Posts Tagged ‘Wetlands’

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History

The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.

When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say.

Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.

Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.

A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.

But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.

The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.

Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.

Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.

Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.

This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water Avens: Understated Wildflower Elegance

It was about three years ago that I first stumbled upon water, or purple, avens (Geum rivale), a native perennial of some of our soggier soils. I was walking along the Sage Trail, just crossing the boardwalk that rises above a boggy area, when my eyes were caught by a rather unusual flower. It’s purplish, brownish, reddish, yellowish colors stood out while at the same time serving to conceal the flower in its sun- and shade-dappled home. I plunked myself right down on the boardwalk and took out my field guide; I had to know what it was.

Since then, I have encountered water avens on several occasions, and every time I stop and marvel, for this unassuming wildflower is yet another perfect example of one of Mother Nature’s hidden beauties. Not showy like pink ladies slippers, not fragrant like balsam poplar, not social like daisies, it hangs out in habitats that are seldom visited by casual travelers, where its subtle coloration keeps it fairly well hidden.

Water avens is in the rose family, and I’ve seen photographs of the flower that show a definite rose-like form, but when I look at it, I’m more readily reminded of columbines; perhaps that is because dark outer sepals protect the often yellow inner petals, a combination seen in our wild columbines. Not only that, but the flowers droop, their faces hang towards the ground, another columbine-like quality.

When it comes into bloom, this flower attracts several insect pollinators, primarily bumble bees, but also a few flies (like the syrphids) and beetles. However, on the off chance that no insects come around, the plant has a back-up plan. As each flower grows, its stigmas (the female part) ripen first, which prevents self-pollination. Maturation continues, though, and the stamens (the male parts) continue to elongate as they ripen. Eventually the stamens shed their pollen on any remaining stigmas that have not already been cross-pollinated thanks to the efforts nectar- and pollen-seeking insects.

Once fertilized, hooked seeds develop. This is another great survival strategy, for thanks to those hooks, the seeds can hitchhike on the fur of some passing animal to take up housekeeping in a new location, thus spreading the range of the plant beyond its own back yard.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am interested in the uses to which people have put plants over the years. Some plants have rich histories, full of all sorts of lore and superstition. Others have nothing more to recommend them than their names and locations. I was expecting water avens to fall into the latter category, but one of its common names made me suspect I was wrong: chocolate root.

It turns out that water avens has quite an extensive history of usage, both medicinal and culinary. Many native peoples used it to treat a variety of ailments associated with the stomach, digestion, and even the common cold. In truth, it has anti-inflammatory properties, is antiseptic, and can induce sweating, making it good for treating fevers. I even read that the dried root can be used as a moth repellent. Its most intriguing use, however, was as a substitute for hot chocolate. The rootstock was boiled and made into a chocolate-like beverage. I knew I liked this plant!

Water avens is in bloom from now until the summer ends, so you have a pretty good chance of finding one if you visit wetlands. There is a fair amount of variation in the color of the petals, however. Some are purple, others pink, and still others are yellow. Regardless of petal color, the sepals are dark purple, and the flower droops – both characteristics that are bound to catch your eye. A delightful flower, it is well worth the search to find.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Butterfly Behavior: What is Puddling?

While watching a couple hawks the other day, something smaller flew past me – a tiger swallowtail butterfly. Is it possible it is already that time of year? Later on, while walking along the road, I saw two more. This time they were on the ground, steadfastly holding their place along the roadside, regardless of how close I stalked them. They were focused on the ground – they were puddling.

Puddling is a behavior many butterflies (and a few moths) engage in. Puddling sites can be any of a number of places: mud, dung, fermenting fruit, carrion, urine. The key is the chemical make-up of the site, for these butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals. The two I saw the other day were benefiting from the road salt that no doubt saturated the sandy shoulder of the road.

Mostly when we think of butterflies, delicate, colorful creatures come to mind, like flower petals drifting on a gentle summer breeze. We picture them flitting from flower to flower, sipping nectar here, sipping nectar there. And while nectar sipping is certainly part of a butterfly’s repertoire, it isn’t necessarily enough.

Flower nectar is a high-sugar liquid that provides limited nutrition to those who partake. If all you are looking for is quick energy, it might be enough, but butterflies have something else on their minds. They need to reproduce, and let’s face it, sugar water isn’t going to give you everything you need to produce viable offspring.

