Friday, March 10, 2017

The Facts of Life

     "To know him is to love him."
- Phil Spector

     Hmmm...I'm not so sure. Seems like there's one "him" we're getting to know and finding hard to love. Still, the 1958 song by the Teddy Bears (really their name!) has a sweet sentiment. And the idea that knowing is the path to loving is true of places as well as people. 

     So let's get back to my Thank You note. In an earlier post I spoke of my gratitude to those who've helped me understand Washington County a little better. I touched on rocks and landforms, weather and climate, and the sky above - the natural architecture of our world - and the geology, meteorology and astronomy resources that have opened my eyes to that world. In this post we'll look at what's available to make sense of the garden that blooms here, the flora and fauna of the place. Think of it as help with the facts of life. 
     What the *&#! is that? The need to attach a word to a thing - it's the essence of who we are. Most of us who spend time in nature have a few field guides. Some have more than a few and suffer lower back pain because of it. I've climbed mountains and waded thru swamps hauling more books than your typical college freshman carries across campus. As people who know me like to point out, I get a lot of value out of my identification guides. That's because I'll use them to figure out what some cute trailside flower is and then promptly forget its name. When I encounter the same flower a week later I get to repeat the whole gratifying process all over again.

     My books are a motley crew. Most of them are old enough to collect Social Security but are still hard at work. If you're building a library, Peterson and Audubon are the heavyweights with dozens of titles between them. But don't overlook interesting local and regional volumes. Bird and wildflower guides are ubiquitous but there are more esoteric offerings - mosses and lichens, dragonflies, etc. I've heard about identification "apps" but I remain smart phone celibate and can't help with those. Just this advice: if you stick with paper and ink take only one book at a time, something you can stick in a pocket. Saves on torn pack straps and chiropractic fees. 
     I've got a bunch of name brand field guides and use them all the time. In the library the other night I saw many more shelved in the biology section. The following is a list of smaller, more idiosyncratic sources I like:
 - Golden Guides: slim, 4" x 6", 160 pages each and just $2 apiece (a long time ago), I've got a collection of these that easily slip into a pocket and while not comprehensive, they're light, compact and get used. I particularly like Weeds, Pond Life and Non-Flowering Plants
 - Two books by Marilyn Dwelley covering wildflowers of New England - with colorful drawings and solid information - favorites for many years.

 - Freshwater Fishes of New York State, a slender guide produced by Cornell that comes in a zip lock bag, fits in a fanny pack and likes to go canoeing.
 - Invasive species: recognize the enemy with these booklets - The Lake Champlain Basin Aquatic Invasive Species Guide and Invasive Plants of the Adirondacks. Also handy both for information and as bookmarks are a series of business card sized resources on invasives.
 - Rare Plants of New York State - a State Museum publication with line drawings, text and lists.
 - Grasses-An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown. Simple line drawings and a key help with knowing this neglected group of plants. Grasses and hay are a big part of my life so I use this one a lot.

- Trees: Two volumes (one for trees and one for shrubs) by George Symonds use photographs for identification. Large format, they are a little awkward to carry but worth the effort. Small and delightful is Rutherford Platt's A Pocket Guide to Trees. I've had this little paperback since I was a kid and what's left of it is literally held together with masking tape. Good for identification, but it's so much more. A beautifully written love letter to trees filled with  fascinating tidbits.

     One things for sure, a teacher by your side is worth ten books on the shelf (or in your pack). If you get a chance to explore with an expert, don't miss it. I've been fortunate to go on field trips with Sue Van Hook (fungus and lichens), Laurie LaFond (birds), Jerry Jenkins (all things botanical) and Greg Edinger (plant communities). When on organized outings, the other participants are invariably knowledgeable, often complementing (even challenging) the leaders expertise. Check the following for guided outings: the Battenkill Conservancy, the Agricultural Stewardship Association, the Lake George Land Conservancy, the Southern Adirondack Audubon, the Pember Museum, the Friends of the IBA and the Nature Conservancy.

      You're introduced to someone, learn their name, shake their hand. A good start but really just the first step in building a relationship. Same with plants and animals. The real reward comes in getting to know what their life is like, their habits and the community they live in. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior ventures into the territory beyond basic identification. Its first section covers everything you might possibly want to know about birds (and a dozen other things as well). There are chapters on flight and feathers, bird intelligence (not an oxymoron!), evolution and classification, nests and eggs, range and habitat. The second section looks closely at 80 bird families found in North America. At nearly 600 hefty pages it is not a book to take into the field. Instead, read it at home as a hors d'oeuvre or dessert to days spent birding with a standard field guide (David Allen Sibley has written a fine one of those as well). There are similar books for just about any group of living things you might be interested in. Browse the library shelves or check the 'References' section of your field guide to find them. 

     No man is an island and neither is any species of plant or animal. To understand the ecological ties that bind the web of life I've found the following valuable:
 - Eastern Forests by John Kricher/Gordon Morrison. In the Peterson Field Guide series, lots of illustrations, sections on ecological patterns.

 - Wetland, Woodland, Wildland by Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson. Introduces the concept of natural communities with descriptions of over 80 types (Dry Oak Forest, Vernal Pool, Alder Swamp, etc.). Covers Vermont but applicable to Washington County, N. Y.

