In Appreciation of Skunks

When you start to think about skunks, the thing that comes most to mind is the overwhelmingly identifiable stench that these small creatures can produce. Skunks are often vilified for their over-the-top predator defense mechanism, and most people have a story of it plaguing campgrounds, pets, and homes. But these cat-sized mammals actually have some behaviors and habits that should be appreciated, despite their larger-than-life smell.

A surprised skunk, photo by State Parks

Skunks are a member of their own distinct family, Mephitidae, formerly of the weasel family (Mustelid). The Latin name for the Striped skunk (the most common in New York State) is Mephitis mephitis, roughly translated to “double foul odor”. The striped skunk is about the size of a house cat, at 6-10 pounds. The skunk has a beautifully patterned, glossy hide, and a fluffy easily recognizable tail. Not unlike the bright warning colors of some frogs, the skunk’s distinctly patterned fur serves as fair warning of its noxious potential.

Skunks live in a variety of habitats, but prefer transition areas of open areas, like fields, with nut-producing trees.  Unfortunately, that means that skunks also like to live in residential areas, like mowed lawns and street-sides.

Short-legged skunks waddle through the snow, leaving a wide track, photo by State Parks

Skunks live in dug burrows, and will use abandoned burrows, hollow logs, or large rocks as dens. A skunk can have upwards of 10 burrows that they rotate among. Skunks are not huge travelers, and most of the time will establish a home range around a water source, rarely venturing farther than 2 miles away. Skunks do not truly hibernate, but they do slowdown in the winter, sleeping deeply for a few months in the coldest part of the winter. Skunks are also a relatively short-lived mammal, rarely living longer than 3 years in the wild. They have few natural predators – disease and birds of prey are their main population controls. Birds of prey (for example, great horned owls) have very poor senses of smell.

A skunk resting during the day, photo by State Parks.

Skunks eat just about anything! Being omnivores, skunks eat nuts, larvae, worms, eggs, reptiles, fish, you name it! They will even eat hornets! Skunks are foragers, and so they take advantage of any meal. They are also fabulous diggers, and are one of the few animals that will dig up a ground hornets nest to eat  stinging bees or wasps. To help them dig, skunks have long claws and a pair of partially fused toes on their front feet. They will leave many small cone-shaped holes in an area where they are foraging. Skunks also provide a free pest-removal service! They eat grubs, stinkbugs, mice, and more. Skunks are common and widespread, so your local campground is probably benefitting from their work.

A State Parks employee tells the tale of a late fall garden, plagued by a ground hornets’ nest. After being stung a few times, the garden was abandoned until a plan to deal with the hornets was determined. The next day, there were skunk holes and tracks, an empty hornets nest, and the rest of the potatoes ready to be picked. Skunks are not necessarily the stinky nuisance that comes first to mind.

A young skunk, photo by State Parks

Also, skunk babies are adorable and fun to watch if you keep your distance.  Did you know a group of skunks is called a surfeit? A surfeit of baby skunks is sure to creep into your heart, as the smell creeps into your nose. Check out this close animal encounter with the most adorable surfeit around. Baby skunks, or kits, stick close by their mother, and like to maintain almost constant body contact with her (AWW!) but in general skunks are solitary creatures. Baby skunks can produce spray at 3-4 weeks old.

Skunks only spray when they feel threatened, but boy, when they spray you know it! They generally will display other defense postures before spraying, like growling, spitting, stomping, and fluffing their beautiful fur. Usually, only inexperienced pets will push a skunk to spray. If you or your dog are still not scared off after their initial warnings, the skunk will resort to their final “eau de resistance,” and spray a sulfurous smelly compound up to 10 feet away. This spray is not considered dangerous, but it can sting the eyes and is definitely not fun.

The spray is an oil produced in glands under the tail. Skunks also have surprising accuracy in their aim. It can take several days for a skunk to replenish its grape-sized glands, so they really only spray as a last resort. There are many supposed remedies to get rid of the smell including washing with: tomato juice; a mixture of baking soda, peroxide, and liquid detergent; vanilla extract; apple cider vinegar; the juice of many lemons; and many more. In a strange twist, skunks hate strong odors, and having something strong-smelling in your garage (like a hanging deodorizer) may keep skunks from taking up residence.

