Many New Yorkers thrive in winter and are eager for falling temperatures and consistent snowfalls. To these hardy adventurers, a few extra layers of gear combined with the snowy terrain of parklands is a winning recipe for fitness, togetherness and outdoor fun.
Welcome the new decade, enjoy the winter landscapes, and unwind after a hectic holiday season by joining a First Day Hike on January 1, 2020.
There are more than 75 such hikes planned at state parks, historic sites, wildlife areas, trails and public lands across the state as part of the 9th annual First Day Hikes program. This map can help find one near you…
Staff from State Parks and DEC, along with volunteers and partners at many sites, will lead these family-friendly walks and hikes, which range from one to five miles depending on the location and conditions. Remember to dress appropriately and keep this old Scandinavian saying in mind: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
A sample of this year’s programs feature a seal walk, walking history tour, snowshoe waterfall hike, pet-friendly treks, gorge walks, fire towers, and more. If weather conditions permit, some First Day Hikes may include snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Many host sites will be offering refreshments and giveaways.
Participants are encouraged to contact the park for information and pre-registration where noted.
And know that you are part of something that is happening all across America. First Day Hikes, which started in Massachusetts in 1992, are now a national event taking place in all 50 states.
Last year nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year, collectively hiking over 133,000 miles throughout the country on the guided hikes. Numerous others hiked state park trails throughout the day.
If you’ve never been on a First Day Hike, 2020 is the year!
Cover photo: First Day hikers at a DEC fire tower. These hikers are wearing traction gear on their boots, which is important in steep or icy conditions.
The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year.
Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, with as many as 100,000 gulls stopping over the river during the winter and fall.
The river is attractive to gulls because it offers them food and shelter, and serves as a rest stop for long migrations from the arctic to the Atlantic coast. As well as providing plenty of small fish, the area also serves as protection from storms that can affect the Great Lakes during the wintertime.
Created in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of visitors annual drawn by the immense power and beauty of the thundering cataracts. Looking down from the edge of Niagara Gorge in autumn or winter, the air above the turbulent waters is at times white with wheeling and diving gulls.
In recognition of the river’s important habitat for feeding, nesting, wintering, and during migration, it has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.
“The site is particularly noteworthy as a migratory stopover and wintering site for Bonaparte’s Gulls, with one-day counts ranging from 10,000-50,000 individuals (2-10% of the world population). One-day Ring-billed Gull counts vary from 10,000-20,000, and one-day Herring Gull counts vary from 10,000-50,000. The river also hosts a remarkable diversity and abundance of waterfowl.”
If you choose to go birding along the river this season, here are some gulls you might end up seeing:
Bonaparte’s Gull is a small gull with a white underbelly, grey back, and thin, black beak. The top outer parts of its wings have wedges of white edged in black. Breeding adults have black heads but nonbreeding and young gulls have a white head with a dark smudge behind its eye. These gulls like to winter near people and, in fact, are the only gulls that regularly nest in trees!
Ring-Billed Gulls have yellow beaks with a black band, or ‘ring’, encircling it. The breeding adult has a gray back and black wingtips. In the winter, these birds develop tan streaking across the head. These yellow-legged birds may be found further inland.
Herring Gulls are on the larger side and are much like the quintessential seagull. They have yellow eyes, pale pink legs, and a red spot on the bottom of their yellow beaks. An adult has a grey mantle and black wingtips, much like the Ring-Billed Gull. These birds start of uniformly dark and then get paler and they grow older, their plumages varying over their first four years. Herring Gulls may be found year-round along the Niagara.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-Backed Gull is the world’s largest gull! It has black wings and mantle, a white underside as an adult, and red rings around its eyes. Like the Herring Hull, younger birds’ plumages change as they age; the younger Great Black-Backed Gulls can be differentiated because of higher contrast in their colors than the young Herring Gull. These gulls come to Niagara from the East Coast.
Iceland Gulls are slightly smaller than Herring Gulls. These
gulls, when adults, have a pale gray mantle and wingtips that can vary in
color, from white in the east to black in the west. The darker winged gulls
used to be labeled ‘Thayer’s gulls’ and considered a different species, but the
two were combined in 2017. These gulls come to Niagara from the Arctic.
