Learn About Your Local Ecosystems

This is not an article about the natural history or ecology of the Catskills, but rather a How To article about finding information about the ecological communities that exist in YOUR YARD or NEIGHBORHOOD or TOWN. Detailed databases and maps, available online only in the last few years, can provide you with all sorts of information about your local environment, but finding and accessing them can be a little mind-boggling at times. Hence, this tutorial. Once you get the hang of it, you can have all sorts of fun finding your yard on these maps and looking up the corresponding information.

Ecological Communities

There are several classification standards for ecosystems, but the one we are going to focus on here is the system developed by NatureServ and the Nature Conservency, and used widely by US government agencies. It is known as the International Vegetation Classification (IVC) system. NatureServ looks at ecosystems on 3 different levels. In the broadest level, North America is broken down into 800+ ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS (590 in the US). These are regions that share similar geographic/geological/environmental characteristics and have characteristic plant and animal species. These regions reflect CURRENT conditions and populations, as observed. Our first exercise in fun is going to be to find out which Ecological Systems are on and around your property. Directions are as follows:

In a new tab you are going to navigate to this web site developed by the USGS: http://www.gap.uidaho.edu/landcoverviewer.html

On the bottom of the page you are going to click the button that says "Land Cover Viewer". You should now see a map of the United States, and some settigs boxes on the left of the screen. You are going to ignore the box that says MRLC Zone, but you are going to select your State from the dropdown menu. Now a 2nd dropdown menu will appear, where you can choose your county, which you will do. You will also set the Level of Landcover Detail to LEVEL 3.

Now you are ready to navigate. Unfortunately you can't enter you address here, like in Google Maps, so you will have to browse manually to your house. If you have trouble orienting yourself, you may want to enter you address in google maps, and then use that map to guide you. You can move the map around by holding down the left mouse button and moving the mouse, and you can use the ZOOM BAR in the upper left corner of the map to zoom into your area. Continue to zoom in until you are at maximum zoom. You should now see a checkerboard of colors imposed over your property and surrounding area.

Each color represents an Ecological System. There is a key on the left, but hovering your mouse on one of the squares will reveal the name of the Ecological System as well. Clicking your mouse on one of the squares will bring up a pop-up window with some information about this Ecological System, such as typical geography and many of the major tree species expected, as well as other tid-bits. You may have to allow pop-ups for this website if you are running a pop-up blocker.

You now already have much important information about the ecology of your property and surrounding area, but suppose you want to know more? First step is to write down the names of the Ecological Systems that you found. Alternately you can print a report by clicking the button at the bottom left.

Your next step is to go the the Ecological Communities and Systems SEARCH page of the NatureServ website. Open this page in a new tab:

At the top of the page (under "Search by Name"), check the button that says "SYSTEMS" , and then enter part or all of the name of the Ecological System you wrote down previously. IGNORE EVERYTHING ELSE on the page and click SEARCH.

Now you will see a list of potential matches. Click the one that seems closest to what you requested (if it not an exact match).

Now there is a bunch of stuff on the page. Two things are most important, for our purposes. First is the description, which is probably very similar to the description given on the map page, but there may be some additional information here that is interesting to you. The second important thing here is the table called Component Associations.

Associations are a much finer classification system than Ecological Systems, and a number of Associations are possible under one Ecological System. Associations are the specific communities of plants found growing on this type of site. They are named by the dominant tree species in the canopy, followed by the dominant trees in the understory (if there are any), followed by the dominant shrubs in the lower layer (if any), followed by specific geographical information in some cases. As an example, if we look at the 4th listing in my search results above - we see that the dominant trees are Quercus prinus (Chestnut Oak) mixed with Quercus rubra and velutina (Red Oak and Black Oak), and in the shrub understory Vaccinium angustifolium (Lowbush Blueberry) is the dominant species. You may have to brush up on your Latin plant names to make sense of everything here, but google is a great resource if you don't speak horticulture. Google also has many images to give you an idea of what these plants look like.

