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Lingzhi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) in Sunnyside, Queens. Photo by Erik Baard.

Shoppers at the Sunnyside Greenmarket in Queens last weekend scooped up fresh regional produce yet sidestepped the prized Ganoderma lucidum mushroom growing at their feet.  This medicinal mushroom, more popularly known by Chinese and Japanese names, Lingzhi or Reishi respectively, is also indigenous to our region. You can find it at the base of common hardwoods filling our parks and lining our streets.

Identification of this fungus is easy — the upper fruiting body is often kidney shaped and is remarkable for looking glazed. Indeed, while Asian names reference divinity and immortality, the western scientific name derives from Greek and Latin roots for “shining bright skin. ” Apparently no one has studied the evolutionary advantage of the Ganoderma lucidum’s sheen.

This mushroom isn’t eaten because it’s bitter and tough, with a texture “like balsa wood or hard cardboard,” said Dr. Kathie T. Hodge, Associate Professor of Mycology and Director of the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium.  This mushroom comes into the kitchen is as a powder that some people mix with coffee, or use to wholly replace coffee. Whether powdered or extracted by boiling or alcohol, it’s consumed for believed health benefits.  Research into these potential benefits continues, but traditional uses include fighting tumors and viral infections, and generally boosting the immune system. The “red reishi” variety is considered more potent than the black.

Red reishi from below. Photo by “Wildman” Steve Brill (http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/).

Is your curiosity is piqued? Harvest. “It will die this fall, so if you want to hack it off, now is the time,” said Hodge. Under the section of the fruiting body that looks glazed is a duller white section riddled with tiny pores. These pores release spores, which are carried by the wind. Once that’s complete, this whole upper section rots off, often consumed by a green mold. “If you find it green, it’s too old. Don’t use it,” Hodge cautioned. This mushroom is also consumed by some rather specifically adapted beetles, both beautiful and bizarre. Their presence might quash some human appetites.

Megalodacne fungus eating beetles. Photo by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Bolitotherus cornutus fungus beetles. Photos by Kathie Hodge, Cornell University.

Foraging mushrooms can be dangerous, especially from urban tree pits. It’s best to go with an experienced forager to a natural area or to take a class, such as those taught by Gary Lincoff, author of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and a New York Botanical Garden instructor. Or, Lincoff noted, it’s “sold in Chinatown.” Organic red reishi mushrooms are also sold at health food stores and online.

If you’re a determined forager finding only mushrooms that have gone green, don’t fret. They will grow back next year. Deep in the tree bark and roots is the mycelium — the complex base of the mushroom — ready to regrow a fruiting section next year. And check the maples, oaks, beech, sycamore, cherry, and birch trees in the vicinity. When spores land in a tree wound they take root and grow into new mycelia that then also fruit. The downside to Ganoderma lucidum  is that its feeding on lignan, a plant compound, weakens trees. Hodge cited research pointing to a 30-year life span for red oaks with this mushroom, but noted that the stresses of an urban environment might hasten a tree’s demise. The death blow is very likely to be a windstorm toppling the enfeebled tree. One interesting note is that many of the antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic benefits of Ganoderma lucidum are also attributed to lignans themselves.

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//www.wildmanstevebrill.com).

Ginkgo leaf and nut. Photo by

On November 9 we will have our first social outings as a Nature Calendar community. In the morning we will hunt for fossils with paleontologist Carl Mehling as he concludes his private quest to find fossils (native or transported by glaciers) in all five boroughs. He’s scored fossils in the four other boroughs from periods as early as 300-million years ago up to a mere 12,000 years old. In the evening we will feast on dishes made from ginkgo nuts (photo above by “Wildman” Steve Brill). This species has thrived on earth since before the dinosaurs and each tree can live up to a thousand years.

Each activity will have limited space, and each participant must be individually responsible. There’s no dollar fee for entry. You earn your way as a participant. In the morning, we’ll expect you to poke around in the cold weather for odd and promising stones, or to assist in ways Carl determines necessary. The dinner is a potluck, so show up with a ginkgo delight! You can cheat and use store-bought ginkgo nuts if you must, but foraging is FUN!

