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Howland's Island

Posted: Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:25 pm
by ElijahW
Dear Ents,

This past summer I made several tree-measuring trips to Howland’s Island, part of the extensive Montezuma NWF in Central NY’s Cayuga and Wayne counties. The Island is separated from the mainland by the Seneca River/Erie Canal and consists of about 3,000 acres of marsh, ponds, meadows, farmland, and rolling hills, or drumlins. Although the management of the NWF and the Island is heavily geared toward the maintenance of local and migratory bird habitat, the Island itself is as biologically diverse an area as can be found in central NY. Little old growth has survived, and likely no contiguous patches, but the Island is dotted with a variety of both large and old trees. The NYS DEC has a good description of the Island on its website: .

The low-lying swamp areas of the Island are populated mainly by silver maple, ashes, eastern cottonwood, and swamp white oak. The well-drained flat areas and hillsides consist of a healthy mix of northern hardwoods, such as sugar maple, American sycamore, bitternut and shagbark hickory, tulip tree, black locust, black cherry, and various oaks. Conifers are noticeably absent from the landscape, save the planted Norway spruces and northern white cedars, a lone red pine, and a sparse scattering of eastern white pine. The hilltops harbor a lot of northern red oaks and hickories.

The tree heights on Howland’s Island are not exceptional, because of the latitude, forest age, and climate, but I still came up with an R10 of 111.8' and an R20 of 103.4'. So far, I have measured 15 species over 100’, and with more effort, can probably eventually bump that up to 20. Most of the tall trees are located on hillsides, made up of young, even-aged hardwoods. The attractiveness of the Island to me is more in the number of large-girthed trees and the diversity of species for the area.

The girth 10 index is 12.2’ and the 20 index is 9.6’. The main culprits here are the cottonwoods, sycamores, and northern red oaks, all of which grow very well on the Island.

As far as variety is concerned, Howland’s Island is certainly no southern Appalachian community, but so far I’ve identified about 40 species of measurable trees, with more likely to come. Some uncommon species for the area found on the Island include sassafras, black gum, and chinkapin oak. I have also found small American chestnut sprouts across the road from the Island’s access road, but on private land.

Here are some of the highlights of my measuring adventures, organized courtesy of the Galehouses:


ABASWOOD1 92.8’ 11.2’
ABASWOOD2 100.6’
ABEECH1 82’ 9.3’
ABEECH2 90.8’
AMELM1 105’
AMELM2 86.5’ 6.5’
AMSYCMR1 117’ 12’
BGUM1 72’ 7.2’
BGUM2 8’
BLCKCHRY1 113.8’
BLCKCHRY2 111’ 8.4’
BLCKLOCST1 118.7’ 5.3’
BLCKWNT1 102.5' 7’
BUROAK1 83.5’ 5.8’
BTASPEN1 78’ 5.9’
BUTRNUT1 84’ 5’
BUTRNUT2 60’ 8.4’
CHSTNTOAK1 69.6’ 7.6’
ESTCOTWD1 111.2’ 14.5’
ESTCOTWD2 106.1' 15.7’
NROAK1 93.4’ 19.9’
NROAK2 13.8’
NROAK3 11.8’
NROAK4 111’
NWCEDAR1 39.7’ 2.4’
QUASPEN1 74.5’
RDPIN1 59.3’ 6’
SASFRAS1 81’ 4.4’
SILMAPL1 103.9’ 8.7’
SILMAPL2 96.4’ 10.5’
SUGMAPL1 104.7’
SUGMAPL2 109’ 5.7’
SUGMAPL3 76’ 11.8’
SWMPWOAK1 78.7’ 12.1’
WHTASH1 109’
WHTOAK1 83.5’ 9.9’
YPOPLR1 107.5’ 6.5’

**Whole height numbers represent a straight-up from the ground laser shot plus 2 yards for my height, and are necessarily less accurate than heights obtained using the sine-sine method resulting in heights rounded to the nearest tenth decimal place. Heights determined using a Nikon Prostaff 440 laser rangefinder, Suunto clinometer, and Texas Instruments scientific calculator in conjunction with the NTS sine-sine method. Circumferences determined using a Spencer logging tape wrap at 4.5'.**

The ages of the trees on the island are all over the map, but most of the forest is fairly young (70-80 years or less). The white pines and Norway spruces were likely planted during the 1930s as part of the CCC's work, and many of the trees likely sprouted after that period. The island has a long history of human use, and for a long time I assumed it contained no old growth at all, but the size of the two black gums has put some doubt of that in my mind. These trees have very deep-ridged bark on one side and smoother bark on the other, and appear at first glance to be ordinary cottonwoods. Boy, was I excited when I spotted tons of the small blue fruit on the ground! I have not yet explored the whole island, so there may be more such finds hiding themselves.

