Category Archives: Restoration Projects

June 2013, Red Trail

Red Trail Forest Restoration
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop #203, June 2013

There was no attendance for June workshop on the Red Trail adjacent to the LaTourette Golf Course, even though it was a beautiful day, so instead of cutting vines in that area I chose instead to pull out Aralia elata, the foreign version of the Devil’s Walking Stick. We had twice before removed this spiny invader of the understory from a limited area close to the golf course north of the trail, but new growth has sprung up in intervening years that could be “nipped in the bud,” or in this case yanked out by hand.

Pulling these new shoots was the work of a few moments only, but when I was done I noticed several more shoots on the south side of the trail, and those led toward a substantial infestation off of the trail. When I could yank no more I had pulled or cut 975 shoots and small saplings (yes, I counted; it gives the mind something more to do). Having no weed wrench I had to lop some of the saplings that could have been pulled out, and these will no doubt later sprout again from the roots. If there had been another volunteer or two we could have ranged further and gotten more saplings that will prove troublesome in the future.

 

DfR 6-1-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 2013, White Trail

White Trail Forest Restoration
By Don Recklies, clinic Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop #202, May 18, medicine 2013

The forecast a day before for May’s Restoration Workshop was for morning rain and afternoon thundershowers, not promising weather for enticing new volunteers, and all of our regulars happened to have other commitments for that day. Anticipating a small turn-out, I thought that this might be a good occasion to alter the plan for May and instead of pulling invasive plants from along the White Trail we would go back to High Rock to uproot a small patch of Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) that was gaining a foothold beside Loosestrife Swamp.   Only Vlad K. showed up, so after waiting 10 minutes for late-comers we tossed the tools back into Judy’s car and returned to High Rock.

About two years ago we had noticed a few small wisteria shoots growing on the Loosestrife Swamp slope close to the signboard by the entrance; these few years later there seemed to be more, and it was time to pull then out.   As it happened however, the wisteria was not cooperative. I had reasoned that with such a small patch, a few of us could easily pull all the wisteria out in two hours. Our first surprise was that one of the recent storms had dropped a tree across the wisteria closest to the signboard, and many of the shoots were growing up in a tangle of its branches. The second surprise came when I tried to pull out the first small vine, which at this stage was not so much vine-like but resembled instead a young tree seedling.   With three attempts to yank it out with some exertion it finally released its grip on the earth and came free trailing three long, diverging roots.   Considering that the ground was soft pulling this stuff out was more difficult than I anticipated…

We pressed on and found some were easier to pull, and others that even resisted wrenching out with a weed wrench. The most difficult vines simply broke at the root which will require that we revisit them for the next few years, each time pulling new shoots resprouting from the roots until the roots finally die. By noon we were just under half done with that patch when Greenbelt Volunteer Coordinator Jeanne Paliswait stopped by on her way to the administration building accompanied by Jillain T. who had been working with another group and wasn’t yet ready to pack it in. Jillain volunteered to work with us and we decided to try to finish the patch. About the same time Judy T. returned for our post-restoration walk and said that she would help with whatever didn’t require bending, so she began to cut and remove the wisteria that had begun to twist its way up shrubs in the understory.

As we pushed toward the far side of the patch we discovered that the wisteria had gained a greater foothold than we thought. We began to find sweetpepper bush (Clethra anifolia) bent over almost to the ground by the strain of supporting laced together and twining wisteria. Uprooting the vines unearthed runners 20 and 30 feet long studded with new shoots at the nodes, and often starting to interlace and form a network of runners that make wisteria so hard to pull manually once it has become established.   It was clear that we had gotten to this patch none too soon, and that it would have been so much easier to manually remove it out two years ago. At least it had not yet matured to the point where it was blossoming.   The dense shade in this spot had retarded its growth and it had not yet made its way up into the sunlight, although in the newly opened space where the tree by the signboard had fallen it would have literally “run wild” this year.

We finished uprooting a little after 2:00pm, and since this spot was adjacent to the trail and very visible, we gathered most of the vines and packed them into large garbage bags which we left for the Park’s crew beside the garbage can at the top of the hill. Although we were few and had to extend our time, this was a successful Restoration Workshop and a timely intervention.

We finished our workshop much later than usual and only Judy was up for the post-restoration walk.   We decided to do a loop north on the Blue and Yellow trails to look for evidence of emerging cicadas and survey the extent of Japanese Angelica (our alien “Devil’s Walking Stick” – Aralia elata), even though tackling the infestation there is far, far beyond our resources. Cicada pre-emergence holes were evident in spotty clusters here and there along the trail, but were fewer than I expected. No doubt many more were present off the trail covered by last fall’s leaves. On the trail itself we would go for some distance not seeing any holes at all, but suddenly come upon dense clusters of holes as if these were favored spots where the underground grubs decided were good places to hang out during their long larval adolescence.

Having gone out-of-town to work I returned to Staten Island a week later to see if the cicadas had emerged in the area around Butler Manor Woods and Mt. Loretto during my absence. I understood that the week had been cooler than normal, but on that warm weekend expected to see shed larval shells clinging to the bark of trees.   In Butler Woods I thought I heard a few singing somewhere in the distance, but on a transect across the woods found only 1 shell and a few holes in the ground.   I had a little more luck on the Mt. Loretto side poking around the border between Long Pond Park and North Mt. Loretto State Forest where I found 2 or 3 shells clinging to the bark of large trees, but neither heard nor saw any live adults there.

As around High Rock emergence holes were spottily distributed, many in patches here and there along the trails and woods roads separated by long intervals where I saw none.   The holes on the trails posed some questions I to which I had no answers; what happens to those cicadas that emerge there? Cicadas usually crawl to and climb some upright thing where they will complete their metamorphosis to adults, but there are no shrubs and trees growing in the middle of the road, so how would those newly emerged grubs know in which direction to crawl to find a tree? They could I suppose crawl in the direction of shade, but in those places shade is all about. I would have thought that many wouldn’t be able to find a suitable perch, and that their bodies would be visible along the roads, but I saw none at all. Of course one might expect that emergence on the trails and wood roads would make them very visible to birds and small mammals that consider them delightful, juicy bits of protein, so perhaps it’s nor surprising that the roads were not littered with cicada corpses.

