Welcome! Today we are going to discuss Fringed Polygala (Polygaloides paucifolia). Fringed Polygala is part of the Milkwort family of plants. The plant’s wetland indicator status is FACU which means that while the it is usually found in uplands it may be found in freshwater wetlands on occasion. The ‘Gala’ in ‘Polygala’ means “milk” in Greek. It was once thought that Cows that ate Fringed Polygala would produce more milk.
The egg shaped leaves are evergreen and turn bronze red in winter. Fringed Polygala is perennial and grows from 3-6 inches above the forest floor. The plant is associated both with hardwoods and conifers (I have seen it growing in both environments). It does well with moist soil. You may find it growing in beds of moss. Fringed Polygala thrives in undisturbed forests.
Fringed Polygala blooms between May and June every year. The pink to purple flowers sort of look like either an airplane without a tail or an exotic bird (also without a tail) and are pollinated by bees. The flower also superficially resembles a tiny orchid.
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Foot Trail Maintained by Volunteers NY-NJ Trail Conference
Today we are going to hike the estimated 4.2 Blue Blazed Sterling Lake trail (maintained by volunteers from the NYNJ Trail Conference) which starts at the Sterling Forest State Park visitor center. The visitor center is named for the late Frank R. Lautenberg who helped preserve the forest for future generations. The Sterling Lake Lake trail loops around Sterling Lake, a natural lake formed during the last ice age.
Inside there are dioramas on the Sterling Forest mining industry history, fauna exhibits and a huge model of Sterling Forest itself.
From the visitor center let’s head east into a brief section of forest on a footpath.
Old Forge Road Crossing
After rambling through this portion of the trail we follow the Sterling Lake Loop trail east crossing Old Forge Road near private residences.
McKeages Meadow Connector
After crossing Old Forge Road the orange triangle blazed McKeages Meadow Connector trail appears to our right.
Truck Trailers Sterling Lake Loop
Continuing straight ahead on the Sterling Lake Trail, the trail turns from a footpath to a woods road as we pass old trailers to our left near private property.
Old Railroad Causeway
From here we follow the Sterling Loop trail as it crosses a wetland via an old mining railroad embankment.
Second Old Forge Road Crossing
Long Meadow Road appears ahead but the trail turns north just missing the busy road. Crossing Old Forge Road for the second time we find ourselves heading north climbing.
We have reached an Eastern Hemlock dominated forest but unfortunately many of the Hemlocks are dead or dying due to the Woolly Adelgid, a non-native pest from Asia. The Adelgid feeds by sucking sap from Hemlock trees. This exotic pest was accidently introduced to North America circa 1924 and is currently established in eleven states ranging from Georgia to Massachusetts. It is estimated that 50% of the geographical range of the Eastern Hemlock has been affected by the adelgid. Biological control (i.e. using adelgid predators to control infestations) has been the major emphasis of control since 1997.
Pine Meadow Trail Connector Trailhead
As we head northwest, the 0.3 Mile Orange Blazed Pine Meadow Connector Trail appears to our right.
Sterling Lake Loop Grassy Trail
Our feet are in for a treat as the trail becomes a soft grassy road as we continue heading north on the Sterling Lake Loop.
First view of Sterling Lake
Our first glimpses of Sterling Lake appears to our left as the trail turns northwest.
Whew! Let’s take a quick breather and take time to look at some of the vegetation growing near the trail. Here’s some Sweetfern native to the Eastern US. Its name is misleading as Sweetfern is not a fern at all but a deciduous shrub. The “sweet” in Sweetfern is correct as the leaves give off a sweet odor when crushed. Sweetfern typically grows in dry upland habitat.
Hey! Is this Poison Ivy? It’s got the whole “leaves of three leave ’em be” look. Nope, it’s a vine known as Hog Peanut. Hog Peanut is a member of the Bean Family (unlike Poison Ivy which is a member of the Cashew Family) and helps out plants growing nearby by correcting Nitrogen levels in the soil. Hog Peanut is common in both dry and mesic (moist) forest types.
Here’s American Chestnut. The American Chestnut tree was an important member of the eastern forest found in the United States. A wide variety of wildlife fed on its chestnuts. Mature American Chestnuts began to die off in 1904 due to imported Chestnut Blight from Asia. The blight, imported to the US via Asian chestnut trees, is a fungus dispersed by spores in the air, raindrops and animals. American Chestnut now survives only in the understory as shoots sprouting from old roots (which are not affected by the blight). The American Chestnut sprouts reach about twenty feet before the blight strikes. The roots then shoots up new sprouts and the process repeats itself. The American Chestnut Foundation is currently working to restore the once great American Chestnut back to its native range. Check out the book American Chestnut : The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree for more information. Click here!
Milkweed in Bloom
Continuing north we reach a Powerline cut in the forest. Powerline cuts create permanent Shrubland which provides habitat for flora such as Milkweed, an important wildlife plant (especially for Monarch Butterflies) which does not grow in the dense shade of the forest floor.
Heading south a portion of the Yellow Blazed 6.2 mile Sterling Valley Trail joins the Sterling Lake Loop trail from the north.
Looking down as we walk on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake Loop & Sterling Valley Loop we spot movement. Tiny toads!
Let’s carefully and slowly proceed west on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake/Sterling Valley trail watching where we step.
We have now arrived at the northern tip of Sterling Lake.
Approaching a small sandy beach we spot a turtle digging in the sand.
Turtle heading back to Sterling Lake
But, as soon as we spot this turtle it takes off with surprising speed to Sterling Lake…..
…where it quickly disappears under the water.
Leaving the sandy beach and the now vanished turtle behind we cross an earthen causeway separating the pond above from Sterling Lake.
