Cleanup at Latourette Blue Trail
By Don Recklies, unhealthy Naturalist
Forest Restoration Workshop #185 Nov. 19, prostate 2011
Once again Protectors was fortunate in the weather for its 185th Forest Restoration workshop. The temperature climbed through the 50’s as we assembled beside old St. Andrew’s Church at LaTourette and the sky was bright and clear. We were a larger group than usual with the addition of Girl Scout Troop 5365. All told, including the moms and regular Protectors’ participants, we numbered 20, and made a long procession down the bike trail to our work area where the Blue Trail ascends to the Golf Course. We passed out gloves and clippers before we started out so that everyone would be prepared to hack away at Japanese Honeysuckle and Oriental Bittersweet on saplings beside the trail, and as soon as we got to the work area the girls set to despite suffering encounters with the thorns of unfriendly Multiflora Rose. I had to admire how self sufficient and co-operative they were, especially when confronted with large bittersweet vines. Where necessary they just ganged up together, and the vines didn’t stand a chance. Jeanne at High Rock had loaned us several of their small hand loppers which proved especially useful on the larger bittersweet vines. Our practice is to cut the vines as close to the ground as we can and then again as high on the trees as we can reach, unwrapping the vines wherever possible. Our own big loppers would have been difficult for some of the girls to heft at arms length, but these smaller loppers were just right for everyone. We’ll have to get some of our own for our workshops.
This was a day for raptors; I counted six on our walk along the bike path (I know; it’s really a muti-use trail, but we’re accustomed to calling it the bike path, so I’ll continue to do so), seven if you count a Turkey Vulture, the black V of its underwings wobbling overhead as it searched for its day’s meal. The first bird of prey overflew us close to where the Hessian Spring flows under the bike path, and was obscured by overarching but leafless tree branches. None-the-less I ID’d it confidently by calling out “big hawk!” The bike path hasn’t been repaired where this year’s heavy rains have eroded the crushed stone as far down as the underlying layer of landscaping cloth, and now that section of the path is somewhat like the Old Mill Road used to be, where the Hessian Spring created pools and ruts passing across the road to the marsh below. Given the current budget crisis in all city agencies, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a speedy repair. Repair will probably require truckloads of crushed stone and compaction by a construction roller, and a permanent repair might even require excavating and enlarging the drains that are supposed to conduct the waters of the spring under the path. The majority of the path is in good shape, however, and throughout the day several joggers passed by us, untroubled by the ruts. When we left to return our tools to High Rock, there was even a pair of unicyclists entering the path.
The second raptor we encountered was a Cooper’s Hawk with long, narrow tail, which dove down the hill from the golf course, flew low across the path, threaded through and disappeared behind a screen of trees close to the marsh. Later, close to the grove of pines between the bike path and the marsh, a male Harrier (formerly called the Marsh Hawk, a much more descriptive name given its habitat) circled a few times and disappeared low over the marsh. I’m abashed to say that, poor birder that I am, I didn’t ID it until I got home and consulted a field guide, despite lately having attended Peter Dorosh’s raptor workshop at the Brooklyn Bird Club. Workshops are all well and good, but they don’t help much if you don’t get out and do the fieldwork. Most of our adult hawks show little variation in appearance of males and females, but with harriers the appearance and size difference is exaggerated; the adult female is larger and from below shows grey, banded wings, whereas the underside of the smaller male is whitish, with black wing tips. Later in the day we saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling and calling to each other above Richmond Hill Road; probably these two were still part of a family group whose youngsters hadn’t yet been driven off by the adults. The scream of the Red-tail, as far as I’m concerned, is our iconic hawk call and the only call of local hawks worthy of comment. Despite their presence in urban parks and growing propensity to nest on city buildings, their call evokes a hair-raising sense of wilderness – the wolf howl of birds – and the calls of other hawks are wimpy by comparison.
After the Restoration and a break for Elaine’s cookies and bananas, the troop, leader and moms as well, took a short walk in through part of LaTourette. ( I think I should mention that Dom has been supplying the water and Elaine has been bringing refreshments to our restorations at their own expense, so when you see the phrase “Protectors will supply refreshments,” think of thanking Dom and, especially, Elaine.) We ascended a hill overlooking the marsh by following a former loop of the Blue Trail. We stopped at the top for a view over the marsh that would have been totally obscured earlier in the season, and then crunched back down to the bike path through drifts of red and brown oak leaves. I had hoped that we might enjoy a little bit of fall color, but courtesy of the October snow 90% of the leaves had already fallen and their crunchy drifts obscured the old trail, covering stones and fallen branches and making it necessary to shuffle our feet lest we be tripped up by hidden debris. This is the season when one has to either know the trails or be observant of trail blazes, since the fallen leaves often make it impossible to discern the trail on the ground. A little later the leaves will have been shredded and trampled by many feet, making the trails easy to follow again, but for now everything is just a mottled carpet of brown.
