Escape the Urban: Dirty Work on the Ledge

1 May

Laurie and I, already caked with mud from the knee down and damp from the occasional drizzle, scramble up the rock and root incline towards the awaiting limestone wall. I am grateful to be outside and free of biting and stinging insects, but little else. The swamp we crossed twice was at full muck, engorged by record-setting April rain. Likewise, the farmer’s fields were nothing but sodden mud, and only recently did I shake the last of the clods that hung stubbornly on the bottom of my boots. Our data collection, the purpose of our survey, has been spotty and frustrating – we know there are white tail deer here, but the evidence has been lacking. Not the excursion I had in mind.

I step over a clump of fallen branches and suddenly slip awkwardly to the side, arms wildly in the air, as my footing gives way on a slick, rotting log.

“Don’t worry,” says Laurie. “I didn’t see that Triple Salchow just now.”

I stop and take a breather, bent over, hands on my knees, and laugh. What else can I do?

“There’s nothing glamorous about working on the Ledge,” Laurie reminds me, not for the last time.

No glory perhaps, but by the end of the day, much was accomplished. We had come to Counterfeiter’s Ledge, a Nature Conservancy preserve east of Akron that I have written about previously, to conduct a deer pellet survey, the first for this parcel. I volunteer with The Nature Conservancy because I respect their dedication to investigative science, understanding, and preservation of not just pretty places, but ecologically important ones. While it is well known that white tail deer live on the preserve, as they do most places in the area, no one had ever done the field work to collect the data to measure the size of the herd. Why should we care how many of such a common animal live in such a place? First, deer eat plants, some locally rare and of a variety that we wish to protect. Deer population information is later correlated to browse survey data, where we examine what the deer choose to eat when given their choice (few deer) and when they have less options (over-population). Secondly, this initial data set will act as a baseline for future research. You never know what PhD or ecologist will look to it in the future.

Laurie, my partner on this chore, grew up on “the Ledge,” as she calls it, and knows nearly every inch of it. Thin and fit, with short salt and pepper hair and glasses, Laurie wore the gear of someone who has been stuck in the mud on a Spring day many times before – knee-high waterproof boots, impenetrable jacket, ironic sense of humor. She still lives near enough to the Ledge to do volunteer work there regularly, in addition to splitting her time at the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society and Herbarium at the Buffalo Science Museum. In short, Laurie is one of the many unknown thousands of people whose donated time and talents keep a place like Western New York running.

For our survey, I was the pace counter, and measured off 100 foot (about 30 of my paces) sections along a particular transect, usually through the heaviest underbrush, using the compass on my watch to keep us in line. Laurie followed as the data collector, scribbling numbers and field notes (“saw two white tails in the tree line” or “no browse seen in some time”). Then, once I stopped my pace-count, the big moment: searching for piles of deer pellets (scat, dung, poop) in a radius at each point. An early Easter egg hunt, we’d nose around for the piles of droppings left from the winter past, and then upon discovery or not, moved on again to the next plot. So on and so forth, for two crossing, the length of the preserve. 

Along the way, Laurie endured my constant questions and pesterings with patience. Here was someone who knew the history of the land, one of the last unpaved outcroppings of the jagged Onondaga Escarpment, and had forgotten more about botany than I’ll ever learn. She taught me the names of many small plants I would normally look past on a regular hike. She showed me the remains of an old gypsum mine, long since overgrown. She spoke little about the counterfeiter that gave the ledge its name, though whether she knew more and wouldn’t say I can only guess. And she showed me the scourge of much upstate natural habitat, the invasive garlic mustard.

Little did I know this immigrant from Europe and Asia, that I previously thought a harmless weed with a pretty leaf that I allowed to grow in my own flower beds at home, is actually taking over habitat across the eastern seaboard, the midwest, and beyond. We uprooted it as we walked, an absent minded reflex for Laurie, obviously, who has spent much time on this task. Naturalists and volunteers can’t endlessly pull invasives – its not a sustainable solution in the long run – but without the maintenance provided by Laurie and others before her, it would be far more common than it already is, crowding out rare and sensitive native plants.

Our climate provides a narrow window for conducting the survey. One needs to count deer pellets between the melting of the last snow, and the blooming and blossoming of spring growth which would obscure the droppings. On our day wild leaks were already carpeting the forest floor, providing a regular swell of onion aroma, a sign to Laurie and I that we had waited to the last possible moment to collect our data. We found little on our first transect, neither on top of the ledge nor below, as we crossed irregular farmer’s fields and the droppings of corn, the crop of the year before. On our second transect, this time through wild grape and raspberry thickets, the soppy swamp muck, and up the ledge’s steeply sloped debris field, we similarly found little excrement evidence of deer.

“Are you done with your notes?” I would ask Laurie before moving on.

“It doesn’t take long to write “zero,”” was her common reply.

I began to worry we were doing this wrong. How hard could it be to find piles of poop on the ground? It was only in the home stretch, after scaling the ledge that had stopped my transit weeks before, covered as it was then in end-of-winter slick ice, that we finally found our deer. The top of the cliff here was drier and more rocky; the stream and marsh left at the base of the escarpment. It was also more open, easier to cross, the ground littered with acorns from the stand of mature oaks surrounding us. The first plot we counted 3 piles of pellets. The next 4. Then 6. We maxed out at 8 piles of pellets in a section thick with cover and food.

We had found our deer. We had completed the first survey data set for this preserve. I learned great deal more about the natural history and current ecology of the land. Not glamorous, perhaps, but satisfying.

One Response to “Escape the Urban: Dirty Work on the Ledge”

  1. RaChaCha May 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    These internets are becoming entirely too scatalogical if you ask me!

    Seriously, very interesting — a couple of hours in the great outdoors hunting deer flop in exchange for a knowledgeable, hyper-local natural history lesson from someone who knows their stuff is a decent bargain, in my book.

    But: a sad commentary on our local government that when I saw “Dirty work on the ledge” the thought flashed that it was about some shenanigan or another @ 92 Franklin. But that would likely have been an article about Pigeon scat, not deer…

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