survived. Since we were expected at the shed in the parking lot at 10:00 we couldn’t spend much time nosing about the swamp, but we did spot a few small touches of pale yellow on the adjacent hillside. One of these spot of yellow was close to the trail, and turned out to be Horsebalm (Collinsonia canadensis) in bloom.

Horsebalm is one of the mints, or at least is in the family in which botanists lump the mints, but perhaps not as aromatic (all the guides say the blossom – indeed the whole plant – is lemony fragrant, but I find the odor faint – then again my nose seems to require very strong odors). Horsebalm favors fertile soils and semi-shady places, and as at High Rock, I have found it mostly growing on hillsides that are well-drained but never completely dry. Some of the fieldguides call it Richweed, a name I haven’t heard used locally, but that emphasizes its preference in soils. Its flower head is what they call a panicle, a spike of smaller branching “spikelets,” and each spikelet bears a series of oppositely arranged yellow blossoms of which only a few are open at the same time.

These flowers are insect pollinated, and this sequential method of blossoming insures that over a long blooming period there will always be some nectar or pollen available for fertilization and as a reward for an insect pollinator should one come by. The lower lips of the flower make a peculiarly fringed landing pad for these pollinators, and hanging way out over the landing pad is a pair of stamens waiting to dust a new arrival with pollen. Since a pollinator would encounter these stamens before the smaller sigma (the female part) I suppose that, like many flowering plants, there is some internal arrangement that prevents self fertilization, either by chemical means or by sequential maturation of its sexual parts,. These plants are perennial and would have no need to self-fertilize to insure that seeds develop every year.

I don’t know what function the fringes of the lower lips of the flower have, but they certainly make the flower look interesting, especially under a hand lens, and if we could see in the ultraviolet range that is visible to many insects we would probably see lines or patterns that guide an insect toward the nectaries deep within the blossom. These one to three foot tall plants should display the typical family characteristics of the mints; indeed they have irregular flowers that are bi-laterally symmetrical (i.e., side to side each half is a mirror image of the opposite side, their large toothed leaves are arranged in pairs on the stem), and the stem should have been square as is typical of the mints. I couldn’t detect any angularity on the stem of the one plant closest to the path, although it was indisputably a Horsebalm, so I started uphill to look at the stems of the others when…. Turtleheads! Suddenly we had to be very careful where we placed our feet.

Turtleheads (Chelone glabra)! There they were, more than a handful scattered about, many in full bloom low and hidden in the surrounding green where they awaited insects large and strong enough to force their way to the caches of pollen in the hooded flowers. Usually the plants stand somewhat tall in damp areas, but these for the most part these lay low and concealed except for one or two that had grown in the shelter of a fallen tree and a tangle of fallen shrubs. These were richly colored flowers, a more strongly tinted purple than the usual pink-tinged, white variety, and I suspect that because of their color and the fact that I had not noticed them before last year, that they had been re-introduced here by the Department of Parks. If so, that re-introduction seem to be succeeding since they were scattered over a slightly larger area than I had seen last year. I have some vague recollection of having seen more single, slender-stemmed sprouts of Turtlehead last year, but this would be consistent with the mortality expected as each generation matures, and many of the current plants seemed to be well established with stout stems.

Turtleheads have handsome flowers indeed, very suitable for moist, shaded wildflower gardens (although I hope no-one has any idea that they might be taken from the park), and I was very happy to see that they had survived. The common name, Turtlehead, reflects the heavy, hooded blossom’s perceived similarity to the head of a turtle; their genus name, Chelone, in Greek mythology refers to a mortal (or in some accounts a nymph) who was changed by the gods to a turtle for a perceived insult to Zeus. The flowers are similar to Snapdragon blossoms, but more slender and smooth about the mouth, and like them can be opened by gently squeezing their sides. It takes a strong insect to penetrate the blossom, so the usual pollinators are large bumblebees. Like the Horsebalm, they are perennial plants and not needing to be fertilized every year so can afford the liberty of playing “hard to get.”

After looking at the Turtlehead and Horsebalm, Dom and I went to Sharrott’s beach where we found Chuck and Lisa finishing the tally of the cleanup. You may recall that the International Coastal Cleanup Day has 3 objectives: to help clean up the coasts, to itemize the debris found, and by doing so to raise awareness of polluted condition of our oceans and coastal areas and to gain an idea of how the nature of that pollution is changing. Dom and I feared that since by accident we had not put the annual cleanup on our printed calendar – no one noticed the omission until the calendar had been published and too late to change – that Chuck might be alone on the beach. The pile of bags and trash adjacent to the dolphin that we passed on our way to the beach proved that was not so, and Chuck told us some 15 volunteers had shown that morning, thanks to the cleanup also being on NRPA’s list, and that the beach was now clean. Indeed, the beach has appeared progressively cleaner every year that we have participated in the cleanup, and this year it again appeared cleaner than last. In fact, it appeared especially clean today, and I wondered if its good condition was in part due to do the extensive beach cleanups that followed Sandy.