Back at the bike path we continued toward the model airplane field until we came to where a former branch of the Yellow Trail – now relocated – crossed the stream toward the SI Mall and Yukon Avenue. There we stopped where the old remnants of one of the mill works stands in the stream. Since rides home would be waiting for the scouts at 1:30, we went no further and turned back along the paved path, pausing where we could see the remnants of the longest of the dams that once stored water for the mills at LaTourette. It appears as a leafy mound that stretches away toward Forest Hill Road across the creek, but in a few places one can still see the stone foundation where earth has fallen away from the sides. The last lap of our walk was back to St. Andrews by the Blue Trail on the top of the ridge by the golf course. The older girls took the lead, and, thanks to their sharp eyes – or perhaps to a recent re-blazing by the trail maintainer – didn’t miss the turn downhill away from the green as do most hikers on the trail (newcomers to the trail often miss the turn and find themselves on a high green of the back nine to the puzzlement – and annoyance – of the golfers). We stopped at the Hessian Spring to allow the tail of the line to catch up, and found the edges of the spring spotted with fresh, bright green, opposite leaves of Stinging Nettles. In the late spring and summer these nettles make crossing the Hessian Spring a challenge for those wearing shorts and short sleeves, especially since in that damp, fertile area the nettles can grow to more than 4 or 5 feet high. Our skin was covered, however, and these nettles were only a few inches tall. A look at the leaves and stems with a hand lens revealed almost transparent, thin green stinging hairs filled with a irritating cocktail of histamine and formic acid that make this plant so unpleasant to encounter, but there seemed to be many fewer hairs than were on the summer plants.
Having foraged for fresh nettles in the spring, I was surprised to find them flourishing in November, and wondered if there was always such a flush of growth in fall, or if these nettles had been tricked by the season. Last year we had an unusually long and warm fall, and I recalled seeing mature, healthy Stinging Nettle at Reed’s Basket Willow Swamp in December growing alongside frost blighted tips of Skunk Cabbage. Stinging Nettles are perennial plants, dying back in Autumn and regrowing from their roots in Spring, and I wondered if the nettles at the Hessian Spring had suffered some trick and begun to throw up new shoots unseasonally.
A check of the more reliable web sites found that our common stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is widely distributed and is not at all frost tender, so it can persist as an adult plant late into the fall. USDA maps show it present in all but the most northen Canadian province, and throughout the continental United States except in Mississippi. (Well, that just can’t be right! When looking at the USDA maps we have to remember that they only show where plants have been reported, and that a plant’s absence on a state or county map may only indicate that none have yet made it into a report. It’s pretty unlikely that Mississippi would lack this plant that loves wet, rich soils, while it is present in every surrounding state.)
This nettle is common in Europe as well, and because it historically has had many medicinal uses we can find numerous web sites that more or less accurately describe its character. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is an old, large, and very respected Botanical Gardens just outside of London, and the originator of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, a project whose aim is to preserve a selection of wild plant seeds, especially of those species that are in danger of becoming extinct, so that they may be available for research and regrowth in the future when wild populations may have vanished. (At present they believe they have banked seeds of over 10% of the world’s wild plant species, and are on track to have banked 20% by 2020.) Since it is not yet endangered and grows naturally in their gardens, Kew hasn’t banked seeds of the common stinging nettle, but notes that the seeds do not have a dormancy period, and can germinate just days after they have matured. This lack of a dormancy period would explain the numerous young shoots at the Hessian Springs, and since the plants are perennials, even if new seedlings are destroyed by frost the parent plant will spring up from its roots in the next growing season. As an aside, I should note that the Native Plant Center of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is one of a number of US organizations – and the only city public park that I know of – that is partnering with Kew Gardens in the SOS (Seeds of Success) project, which aim is to conserve native plant species to rehabilitate native lands. There are partners in the SOS project in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well, each attempting to aid rehabilitation of their own native lands.