So off to a puddling site the butterflies flutter. Most of the puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the liquefied source provides. These nutrients are then stored in the sperm. When the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies along to the female as a nuptial gift in his spermatophore. The female is now in possession of the “extra boost”, which she then passes along to her eggs. Eggs that receive this extra nutrient gift have a greater chance of success than those that do not.

The first time I saw puddling butterflies, I was a child walking along a dirt road with my grandmother. Along the way we passed a puddle that was loaded with small yellow sulfur butterflies. The looked like little sailboats, rocking gently from side to side as the wind caught their folded wings. It was enchanting.

Years later, I attended a butterfly program at which the presenter told us the best way to attract butterflies to your property was by putting out carcasses (roadkill being a good source) and piles of manure. This wasn’t quite as enchanting.

I recently read that if a butterfly cannot find a moist site, it will regurgitate onto the soil and then drink, hopefully gaining some nutrients that dissolved in the, uh, saliva. Also not quite so enchanting, but any port in a storm, eh?

While most of us are not likely to schlep a flattened rabbit home to sling into the back yard on the off-chance the butterflies might like it, there are plenty of other ways we can provide puddling opportunities. We can put out trays of fruit that has seen better days (beware, though, for it will also attract bees). We can put out shallow basins of water into which we’ve mixed a pinch or two of salt. We can keep a patch of lawn or garden free of plants and keep it well-watered.

Here at the VIC we sort of combine these. We take a bird bath and fill it with sand. To this we add some water, just enough to keep the sand moist. Then we add some stale beer, or maybe some juice and a pinch of salt. Again, it may attract bees, but that’s okay because this artificial puddling site is located in our butterfly garden, which is full of plants and flowers that butterflies and bees alike enjoy. Some plants are ideal for nectaring, while others are host plants for larvae. The addition of a puddling site makes the garden an all-around great place to watch butterflies and observe butterfly behavior.

As the seasons progress, keep your eyes peeled for butterflies in low, damp areas. Tiger swallowtails are champion puddlers, but don’t be surprised if you see some sulfurs or even a cabbage white or two. The imbibers will be so engrossed in their meals that you can sneak up quite close for a good look. Bring your binoculars along and a child. This is a great experience to share as you watch the insects uncoil their long tongues and push them into the substrate to drink. Then go home, make a fruit smoothie, stick in a straw and share with the child as you pretend to be butterflies.


Monday, May 17, 2010

A Final Design for West Brook, Gaslight Village Project

Three Lake George environmental conservation groups have released a final design for the West Brook Gaslight Village Project, a stormwater treatment system that will be located on the parcel on the south side of West Brook. Dubbed the “West Brook Conservation Initiative,” the Lake George Association, the FUND for Lake George and the Lake George Land Conservancy, have been working together to develop the project under the terms of a conservation easement they jointly hold with three municipal partners: the town and the village of Lake George, and Warren County.

The final plan includes restored wetlands and an environmental park that will be built on 4.9 acres south of West Brook Road where the Charley’s Saloon building stands south of the former Gaslight Village. The entire 12-acre project represents one of the most important conservation efforts in Lake George’s history, according to advocates. Designed by the Chazen Companies, the plan for the south parcel of the property will restore wetlands to naturally slow stormwater generated from the Route 9 corridor and adjoining properties, capture sediment and filter pollutants which currently make there way to a growing delta at the mouth of West Brook.

Due to the filling of historic wetlands, channeling of the stream, and development in the stream’s watershed, West Brook today is the single largest source of contaminant — pollution, nutrients and sediment — entering the south basin of Lake George. The delta at the mouth of the brook has grown to over 7,000 square meters. The land was once part of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Yards, and later a string of attractions related to the property next door which housed Gaslight Village from 1959 to 1989.

The project will feature a settling pond to trap and retain sediment, a shallow marsh where wetland plantings will store and treat run-off, and a gravel wetland where dense root mats, crushed stone and a microbe rich environment will improve the water quality before it is conveyed to West Brook. Environmental engineers believe that the best way to treat stormwater is through natural processes of wetlands, where water is captured and retained for a period of time and allowing sediment and nutrients to be dropped out as the water is cleansed.

