My Summer at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve

September 05, 2023

By student Evan Lawrence.

My first-ever visit to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve was on a hot May day to discuss doing a professional field experience for my degree in environmental science. My coursework, through the Community College of Vermont, had focused on Vermont’s mountains, forests, and wetlands. The Pine Bush is very different: low hills, dry sandy soil, and a savanna-like landscape of low vegetation and scattered pitch pines and oaks. Unlike Vermont, which is mostly forested and quiet, the Pine Bush is surrounded by office parks, commercial strips, and houses. There’s a constant din of traffic, the roar of jets approaching Albany International Airport, and sporadic gunfire from a nearby rod and gun club.

I was approved for the professional field experience and spent the next 10 weeks learning about this globally rare, nationally significant, and locally distinct ecosystem. I assisted with or observed vegetation and Karner Blue butterfly surveys, lupine seed collection, trail user and well data retrieval, the start of a prescribed fire, and bird banding and recapture.

Like the Long Island Sound seaside I grew up with, the Pine Bush’s attractions are subtle. Although the Karner Blue butterfly and wild blue lupines take the headlines, there are other delights, like the flowers of goat’s rue, showy tick-trefoil, New Jersey tea, and spotted horsemint. Other butterflies and moths, dragonflies, beetles, and bees flutter and buzz through the foliage. Birds love the open spaces, from the preserve’s trademark prairie warblers to local rarities like the whip-poor-will we recaptured one June twilight and the rough-winged swallow, a life bird for me, that we banded in August.

Summer days on the barrens can be hot and muggy. Pushing uphill through dense briers for vegetation surveys, or wearing Nomex coveralls to observe the start of a prescribed fire, make it even hotter. But there were also cool mornings in the shade of the trees, and breezes, scented with sweet fern and pitch pine, on top of the Great Dune. Red-tailed hawks and mockingbirds called, and the hum of traffic and city noise receded.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is an example of what ecologists call a fragmented landscape, cut by buildings, roads, railroads, and power lines that prevent the movement of plants and animals. It is a highly specialized ecosystem, not just adapted to fire but needing fire to sustain itself. Keeping the Pine Bush healthy requires ongoing collection of data, analysis, and intensive management. Are the time, money, and effort justified?

It is for the rare and endangered plants and animals that depend on the preserve. To borrow the concept of landscaper and garden designer Mary Reynolds, the preserve is an ark, providing living space for creatures like the red-shoulder hawk, spotted turtle, and American bumblebee, that would otherwise be banished from the landscape. Whether or not we are aware of them, they’re part of the local web of life. We would be diminished without them.

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