Just like us, most flowering plants must mature before they can reproduce, and a period of vegetative growth is usually necessary before a plant is able to flower. Its time as a juvenile allows a plant to build up the necessary resources to be able to successfully produce seeds. It’s obvious, however, that some plants are quick to sprout and flower in the spring, some are slow growers or spring up much later and flower in the fall, and some grow and flower throughout the whole growing season. Plants with these different life styles must use different cues and mechanisms to time their blossoming to the appropriate season, and these mechanisms often involve photo-period and temperature. Plant response to photo-period is a matter of plant chemistry; during the day – as long as temperatures are sufficiently high – the leaves of the plant manufacture and accumulate various plant hormones which decay during the dark, and the plant adjusts its life cycle to the concentration of these hormones. Photo-period is the ratio of night hours to daylight hours (lab experiments have shown that it is the length of dark hours that is more important). This ratio constantly changes throughout the year, but for every day in spring there is a day in fall with an equal ratio of daytime hours compared to night-time hours. Thus we sometimes find an occasional plant that takes its cue from the photo-period to flower in the spring also throwing up blossoms in the fall, even though these late blossoms are doomed to wither in the coming cold. In our woods one can occasionally find flower buds opening on viburnums in autumn. These buds will never mature, but there are usually other buds on the same shrub that remain closed until spring.
When to begin growth is a different issue, but has the much the same importance for plants in our temperate zones. (In the tropics different criteria apply. A plant there might not have so much need to time itself to avoid cold weather, but often must have a way to regulate its period of growth to alternations of wet and dry seasons.) The timing of growth may not have as much impact on perennials as it does on annual plants. Perennials such as the stinging nettle may have enough vigor in their roots to survive premature sprouting by throwing up a second flush of new shoots. The annuals though, depend on survival of their seeds, and a whole population of plants may be at risk if they mistime the production of seeds or if the seeds themselves are tricked into sprouting out of season. Through the ages plant seeds have developed many different safeguards to prevent premature sprouting, the methods differing between species. The most common method is often chemical; as the seed matures it stores foodstuffs that will later nourish the new sprout until it has grown enough to be able to manufacture its own food. Along with these foodstuffs a growth inhibitor that gradually decays over time is also stored. When enough time has passed, insuring that winter has come and gone, the concentration of the inhibitor becomes so low that the seed can to sprout in safety. Other plants use other methods, some of them mechanical and not chemical. One common mechanism is to provide the seed with a thick seed coat that must be worn down over time by mechanical abrasion or by the action of bacteria or fungi until the coat has become thin enough to allow passage of oxygen and water. Without sufficient oxygen and water the seeds cannot germinate, so they must wait until their coats have worn thin. The thick-shelled seeds of many peas and beans, for example, often require scarification by passage through an animal’s digestive tract to enable sprouting. This likewise assures that their young shoots will begin growth some distance from the parent plant.
In our latitude many plants and seeds, but not all, have developed different mechanism of winter dormancy to avoid exposing tender, growing tissue to winter freezes. The seeds of Sugar Maples, although few on Staten Island, and the acorns of Black Oaks require a period of cold dormancy before they will sprout, but White Oak acorns will sprout in fall almost as soon as they fall and Red maple seeds mature early in the year and can begin to grow almost as soon as they fall from the tree. The Kew Gardens web site suggests that while not requiring a period of winter dormancy, the seeds of the Common Nettle may at least require an exposure to cold before they can germinate; I suppose that this might expain all of the new growth at the Hessian Spring.
Departing the nettles and the spring we continued along the Blue Trail past the “golfball graveyard”, the spot below the driving range where errant balls find their final resting place, and then, having missed the old informal trail down hidden by fallen leaves, bushwacked down the hillside to our meeting place in the parking lot beside the church. The hillside here is a bit steep, and the old path down is often blocked by landscape debris from the church piled where the trail exits at the road, but is a safer way to the parking area than by following the legitimate trails and having to twice cross the heavily trafficked Richmond Hill Road. Back at the lot, the cookies were gone, the scouts soon departed, so we shared out the last of the bananas and collected our tools to take back to High Rock Park, all of which Jackie J. had carried in her backpack the entire way back (Believe me, for that I was grateful. Jackie likes to lurk behind with her camera, so lugging a pack full of tools for 20 people must have been quite a hindrance!) We chatted, then packed our stuff in Judy’s car, and left just as newcomers began to arrive for a tour of the old graveyard. I didn’t think they’d be interested in the golfball graveyard on the hill above, so I didn’t let them in on the secret.