It Started at High Rock

It Started at High Rock
By Hillel Lofaso

We never know why some Protectors walks attract participants and some none at all. We go on walks in all weather, according to a long-standing Protectors tradition,  and we will hike the planned route even if there are no participants. So it was that I found myself alone—but not unhappy—on a hot summer day in July for a scheduled field trip at High Rock’s Loosestrife Swamp. I knew there was a lot to do and see in these native woods,  and after waiting the customary 10 or 15 minutes for latecomers, I put away my unfilled attendance sheet, took out my pen and notepad and field guides and I headed down the path to the loop trail around the swamp.

The swamp itself was dense with vegetation, mostly arrow alum with a sprinkling of swamp rose mallow whose shades of mauve and pink peaked through the screen of green plants. My colleagues on previous walks have commented that we are seeing the fulltransition of this swamp into a bog, the next phase in its natural lifecycle. Without human intervention, in the form of increased water flow and vegetation removal, the outlook is pretty certain. Here, though, the thick vegetation is helped to grow by the inflow of nitrates and phosphorous from fertilizers in the surrounding communities.

Green frogs plashed in the water at my approach.  I walked on the boardwalk separating the main body of the swamp from a thumb of deeper, open water. Here I found a few specimens of the swamp loosestrife (or water-willow) that give the swamp its name, together with sweet pepperbush whose delicate flowers sweetened the air. I paused here to watch dragonflies busy in their courtship and territorial displays, oblivious of me. Then, I finished my circuit of the trail and headed back up to the road. Still not seeing any inquisitive latecomers, I struck out onto the yellow trail for a meandering walk to the Nature Center and home.

The yellow trail and the green Greta Moultin trail pretty much follow the same terrain north and west. The yellow trail crosses Manor here and leads eventually to Moses Mt. We usually approach Moses Mt from its southern side from Meisner and Rockland, so it was interesting to see it from this end. The view at the top is getting little more obstructed, due to the height of the shrubby trees on the steep rocky slopes, but it is still impressive. It is still hard to believe that you are in NYC proper, when you are surveying the landscape above treeline.

I made my descent and traveled south to the Meisner Dam. Upon entering the trail, I nearly stepped on a tiger swallowtail butterfly resting on the ground in front of me, perhaps looking for moisture or minerals. Here, too, the main pond, designed as a water retention system and a holding container to allow sediments to drop out, seems to be gradually closing up, filled in by pond vegetation. Even though this pond is manmade, natural processes are still at work. Don’t forget to look for the cardinal flower, which happened to be blooming in the middle of a large pool of water, its fiery red flowers seeming to light up the forest gloom.

There was a healthy flow at the spillage point at the dam as the water coursed down over rocks and boulders to exit in the slower moving Richmond Creek. I always delight in telling people how this natural-looking wetland oasis is totally manmade, the result of some heavy duty land-moving equipment and engineering design. We can surely create habitat, but can we manage it as effectively? Nature always seems to need a helping hand.

My trip took me back to the white trail, up around the Nature Center and back down to Rockland Avenue, where I continued my trek walking carefully on the boardwalk through the portion of the Great Swamp. Right before I crossed over to Willowbrook Park, I paused at the small section of remediated land, which was the mandated or voluntary tradeoff for a developer’s building well within the wetland’s boundary. So often, remediation efforts fail for lack of proper planning and oversight, but happily, this little plot has taken off with healthy populations of wildfowers and small shrubs. New York ironweed was abundant, together with goldenrod, pokeberry, joe-pye weed, amid numerous sweetgum trees. I spent some time keying the shrubs and wildflowers here and then I resumed my saunter home.

I was joined two weeks later by a nice mix of youngsters and adults on a walk that included Orbach Lake. It’s great having children on our walks, because they are so inquisitive and alert. One of our youngsters pointed out to us a black rat snake basking at the edge of the lake and another took a digital photo of an unusually large light tan frog (a tree frog?) clinging to a low tree branch.

We were also able to point out a turkey vulture soaring overhead as well as a great egret hunting at the edge of Hour Glass pond

Nature’s gifts are yours to discover. All you need is a field guide or attend one of Protectors naturalist-led walks to feel completely at ease in the Greenbelt. I hope to see you soon.