Nature at your doorstep – Ferncliff Forest

Catskill view from fire tower. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Catskill view from fire tower. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Spring is a kind of kaleidoscope. Its array of delicate colors — lavender, white and pink in early forest flowers, red in the tops of swamp maples, and gold-green in budding trees — shifts with the turning earth. The eye wants to focus close, at the ground underfoot, then far, at the greening landscape and soft blue sky, then close again, at the branch just ahead, with its swarm of flowers like tiny yellow bees but no leaves yet, and a small gray bird perched on it, bobbing its tail up and down.

The yellow flowering shrub is a spicebush, and the bird is the familiar Eastern phoebe, one of our flycatchers. Both underscore the certainty that spring has arrived, at last, and both greeted me when I visited Ferncliff Forest recently for a leisurely ramble.

Just outside the village of Rhinebeck, Ferncliff Forest is an ideal place to shift your gaze from near to far, from the wildflowers at your feet, to the beaver ponds and vernal pools glimpsed through the trees, blue reflections in water like pieces of sky on the forest floor, to the fire tower’s panorama of the Catskills, Taconics, Berkshires, and Hudson Highlands. The trail loop I walked from the entrance, around reedy South Pond, past well-constructed Adirondack lean-tos, then along a ridge with spring pools and swamps on either side, and through a stately second-growth forest, led me to the tower with its splendid views. In an hour or so of walking I had traversed an impressive range of habitats and variety of scenery.


I had been lamenting of late that my favorite wildflower of early spring, the hepatica, seems to have largely disappeared from our woods. Lacking another culprit, I blamed the overabundant deer for this loss. Though I can’t prove that deer munch on hepatica and other increasingly uncommon wildflowers, their appetite for everything green, even tomato foliage in my garden, makes them a prime suspect.

I hardly expected to find these elusive wildflowers at a place like Ferncliff Forest, with its well-trod trails and regular use by hikers, joggers, bicyclists and campers. Nor would I have found them there, had I not been lured from the pondside path by a tail-wagging phoebe, which flitted from branch to ground to branch again some 15 feet away from me. The bird kept his distance, but I followed him to a rocky outcrop, hoping for a closer look and maybe a photo.

I took a couple of pictures of the phoebe, and was about to turn back towards the trail I had left when a splash of color caught my eye: a cluster of pale lavender hepatica blossoms on the forest floor. They seemed newly opened, their slender, downy stems having pushed up through the leaf litter just days ago, shouldering off the layers of dead brown leaves that covered them, like sleepers pushing blankets aside as they awaken.

Deeded to the Rhinebeck Rotary by Brooke Russell Astor, widow of William Vincent Astor (son of John Jacob Astor, who died on the Titanic in 1912), Ferncliff Game Refuge and Forest Preserve is now in the hands of a not-for-profit corporation. It’s a monument to the vision of people who recognize the need and value of preserving a bit of wildness in the midst of sprawling development. Nesting phoebes share lean-tos here with campers, and beavers create habitat for fish, frogs, and waterfowl without coming into conflict with humans, for there are no roads or houses to flood.

These mature oak, beech, white ash, cherry, birch and hemlock woods provide habitat for deep forest mammals like the fisher and birds like the barred owl and scarlet tanager. The tower that surveys the patchwork of fields, forests and towns that makes up the landscape of the mid-Hudson Valley could be a metaphor for that vision, which one hopes all who climb it for the view will share. Without it, we’d end up living in a country where only such families as the Astors, on their vast private estates, will have such places as Ferncliff Forest to explore and enjoy.

For Earth Day and National Poetry Month, here are a few lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Spring”) in celebration of wild places and the wild energy and joy of the season:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling….”     

Ferncliff Forest Game Refuge and Forest Preserve is on Mt. Rutsen Road, 1.7 miles west of state Route 9 in Rhinebeck (turn down Montgomery Street, just before Northern Dutchess Hospital, bear left on Mt. Rutsen Road), and east of River Road. Heading east from the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, turn right onto River Road off Route 199 at the first traffic light, and then a left onto Mt. Rutsen Road).