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Saratoga County nature walks explore winter ecosystems

A beaver lodge at the Bog Meadow Preserve in Saratoga Springs
Lucas Willard
A beaver lodge at the Bog Meadow Preserve in Saratoga Springs

A series of outdoor walks is seeking to educate Capital Region residents about natural ecosystems in the winter.

Saratoga PLAN’s Bog Meadow Nature Trail brings visitors through woodlands and open marsh on a trail that follows a former railbed.

On this day, staff from the Wilton Nature Preserve and Park are leading a hike with a group of locals to teach about overwintering animals.

As the snow falls, Education Coordinator and Environmental Educator Allyson Paradis points to a beaver lodge – what appears to be a large mound of sticks and branches rising out of the half-frozen swamp.

“Beavers are a really cool animal. Their front teeth are kind of like a yellowy color. And that's because of how much iron is in their system. Trees have a lot of iron. And since they use trees for food, and they also use it to sharpen their front teeth to make structures like this, that's why they're so yellow. And they actually keep growing…”

Paradis, along with fellow Environmental Educator and Wilton Wildlife Preserve Volunteer Coordinator Lily Esposito, welcome questions about the flora and fauna during the walk, including from me, with a beaver-related follow-up.

“Do you know how many animals will live in one lodge?” I ask.

“Um, I think it can vary, kind of, depending upon their ‘family.’ Um, this lodge, I would say it's not super big. Um, I don't know, probably like five to seven.”

“Yeah, I would say,” says Epsosito.

“So you'll have like your little baby beavers, and then your mom and dad. And they'll live in that. And then, yeah,” says Paradis.

“And this is where they're spending most of their winter,” says Esposito. “So when they build these dams, or these lodges, they're incredibly insulated. So, when it's cold, they can gather their food in there. That's where they're sleeping. That's where it keeps them warm. Obviously, they have that really thick far. So, they do leave the lodge. They swim underneath the ice, but that's where they're spending most of their time in the winter.”

Along the way, the instructors point out moss and lichens on trees, discuss the Native American use for a certain kind of mushroom that clings to branches, and describe the difference between feline and canine tracks.

“In a canine so like your foxes, your wolves…not wolves, coyotes, wolves, too…”

“Sorry, yeah, there’s an owl…”

A large owl with brownish feathers hears the group coming down the trail and flies off in the snow. I didn’t get a great look at it, but I’m told it could be a great horned owl or barred owl – just two of the native species one might find in this preserve.

I ask another question. Esposito is ready with an answer.

“This area has different habitats. We're in this marshy area. And then there's flatter drier areas. Does that help attract certain species like owls or different kinds of owls that like different kinds of areas?” I ask.

“Good question,” says Esposito. “So, the mixture of ecosystems is beneficial for a lot of animals, specifically because a lot like to live on edge environments, so where two different ecosystems meet. So, this is a great area for them, because they can stay hidden in the forest. They can be in the forest during the day and feel protected, but they can hunt in the meadow and in the bog because they can see with all of the low shrubbery. So owls, as will sparrows. Let's see...titmice, chickadees, they all like living on that edge ecosystem between the forest and the meadow. So yes, having multiple kinds of ecosystems here definitely benefits the animals.”

One of the participants bundled up for today’s walk is Jack Marchetti.

“So, I've studied like biology at college, and then my master's was in ecology. So I'm looking to, like start a career in that sort of field. So through these sorts of walks, and volunteering, I'm hoping to make connections and sort of, you know, jumpstart a career in that sort of field,” says Marchetti.

Makayla McMaster, another participant, has another reason for venturing out in the snow.

“I just feel like nature. So, healing and grounding that being out here and learning more about it helps not only my mind, but like allows me to educate others about nature,” says McMaster.

The trail on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs near the Wilton town line sits not far from a stretch of suburban homes.

Back at the trailhead parking lot, Paradis says a goal of the nature walks is to connect people with their local outdoor environments.

“It's really cool seeing it like week to week, and we're trying to promote it as like a weekly walk where new people can come but also promote it as a way for people to come out regularly with us kind of get that bond with a personal connection with the community. And then kind of talk with them about changes that they're seeing, like it's snowing now, but it could be like 50 and sunny next week, and it's just kind of a cool thing to talk about. Change with us worker staff wise, but also for the public to have that connection with us as well,” says Paradis.

Esposito agrees.

“As the volunteer coordinator, when I began, there was this learning curve of getting to know all of the volunteers because we have a really strong volunteer base and something that they all said was, ‘We feel like Wilton is our backyard. We feel like this is a safe place for us to come and be outside and we know that we're protected. We know the land is protected. We know it's safe to be here.’ And I think that's a big part of what we do at the preserve is connecting people to these spaces where they can be outside feel safe, know that they're having an interaction with nature and that the trails will be maintained and the bathrooms will work…Because I think that's a big issue for people is heading into a new spot. So having things like this, like the bog meadow walk where we're doing it over and over for a couple of weeks, we're hoping to get people comfortable enough on this trail that then they're willing to go explore other trails too,” says Esposito.

Winter nature walks in partnership with Saratoga Plan and Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park will continue through February at the Bog Meadow Preserve in Saratoga Springs, Camp Saratoga in Wilton, and Glowegee Preserve in Galway.

For more information on upcoming events visit: https://www.wiltonpreserve.org/education/calendar

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.