Devonian Epoch fossils by the Illinois State Geological Association.

Devonian Epoch fossils by the Illinois State Geological Association.

FOSSIL HUNT!

We’ll announce the meeting and hunting locations to participants. Just dress to walk through mud, beach comb, and climb hillsides. We plan to start early in the morning.

GINKGO NUT POT-LUCK DINNER!

The first social gathering of http://www.NatureCalendar.com will celebrate one of our most under-appreciated street trees, the ginkgo, by having a ginkgo nut pot luck dinner! Go out this week (the season is ending fast!) to gather nuts and then incorporate them into your favorite recipes!

Here are a few recipes:

http://www.ginkgo-wellness.de/recipes/index.html

http://nourish-me.blogspot.com/2008/05/gingko-nut-custards.html

http://www.recipezaar.com/library/getentry.zsp?id=838

We expect that the party will be near Prospect Park. Seating is limited, so please RSVP and gather your gingko nuts! Follow the smell of the pungent fruits. They are in many larger parks and on streets throughout the city.

We hope to expand to larger pot luck foraging parties in cooperation with our friend, Wildman Steve Brill (his photo of the nut and leaf here), our city’s most acclaimed forager. Be sure to check his page (scroll down) for ginkgo foraging tips:

http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Clippings.folder/FreeLunch.html

Be sure to either prepare your nuts early or seal them away! Roommates and spouses not in on ginkgomania won’t appreciate the fragrance.

Some more information about gingkos:

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/29/answers-about-nature-in-new-york-part-3/

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Hi All!

NYC’s greenest restaurant, Habana Outpost, is hosting a “Winter Warm Up” talk and happy hour. Learn about Prospect Park and the Audubon Center while mixing with fun and friendly teachers. Oh yeah, and enjoy Habana Outpost’s delicious food, party atmosphere, and ecological model before it shuts on Oct 31!

More info through this link:

http://habanaworks.org/

And read the details below!

I hope to see you there!

Erik

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Event Info
Host:
Type:
Network:
Global
Time and Place
Date:
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Time:
5:00pm – 7:00pm
Location:
Habana Outpost
Street:
757 Fulton Street
City/Town:
Brooklyn, NY
Contact Info
Phone:
7189095580
Email:

Description

Next Winter Warm Up: Prospect Park Alliance!

The happy hour for teachers continues…with a presentation from our neighbors in Prospect Park about their Audubon Center!

Here are the details from our series calendar:
“Located in the historic Boathouse, the Prospect Park Audubon Center is a unique place where talented Park staff challenge students to actively explore the natural world around them. Audubon Center staff teach by asking questions, engaging students, and exploring Prospect Park’s 585 acres of meadows, ponds, waterfalls, and woodlands. All Programs at the Audubon Center support New York State Learning Standards and New York City Performance Standards to promote student achievement in science, math, and language arts. Our programs offer exciting learning opportunities for each season, to complement any environment- or science-based curricula. Programmatic themes for Nature and Science include: Birding, Meadow, Winter, Water, Soil, and Forest.”

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Alchemy at Gowanus Studio Space.

Alchemy at Gowanus Studio Space.

TONIGHT: Free admission to a party of environmentalists and art lovers!

Beer by Kelso of Brooklyn!

DJ Dave “Roosting Box” Nardone!

What’s all the fuss about?

Well, sometimes hardened urbanites think that it would take green alchemy to create habitat on our mean streets. The good folks at the Gowanus Studio Space in Brooklyn (119 8th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Subway: F or G to Smith/9th St. or F, M or R to 4th Ave./9th St.) have conjured just that, featuring reclamation artist Atom Cianfarani’s guerilla habitat restoration, “Suspended Nurseries” and “For the Birds.”

The Alchemy show focuses on how discarded commodities can be reused to investigate our relationship with nature, and perhaps even benefit it. “Suspended Nurseries” and “For the Birds” make use of our waste and ignored resources like rainwater to quietly overlay our city’s hardscape with sustaining ecological niches. Native species rejoice!