Skunk Night

Spring is breeding season and is the most common time period for skunk spray, as they are preoccupied and easily startled. So, keep an eye on your pets this spring while enjoying the outdoors, but also keep an eye out for your chance to spot a stinky but cute surfeit of your own.

Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks


Fire Improves Bird Habitat at Ganondagan State Historic Site

Have you heard about wildfire outbreaks in California or New York on the news? Do you know how a prescribed burn and wildfire differ from one another?  A prescribed burn is very different from a wildfire. Prescribed burning is a management tool that is precisely planned for safety and meeting set goals, while wildfires often occur unpredictably and without warning. State Parks utilizes prescribed burning for both public safety and conservation purposes. This past spring, at the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, prescribed burning was used for both conservation and to replicate traditions of the Seneca people.

Control lines are created at the edge of the area to be burned so that the fire does not escape designated areas. These lines are approximately 12 feet wide and are kept wet and clear of fire by prescribed burn staff, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Ganondagan State Historic Site (Ganondagan) celebrates and interprets the lives and culture of the Seneca people, specifically the Seneca that lived on site between 1655-1687. The site is 570 acres, and in 2009, a 70-acre portion was set aside for grassland management. Journal entries from European visitors during the time of Seneca occupation, described the areas surrounding Ganondagan. In 1669, explorers Galineē and Dollier described vast oak openings with sparse, but lofty, oak trees and grasses taller than a man that extended for hundreds of miles in every direction.¹ These observations paint a picture of warm season grasslands, with grasses reaching heights of 8 feet or taller, sparse wildflowers and oak trees around their fringe.² Warm season grasses begin growing in June, reaching full maturity by August or September. Some of the earliest observations indicate that the Seneca people burned these grasslands annually, managing them to attract game animals and birds, and to facilitate nut collection.³

Prescribed fire at Ganondagan was lit with drip torches, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

The 70 acres set aside for grassland management began its transformation in 2009, with the goal of recreating the landscape that existed for the Seneca at Ganondagan almost 400 years ago. A fully established warm season grassland can support many forms of life, and at Ganondagan it is a haven for rare grassland bird species. Grasslands are ecosystems maintained by natural disturbances like fire. Without disturbance, a grassland will gradually go through the steps of succession to become a shrubland and later a forest.

Before the prescribed burn at Ganondagan in May 2017, the grasslands had begun to build up a thick thatch layer, decreasing both the amount of sunlight reaching its sun-loving plants and the amount of bare ground between plants (which grassland birds and mammals like for habitat).

A successful prescribed burn is designed to keep the fire within control lines and the smoke up and away from people and homes, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Time of year can play an important role in how an ecosystem reacts to a burn. At Ganondagan, a spring burn was chosen to cut off early growth of invasive species and to promote the growth of the warm season grasses like big bluestem and Indian grass. Future prescribed burning done on the site may happen in different seasons depending on the desired outcome. For example, a prescribed burn taking place in this warm season grassland in the fall would promote the growth of forbs (broad leaved plants), such as wildflowers. Regardless of the timing, a properly done prescribed burn will not completely remove grasses or forbs, but can help achieve the best plant composition for grassland birds.

Prescribed burning was the perfect way to manage the grasslands at Ganondagan: it created a disturbance to maintain the ecosystem, returned carbon and nitrogen to the soil in the form of ash, and opened the grassland to more sunlight. This burn also provides a unique opportunity for educators to interpret this management tool, once used by the Seneca at Ganondagan to maintain the grasslands in the 17th Century, and now updated for the 21st century!

The ‘mop up’ of a prescribed burn ensures that all of the fire is completely out and, as in the case of the Ganondagan Prescribed Burn, can take longer than the burn itself, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

This valuable management tool will continue to be used at the Ganondagan State Historic Site and are exploring future opportunities.

Post by Whitney Carleton-DeGeorge and Michael Galban , State Parks

Featured image: Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

1 Galinée, René de Bréhant de. (env. 1670) 1903. “Le Voyage De MM. Dollier et Galinée.” In Exploration of the Great Lakes 1669-1670 by Dollier de Casson and de Bréhant de Galinée, ed. James H. Coyne. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records.

² Parker, Arthur – New York State Archeologist – “The League of the Five Nations – a Story of the Aboriginal Empire State” published in Livingston County Historical Society 34th Annual Meeting, Geneseo, NY, 1910.

