Respect for Rattlers

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Amy McGinnis, 2011
Timber Rattlesnake that was run over attempting to cross the road. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2011

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.

Amy McGinnis 2015
Rattlesnakes often hide under rock ledges and crevices and come out to bask in the sun. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2015

Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks

NYNHP
CHALLENGE! Can you find the rattlesnake in this picture? Photo by NYNHP

Resources:

NY Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guide

Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet

USGS: National Wildlife Health Center: Snake Fungal Disease

NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life provides detailed maps and status across North America

Likin’ the Lichens in New York State

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.

2 - lichen at Shepards Tooth (photo by Tim Howard)
Lichen in an alpine meadow, amidst sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia).  Shepherds Tooth, Adirondacks. (Photo by Tim Howard, NYNHP)

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.

Cultural Significance

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.

3 - Many uses of lichen (photos from wikipedia and mycopigments dot com, referencing Noah Siegel)
Top left: Lichen-dyed yarn.  Top right: Lichen-coated litmus paper.  Bottom: Black lichen in cuisine. (Photos by Noah Siegal at mycopigments.com, Wikimedia commons, and Public Domain, respectively)

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.

4 - Rock Lichen, circle, New Jersey (photo by Steve Young)
A closer look at lichen growing outward on a rock. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP

 

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:

 

11 - Enchanted forest (photo by Julie Lundgren) 94_F11LUN05
An enchanted forest: lichens and moss decorate the trees, ground, and rocks. Although subtle and unassuming, lichens play a vital role in shaping the complex ecosystems found throughout New York State. (Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP)

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)

Resources:

Video featured on NPR’s Science Friday: “Hunting Wild Lichen.”

U.S. Forest Service factsheet: “Lichens – Did you Know?

BBC article on soils and lichen in creating the planet we know today. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151205-one-amazing-substance-allowed-life-to-thrive-on-land

NYT article on a 2016 ground-breaking discovery that yeasts are an additional part of many lichens: “Two’s Company, Three’s a Lichen?

List of the Lichens of New York, by Richard Harris in 2004.

New York State Parks Partners with Audubon New York to Save One of New York’s Most Beautiful Songbirds

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.

RedMaple-HardwoodSwampAnd ShrubSwamp_GregEdingerNYNHP
This red maple – hardwood swamp with its young trees, open canopy, and abundance of shrubs and sturdy sedges (the grass like plants in the middle) is an example of the kind of Golden-winged warbler habitat that State Parks is working to protect and restore. Photo by Greg Edinger, NYNHP.

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.

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

Dig deeper into Golden-winged Warblers

Golden-winged Warbler Working Group

Audubon New York

Golden-winged warbler fact sheet

Listen to the buzzy call of the Golden-winged warbler

Learn more about their status and habitat

Confer, J. L., Hartman, P., & Roth, A. (1992). Golden-winged Warbler: Vermivora Chrysoptera. American Ornithologists’ Union.

I Love My Park

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.

If you haven’t already registered, do so soon by visiting http://www.ptny.org/ilovemypark/index.shtml.

Post by Commissioner Rose Harvey

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Parks Goes Solar

As we celebrate Earth Day we’d like to tell you a little bit about some of the projects our Energy & Sustainability Office is working on that benefit the environment. Particularly we’d like to tell you how they are developing renewable energy projects all across the state. State Parks has developed several solar arrays over the last few years. Solar arrays use panels to catch sunlight. You’ve probably seen them on the roofs of houses in your neighborhood or maybe even your own house. The panels catch the light from the sun and turn that into electricity for use in the house or building.

NYS Parks has completed 13 solar installation projects to date. Our goals is use the sun to power part or all of our Parks. As a result of their work State Parks is recognized as the leading renewable energy agency in the state. Most installations were completed by trained in-house State Parks employees after they went through a solar power training course at HVCC. By training employees to install solar arrays, Parks is able to save money and give employees the opportunity to learn valuable skills that give them a better understanding of the project. State Parks currently has about 50 staff members with this training and continues to train more each year.

Beginning in 2012 with the construction of the rooftop array on the Niagara Falls Discovery Center State Parks renewable energy projects have grown in number and size. State Parks Staff have installed arrays in several parks across the state including, Niagara Falls, Letchworth, Robert Moses, and Grafton Lakes.

The 13th solar installation was at Robert Moses State Park in Long Island, and will become the first energy neutral State Park in the United States. The nearly 700 kilowatt solar array will save more than $100,000 each year. Built with 2,432 panels, this pole-mounted array is located in the back of parking field 4 of Robert Moses State Park. The solar panels are made in the United States by SolarWorld and supplied by National Solar Technology in Buffalo. This is the largest solar installation by State employees in the State’s history.

Currently Parks is installing a new solar system with a 144 kW capacity at the headquarters of the Historic Preservation Office, Peebles Island State Park in Cohoes. The array will account for more than 20% of the electricity used by the complex. Parks is also constructing a solar array on the roof of the Bathhouse at Lake Taghkanic State Park.  This 40kW solar array will provide more than 25% of the buildings electric need.

Happy Earth Day!

Niagara
Niagara Falls Discovery Center System Output: 8.74 kW Annual Output: 10,940 kWh, photo by State Parks
Letchworth
Letchworth Visitors Center System Output: 25 kW Annual Output: 29,200 kWh, photo by State Parks
Robert Moses
Robert Moses State Park, Field 4 System Output: 693.12 kW Annual Output: 920,000 kWh, photo by State Parks

 

 

The official blog for New York State Parks & Historic Sites

%d bloggers like this: