– Henry David Thoreau
By Lynn Woods
As a boy growing up in an apartment in the village of Saugerties, Steve Chorvas hardly seemed destined to become one of the area’s leading naturalists. The only wildlife visible from the windows of his home were pigeons and starlings, and his parents had no interest in nature. But at an early age, Chorvas discovered he had a fascination for birds when he ventured into the woods just a few blocks away.
“Whenever I went out there I would see something different, and each time I would go farther into the woods,” he recalled.
Chorvas would lock his dog inside the apartment so it wouldn’t follow him on his expeditions and disturb the birds, but the mutt would nonetheless escape, follow his scent trail to the woods—and then, in a show of touching loyalty to his young master, obediently lie down whenever the boy picked up his binoculars. Chorvas still has his first field guide, a small green book from the National Audubon Society he received as a gift when he was eight or nine.
Today, Chorvas is dedicated to protecting the variety of local ecosystems and promoting the importance of that environment to the public. He is a long-time member of the John Burroughs Natural History Society (he joined as soon as he had a driver’s license), a regional, non-profit organization that conducts free nature tours, and a board member of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, which oversees the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve.
As co-chair of the stewardship committee of the Preserve, he is helping expand the property’s access to the public, with a boardwalk currently under construction and an osprey nest platform ready to be erected in a marshy area within view of the trail. (Assisted by a group of volunteers, he has twice tried to raise the heavy structure, which includes two extended perching areas, and was planning a third attempt when we spoke.)
In addition, Chorvas conducts free tours of the preserve and other significant wild areas in the Catskills. He also organizes and oversees a number of annual bird and butterfly censuses undertaken in the area as part of broader national and state-wide censuses, including the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
Self-taught, relying on his powers of observation, Chorvas has an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural environment. Unlike the DEC specialists charged with officially managing and protecting our natural resources, he comes from the tradition of amateurs who are dedicated to the study of nature as a pastime rather than a profession. But that doesn’t mean his observations don’t carry weight: his census work has provided data on local wildlife populations, particularly valuable in light state budget cutbacks that have hit DEC hard.
Chorvas’ dedication is all the more remarkable considering that he is not comfortably retired, as tends to be the norm in these circles: at 42, he is younger than most of his colleagues at the John Burroughs Society, and he holds down a full-time job. (It’s unrelated to his conservation interests and has prompted his friends to wonder when he finds time to sleep.)
He lives outside the village on 11 acres, which he has transformed into a mini-nature preserve, with plantings that attract butterflies, nest boxes for tress swallows and bluebirds, and a mowed field providing habitat diversity.
Chorvas is low-key and tends toward taciturnity, but if you aren’t shy about pestering him with questions on one of his walks, you’ll find yourself taking on new eyes. On a butterfly walk, for example, besides identifying the species of the various pairs of brightly colored wings fluttering around, he will point out how the females of some species are larger the males. He’ll distinguish individuals freshly emerged from the chrysalis, unfurling and drying out their dewy wings, from the specimens with tattered wings of advanced old age. And he’ll identify every bird song and flight within range of your eyes and ears; and explain why the stinging nettle is not a noisome weed, but a plant vital to the ecosystem.
You’ll be clued into the marvels of nature’s adaptations when he notes that antifreeze fluid in the wings of the mourning cloak enable this frail creature to survive the winter. In short, you’ll learn more in a single morning than you would in a quarter-lifetime of struggling to make connections on your own relying on a stack of field guides.
Chorvas said one of his particular interests is the “little world of nature” that most people simply ignore—the insect on the leaf along the side of the path or the wood frogs croaking in early spring from the vernal pool. “I’m always looking to point it out,” he said. “The stinging nettle for example is considered to be an obnoxious weed; most people don’t think of it as a wildlife haven. But when you turn over a leaf, you find a caterpillar, which will turn into a beautiful butterfly. I’m surprised how many people who’d never kill a bird don’t think twice about pulling out these plants, which have butterfly eggs on them.”
Chorvas said it’s unfortunate that people tend to congregate at birding “hot spots” and ignore the nature in less traveled places. He used to lead more hiking trips into the Catskill Mountains than he does now; interest has waned, probably due to the physical effort involved. The mountains are one of his favorite places, partly because the area’s rarest and most endangered breeding birds, Bicknell’s thrush, can be found only in the boreal forest of the high peaks.
Chorvas has been participating in the annual census for the Bicknell’s thrush for the past decade, traveling up Plateau and Twin mountains in early June to count them, based on listening to their songs. The bird only inhabits alpine forests of balsam fir and red spruce, which is showing signs of stress connected to acid rain and global warming. As the climate continues to warm and the forest disappears, so will the thrush.
Another trend that concerns him is the decline of species of birds that inhabit grasslands, an increasingly rare habitat in our area due to development and forest succession. “In the Northeast, we probably have more trees than we’ve ever had,” Chorvas said, noting that this is bad news for the bobolink, meadowlark, and several species of sparrows. The Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, in particular, which used to inhabit the fields of the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Preserve, formerly a military airport, have become scarce and are all but gone, he said.
Chorvas said a new, 190-acre preserve called Falling Water on the Hudson River side of Route 9W in Saugerties, which will open this July—it will be managed by the Esopus Creek Conservancy and the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill—is particularly valuable because it includes a large hay field. “We’ll be introducing native wildflowers, to help attract bees,” he said. A key requirement in successfully managing a field as habitat is mowing it late in the summer—after all the baby birds nesting in the field have fledged—and rotational cutting (mowing only a section at a time, to reduce mortality of the butterfly eggs and caterpillars that inhabit the grasses).
Chorvas’ perennial project, of course, is Esopus Bend. As mentioned above, he oversees the trails, conducts tours, protects certain rare nesting spots from curious humans on occasion, and lends his carpentry skills to infrastructure projects. Opened in 2003, the 161-acre preserve is still unknown to many of the town’s residents, including those living in the adjacent Barclay Heights neighborhood, though Chorvas said awareness is slowly growing. While local interest has been lagging, the preserve attracts birders from outside the area and has been mentioned in the magazine of the National Audubon Society.
Esopus Bend is particularly noteworthy as a winter habitat for birds, thanks to the abundance of berries from the bittersweet and multiflora rose growing there. (Chorvas bemoans the two invasives’ tendency to push out native plants, but he said they’re nonetheless valuable as a winter food source.) Last winter, he counted over two dozen hermit thrushes on the property, a winter rarity in the area.
Esopus Bend is also a breeding spot for Cooper’s hawk, with one nest identified in the area last year. (Chorvas has noticed new activity in the nest this year, indicating the hawk is back.) The preserve also has an impressive diversity of butterfly species, thanks to the mix of woods, wetlands, and open areas, which collectively provide a home to a variety of caterpillar host plants.
For more information on the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve, including a schedule of upcoming walks, and tours hosted by JBNHS, visit www.esopuscreekconservancy.org and www.jbnhs.org. And when you’re on a tour, don’t be shy about asking Chorvas what might seem like a silly question—what that ubiquitous plant is along the side of the path, for example, or why the butterfly lying on the ground is holding its wings together. He’ll have an answer, and you’ll see that what you assumed was below a naturalist’s notice is actually pretty profound, after all.