However, the lack of dead cicadas along the roads was accompanied by a complete silence of the cicada chorus – not a buzz did I hear.   Lots of holes in the ground, but no noise at all! Obviously the presence of those few shells on the trees was evidence that a few cicadas at least had emerged, but perhaps the weather had been so cool that the main emergence had not yet happened. Or, rather unlikely, perhaps many fewer survived in this brood and birds, squirrels and mice had already picked off most of them. The moles must be feasting, and we should expect a higher population and many more mole trails next year. I finally found one dead, red-eyed adult lying on the trail.   When I tried to pick it up it seemed glued to the ground, and when it came loose I found several large black ants working away beneath it where there was a small hole in its thorax.   This was not a pale, teneral adult. Its wings were fully formed, slightly orangish where they attached to the thorax, it’s eyes bright red even in death, and its black abdomen exhibited the orangish stripes common to Magicicada septendecim, the most numerous of the three species in Brood II. So some adults were out, but still no song…

I decided that given the few shells clinging to the trees the main emergence hadn’t yet occurred, and that what adults were out were not yet prepared to sing. I read that it does take the cicadas a little while to get ready; when the adult cicada emerges from its larval skin through a split along its back, it is pale and soft, what is called a teneral adult, and is somewhat like a butterfly when it metamorphoses from a caterpillar to an adult. The butterfly is then limp and soft, as it has to be in order to wriggle out of its pupal shell, and before it can successfully assume life as an adult it must pump air into its body and fluids into its wings to expand them. Then it must remain motionless until its body processes chemically harden its wings and thorax where the wings and wing muscles are attached. It is very vulnerable during this time; it can’t fly away and being still soft is easy prey for other insect predators. Although cicadas don’t have an intermediate pupal stage as do butterflies, Cicadas are much the same when they emerge.   Not only can they not fly at this time, they are silent as well. The males make their shrill trilling sound by rapidly flexing a rigid disc, the tymbal, just below where their wings are attached. The chorus can’t begin until the adult has hardened its shell and disk, and I have read that this may take four to six days to accomplish.

So I suppose I won’t really hear the cicada chorus until the next few weeks when the weather has warmed more. I’ll probably go out on one or more of the cicada walks that the Staten Island Museum or the Greenbelt Conservancy has scheduled, or perhaps try my luck in Arden Heights Woods. Considering that millions of cicadas have been reported in past emergences one would think that finding and hearing them shouldn’t be a chore, but across the US entire broods and many local populations have disappeared. This for the most part has been a result of habitat destruction. It is not uncommon for insects emerging from a 13 or 17 year underground existence to find that local woodlands have been paved over or converted into suburbia.   Although they are said to be capable of burrowing as deep as 8 feet to reach nourishing tree roots, what happens to them underground when their tree is cut for lumber or to convert the land to agriculture? That underground grub is not likely to be able to move hundreds of feet in search of a new lunch to stick its beak into! None-the-less, I suspect the “bugs” will be singing soon in our larger parks as long as enough habitat has been left for them to survive.

 

DfR 6-1-13

March 2013, Gretta Moulton

Gretta Moulton Forest Restoration
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

Forest Restoration Workshop, Mar. 16, 2013

With two of our regulars MIA, four Protectors assembled at High Rock Park for March’s monthly Forest Restoration Workshop, our 200th. This month we returned to a location in the Greta Moulton tract adjacent to Manor Road that had long been a focus of our workshops. A vineland had developed there in an area that the Department of Parks had some years ago planted with trees, and where a few years later more native trees and shrubs were planted by Protectors under Dick Buegler’s lead. Keeping the strangling vines under control was difficult because they were well protected by tangles of Catbriar and dense clumps of Multi-flora Rose, but we kept returning to that spot once or twice a year, pushing further and further from the Green Trail cutting vines from vulnerable saplings and uprooting Japanese Honeysuckle.

About 4 or 5 years ago – memory doesn’t serve me about exactly when – Parks undertook a more Draconian approach and had a crew attack the viney tangle with a sprayed herbicide. The action dramatically knocked down the briar and vines, but there was some loss of the shrubs and saplings we had planted there – a loss attributable to inattentive spraying and the fact that these more recent plants were often small and their foliage not much raised above the targeted layer of vines and rose. (I was especially disappointed to see an American Sycamore I had planted on the shoulder of the stream where it crossed the trail and which had shot up in a few short years to over 7′ tall first loose all its leaves on the side facing the sprayed area and the following year die back completely.)

The spray seemed to knock down much of the invasive cover, but the following year honeysuckle began to sprout again from the seed bank in the soil, and suckers of Multi-flora Rose shot up from buried roots that hadn’t absorbed a lethal dose of herbicide. Never-the-less, there were fewer vines to deal with and it was much easier to enter the area to uproot the new rose sprouts. Since that spraying we have continued to visit that spot, uprooting rose and cutting vines, but less frequently than we did before. The Multi-flora Rose still flourishes thickly along the stream banks and outside the treated area, and we will continue to push it further away. Adjacent to the Manor Road trail crossing invasive vines are prominent again and English Ivy is gaining a foothold so there’s always more to do.

Following the workshop we returned our tools to the High Rock Park shed and took a walk to the Walker Pond Area. One of the things I like most about these short walks after the workshops is the conversation that occurs. I get to hear new viewpoints about our activities and learn new things. This time, for instance, Andrew B. commented that on a visit to the Native Plant Nursery at William T. Davis, he had been offered some native Pachysandra. Well my ears pricked up because I didn’t know of such a thing! All these years I had been commenting that the dense patches of Pachysandra ground cover we find spotted throughout our woods was another example of an escaped alien plant invading the forest and that we probably ought to be thinking about removing it from sensitive areas. Had I in ignorance been giving wrong information!? Obviously some checking was required…

A little web browsing brought some clarity. Yes, there is a native Pachysandra, but it isn’t native to Staten Island, although it probably could be. The Pachysandra we usually see is Pachysandra terminalis, a ground cover imported from Asia and widely escaped from landscaping use. The native Pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens, is a southern plant that grows as far north as West Virginia. Since we lie in an area artificially heated by the surrounding urban areas, warmed a bit by the Gulf Stream, and subject to constantly rising annual temperatures – attributable, I believe, to global warming – it is likely that our climate is favorable for the native plant, and will become increasingly more so. Moreover, nurserymen have been selectively breeding the plant to produce more hardy varieties, and these cultivars might be suitable for our growth zone (5 to 7B on the USDA zone maps). If it is actually grown at the Native Plant Center, perhaps these are the types. The native Pachysandra, called Allegheny Pachysandra or Allegheny Spurge in the areas in which it grows, is said to he hardy to zone 5, so if it can tolerate our soils, often underlain with serpentinite, it ought to survive here in sheltered areas at least.

Although Staten Island is blessed with parks, especially compared to boroughs such as Brooklyn, we must keep in mind that parks in urban areas such as ours, even “Forever Wild” areas, must be managed if we are to preserve native species and retard those areas being taken over by invasive alien plants. We have fragmented and otherwise altered natural ecosystems so thoroughly that Nature alone can no longer take care of them, and it is now time that we pay more attention how rapidly rising temperatures is going to affect them. It is a tenet of many local naturalists that one should not introduce plants where they have not grown historically. This is wise given that plants not known to have grown in an area may in reality not be fit to grow there, or may do so at the expense of existing plant communities. But times and situations change, and maybe we should be thinking beyond what grew here in historical times to what did grow here in warmer prehistoric times.

If we look at the landscape in geological terms, we see that the communities of plants and animals that occupied our area have always been changing. The ice ages, especially, made great alterations in what lived and grew here – how could it be otherwise when as recently as 20,000 years ago a thousand foot thick layer of ice covered most of the island! (Note that geologists are still unable to count with certainty how many times in the past ice sheets may have flown over our area; the later ice flows disturbed evidence of what happened before.) The sea level was lower then, and coastal vegetated areas that survived the ice are now beneath the sea. When those great sheets of ice receded, plants moving up from the shore and from the south began recolonizing the once ice-covered land. Glaciers move, well… glacially, and as the ice slowly melted northward there was plenty of time for plants that had receded in the face of oncoming ice to gradually seed themselves up increasingly warm exposed slopes and northward along warming ridge lines and valleys. Fortunately on our east coast, unlike Europe whose mountains formed a barrier to the migrations of plants fleeing the ice, our mountain ranges run north and south providing long ridges and valleys though which animals as well as slow moving plant life could both escape the ice and return.