³Donck, Adriaen van der, 1620-1655. (Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant. English) A description of New Netherland / Adriaen van der Donck; edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A Starna; translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys; foreword by Russell Shorto.

Tundra Swans at Beaver Island State Park

It’s winter on the Niagara River.  While most of us are looking forward to spring, migratory birds from the high Arctic are frolicking here as if the river were a tropical resort.

The tundra swan foreshadows the arrival of winter on the Niagara frontier.  During the waning days of autumn, large flocks of these elegant birds congregate along riverbanks and small islands wherever there is shallow water where they remain for several months feeding mostly on the roots of submerged aquatic plants.  Sometimes they are joined by lesser numbers of mute swans  and trumpeter swans.

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Adult tundra swans along the Niagara River.

As our tundra swans settle into their winter environs they often behave in a stealthy manner, choosing to lead a low-key existence until the annual waterfowl hunting season ends. However, it’s easy to locate these birds from their unique calls which are reminiscent of those of a baying dog but with a bit of a musical lilt.  By the end of January, large flocks of hundreds of birds emerge where they can be observed feeding, preening their feathers or engaging in mating rituals.  One of the best areas to observe the tundra swan is at Beaver Island State Park located at the south end of Grand Island where the Niagara River is widest.

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Adult tundra swan preening it’s feathers.  During preening, or straightening and smoothing the feathers, swans distribute uropygial oil, a special oil that helps keep their feathers dry.  Swans and other water birds produce uropygial oil in their uropygial gland.

It’s easy to identify the tundra swan.  Adult birds are pure white with black legs and have a black bill with a distinctive yellow spot just below the eye. This area of the bill is known as the lore.  Immature tundra swans are also white but their head and neck is streaked with gray.  They often travel with the adults.  Contrast that with the features of the mute swan, a non-native species brought over from Europe, which has an orange bill with a black base and short legs.  The neck is slender and is always held in a graceful shape resembling the letter “S”.   A trumpeter swan on the other hand, has a heavy all white body with a long neck that is held straight whether on the water or in flight. The bill and the legs are black.

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Adult and juvenile tundra swans.

The tundra swans will remain here until early spring.  As the weather warms they will depart on the long journey to their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle.

Greenway Corridor
Aerial view of the Niagara River Greenway

The ecological significance of the Niagara River has long been recognized.  In 1996 it was the first to be designated a Globally Significant Important Bird Area.  Then in 2005 New York State added further support officially establishing the Niagara River Greenway.  Since that time millions of dollars have been invested in habitat restoration and enhancement projects significantly enhancing the biodiversity of the Niagara River corridor.

Post and photos by Paul Leuchner

Staff Favorite Ski Trails

If there is six inches or more of snow on the ground, get those skis ready to hit the trail in a State Park.  Across New York, there are 105 state parks and state historic sites that have cross-country ski trails.  If you are looking to try a new cross-county ski trail, try one of State Parks staff member’s favorite trails.

Nicandri Nature Center staff member Tracy mentions that there are over five miles of trails wind through the woods and along the St. Lawrence River in Robert Moses State Park, Massena, NY. The center offers free ski and snowshoe loans for all ages as well as ski instruction. Post ski, skiers can head into the nature center to enjoy a hot beverage, check out interactive exhibits, and warm up in front of the fire.

State Parks volunteer Judy notes that all of the trails at the Higley Flow State Park  just west of the Adirondacks, have their own unique scenic character and are popular with different ability levels for different reasons. The Overlook Trail is the most heavily used trail at the Park because it is a comfortable length (1.3 miles), relatively flat with a few smaller hills, and passes through a pine and spruce forest.  Skiers are never further than ¾ miles from the Lodge if they want to cut their ski short.  It links with the Woods’ backcountry trail (1.9 miles) and the Warm Brook trail (1.6 miles) for those wishing to challenge themselves further.

Higley Flow
A skier enjoys new snow in Higley Flow State Park.

With over 20 miles of groomed ski trails located in the Art Roscoe Trail system at Allegany State Park in western New York, State Parks staffer Adele finds it hard to pick a favorite, but for a fun fast ski, recommends Christian Hollow.  This 1.5-mile loop starts .7 miles from the trail head. After a mild uphill to get the heart pumping, the trail mellows into a long level area where a skier can find that sweet smooth rhythm – ride and glide, ride and glide- click on this link to learn the ride and glide technique.