Project engineers estimate that 90% of the sediment will be successfully treated by this system and over one-half of the nutrients will be removed. The wetland systems are designed to also provide an open environmental park, with interpretative signage, nature trails, elevated walkways, a pavilion, an outdoor classroom, gazebo, overlooks and picnic areas for the general public.

”This project will capture and treat millions of gallons of stormwater that annually flow into the lake untreated,” Peter Bauer, executive director of the FUND for Lake George, said. The project has been carefully designed to require minimal or no maintenance according to Bauer including the use of drought resistant meadow-like grasses will require no mowing, watering or fertilizing. Minimal mowing is expected to be necessary in selected areas close to West Brook Road for aesthetic purposes, although the grass seed to be used there is a mix of fescues that will produce a low-growing and drought tolerant grass. New native plants, shrubs and trees will require little or no weeding, pruning or fertilizing. Periodically – after a few years of maturity – the wetland plantings will need to be thinned and excess plant materials removed.

Some $200,000 in state and federal funding will be used to complete the construction of the project, but money is still needed to repay for the land. In addition to the $2.1 million loan on the Gaslight Village purchase by the LGA and the FUND, the Lake George Land Conservancy is carrying a $2.7 million loan on the 1,400-acre Berry Pond tract, which protects the upland watershed for West Brook.

Demolition of Charley’s Saloon is expected to begin in mid-June, following the conclusion of Americade; construction of the storm water management complex will begin after the Adirondack Nationals Car Show in early September.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conference on Winter Road Maintenance Set for May 17th

AdkAction.org and the Adirondack Council will sponsor an inter-organizational meeting at Paul Smith’s College at 10 a.m. on May 17th to discuss ways to solve the growing problem of winter road salt damage in the Adirondack Park.

Two recent studies, Review of Effects and Costs of Road De-icing with Recommendations for Winter Road Management in the Adirondack Park [more], and Low Sodium Diet, Curbing New York’s Appetite for Damaging Road Salt [more], that were underwritten by the conference sponsors document the damage done by our current winter road maintenance procedures.

The latest study by the Adirondack Watershed Institute under sponsorship of AdkAction.org compares peer-reviewed literature from around the world and reports specific cost and damage assessments, along with recommended changes in practices that could dramatically reduce the environmental impact of winter road treatment without increasing costs or reducing safety. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gaslight Village: County Faces Deadline for Decision

Warren County’s Supervisors may be wavering on whether to preserve or condemn the two buildings that remain standing at Gaslight Village, but the time for a decision is fast approaching.

A $200,000 grant has been awarded to the three environmental organizations that own an easement on all but 2.5 acres of the Lake George property to demolish Charleys Saloon and some smaller structures this summer, and the county must decide whether it wants that grant to also pay for the demolition of Gaslight Village.

“I know there will be unhappy people whichever way we go,” said Supervisor Bill Kenny, who chairs a committee of Supervisors monitoring the project, which will include a park and water pollution controls.

Warren County, the Town and the Village of Lake George have until the end of May to reach a decision, said Warren County attorney Paul Dusek.

By then, Requests for Proposals will have been issued soliciting bids for the demolition of some or all buildings.

If the Calvacade of Cars building and the Opera House are omitted from the bids, they will remain standing.

Should the municipalities decide at a later date that the buildings are too costly to repair (the engineering firm of Clark Patterson told the Supervisors that it would cost at least $1.5 million to restore both buildings) the municipalities will have to pay for the demolition themselves

The Opera House, which Warren County Superintendent of Public Works Bill Lamy characterized as “not safe” and structurally unsound, was expected to be designated for destruction by the Warren County Board of Supervisors at its February meeting.

In fact, a resolution had been drafted for the Supervisors to approve agreeing to the demolition of the Opera House.

Instead, and despite Lamy’s analysis, the Supervisors voted to retain both buildings.

That decision pleased Lake George Supervisor Frank McCoy, the director of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce and local businessmen like John Carr, who told the Board, “these buildings are usable.”

The vote dismayed Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais and several Lake George residents and business owners, including Lake George Steamboat Company president Bill Dow, who favor the demolition of the buildings. [Ed. – Read comments from two residents, Betty Spinelli and Joe Stanek, at the Lake George Mirror].

Dow, Fort William Henry Corporation president Bob Flacke and the Lake George Citizens group prefer a plan presented by Mayor Blais at another meeting of county supervisors, held a week later.

Blais argued that both buildings should be demolished.

