New Eastern New York Old Growth Site

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New Eastern New York Old Growth Site

Post by JHarkness » Fri Aug 24, 2018 2:52 pm


In April of 2017, I hiked a small portion of the Appalachian Trail in the Taconic foothills of eastern New York, the destination was the locally famous Dover Oak, ironically not located in Dover, the tree has been claimed to be "old growth" and even in one statement that it was "possitively over 600 years old", it's not. It's an open grown white oak that likely did not exist before the farm it grows on the edge of did, it couldn't have been anymore than a sapling when the forest here was cleared, and considering that it's in a low disturbance site, it likely couldn't have seeded in naturally but was instead planted. The oak is certainly an impressive tree, I believe it is in fact the state champion white oak, unforunately it seems to be on it's last legs. However, the highlight of the trip was not at all the oak, but instead a massive, gnarly, dying hemlock that was on the way. I instantly realized that the tree was incredibly old, but I assumed it was just second growth as it has a stonewall at it's base, but overall, the forest it's in had a different feel than younger neighboring forests.

This morning I headed to the Great Swamp with the intention of photographing the sunrise, I lucked out tremendously with dense fog banks over the swamp. After photographing the sunrise, I headed to the hemlock I had seen almost a year and a half earlier, I planned to photograph the hemlock properly before it goes down and get video footage of it.

Last year I noticed a number of impressive (for the latitude and elevation) tulip trees, while walking through a young, shrubby forest of red oak, black birch and black cherry I came across this picture-perfect tuliptree, a littler weather-battered for such a young tree, but doing quite well for the local climate. I had a clear shot to the highest twigs of this tree and confirmed it to 106.1'. Now here's the surprise, it grows smack in the center, along with a couple similarly sized tuliptrees, of a 45-60 year old second growth forest that was once cow pasture, I was able to confirm this by the texture of the bark of black and yellow birches, as well as red maple, all point to a forest of that age. I wonder what another half century will do for this tree, assuming no winter storms take it down.

Farther in, the forest began to change to a hemlock-yellow birch forest, typical of sites like this, all the trees were young here as well, but that changed when I reached the end of the 40-year old forest.

This young tuliptree marked the transition between the young forest and a mature second growth forest beginning to show old growth characteristics, this area was once sheep pasture and was probably abandoned around the time sheep fever came to a close, the bark of black birch helps confirm that. Turning around after admiring the tuliptree, I see that familiar huge hemlock, still standing, looking no worse than last year. I should mention that this tree doesn't seem to be effected, at least not severely by EHS (the whole grove seems to have largely escaped both EHS and HWA, but EHS is present on a number of trees), the tree seems to simply be dying of natural causes.

Even in it's decline this is a gorgeous tree. Despite it's large girth a slow taper, I only was able to get 92.4' of height out of it, but it may be considerably taller, I had no clear shot, the laser kept latching onto something that appeared to be the right distance, but I can't be sure if it actually was the top of the tree it was hitting until the leaves fall. I would guess that if it is taller, that it's no taller than 105'. I didn't bring a tape measure in, but it appears to be in the 11-13' CBH range, I believe that makes it the second largest hemlock in eastern New York, with the state champion in northwestern Dutchess being the largest, there could be larger ones in the eastern Adirondacks, but it's doubtful, that area has been logged heavily, please do let me know if you know of any that could be larger.

