Although I typically write about monarchs and milkweed, really I am a field biologist aspiring to study and understand the natural world, mostly in terms of the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. A life-long goal is to learn about the natural history of species, habitats, and interactions as a means to develop a view of life. It’s the interplay of our amazing diversity, history, and sometime absurdity, that make me think. A few months ago I wrote about North America’s only carnivorous butterfly, which revealed itself in my backyard. I have long-been fascinated by our extinct mega-fauna, which disappeared only 12,000 years ago, a the end of the last ice age. Such giant and likely dominant creatures that aren’t part of our current existence, yet whose influences on the organisms we so love echoes through their evolutionary past.
This past fall, I had the pleasure of teaching Field Ecology. Although most Cornell classes were on-line, Field Ecology isn’t the sort of class that is easily adaptable for an on-line experience. It isn’t a “show and tell” class, but rather an “observe and tinker” class. And we all were just waiting for the hatchet to drop… will we make it 2 weeks, or possibly 5, before it’s all over? We just braced ourselves and went for it. In the end, Cornell’s surveillance testing and tracing was a wonderful success, squishing tiny blips of covid that popped up, essentially eliminating it from campus.
Last semester I spent most of my days at home with the family, feeling a little (read: a lot) cooped-up. It’s hard to complain, but still, escaping home has been an essential part of covid life and well-being for me. And teaching Field Ecology certainly helped! I typically previewed each week’s exercise on Tuesday, to make sure it would run smoothly, and then took the students out on Friday afternoons. I always take students to an old-growth forest, in part to allow them to experience all that it is: messy, bumpy, and typically isolated among our fragmented and developed landscape. And this year, as a preview to the exercise, I visited three old-growth patches in the Ithaca area on three successive days. Just to experience the similarities and differences.
Following in the footsteps of Cornell’s retired Forest Ecologist, Peter Marks, I distinguish between secondary, primary, and old-growth forests. Secondary forests are those that develop naturally in the decades after agricultural abandonment (via a predictable sequence we call succession). Although central New York was 97% forested historically, with European settlement came clearing of the land. The peak of land clearing was 1890 (at about 80% cut and open), and since then, our open lands, especially on our poorly draining clay soil, has been abandoned from agriculture, allowing for forest regeneration over past 80-100 years. Primary forests are those which have been heavily impacted by human activity, typically logging, but whose soils have not be ploughed. Here the soil history and seedbank remain intact, and forests naturally regenerate, often from the stumps of cut trees. Our local forests have many double-stemmed trees, for example oaks, with very large diameter bases. These are often regenerated from being cut, stimulating the tree to produce a few regenerating stems, often with two that thrive. A great book on reading the forested landscape is by Tom Wessels.
The first old growth forest I visited (not obviously impacted by logging) was in the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area, some 20 miles outside of Ithaca. This is also where I ended up taking my class a few days later. I will be returning here in the new few days to look for porcupines, but that is another story. Here are some things we found last fall.
Day 2: Next up, the Fischer Old Growth tract, a Cornell Natural Area, with a storied history of ownership by a logging company, the offer of sale to Cornell, and an agreement finally reached under duress. Expansion from a gift has buffered and further protected this jewel.
Fall flowering forest herbs… Although summer in Ithaca can be dominated by goldenrods (tens of species in the genus Solidago), the fewer forest-adapted goldenrod species include this blue stemmed goldenrod (named for the waxy bloom on its stem), S. caesia. Below it, Ageratina altissima (white snakeroot), known for causing “milk sickness” due to the high levels of toxic tremetone in the leaves. It is closely related to boneset, a common wetland plant, also with highly active chemistry.
My last trip was to Cornell’s Slaterville 600, which like many natural areas in the Ithaca area is a conglomeration of state land, private protected land (Finger Lakes Land Trust), and Cornell land.
Happy New Year folks, thanks for reading, and keep hunting for those breathes of fresh air. -Anurag