By Tom Woodman
Larry Master walks slowly along the paths on his property. There’s much to take in as he shows a visitor around and plenty of time to open the senses to the natural world.
Tracks in the soft spring snow are mostly red squirrel, snowshoe hare, and coyote. There are a few from turkeys and deer. The coyote tracks curve back and forth across the paths and swing by a beaver lodge along the West Branch of the Ausable River. Just checking. The squirrel tracks are straight and purposeful lines, the shortest distance between the woods on either side of the path.
Other mornings, observant walkers would see signs of fisher, ermine, and beaver. Sometimes bobcat and marten.
In the high branches of trees along the river a multitude of red-winged blackbirds fills the air with sound, backed up by the occasional croak of a raven. Across the river the Sentinel Mountain Range looks down on the valley preserve.
If ever there was a place for careful watching, the Intervale Preserve is it: 133 acres, encompassing the riparian communities of the West Branch and stretching up over slightly higher shelf land, then upward some more to the forest. And if ever there was an observer made for such a place, it’s Larry. He’s retired from a career of professional observing as lead zoologist for the Nature Conservancy, then NatureServe (a nonprofit dedicated to studying the health of the natural world through natural heritage programs across the western hemisphere).
Now he and his wife Nancy have made their home on the West Branch just outside Lake Placid. And they have turned their property into a laboratory for observing their wild neighbors and continually taking the pulse of the ecosystems that sustain them. (They also built a home on the property that has become a showcase of energy conservation and green design. It uses less energy than its solar panels produce in the course of a year and has earned the top certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.)
“For me it’s great fun,” Larry says. “I was trained as a general zoologist. I love anything that’s out there.”
As much fun as Larry has simply watching life unfold, this isn’t idle gazing. He has partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and they are bringing a scientific rigor to their observations. Noted ecologist Jerry Jenkins has become a regular visitor, setting up housekeeping in a lean-to near the river. He has documented 350 species of vascular plants. For his part, with the help of frequent guests, Larry has set out to create a complete list of the animal species found on the property.
They’ve recorded 155 bird species, and he suspects more than two hundred use the preserve at one time or another. Using a detailed map of the property’s ecological systems overlaid with a grid, observers can post precise details of their sightings and immediately share them over the Internet.
“Everything we do will be public,” says Larry.
An important focus of the work is what’s called phenology. Phenology is the study of timed interactions and can be critical to the well-being of species. And they can be dangerously thrown off by climate change. Some birds and insects have evolved in a kind of collaboration with certain plants. They act as pollinators, moving from one plant to another during the time when the plants are ready for pollination. If because of climate change the pollinators arrive in a habitat when the plants aren’t ready, the species could be threatened.
A weather station on the property gives researchers the ability to correlate observations over the years with the weather conditions in which they occur. Larry sees this as the start of a long-term project, one of only three that he knows of in the Northeast trying to monitor all species in a preserve. It could give researchers invaluable data about how phenology responds to changing conditions.
If you ask him how he was drawn to conservation Larry refers to family lore:
“My mother told me that when I was in a crib, before I was one, there was a robin building a nest outside the window and I spent hours watching it. My brothers, who are thirteen and seventeen years older than I am, were dating when I was a little kid, and they would say, ‘Larry, go watch the squirrels,’ so they could make out. I’d dutifully go watch the squirrels.”
It’s important to him to try to pass on that fascination with nature to young people, and he is eager to bring them into his outdoor laboratory. He has worked with Lake Placid Central School’s advanced-placement biology class and with students from Paul Smith’s College.
“One of the things I’m really interested in is connecting children back to nature,” says Larry. “The nature-deficit disorder is real even in a beautiful place like the Adirondacks. It’s amazing how many kids just don’t get out and appreciate what’s here.”
Asked why this is so important to him, he harked back again to his own youth
“A bunch of us biologists were sitting around a table once, and we asked that very question,” he says. “Most of us had had a pond or a stream or something in our backyard or close by and we mucked around in them and collected salamanders and picked things up in our hands. We just developed a fascination with nature.”
“Conservation has been my life’s work so this is just an extension in my retirement. Getting back out in the field again. Trying to contribute to both research and local educational efforts and getting kids connected again with nature.”
The Intervale Preserve is not generally open to the public, but school groups or others interested in visiting can make arrangements by contacting Larry Master at LawrenceMaster@gmail.com or (518) 645-1545.
Larry Master is a member of the Adirondack Explorer board of directors and frequently contributes wildlife photos to the magazine.