A group of tiny bacteria has been making a splash in New York State waters, and not in a good way. Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs, also known as cyanobacteria, Blue-green algae, BGA) are actually a type of bacteria rather than algae. If the right conditions are met, the bacteria can form what are called “blooms”, or massive amounts of floating material on the surface of a lake or pond. These blooms can look like brightly colored paint, oil, or scum, on the surface and at the shoreline of lakes and ponds. The blooms can move around a lake with wind action, or currents, and can appear, and even disappear, in a matter of hours. Harmful algal blooms have been spotted at an increasing rate around the US in the last several years, including within some New York State Parks’ waterbodies.
The worst part about these colorful phenomena are that some species of HABs are known to produce toxins that are harmful to both humans and animals. Humans can be affected through swallowing water while swimming, touching blooms, and wading in blooms. If the HABs are producing toxins, some swimmers can experience a range of symptoms, from simple rashes, to stomach issues, and even to muscular paralysis. New York State Park bathing beaches are closed when a HAB is present. NYS Parks follows NYS Department of Health criteria when reopening the beach, which requires that the HAB bloom be visibly absent from the swim area for 24 hours.
Dogs are also particularly susceptible to these toxins and should not be allowed, under any circumstance, to drink or swim in a bloom. Dog owners are encouraged to educate themselves on identifying HABs, to protect their fur-kids from harm. Dogs exposed to HAB toxins can experience severe illness and in some cases, fatal effects.
NYS Parks posts HAB alert signs near waterbodies where HABs have been seen.
One of the best ways to recognize HABs on a lake surface is to be aware of changes to the surface of the lake. Take a look at the pictures below of HAB blooms that have been seen in NYS Parks.
Be on the lookout for HABS in stagnant or still, nutrient-rich waters, when the temperatures start to rise. HABs are influenced by time of year, climate and nutrient loads. The best way to prevent HAB growth is through watershed management. Reduce your own runoff by following NYS fertilizer guides, and help to report any evidence of HABs to the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation HAB hotline.
There are some HAB look-a-likes out there. Duckweed, other algae such as Cladophora (a form of clumpy, stringy algae), and pollen can easily be mistaken for HABs, especially in the spring.
Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head and rattle. Like other pit-vipers, timber rattlesnakes possess a heat-sensitive organ, or pit, on either side of the head that allow them to detect prey. Their rattles are comprised of segments that accumulate each time a snake sheds its skin, which is every 1-2 years in this region. Counting the number of rattle segments is not an accurate way of aging snakes, as rattles wear and break off. Rattles are used as a warning to potential predators to stay away, making a distinct buzzing noise when rattled.
Timber rattlesnakes can occur in two color patterns: The black phase, which consists of dark bands against a dark background, and the yellow phase, which consists of dark bands on a lighter background. Color shades and band patterns vary from snake to snake.
Their distinctive cross-bands allow them to camouflage themselves from unsuspecting prey as well as from predators. Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals, but will also consume birds, amphibians or other snakes. They ambush prey as it passes by and inject a controlled amount of venom with “hinged” hollow fangs. They then release the animal, wait, and follow its chemical trail to consume it. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in maintaining stable numbers of prey populations, such as rodent species that can carry diseases and destroy crops.
The venom from a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated, but bites are rare. Snakes will not go out of their way to pursue or bite a person. They have the ability to sense the vibrations of an approaching creature and if it is too large to be prey, they rely on their camouflage to hide or they retreat. It requires precious energy to produce venom- Timbers will bite as a last resort if they are cornered and feel threatened. There has not been a death from a timber rattlesnake bite in New York State in several decades. In all of my encounters with these snakes, both for study purposes and chance encounters, one has never struck. While they might coil in a defensive posture and rattle as a warning, the snakes simply want to go on their way and be left alone. It is important to give them space.
These snakes will hibernate together in a den below the frost line, and it’s not uncommon for other snake species to den with them. The same den will be used for generations. They can live up to 30 years, though most live 16-22 years. Male timber rattlesnakes reach sexual maturity at about 5 years whereas females don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-11 years. Females give birth every 3-5 years, and they are among a few species of snakes that give birth to live young. Their slower reproduction rates make them even more susceptible to the threats they face.