And you too!

Poke around these websites for directions and more information:

http://www.gowanusstudio.org/

http://www.atomsdream.com

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Summer daylight and heat cycle by USA Today

 

 

by Erik Baard

 

A kid waiting to kayak at the Clearwater Festival last Solstice weekend asked me, “If this is the longest day of the year, then why isn’t it the hottest?” It’s a logical question, and I guess a common one. The incomparable Joe Rao addressed it in his New York Times astronomy blurb last week, and USA Today explored the question as well. The graphic above comes from USA Today.

 

In short, if Earth lacked an atmosphere, then surface temperature, apart from heat retained by rocks, would correlate with sun exposure. But our relatively stable atmosphere slowly and steadily receives energy from sunlight over the course of the spring and summer, as days lengthen. That energy, which we feel as heat, builds higher and higher until reaching its peak in July and early August.

 

I suppose an economist might call day length a leading indicator of summer, whereas as temperature is a lagging indicator. Swimmers and boaters (who are perpetually potential swimmers) know that this phenomenon of delay is even more pronounced with water temperatures.

 

Of course both air and water move around, so there’s a good bit of chaos and complexity to the fluid dynamics that make for summer weather and those late night skinny dips in open water that feel as warm as a bathtub. But the principle of heat retention is a far more powerful truth than its exceptions.

 

I’m also reminded of my good friend, David Grinspoon (with whom, for the record, I’ve never skinny-dipped), who joined us with comments about the Orion Nebula for the very first essay on Nature Calendar. He’s an astrobiologist (with an Earthly incarnation as a rhythm guitarist) with prestigious Mars and Venus robotic probe science assignments from both NASA and the European Space Agency, and serves as the curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. He’s devoted much of his career to the planet Venus. He notes that if there was intelligent groundling life on Venus, it won’t see dominant temperature zones as we see them, corresponding to latitude, but instead look skyward to temperate altitudes. This is because Venus has an atmosphere that’s so dense, and therefore conductive, that heat overloads long ago seeped across all geographic areas. The surface is now isothermic, meaning that temperatures at the poles and the equator are the same. It’s gotten so hot there, due to a greenhouse effect gone into overdrive, that David postulates Venusian life would prefer a cloud habitat

 

Of course, our cities perversely punish themselves, with air conditioners dumping extra heat into the dense local ecosystem through their exhaust, building electrical wires, regional transmission lines, and the power plants required to power them. Makes you wonder if there’s intelligent life on Earth.

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View from Fresh Kills South Hill. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

by Erik Baard

 

Not so many years ago, if you told people that you were getting up early on Saturday morning to rush over to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, they would have thought you were crazy or a highly-paid union worker. Today, a few savvy folks might peg you for a naturalist.

 

The world’s largest dump (actually, the world’s largest manmade structure, of sorts, in that it exceeded the volume of the Great Wall of China) is quietly transforming into the city’s second largest park, after Pelham Bay Park. You can witness the process yourself by signing up for a free tour now through November through this link. Don’t fret the competition to get a ticket – the tour I joined this weekend wasn’t booked up. Besides, you have, oh, a few more years of chances. The park officially opens in 2036.

 

 

My friend Emmanuel Fuentebella and I hit the road early, biking from LIC to South Ferry in 35 minutes. At the St. George ferry terminal on Staten Island we were picked up by a mini-bus operated by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation along with 11 other guests (many of whom were NYC Audubon affiliates and Audubon Society members). Our guide was Christina Somma Berrocal, a NYC Urban Park Ranger. We started learning about the site before we even arrived, as Somma Berrocal pulled out a cardboard cross-section of a trash mound (the site has four large ones, ranging between 140′ and 200′ tall), with a garbage core covered by layers of fresh sand, soil, topsoil and plantings.

 

 

Fresh Kills Vision by NYC Parks.

 

 

Perhaps the most critical component is also the thinnest and toughest, an “impermeable geomembrane.” That rugged black tarp is what stands between 2036’s gorgeous recreation area and wilderness preserve above (in the computer rendering immediately above) and frightening contamination. Tree plantings must be chosen carefully to exclude deep vertical roots systems, Somma Berrocal explained, to avoid any puncture risk.

