Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers

It’s National Pollinator Week! Scientists have been busy looking to see what pollinators live in State Parks. Here’s a first look at some of the early results.

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This is actually a fly! The bare-cheeked bumblefly is a very rare Syrphid in NY that mimics bumblebees and lives in old forests.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

In 2017 a cadre of NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) biologists working under a long-standing agreement with State Parks began testing out sampling methods for a multi-year statewide Native Pollinator Survey (ESNPS) under the auspices of the Governor’s NYS Pollinator Protection Plan jointly administered by Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Agriculture and Markets.

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The eastern calligrapher (Toxomerus geminatus) is a very common species in State Parks all over the state.  Photo by Lindsay Dombroskie, accessed from iNaturalist.

The goal of the ESNPS is to determine the rarity of a wide array of native insect pollinators in non-agricultural habitats. NYNHP Zoologists honed in on the most important and vulnerable pollinating groups in the state, representing a wide variety of native insect pollinators such as bumble bees, mining bees, bee flies, longhorn beetles and flower moths.

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Captured by a spider, a fate that befalls some flower-visiting flies.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

Between June 8 – October 3, 2017 on fair weather days, two biologists used sets of small painted bowls containing soapy water to trap pollinators (the insects mistake the color for a flower) in four different habitat types within each Park (see photo). The biologists also used insect nets to hand- capture pollinators (see photo), spending the better part of one day obtaining a snapshot of the Park’s pollinator community. The collections are the only way to document and identify most of the species.

 

Over the past winter the biologists then separated out the flies (Dipterans) from the bees and pinned these specimens so that they could be identified by fly specialists at SUNY Cobleskill (see photo). They focused on flies in one notable family, the Syrphidae – or Syrphids, known as the hover flies or flower flies.  Most of the remaining captured pollinators like the bees will be identified by experts at Cornell University as the project continues.

 

Preliminary results are in for the hover flies or flower flies that SUNY Cobleskill experts helped to identify. There are many different species or types of these flies and not anything like the plain black housefly. Some go by interesting names like Bristlesides, Sedgesitters and Leafwalkers. Many hover flies are mimics of stinging Hymenoptera (see photo) and known to be second only to bees in their pollinating prowess. This is because the adult flies feed on pollen and nectar to power their energy- intensive flight. In doing so, they help to pollinate a wide range of trees, shrubs and wildflowers in every conceivable habitat. At the same time, their larvae (the young stage) are predators of harmful insects such as aphids and adelgids. Many play an important role in aiding decomposition in aquatic and forest environments; in effect breaking down leaves, logs and other debris which then releases nutrients and builds soil.  In other words, Hover flies are very important to the health of our native ecosystems.

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Look closely for the hover fly on a leaf at Goosepond Mountain State Park on September 28, 2017.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

A brand new hover fly field guide focusing specifically on northeastern North America will be published later in 2018 by a team of Canadian researchers. This will allow anybody with an interest to pursue these fascinating and colorful insects who will challenge your notions of what a fly is!

A few fun facts we learned about hover flies in State Parks:

  • Total number of Parks sampled: 22 (in all Regions)
  • Total number of different Syrphid (fly) pollinators: 50 species
  • State Parks with the highest diversity of hover flies (at least 7 different species plus more than 15 individual flies): Minnewaska, Thacher, Sunken Meadow, Letchworth, Taconic, and Allegany
  • Number of new species never before seen in the State, or were thought to be no longer in NYS: 5
  • Two out of every three individuals captured (67%) was a calligrapher (Toxomerus), small black and yellow flies whose larvae eat aphids (see photo)
  • Number of Parks with a species that mimic hornets (the rare eastern hornet fly (Spilomyia longicornis)): 3: Allegany, Knox Farm, Sunken Meadow
  • Number of Syrphid species whose larvae eat adelgids (adelgids are a small insect that can cause severe tree damage): 2 (in the genus Heringia) at Gilbert Lake, Grafton, Moreau Lake
  • Number of non-native, introduced species detected: 2. The common compost fly (Syritta pipiens), and common drone fly (Eristalis tenax)
  • Over half of the State Parks had at least one Syrphid species that lives predominantly in older forests.

Authored by Jeff Corser, Zoologist with NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP).

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. The Empire State Native Pollinator Project is only one of many kinds of surveys and studies that the program conducts to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

All photos by NYNHP for use by permission only

Leapin’ Lizards

A flick of a tail or a blur dash across a rock – was that a lizard? Are there lizards in New York?

