It was a beautiful Monday morning as my fellow Student Conservation Association Hudson Valley AmeriCorps members and I made the trek to the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Members were coming from as far north as Moreau Lake State Park (near the Adirondacks) and as far south as Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. I had come to Sam’s Point before to volunteer with bird surveys, so I was thrilled to return to this spot for our service project. We had gathered at what would be our home base for the next three days – us in a circle, cars in the background, and a spectacular view of Sam’s Point itself. We had gathered here for the 9/11 Patriots’ Day of Remembrance and held a moment of silence to reflect on that day 16 years ago, as well as the service we would be providing for the parks.
Before we could get started, some orientation was in order, as there was a lot of information to cover. Sam’s Point has a rare population of ridgetop dwarf pitch pine barrens, supporting wildlife such as birds, fishers (small mammals related to weasels), and porcupines. In April 2016, a wildfire broke out in the area, and efforts are underway to study the resilience of this ecosystem. We were able to see more of the area by hiking up to the scenic overlook as well as to the super cool ice caves!
There were multiple projects being done in our three days of service. Two crews worked on erosion control devices on the Verkeerderkill Falls Footpath. One crew worked on making water bars, trail structures that take the water off the trail. Another crew worked on building bog bridges, low wooden bridge structures that raise the trail out of the water or other sensitive area. The third crew was constructing invasive plant boot brush stations at various entrances around the park preserve. I was part of the invasive species crew for the service project. Our main focus was removing spotted knapweed, a purple flower that grew on the edge of the Loop Road. We had been out in the sun working hard on knapweed removal, and towards the end of the day, decided to move in the shade to work on stilt grass.
While pulling knapweed for many hours at a time, SCA members were able to have some fun. We had started to play the game Murder on the Trail, which is where the “killer” would stick out their tongue at a person, and five minutes, later the “victim” had to die dramatically. Aaron (one of the program managers) came to check in on us and did not know we were playing this game – he wasn’t sure what was happening when someone dropped to the ground. Other fun things included exploring Lake Maratanza and finding baby snakes! From the beginning of the trail at the bottom of the ridge, all the way to the top, past Sam’s Point towards Lake Maratanza, we pulled almost half a mile of knapweed. That’s a lot of knapweed!
The other teams worked hard and played hard too! The bog bridging crew installed over 170 feet of new bog bridges and the water bar crew improved almost a quarter mile of trail on one of the park preserve’s most popular trails. The boot brush crew installed three new boot brush stations to educate the public about invasive species and help stop the spread of invasive plant seeds.’
After three days of hard work and camping out at Sam’s Point, it was time for all of us to return to our homes in the Hudson valley. We had done great work for the park and I was happy to be a part of it.
Thank you to the SCA, SCA members, State Parks, and the staff of Sam’s Point. Until next time!
Post by Emily Enoch, SCA Hudson Valley AmeriCorps Member
In April 2016, a wildfire engulfed around 2,000 acres of the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains. The “Gunks” (a nickname for the Shawangunks) are well-known not only for climbing, but also for the globally unique community of high altitude dwarf pitch pine barrens which hold some interesting and charismatic flora and fauna. This year marks one year after the fire and it has been a very interesting time to be at Sam’s Point. Park staff have taken advantage of what some may consider destruction to learn more about the unique ecosystem that evolved along with fire. Student Conservation Association interns, State Park staff, and volunteer citizen scientists have researched how the ecological community at Sam’s Point is responding to the fire.
In the weeks after the 2016 fire, the State Parks staff set up twenty random plots within the pine barrens to study the regrowth of the forest after the fire. One year later, we continue to collect data on the changes that are taking place as the ecosystem bounces back. At each research site, pitch pines are measured and any new growth, or lack thereof, is recorded. We also search for pitch pine seedlings and this year we found more of them in our plots than last year! Pitch pines are a fire dependent species – this means that throughout their existence they have evolved to grow in areas with high incidence of fire and have adapted to survive and thrive in these areas. Perhaps most importantly to pitch pine survival, their pine cones need extreme heat, like the high heat produced from fire, to open up to release their seed. Although the high intensity of the fire may have damaged many of the older pitch pines, we can see the beginnings of a new forest through our observations.
Pitch pine seedling, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Forest regrowth, 2017, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
At four of the 20 fire-regeneration plots, we took photos to collect visual data on changes over time. We are able to see changes in vegetation during the growing season and are able to compare vegetation levels from this year to last year. After a fire burns an ecosystem, the intensity of the burn creates a mosaic pattern on the land, making patches of different habitat. For those areas that are more severely burned, different plants may be found in those areas than areas that were less severely burned. Through our data collection, we compare what is happening in different areas of the forest that were affected differently after the fire. We also look at any changes that occur over time as plants recolonize the scorched earth.
