Adirondack Wetlands

Adirondack Birds: Great Blue Heron on Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (17 September 2014)
Birds of the Adirondack Wetlands: Great Blue Herons can frequently be seen on Adirondack marshes, standing motionless as they scan for prey.  Great Blue Heron on Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC

A wetland is a land area that is saturated with water for at least part of the year. Adirondack wetlands, like other freshwater wetlands, feature species adapted to life in a saturated environment. Wetlands are shallow; water depth is below six feet. This allows growth of rooted or anchored plants, such as water lilies, and also free floating plants without attachment to the bottom, like duckweed.

Adirondack Wildflowers: Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog at the Paul Smiths VIC
Wildflowers of the Adirondack Wetlands: Carnivorous plants have adapted to the nutrient-poor environment of bogs. Pitcher Plant on Barnum Bog (26 July 2014).

Wetlands play a crucial role in the balance of nature.

  • They modulate the flow of water, helping to reduce flooding and erosion.
  • They also filter out sediments and help purify drinking water.
  • Finally, wetlands are of major significance to scores of plant and animal species, providing desirable habitat for fish and wildlife.

An estimated 14% of the land surface of the Adirondacks is wetland. There are several types of freshwater wetlands in the Adirondacks: marshes, peat-lands (bogs and fens), swamps, and open river corridors.

Adirondack Marshes

Adirondack Wetlands: Marshes are shallow wetlands which are flooded with standing or running water much of the year. Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (27 July 2015).
Adirondack Wetlands: Marshes are shallow wetlands which are flooded with standing or running water much of the year. Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (27 July 2015).

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. Because marshes are nutrient-rich from the residue of upland drainage and supplied with oxygenated, slowly-moving water, they are highly productive environments, fostering the cycles of growth and decay necessary for plant and animal life.

Marshes also have one of the highest levels of habitat diversity. The vegetation in these wetlands – the water lilies, cattails, bulrushes, pickerel weed, loosestrifes, and arrowheads which flourish in these areas – provides nesting habitat, food, and cover for many waterfowl and other wildlife.

Adirondack Wildflowers: White Water Lily on Heron Marsh (23 June 2016)
Wildflowers of the Adirondack Wetlands: White Water-lilies, Pickerelweed, Cattail, and Blue Flag flourish in a marsh habitat. White Water-lily on Heron Marsh (23 June 2016).

Many different species of wetland plants flourish in Adirondack marshes.

  • Floating plants, such as Yellow Pond Lily and White Water-lily, are anchored to the bottom by roots and have long stalks to leaves that float on the surface of the water.
  • At lower water depths, emergents (such as Pickerelweed and Cattail) flourish.
  • Bladderworts also thrive in marshland; these are submersed free-floating plants featuring tiny bladders attached to the leaves, which trap and digest very tiny animals.
  • Blue Flag also grows in profusion in the shallower water of the margins of marshes.
  • Plants which flourish on the edge of the marsh are related to rhododendrons and include Leatherleaf, Meadow Sweet, Steeplebush, and Sheep Laurel.

Mammals also capitalize on the richness of Adirondack marshes. North American River Otters and muskrats can be seen throughout the year on many marshes. Otters feed on the fresh-water mussels and clams in the marsh. Look for White-tailed Deer on marsh edges. Snapping turtles make their home in marshy areas; and painted turtles are often seen sunning on floating logs in the open water areas.

Birds of the Adirondack Wetlands: Ring-necked Duck on Heron Marsh  (27 April 2013).
Birds of the Adirondack Wetlands: Ring-necked Ducks are among the boreal birds who make their homes on marshland. Male Ring-necked Duck on Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (27 April 2013).

Many species of birds can also be seen or heard on Adirondack marshes.

Adirondack Peat-lands: Bogs and Fens

A peat-land is a type of wetland where wet and cold conditions prevent plants from decomposing. Dead plants accumulate as peat soil, often for millennia. Peat lands are characterized by water-saturated peat soil, composed primarily of living or dead Sphagnum moss.

There are two different types of peat-lands in the Adirondacks: bogs and fens. Both are lowland boreal communities which are climate dependent and require low temperatures and year-round moisture. Both contain boreal species of plants and animals that are at the southern extremes of their ranges. There are an estimated 50,000 acres of bogs and fens in the Adirondacks.

Bloomingdale Bog (18 September 2015).
Adirondack Wetlands: Bogs often form in depressions where the combination of cool climates and abundant moisture retard the rate of decomposition resulting in an accumulation of organic matter. Bloomingdale Bog (18 September 2015).