But after the most recent of the glaciers began to retreat some 18,000 years ago the situation began to change rapidly and radically, and the change is directly attributable to human beings. Indian hunter-gathers began to follow the glacier’s retreat thinning out the big mammals on the way, and then began to clear and farm the land, employing fires to aid clearing and to thin out the shrub layer to facilitate hunting. As the years progressed resistant, thick-barked trees began to predominate as that activity changed the composition of the forests in favor of plants that in one way or another survive periodic burning. That ecosystem, created by our indigenous people, is not one that would have developed naturally.

Then, of course, came the Europeans, first to fish the coasts and then to settle the land. Over the course of not much more than a single century much of the land was first cleared for farming and lumbering, and afterwards for industry and the expansion of growing cities and suburbs. And today… for the most part our terrain is a patchwork of a few woodlots, artificial grasslands (turf lawns and golf courses), hard-surfaced industrial areas and vast expanses of suburbs. Streams and springs have been in great part channelized, culverted and buried beneath a surface that is bisected again and again with roadways major and minor. These things are a formidable barrier to the movement of plants trying to accommodate to a change in climate – as formidable a barrier as European east-west mountain ranges were to plants and animals trying to survive the ages of ice.

Whether or not you believe that global warming is a current threat, you must at least admit that climate change has occurred in the past, and if you look at graphs climatologists have devised to chart warming trends you must at least be uneasy to see how steeply the average temperatures in our region have been rising over the past two centuries. In the last century especially, the rise has been much faster than plants can accommodate, either by relocation or adaption. For living things tied to the ground the change is too fast and the physical barriers they must surmount too formidable.

Given all this, what might we expect in the future for our local forests? Obviously there will be a continued incursion of non-native plants that can take advantage of warmer, drier environments, and these will compete with native plants moving north. Some of these aliens will become invasive and form a larger proportion of the forest community, squeezing native plants out of niches they currently occupy. Regarding native plants, those whose ranges now extend to the south will be more and more favored if they are able to move north. There are studies that suggest that in our area at least, which is a boundary area between northern and southern plant communities, warming may favor a greater species richness than currently exists… if, of course, the plants can reach us. Given the chance of plant migration, the composition of our forests will probably change with Maples, Beech and Birches declining and woodlands having a greater compliment of Oaks, Hickories and Pines. Ashes will also probably continue to decline, especially since the Emerald Ash Borer is moving south bringing with it fungal infections that doom the trees. On the forest floor we will see more ferns and forbs adapted to warmer, drier climates; invasive Kudzu will probably spread along the coast and – alas for the allergic – Poison Ivy will grow even more lush and oily than it does now.

The elder among us probably won’t be around to witness the full extent of these changes, but what we have already seen is not encouraging; many parts of our woods are already invasive vinelands, and in many of our forests trees do not seem to be propagating well. One can’t walk the Greenbelt without passing extensive covers of Japanese Honeysuckle and lianas of Oriental Bittersweet and Wisteria ascending the trees. Here and there patches of Pachysandra and Hay-scented Fern cover the ground to the exclusion of anything else. Parts of our woods are getting old without repopulating themselves the way forests in rural areas do. The reason is not clear – perhaps the presence of alien allelopathic plants has diminished the survival of tree seedlings in favor of more hardy invasives, perhaps something else.

Some intervention is required, and perhaps some of those “million trees” the city is planting will help. But these trees are going to have to be cared for, at least until they are “teenagers,” and should be selected with an eye to what might grow here in the future. It won’t be enough just to plant what grew here a century ago; we should be looking even further in the past to see what might survive the future. Perhaps the native “Devil’s Walking Stick, ” Aralia spinosa, which does not yet grow on Staten Island, could replace the alien Aralia elata that is now over-running our woods – assuming that it does not hybridize with its alien cousin and create a greater problem than now exists – and perhaps the native Pachysandra could also replace what grows in our woods now. No doubt ecologists can make a large list of US southern species that could be introduced here successfully. But decisions about tampering with Nature like this are very difficult to make, and such mistakes sometimes cannot be rectified. None-the-less, if we want our plant and animal communities to be able to accommodate to accelerated warming and our forests to be diversified rather than become more and more impoverished, we are going to have to make these decisions and help the plants move along.

DfR 4-21-13

February 2013, Field of Dreams

Forest Restoration at Field of Dreams
By Don Recklies,  Naturalis

Forest Restoration #199,  Field of Dreams

For February’s Forest Restoration Workshop five of us assembled in the Field of Dreams Ballfield parking lot opposite the Costco on Forest Hills Road adjacent to the SW entrance of the multi-use (bicycle) path.   NYC Parks had suggested that this site might be a good candidate for our workshops, so we had put it into the schedule. Although we already have had several sessions along various areas of the bike trail coming west toward the ballfield, we had not come the entire distance, so this workshop filled the gap.

At first the site didn’t seem promising; close to the ball field the soil is thin, in places barely covering layers of trash and studded by black rings of emerging tires (you may recall Sarah-David’s efforts a few years ago to pull over a hundred tires out of the ground and to the edge of the path for Parks to collect). In the growing season all this is camouflaged by green plants, and in late fall the brown stems of plants not yet broken down by the wind and wet of winter do much the same. Now, however, the camouflage had grown thin and less desirable things were revealed.   Along the path we found lots of Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and other vines, but the trees growing among them were mostly alien Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima), and many of these vines had been cut before. In a short distance the Ailanthus became mixed with Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), and we found woody twining vines that had not yet been cut. After attending to these we came to a place where we had previously uprooted Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) seedlings growing beside and even on the gravel of the bike path (the Princess Tree, or Empress Tree is a fast growing alien tree escaped from landscaping and quick to colonize sunlit, disturbed areas). There we began to find large clumps of Multi-flora Rose (Rosa multiflora).

We began by uprooting the clumps of Multi-flora Rose growing adjacent to the path, although some clumps proved too large to uproot with the tools we had brought with us. We had with us a medium size weed wrench that worked for most of the rose, but the crowded, multiple stems of a few clusters were too dense for us to get a grip on with the tool, and we had to leave those for a future visit with a saw or a pick. As we saw the need, we ranged off the path to cut European Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and Japanese Honeysuckle from saplings and shrubs. Deep spiral grooves in the bark of some were evidence that they had been rescued from the vines before. Although they were somewhat contorted and deformed, they were still alive, a testament to an earlier intervention.