Another study that was conducted this year was a breeding bird survey, where we compared the different bird species found in the burned area of the pine barrens to birds that were found in the unburned areas. Since the fire burned nearly half of the Sam’s Point Area, we looked at whether this change in habitat displaced breeding birds, welcomed new species, or if the number of breeding bird stayed the same. Interns, staff, and volunteers braved early mornings in May and June to conduct surveys in the park. Most often, we heard the eastern towhee telling us to “drink your tea”, the prairie warbler’s ascending song, and the “witchity witchity” of the common yellowthroat. These species were found all over the park and we did not see many differences between the species we found within the burned area and outside of it. Generally, the differences we found had more to do with other aspects of habitat (i.e. birds were closer to water, closer to deciduous trees, etc.) than to the damage from the fire.
Comparing photo points, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Student Conservation Association Interns, Park staff, and volunteer Citizen Scientists assist in studying the effects of the 2016 fire on the ecosystem, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Fire has a long history on the Shawangunk Ridge and pitch pines are not the only species that has adapted to thrive with fire. Up until the 1960’s, berry pickers swarmed the mountainsides in the summer, picking huckleberry and blueberry and selling their juicy finds to city dwellers. Sometimes, they set fire to the ridge so that the next year, their bounty would be sweeter (in both size and taste!) Going further back into the history of the ridge, the Native Americans would also set similar, controlled fires, which today we would call prescribed burns, to keep the ecosystem healthy and productive. Although the 2016 fire was an intense wildfire and not a prescribed burn, we received the bounty of increased berry production in 2017. In mid-July the blueberries flourished, and modern day berry pickers, as well as animals that eat berries, such as chipmunks, squirrels, deer, birds, and bear, were able to indulge in these treats. By the end of July, the huckleberries had joined in on the fun so that at our August Berry Bonanza event, visitors could taste test and compare blueberry and huckleberry and choose their preference before they entered the berry-lined trails.
The 2016 wildfire at Sam’s Point has given us a lot to think about in the last year. We continue to learn more about our unique little corner of the world, and we share what we have learned with our visitors. We are also able to enjoy the beauty of the rebirth of an ecosystem. This strange, otherworldly beauty inspires park-goers with a new type of scenery they may have never seen before, making this one of a kind ecosystem seem even more special. To learn more about Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve or to get involved in Citizen Science visit https://parks.ny.gov/parks/193 , or even better, come visit us in person! We look forward to sharing our park with you.
Post by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern
Featured image by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern
Don’t let the snow deter you from exploring State Parks – just grab or borrow a pair of snowshoes and head out to the trail. Go snowshoeing on a trail in a nearby park or try one of State Park staff’s favorite snowshoeing spots.
In western New York, Tina’s favorite snowshoeing spot is at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park located on Lake Ontario in northern Niagara County in Wilson. This is where you will find the Red interpretive trail nestled along the east branch of Twelve Mile Creek. As you snowshoe through the changing landscapes, you’ll pass through successional fields, marshland, and finally through a mature forest of old growth beech and hemlock trees. Keep your ears open for calls of the pileated woodpecker.
At Allegany State Park in Salamanca, Adele recommends the Bear Paw Trail located across the road from the Art Roscoe cross-country ski area on the Red House side of the Park. Bear Paw Trail is the newest trail built for the snowshoeing enthusiast. The 2.4-mile long, easy to moderate trail has 15 interpretative sights and runs along the ridge above Salamanca to historic Stone Tower. The trail loops through large stands of Black cherry and White ash trees. Look for small secret plants such as wintergreen and princess pines along the trail. Each Monday evening in January and February, the park offers sunset snowshoe hikes. The Environmental Education Department has a few pairs of snowshoes to borrow during programs.
In central New York, Katie’s favorite part about snowshoeing is how the landscape constantly changes during the winter. Even if you snowshoe at your favorite local park, in her case Clark Reservation State Park in Jamesville, everything looks different in the winter.
After the leaves fall off the trees, you can see so much farther into the woods. You will be snowshoeing along at Clark Reservation, and suddenly notice that the ground drops away not far from the edge of the trail into a steep ravine. You might never notice the ravine in the summer because rich greenery hides it from view. Winter’s arrival reveals forests secrets. Soon though, they are covered up again, this time with ever changing blankets of snow. Nature’s snow sculptures change daily, so you really need to hit the trails often so you don’t miss out!