This small gull has a spectacular wing pattern, long pointed wings, a notched tail, and a short black bill with a yellow tip . Generally a prized sighting for birders, because it nests on tundra of the high Arctic and migrates south at sea, often well offshore. Those from eastern Canada and Greenland mostly migrate eastward across North Atlantic and then south.
These are just six of the 19 different species of gulls have been spotted here. So, grab your binoculars and see for yourself!
Cover Photo: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
It was going to take heavy ropes and safety gear to rescue a 75-year-old man who was hurt and bleeding after falling near the rocky summit of Dutchess County’s highest point — 2,316-foot Brace Mountain.
With temperatures above 90 degrees and humidity thick that July 4th weekend afternoon, crews at Taconic State Park faced a half-mile hike up the mountain to reach the victim, who could not walk after injuring his head and extremities in a fall on a steep trail. Initial reports also indicated the man was on blood thinning medication, which could make his bleeding harder to stop.
Setting out from the trailhead, the crew included myself, members of the local Millerton Volunteer Fire Department, an emergency medical technician, two forest rangers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and members of the Northwest Connecticut Rope Rescue Team. With about 300 pounds of ropes and hardware for the crew to carry, the hike in took about 45 minutes.
Some five grueling hours later, crews had carried and lowered the 125-pound victim hundreds of feet down the mountain, with the help of the stout ropes, a metal basket, and a piece of equipment called a stokes wheel. A stokes wheel is a single ATV tire that clips to the sides of a metal rescue basket, making transportation on rough terrain more comfortable for the patient and easier on rescuers. The victim was then airlifted to a local hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
This is not the first occurrence of this type of injury on this trail. Earlier that year, a hiker had fallen on the icy trail and injured his ribs, requiring rescue crews to carry him out on a stokes wheel. A few years earlier, another visitor fractured his leg while slipping on leaves and was airlifted off the summit of Brace Mountain after being carried by crews for more than a mile to a suitable landing zone.
As park attendance continues to rise, and social media convinces more potential hikers to head for the backcountry, we are seeing an increase in patron injuries and so-called ‘technical’ rescues in our State Parks. Such rescues are becoming more common at places like Taconic State Park and Hudson Highlands State Park in the Taconic Region, Minnewaska and Bear Mountain State Parks in Palisades Region, John Boyd Thatcher in Saratoga Region and Letchworth State Park in Genesee Region.
People fall while taking selfies, slip while wearing
improper footwear, or enter hazardous and closed areas of our parks. Some
patrons fail to dress for the weather, do not bring flashlights or maps, fail
to bring enough water and are generally unprepared to hike some of the terrain
our beautiful parks offer. The mighty cell phone has made many of our patrons
more confident knowing help is only a call away. This false confidence has
started to put a strain on park resources along with surrounding first
responders who are constantly being called to parks for injuries, and search
In order to work better together and streamline
communications between rescue crews, here at Taconic State Park we have started
annual rope rescue drills with local fire departments, forest rangers, rope
rescue teams, park police and other first responders.
The drills include using Incident Action Plans and the
Incident Command Structures we all learn in our classes as park managers. By
drilling, we get to practice putting together planning documents and working
with Incident Commanders who coordinate with park officials on such
emergencies. We gain valuable facetime in a non-emergency atmosphere where we
can dissect our pre-planning and offer each other suggestions and advice.
In late October, staff at Taconic State Park held a
Joint Rope Rescue drill that brought together over a dozen responding agencies
from two states and three counties. The drill was a mock exercise that
practiced communication between different departments, navigation and various
rope rescue skills and strategies.
We also review our rescues to learn not only what we did right but more importantly, where we can improve. One lesson from the July 4th incident is that we will now use staging areas for motorized UTV’s that shuttle rope gear to a pre-planned location near the summit of the mountain so that heavy equipment no longer needs to go uphill with rescuers on foot.
By using motorized vehicles to bring heavy gear above where a rescue has to happen, rope crews only have to carry this equipment downhill, which saves more of their energy for when they reach a victim. It takes a few more resources to do this but ultimately increases the efficiency of getting equipment to the injured hiker.
Also, we have established multiple hoist locations in the area, so if available, a helicopter can save us the time and effort of carrying and building lowering devices with ropes and hardware in the field. This will not always be available, but it is another tool that we can use to make rescues faster and safer.