Timber rattlesnakes were once more abundant. Indiscriminate killing and a bounty system, as well as unregulated collecting has greatly reduced their numbers, completely eliminating them from some areas. Though the bounty was repealed in the 1970’s and they are now protected by law in New York State, they still face poaching. Snakes are purposefully killed out of a misplaced fear or disdain, or are collected for the illegal pet trade. Snakes can also be killed by vehicles while attempting to bask in roads or cross them in search of food or a mate. Timber rattlesnakes are a slower moving snake, and they tend to freeze when they sense vibration, such as that of an oncoming car. This puts them at greater risk of being run over. People have said that snakes stretched out across the road look like sticks. It’s important for drivers to be observant in order to avoid hitting snakes (or any animal) in the road, and heed animal crossing signs.
Habitat loss due to human development and frequent recreational use of land has also had a negative impact on timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, snakes in the eastern United States are facing decline due to a deadly fungal disease. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the few populations of timber rattlesnakes left in New York State and the habitat that supports them. Surveys are conducted and sightings are tracked to help determine the size and health of populations. Snakes are also fitted with transmitter devices for tracking and monitoring. One of the biggest efforts in the conservation of Timber Rattlesnakes is raising public awareness. By educating people about the snakes at sites where they occur, it increases safety for visitors and for the snakes. While they can pose a threat to people (similar to many other species of wildlife), these graceful animals are not bad and are not out to get anyone. They occupy a key niche in the natural community and food web and help to keep the ecosystem in balance. It is rare to encounter a timber rattlesnake in New York State because of their reclusive and docile nature. However, if you do see one, remember — as with all wildlife — to keep your distance for your safety as well as to not stress the animal. Take the time to watch from a distance to appreciate the beauty of a part of the natural world we live in. Whether snakes fascinate or frighten you, if you are walking through their home territory, it’s important to be aware. Respecting their space benefits both you and the snakes.
Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
See the nose to left and body to right under the rock? Photo by NYNYP
If you frequent nature trails, you have likely passed by stones or trees with some kind of crusty material on the surface. Is it a moss? No, moss is a plant. Is it a fungus? Well, yes and no. This crust is actually a partnership between at least two different organisms, making a composite organism called lichen (pronounced “LIKE-en”).
Lichens are made of multiple fungi – a diverse group of organisms including mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and others – living with algae and/or algae-like bacteria called cyanobacteria. The fungi provide a pleasant, hydrated shelter to live in, while their partner provides food through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis means using sunlight, water, and CO2 to create sugar (and the oxygen that we breathe, no big deal). Cyanobacteria can also “fix” or make use of nutrients from the air, further helping the fungi to grow. This mutual relationship between different species is what biologists call symbiosis.
Thanks to the many possible fungi-algae-bacteria combinations, lichens take on many different forms and colors. In New York State alone, there are over 800 types of lichens! Lichens can look like small flaky crusts (“crustose”), flat leaf-like growths (“foliose”), or even branched (“fruticose”) like miniature shrubs. Many take on a greenish-grey hue, but other colors include brown, black, white, yellow, bright orange, red, and blue. You might see these unique fungal partnerships on all kinds of surfaces along nature trails – adding a nice flair to wooden sign posts, historic stone walls, boulders, tree bark, the forest floor, and decaying logs.
People have used lichens for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. Lichens with antibiotic properties have been used in traditional medicines and embalming practices. Some of the more brilliant-colored lichens have been used to make dyes for yarn, cloth, and even litmus paper (a quick, easy way to measure how acidic something is). Several cultures worldwide include lichens in their diets, making soups, side dishes, beverages, and even molasses. But watch out – not all lichens are safe to eat! Those involving cyanobacteria can produce toxins; these lichens have historically been used as poisons in hunting.
While all these uses of lichens are interesting, we at New York State Parks want you to simply enjoy observing the beauty and impact of lichens in their natural habitats.