About once a year, the park gets special permission to host a moonlit snowshoe hike it’s amazing how bright the forest is with the light from a full moon reflecting off the snow. You can even see your shadow! Keep your eyes on the calendar to find out when this year’s Moonlight Snowshoe Hike will be, or come out on your own any day to check out this special place.
At the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center at Wellesley Island State Park, Thousand Islands, Molly notes that there are four trails open to snowshoeing. Probably the most heavily snowshoed trail is North Field Loop. Only a half mile long, it meanders through a forest full of white pine trees, passes through a seasonal wetland, and into a forest of towering red oak trees. School groups explore this trail on snowshoes and the nature center staff lead moonlight snowshoe hikes on the trail throughout the winter months. There is nothing prettier than snow covered woods on a moonlit night. The park has both children and adult snowshoes available for rent for $3 a pair.
In the Capital Region, Liz at Grafton Lakes State Park suggests the Shaver Pond trail loop. Just under two miles, it offers picturesque views of Shaver Pond, with a trail winding through forest of hemlock and maple trees over easy terrain. Inquisitive visitors may see mink or fox tracks along the way. Trail maps are for sale & snowshoe rentals are available at park office on a first-come, first served basis for $5 for four hours.
At Moreau Lake State Park, Rebecca mentions that the park has 30 miles of trails and there are new places to explore as the seasons change. The parks offers snowshoe hikes and classes for all ability levels, including first timers. The park also has snowshoes available for rent to hikers or people who want to go out and try it on their own for $5 for a half day and $10 for a full day rental.
At Thacher State Park, the Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail is one of Nancy’s favorite snowshoe walks. This three mile loop in the wilder northern part of the park takes you through beautiful woodlands of mixed hardwoods with stands of spruce and hemlock trees and across a couple of open fields, without much elevation change. Midway on the loop, you can take in the scenic snow-covered views from the cliff edge at High Point. Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center rents snowshoes to the public.
In the Hudson Valley, Kris at Fahnestock Winter Park mentions two unique snowshoeing trails. If you’re looking for more rugged terrain, and challenging descents, “Appalachian Way” treks along a ridge line to a stunning overlook of Canopus Lake. The trail “Ojigwan Path” offers the beginner and intermediate snowshoer a snaking walk through hemlock groves and strands of mountain laurel. Both routes take around 2.5 hours to complete. Snowshoe rentals are located in the newly renovated winter park lodge, where you can also warm up with a cup of delicious chili!
Laura D. recommends a snowshoeing trail that will lead you to expansive cliff top vistas, through the globally rare dwarf pitch pine barrens, and around the glacially carved Lake Maratanza. The Loop Road at the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve is the perfect trail for viewing these breathtaking vistas. While on the three-mile Loop Road, stop at the Sam’s Point Overlook, where on a clear day, you can see four states! Snowshoe rentals are available at the Sam’s Point Visitor Center for $15 per adult and $14 per junior (17 years and under) for the day or $5 to join a public program.
A novice snowshoer will find the modest Mossy Glen Footpath loop just right for a snowshoe trip.at Minnewaska State Park Preserve notes Laura C. This approximately four-mile route follows the Mossy Glen Footpath as it hugs the edge of the scenic Peter’s Kill stream, winding through quiet forests. At the end of this Footpath, take the Blueberry Run Footpath to the Lower Awosting Carriage Road back to your starting point. This loop begins at the Awosting Parking Lot.
These are just a sampling of the many trails you can explore on snowshoes . We hope to see you out on the snowshoe trail this winter.
Text and photos by Lindsey Feinberg, Student Conservation Association Intern at Sam’s Point Please ask permission to use photos.
Located within Minnewaska State Park Preserve is Sam’s Point, an area of unique ecological significance encompassing roughly 5,000 acres in the Shawangunk Mountains of southern New York. Toward the end of April, during a particularly dry and windy week, a fire broke out along the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail and engulfed over 2,000 acres of pitch pine and oak woodlands. While this may seem like a devastating event, one of the factors that make the globally rare dwarf pine ridge ecological community of Sam’s Point so unique is that it is a fire dependent ecosystem.
Since progressing into the deep summer months, Sam’s Point has experienced an explosion of new growth. Toward the end of the fire there was an extended period of cold rainy weather that continued for a week after the fire was out. Soon afterward , bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads began springing forth through the burned earth and painted trilliums (Trillium undulatum) flowered near the Ice Caves trail in an area of low intensity burn. A number of pink lady slippers (Cypripedium acaule) also popped up along the Loop Road and the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail.