“Four engineering studies have indicated that the costs to renovate the buildings into usable meeting space is extensive,” he said.

The open space should be used for parking, at least until a study has been undertaken that would identify the best use for the site. If the study recommended the construction of a new building or a pavilion, grants could be sought, said Blais.

Lake George Village has been awarded approximately $4.5 million in grants for similar projects in recent years, Blais said.

Regardless of the county’s decision about the Gaslight Village buildings, demolition of Charley’s Saloon on the parcel south of West Brook will start in mid-June, following the conclusion of Americade.

“New York State’s Department of Transportation will contribute the first $600,00 toward the construction of a storm water treatment complex on the historical wetlands, but the construction schedule has to coincide with work DOT is planning for Route Nine,” explained Peter Bauer, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George.

According to Bauer, the demolition will be completed by mid-summer; construction
of the storm water management complex will begin after the Adirondack Nationals Car Show in early September.

Kenny’s committee held a public hearing on to solicit opinion about the future of the Opera House and the Calvacade of Cars buildings on March 22.

It will meet again on April 12 before making a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.

For more news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror

Photo: Buildings at the former Gaslight Village Property in Lake George Village (John Warren photo).


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tests Show Lake George Clearest of 113 NY Lakes

Lake George received the best reading on a measurement for clarity among 113 New York lakes in 2009, according to a press release from the Lake George Association, which follows.

Peter Leyh, an LGA member, was one of several LGA volunteers to participate in the 2009 Citizen Statewide Lake Assessment Program (CSLAP), coordinated on Lake George by the Lake George Association.

On September 2, Peter was sampling water near Gull Bay on the north end of the lake, and sank a measuring disk for clarity, called a Secchi disk, into the lake. He was
able to see the disk in the water at a depth of 13.55 meters, or almost 44 and 1/2 feet. No other lake participating in the CSLAP program last year could match it.

“This is great news for Lake George,” said Walt Lender, Executive Director of the Lake George Association, “but by no means does it mean we are free to relax our efforts to protect the Lake and keep it clean. In fact, it is just the opposite. This reading shows what a unique treasure we have in Lake George, and how diligently we must work to keep it that way. People need to know that this reading was taken at the north end of the Lake on a dead calm day. The clarity and cleanliness in the south end of Lake George, near West Brook, is not anywhere close to this. The water in Lake George flows from south to north, and it takes eight years for a drop to flow from the south to the north. Our challenge is to ensure that in eight years at Gull Bay our Secchi disk reading will remain at or beat 13.55 meters.”

Every summer since 2004, the Lake George Association has coordinated volunteers to assess water quality and clarity through the CSLAP program. The data gathered is used to help manage and assess trends in New York’s many lakes. The program is sponsored by the New York Federation of Lake Associations. In addition to CSLAP, the Lake George Association actively encourages adults and children to learn more about lake monitoring and stewardship aboard its Floating Classroom, a specially equipped catamaran which takes groups out on the Lake from May through September.

To learn more about CSLAP or how you can help Lake George, contact the LGA at (518) 668-3558 or visit the website at www.lakegeorgeassociation.org.

Illustration: 2006 graph showing Secchi depths for various locations around Lake George; from the Fund For Lake George website.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Adirondack Brook Trout: Our Vanishing Heritage

Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.

Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.

Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.

Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.

And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.

All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.

Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Road Salt Study Raises Concerns, Offers Suggestions

A new study on roadway de-icing in the Adirondacks describes an antiquated, ineffective, expensive, and environmentally damaging system in need of revision. Commissioned by the non-partisan political action committee AdkAction.org, the science was compiled by Daniel L. Kelting, Executive Director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) at Paul Smith’s College, and Corey L. Laxson, Research Associate. The findings are available online [pdf] and are being distributed to the New York State Department of Transportation and local governments responsible for salting Adirondack roadways. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flooding: Tracking Local Rivers With Streamgauges

As Almanack contributor Alan Wechsler reported yesterday, the big rain we had on Monday has wrecked havoc on Adirondack winter recreation. Alan noted that ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and local ski resorts were particularly hard hit (West Mountain just south of the Blue Line was forced to close), and to those we should add snowmobiling, as many trails around the region are all but impassable. Even the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival felt the pain, when rain seriously damaged this year’s Ice Palace necessitating builders to almost start from scratch.