All parks are required to have an All Hazards Emergency Action Plan. However, some emergencies in our parks require more planning than the normal fire drill or patron with heat exhaustion. Some potential emergencies require park managers to meet with local first responders on a regular basis to enhance the speed and efficiency of their response.
No matter what size the park or historic site, it is always essential to have an open line of communication with the local fire chief, rescue squad and Park Police so that the one day they are needed, they know your face and who you are. It just makes things easier – and ultimately safer – for the thousands of visitors who use the trails in the rugged regions of our State.
Post by Chris Rickard, Park Manager, Taconic State Park
Prepare To Help Avoid Accidents
For a safe hike, there are things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Wear sturdy yet comfortable shoes or boots, and bring water and snacks for the trail. Wear clothing appropriate for the weather.
Be mindful during hikes on steep terrain or that go near cliff tops. Hiking poles can help stabilize yourself against a potential fall, and transfer stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back.
In the winter, when snow and ice can cover trails, carry and use traction gear on boots, such a webbed spikes or crampons.
Carry a small first-aid kit in case of emergency. Hike with a partner, so if something happens, help is present. Hiking alone is risky.
Use a trail map, which is available online at each park website at https://parks.ny.gov/ and at the main office at each park, in season. Check the park’s individual website to see if its maps can be downloaded to your iOS Apple or Android device, but a paper map is a good backup in the event of device failure.
For some facilities, data is available as a Google Earth KML file or a map is available to download to your iOS Apple and Android mobile devices in the free PDF-Maps app. Learn more…
Once you have a map, you can tell how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. As days grow shorter in fall and winter, having a flashlight or headlamp in your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.
If issues arise, be prepared to turn around. Don’t fall victim to “summit fever” – the desire to reach the top regardless of the risk.
And, as incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside during spring, summer and fall, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard. Thankfully, ticks are not normally active during the cold of winter.
Liz Titus Putnam looked at dozens of people in the
dining hall at a Dutchess County summer camp — eating, talking and laughing —
and she saw a room full of connections.
Although many people in the Sharpe
Reservation hall that October morning were in their
early 20s, their ties stretched back to 1953. That was when Putnam, a
20-year-old Long Island native and junior at nearby Vassar College, came up
with an idea.
After reading a magazine article on the deplorable state of the national park system, Putnam used her senior thesis to propose a voluntary student service program to work at the parks. Her inspiration came from the Civilian Conservation Corps created two decades earlier by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression.
“I knew that I would be interested in doing that work. And I thought other young people would be interested, too,” Putnam said.
Through timely encouragement and helpful connections that seemed to show up just when needed, the new college graduate founded what became the not-for-profit Student Conservation Association (SCA), with its first crews of 53 men and women (Herself included) arriving in 1957 at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks to do trail work. The Peace Corps and Earth Day were still years away.
Six decades later, more than 90,000 young people from every part of the U.S. and many foreign countries have gone through the SCA, with most members later going on to jobs and careers in the field of conservation at a myriad of organizations.
Since the beginning, SCA members have performed about 40 million hours of public works service at parks and other public lands. In today’s dollars, that would be worth about $600 million.
Last month, their ranks grew by another 40 people who graduated from the Hudson Valley SCA 2019 program under Putnam’s appreciative and proud gaze. The ceremony was held at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.
“I have so much hope for the future, to see young people getting involved,” said Putnam, now an 86-year-old resident of Vermont where she lives on a farm. She retired from running the organization day-to-day as its president in 1969, but under the title of Founding President remains active and involved.
“You will have many adventures. You have one life, and it goes by very fast,” Putnam told the Hudson Valley SCA graduates. “It is what you do each day. You are part of a team, with the humans all around this earth. Each person counts.”
Putnam believes that connections helped her all along the way, starting with her faculty advisor at Vassar who encouraged her to pursue her idea. Then through a family connection, she met the daughter of the late Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service. She in turn introduced Putnam to his successor, former park director Horace Albright. He was intrigued enough by the idea to urge her to visit four national parks to gauge local interest in a volunteer corps, giving her a letter of introduction to ease the way. After that trip in 1955, the superintendents at Grand Teton and Olympic said yes to accepting her student volunteers.
