The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 30: Dec. 18 , 2012

KYPP Nugget: Joy of Exploration

The Joy of Exploration: Background

The "Living Land Project"
Most of our exploring during the last season has happened as part of the Living Land Project, a recently launched multi-year initiative in collaboration with Hudsonia and the Columbia Land Conservancy. The project involves the detailed ecological description of diverse habitats in all regions of the County, together with the exploration of how people are perceiving and interacting with these habitats. The findings will be compiled into a "Field Guide to the Ecology and Culture of Columbia County Habitats".

A number of excellent Field Guides to Ecological Habitats for different states in New England have recently been published (see bibliography). The NY Natural Heritage Program website offers beautiful descriptions of many Ecological Communities of New York State, and Hudsonia's Biodiversity Assessment Manual for the Hudson River Estuary Corridor is still the most applicable regional guide to ecologically significant habitats. At the county-level, the most comprehensive and coherent description of habitats goes back to the 1930s and was published in 1959 as a section in Rogers McVaugh's "Flora of Columbia County". Since then, much has changed in our county and there is no up-to-date guide to its ecological habitats. Furthermore, we are not aware of any examples where a guide to habitats addresses both their ecological characteristics and their cultural significance. We are very excited to embark on this innovative project!

County-wide Catalogs of Flora and Fauna
Based on McVaugh's "Flora of Columbia County", information provided by the New York Flora Atlas, and our own field observations over the last 10 years, we have compiled an updated Checklist of Plants of Columbia County. It reflects our best knowledge of the 1491 plant species currently found in the County and gives some information about the status (native/non-native, declining, habitat preference, etc.) of each species. We have also compiled A Tentative Table of Columbia County NY Butterflies, with indications of their status. Comparable lists for dragonflies, native bees, ground beetles, ants and spiders are forthcoming.

Take orchids as an example of the kind of information that can be gleaned from the Checklist of Plants. According to our best knowledge, there could be 29 species of orchids found in our county. Almost half of them we have not yet seen and some, such as the Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) or the Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera sp.) were already very rare in the 1930s and have likely gone extinct within the County.

Others, that were rare in the 1930s, we still consider rare today.

Early Coralroot
The rare Early Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) we know only from a Hemlock Swamp on Mercer Mountain in Austerlitz.

Many orchids have been common or locally abundant in the 1930s, but are known to us now from only one or two locations.

Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid
This Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) used to be "common in swampy woods or meadows", but we found it for the first time this year in a shrub swamp in Canaan.

Yellow Lady's Slipper
The Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) used to be "locally abundant in rich, often calcareous woods", but is known to us now from only two locations, one in Ancram and one in New Lebanon.

Slender Lady's Tresses
The Slender Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) was described in the 1930s as "common in grassy fields", but we have so far found it in a single dry meadow in Hillsdale.

Ragged-fringed Orchid
The Green Fringed or Ragged-fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera) used to be "frequent in meadows, open fields, and woods". We have seen this species in Columbia County only three times during the last 10 years.

Rose Pogonia
The Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) used to be locally abundant in open bogs. We now know of a single occurrence of this species in the County.

(cont. below main column on right)
10/25 column: "The Joy of Exploration"

by Claudia Knab-Vispo

Iíve always been drawn to explore my natural surroundings a bit beyond the trodden path... As a small child, I delighted in Easter egg hunts in our back yard. A few years later, I rode my bike around the countryside in search of the best swimming hole. As a teenager, most weekends were spent hiking or back-country skiing in the Alps seeking the experience of nature in places where the human hand had not markedly shaped the land. At college, the most rewarding classes were the field trips to new landscapes across Europe where our eyes were opened to the diversity of life forms that share this earth with us. After graduation, I was very fortunate to find ways to make my passion for nature exploration into a profession, working in pretty exotic places, such as the rainforests of Borneo and Venezuela.

Looking back, there have been several strands of fascination that I managed to weave into all my work. There was always the urge to go beyond the trodden path, to expose myself to new natural environments. There was also always the element of cataloging, of getting to know the names of the plants and animals that live in a certain place, learning how to recognize them by paying close attention to their subtle differences in forms and behavior. Once you are able to recognize the individual organisms they become like an old friend whom you recognize again, in a different place. And you can begin to see the patterns of who tends to live together in similar physical settings to form ecological communities. Finally, there was always the thrill of discovery - finding something nobody had found before; or at least seeing something that is known to be pretty rare.