Yes, New York is home to three native lizard species.  Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles that spend most of their time on rocks, sunning themselves on flat open spots or hiding in crevices. They also crawl up on logs, stumps and sometimes even up the trunk of the tree. However, male lizards are known for defending their territory from other male lizards by doing push-ups followed by head bobs.  If this does not work, the defending male lizard may attack and bite the intruding lizard.

Lizards are all very well camouflaged, but if you are really lucky you might spot one of these reptiles on one if you hike in the southern Hudson Valley or in Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.

Two of the three New York lizard species are considered rare in the state. Conservation measures are particularly important to maintain the populations of these vulnerable critters. State Parks works to protect habitat and educate park visitors about these seldom seen animals.

Two of these lizard types are called skinks.  Skinks are a type of lizard with no visible neck, a long tail, and short legs. (Some skinks in other parts of the world have no legs at all!)  Skinks have smooth scales, compared to other lizards which have keeled scales (scales that have a ridge down the middle).  Smooth scales give the skink a shining gloss-like appearance whereas lizards with keeled scales have a dull matte-like appearance.  (See below)

Scales

If a skink loses part of its tail to a predator or they release their tail to escape a predator, it will regrow (regenerate) a new tail. The new tail will not have the same shape as the old tail.  Female skinks stay with their eggs after they lay them to guard the eggs until they are hatched.

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Juvenile five-lined skink, note the blue tail. Photo by State Parks.

The most common lizard in New York is the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). Juvenile five-lined skinks are quite striking with their uniform black body, yellow stripes, and bright blue tails.  As these animals approach adult state, the blue color on their tails fades to gray.  Adult females five-lined skinks have faded stripes on their heads, but their body stripes remain strong. Look for these lizards on the ground on rocky summits and sloping hillsides with mixed deciduous trees.  They mostly scurry along the ground, only occasionally climbing shrubs and trees.  On sunny days, you might see one soaking up the sun on a rock or log.

Five-lined skinks are between five and eight inches long, including their tails.  They primarily eat insects and other invertebrates. Larger skinks also eat small shrews and other lizards.  Skinks avoid being eaten by darting as fast as they can from an open area to a hiding spot.  Look for these lizards from April through October in the some of the Hudson Valley State Parks such as Bear Mountain State Park and Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve.

male coal skink Jean Gawalt
Male coal skink. Artwork by Jean Gawalt; courtesy Conservationist magazine

One of our rare lizards is the coal skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) is found in central and western New York.  Coal skinks are identified by the two wide black stripes, bordered by yellow stripes, that run along the length of the body on to the tail.  Like the five-lined skinks, juvenile coal skinks have blue tails.  Some people believe that the blue tail on a juvenile skink is very distasteful and acts as a warning to would-be predators. The main defense of most coal skinks is running quickly away from a threat or predator.

Coal skinks live in forested places, usually near a swamp or other wetland.  You might see one on a rocky hillside near a wetland.  Unlike five-lined skinks, they do not bask in the sun; they are commonly found under the leaf litter, or under loose flat rocks or moss.  Their coloration helps them hid on the forest floor. If they get frightened, they run to water.

Coal skins are the smallest of our native lizards, measuring about seven inches long from nose to tail. Their diet consists of insects, including crickets, millipedes, and spiders.

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Adult fence lizard, note the wavy coloration on the side of the body, photo courtesy of NY Natural Heritage Program.

Lastly, the northern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) is a state threatened lizard that lives in the southeastern park of the state.  Their common name comes from their habit of basking in the sun on fence railings.

Male northern fence lizards have unpatterned grayish-brown back, bluish sides that are boarded by black and blue throats.  Females, on the other hand, have a distinct pattern on their back of irregular wavy cross bands; their bellies are white and there is a patch of either red, yellow, or orange at the base of their tails. Fence lizards measure up to seven and a half inches long.

They prefer to live on dry, rocky hillsides in oak or oak-pine forests where they eat insects and spiders.  They can be active both day and night, depending on the temperature.

If you are lucky, you might come upon a male fence lizard during mating season.  If you do, stop to watch him defend his territory by standing stiff-legged and pushing out his head to show his blue throat.

Remember that these are wild lizards and should never be taken home as pets. Collection has caused the populations of our native lizards to decline in some areas.