Over the past two days the region’s nearly 30,000 miles of streams, brooks, and rivers have gathered volume and strength. In Washington County the Mettawee and Hoosic Rivers have flooded their banks, and the Batten Kill is near flood stage. The Hudson and Schroon Rivers are running very high and the Boquet has topped it’s banks, but the most serious flooding has occurred in the Franklin County community of Fort Covington where flooding along the Salmon River has threatened a number of buildings and required evacuations.

Those interested in accessing information about what is happening to streams in your local area as a result of the heavy rain can access the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) streamgage network, which operates a nationwide system of about 7,000 streamgauges that monitor water level and flow. Streamgages transmit real-time information, which the National Weather Service uses to issue local flood warnings, and which paddlers in the know can use to estimate conditions. Some streamgauges have been operational since the early 1900s; the gauge just upstream from the Route 22 bridge over the Boquet, for instance, has been recording since 1923.

For more information about area streamgauges, check out the USGS’s National Streamflow Information Program. There is also a nice short video here.

Illustration: The level of the Schroon river over the last few days at Riverbank.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What is an Adirondack Wetland?

We have a new school program here at the Visitor Interpretive Centers: What is a Wetland? Since I am in the process of putting the finishing touches on this program, I thought it would make a good topic for the Almanack.

Put very simply, wetlands are lands that are, well, wet. That is to say, they are wet for part or all of the year. Some wetlands are obvious, like swamps, bogs and marshes that have sodden ground or standing water that you can see (or feel) every time you are there. Other wetlands, however, are seasonal, appearing when water levels are high, and disappearing in the heat of summer.

One of the Adirondack Park Agency’s responsibilities is protecting the integrity of wetlands within the Blue Line. They have staff who go into the field to conduct “wetland deliniations,” which are essentially determinations of the borders of wetlands. In order to do this, their staff look at three determining criteria: plant species, soil type(s) and hydrology.

The plant part is easy. There are species of plants that are either totally dependent on water (like pickerel weed and sphagnum moss), some that are in water two-thirds of the time you find them (like Joe-Pye-weed and black spruce), and others that are nowhere near water (like sugar maple and eastern white pine). If the area in question has a majority of plants in the first two categories, it is a wetland.

Soil types are kind of fun to determine. A core sample is taken within the test area. The soil from the sample is then compared to a soil chart, looking for evidence of oxidation. Oxidation indicates the presence of air in the soil. If there is no sign of oxidation, the soil is considered gleyed and is classified as a wetland soil. If oxidation has occurred, the soil will look rusty. If the amount of oxidation is minimal, the area is likely a seasonal wetland. On the other hand, if the soil is totally oxidized, then air gets through the layers year round and it is not a wetland.

Finally, we come to hydrology: is there water present? If there is visual evidence of innundation or saturation, you have a wetland. Do you see water? Does it squish underfoot? Is there a line of debris along the shoreline, below which the shore is scoured of vegetation? Are there areas of dead trees, where the trees essentially drowned from flooding? These are all indicators of wetland habitats.

Why is the APA so concerned about wetlands? Wetlands are extremely important habitats. Far too many people are unaware of just how important they are. Over the course of my career in environmental education, I’ve come to conclusion that many people think that those of us who promote the protection of wetlands are merely looking at them as animal homes, but the truth is that while indeed they are imporant for all kinds of wildlife, they are also so very important for people.

For one thing, wetlands clean and filter all sorts of pollutants from our water. These pollutants range from toxic chemicals to seemingly harmless fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorous. We know that nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for healthy soil and plants, but when large amounts enter lakes, ponds or streams, the result is potentially harmful algal blooms and excessive growth of water weeds, which can choke waterways and reduce oxygen levels in the water, resulting in the death of fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Wetlands also act as giant sponges. Every time it rains, wetlands soak up the water and release it slowly. This helps protect areas downstream from severe flooding. Look at places around the globe that suffer from massive floods today. Chances are that over the last century or two the associated wetlands have been changed or entirely removed. Without the mediating effects of these “sponges,” the water now rushes downstream, gathering speed and volume, with nothing to slow its progress as it rushes to the sea. This leads to the next benefit we get from wetlands.

Wetlands reduce soil erosion by slowing down the flow. With slower moving water, shorelines are not eaten away, and silt can fall out of the water, leaving cleaner, clearer water to continue downstream.

