The Oak-Heath Barrens around Sunset Rock in Taconic State Park in Copake, NY were the destination of an Ecology Walk guided by the Farmscape Ecology Program on June 7, 2015. Here, we share some of the highlights from that walk and provide information that will help others explore this unique and beautiful habitat on their own.
The Oak-Heath Barrens are characterized by low, shrubby vegetation surrounding occasional rocky outcrops. There is no tree canopy, although scattered Red Oak, White Oak, Red Maple, Pitch Pine, Sassafras, Shadbush, and Grey Birch do reach above the shrub layer.
This habitat is called Oak-Heath Barrens for a reason: oaks and members of the heath family (Ericaceae; marked with * in the remainder of this paragraph), feature very prominently. The tallest shrubs, growing above the height of a person, are Scrub Oak, Mountain Laurel*, and Mountain Azalea*, mixed with stunted Red and White Oak. The hip-high shrub layer consists mostly of Black Huckleberry*, Chokeberry, and an occasional Deerberry*. Below that, three species of Lowbush Blueberries (Early*, Late*, and Velvetleaf* Blueberry), Wintergreen*, Trailing Arbutus*, and Bearberry* provide a fairly dense ground cover. For more details, you might want to look into the excellent community guide for Pitch Pine-Oak-Heath Rocky Summit compiled by the New York Natural Heritage Program.
In Columbia County, we find Oak-Heath Barrens almost exclusively located along the Taconic Ridge which extends N-S along the eastern border. Some of the most breath-taking views of the County are from peaks and lookouts on that ridge. However, much of the ridge remains forested and the lookouts are a rare treat to be reached only by walking through the dense, low forest that covers most of the ridge. Fortunately, a significant portion of the Taconic Ridge is protected from development.
There are several ways to access Sunset Rock and the surrounding Oak-Heath Barrens. Our group took the easiest way: drive up Sunset Rock Road in Copake, park at one of several small parking areas near the crest of the road, and follow one of the two foot paths which will merge into the South Taconic Trail continuing south along the ridge. Alternatively, one can park at the Taconic State Park headquarters in Copake Falls and hike up the trail behind the camp ground. Most adventurous, but also most interesting, is the Cedar Brook Trail, which starts just across the road from the main parking lot for Bash Bish Falls.
Above map is just a rough sketch of the approximate route of the trails. An excellent hiking map for the South Taconic Trails (which includes other trail options in Taconic State Park) can be purchased for $ 6.95 from the New Jersey – New York Trail Conference.
However you find your way, you have to be prepared to walk through some forested areas before reaching the barrens and their occasional lookouts.
South of Sunset Rock is Cedar Mountain, whose south slope can be reached by bush-whacking and provides a breath-taking view of Mt. Alander, located south of Bash Bish Gorge.
The warm and dry southern slopes along the Taconic Ridge tend to be covered by a low and open Oak Woodland.
However, during our walk, we only explored the trail between Sunset Rock Road and Sunset Rock. It was lined with Pink Lady’s Slippers in full bloom. Although this is our most common native orchid in the County, it only occurs in a few places, mostly in the eastern part. Orchids have a delicate symbiosis with soil fungi. That is why they don’t disperse easily and tend not to survive attempts at transplanting. Please enjoy them in their natural environment and leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy!
Occasionally, we spied a Mountain Azalea (or Pinkster)* bush that still had a few blossoms. Their peak bloom is usually in late May.
In Columbia County, we have two species of pink-flowering Azaleas. The Azaleas around Sunset Rock are Rhododendron prinophyllum, recognizable by a combination of characters: gland-tipped, sticky hairs on the flower stalk; corolla lobes approx. as long as the corolla tube; style not much longer than the stamens; leaves quite hairy below; and, finally, the heavenly perfume of the flowers!
Another pink beauty, flowering 3-4 weeks after the Azalea, is the Mountain Laurel, which was just starting to open some of its spectacular flowers. We expect them to be in full bloom the third week of June.
Not as common, but beautiful in their delicate way are the open bell-shaped flowers of Deer- or Squawberry, a type of blueberry that grows relatively tall and produces edible, but dryish and not very tasty fruits.
Along the path in to Sunset Rock, Conrad caught this Lilypad Clubtail dragonfly.
Reading up on this species, we learned that it lives around ponds and lakes with lilypads or other floating vegetation. What was it doing up on the hill with no water in sight? Dragonflies, like some other insects, are known to “hilltop”, i.e., fly up to the top of a hill and hover around, often in swarms. It has been suggested that this is part of their strategy to find mates (e.g., ‘let’s rendezvous at the top of the hill’) and might be a behavior that makes it easier for individuals of a relatively scarce species to find each other….