“I had no connections at the time, But the connections
appeared when they were needed. That is the miracle,” Putnam told a visitor at
the Hudson SCA graduation.
Speaking there, Putnam shared her tale of actually
joining the group that she helped found. It was after fires had devastated Yellowstone
National Park in 1988 and the SCA was lining up people
to come help. She was 56 years old.
“I spoke to our staff, asking if anyone could join.
And they said yes. And I asked if I could join, and they said yes,” Putnam
said. “And I said, no special treatment, treated just like everyone else? And
they said yes.”
After filling out an application, she got her SCA acceptance letter (she recalled saying ‘Yippee!” upon opening it), later arriving at Yellowstone under an assumed name to wield hand tools and help other members repair burned out bridges and cut downed trees. One day, a college student from Texas said he knew who she was, because she had spoken at his school about the SCA. “I asked him to keep it to himself, and we would be fine. And he did,” said Putnam.
“Liz is very inspiring,” said Dana Reinstein, a 23-year-old Queens resident who is finishing her second SCA stint. “I got to meet her when she was at Vassar last year, when she was helping plant a tree there.”
Now serving as an environmental educator in New York City schools, Reinstein said working at the SCA was about “a lot of new connections and experiences,” starting with lessons on how to use hand and power tools. “This is not something that I ever thought I would do. When I started, I did not even know how to use a hammer properly.”
A graduate of SUNY Fredonia with a degree in geology, Reinstein
became part of an SCA team that provided more than 71,000 hours of service,
valued at $1.7 million, working this year on trails, waterways, and
Marking its 20th anniversary, the Hudson Valley SCA works with New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, local Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Scenic Hudson, Audubon New York, and Vassar College. The Hudson Valley SCA Corps is an AmeriCorps program.
Some 900 young adults have gone through the Hudson
Valley SCA since it started, logging some 1.7 million hours of service that
would have cost $30 million if workers had to be hired.
Check out this slideshow of some of the members of the Hudson SCA 2019 session. (Credit: Hudson SCA)
‘Once an SCA member, always an SCA member’ seems to be
a cardinal rule of the organization. When Putnam asked how many people
attending the graduation had been in SCA, many hands went up.
Miller did two SCA terms in 2001 and 2002, working on
landscape tours at Olana
State Historic Site, and then as an environmental educator at
Grafton, where she was hired subsequently as a State Parks employee.
“Before that, I had been working in a restaurant.
Being in the SCA was such a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “It gave me my
Sarah Davies, an alumna of the original Hudson Valley
Corps in 1999, is now Chief Environmental Educator with State Parks after
service with DEC. “SCA was the best decision of my professional life. It was
the catalyst for my 20 years in government service,” she said.
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks
See Liz Titus Putnam interviewed on the 2009 Ken Burns
film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”
Read the 1953 Harper’s Magazine article that inspired Liz Titus Putnam — then a 20-year-old college student — to create the Student Conservation Association. She described the article as “hitting me like a bolt.”
Here in New York, we have residents nicknamed ‘snow birds’: People who enjoy summers on New York’s beaches, but escape our harsh winters by traveling south to Florida. Making that journey right along with them is another species of beach bum — the small, endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover.
Usually weighing about two ounces or less, the Piping Plover is a tiny bird that is undeniably and objectively cute; just ask anyone that is working to restore the population. It’s a bird that’s easy to fall in love with but that requires hard work to recover.
There are three distinct populations of Piping Plover: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, which both breed in New York State, and the Great Plains. Due to shoreline habitat loss and disturbance, all three populations significantly declined in the mid-twentieth century, leading to their listing under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (Atlantic and Great Plains populations) and endangered (Great Lakes population) in 1986.
The recovery of the Piping Plover has been a slow and intensive process. At the time of listing, the endangered Great Lakes population had only an estimated 17 breeding pairs — with no birds nesting on the Great Lakes shores of New York. For 29 years, no plover nests had been seen on New York’s lake shores.
Finally, in 2015 a pair of Piping Plovers showed up on the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in and around Sandy Island Beach State Park in Oswego County.
New York State Parks and Department of Environmental Conservation employees, Audubon New York employees, and volunteers teamed up to monitor the plovers and reduce disturbances from humans and predators in hopes that the birds would stick around and raise their young.