Along the abandoned wood roads adjacent to the path we encountered what I believe were trees planted during the Reader’s Digest Foundation forest restoration grant in the 90’s that impelled Dick Bugler to begin our Restoration Workshops. Numerous of these woods roads crisscrossed the area, here and there intersecting the bike path that, for the most part, follows the original route of the Old Mill Road. To close off some of these no-longer-wanted roads, saplings were planted along the roadways. Here, along an overgrown road still recognizable by the line it traced in the topography of the woods north of the bike path, saplings were planted in groups of three supported by wires to stout stakes on opposing sides. Elsewhere on the opposite hillside we find scattered pairs and isolated trees, usually oaks, that had been planted on roadways that had become now abandoned branches of the Blue Trail, but where we found ourselves on the north side there were trios of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), what probably was a broadleaf hardwood such as an Oak, and an American Holly (Ilex opaca). I say probably a broadleaf hardwood, because the middle tree of these trios did not survive, the only evidence of their erstwhile presence being the paired stakes that once supported them.

Why the Cedar and Holly survived and not the other tree is a bit of a mystery to me. I suspect that some thorough search in the area might scare up a sample of the missing survivor of the trio and at least let us know what species didn’t make it.   We’ll try to watch for a survivor on future visits. This is not to imply that the other trees are doing well, however. Of these the Hollies are probably the healthiest, but the Cedars seem sickly indeed, and just hanging on. A recent scourge of our woodlands, the White-tail Deer, is probably the cause.

I say probably the cause because Eastern Red Cedar can be a “pioneer” tree, a tree that takes advantage of poor soils and newly open spaces to grow fast while light and space is available. Then later, if other trees grow up in its shelter and eventually grow to overtop it, it dies away. Here the Red Cedar is a shrub in the understory of now taller trees, and no doubt suffers from lack of light. However, in every case one sees that their trunks have been severely damaged by deer chewing the bark and rubbing against them to relieve antler itch.   Eastern Red Cedar, it seems, is favored by deer in winters when other food is scarce and is much damaged by them in forests of the northeast. The Holly does OK in the shade, and does not seem to be palatable to deer, at least in our area, but many of these Hollies also had swaths of bark rubbed away.

The overpopulation of deer on Staten Island and the degree to which they have browsed away the undergrowth of the wood is much regretted. Staten Island has been unique among the five boroughs of New York City in the extent to which native plant communities have survived.   In fact it has been unique in that unlike all the other boroughs, more native species still exist compared to those that have been extirpated. But all that is changing due to the depredation of deer. With no natural enemies – except for that unnatural enemy the automobile – and comfortable wildlife corridors bordered by well tended suburbs that offer even more browsing, their numbers have exploded. A DEC survey in 2008 counted 24 deer on Staten Island, even then a ludicrously low number. At that time I myself had seen herds of four and five deer in widely separated parts of the island, and can’t help but believe that even then the number of deer was up in the 100s.

There is no certain figure about how many deer any particular natural area can support. Various states managing their deer population, usually for hunting, have come up with numbers of 17 to 21 deer per square mile. Staten Island comprises 58 square miles, but try as I might I could find no figures for how much of that area was forest and grassland suitable for deer. Finally I resorted to NYCOASIS maps in order to estimate what portion was forest and grassland. My best guess was well under 50% of which much woodland was in the form of tiny woodlots scattered in residential areas, and much of the remainder was phragmites marsh. If we figured that 20 deer per square mile might be allowable – a pretty high estimate for isolated suburban woodlands – this would suggest a carrying capacity of 580 deer, but that would be true only if the natural areas were mostly contiguous, which they are certainly not. And it must be considered that these estimates of deer carrying capacity are not necessarily estimates of the how many deer a forest can support without endangering its biodiversity, but of how many deer a woodland might support while keeping the deer healthy, not necessarily the forests.

Deer, like people, favor certain foods, and for the most part avoid eating things alien. Year after year they select from the native species, usually avoiding alien imports, further tilting the balance against the plants they favor until the continued existence of those plants is in jeopardy. We should be concerned because we value some of these plants highly (in fact, we should value them all, but as is usually the case, the handsome and beautiful garner most of our attention). The Maryland Native Plant Society has sounded a warning about the fate of the Pinxter Azalea, that shrub that is a wonder of the spring blooming season in our woodlands. The Pinxter can probably survive being browsed occasionally, but as the number of deer continue to grow and browsing becomes continuous they will begin to disappear from the understory. If unchecked, we will soon be left with a ground layer of herbs and ferns and an upper layer of saplings and trees that hangs down only as far as the reach of a standing deer, as can be seen in many New Jersey forests.

In the late 1990’s Susan Stout, a silviculturist for the USDA Forest Service sounded an alarm based on her perception of what was happening in Pennsylvania woodlands. She pointed out was what already obvious – that Pennsylvania’s woodlands were not naturally regenerating – and that the cause was the overabundance of deer exacerbated by the elimination of the deer’s historical predators, Game Commission laws curtailing the hunting season, and the expansion of deer favorable habitat that followed widespread harvesting of timber in the late 1800’s. She referred to a study of old growth forest reserves through the thirties and forties describing the steady disappearance of the deer browsed Hobbiebush Viburnum (Viburnum alnifoliurn – not a species we find on Staten Island) in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Area, and noted that “today” (around 1990) only one of these plants remained all of its 4000 acres. She noted that several studies correlating deer density to biodiversity suggested that the density should be no more that 10 to 20 deer per square mile, and that the most devastating impacts of deer on their habitat occurred in the early years of deer overabundance.

We may have already passed a tipping point for whatever rare plants may yet survive in our woodlands, and what makes the lack of an effective deer control policy in our woods even more dire is that once deer have defoliated a woodland, the woodland may not necessarily regenerate after the deer have been removed. Of special concern are the plants of the herb and shrub layer.   Often when deer have browsed an area it turns to fernland or becomes populated with plants such as Asters that deer do not prefer. After the deer have browsed an area for successive seasons the seed bank that might replenish the former spring wildflowers becomes impoverished, and unmolested by deer, the ferns begin to shade out seedlings of the more slow-growing trees and shrubs. We tend to think of ferns as delicate lacy indicators of moist, shady woods, but ferns can be indeed sturdy, competitive plants. After all, they have managed to survive since before the days of the dinosaurs, so they must have a good survival mechanism. We often see large swaths of Hay-scented Fern in shady woods.   The dense layer of fronds serves to stanch the growth of seedlings that try to sprout beneath them, and once formed those fern areas seldom display spring wildflowers or any abundance of tree seedlings.

Our overpopulation of deer must be addressed soon. During the deep snows of several years ago the deer wintering at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve killed almost all of the evergreen seedlings in the restricted area close to the old shooting range. Visitors could see a distinct browse line in the pines where they had consumed foliage as high as they could reach. And as recently as three years ago they browsed about half of the White Pine saplings that had been planted close to the junction of the bicycle trail in LaTourette. One might think that the seemingly recent trend to less severe winters would relieve deer pressure on our woodlands, but mild winters that make foraging easier and reduce deer mortality result in even larger herds that our woodlands cannot support. NYS is aware that making it easy for deer does them no favors; though experience the state found that feeding the deer in winter contributed to unsupportable numbers of survivors and that crowding of deer in areas where they could artificially find food made more easy the spread of disease through the herds. For this reason (and to prevent deer being lured to bait and feed for hunting purposes) in 2010 it was made illegal to feed wild deer in NYS.

As yet no effective deer control has been proposed for Staten Island. In some other areas deer herds are periodically culled by hunting, but this solution is not always effective and would present an obvious problem in a heavily urbanized area such as Staten Island (although some county parks in Westchester and many in New Jersey, for instance, have bow hunting seasons for deer, and firearm hunting as well if the area is sufficiently isolated for such practices to be safe). This presents a great problem for natural resource wildlife managers; if hunting should be allowed it must be restricted to safe areas and the most capable and careful hunters. How would one restrict hunting in the patchwork of woods and wood corridors that make up Staten Island’s natural areas? Moreover, sooner or later there is bound to be a hunting accident, a public relations nightmare for whoever might be in charge.   How else might we keep their numbers down? Trapping and relocating excess numbers of deer is sometimes suggested as a humane alternative, but think of the expense!   How could we persuade local government to fund such an endeavor given all the other calls upon the public purse?   And just where might these excess deer be relocated – to some deer retirement farm?   Trying to capture and release large numbers of deer in some other natural area would certainly arouse a NIMBY response.

Contraception is sometimes proposed as an alternative, but that approach is beset with many technical and economic difficulties. Lacing feed with contraceptives is problematic because it is a not very targeted method; how does one keep the contraceptive away from other animals? (One issue among many is that deer meat is sometimes introduced into the food supply, so either a contraceptive safe for human consumption must be used, or there must be some way to insure that the treated deer cannot make their way to areas where they might be hunted.) Darting the deer with contraceptive syringes might seem feasible, but would be a very expensive method. Until recently, in order that the contraceptive be effective each doe would have to be darted twice each season. How could one insure that enough deer on Staten Island were treated twice to control the population given that the DEC couldn’t even get a reasonable handle on the number of deer actually present? To illustrate how deep the devil is embedded in these details, consider that contraceptives tried elsewhere did prevent does from conceiving, but also lengthened the period in which they were sexually attractive to males and increased the risk of collisions between automobiles and sex-crazed bucks.   And those sex-driven bucks posed a hazard, not only on the roadways, but also to people they might encounter in the woods. The danger from deer is not just Lyme disease and defoliation.

In regard to danger to humans, the economics of deer-automobile collisions is eye-opening. State Farm, along with other insurance analyses it provides, periodically publishes statistics about the frequency and cost of deer-automobile collisions.   Interestingly enough, recent figures indicate the danger of such collisions has slightly decreased (State Farm was astute enough to suspect that the reason for this was that the economic downturn resulted in fewer miles on the road, not fewer deer that might intersect with cars). However, the average cost of each collision, at the time of the 2011 report, had risen to $3,305 (logically, as automobiles become more complicated and expensive, so do repair costs). Nationally the yearly cost of deer and moose collisions totaled over 4 billion dollars, and this does not even consider the emotional and physical cost to those involved, or the 200 yearly deaths such collisions cause. Where deer populations are high the chances of such a collision are not small. For example State Farm estimated that in 2011 the yearly chance of a driver hitting a deer in West Virginia was 1 in 53! I wonder how the risk is growing for Staten Island drivers, and how the increasing cost of deer-automobile collisions will be shared among us? Controlling the number of Staten Island deer would be a good thing both for us and the environment.

There is some optimism that non-lethal deer control might be employed in the future. Recently the National Wildlife Research Center announced the development of a new contraceptive that has few of the drawbacks of prior drugs. The new contraceptive, GonaCon, is said to not cause treated animals to become unsafe for human consumption, is effective in single injectable doses and does not adversely affect the length of the breeding season and cause unwanted recurring sexual activity. That said, the drug still must be injected, requiring capture of the deer for treatment or the employment of skilled marksmen to dart them in the field.   And, although the drug is said create long lasting infertility, “long-lasting” means about 75% effective the first year and 47% the second. One doubts that such a “C” grade would be efficient enough to save our woods. Critics say that given its effective rate somewhere between 90 to 100% of the total deer population would have to be treated just to stabilize a deer population, much less reduce it. Should it prove even possible, this more effective contraceptive solution would still seem to be an very expensive proposition to implement.   None-the-less, it seems promising, and the NWRC has announced that it continues research in an attempt to develop an ingestible version of the drug.

A version of the drug that could be widely administered by luring the deer to feed could do much to stabilize the deer population on Staten Island, but would probably not serve to reduce it. The costly option of capture and relocation or the lethal option of permitting deer hunting would probably be necessary as well, but the “Bambi” effect will probably militate against employing one option, and our limited public purse will militate against the other. For now it seems that we have little choice other than to watch our woodlands being eaten away. Striking as it is to see on the trail the flash of white tails in the woods as an alarmed string of deer flees to a safer place, I see it all too often on Staten Island, and I see as well torn and ripped stems of browsed understory plants almost everywhere I go. It’s nice that our woodlands are accommodating to larger wildlife like deer, but I just wish there weren’t so darned many of them. DfR 3-17-13

 

January 2013, Pump-House Pond

Forest Restoration at Pump-House Pond
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

Forest Restoration #198,  Pump House Pond

January’s session was a little clean-up close to Pump-House Pond, an area that we had worked in before. This summer I had noticed Multi-flora Rose and Aralia shoots (the alien version of our Devil’s Walking Stick) springing up along the trail we had previously cleared, so I thought it was time we gave the spot a “touch-up” before new sprouts from the seed bank or survivors from broken off roots grew more substantial. When the five of us arrived at the pond, however, we found the area cleaner than I remembered, and pulling out the Aralia shoots was just a matter of minutes. Closer to the Moravian Cemetery fence we found more to occupy our time. There, as is common along much of the fence line, clumps of Boxwood, Multiflora Rose and Japanese Barberry have begun to extend toward the Greenbelt trail. The boxwood was substantial, and since they were stouter shrubs then the tools we brought could accommodate – and we had not removed boxwood in the past – we left those in place. We did, however, set to wrenching out as much Multiflora Rose and the yellow-rooted Japanese Barberry as time permitted, making small brush piles of the remains.

***

On the walk afterwards I pointed out the distinctive appearance of the Ironwoods (Carpinus caroliniana) growing beside a former Yellow trail spur leading to Richmond Road. Perhaps Ironwood is not the best common name for this small tree, since there is another hard-wooded tree with shreddy bark, sometimes called Hophornbeam, that also goes by the ‘moniker’ Ironwood. Ironwood though, seems to be the name locally recognized for this tree.   These smooth-barked and sinuously-textured trees are frequently found along watercourses in our moist woods, and once seen are unforgettable. Some call them Blue Beech (and just to keep things confused, it belongs in the Birch family, not the Beech!), which is appropriate given the smooth texture of their bark, but I like another common name for them: musclewood, which conveys a sense of the strength and hardness of the wood, and at the same time it’s “stringy”appearance.   The tree just looks tough and sinewy.   Rapping a knuckle on a branch demonstrates that it is indeed one of out hardest and densest trees. It would have been a desirable hardwood tree if it ever grew straight and larger than about 6 inches across.

However, the tree most commented on and asked about was the Tulip tree, Liriodendron, tulipifera, the giant of our forests. The Tulip tree, know to southerners as Yellow Poplar (and yes, it’s not in the poplar family; it’s more related to the magnolias), gets its name from its blossom: a large, six-petaled light yellow and orange colored flower, green tinged at the base and much resembling a tulip blossom. One of my guides says that strictly speaking only three of the six “petals” are true petals, and that the other three “petals” are properly called sepals, which are identical in appearance and can only be distinguished because they originate slightly further away from the pistil in the center of the flower. None of this much matters to us though, since both are really modified leaves and look quite alike. Under the blossom usually hang two curly green flaps, which are the remnants of the scales that covered the developing flower buds like a pair of cupped hands.   The tree’s blossoms really do look like a tulip flowers, and even its pointy four-lobed leaves in silhouette have the appearance of a tulip flower.

It’s fortunate for those of us who value this tree that its’s a fast grower because it’s still frequently cut for lumber, and that’s one reason that really large Tulip Trees are relatively rare. Its wood is strong, light, and easily worked, and its character of growth produces long sections of useful timber.   Growing in woodlands where it must compete for light influences the tree to grow tall and branch out high above, thus producing long trunks with few low branches that create awkward knots in the wood. It wasn’t much used for fine furniture – after all, it was just a common, locally grown tree, not something with exotic bragging rights – but being light, easily glued and easily worked even with hand tools, was often used for common furniture, planking and as core layers for veneered plywood. It produces the lightest wood of any of our hardwoods (lumbermen don’t use the terms hardwood and softwood in a way we might expect; softwoods are woods from evergreens, and some can be very hard and dense indeed, and hardwoods are woods from broadleaf trees, some of which, like the Tulip, are very soft and light), and was the pioneer tree of choice when they made a “dugout” canoe. Donald Peattie, whose Trees of Eastern and Central North America makes for good reading, recounts that the Tulip was the tree chosen by Daniel Boone to journey down the Ohio River to seek his fortune in what was then land claimed by Spain.

Close by the Ironwoods on the trail was a specimen of Tulip about 20″ in diameter dbh (Diameter at breast height – DBH – is commonly used as a point of measurement of a tree, and that point is arbitrarily set at 4-1/2″ above the ground). This was one of the largest trees at that spot, but it wasn’t exceptionally large as Tulip trees go. On Staten Island, the largest Tulip is a mature tree at the north end of Clove Lakes Park, which has been measured as over 100 feet tall, over 6-3/4 feet in diameter and is estimated to be over 300 years old. It’s stature as the largest Tulip Tree in NYC is tied with that of a large Tulip deep in Alley Pond Park in Queens. In older forests elsewhere there are older and larger specimens: in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee there are immensely tall Tulips estimated at about 150 feet tall and over 500 years old that measure over six feet across! We might have similar trees had not our woods been so often and thoroughly cut. “How old is this one,” I was asked, and I manufactured a guess that it might be about 100 years old, since I knew that our woods have been frequently cut, and that most of the Greenbelt was of relatively recent growth.

Trees grow at different rates depending on their species, climate and location making ageing a tree a difficult process to generalize, even for those who are experts in the matter.   Trees growing in urban parks and yards do not have to compete strongly with their neighbors to reach into the sun, and consequently are bushier and have wider trunks than their forest grown cousins, whereas street trees may have their growth stunted by exposure to runoff chemicals and airborne pollutants, and may be older than their size would indicate. The International Society of Aboriculture has created a formula that can be used to roughly estimate a tree’s age by multiplying its diameter in inches by a growth factor that is dependant on the species of tree. The growth factor for each different species was determined by measuring and averaging the growth of numerous forest trees in a variety of forested locations. By their chart, the growth factor for Tulips is 3, and according to their formula, our Tulip at 20 inches in diameter would seem to be only about 60 years old.   Although its true age might be different from that given by the formula, I was probably way off. The formula, however, only produces a rough guess and is only applicable to forest trees.

Even if you’re not good about recognizing the Tulip’s bark and shape among all the other trees in winter, you can often spot them by looking for remnants of seeds on the tree. By midwinter most of the flat, narrow seeds of each blossom have been shaken away from the seed column leaving a ring of bracts in the shape of a shallow cup surrounding a central spike. Trees that have born a lot of fruit now give the appearance of having spouted countless small, old-
fashioned TV dish antennas. The ground beneath is often littered with countless seeds lying unobtrusively among the leaf litter. Tulip samaras (samara is the term botanists apply to these dry winged tree fruits) are similar to those produced by Ashes, but can be distinguished by looking at the tip where the enclosed seed was produced adjacent to the central spike. The seeds of ashes are narrow, oar-like straight blades, thickened slightly at the tip, whereas Tulip seeds are turned up at the tip, much like Lilliputian skis. All of these seeds can “helicopter” away from the parent tree in a survival flight to get to a fertile place away from the shade of the parent tree as do the more familiar Maple “keys.”

At an earlier Restoration a few of us had ruminated about the economics of Tulip tree seed production.   At that time we were closer to the Greenbelt Nature Center and close by some larger trees, and I remarked that a tremendous number of seeds is produced just to keep the forest in balance, the assumption being that if the number of Tulips in those woods was to remain fairly constant, over the entire life of any one tree just one of its many seeds on average would live to maturity. We did a little ‘guesstimation’ (it wasn’t an informed enough process to be dignified as a calculation). We assumed that the tree might live to be 150 years old, and possibly had started blossoming around age 20.   Tulip seed counts have indicated that each blossom bears 60 to 80 seeds. That’s a lot of seeds per flower, but studies by silvicologists suggest that on average 80% of them are not fertile, so it needs to produce a lot. We didn’t have any notion of how many blossoms a tree might bear, but for the purpose of making a guess decided that on average a tree might have 100 a year.   Doing a little multiplying that works out to 70 seeds/blossom x 100 blossoms/year x 130 years = 910,000. That’s just under a million seeds to keep this one tulip in the forest, and I’m pretty sure that the figure we came up with was an under-estimate!   Nature has to be very prolific with most of the plants and small animals in our woods just to keep the system running in place, but all those tiny acorns that don’t make it as far as great oaks haven’t been produced in vain; all are fuel that keeps someone else’s life cycle turning.

When I was a boy in Ohio and just starting to explore beyond my neighborhood, I found my way to an abandoned farm site, long since occupied by a UHF broadcasting station and a strip mall. Beyond it, bordering a lot cleared for construction, was a woodland leading to the upper section of a steep Hemlock clad ravine that wound its way through a city pocket park until it debouched into the Mahoning River. The ravine was cool and wet, and the heavy moss under the Hemlocks made pleasant cushions where one could pause on a journey to the park. (The park’s still there, but a great part of the ravine has long been filled in and lies under a freeway. No Protectors were around to try and preserve that site.)   The way to the ravine passed through woods with Tulip Trees, and these were mature trees indeed. To a young boy they were nothing less than awe inspiring; immense straight trunks rising far, far up to a distant, impossibly high, dense canopy. No doubt as a jaded adult I would be less impressed, but that early encounter with the “forest giants” left an indelible impression, and that sense of awe still has not quite worn away.

