Nature Notes: A Woodland Spared

The downed tree is a 90-foot-long swamp white oak. Vicki Bustamante Photo

   The weather was springlike on Friday and I had the good fortune of accompanying Howard Reisman and Vicki Bustamante to a Southampton Town preserve that I hadn’t visited since the spring of 1979. At that time the 50 acres or so of wooded bottomland on each side of a meandering stream was in private hands. It was up before the Southampton Town Planning Board as a proposed subdivision with umpteen parcels.
    I was with the Group for America’s South Fork then, specializing in wetlands. I visited the site and found that it was heavily treed and the wetlands had many different rushes, sedges, and ferns, as well as a tall lily, Indian poke, which I had never seen before during my numerous wanderings throughout the South Fork.
    At the time several large subdivisions were being considered in both Southampton and East Hampton and this was one of those sites, almost entirely covered with wetlands. I knew about New York State’s Freshwater Wetlands Act, passed a few years earlier, and so enlisted the aid of two state Environmental Conservation staffers, Charles Hamilton and Charles Bowman, to accompany me for a look-see. As a result of that “site inspection” the wetlands were mapped and the subdivision application withdrawn. The wetlands were among the first on the South Fork to become protected under the act.
    That era was the beginning of a local land development bubble that didn’t­ burst until “Black Monday” of 1989. During that 10-year period about 10,000 acres in Southampton and East Hampton were slated for development. As it turns out, less than 50 percent made it through the review process. The rest was saved and is now public.
    This entire site was now not only preserved, but the Southampton Trails Preservation Society recently plotted out a nice circular trail covering most of it, replete at several points with very small footbridges crossing the meandering stream. Mr. Reisman is a professor emeritus of Southampton College and an active member of the society. He led Vicki and me and abided our many, many stops to look at and photograph this and that plant, this and that tree, this and that lichen-covered glacial erratic.
    It turns out that when walking the site 33 years ago I had missed much of its glory. I had been looking down most of the time, picking out this or that wetland plant, but hadn’t seen the trees for the forest. Ms. Bustamante, however, examined every plant, big or little, with a sharp botanist’s eye. It’s a good thing she came along, because what we realized at the end of ourtwo-mile trek was that we had been walking not only through a mature hardwood bottomland forest, but one that was relictual for the South Fork, as it contained several trees that most of our woodlands don’t have.
    First we came upon yellow birch — they also occur on Gardiner’s Island — with its peeling bark; then hop hornbeam; then witch hazel; a little farther on, shagbark hickory; then swamp white oak, and lastly a very tall sycamore, trunk blotched brown and gray, with only a few prickly fruit balls very high up, one of which had made it to the ground. How many sycamores do you see in the wild on Long Island? Very, very few. Vicki would propagate more of them from that one seedy prickly ball we found.
    There wasn’t much of an understory. A few high-bush blueberries, naptha-smelling spice bush, a few patches of huckleberries and low-bush blueberries, oddly no dogwoods or shadblow. Among the lianas were some venerable fox grape vines three inches around, a few poison ivies, and not one single Asiatic bittersweet. There were a few spots with clumps of invasives, however, including some privet, wineberry, garlic mustard, daffodils, and a touch of phragmites. It’s very hard for invasives to get a toehold in a such a mature forest with such an all-encompassing canopy with very few openings.
    It was too early for ferns and wildflowers to show their stuff, but there was one skunk cabbage ready to bloom at the edge of the stream. There were an uncommon number of glacial erratics of all sizes in a form of boulder train, suggesting that the glacier paused for a longish time on this site while it was retreating to the north.
    Oddly, not a single evergreen tree or shrub was to be seen, although there were more than a few fallen eastern red cedars from a previous age slowly rotting away. Except for two sedges, mosses, and an aquatic liverwort, the only evergreen was the princess pine, not a conifer but one of the club mosses in the genus Lycopodium. There are a few other stands of princess pine on the South Fork, though by and large they are uncommon. Because of the miniature pinelike appearance and tough green needle-covered branches, they were popular in the 1800s and early 1900s at Christmastime; many a princess pine from Long Island woods was plucked from the leaf litter and sold on the streets of New York to be used as ornamentation during the holidays.
    We only saw and heard one bird during the entire two-and-one-half hours it took to traverse the course, a hairy woodpecker. This species used to be the second most common woodpecker after the downy woodpecker, a smaller look-alike, but has largely been replaced by the red-bellied woodpecker from the South.
    Needless to say, we were all very happy that such a near-pristine woodland, serving as the origin of an ancient stream, North Sea’s Millstone Brook, has been spared from the bulldozer’s blade, and should go on to outlive us all while maintaining its historically mint condition.