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By Brianna Saylor, Invasive Species Management Assistant (ISMA)

In July, the WNY PRISM Crew took on a general species survey at the Onondaga Escarpment State Unique Area, a 50-acre forest property owned and managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in Akron, NY. The purpose of the survey is to help the DEC gain a better idea of what’s there and to provide some best management practices for controlling existing infestations and preventing the further spread of invasives. Invasive species management is especially important at this location because the escarpment is classified as a State Unique Area due to its rare geological limestone woodland and calcareous cliff communities. The natural outcropping of limestone bedrock has specialized soil that supports some cool and unique plant species. Between this and the Niagara Escarpment lies the Tonawanda Plain, a flat and poorly drained lowland, home to several important wetlands and wildlife management areas including Oak Orchard Swamp and the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

On the first day of the survey, we walked along the 1.4 miles of hiking trails looking for common invasive species, as well as any possible early detection species that are not yet documented in our region, or are documented in very few numbers and locations. On the second day, we ventured off trail, checking out the boundary of the property, the area between the trail loop and the property edge next to the neighboring airstrip. What we found was that the majority of the property is primarily composed of native species, with just some pockets of invasive infestations throughout the forest.

Alternate-leaf dogwood

Canadian wild ginger thriving and blanketing the forest floor

Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadense) was the most common native species, but we saw some other really cool plants such as bee balm (Monarda spp.), white leeks (Allium tricoccum), doll’s-eyes; also known as white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), hairy solomon’s seal (Polygonatum pubescens), tall rattlesnake root (Nabalus altissimus), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and some alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus spp.) Alternate-leaf dogwood is one of only two dogwood species that do not have opposite leaves. They are also characterized by their horizontal tiered branching pattern that layers upward.

The most common invasive species we found were honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), privet (Ligustrum spp.), and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). However, they were fairly isolated to sections of the forest that had been previously cleared out, along property boundaries, or along the trails. Invasive species love disturbed areas, which explains why there are infestations in the historically cleared areas and where people hike through. Some of the other invasive species we found included a large common reed (Phragmites australis) infestation around the pond, some juvenile common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), and several pale-swallowwort (Vincetoxicum rossicum). In total, we identified 18 different invasive species in the escarpment. It may seem like a lot, but the extent of the infestations are not very large, thus making them very manageable.

Oriental bittersweet actively girdles a tree through the vigorous vine growth process, which eventually results in the death of the tree if left untreated

One example is the very small clump of Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) found slightly off trail that is already grown enough to start girdling a tree. It is very easily treatable at its current size and treatment can prevent further spread and impacts.

When surveying along the shared property line with the airfield, we found several different invasive species not found elsewhere on the property, including Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), knapweed (Centaurea spp.), and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Prior to the survey, just one tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) had been identified on the property, but the we found several more along this property boundary. Some were very large and flowering, with clusters of smaller saplings nearby. Invasive species are easily spread through human activities (hiking boots, bikes, motor vehicles, mowers, etc), pets and wildlife, through waterways, and construction vehicles.

A few fun things that happened along the way were that we got to watch a plane take off from the airfield, and we saw a cute little turtle. Excitingly, one of our Crew members, Mel, found a hidden geocache! Fun fact: that makes 3 geocaches that WNY PRISM has found this season. The last time anyone had signed the booklet inside this cache was 2018!

Overall, Onondaga Escarpment was one of the least impacted by invasive species sites we’ve surveyed this season, which left us feeling optimistic. It was really nice to see that invasive species hadn’t quite completely taken over the area yet and that most of the infestations that were present were treatable to the point of possible eradication from this property.

A turtle found sunbathing by the pond at the Onondaga Escarpment