The fiddleheads of bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum), one of the first plants to return after the fire. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
A perfect pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule) brightens up the landscape. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
These painted trilliums (Trillium undulatum) emerged from the moist soils below the charred surface. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Sam’s Point was fully closed until Memorial Day Weekend, when it was reopened to limited capacity with only the Loop Road and Ice Caves Trail available to the public. Park staff members were positioned at the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail with a table of educational materials in order to encourage park patrons to obey the closures and help them understand the importance of staying out of affected areas. The main concern is the potential for rapid spread of non-native invasive plant species by seeds hitchhiking in the boots and backpacks of visitors. Without competition from established plants and with the increased availability of nutrients that follows fire, invasive species have the potential to quickly establish.
Fortunately, the closures seem to be working and few invasive plants and many native species have been seen in those areas. Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and huckleberries (Gaylussacia baccata) have been quick to return, along with chokeberries (Photinia melanocarpa), serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), wild raisin (Viburnum nudum) and sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), which have repopulated the understory in a carpet of vibrant green. Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), a small, showy rhododendron that is threatened in New York State, has been proliferating in high numbers in some of the wetter areas of Sam’s Point. Even bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a wildflower more typical of cool, moist woodlands and uncommon in southern New York, is coming back near the Indian Rock Trail.
The plants with the bluer leaves are the state-threatened Rhodora (Rhodora canadense), amidst the burned pitch pines. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) displays similar morphology of its close relative the flowering dogwood. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Many of the pitch pine trees that were blackened and scorched, all of which looked ostensibly dead, have exhibited new growth occurring at the base, epicormically (along the trunk), and from the top of the tree. Walking along the loop road, hints of long bristly shoots resembling bright green porcupines are apparent on a number of blackened trees. The majority of pitch pine stumps that were cut for fire control purposes have also begun re-sprouting.
Equally important for the ecology and continuance of the globally rare dwarf pine ridge community is the successful germination of pine seeds. As pitch pines get older, they lose their ability to re-sprout. Many older pitch pines will experience a wave of mortality even after new shoots appear. Possible reasons for this subsequent mortality of pitch pines is that a burned tree tends to be more stressed, and may not as resilient to any new factors that can further increase stress, such as insect predation and extreme weather events. Additionally, new shoots probably won’t distribute evenly on each tree, and this added weight on a weakened tree can cause branches to break or the entire tree to topple over. But there is still hope. The closed, charred pine cones opened soon after the fire ended, their russet innards contrasting brightly against the blackened landscape. The seeds were dispersed and fell to the ground. In order to germinate, pitch pine seeds need to be exposed to mineral soil. This is usually achieved when a fire burns through the upper duff (dead leaves and other plant material) and organic soil layers, which are more likely to burn when the fire is allowed to continue for long enough and reach a hot enough temperature. Until recently, the park staff at Sam’s Point had been unable to find any seedlings despite nearly half of the acreage on Sam’s Point being burned.
But how do you monitor 2000 acres for seedlings? You don’t. Instead, you look at a sample. One of the first post-fire initiatives by Parks’ Sam’s Point research staff was to establish 20 randomly placed research plots in order to document forest regeneration and the recovery of this natural area over time. Returning to the plots and recording information on the plants and soil helps us to understand and learn more about this ecosystem. In addition, we established photopoints in four of the research plots. Since May 7th, we have been photographing four plots from the same location on a biweekly basis. Photopoints are a great supplement to research documenting change over time, as it provides a way to visually understand what changes are taking place.
Sampling is scheduled to begin sometime in August, but one of the most exciting aspects of establishing randomly placed plots is discovering unique areas that might otherwise go unnoticed. During our fieldwork we found several areas of pitch pines averaging only 4 feet tall. Upon further examination, we discovered that the soil was extremely shallow in those spots, as little as 2 inches over solid bedrock. In July, none of Sam’s Point staff had seen any new seedlings during their regular duties around the park, but after checking in on the sections with low soil depth we were able to find a good number of seedlings. And soon after, seedlings were found in some of the wetland pockets as well. All good news for the recovery.
Sam’s Point has a number of unique, highly acidic wetlands too. While the larger pockets were relatively untouched by the fire, the smaller outflows were more vulnerable, especially in areas of extremely shallow soil. However, the wet areas that were burned along High Point Carriage Road and some other narrow strips of wetland have begun exhibiting their wetland qualities once again. Sphagnum moss, a characteristic moss genus found in bogs, has returned in some of these areas, while tiny sundews (Drosera spp.) can be seen on both the newly grown moss and the saturated but still blackened soil.