DfR 2-24-13

 

December 2012, Greenbelt Center

Forest Restoration at Greenbelt Center
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

Forest Restoration #197, December 15, 2012

December’s workshop, or 197th, found five of us on the path from the Nature Center to the Greenbelt Recreation Center. The area around the path is the site of many trees, about a hundred I think, planted as part of the Million Tree Initiative, but it is a very degraded area, utterly overrun with alien twining vines. These vines had completely mounded over many of the shrubs and saplings that were planted less than three years ago, shading them out, cutting grooves in their bark and making their survival doubtful. This visit, our 3rd to that site, follows up on a very successful session by NAV volunteers this summer who had cleared vines from saplings in the middle section of the path. We had previously cleared vines close to the Recreation Center, and Saturday we finished up with those no one had gotten to close to the Pine trees at the Richmond Road entrance. A site like this reinforces the lesson learned after many trees were planted in the Greenbelt in the mid 90’s with a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation grant: invasive vines will swiftly kill these trees without a substantial ongoing effort to keep them clear until the trees are well established.

 

DfR 12-16-2012

 

 

 

 

November 2012, Restoration Cancelled

Forest Restoration Cancelled
By Don Recklies, Naturalist

 Forest Restoration Cancelled

The November workshop would have been our 197th. Unfortunately the date fell a week after the onslaught of Sandy, and was of necessity canceled due to park closure, so we can no longer boast that our series of workshops is unbroken. Dick used to take great pride in that we had never canceled a session, no matter what the weather or circumstance, and I myself regret that we didn’t make it to the goal of 200 unbroken sessions. So close…

 

 

DfR 11-2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 2012, High Rock Park

Forest Restoration at High Rock Park
By Don Recklies, prostate Naturalist

 Forest Restoration #196, store High Rock Park

October found us at High Rock Park for our 196th Restoration where six of us uprooted Aralia Elata from the Red Trail slopes below the administration buildings. We were pleased to discover that below the hillside several infestations of this alien plant had been removed by other volunteers this summer.   There’s still quite a number of these alien saplings yet to remove on the more inaccessible parts of the hill, and of course there are constantly springing up all through the park wherever birds excrete their seeds. One can even find them growing healthily around the paths to the park restrooms up above. I doubt many park visitors realize that these strange, thorny growths are Asian imports

 

DfR 10-2012

 

 

 

 

 

September 2012, Sharrott’s Beach

Forest Restoration at Sharrots Beach
By Don Recklies, cheap Naturalist

Forest Restoration #195, Sharrott’s Beach

Our September Restoration was, as is usual for that month, a beach clean-up by the fishing pier at the end of Sharrott’s Ave. I didn’t get a copy of our sign up sheet, so I don’t know the exact number of volunteers, but when I got to the pier they were already scattered up and down the beach.   Again there was less trash than in recent years, and I suspect that the increasing use of degradable plastics and thinner plastic stock for making disposable bottles might be responsible for some of the improvement. Right now, of course, much Sandy debris litters the South Shore beaches, the pier and parking lot are closed and a large pile of storm debris has been gathered there for pickup, but city workers and volunteers are making tremendous progress removing debris from the beach all along the South Shore.   The red sandy bluffs in that area, though, have badly eroded, and more of Staten Island’s South Shore has washed into the bay.

 

DfR 09-2012

 

 

 

 

August 2012, Buck Hollow Red Trail

Forest Restoration at Buck Hollow Red Trail
By Don Recklies, rx Naturalist

Forest Restoration #194, hospital August 18, sovaldi 2012

The sun didn’t rise on the morning of August 18th – at least as far as we could witness it; there were showers when I left Brooklyn and heavy rain on Staten Island, so I was not surprised that only a stalwart few showed up by the impoundment on Meisner Road for our 194th Forest Restoration Workshop. That was unfortunate since by 10:00 the clouds were parting, and the rest of the day was one of the nicest so far of the summer.

 

We were four all told, not counting Judy who, as usual, picked me up at the Ferry and drove to High Rock where we grabbed a few rakes and weed-whips from the shed. Carrying a few extra gloves and clippers in case late-comers should show, we set off along the Red Trail in Buck’s Hollow for a workshop that was more in the nature of an experiment than what we usually do. It had been suggested that we might target the Japanese Stiltgrass that is flourishing along the trails in LaTourette, and my first reaction to that idea was that it would be a laborious amount of stoop-work with little likelihood of success, and disheartening to the volunteers as well. After some reflection we decided that in the spirit of cooperation we would give it a try to see what we might accomplish and what method of removal might work best. If the task proved too laborious, we would have clippers along and could always fall back on removing twining, woody vines.

 

Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) is an alien low, soft, annual grass that grows along the trails in moist and shady places, gradually displacing native forbs and spreading from the paths into the adjoining woods. It flowers and sets numerous seeds in late summer which are then tracked along the trails to start new colonies further along. Where several years ago it was occasional along the White Trail in Buck’s Hollow, it now forms wide, dense borders to the trail extending for hundreds of feet in the low areas and occasionally forms colonies uphill off the trail. It’s seeds are spread mechanically by running water or by creatures traveling along the trail, and trail hiking in wet, muddy weather is an especially effective means of carrying the seeds along. The uphill, off-trail patches of grass were probably created by the passage of muddy deer to and from their drinking areas. Unfortunately Stiltgrass is unpalatable to the deer that might have helped spread it. Like most of the other alien, undesirable plants in our woods; nothing much seems to eat it.

 

The key to control of this grass seems to be exploiting the fact that this grass is an annual that must grow from seed each year.   If we can prevent the grass from setting seed for a few years until the all the Stiltgrass seeds banked in the soil have been exhausted, the grass will disappear. We decided to try 3 methods: hand-pulling the grass, raking it out with level-head, hard-tined rakes and cutting it down with weed-whips. All three methods seem to have differing advantages and disadvantages. The first isolated patch of grass we came to we attacked with rakes with great success, but that success proved illusory.   In that spot the soil was very soft and wetter – despite the overall rain of the morning – than patches further along the path. The Stiltgrass there was lush and dense, and mixed with few other plants that we had to watch out for. Almost all the grass came out with the rake, leaving a very few small sprigs to pull by hand. We thought we had the problem licked, that this grass was a push-over, until we tried rakes again further along the trail. There the soil was a little harder, and the rakes simply combed the grass over so that it lay pressed to the ground making it even harder to pull by hand and impossible to cut with a whip.

 

Cutting the Stiltgrass with weed-whips was the easiest method, but had several drawbacks, one being that it’s not very selective. Many patches of stiltgrass were mixed with other forbs, native grasses and seedling trees, and care has to be taken that these desirable plants not be mowed down by accident. Uncut patches had to be hand pulled, and had we been a larger group we would need to exercise care to isolate hand-pullers from those swinging sharp tools.   Another drawback is that mowing leaves behind short, rooted stems that may have time to regrow and produce seed before winter ends their growing season. To be successful this method requires that there be a window of time in which the grass can be mowed before it sets seeds and does not leave it enough time to regrow. The extended Fall periods that we’ve experienced recently may prove to be a fatal flaw for this method. I suspect that our workshop this August may have been too early to suppress regrowth, but in September, which would probably have been the best month, we are obligated for the annual International Coastal Cleanup.

