The Show on the Road

Story and photos by Bard V. Prentiss

It’s a pretty safe bet that most of us saw our first and perhaps our only example of unusual and elusive wildlife and plant species from a trail or road. This is easy to understand when you consider that, in addition to access, a road provides a focus for the area it traverses. It also provides a concentrated food source for all animal species, as well as a welcome travel corridor for birds, insects and other animals both large and small.

A road naturally fosters species and habitat diversity. To begin with, it has two sides, and each provides extensive edge habitat. Called the “ecotone” by ecologists, it concentrates a variety of microhabitats in close proximity, and hosts a rich diversity of species types including plants, insects, amphibians, birds and other animals. The plants and animals are a readily available food source for larger herbivores such as deer and woodchucks, and predators from ant-lions and dragonflies to raptors, coyotes and fisher. Large omnivores like Black Bear also use roads for travel, and as potential food pantries. The result is a complex self-supporting community focused on the road.

Roadside ditches and old, un-healed road construction sites provide a ready source of water long after other sources have dried up. It is a valuable resource for both plants and wildlife – as drinking water, as egg-laying sites for insects and amphibians, a nursery for tadpoles and salamanders, and habitat for water plants.

Opening up the woods with a road or trail allows light to penetrate previously dark places. It’s a welcoming environment for many plant and animal species, dependent upon light for successful habitation.

It took me many years and a reduction in physical mobility to realize the value of roads and trails as a “go to” resource for nature observation. I believe it was due, in part, to seeing
• my first and only Bobcat cross a road in the Adirondacks,
• my first Eastern Coyote, in a roadside field along route 13 in Sheds, New York and, recently,
• my first Central New York Fisher on a woods road near Dryden.

The memory of these and similar experiences – and the fact that two highly respected naturalist friends regularly visit roads in search of butterflies and plants – finally woke me up to this fact: big woods and fields, while more aesthetically appealing, did little to focus plants and animals for easier observation. Roads and trails do it and do it very well.

If you have not already discovered this awesome resource, you’re in for a very special treat.