Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Duck Hole Dam Breech: What Comes Next?

The massive breach in the dam at Duck Hole, which has led to the demise of the picturesque body of water in the western High Peak wilderness, is initially tragic information to anyone that has spent time at this majestic location. Yet, the healing forces of nature are already at work transforming the muddy plain that now covers a good portion of the site into a meadow in a process known as succession.

Open settings are at a premium in the mature woodlands of the Adirondacks, and any site that contains both rich soil and a healthy amount of moisture will never last more than a single growing season before it is overtaken by vegetation. As a general rule, the herbaceous plants, such as grasses, sedges, weeds, wildflowers, ferns and rushes are the first to colonize such a favorable location. Seeds from these plants are able to travel many miles by a variety of methods which allows them to quickly take advantage of any spot that becomes favorable for growth.

The rush by plants to gain a foothold in this type of setting can be seen whenever a large, abandoned beaver dam is breached by surging waters and the woodland pond that formerly existed behind this stick and mud barrier vanishes. The muddy flats that are exposed never stay barren for very long before a lush meadow with scattered clumps of small shrubs develops. Such open communities then become a haven for numerous forms of wildlife, which results in a population explosion among those many species of animals that thrive in grassy wetlands. For instance, the tender and nutritious plants that develop in these settings are preferred by both white-tailed deer and moose during the summer and early autumn months.

Because of the limited number of such open wet meadows and shallow marshes in the High Peaks, this mountainous section of northern New York, which is popular with hikers, is not considered to be a prime habitat for the moose. The creation of a sizeable, lush meadow and marsh in this location will go a long way in keeping any moose that happens to wander through this area for many days or weeks before it eventually moves on.

Numerous small mammals that are better adapted for a life in open areas, like the meadow vole, will undoubtedly become widespread at this site. Likewise, several species of amphibians should flourish with the transformation into a meadow. While nearly all amphibians require a body of water in which to lay their eggs, some strongly prefer to reproduce in smaller, shallower aquatic settings compared to those of a lake or large pond. This is why the chorus of peepers in the spring is loudest in marshes, where a few small shrubs and alders are scattered throughout the mass of cattails, reeds and dried weeds.

With a greatly expanded wildlife population, open meadows attract predators, like the fox, raccoon and coyote. The vast land that recently appeared at Duck Hole will surely become a haven for these and other carnivores that already exist in the neighborhood.

The ecological healing that follows the loss of a body of water is extraordinarily quick and for those that enjoy nature is always a pleasure to watch. While this area will initially transform into a meadow, it will not stay that way forever. Shrubs will begin to invade the area and then a few trees. In the Adirondacks, quaking aspen and white birch are quick to sprout and take root in open places. Under favorable conditions, both of these woody plants can develop into fair sized trees in a matter of a decade or two, thereby forming the basis of a new forest.

White birch and quaking aspen, however, are the most coveted items in the diet of the beaver. Once a stand of these pioneer trees develops close to a stretch of water, like the upper section of the Cold River that will run through this area, a family of these large, flat-tailed, gnawing mammals is sure to take up residence in that area and begin to work their terrain-transforming magic at that site. Don’t be too surprised to eventually see a very large pond, or a series of ponds where Duck Hole once graced the landscape, and for those that are able to visit this site once every few years and spend some time there, the process of succession should be a magnificent event to observe.

Photo: Above and middle, the dewatered Duck Hole; Below, Flowed Land, an area that use to be a sizeable body of water, but has reverted into the lush meadow that Duck Hole undoubtedly will in the future. All photos courtesy DEC District Forester Kris Alberga, who flew over the area on Monday afternoon, August 28, 2011.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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