Habitat – the natural environment of an organism – is a major clue to identifying the plants and animals seen along Adirondack trails and understanding their complex interrelationships. Plants and wildlife live together in natural communities where each has the resources necessary for survival. There are several major terrestrial habitats within the Adirondack Park.
- Hikers whose travels take them to mountain peaks will pass through spruce/fir forests on the upper slopes and (for those scaling the higher peaks) the Alpine zone.
- However, the focus here is on those terrestrial habitats that predominate along the nature trails that are the focus of this web site: Mixed Woods and Northern Hardwood Forest.
Also covered is a major aquatic habitat – the marshes, bogs, fens, and swamps that make up Adirondack Wetlands – as well as the impact of natural and man-made disruptions on habitat (forest succession).
Much of the habitat that walkers will encounter along Adirondack trails can be classified as mixed woods. As the name implies, the trees here represent a mixture of conifers and hardwoods (deciduous trees), with the mix varying with soil fertility and the height of the water table. Mixed wood forests grow on soil derived from outwash – the sand and gravel deposited by glacial rivers. This soil is rarely fertile enough to support the more demanding northern hardwoods.
- On moist sites, Red Spruce grows alongside Eastern Hemlock, Red Maple, Black Cherry, and Yellow Birch.
- On drier outwash sites, such as eskers, species more tolerant of drought conditions, such as Eastern White Pine and Red Pine, are frequently found.
- On sites where a high water table keeps moisture near the surface, the dominant trees are Red Spruce and Balsam Fir.
Shrubs associated with the mixed wood forest include Hobblebush and Low Bush Blueberry. Look for a wide variety of ferns along trails running through a mixed wood forest, including Eastern Bracken Fern, Sensitive Fern, and Hay-scented Fern. Wildflowers which thrive in this habitat include Canada Mayflower, Common Wood Sorrel, Purple Trillium, and Indian Cucumber-root. A wide variety of birds are seen and heard in this habitat, including year-round residents like the Black-capped Chickadee and the Blue Jay and summer migrants like the Hermit Thrush and the Ovenbird.
The northern hardwood forest occupies the region's best soils and sites, growing on the more fertile soils that make up glacial till. Species adapted to this community produce a deep shade in which only shade-tolerant seedlings can grow to maturity.
- The two dominant tree species are Sugar Maple and American Beech, both of which can tolerate more shade than other hardwoods and thrive on deep, fertile, well-drained till. Also present in some areas is Yellow Birch, which requires somewhat more sun and does well on both till and outwash, and Eastern Hemlock.
- A community of smaller plants flourishes in the understory, including Striped Maple and Hobblebush, as well as wildflowers such as Foamflower and Dwarf Ginsing. Migratory birds who prefer deciduous forests, such as the Chestnut-sided Warbler, Veery, and Wood Thrush, can also be found in this habitat.
Freshwater wetlands are areas of land that are covered with fresh water. These aquatic habitats represent a transition between two habitats (land and water) and are therefore some of the most biodiverse areas in the world with many land and water species. As a result, Adirondack wetlands, like other wetlands, are of major significance to scores of plant and animal species.
There are several types of freshwater wetlands in the Adirondacks:
- Marshes are the wettest of Adirondack wetlands, varying in depth from a few inches to six feet. A marsh is a mineral-rich wetland where the dominant vegetation consists of herbaceous plants that are rooted in hydric soils, but not in peat.
- The Adirondack contains over a quarter million acres of Lowland Boreal Communities, including bogs, fens, swamps, and open river corridors. Bogs, like Bloomingdale Bog and Massawepie Mire, are nutrient-poor acidic wetlands dominated by sphagnum mosses, sedges, and shrubs and evergreen trees rooted in deep peat. Fens are mineral-rich (alkaline) wetlands dominated by sedges and grasses rooted in shallow peat, often with water movement through the peat. Conifer Swamps are wet areas often seen on the margins of marshes and bogs. Open River Corridors contain a mixtures of meadows, thickets, and wetlands.
What makes the study and appreciation of the Adirondacks so fascinating is that these habitats, like all habitats, are constantly changing – a process referred to as ecological succession. Succession is the series of changes which take place on a previously colonized, but disturbed or damaged habitat. The disturbance can be natural (such as a major weather event) or manmade (such as logging). Virtually all of the Adirondack forest is in various stages of recovery and adaptation to disturbance. So, in most cases, when you are walking in what may appear to be a primeval forest, untouched by human hands, what you are walking in is a recovering forest.
- Much of the Adirondack forest is second-growth forest: the woodlands which have grown up after logging or fire. Much of the logging, particularly clearcut logging, took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The major fires on Adirondack land also occurred in the early 20th century, a result of the danger posed by the drying slash accumulating from timber harvesting.
- Other woodlands, particularly those bordering Adirondack roads, are in some stage of old field succession – the process through which plants and animals re-colonize cleared farmland that was later abandoned. Observing old fields in various stages of succession provides a living natural history classroom, highlighting the ways plant and animal species adapt to environmental change.
- Major weather events have also shaped selected Adirondack forests, such as the Great Blow-down of 1950 (estimated to have affected 7% of the current Adirondack Park) and the 1998 ice storm.
The process of plant succession in the Adirondacks depends in part on the nature of the disturbance, but usually begins with pioneer communities, followed by a series of plant communities. Eventually a relatively stable mix of long-lived, shade-tolerant, trees develops: a climax community.
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