And, of course, wetlands are vital habitats for fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and mammals.

Did you know that one of the deciding factors for the establishment of the Adirondack Park over one hundred years ago was protection of our waters? The Adirondack region is the source of much of the drinking water for downstate New York. With all the unregulated logging that was done in the 1800s, vast areas of land were left denuded of trees, and as a result, streams and rivers were severely impacted. Some had reduced flow, others were no longer clean as a result of runoff. You can listen to a reenactment of the 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention at the Newcomb VIC that lays out these very concerns.

So, yes, wetlands are important and we need to protect them. After all, there is only a limited amount of freshwater on this planet, and all environmental reports these days suggest that freshwater will soon become more valuable than gold. We need to protect our freshwater so that it will always be there when we need it, and this means protecting our wetlands.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Analysis: Lake Colby Association and Adirondack Council


View Lake Colby in a larger map

News last week that the Adirondack Council plans to sue the Village of Saranac Lake marked an escalation in a long-simmering war of surrogates among numerous interests driven by local and regional motives. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

American Bitterns – Groovy Little Herons

You just never know what will dash in front of your car up here in the Adirondacks. The other day I was driving towards civilization, cruising past a couple of marshlands, and a bittern flew across the road in front of me. The American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is one of those really cool birds that few people get to see, thanks to its solitary nature and its stupendous blending capabilities.

A member of the heron family, the bittern stands about two feet tall. Like all herons, it has long skinny legs and a long, spear-like bill, which it puts to good use catching its prey. Chances are, if you see a bittern it will be busily hunting. Not that you can tell, for it will be standing stock still, waiting for food to come by. When a fish, frog, snake or yummy-looking insect gets too close, the bittern’s long neck snakes down quick as a flash and the unlucky food item is snared. After a killing bite, or a vicious shake, the food is swallowed head first.

If, however, the bittern sees you first, it will likely go into its blending act. Bitterns are denizens of wetlands (bogs, marshes, wet meadows), and they hang out where emergent vegetation is tall (cattails and bulrushes). When they feel slightly threatened, these small herons thrust their beaks straight up towards the sky, exposing their striped necks and breasts. Now, instead of seeing a bird-shaped thing, you see a collection of plant stems, for the stripes are tan and blend right in with all the surrounding vegetation. If you look closely, you may see the two bright yellow eyes peering back at you around the sides of the beak – a bizarre sight if ever there was one.

But the best (and strangest) thing about this bird, in my humble opinion, is its vocalizations. Pliny, that great philosopher of old, thought the bittern (that would be the Old World bittern, not the American bittern) sounded like the roar of a bull, which in Latin was/is Boatum taurus. From this we get the genus name of bitterns everywhere: Botaurus. I’ve listened to bittern calls, both recordings and in the wild, and to me they don’t sound at all like a bull. For me the sound brings to mind the soundtrack accompanying a slow motion drop of water hitting a pond. Others claim it sounds like congested plumbing. Some of the bittern’s additional common names are suggestive of the sound: thunder-pumper, mire-drum. In order to make these strange sounds, the bird’s throat/neck goes through some stunning contortions; a friend commented to me that when he witnessed this he thought for sure the bird would give itself whiplash. To hear the bittern’s call, follow this link http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/id and look down the left side of the website for the button that says “Typical Voice”; press play.

If you want to hear (or see) a bittern yourself, hie ye to a nearby wetland with tall emergent vegetation around dawn or dusk (take your bug shirt). Find yourself a comfortable spot near some cattails and water, and wait. If bitterns are around (and they are fairly common), you are bound to hear them “booming” before too long. If you are really lucky, you may even catch sight of one as you peer into the cattails. Beware; it might just be peering back at you.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Road Salt, Moose and Other Reasons to Drive Slower

The Adirondack Council this week issued a report on drinking-water contamination and environmental damage caused by road salt throughout New York State. The advocacy group offered six steps that could curtail the pollution, such as better coordination between state and local plowing crews, preemptive deicing, and development of salt alternatives.

At the bottom of a bulleted list of recommendations was the simplest: Slow Down.

“New York should adopt an aggressive approach to encourage safer winter driving, which can include lower winter speed limits, well-placed variable message boards, and greater enforcement of safe speed limits during winter storms,” the Council said.

There are other good reasons to ease up on the gas. » Continue Reading.



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