Chautauqua Creek Gorge

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#1)  Chautauqua Creek Gorge

Postby Erik Danielsen » Wed Oct 11, 2017 5:16 pm

Chautauqua Creek Gorge, like the previously reported Canadaway Gorge and of course the unparalleled Zoar Valley, is one of the deep water-worn gashes in the Allegheny Plateau that drain into Lake Erie. Unlike Canadaway Gorge, Chautauqua Creek Gorge is one of three ravines specifically noted in a Watershed Report as containing forests "exceeding 150 years in age and 150 feet in canopy height"- along with Twentymile Creek Gorge and Zoar Valley. It's unclear what methods were used to make that height determination, but we certainly know it to be true for Zoar, so I've been looking forward to getting into Chautauqua Gorge to see how tall its trees might be. Much of its length is private, but Chautauqua Gorge State Forest provides public access to one of the narrow, rugged stretches of its upper reaches.

Friday 10/7/17 I visited the gorge and discovered immediately that I had run down my rangefinder battery and had no replacements. This was disappointing, but gave me time to cover quite a bit of ground to scout out the most promising stands of trees. I returned on Tuesday 10/10/17 to get some trees measured. The numbers:

All of these trees (except the plantation larch) were measured on a terrace just north of the main parking lot, accessed by descending a narrow tree-lined ridge and following it down to the east. There is an additional section of terrace to the west of the ridge that I didn't measure on this occasion. In addition to being very tall, the ecology of the forest on this terrace is remarkably intact. Tree species associated with anthropogenic disturbance are abundant in the immediate surroundings but absent on the terrace. The ground flora is some of the lushest I've seen anywhere and consists entirely of native species, many of which are uncommon or rare.
124.5' white ash- many have narrow crowns like this, and it's likely at least a dozen on this terrace are over 120'.

It's difficult to interpret what the disturbance history here might be. It is entirely possible this stand was never or only lightly logged; access is difficult. In current management plan maps for the State Forest, these terraces are designated "natural area" with no plans for active management. The issue with declaring this forest "old growth" is that many of the trees seem fairly old, but none that I would necessarily put past the 150-200 year age class, and there are many species considered less shade tolerant (white ash, black cherry, northern red oak). Among later-succession species sugar maple is abundant, with hemlock clustering in just one area and beech only present in young understory trees. There is evidence to suggest much larger beech were present, with bark disease likely having killed most of them. There is a significant amount of downed woody material, and it seems to decay very rapidly.
127.5' black cherry. There are many tall cherries left to measure, so this site may compete with Long Point for state maximum.

115' Northern Red Oak (likely to be taller measured after leafdrop), one of the most massive trees present. A lightning scar runs the length of its trunk.

The pattern that does emerge, at least to my eyes, is that the less shade tolerant species tend to follow slope interfaces, both along the main slope of the descending ridgeline and wherever the terrace has "steps" (often steep slopes dropping 5-10 feet in elevation), while sugar maple becomes almost hegemonic on the more stable flats. It may be that this is an old-growth system in which the disturbance regime is chiefly geological, with slope instability (particularly considering how very wet the environment is) maintaining a gap dynamic that both maintains the species mix and accounts for the abundance of old trees but virtual absence of very old trees. The alternative likelihood would be that there might have been a full stand replacement event sometime around 200 years ago (whether anthropogenic or a weather or landslide event) with no meaningful alteration or human uses in the time since, with the species and distributions present simply reflecting inexorable succession headed for a beech-maple-hemlock climax overall.
112' hemlock, growing on a steep slope.

Heights of many of the species present are similar to the heights those same species achieve in Zoar; further downstream I know that tuliptree, sycamore and cottonwood do join the canopy, and this raises the possibility that trees in the 150' class will be found here as well.
120' sugar maple, a standout spurred upward by its position on the slope interface.

Along with the species measured, yellow birch, ironwood, and hophornbeam are all present as understory trees. Cucumber Magnolia is also somewhat common, mainly in with the hemlocks, and the one mystery encountered was a single Bitternut Hickory sapling in the middle of the terrace. I did not see any other hickories at any stage of life. On this visit I didn't have time to visit the upper slope of the terrace, which has a couple more "steps" and may be better-drained- if that's where the mature hickories are, there will definitely be potential for tall trees and perhaps some additional species diversity. Looking down into part of that slope from the ridge while leaving I did notice the taller basswood that I measured as well as a nice beech that should have a reasonable height.

The Larch (which I believe is Japanese but I didn't look at the characteristics closely) is in a nice plantation just above this terrace, which probably has taller trees but is still a bit of a visual mess right now. All the tallest tops seem to be nested, making it hard to work with the needles on. It's a dense stand. There are a few Norway Spruce but they don't seem to do as well.
This gnarled hemlock over 2'dbh, clinging to a very steep slope above another terrace downstream of the site of this post's measurements, is the oldest-looking individual tree I've encountered in the gorge so far.

There's a lot left to explore and measure in Chautauqua Creek Gorge. Much of the best of it is private land, as is most of the previously mentioned Twentymile Creek Gorge, but I know at least one of the relevant landowners and hope to figure out some options for access.

For this message the author Erik Danielsen has received Likes - 4:
a_blooming_botanist, John Harvey, Larry Tucei, Will Blozan
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#2)  Re: Chautauqua Creek Gorge

Postby Larry Tucei » Thu Oct 12, 2017 4:36 pm

Erik-  Nice report and really good photos. No doubt there will some taller trees found here. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the whole tree in the photo.  Larry
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#3)  Re: Chautauqua Creek Gorge

Postby RayA » Thu Oct 12, 2017 7:39 pm

Impressive report Erik.

Why do you suppose those tall white ash crowns are so slender?
It looks like there's nothing near the one in the photo.
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#4)  Re: Chautauqua Creek Gorge

Postby Erik Danielsen » Wed Oct 18, 2017 7:56 pm

Thanks Larry, and yes, especially when you might fall off a cliff if you back up any further!

Ray, the angle of the photo did a good job of isolating that ash crown but it was actually sandwiched between trees higher up on the adjacent ridge (it's rooted right near the zlope interface) and the canopy on the flat. It has more room on one side than it used to; the 117.5' tall black cherry was originally a double, splitting about 25' off the ground, but one of the trunks is downed and previously would have provided this ash tighter competition.

The concentration of foliage near the center of the crown and bare branch ends is another curious visual point, though, and I've been seeing it a lot in tall ash lately. I tend to assume it's related to some stressor and probable decline in health. EAB is still just a minor presence here but there are plenty of possible culprits.
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