This is the second installment in series about the changing seasons at a New York salt marsh, a site that had been partly buried under fill, but recently restored by the city.
By Len Maniace
The sky was blue, the air warm and the flora and fauna along Alley Creek in northeastern Queens yesterday seemed convinced that spring was here to stay.
We’re greeted with yellow-blooming daffodils as we walk from our starting point at the Alley Pond Environmental Center on Northern Boulevard. But we’re seeking spring’s return to a more natural environment – a salt marsh and its surrounding meadows and woodlands at the northern end of Alley Pond Park.
As soon as we arrive at a boardwalk that carries visitors over the wetlands, we hear birds chirping, and see tiny insects fluttering and a pair of Canada geese on a small freshwater pond. “You don’t have to go too far from the man-made world before you are in nature,” said Aline Euler, curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center, who serves as guide for this project.
It was a different story two weeks ago, our first visit. There were few birds, green plants, or other signs of spring. Temperatures were in the upper 30s and a blustery wind raised white caps on the tidal creek.
Walking on, we see green shoots a few inches tall emerging from a freshwater pond. They are destined to grow into the tallest of plants in the salt marsh, Phragmites australis, or the common reed. They grow amid last year’s crop that’s dried and bleached but still standing majestically, roughly 10 feet tall.
Nearby on higher land we see a scattering of what looks like burdock (Arctium) – clusters of shoots from which oval leaves are emerging. The leaves will grow large and coarse, with irregular borders and white fuzz on their undersides. The tap roots are sometimes eaten in Europe but are more popular in parts of Asia, where they also serve as a traditional medicine. Though its medicinal value is debated, burdock’s role in the development of a modern technology is not. Swiss inventor George de Mestral credited its seeds, which are covered with tiny hooks, as his inspiration to invent Velcro.
Mixed in among the burdock are thistle, dense green plants with sharp pointy leaves that will bloom in summer. Two weeks ago they just emerging and too small for us to identify.
As part of its education mission on the importance of wetlands – they are a highly productive habitat in the natural world and provide flood protection for the built environment – APEC works with the city parks department to return nature to this previously disturbed countryside.
A couple of birdhouses sit out in the salt marsh, amid the flattened remains of last year’s Spartina alterniflora, one of the most important wetland plants. Euler is disappointed because the bird houses appear uninhabited, but then cheers up. “Look, I think it’s a tree swallow.” She looked through her binoculars. “It is a tree swallow.”
The return of migratory birds from the south is another sure sign of spring. Soon we spot one of the migratory stars of wetlands along the East Coast, an elegant egret walking in the creek’s shallows. The bird is most likely a snowy egret (Egretta thula,) but could be the larger great white egret. We may have spotted an egret in the distance during our last visit, but it was too far for identification. This particular egret was quite cooperative, however, flying off low over the creek giving us an even better view.
For much of this visit we hear red-winged black birds (Agelaius phoeniceus,) but do not see them. After leaving boardwalk and walking into a mix of woodland and meadow, three or four male birds swoop through trees and call out as they attempt to stake out territories for mating with females of the species, which are not black and don’t have red on their wings.
As we take a woodland path back to APEC, we come across stands of pussy willows (Salix discolor,) whose furry buds are exploding into catkins. Soon we see more examples of APEC work coaxing nature. We come across an open field that each summer is filled with porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.) Despite its fragile-sounding name, porcelain berry is a tough invasive species that sprawls over native plants, weakening or even killing them.
Since porcelain berries thrive in sunlight, APEC’s strategy is to put the vine in the shade. About 20 trees were planted several years ago; some still bear the tag of a Queens nursery, identifying the still-bare trees as Ostrya virginiana, commonly as the American hop hornbeam, or ironwood.
Soon we come across a fresh water pond that the city Department of Parks and Recreation gouged from a site covered with phragmites. “The idea was to create a better habitat and create more diversity,” Euler said.
Across the pond, two turtles were sunbathing on a rock, though we couldn’t make a solid identification, even using binoculars. Euler speculated they might be red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans,) that had been released into the pond by someone who had them as pets.
We looked down near our feet and saw tiny plants floating at the edge of the pond. They looked like minute lily pads and are called duckweed (Lemnoideae.) Duck weed provides food for many species, but despite its unimpressive appearance now can transform a pond’s appearance. “By the end of the summer they can cover much of the pond,” Euler said.
We plan to tell you about that when it happens.