 

At the moment the trash is being digested by microbes, which will actually cause the mounds to shrink a bit. But not before they’ve earned their keep! The methane (“natural gas” in daily parlance), organic chemicals, and carbon dioxide produced are tapped via long pipe networks (see the methane taps in the foreground of the above photo by Emmanuel). The natural gas is purified and sold to Keyspan (now part of National Grid), which in turn sells it to heat up to 10,000 homes at a time. I can imagine a “green” dry cleaner using the CO2 to spiff up designer suits for the local gentry.

 

Less immediately marketable is the leachate goo that landfills produce when water jazzes up microbial and fungal activity. That’s dried and shipped out to another landfill in West Virginia. As a side note, the five boroughs now send trash to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Remember, the primary insight of environmentalism is that when things are thrown away, there is no “away.”

 

 

A few times we caught a whiff of something not-so-fresh at the North Mound of Fresh Kills. “It smells like badly burned bacon,” remarked fellow-traveler Melody. But those moments were truly the exception, and a useful reminder of the admirable audacity of the endeavor.

 

 

View from the North Mound of Fresh Kills. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

There’s plenty of encouragement from nature, however. Emmanuel snapped some wonderful photos contrasting the Manhattan skyline with the landscape rolling out from the North and South Mounds. To start, only 45% of the 2,200-acre site was actually used for garbage piles. The rest is composed of wetlands, creeks, and grasslands rich with wildflowers. Black locust and cottonwood trees are shading lowlands.

 

South Mound wildflowers. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

Before our vehicle even stopped, we saw an enormous turkey vulture aloft over the former wastelands. At the North Mound we were dazzled by the wheeling figures of two osprey silhouetted against a cloud-dappled sky. One of our group, Annie, identified them even at that height by the finger-like feather pattern at their wing tips.

 

 

Osprey gliding. Photo by Emmanuel Fuentebella.

 

 

 

As the trip unfolded there were treated to sightings of egrets, cormorants, an oriole, mallard ducks in a fresh water collect (where I imagine there might also be snapping turtles), and a zigzagging barn swallow. Opal, Meloday’s daughter, explained that the erratic “kamikaze” flight pattern meant it was feeding on insects in flight.

 

 

My biggest thrill was spotting a sharp shinned hawk. In truth, I wavered between that identification and calling it a Coopers Hawk and was clueless either way; I was playing the odds. The juveniles of both species look quite similar, being a dab brown, and it was Opal who sorted it out. Adults are easier to distinguish, and some birders call lanky Coopers Hawks “flying crosses” while sharp shinned hawks are “flying mallets.”

 

 

Blue herons and killdeer are also reliable finds, Somma Berrocal said. The killdeer often lay eggs on the infrequently traveled gravel paths, because their speckled eggs blend so well, she added.

 

We didn’t see deer but Somma Berrocal informed that over 200 of the species now on Staten Island. I imagined them sneaking across the Outerbridge Crossing or graceful Bayonne Bridge, but she stunned me by telling us that the deer swam to the island from New Jersey. How brave and hungry must a deer be to stealthily swim tidal waters plied by oil barges?

 

Curious humans aren’t yet permitted to visit the site by boat, but rowers and paddlers should seek the site’s inclusion in the NYC Water Trail. It would make a wonderful destination, even if for specially arranged tours (as with our landside excursion). And an early dialog might help prevent some well-intention mistakes from being implements, such as the large, artificial launch conceived for Fresh Kills (NYC Parks’ computer generated image below). A soft shoreline, even if created with deposited sand, would be safer, more pleasant, and ecologically friendlier.

 

Fresh Kills kayak launched envisioned by NYC Parks.

 

 

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Black crappie. Credit NYC DEC. 

by Erik Baard

 

This unfortunately named cousin of more celebrated sunfishes might want you to know that its name is derived from “crapet,” a word in the Quebecois dialect of French referring to species of the family Centrarchidae.