2013.05.17 TR and FL Skink Jesse W. Jaycox 01
Two of New York’s native reptiles, five-lined skink in lower right, timber rattlesnake in upper left, photo by State Parks.

Learn more about our New York lizards:

Fence lizards occur in a few locations in eastern NY, including in some of our state parks.

NYS Dept. of Conservation Lizards of New York

NY Falls Lizard Species of New York (Upstate)

Featured image, five-lined skink by Robert Escott

The Allegany Zoo… Who knew?

Millions of people visit Allegany State Park every year, but how many have ever visited the zoo?

Tucked up on the hill, behind the Red House Administration Building among the maples, Scotch pine, and cherry trees, sits the stone foundation of what was once a highly-visited tourist attraction.

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Path to the zoo, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

Like so many other places on the East Coast, this area (in what is now Allegany State Park) was logged from the 1860s to the 1920s.  Hemlocks, white pines, and hardwoods were harvested to supply large cities with building materials. While humans built houses, many local animals lost their homes and habitat.

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Postcard of the zoo, note the Red House Administration Building on the left, photo courtesy of Allegany State Park Historical Society.

The Outdoor Museum and Zoo was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was intended to exhibit the local animals, birds,  plants, fungi, and rocks of this area. The Zoo’s rectangular foundation (25×40 feet) and 3 ½ foot high walls were built from local sandstone quarried off the hill behind the museum.  Chestnut and cherry posts supported a shake shingle roof. Shelves and brackets around the sides of the museum building supported animal cages, insect trays, unique plants, and rock and mineral exhibits. Cement pools with dry platforms housed aquatic creatures such as frogs, turtles, muskrat, and fish. Since this was a seasonal museum, the CCC oversaw collecting specimens for the Zoo. Upon its opening in 1933, the exhibit hosted a raccoon, skunk, woodchuck, rabbit, chipmunk, porcupine, five types of turtles, and several different species of frogs, toads, and salamanders. Five kinds of snakes had their own special snake pit separate from the rest of the museum. Irving Knobloch, a National Park Service naturalist oversaw the museum and its animals during the CCC days, after which the Allegany State Park (ASP) rangers and naturalists operated the zoo.

Two of the first residents of the Zoo were “Smoke” and “Soot.” The bear cubs were rescued by forest rangers during a fire caused by sparks from the smoke stacks of the trains carrying lumber out of the area. The rangers decided to take the bears home, but as they grew, the small cubs became too much for the rangers to handle; so, they built them a small bear den surrounded by wire. They eventually escaped and roamed the area for handouts.

Another famous creature of the zoo was Cleopatra, a golden eagle, owned by Egbert Pfieffer, a world-renowned bird specialist and ASP naturalist. Cleo was a trained eagle who would sit on Mr. Pfieffer’s arm as he walked around the area. Pfieffer also supplied the museum with a red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, owls, and other birds of prey.Cleo

The Zoo was open from May until early October, when all the animals were released back into the wild. It was closed in 1944 due to World War II and was never reopened. The building was torn down in the 1960s, but the foundations remain.

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Zoo foundation, photo by State Parks.

The cages and displays are long gone; but the Environmental Education Department still tells the story of the zoo. You can find amazing small wildlife like millipedes, salamanders, toads and frogs in or near the pools once inhabited by turtles and fish. One of the frogs, Louise, a green frog, was named by a kindergarten class who first discovered her two years ago.

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Louise the Frog, photo by State Parks

Come visit the zoo, sit quietly on the moss covered stone walls, and imagine the sounds of excited children as they rush from one exhibit to another, looking at and learning about the wonderful wild things of long-ago Allegany.

To learn more about the Zoo and the history of the CCC and Allegany State Park, visit the Allegany State Park Historical Society.

Late Spring Flora

Finally the weather is warming and the flowers are popping out. Time to get outside and look for spring flora! You can find wildflowers in the woods, at the pond or along a stream, in the dunes, or maybe even in your back yard or neighborhood. Here are some native wildflowers in bloom to look out for in May and June.

In the Woods

One of the best places to see an abundance of spring flora is in moist hardwood forests with sugar maple, basswood, ash, and red oak. These are often on slopes and along streams. More acidic forests or drier forests dominated by pines, black or scarlet oak, huckleberries, and blueberries tend to have a less-diverse spring flora. These are common on rocky soils, ridgetops, sandplains (like Long Island or Saratoga). Below are some common wildflowers to look for in either of these types of forests.

