The Pine Bush Preserve is inhabited by creatures great and small — like this grasshopper.

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

Many people wonder what kinds of animals live in the Pine Bush. This is also a common topic that we discuss with visitors on our programs.

A few weeks back, I was out on a hike with a group of first-graders. I asked them what animals they thought lived in the Pine Bush.

One student raised her hand and very calmly said “unicorns,” as if she had seen five unicorns on her way to the Pine Bush that morning and expected to see more on her way home. I explained that unicorns do not live in the Pine Bush and so we would not see them on our hike that day.

If we polled elementary school students in the Capital Region, we would also have dinosaurs, lions, and monkeys roaming around in the Pine Bush. Perhaps it’s the element of excitement and mystery but for whatever reason these are the animals that come to mind when we are huddled on a sandy trail looking out into the sea of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, and pitch pine.

While we do have some big mammals in the Pine Bush — coyote, fox, deer, and fisher — it is highly unlikely that we would see them on a group hike. We more commonly see birds, big ones like hawks and vultures, and small ones like black-capped chickadees.

We also often see chipmunks and insects galore. These may not seem exciting but, if you can quiet the part of your brain that says, “I have seen a million chipmunks in my lifetime” and just watch the chipmunk scurry across the path into a scrub oak bush and quietly make its way to the top to grab an acorn, you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, that is amazing!”

Stop and just stare at the beautiful orange butterfly milkweed flowers and watch the insects that come to visit. Don’t think about them creeping into your house or onto your skin but just watch them as they crawl across one flower and fly on to the next without reacting to your presence.

A habitat for wildlife in the midst of the Capital Region, the Pine Bush Preserve is full of these small wildlife discoveries.

Wildlife, from the common to the rare and everything in between, is difficult to predict. Recently, another educator and I led a nighttime bat program in the preserve.

As soon as we got out of our cars, we noticed bats diving over our heads. We had timed this walk right!

We hadn’t even left the parking area and we had already seen bats. We turned on our bat-detecting devices and heard even more. We enjoyed watching these roadside bats for a bit before we headed down the trail.

Along the first field, we heard a few more bats and saw them too. They were big brown bats zooming over our heads, feasting on insects. Bat numbers in New York have decreased dramatically in recent years but on this night we enjoyed watching these flying mammals dart back and forth over our heads.

Whether you are seeing your one-millionth chipmunk or your first endangered Karner blue butterfly, reflect on the fact that you are catching a glimpse of a wild animal in its habitat. In a world of schedules, appointments, and lists, just enjoy that you are catching this animal in the middle of its daily routine.

The next time you are out for a walk, keep your eyes open for all types of wildlife. You might be surprised at what you find.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center, go to our website AlbanyPineBush.org, call 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

Location:

— Photo by Sara Poggi

What story do these snow tunnels tell?

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

Recently, I have been reminded that so much goes on in nature that we never see. If we don’t look closely enough, we miss so much of what is going on around us.

In January, a coworker showed me a spot just in front of the Discovery Center building where a small creature, perhaps a meadow vole, had created a tangled web of tracks and tunnels in the snow. To look at this path, you might think that this had to be the work of a lost or impaired animal.

If you let your mind wander, you might start to consider other animals and then the possibility emerges that this is a path of pursuit. What if there were two voles, not one or a vole being stalked by another animal?

These creatures have, of course, moved on or tunneled down out of sight so we will never know their real story but, if you stand, observe, listen and wonder, you might start to unravel the story.

Take a dead tree in the Pine Bush. On first approach, it seems lifeless and unimportant. Look closer and imagine what animals might visit this tree.

Dead trees are very important as shelter for small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Think even smaller. Insects! Underneath the bark, dead trees are crawling with insects.

Many of these insects will aid in the eventual decomposition of the tree. Trees like all living things die but the process of decomposition returns those nutrients to the soil, encouraging the growth of new trees and other plants.  In the meantime, these insects are a very important food source for many other Pine Bush animals.

Stare at the sand that you are walking on. By this time, you are aware that sand is not just sand. There are plants growing out of this sand and you are actually seeing only a portion of the plants.

Many Pine Bush plants have very deep root systems. Big blue stem, a tall native grass in the Pine Bush, can grow to grow four to eight feet tall. The roots of this plant can grow to be that same length underground! You might be seeing only half of the grass.

An eastern hognose snake could be buried under a layer of sand. Startled, it would perhaps rear its head, like a cobra and then eventually it might change course, mimicking the opossum and play dead.

Deeper down beyond sight could be a spadefoot toad. As the name suggests, these toads have spade-shaped hind feet ideal for digging. They spend most of their time underground not emerging for weeks or even months at a time in dry periods.

