A habitat is a home or an environment that supports the life of a particular animal, plant, or organism. There are the usual habitats we think of: lakes and rivers where fish and water-dwelling birds live; dens where foxes, coyotes, and bear reside; nests for birds and squirrels up in the trees. But the land around us holds many unexpected habitats, and even microhabitats, with physical and biotic factors such as plant make-up, soil ecology, moisture, density of sunlight that determine a location’s suitability for a certain kind of life. These, of course, include those habitats that support larger wildlife, but also those of smaller, less notable species such as mosses and lichens, rare wildflowers and tiny woodland amphibians.
Here are a few examples of habitats and their features you might discover in your explorations around the county this winter, and their role in our local ecosystem.
A vernal pool is a small wetland that isn’t fed by any stream. It’s typically quite shallow and fills with standing water in winter and spring, drying up by mid to late summer. Often these pools are in the woods where this presence of water in spring accompanied by the absence of fish makes it perfect breeding ground for many forest-dwelling amphibians, including spotted and Jefferson salamanders, wood frogs, and turtles. Certain vernal pools are even home to a tiny forest crustacean called fairy shrimp! Some unique plants you might find in and around a woodland pool are green ash, swamp white oaks, various sedges, and acidic-soil-loving shrubs like blueberries and azaleas. In the spring, on warm wet nights, these pools can be raucous places, alive with frog chatter and salamanders sidling down from the woods to mate.Some of the CLC sites that have vernal pools include Hand Hollow Conservation Area, Borden’s Pond Conservation Area, Harris Conservation Area, and Schor Conservation Area.
(If you’re interested in attending our CLC spring vernal pool exploration, register here!)
Ledge or Talus
Areas of exposed bedrock are common in wooded areas–cliffs or ledges, piles of fallen fragments (called a talus) or even just a big boulder. These rocky features are host to an array of plant and animal species, some of which are dependent on the qualities and minerals the rock provides for them. Snakes and bats will often use the open crevices in the outcroppings or rock piles for shelter; certain mosses and lichens coat the open faces of the ledges, taking advantage of the open space and eventually breaking it down into soil enough for plants to grow on it as well. Calcium-rich bedrock is, in fact, the only environment suitable for some plants, including the beautiful native wild columbine, the rare walking fern, purple-stemmed cliffbreak, and maidenhair spleenwort. Harris Conservation Area and High Falls Conservation Area are two of our sites where ledge structures and the habitats they support are visible off the trail!
Streams are an undeniably significant habitat feature for many animals, including humans, providing a source of water either intermittently or year-round. A whole set of unique plants, insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals live in streams or on their banks—from dragonflies to muskrats, brook trout to herons, hemlocks to trillium. While rivers and creeks and year-round water bodies are protected under federal and state legislation and by many environmental organizations, intermittent or seasonal streams often go unnoticed, despite their importance.
This is probably the most prevalent habitat in Columbia County and also an important one, containing and contributing to the health of many of the aforementioned more “micro” habitats. Large mature forests are critical in supporting wildlife, large and small, from mammals to songbirds to tiny amphibians, as well as rare woodland plants. They are also important in supporting human life, providing the essential services of moderating temperature, filtering water, and absorbing and storing excess carbon from the atmosphere, important qualities with the impending challenges of climate change. In Columbia County, we still have large swaths of intact forest “corridors”—large blocks of unfragmented woods—along which various animal species can migrate north and south. Maintaining these unfragmented forests is imperative for their survival!
These are just a few specialized habitats we have in our area, among many more unique places. It’s important to start looking at the land through the eyes of the other creatures that use it, to notice how many delicate spring flowers cluster along the creek-side or how the giant dead trunk of a tree left standing is a magnet for life, to see how each dip and dry slope might make or break survival. So much can disrupt and destroy these essential habitats and the lives that rely on them, and so clearly does the health of one affect the health of the other.
To learn more about about habitat diversity in our region check out the Columbia County NRI website’s aerial maps