“Bladderwort is an insectivorous plant. See the little sacs? They suck in tiny insects.”
Gretchen Stevens, Director of the Biodiversity Resources Center at Hudsonia, Ltd., is holding a strand of a plant that looks too delicate to be a carnivore. Stevens and biologist Ingrid Haeckel are surveying the area around Yankeetown Pond as part of a project to map the Town of Woodstock’s natural habitats. The resultant maps and report will help the town make informed decisions about land use and planning.
Yankeetown Pond is an example of what biologists call a circumneutral bog lake, unusual in our region and featuring a mat of vegetation suspended on the surface of the water. As I have worn my hip boots on this expedition, I get to wade through the muck on the shore and stand on one of the mats. I bend my knees, and the mat bounces.
Sometimes chunks of the mat, called peat rafts, detach and float around the lake, explains Stevens. In spring and summer, pond lilies and other plants in the mat produce gases that hold the rafts aloft. When it’s cooler, biological activity slows down, and the rafts sink to the bottom of the lake until spring. Both stationary and floating mats are home to many endangered species, including insectivorous pitcher plants and sundews, and the tiny Northern cricket frog.
“We’re not just looking for rare species,” says Stevens. “We’re looking for everything we consider ecologically significant, everything that’s important for wildlife and helps maintain the quantity and quality of water supplies.”
Hudsonia is a not-for-profit institute for environmental research, education, and technical assistance, located at Bard College but not directly affiliated with the college. The Woodstock project was initiated by former Woodstock Planning Board chairman Mark Peritz, who assembled a task force to write grant proposals for the survey. All three applications succeeded in obtaining funds, which have been provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Catskill Watershed Corporation, and the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program.
Previous Hudsonia studies in Rhinebeck, Amenia, Beacon, and Stamford have given town planners tools they can incorporate into environmental review procedures for development projects and revision of comprehensive plans.
Haeckel is carrying maps of the Yankeetown Pond area, creating through infrared photography from an airplane. She has tentatively identified different habitats on the map, including upland hardwood, conifer, and mixed forests, open water, marsh, swamp, and wet meadow, based on the aerial photography and local data on soils, geology, and topography. Now she is exploring the landscape on the ground to verify or correct her guesses.
Most of the area around the pond is privately owned, but we are on land owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which has given Hudsonia permission to explore its property. “We are careful about getting landowners’ permission to go on their land,” notes Stevens. “We contacted 80 landowners in the western part of Woodstock. So far we’ve been on 15 of those properties. We plan to follow up with the others. Later we’ll be doing the eastern part of the town.” The project is scheduled to be completed next summer.
Haeckel wants to check out an area she has tentatively identified as open water, probably a small pond in the woods. We head into the hemlocks and pause by a shallow, sprawling body of water under the trees. Stevens considers whether this is a branch of an area recently dammed by beavers or a long-term pool. She scoops up leaf matter from the bottom. Because it’s dark in color, she assumes the water has been here a long time.
“We’re especially interested in intermittent woodland pools,” she remarks. “They are habitat for wood frogs and three local species of salamanders that breed in the water and live on land when they’re mature.” Because the pools dry up in the summer and aren’t connected to larger bodies of water, they have no fish to prey on the young amphibians.
Are some landowners resistant to the survey, fearing their properties will be restricted in terms of building or resale value if they are identified as habitat for rare species?
“There is sometimes that concern,” Stevens acknowledges. “Many people are thrilled to learn more about what they have on their land and would consider it a selling point if it had something unusual or important. But the maps we’re preparing are just information for agencies doing planning, when they’re thinking about things like wildlife corridors and protection of water resources. The maps have no legal weight, and there is no information about specific properties, only regions.”
Swamps have trees
We spend some time looking at a wet, grassy area with fluffy phragmites reeds towering along one side. Stevens and Haeckel decide to call it a marsh rather than a wet meadow. “Phragmites can grow in either one, but wool grasses like those need more water,” Stevens explains. “Marshes are wet year-round and typically have plants like cattails and tussock sedges. Wet meadows are seasonally saturated, with different flora than an upland meadow.” Swamps, on the other hand, have trees rather than grasses, reeds, and sedges.
Haeckel is writing on a chart, noting GPS readings, changes to the map, indicator species she has observed in each habitat, and other descriptive information. All this data will be linked to outlined areas on the map and will be available to town planners on their own computers when the project is completed.
“We will prepare a substantial report that explains what we’ve found and its ecological significance,” says Stevens.“This is original data, done in detail and not available anywhere else. We hope and trust that people will use the information to protect the most sensitive resources and figure out the best places to put new development.”++