Taking a closer look at the pond reveals an active beaver lodge.
Continuing west past a former boat launch a movement on a rock catches our eye. A 5-Lined Skink! Native to the Eastern US, the 5-Link Skink is one of the most common lizards found in the Eastern Forest.
Heading south on the jointly blazed Sterling Lake Loop and Sterling Valley Loop we spot some blueberries growing along the side of the trail. The blueberries provide a refreshing treat as we continue our hike.
Sterling Valley Trail Exits
As we continue south Sterling Lake now appears to our left and the Yellow Blazed Sterling Valley Trail exits.
Continuing south on the Sterling Lake Loop trail we see beautiful views of Sterling Lake.
Sterling Forest Fire Tower Connector Trail
As we walk we find the woods road the trail has been following has ended and the trail now follows a paved road (West Sterling Lake Road) passing the Fire Connector trail to our left.
Lakeville Ironworks Trail
As we walk on the pavement we pass ruins of Lakeville Ironworks and the trailhead of the 3/4 of a mile mile Lakeville Ironworks trail. These buildings are remnants of former mining operations.
Located in the Highlands geologic region, the hills of Sterling Forest were mined for iron ore known as magnetite beginning in 1730 and ending in the 1920’s when the last of the mines shut down.
Help Save New York’s Ash Trees
As we walk we notice signs tied to nearby White Ash trees. The signs are in relation to the Emerald Ash Borer, a destructive pest from Asia which threatens all ash trees. The mature emerald ash borer does not pose a threat. It is the larva of these borers which eat away at the heartwood of ash trees.
Sterling Lake Outlet with Sterling Furnace in distance
Heading east on a footpath back in the forest we are now crossing the outlet of Sterling Lake near its dam. The Sterling Lake dam was originally built in the mid 1700’s to provide water power to the the Sterling Furnace. The dam raised the water level of Sterling Lake by 8 feet. A mine (now completely filled with water) was located directly below Sterling Lake.
Sterling Furnace was used until 1804 to create Pig Iron. Later, raw iron ore was shipped by trail to PA to be smelted using large coal deposits. The furnace was rebuilt by the City Investing Corporation in the 1950’s.
Remains of Lakeville Church
Near the visitor center we pass the foundation of Lakeville’s Church. Well, we are now back at the visitor center and have completed our virtual hike of Sterling Lake! I hope you enjoyed your journey and that you check out this hike in person!
The 22 acre Swan Lake was created by impounding a tributary of the Pocantico River (a tributary of the Hudson River).
Carriage Road Rockefeller State Park Preserve
The carriage roads we will be walking on were developed by John D Rockefeller Sr & John D Rockefeller Jr between the years 1910-1950. Every winter the Friends of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve evaluates which trails need fresh surface material added. Drainage of trails is completed every spring to ensure carriage roads stay dry. Trail maintenance is a 12 month process!
After paying the minimal parking fee ($6 at the time of this writing in 2013) let’s walk over to the visitor center.
After picking up a trail map let’s check out the interesting flowering plants blooming nearby. These flowers are Japanese Peony and are known as the “King of Flowers” in Japan.
Just past the flowers and the visitor center there is a kiosk chock full of information about the Rockefeller State Park preserve.
Birds and Wildflowers of the Preserve
Here we can find excellent information regarding common flora and fauna of the preserve. All set? Let’s head towards Swan lake!
Leaving the Fern Garden we follow a brief trail through a forest to get to Brother’s Path.
We are going to be following the 1.1 mile Brother’s Path which encircles Swan Lake. As we start out heading south on the Brother’s Path, the trailhead of the .7 mile Overlook Trail appears to our right.
Let’s take a quick detour from Brother’s Path to walk a section of the Overlook Path for a few minutes. According to the Hudson River Audubon Society website this area is one of the best spots to view Eastern Bluebirds. Eastern Bluebirds, New York’s state bird, are a small thrush whose habitats include open woodlands and meadows such as where we are right now. Eastern Bluebird populations have experienced a decline due to strong competition from aggressive non-native birds like the House Sparrow and European Starlings.
Eastern Blue Bird (NY’s State Bird!)
As we ponder the future fate of these birds a blue blur flies by and lands on a nesting box which has been placed in the meadow by a member of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve staff. Ready to head back to the Brother’s Path? Let’s head back to continue our journey around Swan Lake. Heading south on Brother’s Path we see continuous views of Swan Lake mixed with occasional Flowering Dogwood to our left.
Flowering Dogwood, native to the eastern United States, is a common understory tree found in forest edges.
Rockefeller State Park Preserve Meadow
Continuing south an opening has appeared to our right providing a view of the sweeping meadows we sampled on the Overlook Trail. As we walk Swan Lake is becoming narrower. Turning east we cross over two Pocantico River tributaries draining Swan Lake.
I’m not sure if the chipmunk is sounding the alarm over us or this Northern Black Racer lurking nearby. Maybe both?
As we leave the chipmunk and snake we hear a sudden “meow” sound and realize that the sound is not coming from a cat but a bird! The bird is a Gray Catbird. Gray Catbirds are migratory and fly to the southeaster US, Mexico and Central America for the winter months.
Continuing north and passing the trailhead to the Ridge Trail, we spot some Striped Wintergreen, a species which is considered vulnerable in New York.
Mallards near Swan Lake
We cross over a Swan Lake feeder stream and pass a couple of Mallards and a turtle as we head west on the Brothers Path back to the parking lot to complete our hike. I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of Swan Lake and that it inspired you to visit it for yourself!
2) The Nature of New York – This work offers a sweeping environmental history of New York State. Author David Stradling shows how New York’s varied landscape and abundant natural resources have played a fundamental role in shaping the state’s culture and economy.