The Basha Kill lies in the valley between the Shawangunk Mountains and the Catskills, flowing
south from about Summitville to join the Neversink River below the wetlands, and on to the
Delaware River. The marsh was formed several times naturally as hurricanes washed debris
down the Pine Kill, depositing it across the Basha Kill at Westbrookville. Those naturally-formed
dams were cleared and the wetland drained for farming as local farmers saw an opportunity to
sell fruits and vegetables to canaliers on the D&H.
In the early 70’s, New York state bought the land and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) installed a permanent dam just above the Pine Kill, creating a wetland with a relatively stable water level. The marsh was created primarily for wood duck and black duck breeding habitat, and the DEC took the additional step of placing wood duck houses throughout the marsh. Recently, biologists have shifted their approach to wood duck breeding by placing wood duck houses in trees rather than in the water. This is a gradual process at the Basha Kill, with old houses left in the water and new ones slowly going up on the trees. Wood ducks are the primary breeding ducks here, along with mallards and blacks. The Basha Kill provides a migratory stop for another two dozen species of duck, including colorful mergansers, goldeneye, teal, bufflehead and hundreds of ring-necks.
Incidental, but no less exciting, are the marsh birds who use the Basha Kill include rails, bitterns, several heron species, grebes, moorhens and the occasional loon. In the early 1990’s, ospreys began nesting at the Kill, and a few years later they were joined by a pair of nesting eagles. Red-shouldered hawks, broad-wings and red-tails may be seen courting in the spring. Screech owls, barred and great-horned owls are plentiful.
In the spring, the woods are full of migrants, prompting the authors of Where to Find Birds in New York State to give the Basha Kill 4 stars out of 4 for spring birding. In May you will find birders from all over the state and beyond searching the woods and fields for warblers. So far over 220 species of bird have been recorded here… about half of all the birds found in the Eastern United States!
But animal life at the Basha Kill is not limited to birds. In fact, the diversity of habitats — and therefore species — is what makes the Basha Kill special. There are over 30 species of fish here, including the rare blue-spotted sunfish and the ironcolor shiner, a NYS species of special concern. The marsh, with its slow-moving channel, is warm with low oxygen levels, thus home to species such as bowfin and bass. But several tributaries and cold springs support trout as well.
This combination of swift-moving tributaries and the slow movement of water through the marsh also contributes to an amazing diversity of insect life, including many species of mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and the largest number of odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) anywhere in New York. Over 40 species of butterfly have been listed already. Muskrat and beaver are the most visible mammals in the marsh, and otters are also seen. Black bear are common in upland areas, along with whitetail deer, raccoon, possum and fox. Extensive limestone caves on the northwestern slopes of the Shawangunks are home to little brown bats whose survival has been threatened here and elsewhere by the white-nose syndrome.
In addition to the wetland, the area is blessed with many “borrow pits” and vernal pools with adjacent woodlands intact. These provide habitat for some of the 40 species of reptiles and amphibians in the area, including wood frogs, spotted salamanders, snapping and painted turtles and even the occasional spotted turtle. Water snakes, often mistaken for copperheads, abound in the marsh, while garter and ribbon snakes are plentiful in the grassy upland areas.
Vegetation in the southern marsh is dominated by soft-stemmed plants — native swamp poosestrife, pickerelweed, smartweed and many rushes and sedges. The northern reaches are home to a red maple swamp. In the woods around the Kill, lots of apple trees survive, both wild and planted by Native Americans and European settlers. But the dominant lowland species are maple, oak, birch and hickory. Up the slopes of the Shawangunks are many beech, lots of chestnut oak, with occasional patches of white pine and hemlock providing winter cover, rising to the ridge with its scrub oak, pitch pine and blueberry. Dominant shrubs are alder, dogwood, blueberry, buttonbush and witch hazel. There is a wonderful variety of ferns and mosses, and over 200 species of wildflower have been listed so far in our on-going effort to catalog them.
Unfortunately the beautiful but invasive purple loosestrife is abundant throughout the marsh. Some phragmites can be seen. There are extensive areas of Japanese barberry and garlic mustard, and some patches of Japanese knotweed in some of the parking areas and along roadways. But the biggest threat to this wonderfully diverse area is not invasive species. It is the threat of development in the region. Those of us who appreciate the economic and quality-of- life benefits of the Basha Kill, and care about its health, need to be working to ensure good planning for growth, which will include adequate protection for this precious resource.
© Linda Gette