The spatulate-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) and other plants begin to appear again in the burned wetlands. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Pitch pine seedling growing next to sundews on recovering wetland. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Insect on a yellow-eyed grass (Xyris sp.) located in recovering wetland. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Animal activity was apparent almost immediately. The prairie warblers’ ascending trill could be heard throughout the spring in all areas of the preserve. Insect and pollinator activity has been high, especially with the return and subsequent blooms of milkweeds and meadowsweet. Park staff also noticed a number of ruffed grouse, which like forest openings. The remains of chewed up pine cones littering the forest floor are evidence of red squirrels. Eastern towhee activity was also high in the period immediately after the fire. Towhees are a species of bird that feed on pitch pine seeds as they are released from their cones. Amphibians could be spotted burrowing into the moist ground in order to keep cool.
Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri) burrowing to keep cool in the burned area. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
Ladybug (Coccinellidae family) and tiny insects (unidentified) on new shoots of pitch pine (Pinus rigida). Photo by Lindsey Feinberg
During a fire and the initial period afterward, it is easy to focus on the destruction and negative impacts. However, it’s important to remember that fire is a vital ecological process in many environments, especially for the health and longevity of pine barren communities. The Sam’s Point Fire offers great opportunities for discovery. Researchers from the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, Mohonk Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and nearby colleges like SUNY New Paltz met to discuss research needs and interests to inform management and increase our knowledge about this exceptional place and ecosystem. It’s exciting to see what the future holds for Sam’s Point.
“Forest Fire Scorches 3,000 Acres in Ulster Park” was the headline of a story in the New York Times on April 21, 2008. The park was Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. From when it was first reported on April 17 to when it was finally out on April 29, the Outlook Fire burned roughly 2,800 acres in the park. People from 134 state and local agencies came together to control the largest fire to hit the region in 60 years. Recently, another large fire in Minnewaska, the fire at Sam’s Point that burned over 1500 acres in April and May 2016.
Fire damaged pitch pine, May 2008, OPRHP photo
Mopping up fire remnants, Minnewaska State Park , April 2008, OPRHP photo
These fires were both wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fire in the forest or fields which spreads quickly and is difficult to control. Historically, wildfires were ignited by lightning strikes. Wildfires are a natural component of many different ecosystems; they have helped to maintain healthy native flora, fauna and systems around the world for thousands of years.
Fires help ecosystems in many ways. They help plants by opening up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor to enable new seedlings to grow; adding nutrients to the soil and raises the soil pH, giving plants an extra boost of natural fertilizer; reducing the competition for water and soil nutrients by thinning out the underbrush; and decreasing some invasive species and forest pests and diseases. But other invasive species can proliferate after fire, so preventing their spread is an important management strategy.
Some of natural communities in the state — places like Minnewaska, the Shawangunk Ridge, Albany Pine Bush, Long Island Central Pine Barrens and many areas within State Parks are fire-adapted, meaning they can survive wild fires. If fact, the need occasional fires. The plants have special features to survive fires. Pitch pine are one of the best known fire-adapted trees, and they are common in Minnewaska. If a pitch pine tree is damaged in a wild fire, the roots are not always killed and new growth will sprout from the base or the trunk of what appears to be a dead tree. Chestnut oak is another tree that is able to withstand fires due to the thick bark. Other plants have seeds that lie safe below the surface, called a “seed bank”, waiting to grow when conditions are right like when there is space and more light following a fire. And perennials like the ferns and trillium and starflower lie dormant underground (like tulip bulbs in your garden), ready to burst upward every spring and summer.
And some plants are fire dependent, meaning that they need fire to thrive or greatly benefit from fire. Pitch pine is a good example of this. Although some pitch pine cones will open on a hot summer day which drops the seeds to the ground, a fire also exposes the bare soil that helps their seeds to sprout.
Fires can help animals too, including insects, by creating new openings in the forest for the animals to thrive and by leaving snags (dead trees) which provide places for raccoons, squirrels, and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds to nest in. Many animals avoid fire by burrowing deeper in to the ground, flying off, or skirting the edge of the fire. Very rarely will an animal be trapped by a fire. Some species of beetles and birds hunt along the edge of the fire, looking for their prey as it escapes the fire.
Life was blooming in Minnewaska just after the Outlook Fire. In coordination with the New York Natural Heritage Program and State Parks. a team of scientists worked together to study effects of the fire on breeding birds, tree regeneration, and vegetation response. Within a couple of weeks, there were hints of green. Approximately a month after the fire had ended, there was abundant new life in the Pine Barrens, with ferns and Canada mayflower sprouting up, trillium and lady’s slipper flowering, and a wood thrush nest with eggs hidden amongst the charred leaf litter. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, scrub oak, huckleberry, and other trees and shrubs showed new leaves, bright green against the blackened landscape. Not lost after all, but alive and well.
Susan Carver, State Parks and Julie Lundgren, NYNHP