What to See in the Burke

Click here to get our iNaturalist-powered Ecological Guide up on your phone! It's a quick reference of the life you can find during your visit. Visit our iNaturalist page for a more comprehensive and most up-to-date list of plants and animals of the Burk.

Below are some specific interesting features and organisms found at the Burke. Keep an eye out for them!


The Stone Bridge

At the edge of the northern trees just before the canopy breaks and the wetland begins, you can spot a stone structure running east/west.

This is a bridge passing over the stream which runs from a small spring out into the Hudson. We don't know how long this structure has been here, but it's been documented in photographs since the early 1900's, and the waterway is seen on maps from the 1800's.

For more information on historical features of the park, take a look at our History of the Burke Estate page.

Physical Environment

The largest wetland in Hastings is located in the Burke. It is of type PEM1E - 'Palustrine Emergent Persistent Seasonally Flooded / Saturated'. It is not a federally protected wetland, and so it depends on community support for protection.

The stream which flows out of the Burke is known as Factory Brook. The Burke estate is in the Hudson River Estuary, and the brook is one of many small freshwater tributaries to the Hudson.

Notice that much of the soil in the lower Burke Estate is boggy and dark. This is a special variety of water saturated ground known as Hydric Soil, which provides a home for specialized wetland species. Despite only making up 9% of the earth's land, hydric soil areas store 39% of all terrestrial carbon. Protecting wetlands help us preserve biodiversity and limit the effects of global warming.

The united states has developed an official soil categorization scheme in order to classify the growing conditions in all territories (You can view a map of all soils in the USA here). The wetlands in the lower burke technically have the category "Ridgebury complex, 0 to 8 percent slopes, very stony (RgB)", with 85% of the soil being considered Ridgebury - a common soil type in boggy areas of the northeast which were covered in glaciers during the ice age.

Wetlands and intact natural waterways also help us protect human structures from extreme weather. A healthy wetland will slow water down, resist erosion, and limit floods. Meanwhile, a poor quality ecology (such as a pipe or hard stone channel) will speed up water, which increases erosion and sends floodwaters out further and more powerfully.

The spring in the Burke Estate flows out under route 9 and proceeds through the village.

Native Ecology

Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Horsetails are some of the most ancient and unusual plants - during the triassic era they filled the niche now served by trees and towered at over 100 feet tall.

The variety of horsetails at the Burke is known as the Field Horsetail.

Rather than forming seeds, horsetails release spores. These spores only contain a single cell and resemble a fine powder (in the early spring, if you tap one of the fertile cones, you can see the spores fly out in a cloud of dust!). Horsetails are sometimes called ferns or fern allies, as ferns also reproduce through spores.

The non-fertile cones of the horsetail grow into green bushy groundcovers. If you look east while walking the northern portion of the north/south path, you will see large swaths of horsetails.

A spore-releasing fertile cone.
Native Philadelphia Fleabane, surrounded by bushy Non-fertile horsetails.

Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium american)

The Yellow Trout Lily is also sometimes known as a 'dogtooth violet' because its bulbs resemble a dog's tooth.

This native wildflower forms dense colonies, which can persist for hundreds of years in minimally disturbed soil. If you see a dogtooth violet you can know they've likely been there for a long time. The denser the colony, the older the soil.

Every year, only a few plants will blossom. The rest remain only as modest flat leaves with mottled coloration peppering the forest floor in the early spring (this being the reason for its other name - the dappled leaves resembling the scales on a trout).

Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds lives in the reeds and trees of the Burke Estate wetland. They're easy to notice due to their loud raspy call and the bright red shoulders on male birds.

Ornithologists have heavily studied this species due to their elaborate social hierarchies and breeding behaviors. The distinctive shoulder coloring plays a crucial role in this system - ales who exhibit large wingspots are more aggressive and better able to defend their territories.

Although Hastings is inhabited by year-round populations of Red-winged Blackbirds, many fly down to the southern US and to Central America in the winter. We notice that the Burke's flock is one of those migratory groups.

Every fall, the birds fly south around October as the weather turns cold. In the early spring the males return first. March is a great time to watch the males claim territory in the wetland, giving loud rasping calls and chasing each other through the reeds. Only later after males have established their pecking order do the females fly north to join the flock.

The Red-winged Blackbirds are especially fond of the tall Phragmites reeds that grow in the Burke. We hope to encourage other native plants as an alternative and superior nesting site - such as cattails, willows, and rushes. This will allow for more diversity of nesting birds - and the Red-winged Blackbirds will appreciate the cattails as well.

A dull colored female, resembling a starling or sparrow.
The male sporting the flashy red and yellow patches. Unmistakable even at a distance.

Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

In the northeast, forest under-stories are full of lush native ferns such as the Ostrich Fern, so named because of each frond's resemblance to an ostrich feather. Many gardeners have replaced the fern's role in their yard with hostas - a non-native variety of plants which fill a similar niche in their local ecosystems.

Although not popular in European cuisine, young fronds (known in culinary terms as fiddleheads) are a common dish throughout the world. Fiddleheads must be cooked in order to safely break down various toxic and carcinogenic components present in many species.

Look for these plants in the southern portion of the Burke Estate, where they've found spots to grow along the edges of pools and wetlands.

Iron Oxidizing Bacteria (Bacteria)

An orange oily sheen covers mud and standing water in some sections of the brook. Although it looks like a toxic spill, the smelly glop is actually a colony of harmless native iron-oxidizing bacteria (we can't know which specific species without a genetic test). You can tell the water's sheen isn't oil because when tapped with a stick, the material disintegrates into a fine powder and clears the surface. This type of bacteria is commonly found along streams fed from springs, as well as other transition points between anerobic (oxygen-poor) and aerobic (oxygen rich) segments of natural waterways.

Iron oxidizing bacteria are 'chemosynthetic', which means they derive energy from chemically processesing inorganic materials. Chemosynthetic species are the only form of life which does not require energy from the sun to survive. The Burke's bacteria colony only requires water that contains oxygen and iron to survive - it rusts Ferrous Oxide (Iron II) into Ferric Oxide (Iron III) and releases small amounts of sulfuric acid which gives the distinctive eggy smell.

Iron III waste from the bacteria can solidify into large deposits known as 'bog iron'. In medival europe, bog iron was a renewable and readily available source of iron for crafting tools and weapons. Wetlands could be harvested for bog iron about once every generation. This video shows a person hand-smelting iron bacteria into iron pellets for use in blacksmithing.

In modern times iron oxidizing bacteria is primarily a harmless nuisance to humans. Colonies in drinking water can stain toilet tanks orange, and leave well water with an unpalatable sulfurous odor. Many well owners purchase special filters to remove the bacteria and its byproducts.

An oily orange sheen on the water indicates the presence of iron oxidizing bacteria.
Though the bacteria smells of eggs and looks contaminated, it is completely harmless.

Hedge Bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

This aggressive native wildflower is known by a host of other colorful names including Granny-pop-out-of-bed, Heavenly Trumpets, Old Man's Nightcap, Belle of the Ball, White Witches Hat, and Bearbind. Like other members of the morning glory family, it produces beautiful trumpet-shaped blossoms. The leaves of the Hedge Bindweed are a distinctive arrow-head shape, and are easy to spot growing amongst other plants.

Hedge Bindweed is a vine, and so climbs on other plants and landscape features rather than growing its own supportive stem. In the Burke Estate it's been found twining around invasive common reeds.

Although they may be an annoyance to gardeners, in environments such as the Burke our aggressive natives are the survivors - keeping a foothold in an increasingly inhospitable landscape of foreign plant invasions. They remain an integral component of the ecosystem and provide both food and habitat for other native species.

Bebb's Willow (Salix bebbiana)

Willows readily hybridize which makes identification prove especially difficult. In the Burke we have large non-native weeping willows (Salix babylonica) and groves of smaller more modest willows with traits that don't fully line up to any species.

Currently, our theory is that the smaller willows are a native species known as Bebb's Willow (Salix bebbiana), though Fredd Hubbard identified willows in this area as pussy willows (Salix discolor) which are also native.

Willows are critical keystone species in riparian ecosystems (areas along streams and rivers). They stabilize the soil with deep water-loving roots, enabling other native wildflowers and grasses to establish themselves. Willows also grow and die very quickly, which allows other larger more long-lived trees (such as Oaks, Maples, Tulips, and Sycamores) an opportunity to safely set root and start their growth before taking over as the ecosystem matures.

The benefit of willows are not limited to other plants - their limbs provide cover and nesting sites for various songbirds who drink and bathe in streams. Deer and small mammals graze on leaves and bark, and depend on the dappled shade during hot summer months.

Willows also provide essential early spring food sources for insects. Their specialized flower (known as a 'catkin') open before nearly any other species, and so are critical for pollinator survival.

Many human products are based on the willow. The acne medication salicylic acid is directly derived from willows (hence the name salicytic from the genus name salix). So is aspirin (similarly named acetylsalicylic acid), which was investigated as an analgesic after noticing native people drinking willow bark tea to relieve pain. Horticulturists have also used willows for centuries to make 'willow water' - willows have a propensity to root in almost any conditions due to a high level of rooting hormone (indolebutyric acid) in their sap, soaking twigs in water extracts this hormone so it can be used on other plant cuttings.