 

Hand-pulling of course is an effective method for removing the grass, but is probably the most unsatisfactory for most volunteers.   It’s slow and tedious work, not suitable for large areas unless the volunteers are many. Where the grass extends for hundreds of feet attempting to pull it out by hand can become dispiriting since no matter how much is pulled, a daunting extent of grass remains, and it is difficult to get a sense of achievement. Surprisingly, there is perhaps a more serious disadvantage to hand-pulling: as does raking, hand-pulling disturbs the soil and exposes buried seeds.   Among these may be more Stiltgrass, and probably seeds of Garlic-mustard, another alien which is quick to exploit disturbed soil and which we would dearly like to see vanish from our woods.   What to do? For now the best solution seem to be selective weed wacking in the Fall, preferably with power whips, or the application of herbicides compounded for use in wet and sensitive areas, spraying or cutting both done before the grass sets seed. Both methods may impose collateral damage to any perennial native plants surviving in the grass, so the question is whether the cure is worse than the “disease.” The almost complete lack of native plants in established areas of Stiltgrass would indicate that intervention would help more than harm. Whatever method is employed would have to be repeated annually for perhaps 4 or 5 years until the Stiltgrass seed in the soil bank has been exhausted, and therein lies another problem: where do we find resources to intervene like this at a time of shrinking budgets when the Department of Parks is struggling to perform even its most basic functions…

 

 

 

After the workshop Judy and I took a small walk around the Red Trail loop, partially retracing the way where earlier we had encountered a sapping turtle hatchling square in the middle of the trail.   Luckily at that time Dom had been in the lead watching where he stepped so we didn’t crush the small creature. It laid there motionless, for all the world just a chunk of dark, wet bark debris, instinct telling it to freeze until the danger had passed. We moved it to the lower side of the trail closer to the swamp which was probably its destination. Perhaps it wasn’t a new hatchling; at almost two inches long it may have been one of last year’s brood, but then what was it doing so far uphill from the swamp? One wonders how it senses to return to the water which it has never seen. Can it perceive the direction of damp wind or some air-born component of wetland decomposition, or does it just try to go downhill wherever possible – or is there some other complex clue that is beyond our sense or understanding? So far this little guy was one of the lucky ones whose buried eggs hadn’t been discovered by a voracious racoon, and, after we walked on perhaps it successfully ran the gauntlet to the water before some other, larger predator discovered it. Not that the water would assure it more than just a greater degree of safety.   The egrets that occasionally hunt there would probably find it to be a great delicacy, as would larger members of its own kind.

 

We marveled at how lush and shiny green the woods were. I believe that this time last year was rather dry, the softer herbs beginning to wilt and the spicebush leaves appearing pale green, thin and dusty.   Not so this day! Here and there a few flowers made their appearance, the yellow heads of Canada Hawkweed occasionally swinging low beside the path and here and there pinkish traces of blooming Tick-trefoil, many of which were already maturing long, thin seedpods of the hairy, triangular seeds which, much to our annoyance, will cling to our clothing later in the season.   Where the trail opened in a moist clearing at the west end of Buck’s Hollow, New York Ironweed displayed striking purple composite flowers over which Tiger Swallowtails butterflies were contesting for territory. While those striking yellow butterflies jousted others snuck in to probe for nectar and incidently pollinate the blossoms – there were flies especially, skippers and a much worn Swallowtail. At the very lowest part of the loop two large downed trees blocked the trail, work of the quick, sharp storm that had passed through earlier in the week. There the understory was open and there were few briars or twining vines to prevent us walking around the obstructions. I read that currently there are only two paid “gardeners” for all of the Greenbelt, and that all staffing levels are being reduced by attrition. Who then, I wonder, will continue to cut away these constantly occurring large obstructions on the trails for us?

 

Much of the current maintenance in non-manicured parks is done by volunteers, like the Natural Area Volunteers I had joined a few weeks ago on the path to the Greenbelt recreation Center. There one of the vines that they were keeping an eye out for was Mile-a-minute Vine (now called Persicaria perfoliatum), which I myself have not seen on Staten Island, although it has made its way down the Palisades and I have seen it in other NYC Boroughs. Like Stiltgrass, this plant is an annual that must grow again from seed each season, and might be controlled with much the same methods. In appearance Mile-a-minute is a stringy, straggly vine with alternate, triangular leaves. At every joint in the stem a cup-shaped leafy bract surrounds the vine so that the stem seems to penetrate right through an oval green leaf as the species name, perfoliatum, implies. The vine itself and the stems and bottom vein of the leaves bear rows of minute, recurved barbs that cling tenaciously to clothing. Should you be so unwise as to rip the vines loose with bare hands, it will rip back at you and you will find it deserving of its other common name, Asiatic Tearthumb. Asiatic Tearthumb shares this barbed character with two wet-land dwelling relatives, Halberd-leaved Tearthumb and Arrowleaf Tearthumb, that are native plants, but the native tearthumbs don’t have the wide, leafy plates surrounding the stem joints as does the Asiatic invasive. Soft and pliable on young, tender shoots, the tiny teeth soon harden into a micro version of vegetable barbed wire.

 

The NAV volunteers found something resembling Mile-a-minute Vine mounding over shrubs in a small area off the Recreation Center path, but since it lacked teeth and perforated modified leaves, it was not Mile-a-minute Vine, but probably Hedge Bindweed or some similar vine. None-the-less it, as well as Bittersweet Nightshade and Porcelainberry, was cut or pulled out in an effort to relieve some of the smothered new trees along the path. Protectors has had a restoration session along the path there twice in the recent years, but the fast growing vines continue to menace and threaten to mound over the small saplings. Since both times we started our work in areas close to where the path enters the Recreation Center parking lot, trees there were relatively free of vine, however, further along the path where we had not gotten, new trees and shrubs were absolutely buried. NAV volunteers worked along the path and exposed several oaks and sweetgums that had been so encrusted in European Bittersweet and Porcelain berry that one could walk by without any idea that trees were there. At the end of that work session at least a half dozen trees had been exposed along the path, as well as many more growing in a tangle of vines and briars further off the pathway. However, there are more still buried along the path closer to the road crossing to the Nature Center, so we will probably go back to that area sometime in the early winter to continue the job.

 

Even though the vines there didn’t include Mile-a-minute, there is fear that it is on Staten Island, and it would be best discovered and removed before it establishes a foothold, as another unwanted alien, Black Swallow-wort (Cynanchum louiseae), already has on Moses Mountain.   So I suggest that if you’re frequently out in the woods, you might take a look at http://massnrc.org/pests/pestFAQsheets/mileaminute.html or at http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/pepe1.htm to learn what the vine looks like and how it differs from the native tearthumbs, so that if you encounter it you can recognize it and report it to the Department of Parks. Unlike most of our other alien invasive plants there is a biological control that has lately been used to combat this vine: a tiny Chinese weevil that feeds on the leaves and lays eggs in the stems, weakening and collapsing the plant.   Maryland has been using these weevils for some years, and Connecticut and several other states have also begun to release them in infested areas. Although we have learned at some cost to be wary of the long term effectiveness and safety of introduced biological agents, so far these weevils seem to be content to feed on Mile-a-minute, and not on our native plants.   The states that employ them do not believe that they will eradicate the vines, but hope that they will do enough damage to bring the vines into balance in communities where they now are invasive and over-running local vegetation. For us, it would be far better to be alert and “nip” this problem “in the bud” before these vines become established.

 

DfR     9-10-2012

 

 

 

 

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