 

If I had my way, I’d just entirely rename the species as black scrappie, because you can’t have more moxie than this: one of its chief foods is the young of its own predators, such as northern pike and walleye. That’s right, “You gonna try’n eat me? Well, watch me eat your baby first!”

 

They also eat insects, crustaceans, and zooplankton.

 

If you plan to feast on crappies (apparently that’s more delicious than it sounds), you’ll have to venture outside of NYC. While Kissena Lake, Wolfe’s Pond, Silver Lake, Clove Lake, Prospect Park Lake, Van Cortlandt Lake, and other local freshwater bodies abound with this species, they are governed by “no kill,” catch and release policies. Use either plastic lures or live minnows, and seasoned anglers recommend “spider rigging,” that is arraying fishing poles in a spoke pattern from a single spot. Specialized hooks prevent damage to the fish.

 

Enjoy discovering this crepuscular species (seen in a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation image above) at dawn or dusk when they emerge from marsh grass areas, weed beds, or from under sunken logs and rocky ledges. They’re active all year long, even under a cover of ice (ice fishers love them), but start congregating and spawning in vegetative beds when temperatures reach over 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That means this is a prime time to reel in a crappie. 

 

And remember, no laughing at their name. At least not while they’re dangling above the water surface and can hear you.

 

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Chestnut or buckeye flowers in Central Park. Photo by Hubert Steed.

 

by Erik Baard

 

I have yet to find a woman who’d swoon for buckeye tree flowers before roses, which is probably for the best – better to leave them on the tree. Besides, I can imagine a wood nymph waiting all year for these enormous floral geysers to awaken in parks throughout the city.

 

Some have compared this tree in bloom to a king in full regalia, but I recall once coming upon a young specimen and thought immediately of St. Lucia. Legend has it that she wore a wreath with candles so that she could have both hands free to carry food to Christians hiding in the darkness of the catacombs.

 

The tree gets its name from its equally impressive autumn fruit, which looks like a buck’s brown eye. They were once so prevalent across Ohio’s moist prairie bottoms that a state nickname was born.

 

But back to spring. The spectacle of these flowers is enthralling on all scales. The tree is decked out from bottom to top, which can soar to 90’ in some of the two-dozen species (including Eurasian “horse chestnut” Aesculus genus cousins). The flowers spiral upward in cones that burst with individual beauty. The flowers themselves are white at first glance, but closer viewing is rewarded with little candy drops of yellow, red, and sometimes orange. Look carefully Hubert Steed’s serene photo above of a Central Park buckeye a moment before full bloom to appreciate them.

 

You’ll notice in the photo, by the way, that a bee is busy at work. That’s a handy reminder to check our coming weekly WildWire post, or scroll down to the “Plight of the Bumble Bee” entry, to learn how you can be part of Bee Watchers 2008!

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Glossy ibis in the Bronx River. Photo by Ted Gruber.

By Erik Baard

Up to a point, I love being ignorant. As an aspiring urban naturalist, I am frequently discovering my hometown’s exoticism. I had one such moment on Saturday, as I paddled up the Bronx River with a boathouse volunteer to help with the Amazing Bronx River Flotilla.

 

Stroke by stroke we left the west bank of the Bronx River mouth’s grocery store distributor truck lots, warehouse construction, and the old sanitation pier further behind. Retaining walls ended and broad mudflats footed the green, landfilled uplands of Soundview Park. Brilliant white birds stole our attention first – three great egrets and two large mute swans. But after that rush subsided, I noticed the smaller wader silhouetted above (photo by Ted Gruber) and was awed. It was an ambassador from ancient Egypt.

 

The first time I came across the hooked-bill face of an ibis, it had a human body and was busy teaching Isis spells to resurrect the dismembered Osiris. This was a depiction of the Egyptian god of wisdom, magic, and measurement. He derived his name, Djehuty, as well as visage, from the ibis. He is also credited with inventing writing, and Egyptian scribes often owned depictions of ibises. We more commonly know Djehuty through the Greeks as Thoth. That distinct bill (great for snatching up crustacens, snakes, and invertebrates) stirred Egyptian imaginations further, and they associated the bird, and Djehuty, with the similarly shaped crescent moon. The god is usually attended by a baboon (which is also an occasional incarnation), as Egyptians noticed how that primate seemed to howl at the moon.