All these strands are still part of my current work as one of the ecologists with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, where I get to explore the land and its inhabitants right here in Columbia County. The physical setting of our County is not quite as magnificent and awesome as that of the Alps, its biodiversity not as exotic and mindboggling as in the tropical rainforest. In fact, one would think that in a place that has been settled for quite a while, and shows signs of the human hand on the land wherever you look, there surely must be nothing left to explore. Yet, this summerís ecological field research as part of the Living Land Project has taught me otherwise.

We began a series of detailed inventories of the plants and certain animal groups that live in a variety of physical settings or ďhabitatsĒ, such as different wetlands, forests, fields, and shrublands. The goal of this on-going research is to document the typical plant and animal communities of each habitat in our County and to determine those species that are unique to a certain habitat. I want to share just two highlights of this summerís explorations.

As a botanist, I delight in finding unusual plants and for some reason get particularly excited when stumbling across a patch of native orchids. Some species of orchids had been described as common in the County in the 1930s but have since become very rare. This summer, we rediscovered the Purple Fringed Orchid (a species which we didnít even know was still in the County) in an inaccessible wetland area on private land in Canaan. There were at least ten individuals growing between tall sedges under a sparse canopy of Poison Sumac and small Red Maple trees. What a celebration that was to come across these gorgeous plants in full bloom! It sure made our day and the landowner was delighted to learn about such a treasure under his care Ö 

A very special moment for the amphibian researchers on our team came on a drizzly afternoon in early July while looking for salamanders under stones and plant debris in a mountain stream coming off the Taconic Range in Copake. Suddenly, there was this huge, bright orange creature slithering over wet rocks. Our 11 year old team mate managed to scoop it into a container, realizing that this was something different from the usual salamander species encountered in rocky streams. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be an elusive Northern Spring Salamander, a species that had only once before been found in the County, also at a location on the west slope of the Taconic Range.  In moments like that, we donít mind the damp clothes on our backs and the distant rumble of thunder. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to observe a rare creature in its natural habitat and to document its existence for all to know.

If these stories speak to you and entice you to do more of your own exploring, please feel welcome to use the Farmscape Ecology Program as a free resource to help you in your explorations. We lead public ecology walks to get you started. We are also happy to help with the identification of plants or animals from photos sent by email. If you come to one of our Thursday evening Open Houses, you can bring samples of plants or the odd skull to be identified. If you feel limited in your options for land to explore, we are happy to look over a map with you and suggest interesting public natural areas. We also encourage you to get in touch with your neighbors, even if their land is posted, to seek permission to walk on their property. You might be surprised to find them agreeable to respectful enjoyment of their land.

 Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid

The Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Habenaria psycodes) is not small at all, but stands two feet tall. It had been described in the 1930s as one of the three most common orchids in Columbia County. It took the Farmscape Ecology Program almost 10 years of exploring to rediscover a population of this species in the County.
Background (cont. from left column)

Fen Orchid
This Fen Orchid (Liparis loeselii) which used to be "frequent in swampy woods and open bogs" is also known to us now only from a single location.

Pink Lady's Slipper
Finally, probably the best-known of our orchids, the Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), which was described as "common in the eastern part of Columbia County" can still be found reliably and in large numbers in a few spots along the Taconic Ridge, as well as scattered throughout certain oak forests.

Rare Salamander

Northern Spring Salamander
The Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus p. porphyriticus) is a large aquatic salamander which
It is found in and around the Applachian Mountains in eastern North America and north into the Adirondacks and just into Canada. Although it has the potential to be found anywhere within this range, its specific habitat requirements mean that actual distribution is spotty
It is found in and around the Applachian Mountains in eastern North America and north into the Adirondacks and just into Canada. Although it has the potential to be found anywhere within this range, its specific habitat requirements mean that actual distribution is spotty
occurs mostly in the Appalachian Mountains, the Adirondacks, and into Southern Canada. However, it's habitat requirements are very specific and it is usually found only in clear, cold water, such as mountain springs. As a consequence, the actual occurrence within its range is spotty. This individual, found in a rocky stream in the Taconics, was almost 6 inches long and is one of the first of its kind to have been seen in Columbia County.


Gawler, S. and A. Cutko. 2010. Natural Landscapes of Maine: A guide to natural communities and ecosystems.

Kiviat, E. and G. Stevens. 2001. Biodiversity Assessment Manual for the Hudson River Estuary Corridor.

McVaugh, R. 1959. Flora of the Columbia County Area, New York.

Sperduto, D. and B. Kimball. 2011. The Nature of New Hampshire: Natural communities of the Granite State.

Thompson, E.H. and E.R.Sorenson. 2005. Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A guide to the natural communities of Vermont.