A short heart-pounding downhill leads to the well-marked entrance of Christian Hollow. This old logging road rolls past hemlocks, maples, beech and oak. Look for squirrel, mice and deer tracks  and other animal signs along the way.

Although it is marked as an intermediate trail, there is something for everyone. Easy descents lead to short steep uphills where the herringbone or duck-walking technique is key! This video can help you master going uphill on skis.

The reward for the hill climb is a gorgeous view of the Allegany plateau from highest picnic table in the park (2,242 feet). Back in the tracks, the loop continues with a long fast downhill and more rolling terrain with views along the ridge before winding back to Ridge Run. It’s an easy one mile ski back to the trail head. Taking only an hour which includes time for photos and a snack, this trail is exhilarating for both body and soul. Find out more about the trails

Minnewaska State Park Preserve, located in the bucolic Hudson Valley, offers over 16 miles/26 kilometers of cross-country ski trails, groomed for both classic and skate skiing.  Skiers of all levels of ability will find a route they can enjoy, with breathtaking clifftop views and scenic carriage roads that meander through pristine forests featuring two sky lakes. You won’t find more picturesque and exciting skiing this close to New York City and Albany anywhere else. State Parks staff member Laura notes that the prices make skiing here affordable for the family, at $10 per adult, $9 per senior and $7 per child.

We have the perfect cure for the winter blues at Fahnestock Winter Park – 20 km of ski trails for beginner to expert extend out in every direction from our lodge.  Fahnestock is the perfect location for your first skiing experience. You can rent you all the gear you need and right out the door of the lodge is our most popular trail the Lake Trail.

Ice conditions permitting, we groom two kilometers of trails on our lake, a perfect place to learn to ski as it is flat and safe. Advanced skiers also love it because they can go fast on the groomed trail.

The trail will take you by a beaver lodge, over the dam built by the Civil Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and past many small islands. Ice fishermen, skaters and snowshoers can also be found on the lake.

State Parks staff member Declan finds that gliding west towards the sun on a January day is spectacular way to experience the park in winter in a safe environment.

Skiing on the beach in the winter, and then returning to swim at the beach in the summer, is one of the best ways to experience all the seasons in Fahnestock!

Family fun at Fahnestock Winter Park.


February Staycation Fun in New York State Parks

February vacation is a great time to get out and explore our state parks. Many parks are offering free programming to keep you and your family occupied this February break.  Here is a sampler of just some of the many programs State Parks is offering this year. Our programs include active outdoor fun, wildlife ID, and parties!

Got a hankering to try ice fishing?  Then head out to Glimmerglass State Park in central NY on February 21, Moreau Lake State Park, north of Saratoga Springs, on February 22, or John Boyd Thacher State Park, Thompson Lake just west of Albany, on February 24 for a free fishing clinic led by Department of Environmental Conservation staff. All the fishing gear will be provided during these workshops. Remember that proper clothing is critical for safe ice fishing outings.  Dress warmly, paying extra attention to your head, feet and hands – dressing in layers is essential.

Perhaps you are hoping to get to know our natives.  Many parks are offering wildlife and plant identification walks, ranging from seal walks at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island to an owl prowl at Max V. Shaul State Park in the northern Catskills, as well as a winter tree identification workshop at Knox Farm State Park in western New York.

If you are looking for a little adventure, check out the snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails at Parks across the state or join in on a guided hike. The Lake Erie ice volcanos are particularly exciting, and you can visit them at Evangola State Park in western New York.

Many state parks across the state will be offering programs for preschoolers during February vacation.

Tiny Tot Clay Pit Ponds
February is a great time to get the young explorers outdoors, photo by State Parks.

Maple sugaring starts in February! Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve on Staten Island Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve on Long Island, and Letchworth State Park south of Rochester will have maple programs this week. Visitors can learn how to identify and tap maple trees, and the sugaring process.

Tapping a maple tree, photo by State Parks.

You can also celebrate George Washington’s 286th birthday at Washington’s Headquarters, Knox Headquarters, New Windsor Cantonment or John Jay Homestead State Historic Sites all located in the Hudson Valley.

Winter Sunset, Allegan State Park Toners
Perhaps you can catch the sunset in a State Park, photo by State Parks.

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