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Natural History

The forests on the upper slope of Caroline Pinnacles is dominated by chestnut oak (Quercus montana) red oak (Q. rubra) and black oak (Q. velutina), and are quite open with lots of interesting shrubby and herbaceous plants. A walk along the top of the steep slope offers great views across the valley.

At least two vascular plant species, hair grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) and lyrate rock-cress (Arabidopsis lyrata), are found only here in the Cayuga Lake drainage.  At least 18 locally rare or scarce species of vascular plants and vertebrates, including mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and coal skink (Eumeces anthracinus), are found in this unusual dry, warm, rocky habitat.  Whip-poor-wills (Caprimulgus vociferus) once nested here regularly and could be heard from White Church Road after dark, in breeding season, but have not been seen or heard in recent years.


This one of the most dramatic examples in the local region of a valley slope over-steepened by glaciers gouging at the valley-side as they moved down this through-valley.

Ecological Communities

Rocky Summit Grassland

A grassland that occurs on rocky summits and exposed rocky slopes of hills. Characteristic species include little bluestem, poverty grass, ebony spleenwort, dittany, and eastern red cedar.

Pitch pine-oak-heath woodland

A pine barrens that occurs on well-drained, rocky soils. Dominant species are pitch pine with white oak, red oak, scarlet oak, and black oak. White pine, quaking aspen, and big-tooth aspen may also be present. The tree canopy has 30-60 % cover. The shrub layer includes heaths such as huckleberry and blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum, V. myrtilloides, V. stamineum). Characteristic species of the groundcover are wintergreen, poverty grass, hairgrass. The three Reschke types are quite similar and may form a mosaic on one site.

Successional Northern Hardwoods

A forest with more than 60% canopy cover of trees that occurs on sites that have been cleared or otherwise disturbed. Dominant trees are usually two or more of the following: red maple, white pine, white ash, gray birch, quaking aspen, big-tooth aspen, and, less frequently, sugar maple and white ash. Tree seedlings and saplings may be of more shade tolerant species. Shrubs and ground cover species may be those of old-fields. In abandoned pasturelands apples and hawthorns may be present in the understory.

Chestnut oak forest

A hardwood forest that occurs on well-drained sites, mostly on exposed, steep, upper south and west facing slopes, mostly south of Ithaca. Soil is usually shallow to bedrock and acidic. Species diversity is less than in the Appalachian oak-hickory forest. Dominants are chestnut oak and red oak with some white oak, black oak, red maple, white pine, hemlock. Pitch pine, and red pine may be present. Chestnut sprouts are common. The shrub layer is predominantly ericaceous; characteristic shrubs are mountain laurel, blueberry, and maple-leaved viburnum.

Appalachian oak-hickory forest

A hardwood forest that occurs on well-drained sites, usually on flat hilltops, upper slopes, or south and west facing slopes. Dominant trees include one or more of red oak, white oak, and black oak. Mixed with oaks, are one or more of pignut, shagbark, and sweet pignut hickory. Common associates are white ash, red maple, and hop hornbeam. Small trees include flowering dogwood, witch hazel, shadbush, and chokecherry. Shrubs and groundlayer flora are diverse. Shrubs include maple-leaf viburnum, blueberries, red raspberry, gray dogwood, and beaked hazelnut.

Mixed oak forest

A forest dominated by oaks found on steep south and west facing slopes. Soils may have calcareous materials at depth. Dominants are red, black, and white oak, and white pine. Black oak is an indicator of this type. Pignut hickory and red maple are usually present. Flowering dogwood and choke cherry are often abundant in the understory.

Beech-maple mesic forest

A hardwood forest with sugar maple and beech codominant. Found on moist, well-drained soils, on north and east facing slopes, and on gently sloping hilltops of any aspect, this type rarely occurs in ravines. Common associates are basswood, American elm, white ash, yellow birch, hop hornbeam, and red maple. Characteristic species in the sub- canopy are musclewood, striped maple, witch hazel, hobblebush, and alternate-leaved dogwood. There typically are few herbs and shrubs, but tree seedlings may be abundant. There are many spring ephemerals.

Maple-basswood rich mesic forest

A hardwood forest that typically occurs on fertile, well-drained land. Soils are rich and moist. Dominant trees are sugar maple, basswood, and white ash. Common associates are bitternut hickory, tulip tree, musclewood, and alternate-leaved dogwood, witch hazel . The shrub layer is sparse. Spring wildflowers are usually abundant. Characteristic species are trillium, white baneberry, spring beauty, toothwort, trout lily, and bloodroot.