 - Pond and Brook - A guide to nature in freshwater environments by Michael Caduto. All about water, both moving and still.
 - A number of regional natural histories place the biology of the Northeast within the context of our physical setting:
 - The Nature of Vermont by Charles Johnson
 - Lake Champlain - A Natural History by Mike Winslow

 - Adirondack Wildguide - A Natural History of the Adirondack  Park by Michael DiNunzio
 - Why the Adirondacks Look the way they do - A Natural History  by Mike Storey
 - A Guide to New England's Landscape by Neil Jorgensen
 - A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to Southern New England by  Neil Jorgensen
 - In addition, there's two little books that I've really enjoyed. They focus on places just to the east and west of Washington County:
 - A Natural History of Tinmouth, Vermont by George LeBoutillier
 - Treasure in the North Woods - A guide to the natural campus at  Skidmore College edited by Sue Van Hook

 - I also want to mention a couple of volumes, out of print and  nearly a hundred years old, but still highly useful (Lesson: Respect  your elders).
 - A Biological Survey of the Upper Hudson Watershed
 - A Biological Survey of the Champlain Watershed
 These are products of the State Conservation Department (now the  DEC). They are filled with maps, charts, photos and illustrations of  their respective areas. Rare, but the Owl Pen or Village Booksmith  might be able to find a copy.


     It won't be long before every living thing on Earth has its own website and blogging will be as common as breathing. Unfortunately, I'm not the person to guide you to this bounty. I'm of a certain age that still likes books and real people as sources of information. Still, there are a few sites I'm aware of and can recommend.
 - The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a favorite with birders.
 - The new kid on the block is the Northern Forest Atlas. It's already a treasure trove of photos, videos, diagrams and charts with more being added all the time.
 - The Facebook ship sailed without me but I know many people who start the day with a visit to Gordon Ellmer's page. He features exquisite bird photos, most of them taken in the Fort Edward area. Ellmers shots are the birding equivalent of Hubble's images of the cosmos - breathtaking.
 - Saratoga Woods and Waterways is Jacqueline Donnelly's botanical blog. It dispels the myth that Saratoga County is just a bunch of subdivisions strung together by the Northway. I often visit many of the same wild places as Donnelly but see only a fraction of what she finds - a testament to her deep knowledge of plants, her perceptive eye and sharp photography skills. 

Screen Shot of Donnelly's blog


     Finally, the more we know about the fascinating life a place hosts, the more we want to get out and explore. Here are some suggestions:
 - Carter Pond Wildlife Management Area for upland, wetland, woodland and pond habitats. Accessible nature trail. Canoe and binoculars are helpful.
 - Hebron Nature Preserve with Black Creek, trails and the Porter Schoolhouse nature education center. Part of the Pember Museum in nearby Granville - two of Washington County's treasures.

 - Lake Champlain access at South Bay and Clemons. Bring a
canoe, fishing pole, dip net and binoculars for the abundant aquatic life.

 - The Nature Conservancy's protected lands along the Poultney River. Noted for several species of freshwater mussels but all kinds of wildlife abound here. Also in the same area is the DEC wildlife management area on Co. 10 east of Whitehall. A canoe is the way to go.

 - Several Lake George Land Conservancy properties along with the extensive State Forest Preserve in Fort Ann, Dresden and Putnam. Featuring everything from mountaintops to Lake George shoreline and cedar swamps to cliffs and talus. Moose roam here and peregrine falcons nest.

 - The Hudson River/Champlain Canal. Water attracts life - fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds.

 - The Fort Edward Important Bird Area for hawks, owls and other grassland species.
 - Denton Preserve - diversity in vernal pools, ponds, wetlands and dry shale ridges.

 - Several State Forests in the southeast corner of the county where the Battenkill River, Eldridge Swamp and high, dry forests create a variety of habitats. Noted for bobcats and black bears with eagles along the river.

     What better way to spend these late winter evenings than reading and getting ready to enjoy the burst of life activity that comes with spring in Washington County. There's still one more facet to knowing this place that I hope to delve into. That would be the legacy of you, me and all our ancestors - what people have done here and the resources for understanding that. No promises, but I hope to post on that before the rush of spring farm work (and a few fun outings) takes priority.

     People have been seeing large groups of Bald Eagles congregate near open water on South Bay, just north of Whitehall.


1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an incredible compendium of resources for your fellow nature lovers! So helpful! And what a surprise to see my own blog listed among them. Thank you, Don, for your kind appreciation. I have and use many of the same publications you list (I especially love the Symond's books on trees and shrubs), but I must add one that you did not mention: Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (Little, Brown). This is the field guide that most of my botanical buddies -- both professional botanists and fellow wildflower lovers -- swear by. It has more flowers than most other guides, its line drawings accurately depict every part of the plant, and best of all, it has a remarkable keying system that helps you identify each plant by parsing it to its particulars. Of course, its scientific nomenclature is out of date, because that seems to change every week, but the author does not disdain common names, which are still the same as we've always used. There's also a series of three books by John Eastman that are chock full of ecological information about habitat and plant and animal communities connected with each plant. I really love them and refer to them often. They are The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Roadside and Meadow, and The Book of Swamp and Bog.

    I love your blog and I thank you for showing us so many of the glories of Washington County.