Friday, December 29, 2006

Back to the Future

Even those of us who don’t observe Christmas (anymore) can’t help but notice the quiet that settles over the world on Christmas morning. As I left home on my bicycle on a frosty but clear calm morning, I saw barely a car as I crossed Main Street, rolled down the hill over the train station bridge and began my climb up Moose Hill Parkway.

I was just relaxing into the climb and casually scanning the woods for interesting sights when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large bird up in a tree. I spun the bike around and pulled off to the side of the road. It took only a moment for it to register that this large brown bird was a turkey. I fumbled for my binoculars and camera and started slowly walking into the woods. As I looked up I saw first the one, then six, then nine and finally ten large turkeys – all hens as far as I could tell – up in a large white oak and a few neighboring trees. I guess I knew these big birds roosted in trees, but I don’t think I’d ever witnessed it before.

The birds began to stir as I approached and rousted them from their rest and – as I imagined it – their comfort in the knowledge that they would not be in pots for this Christmas. As their nervousness grew, they stretched, flapped their wings and began to move about high overhead. I watched a good-sized oak limb sag as a bird hopped from one branch to another, indicating that these meaty creatures would be weighed in pounds and not ounces. Then, one after the other, they took off rather clumsily with a loud beating of wings against both air and branches. Once airborne and clear of the trees, I was impressed by how smoothly and quietly they could glide. Before I walked back to the bike, I paused to study the scratchings made by the turkeys in the oak leaf litter as they hunted for food. I wondered if they preferred white oaks to red for their less-bitter acorns. I made a mental note not to assume all scrapings on the forest floor are made by rutting bucks. These big birds can tear things up pretty well.

I was hoping for a few moments of quiet reflection on this morning to try to crystallize a few things that have been drifting around in my head that have been staying stubbornly in solution, but I also had a geographic destination. Moose Hill Sanctuary has nearly 2000 acres and 25 miles of trails, and I look forward to many wonderful days in these woods before I’ve carefully explored them all. Following a tip, I was headed for an area I had never seen before. I parked my bike – as I have often done before - near the intersection of Moose Hill Parkway and Upland Road and walked north along the Vernal Pool Loop/Warner Trail.

The woods were very quiet. I saw one small animal scurry for the shelter of a rock wall. At first, I assumed it was a chipmunk, but I thought they would be hibernating by now even though the winter has been very warm. I later saw a couple of red squirrels, so I’m not sure if the first furry flash I glimpsed was chipmunk or squirrel. As I passed the Boulders – a spot I’ve enjoyed a few times before – I paused to watch a downy woodpecker. Few other birds were stirring. Even the interstate in the distance seemed especially subdued on this morning of peace and quiet.

A short distance beyond the Boulders, the Vernal Pool Loop turned back on itself, but I continued on the Warner Trail. This pathway was likely once a road, and it was long and straight, affording views a long distance ahead. I looked up just in time to see the white flag of a whitetail deer bounding across the road ahead of me. If not for the bright white of the tail, I would have missed it, and I wondered what could be the possible selective advantage of this signal that so often is the only reason that these otherwise stealthy creatures are seen at all.

Populations of both deer and turkey are booming around here these days and I was thinking about what it must have been like before Europeans arrived with their appetites and technology. How difficult was it for the natives of these eastern forests to hunt for their food? What must it have been like for the hunter to carry on his shoulders the responsibility to feed his family? For me, finding wildlife is a pleasant diversion. For the original human inhabitants of these lands, it was a matter of life and death.

After a surprisingly long walk, the old road left the woods and I came upon an old farm site. There is an old rock-lined cellar hole, the foundation stones being slowly reclaimed by the earth with the help of gravity, frost and some trees growing from the old basement floor. Old fields on both sides of the road are being reclaimed by the forest. Hardwoods from the old hedgerows beside the road are moving up and pines from the surrounding forest are moving down. Without intervention, the fields will eventually disappear. This is a situation sanctuary managers must struggle with. Should these meadows be artificially maintained for the views and diversity of habitats they provide, or should natural succession be allowed to take its course? For now, I was glad these fields are here and I promised myself to return in the spring to see if the new nesting boxes placed here attract any bluebirds.

I retraced my steps and went back to the Boulders for breakfast. When I was last here in September, the place looked more like a stadium parking lot after a big football game than a nature preserve. It was littered with discarded lawn chairs, inflatable mattresses, empty beer cans and charred logs. It was now remarkably clean, with only the old fire pit remaining

On the path up to the Boulders I found a yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) growing, as if on stilts, over a very old stump. Birch seeds often germinate on stumps or old logs and put down roots around their decaying hosts. When the seedbed rots away, the birches look as if they’re standing on legs. If a number of birch trees germinate on the same nurse log, they grow in a straight line and when the log is gone they look as if they had been planted in a row. My guess is that this birch sprouted after the last time these woods were logged which, by now, must have been several decades or more ago. Left alone, these woods will return.

Hiking out of the woods after breakfast, I admired some big white pine. Some are about two feet in diameter. It’s been a long time since I last saw virgin white pine in Warrensburg, New York and I recalled how different the very old sentinels look from the youngsters that are so familiar. The really big trees look a bit like redwoods with reddish bark that is deeply furrowed into long plates. I hope these trees would last long enough to look that way.

Walking along the path through woods so quiet on this peaceful morning, I pondered their future as they evolve into their past. These 2000 acres are protected and are slowly approaching a condition not seen here for two hundred or more years. Large game animals like deer and turkey have returned. Large predators like coyotes are coming back, too. Traces of old farmsteads and pastures are fading. Without logging, the forests themselves will revert to their climax states as the pioneer trees give way to more shade-tolerant species of later stages in the succession. It will take generations, but these woods may eventually give us a hint of what the forest primeval was like.

There are clouds on the horizon, of course. As large as this sanctuary is, it is only a small island in a sea of development. Every available parcel of land in this part of the world is highly prized by developers. I am saddened repeatedly as I pass by new roads and house lots being torn into the beautiful woodlands that surround Moose Hill. In addition to the many small projects with one or a few houses, there are new plans to level 26 acres adjoining the sanctuary to build 104 housing units in 54 buildings. Small, site-sensitive homes are unknown around here. Every lot is denuded for the largest possible house to appeal to affluent buyers and to repay the speculator for the high cost of the land.

With new roads and housing pressing in from all sides, and deer and other wildlife leaving the woods, problems and conflicts are almost inevitable. I can only imagine what may happen as newcomers find large animals munching expensive landscaping and crashing through Beamer windshields. Picture the apoplexy when a recently-arrived pet lover sees the beloved cockapoo hanging limply from the jaws of a wild coyote.

I recovered my bicycle and rode it like a time machine down the hill from the past to the present. I knew that when the holiday was over, the bulldozers would roar again, and I wished the best for these woods in the uncertain future.


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