On the side of the trail you may notice small pits in the sand. At the bottom of this pit ,just under the sand, the antlion is waiting, jaws ready for a small insect to fall in and become its next meal.

Tracks, too, may cover the sand, telling stories of fox, coyote, deer, and people all walking through the Pine Bush. We aren’t able to observe them all in action but, if we walk, stand still and observe, taking it all in, we just might start to see the things we previously never noticed.

As we enter spring and things thaw and awaken, I encourage you to get out in the Pine Bush and look for tunnels, holes, tracks, dead trees full of life, and all the hidden stories happening around you.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center go to our website at www.AlbanyPineBush.org, call (518) 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

Location:

— Photo by Krishna Hill

Vista rooted in sand: The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is an ocean of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, blueberry, grasses, wildflowers, and pitch pine trees covering rolling sand dunes.

Have you ever heard of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve? Better yet, have you ever visited it? Walked on the trails? Attended an educational program?

If you have never heard of the Pine Bush, I hope to help you come to know a bit more about it through this column. If you have visited before, I hope to point out something new to you, as I share what’s currently happening in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

 “At the beach”: That is the first response that almost everyone gives when I ask people “Where do you usually find sand?”

Of course, I am often asking this as I stand on top of a 75-foot tall sand dune in Albany. We are not at the beach but at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

The next question I usually ask is, “How did this sand get here?”

Answers to this question range from, “You brought it here” to, “The wind blew it here.”

I have written in this column before about how the glacier that covered most of New York State retreated, leaving behind Glacial Lake Albany, which drained, exposing the sand. The wind blew the sand, creating rolling sand dunes and then plants started to grow.

This sand is the foundation of the Albany Pine Bush and in many ways dictates what types of animals and plants live here. The Albany Pine Bush is not on the coast so having a natural community based in sand is very rare.

If you have ever walked on one of our trails, you probably noticed the sand right away. Recently, the sand at the Albany Pine Bush was recognized not only by our visitors but also by the National Park Service.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve was designated as a National Natural Landmark. “What is that?” you might be asking yourself. I had a vague recollection of hearing this term when I lived on the West Coast but wasn’t sure what it meant exactly.

The National Natural Landmark program is managed by the National Park Service and the designation is issued by the Secretary of the Interior to recognize sites that contain outstanding biological and geological features. This does not make the Pine Bush a National Park or change who owns or manages the land.

It does highlight the rarity and significance of this place on the national stage. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark because it is the best example of wind-derived inland sand dune landforms and the inland pine barrens ecosystem within the Appalachian Plateau and Appalachian Ranges.

As you walk up one of the sand dunes you might catch yourself imagining a beach just over the edge. Of course, the beach won’t be there.

Instead, you will see an ocean of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, blueberry, grasses, wildflowers, and pitch pine trees covering rolling sand dunes. You will be standing on very old, very unique sand — sand that is the foundation for the Albany Pine Bush.

So, whether you come to walk our trails to check out the new National Natural Landmark or because this has been one of your favorite places to walk for many years, come and look at the sand and all that it supports.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center, feel free to visit our website at www.AlbanyPineBush.org/, give the commission a call at 456-0655, or stop into the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

— From the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission

An open ecosystem is an important part of the traditional Pine Bush. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, as part of its wildlife restoration work, has begun a project this winter thinning forested areas that block light from reaching lower-growing plants and do not support many of the plants and animals native to the Pine Bush.

Have you ever heard of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve? Better yet, have you ever visited it? Walked on the trails? Attended an educational program?

If you have never heard of the Pine Bush, I hope to help you come to know a bit more about it through this column. If you have visited before, I hope to point out something new to you, as I share what’s currently planned for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

The air is cold and the pitch pine trees with their green needles seem to stand out this time of year as many other trees and bushes stand bare. The pitch pine tree is a very important tree here in the Albany Pine Bush.

The Albany Pine Bush is a globally rare ecosystem known as an inland pine barrens. Inland pine barrens are characterized by an open landscape of shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, and scattered trees, most of them pitch pine.

The Albany Pine Bush is also home to many animals, including the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly. In the last 25 years, 55 species of greatest conservation need in New York State have also been documented in the preserve.

In more recent years, some regions of the preserve have become much more forested with pitch pine and other trees. These forested areas block light from reaching lower-growing plants and do not support many of the plants and animals native to the Pine Bush. Shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals can all be affected when areas become more forested.

Historically, fire maintained this open ecosystem. Fire suppression has drastically changed the landscape in many parts of the preserve.

Past agricultural activities in the area have also impacted the land, allowing a much more dense forest to grow. This not only changes the look of the landscape but it also affects the plants and animals that were historically found here while increasing the chance of tree-top or “crown” wildfires.