 

As I read those enchanting stories, encountering a living descendent in the South Bronx was nowhere in my thoughts.

 

During the winter I’d flipped past the ibis in an Audubon Society guide, not having much faith in seeing one. Despite a population surge in the mid-twentieth century, it’s now listed as a species “of greatest conservation concern” in New York. Still, a dedicated birder can count on spotting them in our parts from spring through autumn (they winter in the Deep South); this absolutely breathtaking photo offers a closer look at a glossy ibis in Jamaica Bay, with its breeding plumage, rusty and iridescent green like a dogbane beetle.

But for all its ancient pedigree, the glossy ibis is a newcomer to America. Most scientists believe it arrived in the late 19th century. Now you might ask, “If it’s invasive, why would the Audubon Society be worried about it? Shouldn’t the organization be working to curtail it so that native shorebirds can survive?”

Well, this is partly because the glossy ibis seems to have arrived naturally, swept across the Atlantic Ocean by a hurricane as it migrated between Africa and Europe (this still happens today). And today it’s habitat is threatened by pollution and wetlands draining throughout its current range, even North Africa. Our continent is home to 21,000 ibises, about one percent of the global total, but we could end up serving as a global gene bank for the species.

 

Or maybe there’s an environmental grant waiting for a revival of the Egyptian solution to species preservation: Temple priests raised the birds in captivity so skillfully that archeologists have uncovered millions of ibis remains…sacrificed and mummified. Or not.

But the next time I see the moon at a crescent sliver, I will see ibis-headed Djehuty and smile knowing I once glided alongside him. I will hope, as a minor scribe, that I have honored him.

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Editor’s introductory note: When the full website for Nature Calendar launches this summer, we will feature a special section, and hopefully a podcast, called “Nature Walks With Sheila Buff,” to take readers by the hand through some of the best green escapes in our metropolitan region. During our blog startup phase we will feature periodic entries of Sheila’s wonderful work, much of which originally appeared as chapters of her now out-of-print gem called Nature Walks In and Around New York City, published in 1996 by Appalachian Mountain Club Books. The author, parks authorities, and Nature Calendar, and parks have updated the materials for your enjoyment and use today.

pheasantclaypitpond.jpg

Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve

By Sheila Buff

Staten Island
Length: 1 mile
Duration: About an hour
Difficulty Level: Easy

Ponds, meadows, sand barrens, bogs, woodlands, and marshes–all in one place.

Most New Yorkers think of Staten Island, the city’s least populous borough, as nothing but ugly strip malls and execrable residential architecture–a place to be passed through on the way elsewhere, if visited at all. A visit to Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, however, shows another side of Staten Island, one that recalls its rural past as a place of small farms and early industry. The preserve consists of a 260-acre natural area near the southwest shore of the island. It was established in 1977 as a result of community efforts to preserve its unique ecological and historic interest; today, it is New York City’s only state park preserve. About 90 acres of the park are designated as state freshwater wetlands; 70 more acres are designated as a state unique natural area. Most of these designated areas are in the northern half of the park (north of Clay Pit Road) and are closed to visitors. Even so, there’s still plenty to see.

Clay Pit Ponds is geologically quite interesting. Sand and clays deposited during the Cretaceous period, some 70 million years ago, are overlain by much more recent glacial deposits that are only 12,000 years old. The mixed underlying geology creates a variety of different soil types, and this in turn provides the park with an interesting mixture of habitats. Ponds, meadows, sandy barrens, bogs, woodlands, and swamps are all found within the preserve’s borders. The park is particularly noted for the amphibians and reptiles found in it. Among the crawly creatures you could glimpse here are northern black racer snakes, box turtles, Fowler’s toads, green frogs, spring peepers, red-backed salamanders, and fence lizards. More than 170 bird species have been spotted here, and 40 species–including ospreys and indigo buntings–are known to breed in the park. The mixed habitat also leads to a wide range of plant life. Trees found here range from the weedy gray birch to the stately white oak.