Lichens in Nature
Lichens serve several important roles in our parks. As one of the first lifeforms that established on land, they helped create much of the world we live in today. They play a role in soil formation, slowly breaking large rocks down into smaller pieces. Then they carry out processes that add essential nutrition to forest soils, allowing trees and plants to grow. Lichens also benefit wildlife. Northern flying squirrels, deer, and moose are among those known to graze on lichens, particularly in the winter. In the spring, birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher often use lichen to build and camouflage their nests.
Lichen populations also give important clues about environmental health. Studies have shown lichen to be sensitive to air pollution, and so a decline in lichen may be a warning sign of worsening air quality nearby. Similarly, lichen growth rates react to long-term changes in moisture and temperature, and so they can help monitor the climate. Scientists take advantage of the slow-growing nature of certain lichens and use their size or branching patterns to estimate the age of rocks in the forests, similar to tree rings on a tree stump.
By keeping an eye on the lichens in our parks, we can discover fascinating patterns in our local ecosystems. And we can have a deeper appreciation for the beautiful landscapes that New York State has to offer!
See if you can spot these and other lichens the next time you are out enjoying nature:
Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) in the winter. Despite the name, this is actually a lichen. There are many similar species of Cladonia that can be seen in New York State Parks. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP)
Grey rock tripe (Umbilicaria sp.) and a finely-textured crustose lichen on a cliff community. (Photo by Gregory Edinger, NYNHP)
This spongy gray-green lichen was found in a chestnut oak forest. (Photo by Gregory Edinger, NYNHP)
Orange-brown rock tripe (Umbilicaria sp.) can be found on big rocks and outcrops at State Parks such as Minnewaska, Sterling, Moreau, and others. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP)
Up-close and personal with a leaf-like (“foliose”) lichen on a tree in Thacher State Park. (Photo by Erin Lennon, NYS Parks)
Stepping back to admire a mix of foliose lichens (grey and light-green), crustose lichen (small golden speckles), and moss (dark green) on the same tree trunk at Thacher State Park. (Photo by Erin Lennon, NYS Parks)
Post by Erin Lennon, State Parks
Featured image: A common sight: lichen attached to tree bark in New York State. (Photo adapted from Wikipedia, public domain)
Warblers, sometimes called “wood-warblers”, are a group of tiny, highly vocal and often brightly colored songbirds. Every year in May, they arrive in New York from Central and South America where they overwinter. Some continue north to Canada, but many stay here to raise their young, and then return south again in the fall. Most warblers are insectivorous, at least in spring and into summer. That means they eat mainly insects. So it is no coincidence that their spring migration follows the return of the buggy season. As leaves first appear in the spring and the bees and butterflies and other insects start moving about, keep your eyes and ears open for returning warblers.
Some warblers are pretty uncommon, so you will have to look extra hard to find them. One of these is the Golden-winged Warbler, once plentiful across New York and large areas of the eastern United States, but now quietly disappearing. Intense studies over the past few decades by wildlife scientists have helped to determine the causes of the dramatic declines and what could be done to prevent the loss of this brilliantly colored bird.
Changes in land use are one of the causes for decline. Peak numbers of golden-wings coincided with the rise of agriculture and timber harvest that created an abundance of young forest and shrublands that the birds preferred. As dairy farms dwindled, shifting to extensive croplands or reverting back to forests which continued to mature over the past century, the early successional habitats became less abundant and with it the decline of the golden-wings. More recently, studies also found that competition and hybridization with the closely related Blue-winged Warbler has taken a big toll on the golden-wing populations.
Although Golden-winged Warblers often nest and forage in shrublands, they also utilize forests for a portion of their time to forage, and provide cover for their young. There are many types of forests, but all of them change as they grow older. Mature forests have trees in all shapes and sizes, many of them stretch up high and crowd out the sun from reaching lower levels of the forest. Younger forests have many bushes and smaller trees, all competing to become the big, mature trees someday. Scientists have known for a long time that some forest birds prefer shrubland and young forest while others prefer more mature forest, and some prefer a mix of both. Golden-wings prefer shrubland and young forest with mature forest nearby. Young forests and shrublands, which were once created by natural wildfires, beaver flooding, as well as careful logging, were all growing into old forest habitat in the era of fire prevention, removal of beavers, and a decline of logging. Much of the golden-wing’s habitat was disappearing, and without it the golden-wings had no place to raise their young.