Wood anemones (Anemone) are named after the Greek word for “wind”. They have five white petals, divided leaves – shaped kind of like an outstretched hand – and start to bloom before the trees are fully leafed-out. Believe it or not, these are actually related to buttercups!Wood anemone S Young NYNHP1

Bellworts (Uvularia spp.) are common woodland flowers in our parks. They have delicate bell-shaped flowers with six pale yellow petals. There are three common bellwort species in NY state: large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) that likes nutrient-rich or calcareous soils, perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), and sessile-leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia). The latter is the most common across the state and is also known by the name “wild oats.”

Large bellwort Steve Young NYNHP1

Our native dogwoods (Cornus spp.) have white to pink flowers and include one flowering tree species, several shrubs, and one non-woody (herbaceous) wildflower species. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) grows low to the ground, but its flowers look just like those of the flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). They may even be blooming at the same time. Dogwoods are identified by the curving veins on the leaves, and flowers with four white or pink bracts that look like petals.

Bunchberry Steve Young NYSNHP1

Shrubby dogwood Gregory Edinger NYNYP1

In Wetlands, Ponds or Streams

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is an easy one to spot because it grows in big clumps or sometimes in large patches. It is always in wet spots, either along slow streams or in open or forested wetlands or seeps. Like the anemones above, this too is in the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family.

Marsh marigold Steve Young NYNHP1

Canada lily (Lilium canadense) grows in somewhat open forested wetlands and wet thickets — habitats that are often harder to see from trails and boardwalks. This beautiful lily is widespread across the state, but not nearly so common as marsh marigold.

Canada lily Timothy Howard NYNHP.1jpg

In June, start looking for water lilies in vegetated ponds. We have several native pond lilies, including this stunning White pond lily (Nymphaea odorata) and several yellow pond lilies (Nuphar spp.). Water lilies often serve as landing pads for insects like bees, beetles, damselflies, dragonflies and frogs often hide in the water nearby. You may see some of these critters if you approach slowly and quietly; it’s a good way to keep kids interested too.

White pond lily Kimberly Smith NYNHP1

Sunny Spots from High to Low: Outcrops, Shorelines, and Dunes

Some plants need a lot of sun and can tolerate extremes of heat, wind and/or drought. Here are some of those rugged spring wildflowers to look for:

On rocky trails and summits in the Palisades and Hudson Highlands Parks and elsewhere, look for the pale, yellow flowers of bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). Bush honeysuckle is one of our native honeysuckles and it attracts many pollinators. It is much less common than the non-native honeysuckles, so a little harder to find and often overlooked.

Bush honeysuckle Gregory Edinger NYNYP1

Find a rocky outcrop, rocky lakeshore, or streamside outcrop anywhere in the state and you may find this delicate looking flower: the Bellflower or Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). You can find it on the rocky shorelines of Lake Ontario in Wehle State Park or other Thousand Islands Parks, on streamside outcrops in the Finger Lakes or Whetstone State Park gorges, or on the rocky summits and slopes of parks like Minnewaska, Hudson Highlands, or Taconic State Parks. This is the bellflower you are most likely to see, but there are native and non-native lookalikes (though usually not in these open rocky spots).

Harebell-bellflower J Lundgren NYNHP1

How about on the sunny dunes of Long Island? Have you ever seen Beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa) in full bloom? It grows in gray-green mounds on the dunes and sports its tiny but profuse yellow blooms in June. Visit duneside trails at Jones Beach, Hither Hills, Napeague, or Orient Beach State Park. Remember to stay on trails to protect this fragile ecosystem. Local native bees take advantage of this food source.Beach heather Steve Young & Kimberly Smith NYNHP

What’s in a name?

Did you know that every plant (and known organism) is given a unique scientific name? Those are the names in parentheses above. The scientific name consists of a genus followed by a species name like Lilium (genus name) + canadense (species name) = Lilium canadense. While there may be few different plants referred to as Canada lily, or someone might call this plant a meadow lily or wild yellow-lily, the scientific name of Lilium canadense refers to just one kind of plant. So, biologists and landscapers and other people working with plants or animals will use the scientific names when they want to make it clear exactly what species they are referring to. You will see these names in the wildflower guides (books or websites) noted below.