There are two interesting but short walking trails at Clay Pit Ponds. The walk described here combines them, but even so it is still no more than a very easy mile, making this a particularly good place to bring children. Numerous bridges and boardwalks take you over the wet areas, and most the walk is through one of the designated unique areas.

Start your walk on the Abraham’s Pond Trail. Look for the round blue plastic markers and the sign just to the right of the picnic area behind park headquarters. After passing through a garden area with a beehive and weather station, follow the trail as it goes into the brush. In a few minutes you’ll come to steps leading down to a bridge over a stream. Note the sandy soil and abundance of cat brier here. Also called green brier or smilax, cat brier is green-stemmed, woody vine with tendrils, sharp thorns, and large leaves. In the late fall and winter it bears clusters of blue-black berries. The dense, thorny tangles of cat brier provide year-round shelter for birds (ring necked pheasant in photo above by New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation) and mammals, and the berries are an important food for them.

As you cross the bridge, note the numerous ailanthus trees growing on both sides of the ravine. Look for thin branches with anywhere from ten to 40 alternate leaves; the leaves give off an unpleasant odor when crushed. The bark is gray-brown with narrow, light-colored grooves. This weedy, very hardy tree, also called tree of heaven, is an invasive species imported to the United States in the 1750s. The ailanthus is the most rapidly growing woody plant found in the northeast. It can grow 12 inches a year in even the poorest of soils, is immune to air pollution, and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Follow the trail past the bridge for a few minutes as it leads through more cat brier. Look here for sassafras saplings (Sassafras albidum) rising up through the thicket. This plant is easy to identify because its leaves have three different shapes. Some leaves are oval, others are mitten-shaped with a distinct thumb, and still others have three lobes. In the winter, you can spot a sassafras by the large buds at the ends of bright green twigs. Sassafras bears blue-black berries that are a valuable wildlife food.

The trail soon comes out into a large, open field covered with wildflowers. This area was once a pasture (for the mules used in the clay-mining operation?) and is now a meadow filled with wild flowers, blackberries, and thistles. This is a good place to look for white-throated sparrows. Follow the trail as it skirts the meadow over a small bridge and then takes you to a long boardwalk. Just past the boardwalk, the trail forks. Bear right and walk along a sandy trail to a large, open area. This is a little patch of pine barrens–dry and sandy, with stunted trees. The abundant undergrowth of cat brier and blueberries is an ideal habitat for the fence lizard. At one time fence lizards may have been native to the area, since they are also found in the pine barrens of New Jersey, but the ones found here today are probably descendants of those deliberately released on Staten Island in the 1940s to create a new population. The fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) is about five to six inches long. It is a brownish color with spiny scales and dark, wavy crossbands; males have blue patches on their undersides. It gets its name from its habit of scampering along fence rails (or fallen logs) as it searches for insects. If you sit quietly in this part of the park on a sunny summer day, you may spot one.

From here, the path leads downhill past an enormous, gnarled old beech tree to Abraham’s Pond. As you walk, note how the sandy trail gives way to harder, rockier soil. You’ll see plants that look a bit like pine seedlings growing on the slope leading down to the pond. In fact, these are horsetail, the only living survivor of a long line of primitive plants. Gritty particles of silica are found in grooves on the outer surfaces of the plant, which makes this plant an excellent natural scrub brush. The path leads you to a wooden observation platform overlooking Abraham’s Pond. This pond and another large pond in the restricted section of the preserve are former clay pits. Starting in the early 1800s, these deposits of white kaolin clay were mined for use in brick-making, paints, and dyes. By the 1920s, however, demand for kaolin had dropped off and the clay pits were abandoned. Natural springs and rainfall soon filled the pits with water; vegetation and wildlife quickly followed. Today, nearly a hundred years later, the pond is edged with cattails and phragmites; the surface is covered with yellow water lilies in the summer. Red-winged blackbirds nest among the cattails and muskrats open paths through the reeds. In the summer, look for painted turtles basking on rocks and logs.