The good news is that habitat loss is something New Yorkers can do something about, giving this brightly colored songbird and other shrubland and young forest species a fighting chance at a future.
To ensure this future, Audubon New York is working with forest owners in certain areas of New York to identify existing areas of young forest and early successional habitats and, where appropriate, to create small patches of young forest, while preserving the older forests nearby. In New York State Parks, biologists are working with Audubon New York and NY Natural Heritage Program biologists in places like Harriman and Sterling Forest State Parks, to restore habitats that naturally support the open structure and mosaic of forest types that Golden-winged Warblers prefer. By surveying where the birds were and identifying the right places to create and maintain habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler, park biologists hope to increase the number of stable populations in the region.
In the future, the partnership hopes to learn more about the interaction and distribution of Golden-winged Warblers and the more abundant and competing Blue-winged Warbler in order to guide conservation needs. In 2016, the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission and Audubon New York partnered to fit individual golden-wings and Blue-winged Warblers with geolocators. These are small devices that measure day length and allow for specific locations of each bird to be calculated when in migration and while on wintering grounds in South America. This will help scientists identify additional conservation actions to save the Golden-winged Warbler.
Golden-winged Warbler ready for geolocator tag, photo by Eric Lind, one time use only
Blue-winged Warbler with a geolocator, photo by Eric Lind, one time use only
To learn more about the Golden-winged Warbler, and ongoing conservation efforts visit the Golden- winged Warbler working group website at www.GWWA.org. For more information on what you can do to help conserve the Golden-winged Warbler in New York, visit Audubon New York at http://ny.audubon.org/.
Post by Andy Hinickle, Audubon NY and Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program
On Saturday, May 6, thousands of New Yorkers will again join their family, friends and neighbors at over 120 state parks and historic sites to participate in volunteer projects as part of the sixth annual I Love My Park Day, a partnership between New York State Parks and Parks & Trails New York. On behalf New York State Parks, I look forward to welcoming you all to what is a remarkable day for the New York State Park system.
Sponsored jointly by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) and Parks & Trails New York, I Love My Park Day is a statewide event to improve and enhance New York’s parks and historic sites and bring visibility to the entire park system and its needs. Public parks in every corner of the State, from Jones Beach State Park to Niagara Falls State Park, will participate this year. Volunteers will have the opportunity to participate in clean up events at five national parks in New York State: Gateway National Recreation Area (Great Kills, Staten Island and Plumb Beach, Jamaica Bay, Queens); Fort Stanwix National Monument (Rome); Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites (Hyde Park); Fire Island National Seashore (Ocean Beach) and Saratoga Battlefield Historical Park (Stillwater), as well as fourteen properties managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in the Adirondack and Catskill Regions and at three environmental centers, Catskill Interpretive Center (Mount Tremper); Five Rivers Environmental Education Center (Delmar) and Reinstein Woods (Buffalo). And, again this year, we will be joined across the state by members of the New York State Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC), a New York State AmeriCorps program run by the Student Conservation Association, who will help State parks organize and implement I Love My Park Day projects.
Each year, a record number of volunteers turn out and complete an impressive array of projects to beautify our facilities and prepare them for the summer season. Volunteers will celebrate New York’s public lands by cleaning up debris, planting trees and gardens, restoring trails and wildlife habitat, removing invasive species, and working on various site improvement projects. Your efforts demonstrate just how important your parks and historic sites are to your families, communities, and to our entire state as places to be active, explore the outdoors and relax with family and friends. It is our honor to work every day to ensure that all state parks are open and accessible for all to visit, but we could not do it without you—the volunteers and friends who work not just on I Love My Park Day but year-round to make our parks and sites the very best they can be.