Dom and I decided that since we had made the journey to participate in the cleanup, we would take a few collection bags and go to an area that hadn’t been reached by the cleaners. It had been my habit to go west to the radar reflector adjacent to the former Monsignor’s house on the bluff, now the Ranger’s residence, and then to clean the beach coming east. Today that was impossible: Sandy had changed the beach, and at high tide there was no way to cross the brackish water streaming out of the marsh at the east end of Mt. Loretto without taking off boots and wading. Since the depth of the water was far over our boot tops and neither of us had towels or wanted to put socks back on over wet feet, we decided instead to work in the brush at the very top of the beach where no-one usually attempts to clean, not wanting to fight the interlaced poison ivy to pull out fragments of bags and bottles that have been jammed down into clumps of stems along the high beach. We found the expected debris and were able to collect almost two bags of cans, bottles and ubiquitous lids as well as other pieces of trash that were too large or bulky to bag. These Judy and I tallied and were able to add to the pile by the Dolphin just in time for pickup by a Park’s Department truck.

While we were picking trash I noticed that today’s theme for the beach seemed to be “spiky things”; clumps of Sandspur were tipped with maturing packets of seeds covered with rather nasty needle-sharp spikes, and all along the shore Beach Clotbur (Xanthium strumarium) had developed spiny seed pods tipped with a pair of green horns. Jimson weed also had developed strikingly spiny pods, some of which had already matured to a golden-brown and split open at the top to reveal four columnar chambers of shiny black seeds waiting to be shaken out by the wind. It was interesting to note that a thin line of Jimson Weed had recently grown along the lowest wrack line on the beach, not far from the surf, and some of these still bore elegant, long, white, trumpet-shaped flowers. High on the beach they had already gone to seed, but close to the water flowers still bloomed. I was surprised to see them, not so much because they were still blooming but that they could grow so close to the salt. Their fresh pods looked like tiny, spiky cucumbers, but no cucumber comes so well armed: just a touch drew blood.

The clotbur was interesting because many were inhabited by large colonies of orange and brown Harlequin Bugs (Murgantia histrionica), containing both nymphs and adults. These bugs are native to Central America, but have moved steadily northward until now they appear well into our latitudes. The Harlequin Bugs are what we used to call “true” bugs, beetle-like insects that gradually metamorphose from less developed stages to adults, getting larger and changing slightly toward the adult sexual form at each shed of their skins. They hatch out of clusters of tiny, barrel-shaped eggs on the host plant, and proceed to suck out the plant’s juices with a long stylet-like beak. It is reported that the saliva they produce helps liquify the tissue of the plants they feed upon, and creates greater damage than merely tapping the sap of the host plant. The spiky mouthparts they use to extract the plants’ juices is another characteristic of the “true” bugs (some of which are insectivores and use their pointed proboscis to “tap” other insects instead of plants), and they often become agricultural pests. In more southern states Harlequin Bugs are known to be a serious pest of cruciferous vegetables but completely willing to turn their attention to other plants when cabbage and mustard and broccoli aren’t available.

One of the tools historically used by farmers and a key strategy used by contemporary organic gardeners is rotation of crops. Alternating crops every year so that there are periodic disappearances of a host plant helps insure that a large population of host specific pests will not build up. The Harlequin Bugs, however, are versatile eaters, and it is unlikely that their numbers can be reduced by restricting access to any particular plant. They are happy to feed on most of the mustard family, so the ubiquitous Shepherd’s Purse and Poor Man’s Pepper of our roadsides and other wild mustards will see them through any shortage of more preferred foods. On the beach it seems that Clotbur, which is in the Aster family, serves them quite well.

Their striking orange patterns are not good camouflage at all, so one might assume that these bugs are protected by harboring some distasteful or poisonous chemical compounds, but the literature says that this is not so. While many of the stink bugs, to which the Harlequin Bugs are closely related, are distasteful – to put it mildly – and have a repellant odor, these bugs have none. Perhaps they mimic distasteful insects from their homeland further south, otherwise it would seems that congregating in bright colored numbers would just be an invitation for insectivores to feast. While looking at some of the larger colonies, I noticed that the nymphs often seemed careless of my presence, but that when approached the adults moved themselves to place the stem of the plant between us. Since I was trying to photograph them this was a most frustrating survival characteristic, but I guess that not being toxic, this is the best they could do to save themselves.