Bogs

are a nutrient-poor acidic wetlands dominated by sphagnum mosses, sedges, and shrubs and evergreen trees rooted in deep peat. Bogs are more isolated from the flow of both surface water and groundwater than other wetlands and depend on rain for most of their water supply and on windblown particles for the bulk of essential mineral nutrients, like calcium and phosphorus. Bogslike Spring Pond Bog, Bloomingdale Bog, and Massawepie Mireare the most common type of peat-land in the Adirondack Park.

Because bogs are highly acidic, with most of their nutrients locked up in decayed plant materials, they are not congenial environments for plants and animals. However, sphagnum moss is able to thrive under these conditions and forms a living mat across the open water of a bog pond. In the process of withdrawing precious nutrients, the moss adds to the acidity of the water, making it difficult for decomposer organisms to function.

Shrubs of the Adirondack Wetlands:  Bog Rosemary on Barnum Bog (23 May 2015).
Shrubs of the Adirondack Wetlands: Bog Rosemary is a shrub that grows in lowland boreal communities in the Adirondacks. Bog Rosemary on Barnum Bog (23 May 2015).

The trees and shrubs which grow in bogs are those which have evolved strategies for dealing with this difficult environment.

  • Tamaracks, also known as the Eastern Larch or American Larch, are coniferous trees which turn a golden yellow in fall before shedding their needles.
  • Tamaracks are often found growing in close proximity to the Black Spruce, another indicator plant of boreal bogs. Black Spruce growing in bogs tend to be very small because the harsh environment causes them to grow very slowly, so a tree only a few feet high may be quite old.
  • Shrubs characteristic of bogs include evergreen members of the heath family, such as Sheep Laurel, Bog Laurel, Leatherleaf, Bog Rosemary, and Labrador Tea. They are well suited to bog life because they have leaves which retard evaporation through such adaptations as waxy coatings, rolled edges and fuzzy undersides. 
Adirondack Wetlands: Marsh Cinquefoil on Barnum Bog (23 June 2012).
Wildflowers of the Adirondack Wetlands: Marsh Cinquefoil is a bog plant that blooms in late spring to midsummer in the Adirondacks. Marsh Cinquefoil on Barnum Bog (23 June 2012).

Bog-dwelling wildflowers are limited to those able to survive in a nutrient "dessert."

  • Pitcher plants and sundews have developed an adaptation that provides a supplemental nutrient source from captured insects. The Pitcher Plant, for instance, has tubular leaves surrounding the base of the plant. Insects enter the mouth of the plant and are trapped by the hairs. They then drown in the leaf fluid and are digested by enzymes and bacteria. The nutrients absorbed from the insects supplement the nutrients absorbed by the roots. Bladderwort and Roundleaf Sundew, which are also carnivorous, can also be found in Adirondack bogs.
  • Another plant which thrives in Adirondack bogs is Buckbean, which produces produces clusters of star-like white flowers in spring and early summer. This plant, which grows up to about ten inches tall, flourishes in the wet soil of the bog and can usually be seen blooming in June.
  • Other wetland plants that flourish in bogs include Cottongrass and Marsh Cinquefoil. The latter is a member of the rose family and produces reddish purple flowers in late June. Several species of Cottongrass can be seen in bogs; some bloom in late spring and early summer, while others bloom in late summer and fall.
Adirondack Wetlands: Rose Pogonia on Barnum Bog (6 July 2013).
Wildflowers of the Adirondack Wetlands: Rose Pogonia is a member of the Orchid family which may be found in bogs and fens in the Adirondack Mountains. Rose Pogonia on Barnum Bog. (6 July 2013).

Bogs also host a variety of orchids that thrive in wet soil.

  • Grass Pink gets its name from the long, narrow, grass-like leaves. The rose-pink or pale orchid blossoms are sweet-smelling and generally bloom in late June or early July .
  • Another bog-dwelling orchid – Rose Pogonia – also produces pink flowers and blooms beginning in late June. The Latin name "Pogonia" means beard – a reference to the bearded lip on the flower.
  • White-fringed Orchids also bloom in bogs, usually in late June or early July.
Birds of the Adirondack Wetlands: Palm Warbler on a Black Spruce on Barnum Bog (30 April 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Wetlands: The Palm Warbler typically prefers to nest in the sphagnum of a peat bog at the base of a short conifer. Palm Warbler on Barnum Bog (30 April 2016).