I noted the stonewall at it's base again, but I figured that it probably was growing here before the land was cleared, upon further inspection of the area, I came to realize that the slope between the stonewall and the edge of the swamp is old growth, it probably saw some selective logging in the past (probably of white pine, accounting for there being few at the site presently), but it's largely intact. A freshly fallen hemlock snag near this tree had between 250 and 300 rings, it looked considerably younger than the largest hemlocks here, it's safe to say that they are over 300, probably over 350 as well, it's possible that this tree might even break 400. Looking further along the trail, I immediately noticed the crown of another huge hemlock protruding from the canopy.
This massive hemlock also grows right along the edge of the stonewall, it appears to have been tipped to the west by a hurricane, fairly recently as well. It's slightly smaller than the dying hemlock, likely 10-11' CBH, but it's taller, I couldn't see the highest twigs from anywhere so I measured to the base of branch near the top of the tree, I got 96' to that branch, this hemlock is almost certainly over 100', it's also a little younger, and in much better health, than it's neighbor. To it's right lay the remains of a hemlock, far bigger than either of these two, the stump is very decayed, but it looks like it might have been in the 15-18' CBH range, it fell a very long time ago, quite possibly more than a century ago. I will try to get some measurements of the stump on my next trip here, but I don't know whether the data will amount to anything because of how decayed it is.
Here's a closeup of the second largest hemlock, showing the stonewall near it's base. I don't believe it leans because it took advantage of increased light from the cleared field, it's roots are partially pulled up and it leans to the west suggesting it could have been hurricane damage. I've observed many of the oldest trees in the area have a significant lean to the west, it appears to largely be from the same storm. The "Snow Hurricane" that struck the region in 1804, Newburgh, NY reported extremely high, damaging winds from the east with the storm, supposedly many trees were toppled or bent across the region. This could certainly be what's going on here as well.
This photo illustrates what I mean about the tree's root ball, to give you an idea of the tree's size, that little yellow birch is five inches in diameter.

Hemlocks aren't the only large tree species here, while tuliptrees don't get especially tall here, they do attain quite respectable girths. This monster of a tulip grows right on the edge of the swamp, I expect it's not more than 90' tall, however. There are more similarly sized tuliptrees nearby, I unfortunately did not managed to get to them today, several of them appear to be dying of old age, most have thin crowns and "balding" bark. Notice the swamp in this photo, the swamp is also completely undisturbed by humans, however it sees very frequent natural disturbance, so trees don't get large or live particularly long, I wouldn't call it old growth, but it's pretty special as well.

There were several impressive snags here as well, this hemlock snapped in a storm a few years ago and began to recover, but perhaps it was weakened too much to fight off the EHS any longer, like it's neighbors seem to be doing surprisingly well.

I was unfortunately on a schedule and couldn't stay any longer, I would have loved to continue exploring this little band of old growth to determine just how much of it there really is. I will be returning a few more times within the next couple months to determine just how much old growth there is here and to try to get some accurate tree measurements once the leaves fall. I did, however, map what I suspect the extent of the old growth is on Google Earth, I have no idea where it ends going north, but I remember there being many impressive hardwoods quite away farther north, so I attempted to map the areas where the most canopy gaps were present, and in relation to the stonewall.
Great Swamp Old Growth Map.png
As you can see in the map, the old growth really is just a little sliver, it does seem to extend quite away farther than I went today, but I'll have to check it out to be sure, it could go quite a bit farther as well. Also of note the talus slopes, cliffs, and boulder fields to the west of the 40 and 170-210 year old second growth forests are probably old growth, how many impressive trees there is a question for another visit. The old growth shown here totals 7.5 acres, the forested swamp, which may or may not be considered old growth, is 125 acres, it's pretty special to have that much acreage of undisturbed natural land here when so much of it in the area has been extensively farmed, and now suburbia is advancing from the south into this area.

I plan to evaluate the exact extent of the old growth, get accurate tree measurements, try to establish a database of tree ages at the site, and map the site. I plan to let the DEC know about this site as they've supposedly been trying to search for more old growth sites in eastern and southern New York. Any thoughts on this? Would DEC be best, or should a different agency be informed of the site?

Also worth mentioning, me and a friend of mine had the idea of making an educational film on eastern hemlocks and their pests centered on the old growth hemlocks in eastern and northern New York, as well as some of the ones in New England, Ice Glen and Bash Bish Falls will likely feature extensively alongside this site and of course the great old growth hemlocks of the Adirondacks. One major point of the film will be to show EHS for what it is, a destructive, hard to get rid of pest, not something to ignore as far to many in this area have, the damage of HWA will be shown as well, information on how to identify them will be provided, one issue that I think comes into play is that a lot of people don't know what EHS is, so when they see something on hemlock needles they assume it's HWA. I recently purchased a new video camera and have begun filming for the project.
Oh yes, there were monster sassafras trees here as well, I've never seen any sassafras close to their size in the area.
"Be not simply good; be good for something." Henry David Thoreau

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Larry Tucei
Posts: 2014
Joined: Tue Mar 09, 2010 10:44 am

Re: New Eastern New York Old Growth Site

Post by Larry Tucei » Wed Sep 19, 2018 3:51 pm

It's always nice to find some Old Growth Forest, congrats. Nice post very informative. Larry

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