Back to plants:
Always growing right next to bare rock, we found the Three-toothed Cinquefoil, a plant which in Columbia County exclusively occurs in open areas along the Taconic Ridge.
Another plant which we regularly find on the Taconic Ridge, but rarely see elsewhere in the County, is the semi-parasitic Bastard Toadflax. Its roots tap into the roots of other plants and steal nutrients. It has been shown to parasitize a wide range of species (more than 200!) including blueberries, asters, birches and maples, as well as grasses. However, it has green leaves and is perfectly able to photosynthesize.
A very exciting find was this little plant with a single whorl of parallel-veined leaves.
When I first saw it, I thought is was a young individual of Indian Cucumber Root (pictured below in its older, two-whorled stage), which can currently be seen in great numbers along the road leading up Harvey Mountain.
Indian Cucumber Root has the same parallel-veined leaves as the plant we observed on the trail to Sunset Rock, but it produces small, very symmetrical, three-parted flowers that dangle from the second whorl of leaves and place it squarely in the lily family.
The whorled-leaf plant we observed on the way to Sunset Rock, would have looked similar to the one pictured below a few weeks ago, which is a Large Whorled Pogonia. If you scroll back up, you can actually see the remains of the flower shriveled up on top of the leaves. The Large Whorled Pogonia is a very rare orchid in the region and had not been documented in Columbia County for more than a century. It was recently discovered and brought to our attention by David Lewis and Ellen Winner. Last year, we located the small colony near Sunset Rock, and now know that this species occurs at a few locations in Taconic State Park, but have not seen it anywhere else in the County.
Last year, one of the plants on the side of the trail to Sunset Rock was starting to develop its seed capsule.
Should you ever come across plants of this species anywhere else in Columbia County, we would love to hear where else it grows! According to my orchid book, Large Whorled Pogonia tend to occur in the same places as Pink Lady’s Slippers…
Please share your find with firstname.lastname@example.org and attach a picture.
However, be aware that there is another plant with a similar single whorl of leaves, the Starflower. A careful examination of the vein patterns in the leaves can avoid confusion. Starflower has pinnate veins, which means there is a main vein that runs along the middle of the leaf and secondary veins which emerge from the main vein in a feather-like pattern. Large Whorled Pogonia has several main veins running parallel from leaf base to tip, like other orchids (and lilies and grasses, etc.).
And do keep in mind its very confusing look-alike, Indian Cucumber-root! Whenever you see a colony of whorled-leaf plants where some have a single-tiered whorl and some have a double tier, then you are most likely looking at Indian Cucumber-root – Whorled Pogonia is never double-tiered.
Probably the most puzzling observation we made during our walk was that of a Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry. Note the perfectly normal Huckleberry flowers in the top left corner of the image.
None of the walk participants had ever seen such a thing and we could only guess that something quite abnormal was going on here… Upon closer examination, the strange growth really did look like a blown-up flower, complete with 5 sepals, a 5-lobed urn-shaped corolla, 10 stamens encircling the central pistil. We made sure to document this phenomenon with a series of photos and, back home, researched the internet for ideas. We concluded that these flower galls were probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii, also known as the “Azalea Leaf & Flower Gall”. However, we are no fungi experts and if somebody has a different insight, we’d love to hear about it!
The most curious thing is that, supposedly, the same fungus is the cause of the huge but irregularly shaped galls commonly found on Pinkster…
Finally, we came across several small dead or dying trees, surrounded by a ring of fresh root shoots. They were the ghosts of once stately American Chestnut trees which used to be an important component of many forests around here. In the early 20th century, Chestnut Blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), another fungal disease, was accidentally introduced to this continent and has basically wiped out large, seed-bearing Chestnut trees. The roots from trees that died a century ago persist in the ground and keep sprouting hopeful new shoots, which tend to grow into small trees, but usually succumb to the blight before they can flower and set seed. They then repeat the cycle of hopeful new shoots once more…
Conrad is wondering, what this significant change of a former common canopy tree to an occasional shrub in the understory might have meant for the native insect life that had evolved to live on American Chestnut. We can imagine that the lack of chestnuts in the fall meant a loss to Blue Jays, Black Bear, Turkey, Deer, squirrels and mice. But who else might be missing the leaves or plant juices of American Chestnut? How many little creatures who depended on this tree have been significantly reduced in numbers or gone extinct due to the Chestnut Blight? We may never know…
Are the insects we now find feeding on American Chestnut sap or leaves specialists dependent on the remaining surviving Chestnut plants, or are they generalists who feed on a variety of trees and just so happened to be feeding on a Chestnut???
Such are the little ponderings we bring home from our walks.
But we were happy to see the Pink Lady’s Slippers holding their ground along the Taconic Ridge. And we hope that many more generations of nature lovers will be able to enjoy them along the South Taconic Trail.