Although the birds were not successful that year, plovers kept returning each summer to the State Park, and in 2018 and again in 2019, were able to raise chicks
Throughout the spring and summer months when Piping Plovers are found at breeding sites, shorebird technicians monitor nests and chicks until young birds are fledged, meaning they are capable of sustaining flight. Researchers also band as many plovers as they can in the Great Lakes. Used for identification, bird banding is a common research practice, and is an extremely useful tool in understanding behavior, life expectancy, population sizes, and migrations of birds.
For endangered populations, banding can provide essential information about site use that can guide future conservation in both breeding and wintering grounds. For the plovers at Sandy Island Beach State Park, bird banding helped researchers track two fledglings after migration, one to Georgia in 2018 and another to Florida in 2019. These were the first Great Lakes fledglings from New York to be spotted in their wintering grounds in the south.
The young birds are each marked with a unique combination of bands, like name tags, which allows staff to identify individual birds and assign fun nicknames to the newly hatched chicks. The fledge sighted in Georgia in 2018 was named Gimli, and our 2019 fledge, affectionately nicknamed Chewie (proper name Chewbacca) was spotted in Florida soon after it had left New York. The first fledge from the Great Lakes seen on wintering grounds in 2019, little Chewie had made the nearly 1,300-mile journey in only three to four days!
This feat is no small matter, as plovers face many challenges before the eggs have even hatched. Coastal development has reduced available nesting habitat, and the open sand suitable for nesting is also the most desirable location for human recreation. Conflict with humans can lead to birds abandoning territory, nesting attempts, and even viable eggs. If a nest can be established, the threat of predation now looms.
Plovers lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow depressions, called scrapes, on sparsely vegetated sand. This makes it easy for plovers to spot predators, but also provides no protection from critters that discover the nests. Therefore, it is common for shorebird stewards to build an exclosure around the nest. This is a fence with spaces large enough for plovers to pass through, but small enough to prevent predators from reaching the eggs (click here to learn more about the work of State Parks Plover Stewards). This can prevent eggs from becoming a meal for foxes, crows, gulls and other predators, but still does not guarantee hatching. Their beach home can get flooded by high water levels and the exposed sand can become very hot.
Still, Piping Plovers are adapted to these conditions and are dedicated and attentive parents. Exclosed nests have a high chance of reaching their hatch date.
But our small friends are not in the clear yet! The chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The highly mobile chicks obtain food on their own under the watchful eyes of their parents, but constant running can easily exhaust the hatchlings and makes them an easy target for predators.
Combined with the stressors of human recreation, it truly becomes a miracle to reach fledging age. Humans can disturb plovers, often unintentionally, by scaring adults off nests, preventing adults and young from feeding near the water, or even accidentally stepping on nests and eggs. Remember that these birds are very small with feathers and eggs that are well camouflaged for sandy beaches, so be sure to keep an eye out when visiting beaches with designated nesting areas!
It should be no surprise to learn that, on average, for every pair of plovers only about one chick typically survives to fledging. This one fledgling must then face a long journey south to wintering grounds on their own. That two young birds, including Chewie, were raised at Sandy Island Beach State Park and made it to their winter homes was a good sign. Continued monitoring in New York will tell us whether these plovers return to raise their own young.
From egg-laying and hatching to fledging and migrating, Piping Plovers face threats and obstacles at every turn. Since the return of the Piping Plovers to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there have been six successful fledges from Sandy Island Beach State Park. Until we know if the young survived their first migration south, it can be difficult to gauge the success of the recovery plan. Therefore, this incredible flight of young Chewie, documented by its unique bands, is a symbol of success and high hopes for the ongoing efforts to recover the population of this charismatic shorebird.
Post by Lindsey DeLuna, OPRHP Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member
Cover Photo: The fledgling from Sandy Island Beach State Park, nicknamed “Chewbacca,” after his arrival at a Florida beach in early August 2019. Photo Credit: Wendy Meehan.
To learn more about Piping Plover banding and how to report sightings,
follow the links below:
All photos, unless otherwise stated, were provided courtesy of Alivia
Sheffield, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator at Sandy Island Beach
State Park and a trained staff member. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe
distance, and never approach nests or chicks.