So what now? How do we know which Association fits our property? Well ... the answer is that you have to go outside and look around. You are looking to identify the most common trees and shrubs. You may need to get a book or ask a friend to help here... Even if you can't get everything, you can likely come close enough to make an educated guess. Most of the tree species used are fairly distinct from eachother. When you have looked around and identified some trees, you can come back and choose an Association which matches most closely. We are going to use this to get more information about what plants are likely to thrive here, look very natural, and play nicely with what already exists. We may also find out what types of animals are likely to be present.

Ok, so I have decided, in my example, that Quercus prinus-Quercus(rubra, velutina)/Vaccinium angustifolium Forest is a pretty good match for what i see growing in my backyard, so I am going to go with that. I am going to copy that text, so that i can paste it into the search box in the next step. Now we are going to go back to the original search page AGAIN,

open in a new tab: http://www.natureserve.org/explorer/servlet/NatureServe?init=Ecol

but this time we are going to check the ASSOCIATIONS button instead of the SYSTEMS button. We are also going to paste the text we copied into the search box and we are going to REMOVE ALL PUNCTUATION such as parentheses and dashes. Now we can hit SEARCH (again!).

Again, we should see a list (hopefully very short or with a single entry...) of possibilities to choose from. Click on the link, and we are now taken to the Associations page with lots of stuff on it. And again, we should read the SUMMARY table, as it probably contains some interesting information. The main gem of knowledge we are after, though, is found by scrolling towards the end of the page to the Vegetation Summary. Here we find everything they know about what trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, ferns, and grasses typically grow in this community. Here is the summary from my search:

Well, it took us a while to get here, but hopefully it was a bit of fun, and now we have a serious list of plants we can take to our local native nursery, which we know with certainty is authentic to our location and will co-exist nicely with existing plants (not all plants will be comercially available). We may also be able, using the list, to identify existing plants on our property which may have been quite hard to pinpoint otherwise.

More information: You may have noticed that each Association, besides having a name, has a unique number. Often you can type this number into Google, and come up with more detailed information.

Alternate Method

Each state runs a natural herritage program, which contributes much information to the NatureServ (IVC) classification system. Most natural herritage programs classify their state's ecosystems into Natural Communities. A Natural Community is a classification level somewhere between an Ecological System and an ecological Association. If you can determine your Natural Community, you can also find out which Associations may be present. We are going to use the New York State Natural Herritage website resources to determine our Natural Community and Association next. Other states will all have similar resources - search for Natural Herritage Program along with the name of your state. This method will also yield additional information about animals and birds in the area of interest.

First, open this page in a new tab:

You should see a page with a map of New York. You will notice the bars towards the top of the page where you can select County, Town, Watershed, or User Defined Area. For now, click on the tab labled Town, and a dropdown list will appear on the left of the screen where you can select your town. Look towards the bottom of the screen and see that the word Selected is followed by the name of your town, then press Submit.

You will first notice a map of your town showing which areas have been surveyed, and areas where rare plants and animals are expected. Next you will see a list of confirmed butterflies, moths, dragon- and damsel-flies followed by a list of confirmed plants. Lastly, you will find a list of all the Natural Communities in your town. Take note that there may be more than one page and you may have to click the next page button at the bottom right to get all the info. It is fairly easy to narrow down the list to the community/communities that you are interested in - they are already separated into rough topographic types which makes life easier, but again you will have to compare the indicator vegetation types listed to what you observe in your area of interest.

When you click on one of the Natural Community names, you will get a popup with the option to go to the NatureServ site, or to go to the NYNH program conservation guide for the Natural Community. Go to the conservation guide. You will see a page with the name of the Natural Community and several tabs of information. You want to click the tab labled Classification.

The first table you will see lists all the Associations in this Natural Community. If you want, you can click on the NatureServ Explorer link next to each entry, and be taken to the page describing the Association on NatureServ. Before doing that, though, notice that the last table on the page lists all the plants associated with this Natural Community. This is good information which may be useful to you. You will still be able to get greater detail, however, by visiting the NatureServ Association links.

I also like the detailed descriptions of the Natural Communities on the New Hampshire natural herritage website. Not all of our Natural Communities will be found on their site, however, for obvious reasons. Pasting the name of the Natural Community into a Google search, though, will normally yield additional information.

Hope this was fun! Please let me know if this was useful to you . . . (info@ferncreekDB.com)

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