Watkins Glen, New York
Surveys: April 6, 2003
|Latitude: 42 22 58 N — Longitude: 76 55 08 W
Elevation: ??? to ??? feet
USGS Topographic Quad: Watkins Glen
NYSGIS tile: WatkinsGlen_SW1
Forest Types: secondary old growth
White Pine, Oaks, Hemlock
Total Acres: 30 acres — Old Growth: 15 acres
Watkins Glen State Park is one of New York's premier natural spaces. The Park is located on NY 14 in the southwest corner of the Town of Watkins Glen, at the south end of Seneca Lake, the largest and longest of the Finger Lakes. The Glen itself is a narrow, rocky crevice carved by a creek through bedrock on the west side of Seneca Valley. Above the Glen, the creek meanders through a deep wooded ravine, pausing to pool at two small lakes; the upper of these two is Punchbowl Lake.
April 6, 2003
Finger Lakes Survey Team
Team Leaders: Kathy Engel, Mike DeMunn
Assistant: David Yarrow
Sunday, April 6, the new Finger Lakes survey team conducted its first ancient forest survey at Punchbowl Lake in Watkins Glen State Park at the south end of Seneca Lake. The team was led by Kathy Engel of Finger Lake Forest Watch and professional forester Mike DeMunn, assisted by David Yarrow. After a week of heavy clouds, rain, freezing rain, sleet, and snow, the sun was out in a lightly cloudy sky, although temperatures barely made it above freezing. Fortunately, Punchbowl Lake is in a ravine, so the team was sheltered from the chill north wind. Like most land in the Finger Lakes, flat farm fields have pushed right to the edge of any steep slope, and the ravine is tightly hewn in the earth—a topographic crease crowded between treeless expanses of farmland.
From the paved road that runs by the ravine's north rim, modest size, mixed hardwoods were visible. Team leader Mike Demunn led down a dirt track cut into the steep slope to the lower (east) end of Punchbowl Lake. As the team descended, tree size increased, and white pine and hemlock joined the hardwoods. Stumps were visible along the upper rim, but lower in the ravine showed almost no evidence of tree cutting. The dominant hardwoods are oaks: red, white and chestnut—many reaching three foot dbh. Black birch, black cherry, sugar maple, red maple, hornbeam, hophornbeam, and tuliptree are also abundant.
Mike DeMunn, an ecological forester in nearby Burdett, has a vast knowledge of Finger Lakes trees and forests. His family settled here in 1802, and he taught the new team generous guidance from three decades of professional forestry practice. Mike shared insights about forest succession and how to read the forest, and taught survey skills such as measuring tree girth and height—his instruction punctuated by hawk cries, and pileated woodpecker drumming and screeches.
The old growth is only a few acres—10 to 20 acres. The team only ventured into a small section north and east of the lake, but aerial photos suggest the richest old growth is on the south slopes, which shelter denser stands of hardwoods and hemlock overshadowed by taller white pine. In small patches, slow-growing, shade tolerant hemlock crowd out all other species, in dense, dark, shaded pure stands. On steep slopes north of the lake, pure hardwoods dominate, without any hemlock or white pine; tree size seemed smaller, but the team didn't make a close inspection.
Mike commented how extraordinary this patch of forest survived logging. While only a few acres, there are no signs the forest was logged since the first cycle of settlement. Larger, older trees seemed to be around 200 years old—both oaks and white pine. Mike explained the abundant white pine suggests a severe, widespread disturbance in historical time—a blowdown, fire or logging. This allowed the fast growing, shade intolerant softwood species to shoot up and get established. White pine was much sought-after by commercial loggers, and a dense population of large diameter pines is an immediate indicator of an ancient forest that was left by loggers.
Five turkey vultures wheeled over Punchbowl Lake's far end. Across the lake, a ragged outline of forest canopy is pierced by extra-tall white pine. Mike explained how taller white pine rising high above hardwood canopy indicates old growth—one easily spotted from a distance. White pine get established after a disturbance opens the canopy. Beneath their soaring high crowns, later-growing hardwoods form a second canopy.
Punchbowl Lake was brown and murky with silt and suspended solids. We saw no beavers, although a stick lodge near shore and numerous chewed-up tree trunks were evidence the lake is their home. Many trees along the lakeshore were damaged by beaver teeth.
Sadly, an American chestnut nearly seven inches in diameter was eaten clear through by beavers and toppled. An annual ring count revealed over 70 years—ancient for a chestnut. Most chestnuts are sprouting stumps that succumb to blight before 25 years, often before flower and seed have formed.
To practice estimating tree height, Mike showed how to size up a white pine. While a five foot team member stood by the trunk, from a distance, we sighted over a straight ruler. Mike's first estimate was 152 feet—in the Northeast's tallest class. Mike's later estimate revised down to a still respectable 137 feet. Many other white pine reach to near this height, although none had extraordinary girth. Most seemed past their peak; the crowns suggested slow growth, but we had just endured two stressful years of near-drought.
In a few areas, hemlock are becoming dominant, creating small, pure stands with heavy shade and little understory.
Agile and adventurous team members scrambled steep slopes higher up to collect data on big hardwoods—mostly oaks. The rest investigated trees close to the rough forest road. We counted ?? rings on a fallen oak log, and ?? rings on a standing white pine stump. An old fire scars was evident on a large fallen white pine, and a stout white oak right by the road. Partridgeberry was beginning to show bright red berries, but otherwise we saw few signs of understory plants.
Mike explained his reluctance to bring this small old growth area to the attention of Watkins Glen park managers. They're engineers and landscapers, who see old growth forest as unmanaged messy—disorderly, decaying, dangerous, with liabilities lurking in the canopy of living, dying and dead trees. And steep slopes and sensitive soils do not bear a lot of foot traffic, to the detriment of the trees. So, for now, Mike assumes this patch of ancient forest is best protected by remaining unknown.
Overall, this small forest seemed to be very old second growth, relatively undisturbed for 200 years—since the first American settlements in the southern Finger Lakes. Our effort to investigate and evaluate this regenerating woodland was a useful learning exercise for our new survey team. A lot was learned, and many more eyes began to see the forest as more than trees, and to read stories held by the trees. Climbing out of the ravine into the bright setting sunlight, we faced the sharp chill wind blowing steady from the north, and appreciated the shelter and protection of the ravine for both man and tree.
That night, clouds, rain and sleet returned.