The gem of the island, and my favorite tree, is a northern red oak, 93.4’ in height with a girth of 19’-10”. This boy is a monster.
DSC00263.JPG (51.95 KiB) Viewed 5608 times
I hope to bag some more measurements ASAP, but the Island is a popular hunting destination during the fall and winter, so the next trip may have to wait a few months.


Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:26 pm
by adam.rosen
Yes! now that's what I'm talking about! and right along my east west migration route. That red oak is about as "girthy" a tree we get in western NY, excepting our friends the cottonwood!

Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Fri Dec 02, 2011 6:55 pm
by ElijahW

I-90 passes through the middle of the Montezuma NWR, of which Howland's Island is a part. You can see the NWR between exits 40 and 41. The west entrance is the easiest to get to, but the access road often floods, especially this time of year. The east entrance is a little trickier to find, but rarely floods. I would wait until January to go, just because of the hunting pressure, but the middle of the summer is also a bad time because of the flies and mosquitoes, the area's most dangerous predators. Let me know if you need directions. And, yeah, that's a big tree.


Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 9:52 am
by tomhoward
Howland's Island looks very interesting. I'd especially like to see the Black Gums - they seem to be quite old, according to your description. We have some old Black Gums here in North Syracuse, but they don't seem to be as large as the Howland Island trees. Yet the North Syracuse Black Gums are over 200 years old.

In the Mary Byrd Davis Old Growth in the East A Survey (2003), Montezuma Swamp contains a 100-acre old growth forest called Swamp Woods Natural Area (p.40 of Survey) consisting of Red Maple and Swamp White Oak. Is this on or near Howland's Island?

A trip to this site in the spring looks like a good idea. Those huge Red Oaks would be great to see.

Tom Howard

Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 11:32 am
by ElijahW

I'm not sure where the Swamp Woods Natural Area referred to is located, but it's probably south of the Island close to the Thruway. However, Howland's Island does contain lots of silver maples in the wetter areas, and I'm pretty confident that they've never been cut, at least to a significant extent. They're just not valuable for commercial use. Swamp white oak is also very common in the wet areas, and some attain pretty good size. Red maple is much rarer on the Island but more common in other areas of the Refuge. In Robert Mead's book on the Island (I think it's only available from the Montezuma Refuge visitor's center store off 5&20), he mentions that the first white settlers who got really serious about farming on the Island burned most of the lumber that they cut to clear the land. This would likely have included some ginormous old-growth hardwoods, especially the oaks, elms, and maples, and perhaps American chestnut and tulip tree. Such a waste, but then that was also during the great eastern logging boom that was thought to have no end. The land does heal, though, and I'm thankful for what I've been able to see and experience.


Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Sun Dec 04, 2011 8:39 pm
by edfrank

Excellent post. I always enjoy to reading posts about new areas and by new measurers. I look forward to more reports from you on down the road.


Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Mon Dec 05, 2011 8:37 am
by Rand
lucager1483 wrote:Tom,

he mentions that the first white settlers who got really serious about farming on the Island burned most of the lumber that they cut to clear the land. This would likely have included some ginormous old-growth hardwoods, especially the oaks, elms, and maples, and perhaps American chestnut and tulip tree. Such a waste, but then that was also during the great eastern logging boom that was thought to have no end. The land does heal, though, and I'm thankful for what I've been able to see and experience.

