Nature Notes: To Albany and Back

Our destination was the state capital and its museum
An Adirondack guide boat at the New York State Museum in Albany. The museum houses a collection of botanical specimens, some gathered on the East End of Long Island by Roy Latham.

   Last Thursday, Karen Blumer, Vicki Bustamante, and I went north to Albany. After leaving Long Island it was bedrock all the way north along the Hudson River. The advance of the last ice sheet of the Wisconsin glaciation purportedly carved out the river basin that is over a mile wide in some places and stretches a good 200 miles. It is oriented north to south, so it makes sense that a quarter-mile-high glacier coming from Canada would be capable of making such a deep gouge and simultaneously creating the Palisades along the west side. As the northern hemisphere warmed up and the glacier retreated, its melt water filled the cavity, which then flowed south into New York Bay.
    I hadn’t been off Long Island for more than a year and so it was a special treat to plant my feet on solid ground. Whatever happens to Long Island under the coming siege of rising seas, warming atmospheres, and larger and more frequent storms will spare most of New York north of West­chester County. Upstate, the Atlantic Ocean’s tides will reach farther and farther up the river as sea level rises, there will be floodings of numerous rivers and streams, but solid rock formations wash away very, very slowly, not quickly like the sandy soils of which most of Long Island is composed.
    Global warming aside, it was blustery cold, a wind chill that stabbed the body with pain and agony whenever we had to leave one building and go to another.
    Our destination was the state capital and its museum, one of the oldest in the nation, ranking right up there with Philadelphia’s. The museum’s collections started more than 200 years ago, but the historic museum has been replaced by a modern multistory structure that sits on a pedestrian subsurface tiled concourse, which runs for more than a quarter mile under the city and which sports a grand assortment of shops and eateries.
     Most of one entire floor, the fourth, is filled with wall-to-wall cabinets in a maze of steel containing 200,000 pressed plant specimens, some collected as far back as in the early 1800s, and representing all of the state’s many habitats, even those that are now completely urban and suburban, but were once wild. Long Island is well represented. We were looking for plants collected from the East End, particularly the ones collected by one of Long Island’s preeminent naturalists, the late Roy Latham. Whether by motor vehicle, horseback, bicycle, or boat, Mr. Latham roamed the North and South Forks and the islands in between beginning in the early 1900s for a quarter of a century, observing and collecting specimens, everything from unusual fish taken from Peconic Bay pound nets to orchids collected in hidden-away fens on Gardiner’s Island.
    Each pressed plant had a label typed out on a piece of paper, sometimes scraps of paper, by him. The two main repositories for Long Island flora collected early on are the  State Museum in Albany and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Roy Latham was no academician squared away in an ivory tower, his work supported by government grants, he was the last of a breed going all the way back to the ancient Greeks called naturalists. He supported himself and his family by potato farming in Orient. When he wasn’t farming he was out and about studying the flora and fauna. Darwin was a naturalist.
    The ride up and down was just as enriching as the visit to the museum and a side trip to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, where the state’s Natural Heritage Program and its staff of biologists is maintained.  Crossing the Tappan Zee bridge is almost as exciting as crossing San Francisco’s Golden Gate. The river is no stone’s throw across, one wonders how in the days of the Revolutionary War the Americans were able to fabricate a heavy iron chain, long enough to stretch across from one side to the other at West Point, and strong enough to stop British frigates in their tracks.
    Both sides of the Thruway are dressed with native state trees, maples, oaks, poplars, birch, beech, white pines, hickories, tulips. We were passing through the Transitional Conifer-Hardwood forest, the northern extension of the Appalachian forest. There were trees everywhere, some reaching to more than 100 feet high, except where the sides of the roadway were bounded with sheer rock faces, 20 to 75 feet high, and sporting arrays of very long icicles and occasional wire fences to trap boulders should they be loosed from their purchase and otherwise fall to the pavement.
    We counted all of the birds, the few mammals, mostly deer, that we observed, and noted the hundreds and hundreds of patches of roadside phragmites, the genotype from Europe that competed with the native trees. The raptors were the most engaging. It seemed that in just about every mile of travel there was a red-tailed hawk perched on a branch with its whitish breast facing the sun. A few were soaring in circles and one or two dove at something on the shoulder, a mouse or a shrew perhaps.
    For the redtail it’s an easy life, but also a risky one. A couple that tried to feed on the edge of the pavement ­didn’t make it and went in the books as road kills. A few turkey vultures circled overhead and at one point three black vultures went by in a straightish line. The most ubiquitous and abundant birds along the way were, of course, starlings, they were especially abundant around entrances and exits where one could get gas and something to eat.
    Every underpass had its flock of pigeons, a half-dozen to as many as 15.  They were flying or roosting, depending upon their mood. One wonders if all these feral pigeons, immigrants from the Old World, will over the course of many American generations and evolution in the wilds revert to the European wild type and all come to look the same.
    The prized bird species of the trip was the pileated woodpecker, a bird as big as a crow, and one only very rarely seen on Long Island. One flew across from east to west half the way up to Albany. It was only the second one observed during a lifetime of 77 years, at least 65 of which have been spent keeping a sharp eye out for birds.