The scientific name also helps to see what species are related — organisms with the same genus name are closely related. So Lilium canadense and Lilium superbum are closely related because they are both in the Lilium genus. Common names are not reliable for this purpose. For example, the white water lily is not a close cousin of the Liliums, as it is in a different genus (Nymphaea). In fact these two kinds of “lilies” are in completely different plant families, the Liliaceae and the Nymphaceae, like distant branches on the family tree.

Both called lilly Timothy Howard and Kimberly Smith, NYNHP

TO LEARN MORE:

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. Paperback. 1989. The standard field guide for flora in the northeast. Relies on flower structure so takes a little more time to learn, but includes more species than Peterson’s guide.

Peterson Field Guides, Wildflowers – key by color and shape. Great for the casual observer, or if just starting out, try the Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers.

Go Botany – a great online plant key to flora of New England, but includes most of plants you will see in New York.

NY Flora Atlas – the most current taxonomy, atlas, see what is native or not, rare or common, links to other sources.

NY Flora Association – information about field trips, classes, “Learn 10” programs for all levels, calendar of botany field trips and events across the state, links to other information on flora.

NYNHP Conservation Guides – These provide descriptions of the Natural Communities in New York – different kinds of forests, wetlands and other habitats. Use Advanced Search to find what types are in your county. Each Guide gives a few examples of where you can see it and some characteristic plants.

Post by Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP).

Images by NYNHP 2018; may be used with permission only.  http://www.nynhp.org

Harmful Algal Blooms: New York State Takes Action in 2018!

There has been a lot of activity in New York State this spring regarding Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)!  In an effort to raise awareness regarding HABS, Governor Cuomo called together four HAB Summit Meetings across the State (February 27 in New Paltz, March 6 at SUNY ESF, March 20 in Ticonderoga, and March 26 in Rochester).  Leading experts from the Department of Health (DOH), Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Agriculture and Markets (DAM) and other state and national experts convened to discuss and address the causes of algal blooms in 12 priority waterbodies across the state.  The meetings were the first step in the development of action plans to address HAB occurrences in each waterbody.  Of the 12 priority waterbodies chosen as part of the Governor’s initiative to combat HABs, five of them are the home of State Park’s beaches, marinas, or campgrounds (Conesus Lake, Honeoye Lake, Chautauqua Lake, Cayuga Lake and Lake Champlain).  The action plans will be used to implement monitoring and treatment projects related to HABS.

What’s the problem with HABs?

You might see a couple of different terms used in association with HABs, but they mean the same thing: cyanobacteria and blue green algae are used interchangeably.  The term “blue-green algae” is a misnomer; it is not truly algae. It is a type of bacteria called cyanobacteria that is capable of photosynthesis. An algal “bloom” consists of cyanobacteria in great enough numbers of cells to be seen by the naked eye.  Some algal blooms can produce toxins, but not all do.  When an algal bloom produces toxins, it is called a Harmful Algal Bloom.  HABs can thrive when certain conditions are met, including warm weather, stagnant water, and sufficient nutrients in the water body.  The bacteria can form dense mats on the surface of a lake or can be suspended in the water column. The blooms can be brightly colored and look like pea soup, spilled paint, or an oily scum/sheen that coats the lake surface.  The blooms move around the lake in response to wind and currents, tend to accumulate at shorelines, and can move vertically in the water column to find the perfect nutrient and temperature conditions to flourish.  Blooms occur most often in waters high in phosphorous and/or nitrogen, and research is ramping up to determine the exact causes of algal blooms.

Because of the potential for blooms to produce toxins, it is important to keep people and pets out of the water during a bloom.  The toxins can make people and animals sick, and toxin exposure can cause a range of symptoms, including rashes, respiratory irritation, gastrointestinal troubles, and effects on the liver. HABs may also impact drinking water and recreational activities, and can cause unpleasant odors.

It is State Parks Policy to follow the DOH protocol and close bathing beaches when a HAB is present.  To re-open a beach at a State Park, the beach must be free of any signs of a bloom for 24 hours, and a water sample must be submitted for toxin analysis.

The Big Message for the 2018 Beach Season

Know it, Avoid it, Report it.  Learn what a bloom looks like, avoid it, and make sure to report it to the Park Manager if you see a potential bloom at a State Park.  You can also notify the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, or harmfulalgae@health.ny.gov

HAB Photos from State Parks:

HAB

Below are a few links to learn more about HABs!

NYS Department of Health: Harmful Blue-Green Algae Blooms

Environmental Protection Agency: Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms in Water

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation: Harmful Algal Blooms

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