By Anna and Nellie
Welcome to the final, self-guided tour of habitats in winter, brought to you in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy (clctrust.org). Today’s Wonder Wander post introduces the newly installed tour of a Swamp Forest habitat at Drowned Lands Swamp in Ancram.
Follow along to explore some wonders of the Swamp Forest in spring and/or check out these wonders in-person at Drowned Lands Swamp Conservation Area from now until April 12th. Find out more at hvfarmscape.org/wonder.
The dense, nest-like clusters we noticed in the top of some trees are actually part of the native woody Poison Ivy vine. Our best guess is that these dense growths are “witch’s brooms”—deformities caused by pests or diseases (for example, a mite or a virus).
Early spring in a Swamp Forest is a good opportunity to get acquainted with the many looks of Poison Ivy before it develops its more recognizable leaves. Poison Ivy vines spread and climb using many clinging roots, giving mature climbing vines a “hairy” look, such as this one climbing a tree.
However, the branches that reach out into the air from these central poison ivy vines, such as those coming up from this rock, are smooth and can be easily mistaken for any woody branch at this time of year.
Spring is beginning to emerge! Keep an eye out for some of the native early bloomers, including Early Meadow-rue (pictured below), Skunk Cabbage, Bloodroot, and American Dog Violet.
Look for the insects who are attracted to these plants. Skunk Cabbage (below) produces heat as it grows, and its hooded spathe attracts and provides a haven for early pollinators, including bees and flies.
Ants love the fatty attachments, called elaiosomes, on Bloodroot (flower bud and open flower pictured below from last April at Drowned Lands Swamp) and violet seeds. Often times, the ants take the seeds back to their nest to enjoy the tasty elaiosomes, which leaves the seeds in a prime spot to germinate next year.
American Dog Violet in flower (below); this photo was taken late last April at Drowned Lands Swamp.
The “beaded” stalks poking up from the ground belong to Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), a fern that is common in wet habitats. It’s called “sensitive” because the leaves usually die back quite quickly after the first frost.
The beaded stalk is what remains of the fern’s fertile frond (say that three times fast!). The fertile frond, also called a sporophyll, contains mature spores which are released in early spring before the new fronds emerge.
Look for (but don’t pick) the unfurling fronds, or fiddleheads, near the base of the beaded stalks. The stalks of the young fronds are usually smooth, and might have an orange or reddish hue. The below photo is from later in spring, so stay tuned!
When you are in a Swamp Forest at this time of year, do you hear a raucous quacking or chirping chorus? These may be the calls of Wood Frogs (such as the one pictured below, from April of last year) and Spring Peepers. These are among the first frog calls each year, and are often noted as a sign of spring. In fact, we have records of when frog calls were first heard dating as far back as 1832 in Columbia County (in that year, they were first heard in Kinderhook on March 29 and in Hudson on April 1).
Both Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers (such as the one pictured below, from April of last year) seek out small, temporary pools as can often be found in Swamp Forests, to breed. Males make the calls to attract females who assess potential mates by the speed and volume of their calls.
Black Ash trees are a good indicator that you are in a Swamp Forest, and even an “ancient” Swamp Forest that was never completely cleared or drained—perhaps because of the Black Ash.
Black Ash has a distinctive cork-like bark. It has long been uniquely valued for basket making, cabinetry, and other woodworking crafts. When processed—often through pounding—the weaker spring growth rings are crushed, allowing the harder summer growth rings to be peeled off in strips that can then be prepared for such uses as basket splints. There are long traditions of Black Ash basket making in Native American tribes, as well as the neighboring “Taghkanic basketmakers.”
Sprinkled throughout this Swamp Forest are Red Maple and alder, two woody plants that typically grow in wet areas and flower early in the spring, likely in the next few weeks. The male and female flowers usually grow on separate trees (dioecious). The male flowers (pictured below) are pollen-producing, or staminate—can you see any yellow pollen sacks?
The smaller female flowers are seed-producing or pistillate, with stigmas designed to catch pollen.
Alders on the other hand are monoecious, meaning you’ll find the male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers are the dangling catkins.
The female alder flowers are the much smaller, red clusters, which develop into cones when pollinated.
The sudden appearance and trilling of Red-winged Blackbirds is a sign of spring each year. The marsh at the edge of this Swamp Forest is exactly where one might expect to see and hear Red-winged Blackbirds, as Red-winged Blackbirds breed in such wet, marsh-like habitats.
Have you seen any signs of Red-winged Blackbirds? Males arrive first to establish and defend a breeding territory. They often choose a high perch to sing from, such as a cattail, and sing with a forward-leaning, tail-spreading, shoulder-fluffing posture that makes their red patches more visible. By contrast, the later-arriving brown, streaked females are much less conspicuous. Females build cup nests in dense, low vegetation.