Sunken Mine Road Hike: A Morning Exploration

By Alison Rooney

Perhaps it was a wistful attachment to autumn, and its vibrant leaves, as the threat of a storm loomed, but an enthusiastic group of walkers took to the road — Sunken Mine Road, in Fahnestock Park — seduced by the burnished orange and red vistas and the description of the walk: “A morning exploration of the wonders of Sunken Mine Road, a section of Fahnestock Park rarely seen by most park visitors … exploring a whole variety of birds, wildlife, plants, mushrooms, and just about anything seen or heard on this 1- to 2-mile walk. A beaver pond, a lake, and a cascading stream all are part of the itinerary.”

Ralph Odell, right, points something out to Ian Kingsley. Photo by A. Rooney

Sponsored by Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, the walk on Saturday, Oct. 27 was conducted by the very knowledgeable Ian Kingsley, who graduated from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry two years ago with a degree in forest health. Kingsley, who now works as an arborist, was very familiar with both the woods and the enormous variety of tree, plant and bird life found within.

During the walk Kingsley pointed out varieties of trees, grasses, invasives, fungi groundcovers and everything else growing in the woods and noted the many challenges to their survival in the woods.

He pointed out several varieties of fungi, including tinder conk, which had adhered to trees, causing slow destruction. Sometimes it is a multiparticipant chain, for example there is a scale insect that feeds on the bark of a beech tree in search of feeding tubes. This wounds the tree and allows fungi to take hold. Participants were instructed to bring binoculars if they could, and Kingsley frequently brought the group to a halt, hearing a bird song; seconds later, the bird could usually be spotted.

Witches’ butter, a fungus. Photo by A. Rooney

Amongst the many trees and shrubs seen along the route, the group encountered witch hazel; Christmas fern; barberry (really invasive, according to Kingsley); Ironwood trees with their striated bark; mapleleaf viburnum (with an instruction given to never eat berries of that color — blue — except blueberries and huckleberries); Virginia creeper vine; clethra; mugwort (“Don’t allow it to spread — it has brittle white roots and it’s really hard to get out”); lilac; shagbark hickory; meadow rue; a chestnut tree; wintergreen; witches’ butter; spicebush; yellow birch; shadbush (“one of the first of the season of white flowering trees”); black birch; and elderberry (“You can make jam and jelly from it as long as you cook the berries, or else…”).

Birds sighted included juncos; white-throated sparrows; swamp sparrows; downy woodpeckers; and hairy woodpeckers.

Passing a large lake that the road skirts along, Kingsley pointed out the handiwork of beavers — at least a pair, possibly two pairs, have been traversing a series of ponds and lakes here and northwards, building dams. A “beaver deceiver” piping device, which helps with water control and flooding issues, is located in the pond. As beavers are nocturnal, none were spotted during the walk.

Participating in the walk was Ralph Odell, master birder and retired director of Natural Resource Protection with the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for New York state as well as board member of Putnam Highands Audubon.

Sassafras leaves

Obviously a font of knowledge, Odell enhanced the walks with his asides everything from the toothpaste properties of sassafras leaves to his own childhood experiences along this very trail. It was then privately owned, by Bill and Alice Field, and “so pristine because Alice was tough about it — she’d say ‘I have about thirty-six hundred acres here and if I walk into it, I’m disturbing wildlife.’” Sunken Mine Road was named for the open mine which once helped supply the West Point Foundry with iron ore to fuel its kilns and remnants of this 19th century history still linger, with Odell pointing out a raised area where dynamite powder was once stored for use at the mine.

Kingsley was happy to conduct the walk on behalf of Putnam Highlands Audubon. He spoke of how difficult it was to get young people — referring to those in their twenties and early thirties — out exploring nature; he feels there’s a gap between childhood enthusiasm for the outdoors, and the time when people come to appreciate it all again, usually when they’re 35 or beyond.  Countering the trend, a group of Haldane ninth-graders was also visiting Sunken Mine Road that day, on a hike with English teacher Mike Klubnick, the two groups passing each other en route.

This is the second nature walk Kingsley has conducted and he is planning to do more. To be placed on the Putnam Highlands Audubon email list, visit them online at

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