DfR 9-29-13

August 2013, Red Trail

Red Trail Forest Restoration
By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop #205,  August 2013

August’s Restoration Workshop found five of us choosing to combat twining vines along the Red Trail close to Forest Hill Road. There we found numerous lianas of European Bittersweet and tangles of   Porcelainberry that we attempted to remove from trees and saplings. The larger vines were for the most part too large and entangled for us to uproot,  and these we cut as close to the ground as we could and then, if possible, pulled the already cut vines from the trees or cut them again higher to prevent them from easily growing back into the trees by means of the dangling vines. Some of the thick bittersweet vines trailed for yards through impenetrable thickets of cat-briar which we could occasionally circle around to find where the vines rooted and cut them there, but often we could only reach into the briar as far as possible and lop the vines in hope that the shade would discourage their regrowth.

 

Elaine has always been especially determined to pull the vines down from the trees, whereas I’m mostly content to cut them low and high figuring that they will wither away without further damage to the trees. Her trees always look better than mine (she says she can imagine hearing sighs of relief whenever she gets a tree clear), but on the other hand I can get to more vines during a session. I imagine that she probably breaks more twigs pulling the vines down, but the trail does look much nicer without cut vines hanging about at head level. I guess it all balances out.

 

This was our 1st workshop in this spot, but thick hanging vines previously cut revealed that others had been at work here before.   Unfortunately the cut vines included several wrist-thick grapes that should have been untouched, although it is possible that these had not been cut in error, but instead to clear the trail.   Because of the occasional similarity of leaves, Porcelainberry may be confused with grape – especially before it bears fruit – but should be recognizable since the bark of the Porcelainberry vine can be shreddy and tan in color, whereas a grape vine is considerably more shaggy and dark brown. If the trail was being cleared, my inclination would have been to leave the grape intact and let trail walkers dodge those vines…

 

Dom, who was leaving for the afternoon, volunteered to take our tools with him after the workshop so that we didn’t have to return to our cars, and the rest of us were free to enjoy the Red Trail loop on what turned out to be a very pleasant afternoon. Numerous Tiger swallowtails, both yellow and black, assiduously nectared from Joe Pye Weed in the trail clearings, and in one of those spots on the way up Hyerdahl Hill we paused to examine one of the spider webs in the catbriar beside the trail.

 

Spider webs seem to be much more numerous this past month in the Greenbelt, although that observation shouldn’t be surprising. This is the time of year when spiders and the insects they feed upon become most apparent. Both have been growing unobtrusively throughout the summer, periodically shedding their exoskeletons as they become larger and larger, and now they have grown enough to attract notice, even though they’ve been among us all summer long.

 

Not all spiders make webs, but of the web makers, we most often notice the orb weavers, because their flat webs of radiating strands supporting elegant spirals of sticky silk are most conspicuous, especially on early mornings in the woods where their habit of constructing the webs across trails can be frustrating and annoying to unwary trail walkers. Our spider was not an orb-weaver, but a relative that builds cobwebby nets among the leaves, and in his net hung a string of tiny balls appearing much like a miniature tube of garlic bulbs that we see hanging in markets. Sometimes silk wrapped packages in the webs are insects that a satiated spider has stowed away for later consumption, but these were a series of tough silk spheres of spider eggs, the sphere at one end probably full of minute spiderlings waiting to emerge, and those on the other end containing less well developed eggs. I once opened a string of these spheres, but can’t recall whether the top or the bottom contained the most mature spiderlings. Logic doesn’t help here since spiders can easily dis-assemble and reassemble their webbing; in fact the orb-weavers periodically rebuild their complex webs, eating the old silk so as not to waste the protein.

 

All spiders are capable of making silk, but not all spiders make silken webs to capture prey. Some spiders use their silk only to line holes where they can lie camouflaged in wait for passing prey and some spiders use their silk as wrappers to protect their eggs, or, as with our spider, to do both.   Some use the silk as life lines to ascend or descend or, when they are small, as parachutes to waft their bodies to new places. The possession of abdominal spinnerettes for producing silk are one of a spider’s defining characteristics – as well as fangs, poison glands and – unlike the insects they feed upon – four pairs of legs.

 

In the spider clan, the orb-weavers and cobweb makers have the most highly developed spinnerettes and build the most complex webs. Arachnologists tell us that up to six distinct types of silk may be required to build an orb web; some strands are sticky and some dry, some are elastic and some don’t stretch much at all and are meant for climbing or anchoring other parts of the web. The spiders that produce these complex webs with multiple kinds of silk are evolutionary latecomers, and many references refer to them as “advanced” and the other spiders as more “primitive.”   These terms, however, don’t imply that the orb-weavers are necessarily better than the others; they are only terms that indicate their position on an evolutionary timeline.