I've read that's what happened to most of the old growth in Ohio. In NW ohio it was burned up for farming. In SE ohio it was made into charcoal and then run through iron furnaces like this one:
hopefurn1.jpg (65.06 KiB) Viewed 5540 times
Simply standing in front of the Lake Hope Furnace brings back images of times long since past. The furnace was in operation from 1854 until sometime in 1874 during a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. A quick survey of local maps from this time period show an abundance of these types of furnaces, as well as many small towns that sprung up nearby.
The purpose of the Lake Hope Furnace was to process the iron ore that was gathered from the area’s sandstone bedrock. The furnace operated 24-hours a day and records show that at the height of its operation, the Lake Hope Furnace was churning out close to 15 tons of cast iron a day.
The Hope Furnace was built here over 100 years ago to process the iron ore extracted from the region's sandstone bedrock. The iron resulting from the ore smelting process was used to produce many different items, including ammunition and cannon for the Union Army during the Civil War. Hundreds of men labored cutting timber, working the furnace and driving teams of oxen hauling iron ore to the furnace. Charcoal fires were tended 24 hours a day; so much wood was required for this process that the surrounding hillsides were almost completely stripped of their timber. At the height of the Hope Furnace's production, Ohio was one of the nation's leading producers of iron. As time passed, iron ore was discovered farther west and Ohio's reputation as a major iron producer waned. ... fault.aspx

Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Sun Dec 25, 2011 10:51 pm
by Jess Riddle

Nice introduction to the islands, and thanks for bringing the site to the attention of the rest of ENTS. I’ve also made multiple trips to the island, and I agree it has one of the most interesting collections of forests in central New York.

I’ve noticed that most of the island’s mature forest grow either in the floodplain of the river or on the west side of the drumlins. Most of the areas in between drumlins have been converted to ponds, and the east sides of the drumlins support either corn fields or post-agricultural forests. Howard Island is the only place I have been where bitternut hickory is a dominant early successional species. Many of the old farm fields have succeded to nearly pure stands of bitternut hickory with only scattered butternuts or cherries mixed in.

The bitternut hickory stands are not the only unusual element of the islands forests. Kentucky coffee-tree and shellbark hickory, both known in NY from fewer than five populations, are native to the island (or were moved there by Native Americans). A west facing slope on one small drumlin also has a nearly pure understory of American bladdernut. Another particularly diverse drumlin, perhaps 50 acres, supports 26 tree species.

The forests in the Seneca River floodplain are not as diverse as the uplands, but support much higher concentrations of large trees. Freemans maple (Acer x freemanii, syn. A. rubrum x A. saccharinum), by far the most abundant trees in the floodplain, occasionally exceed 14’ cbh as single stemmed individuals and 18’ as multiple stemmed clusters. Silver maple is largely restricted to the river edge of the floodplain. Swamp white oak, cottonwood, green ash, and sycamore grow scattered amongst the maples. Among the saplings, green ash is the most common, but dense stands of spicebush make up the understory over large areas on the landward side of the floodplain. I’m fairly certain these forests have been cleared in the past, and that they are not substantially older than the upland forests. The floodplain trees can reach larger diameters than the upland trees due to the inherently fast growth rates of the floodplain species, good water supply, nutrient inputs from the river, and fertilizer runoff from the adjacent farm fields.
15'0.5" (above basal sprouts) x 115.5' freeman maple
15'0.5" (above basal sprouts) x 115.5' freeman maple
I’ve roughed out heights for many trees on the island, but only carefully measured a few. I think there is potential to considerably raise the Rucker index, and believe the tallest trees on the island are tuliptrees around 130’.
Howland_Island_measurements.JPG (15.84 KiB) Viewed 5444 times

Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Mon Dec 26, 2011 12:04 am
by DougBidlack

how do you distinguish Freeman's maples from Silver and Red?


Re: Howland's Island

Posted: Mon Dec 26, 2011 8:29 pm
by Neil
nice post, Elijah!

here are some pictures of some northern red oak from near Appleton, NY that are similar to the one you posted. they were some very large in the remnant forest and we didn't get the center of the largest trees. however, these individuals were growing rather rapidly and i would be surprised if the Appleton northern red oak were much over 200 years of age. i've cored other red oak of decent size (a picture inserted below) near Fulton, NY that were not much over 150-170 years of age. i think trees in the Lake Ontario plain growing on decent sites, not too dry, not too wet, likely grow rather rapidly in the cool, lake effect environment.

a big and fast-growing northern red oak

a large northern red oak <170 years old at Curtiss-Gale Wildlife Management Area, Fulton, NY