A grove of native willows. Notice the successional progression already emerging- a small oak with red leaves is growing among the willows. In time as the ecosystem matures, trees like this will become plentiful due to the protective early-successional willows.
Willow catkins. The best time to spot these flowers is in March, but they may bloom anytime between February and April depending on local weather conditions.

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

The White-Tailed Deer have become massively overpopulated in our area. At least ten individuals visit the park regularly to sleep and browse for food.

Considering that a healthy population density is about 6-10 deer per square mile, only one single deer could live off of the Burke sustainably. Normally large carnivores such as wolves keep deer numbers in a healthy range, but we have removed those carnivores from our environment.

Deer preferentially eat native plants as their primary food source, and so their overpopulation leads to degradation and eventual collapse of native plant biodiversity as they begin to eat more than the land can provide. The massive numbers of deer also enable the spread of contagious illnesses such as chronic wasting disease, lyme, and hemorrhagic disease.

As we've seeded some areas with native plants, we made sure to fence them off to protect them from deer. Interestingly, in these fenced areas we've seen native species return which we never planted. The deer seem to be inhibiting native plants that would otherwise restore the Burke from ever even starting to grow.

The majority of the deer visiting the Burke sport yellow ear-tags - which indicates they are females who have been given contraception to stop their reproduction. This is one local effort to reduce the population count.

Although the deer population in Hastings has begun to drop, only time will tell if this strategy works sufficiently in isolation.

Keep an eye out for hoofprints, droppings, and newly worn off tree bark. These are all signs the deer have recently passed through.

Invasive Plants

Siebold's Viburnum (Viburnum sieboldii)

Siebold's Viburnum is a medium-to-large flowering shrub, which has just begun the process of becoming invasive in our area.

The plant is easy to identify; if you rub its leaves and sniff, you'll notice a distinct smell — something like skunk or burning rubber.

The name Siebold comes from the botanist Philip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) who studied Japanese plants and animals, introducing knowledge of these species to European audiences.

Common Reed (Phragmites australis)

Phragmites australis (called 'phrag' by many ecologists) is 16-20' wetland-loving reed. It has a hollow core, allowing air to reach underground roots even when fully submerged in water.

You may notice that redwing blackbirds nest in the reeds. This is because these reeds resembles the shrubs and cattails which normally live in this ecosystem. A person might assume that means phrag isn't a harmful replacement, but that's far from the truth.

Like other plants we call 'invasive', common reed dominates the landscaped where it is introduced. If you look closely you will see few - if any - other plants growing where phrag thrives, and no insect damage or signs of herbivores eating the reeds. In a healthy ecosystem, each member both gives and takes in a cycle of life, but phragmites barely participates - taking space and providing nothing in return. A phragmites infestation is more like a desert than a wetland.

This plant is extremely difficult to manage or remove. We are experimenting with different control efforts at the Burke. Ultimately due to its wide establishment and vigorous growth, our goal is to mitigate and reduce the infestation with the intention to allow room for other plants to grow alongside the phrag.

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)

Mugwort is used for many herbal purposes in Europe and Asia. Unfortunately here in the northeast it dominates the landscape and drives out other plants. Typically it's found along roadsides and creeping on the edges of lawns. At the Burke, you can find mugwort almost anywhere that you see grasses.

Mugwort is especially successful because of the dense system of rhizomes it sends through the soil. Nutrients are shared between plants through these specialized roots, making eradication a fruitless endeavor. Try to pull one up, you'll see how hard it is to get any of the roots out!

At the Burke, we're experimenting with control through continual repeated mowing, pulling, and solarization

The plant is easy to identify once you know what to look for. Mugwort has a fuzzy stem, leaves with silvery undersides, and gives off a pleasant herbal aroma when crushed.

Plant Battle between Garlic Mustard (Allaria petiolata) and Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)

A battle line has been drawn on the forest floor. On one side is Garlic mustard, a tall thin plant sporting tiny white flowers. On the other is Goutweed, a sprawling groundcover. Who will win?

Garlic mustard is easily identifiable by its smell. Crush some leaves and you will notice a distinct garlic aroma. This plant was originally introduced by European settlers who used the plant as a spice and vegetable. Although mature plants have a strong bitter flavor, young greens are popular in pesto dishes. The roots have a kick not unlike horseradish. Garlic mustard spreads fast, and as it grows it kills healthy microbes in the soil - terraforming the dirt into a desolate blanket where only they can survive.

To the untrained eye Goutweed looks like poison ivy, but its sprawling blankets of growth betray its true identity. Originally it was introduced as a garden plant, to spread over rock walls and cover the ground. Unfortunately it was too effective and now spreads and covers our forest floors.

This site shows the harm of invasives: where they spread, other plants cannot co-exist. These 'battle lines' would not happen in a healthy diverse forest environment. When you walk around the park, look for areas which have a broad mix of species - you won't find established invasive populations there.