From the observation platform, the path leads on to a bridge over a slow-moving stream (it may be dry in the summer). Just after the bridge is a T intersection. Turn right and follow the yellow markers for the Ellis Swamp Trail. In a few minutes another bridge takes you over a natural spring lined with cinnamon ferns and mosses; note how the spring drains into a swampy area. As you walk on, a few more minutes brings you to a small, open, sandy area. Continue along the trail until you come to a set of steps leading off to the right. Follow them to a bridge that takes you over another swampy area full of ferns, red maple, and phragmites. As you continue to follow the path, bridges and boardwalks take you over the wet parts and protect the fragile mosses, ferns, and other vegetation from trampling. In about ten minutes, you will climb a small, wooded hill. The trail curves to the left and takes you back down the hill. From here, it rejoins the main path and you will retrace your steps nearly back to Abraham’s Pond. When you notice both yellow and blue trail markers on the trees, bear left ( a sign also points the way) to arrive back at the park headquarters in five more minutes. In the yard behind headquarters, look for a labeled wildflower garden on your right.

Hours, Fees, and Facilities

Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve is open every day from dawn to dusk, and the park headquarters is staffed every day from 9 to 5. A new Learning Center will be opening this summer.

There is no fee. Restrooms and water are available at park headquarters; a picnic area is behind the headquarters building. No dogs.

Getting There

Nature Calendar strongly encourages biking and mass transit.

NYC Bike Map – Find a route that’s convenient and fun for you!
There is a bike rack near the park entrance.

Mass transit:
S74 bus from Ferry Terminal to Sharrotts Rd., cross Arthur Kill Rd. to Sharrotts Rd., walk Sharrotts Rd. 1⁄4 mile and turn left onto Carlin St., follow Carlin St. to its end.

If you must drive, please share the experience by loading the vehicle with friends! Via the Verrazano Bridge, take Route 440 (the West Shore Expressway) south to exit 3 for Bloomingdale Road. Make a left onto Bloomingdale Road and then a right onto Sharrotts Road. Follow Sharrotts Road 0.4 miles At the sign for Clay Pit Ponds, make a right onto Carlin Street and follow it for 0.1 mile to the entrance gate at the end. If you are driving from New Jersey, take Route 440 north to exit 3 for Woodrow Road. Follow the service road and bear left under the overpass onto Sharrotts Road. Follow directions as above. The park gate is closed before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m., so park on Carlin Street if you arrive early or will be staying late.

For More Information:

Website:

http://www.nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/info.asp?parkID=32

Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve
83 Nielsen Avenue
Staten Island, NY 10309
(718) 967-1976

April Events in Clay Pit Ponds (volunteer opportunities coming this summer):

The Buzz on Bees
Sat. April 5th 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Ages 8+

Animal of the Month Club: Fabulous Frogs
Sun. April 6th 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. Ages 6 – 11

Native Tree ID Hike
Sat. April 12th 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. ALL AGES

Nature Story Theater
Sat. April 12th 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Ages 3 – 6

Parent and Child Sensory Safari
Sun. April 13th 3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ages 3 – 6

Earth Day Activities and Clean Up
Sat. April 19th 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. ALL AGES

Nature Calendar’s Earth Day favorites:

Wetland Walk-and Talk
Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Region: New York City
30 minute hikes offered at 10:30am; 11:30am and 12:30pm: Meet at park headquarters for a hike around Ellis Swamp. Learn about the importance of wetlands and how we can protect them.
Self-Guided Tree Walk
Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Region: New York City
10:30-1:30pm: Grab a map and booklet and set out on your Yellow Trail. See and read about the variety of trees at Clay Pit Ponds. You set the time and the length–you are the hike leader!

Birding for Absolute Beginners
Sun. April 20th 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Ages 6+

Celebrate National Turnoff Week Activities!
April 21st – April 27th 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. ALL AGES

Sketching Nature
Sat. April 26th 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Ages 11+

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