We in the mid-Hudson Valley are blessed to live in an area that retains much of its rural character, resulting in an abundance of wildlife – perhaps surprising for an area located less than 100 miles from one of the most densely populated spots on Earth. More species of birds, plants, butterflies and other organisms make their home here than most of us are aware. That’s what you learn on one of the free nature walks offered by the John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS), which open one’s eyes to a marvelous new world that’s just a stone’s throw from one’s doorstep.
For more than half a century, JBNHS has been offering the tours, most of which are led by amateur naturalists. That’s “amateur” in the good sense of the word: A few of these self-taught, passionate volunteers know their stuff as well as, if not better than, any paid professional – a knowledge enriched by years of living in the area. While JBNHS serves as the de facto local chapter of the National Audubon Society, participating in several national and state annual bird counts, its tours aren’t limited to avian life, but also focus on butterflies (a particularly well-represented subject), wildflowers, ferns, geology and animal tracks.
Some tours are designed to cover the whole gamut of nature at a particular destination –and even if the walk is ostensibly dedicated to birds or butterflies, the knowledge of the leader and the accompanying JBNHS members means that you’ll learn a lot more and gain a sense of the interconnectedness of the local ecosystem. One destination, the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve in Saugerties, is visited repeatedly throughout the year, enriching one’s awareness of the ebb and flow of life over the course of the seasons.
Fortunately, to participate you don’t have to rise at the crack of dawn. While many of the spring and fall bird walks are scheduled early in the morning, when the birds are most active, the butterfly and botany tours are held later in the day. And most tours last a couple of hours, so you also don’t have to commit your entire Saturday to nature-watching.
Two of this year’s tours have already happened, but that leaves 51 remaining tours for 2012. For a complete schedule, visit www.jbnhs.org; you can print out the page and post it on your refrigerator.
Coming up this Saturday, January 14 is an annual statewide count of waterfowl and eagles conducted by Steve Chorvas, who will be coordinating birders along the Hudson River and Esopus Creek, Wallkill River and Rondout Creek; contact him at email@example.com if you’re interested in participating in the all-day event. On Sunday, January 15, an animal-tracking adventure is scheduled at the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve starting at 1:30 p.m.; it will be led by Greg Perantoni, who has 17 years of tracking experience.
The final tour for January is a late-afternoon “owl prowl” at the Shawangunk Grassland preserve, located at the former Galeville airstrip in Orange County, on Saturday, January 28. Tour leader Mark DeDea said that he’ll be looking for short-eared owls at dusk, as well as Northern harriers and other raptors, training his spotting scope on birds perched on fenceposts and the like. There’ll be an opportunity to carpool from the Forsyth Nature Center in Kingston.
DeDea, who besides being the field program director at JBNHS is also caretaker at the Forsyth Nature Center, said that new this year are two fern walks: one at Scenic Hudson’s Shaupeneak nature preserve, on May 26, and the second one on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail on August 11. The Shaupeneak walk, led by Joe Bridges, will follow a new trail.
Other new destinations for the year include Joppenberg Mountain in Rosendale, which has recently become accessible; the walk is on June 16 and will be led by Lynn Bowdery, who also leads the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail fern walk. Another is Falling Waters in Saugerties, a new Scenic Hudson-managed preserve located on the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill retreat; the October 6 walk will be led by Steve Chorvas.
Farther afield, JBNHS is scheduling a tour to the sand plains of Saratoga – habitat of the endangered Karner blue butterfly – on May 27, led by Chorvas. Also new this year is a bird walk in Central Park on May 5, which will be led by DeDea; the $37 cost, including round-trip bus fare from Kingston to the American Museum of Natural History, is less than the usual Trailways fare.
While most of the walks are in Ulster County, several visit Dutchess County, including a bird walk of Tivoli Bays – one of the best places in the area to observe waterfowl. There’s also an excursion to Croton Point to observe eagles on February 18. Other walks take place along the Ashokan Reservoir and Rondout Creek, Kenneth Wilson State Park, Ferncliff Forest, Neversink, Poets’ Walk, Minnewaska, Kripplebush, Southlands Horse Farm and other nature “hot spots.”
DeDea said that a unique event is an all-day “bio-blitz” to be held at the Mohonk Preserve on Saturday, June 6. A similar event was held last year at the New Paltz transfer station and was so successful that it’s being repeated at a different location, with Society members inviting eco-experts from various educational organizations and nonprofits to inventory all the life observed, from grass species to tiny insects. “They’ll bring microscopes and big thick textbooks to scrutinize such creatures,” said DeDea. “It’s a very labor-intensive, complete inventory, versus the snapshot of a bird walk.” Last year’s bio-blitz “was eye-opening in its diversity,” he added. Such an event “can serve as the foundation for preservation of green spaces. You realize all kinds of wildlife have adapted to these nooks and crannies, which will be more critical later on.”
He noted that some of the JBNHS bird walks, such as the spring warbler tours, have been happening for decades, resulting in a valuable catalogue of data (after each tour, the leader submits a field report, which is archived). The years of data “show the continuity and changes that have occurred in early spring,” DeDea said.
After participating on a walk or two, you’ll probably get hooked. Joining JBNHS, which has approximately 150 members, is the next step: An annual membership is only $15. It includes a subscription to the Society’s newsletter, Chirp, which is graced by excellent photographs taken by members. You’ll also be able to tap into the network of area birders and naturalists and be clued into a rare sighting or other unusual wildlife-related development. Visit www.jbnhs.org for more information.