As part of The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission’s wildlife habitat restoration work this winter, the commission has begun a tree-thinning project. In 2013, pitch pine and other trees have been marked with paint. During the winter of 2014 –15, trees will be removed.

The concept that a nature preserve would be removing trees can be difficult to understand. However, by removing about 65 percent of the pitch pine trees in the densely forested Madison Avenue Pinelands region of the preserve, the quantity and quality of the pine barrens in the preserve will increase.

What may seem like destruction will actually allow more sunlight to reach the low-growing plants like wildflowers, shrubs and grasses and improve habitat for wildlife. This all contributes to the health of this globally rare inland pitch pine scrub oak barrens.

Though the dense forest in this area will be gone, pitch pine trees are still a very important component of the pine barrens. You will continue to see them scattered among the shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers as you glance over the dunes.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, its Discovery Center, or the pine barrens restoration in the preserve, feel free to visit our website at albanypinebush.org/conservation/tree-thinning, give the commission a call at 456-0655, or stop in to the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

Location:

— Photo from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission

All hands on deck: Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission science staff and volunteers conduct bird research in the Pine Bush Preserve, one of many summertime monitoring activities.

Have you ever heard of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve? Better yet, have you ever visited it? Walked on the trails? Attended an educational program?

If you have never heard of the Pine Bush, I hope to help you come to know a bit more about it through this column. If you have visited before, I hope to point out something new to you, as I share what’s currently happening in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

Summer is a busy time here in the Pine Bush Preserve. Seed collection; Karner blue butterfly surveys; bird banding; visiting camp groups; and Pine Bush Pups, our series of programs for preschool aged children, are just a few of the many projects going on.

Of course, there is a lot of action in the animal world, too. Karner blue butterflies are flying, buckmoth caterpillars are on the move, baby birds are hatching, and wildflowers are blooming. 

If you have read this column before or visited the Pine Bush, you know that it is a unique place. This makes it a great location for a variety of different types of scientific research.

This research by preserve staff and university professors helps us assess the health of this rare ecosystem. It also helps us evaluate the effectiveness of management activities in the preserve, letting us know if a certain technique is working or not. The research also gives us the unique opportunity to include the latest findings in our education programs.

Scientific research is being conducted in the preserve to study animals big and small. Camera traps placed in managed and unmanaged parts of the Pine Bush Preserve help us to see what mammals are active in different areas.

In addition to mammals, there are several different research projects that monitor birds. Prairie warblers are a good indicator of the health of the pitch-pine, scrub-oak barrens, as this is the type of habitat that they breed in.

Two birds, the American woodcock and whip-poor-will, which are active in the evening, are also monitored. The whip-poor-will is of particular interest because, in the past, they were very abundant here but have become much less common in the Pine Bush and throughout much of North America.

Fall bird banding is a chance to document what birds are migrating through the area and MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) is a continent-wide coordinated bird banding effort that monitors breeding-season, landbird populations and helps inform conservation and management efforts.

Insects are another important area of research for the conservation staff here. The endangered Karner blue butterfly is monitored and has shown an increase from a few hundred in 1991 to more than 3,000 in 2012.

In addition to the Karner blue, the buckmoth (a New York State species of special concern), and the frosted elfin (which is threatened in New York State) are monitored.

There are also preliminary plans to reintroduce a butterfly, the regal fritillary, and a dragonfly, the banded bog haunter. The bog haunter specializes on the pine-barrens, vernal ponds, another rare habitat in the preserve.

In addition to all the research involving animals, wetlands are regularly visited to collect information about groundwater. Vegetation surveys are conducted to help determine overall ecosystem health and the suitability of restored habitat for some of our most rare animal species.

Another project is investigating how temperature and humidity change in frost pockets. These low valleys between the dunes are cooler at night than the dune ridges, experiencing repeated frosts well into June; their management may be important to buffering certain wildlife from the expected effects of climate change.

Pitch pine is also being monitored to determine if prescribed fire is adequately stimulating new seedlings. 

As you can see, there is a lot of science going in Pine Bush Preserve. I have only brushed the surface in this article. 

All the research that is done comes back to being able to assess the health of this rare ecosystem as part of our effort to create and manage a preserve that is healthy for many kinds of plant and animals for generations to come.

If you are particularly interested in research in the Pine Bush Preserve, please check out our Science Lecture Series. This is a series of free science talks that occur on the third Thursday of every month.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, the Discovery Center, or scientific research, feel free to check the website: www.AlbanyPineBush.org, give the commission a call at 456-0655, or stop into the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

Location:

Pages