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.
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.
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.
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.
Many species of birds can also be seen or heard on Adirondack marshes.
- Several different species of ducks nest in marshes, including Ring-necked Ducks, American Black Ducks, Common Mergansers, Wood Ducks, and Mallards.
- Look for Red-winged Blackbirds perching on snags and shrubs on marshland.
- Swamp Sparrows may be found nesting among the cattails and shrubs along the margins of marshes.
- American Bitterns often forage for food in the wetland vegetation along the edges of the water.
- Great Blue Herons can also be seen on edges of the water.
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.
Bogsare 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. Bogs – like Spring Pond Bog, Bloomingdale Bog, and Massawepie Mire – are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Several species of birds nest in bog, including the Palm Warbler, which nests in sphagnum moss, and the Lincoln's Sparrow, which nests in shrubs on the bog. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher also breeds in peat lands.
- Other boreal birds characteristic of a bog habitat include the Gray Jay and Black-backed Woodpecker.
Fensare 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.
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.
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.
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