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January 18, 2016

A winter walk with wildlife

HIKEJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Lime Hollow Senior Naturalist Peter Harrity leads Adrianne Traub, of Cortlandville, on a nature hike Saturday along Lehigh Valley Trail.

By TYRONE L. HEPPARD
Staff Reporter
theppard@cortlandstandardnews.net

CORTLANDVILLE — Despite the mild weather and melting snow, Senior Naturalist Peter Harrity led his regular monthly nature hike Saturday morning through Lime Hollow Nature Center.
Normally, Harrity’s walks have a theme: bird spotting, tracking, or tree identification. On this particular hike, he included a bit of everything.
It had been a while since the last heavy snow, meaning most of the tracks left behind by the nature center’s smallest residents were beginning to fade. However, to the trained eye, one could still spot activity.
Near the start of the Eric Kroot Art Trail, rabbit and squirrel tracks criss-crossed the path. It’s difficult to tell them apart, but Harrity pointed out the subtle differences.
“They both have their hind feet in front of their front feet,” Harrity said. “But when they (rabbits) run, their front feet are really close together.”
A raccoon also left some tracks behind, and judging by the spaces between the footprints, was spooked by something — probably early morning joggers, Harrity concluded.
“My feeling is that the raccoon was probably on the edges of the trees, heard these guys running and sprinted down the trail,” Harrity said. “There were no coyote tracks near there, so I feel that it was a human.”
Out behind the center’s new Environmental Education Center, enough snow had melted to reveal the underground tunnels mice and voles use to stay out of sight of the predators. While the critters might have had their cover blown, Harrity said predators’ access to prey is a very important part of the ecosystem.
By limiting the population densities of prey, the predators’ behavior benefits those further down the food chain and brings balance to an ecosystem.
“A lot of people think predators hurt the environment, that they kill too many things, but they actually benefit the environment,” he said. “(Ecologist) Aldo Leopold argued predators do not limit prey, they actually improve the prey base.”
Cortland resident Adrianne Traub practiced picking out the different types of trees along the Lehigh Valley Trail. Given the leaves had fallen off of all but the youngest of the American beech trees, bark was the only identifier, and Traub said she was a little unsure.
“I know some trees. Some of them I feel I think I know them and then I go on a nature walk and then I find out that I’ve been continuously wrong,” she said.
On this hike, however, Traub was spot on with the crispy-looking bark on the black cherry trees or the faint diamond-shaped patterns on the white ash. She even identified the witch hazel plant and discussed the plant’s healing properties and what she planned to do the next time she came across one in the wild.
“I took an herbalism class ... and we learned about using witch hazel as an antiseptic,” she said. “So I’d like to be able to make a liniment using alcohol to extract the medicinal properties out of the witch hazel bark or the flowers and you can put it on wounds.”
Outside of the Canada geese and the mallards congregating on a sheet of ice in Gracie Pond, few birds were visible, but a lone robin was spotted high above the trees.
Harrity assured the group the bird would be counted among those included in Lime Hollow’s Big Year, a local spin-off of a common bird watching practice where people document as many different species of birds as they can in a calendar year.
The mild weather might have made for slushy trails, but the Harrity encouraged residents to visit Lime Hollow at any time to take in nature’s sights and sounds.
“We’ve got ... ponds, we’ve got meadows and shrubs and forests.,” he said, “I think Lime Hollow’s got a nice blend (of everything).”

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