 

There’s a bit of a parallel in botany where we consider seed bearing plants, the angiosperms which in the history of the world have evolved latest, to be more advanced, and the families that developed millions of years before the seed plants to be more primitive. We subconsciously apply a kind of value system to these descriptions, that the more “advanced” plants (and spiders) are somehow better than the “primitive” ones.   The truth is that the development of seeds allowed angiosperms to occupy drier environmental niches that were at the time vacant so that they did not have to compete with the other long established families of plants that required wet places for reproduction.   Without seeds to allow those plants to colonize drier lands the newcomer angiosperms would have had to compete with the already well established mosses, liverworts and ferns, etc. Likewise with the spiders, development of newer, different types of silk permitted some to produce elastic, aerial webs that could be used to capture high flying insects that were out of reach of the others; the “advanced” spiders were able to occupy newer niches, while the more “primitive” spiders successfully continued to pursue their prey on the ground and low vegetation. Both the “advanced” and “primitive” spiders are doing well today.

 

My attention was so focused on the web and spider that I was startled when Armand pointed out that I had not seen a frog immediately to the left in the Catbriar beside the web. The frog, which clung motionless to the leaf with little suction cup toes, was a Grey Tree Frog, the only tree frog that we are likely to find on Staten Island.   Our frog was more a pebbled lime green than grey, but the very similar Green Tree Frog isn’t supposed to occur as far north as Staten Island. Reading up on the Grey Tree Frog elicited the information that this frog can, like chameleons, vary its coloration to suit its surroundings, although more slowly and to a lesser degree. I had long thought that Spring Peepers, those tiny frogs bearing a more-or-less distinct crossmark on their backs and which also use little “suction cup” toes to climb low hanging marsh plants in Spring to find a site to sing, were also tree frogs, but a reptile and amphibian expert from the Hudson River Museum informed me that they are not considered to be “true” tree frogs.   The reason seems to be that Spring Peepers, unlike true tree frogs, do not spend a considerable part of their life high in vegetation. I suppose just like that word “primitive,” we have to know the particular implications of “true.”

 

At the east end of the Red Trail Loop close to Rockland Avenue we passed an area where the Department of Parks Natural Resources Group has begun a major restoration in the Greenbelt.   What had been a mound of Oriental Wisteria is now a barren field, the wisteria grubbed out of the ground and the remainder treated with herbicide. Along the edges of the wetlands are silt fences of hey bales, rolls of coir and bands of geotextile fabric stretched between poles whose purpose is to prevent silt from the denuded areas from filtering into and clogging this branch of Richmond Creek. This project, scheduled to take place over several years, is planed to aggressively continue to remove invasive species from the area around the creek and to replant the unvegetated area with native plants. The technique is similar to that the Department of Parks is employing at Crooke’s Point and has employed at Clove lakes Park. Many are not convinced that this is the best method of managing aggressive, alien invasive plants, but I believe that in this highly degraded area Parks did not have much choice other than letting Nature and the alien plants take their course. Time will tell if their Draconian method will be successful, but for now the trail crossing close to Rockland looks devastated indeed. Two walkers asked us what was going on there, and when we replied that it was a forest restoration project, they replied that it looked more like a forest destruction project. The site really needs an explanatory billboard! I had planned to include a link to the PlaNYC plan for this project should anyone want to look at the details, but haven’t been able to locate it on the web. If I find it, I will note the link in the next restoration report.

 

 

DfR

 

July 2013, Blue Trail

Blue Trail Forest Restoration
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop #204, July 2013

The July workshop attracted just one volunteer, a young highschool lad from Brooklyn who needed an activity on which he could write a school assignment.   We all bandy about the term “nature deficiency”, and bemoan how widespread the malady is among young people, but this was the first time I had actually interacted with a victim!   This fellow had little familiarity with a non-manicured park. He professed an interest in nature, saying that he was interested in marine biology, especially sharks (I wonder if TV “Shark Week” had anything to do with that), and was sure that he was not allergic to poison-ivy, even though he could not identify the plant. Although apprehensive, he nevertheless was game to go up the Blue Trail and cut vines from saplings, but wanted reassurance that there were no parasitic flies that might lay eggs in his ears as he had seen happening in a program about South America! He viewed the area with some unease, and was not at all reassured when we had to go off-trail to get around a recent blow-down close to the golf course high green. I don’t know why, but that portion of the trail seems regularly afflicted with blow-downs, and the briar is often thick and extensive enough to make going around difficult. I think he believed I was going to get us lost…

To me, this illustrates a problem: how do you introduce young people to the magic of the woods if they are unacquainted or have been taught to be wary of nature? Certainly there are hazards: poison-ivy, stinging and biting insects, vines and roots that trip up and catch the feet. We don’t see any reason to be excessive alarmed, but it can be hard to convince someone frightened of the woods that the hazards there are no greater – in fact probably less – than those posed by city streets, and that their trepidation is just a function of unfamiliarity. I tried to exude some nonchalance about traipsing through the woods, but I’m not entirely sure I was reassuring!

 

 

DfR

 

 

 

 

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