Adirondack bogs represent a major draw for birdwatchers, since lowland boreal communities are rich in migratory birds, probably because boreal habits like bogs are rich in insect life during the summary.

Fens

are similar to bogs in that they also have peat soils. The feature that distinguishes fens from bogs is the fact that fens receive water from the surrounding watershed in inflowing streams and groundwater, while bogs receive water primarily from precipitation. As a result, the chemistry of fens is less acidic. Fens reflect the chemistry of the geological formations through which these waters flow. As a result, there is much variation among fens with respect to acidity, and they often do not have the extreme acid conditions associated with bogs.
Trees of the Adirondack Wetlands: Tamaracks and Black Spruce at the Paul Smiths VIC (19 September 20014).
Trees of the Adirondack Wetlands: The Tamarack (Larix laricina) is a deciduous conifer which flourishes in the Adirondack Mountains, especially in wetlands. Tamaracks and Black Spruce at the Paul Smiths VIC (19 September 20014).

The plants which grow in a fen tend to be more varied than those in a bog.

  • In contrast to bogs (where heaths are more plentiful), fens tend to be dominated by sedges.
  • The plant life of acid fens is similar to bogs and includes Black Spruce, Tamarack, willow, birch, orchids, and Leatherleaf. Wildlife species groups associated with acidic fens are similar to those associated with bogs, such as the Palm Warbler and the Wood Frog. 
  • Neutral to alkaline fens with the most mineral enrichment are less like bogs, feature less sphagnum, and more closely aligned with wet meadows and marshes.

Fens are relatively rare in the Adirondacks due to the nature of the bedrock in the region. The wetland near the boardwalk across Heron Marsh is considered a fen.

Wooded Swamps

Ferns of the Adirondack Wetlands: Ferns in swampland near Heron Marsh (10 July 2012).
Ferns of the Adirondack Wetlands: Ferns flourish in the damp soil of swampland on the edges of marshes and bogs. Ferns in swampland near Heron Marsh (10 July 2012).

Swamps are freshwater wetlands dominated by trees rooted in hydric soils, not in peat. These are areas where woody vegetation grows in soil that, while often waterlogged, is seldom flooded by more than a few inches. Swamps may include either or both hardwood shrubs or trees and conifers.

  • Shrub swamps are found along the banks and in the floodplain of streams and rivers. Only the most resilient plants grow here, due to the scouring action of flooding and winter ice movements which prevents the development of a mature forest. Alders, willows, and sweet gale are common in such areas, as are wild raisin and mountain holly.
  • Wooded swamps occupy places where the soil is more mineral in composition and flooding is less deep and of shorter duration. Conifers such as Balsam Fir, Tamarack, and Northern White Cedar tend to dominate interior and high-elevation wetlands in the central part of the Adirondacks, where peaty soils and severe winters prevail.

Ferns and mosses are common in swampy areas. These areas also host shade-loving wildflowers, including Common Wood Sorrel and Goldthread. Birds commonly seen or heard in these areas include the Golden-crowned Kinglet, Winter Wren, and Nashville Warbler.

References:

Donald D. Cox. A Naturalist's Guide to Wetland Plants. An Ecology for Eastern North America (Syracuse University Press, 2002), pp. 1-11, 64-93.

John Eastman. Swamp and Bog. Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands (Stackpole Books, 1995), p. xiv.

Paul A. Keddy. Wetland Ecology. Principles and Conservation (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 17-24.

Meiyin Wu and Dennis Kalma. Wetland Plants of the Adirondacks: Herbaceous Plants and Aquatic Plants (Trafford Publishing, 2011).

Jerry Jenkins. Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability (Cornell University Press, 2010), pp. 33-43.

Jerry Jenkins. The State of the Adirondack Lowland Boreal. Part I. Composition & Geography (Wildlife Conservation Society and Nature Conservancy, 13 September 2004.

USDA Forest Service. Organic Soil Wetlands. Retrieved 19 July 2012.

Adirondack Park Agency. Freshwater Wetlands. 20 August 2013. Retrieved 14 January 2017.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. New York Natural Heritage Program. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition (March 2014). Retrieved 14 January 2017.

David J. Welsch et al. Forested Wetlands: Functions, Benefits and the Use of Best Management Practices. (United States Environmental Protection Agency. NA-PR-01-95.) Retrieved 15 January 2017.

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