All posts by New York State Parks

Owl Pellets: An Answer to the Question, “What Was for Dinner?”

Walking through the forest, especially under big trees, you might come across something rather interesting on the ground beneath you.  It’s pretty small and dark colored.  Maybe it’s a pine cone?  Looking closer, you notice this peculiar item is covered in fur, but is obviously not alive.  You poke it with a stick and notice it’s a little squishy.  Maybe it’s animal scat?  You peer even closer and notice that it might even have some small bones sticking out.  What you may have found is an owl pellet.

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Owl pellet on the forest floor, photo by Jace Stansbury

Owls are a bird of prey, which means they hunt other animals.  They rely on their excellent vision and even better sense of hearing to locate a meal.  Their feet are armed with sharp claws, or talons, that latch onto prey.  Instead of having sharp teeth like mammal predators such as coyotes and bobcats, owls have a sharp, down-curved beak that helps them eat meat.

When an owl eats another animal it usually swallows that animal whole.  However, not every part of the ingested animal can be digested by the owl.  The second of two stomachs in the owl’s digestive system is able to separate the digestible parts from the non-digestible parts of their meal, which includes fur, hair, bones, and teeth.  These non-digestible parts are then packed tightly into a neat package inside the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated, almost as if the owl is throwing up.  Because the pellet partially blocks their digestive system, an owl usually can’t swallow new prey until it expels the pellet made from the last one.

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Small owl pellet, photo by Phillp R. Brown

What is so fascinating about owl pellets is that the bones inside them can be identified.  This helps us learn what owls like to eat!  Some things to look for in a pellet to help you identify an owl’s prey are the jaws of rodents, which should have the long (usually orange) front teeth, and bird beaks or feet.  Unless you can see feathers in the pellet, bones are typically the best way to identify their prey.  Other bones that can usually be identified include the pelvis, femur (upper leg bone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).

Jason Bottom
Rodent skull found in an owl pellet, photo by Jason Bottom

In the winter and early spring, a good place to look for owl pellets is under evergreen trees.  Why?  Because owls tend spend most of their time in evergreen trees in winter because they provide the best cover to stay hidden from other birds that might harass them during the day.  So the next time you are in the forest, be on the lookout for owls in the trees, and their pellets at your feet!

Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are the most common species of owl in New York State.  Snowy Owls, Barn Owls and even Great Gray Owls may be seen irregularity in New York as well.  More information can be found here.

Post by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

Featured image: Barred owl by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

American Robin – Nature’s Harbinger of Spring

The last snow on the ground has finally melted away. It’s early spring. The first hints of warmth are beating down from the sun. Life, for as long as you can remember, has been cold and white… has it been 6 weeks? No, maybe 2 months… longer? Who knows how long it has been since you’ve seen green grass, but it is a glorious sight. The bright green of new growth surrounds you. You finally get a chance to sit out on your back deck with a nice cocktail after work when all of a sudden you hear a “whinney” from a tree in your side yard… you know this sound. It means spring is officially here. And as if it knew you were thinking of it, a flash of orange descends onto your yard on a mission for a tasty treat.

The American robin, Turdus migratorius (Latin for migratory thrush), is the first sign of spring for many in northern North America. Though its range stretches south into areas where it can be viewed year around, it is typically one of the earliest birds to lay its eggs during the spring breeding season. These resourceful thrushes make their nest out of anything from paper to twigs. They will smear mud to hold the nest all together and often will make a soft lining out of grass. A protected and safe nesting site can sometimes produce up to three broods with multiple chicks in one year.

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Robin eggs, photo by Laslovarga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Common
With a sleek gray to brown back and head and a rusty orange chest and belly, there isn’t any other bird in North America that can really be mistaken for an American robin. When in flight, a white patch under the tail and lower belly can be noticed. Sexual dimorphism, or the visual difference between male and female, within this species isn’t very noticeable, but the female does tend to have a more pale head.

This large member of the thrush family uses a wide range of habitats from wide open spaces like lawns and tundra, to neighborhoods with scattered trees and shrubs, as well as deciduous and evergreen woodlands. Robins are often found hopping along or standing erect on a lawn searching for invertebrates, such as earthworms or grubs, but can also be seen in bushes and trees feeding on caterpillars, fruits and berries. Typically, a robin’s diet changes throughout the day, with more yummy earthworms in the morning — thus the phrase “the early bird catches the worm” — and more delectable berries in the afternoon. During the late fall and winter months, they often gather in large flocks (sometimes numbering close to 250,000 individuals!) to eat berries and roots that are still available. Sometimes, when winter flocks feed exclusively on crabapples or honeysuckle berries, they can become intoxicated due to the fermentation of sugars in the berries! When birds become intoxicated from fermented berries, most are just a bit tipsy and you might not be able to notice any signs. However, when some birds overdo it, they may have trouble perching, hopping/walking, and controlling their flight, often crashing into branches and each other. Sadly, this also includes crashing into larger obstacles, like buildings, which can lead to the bird’s death.

Cousin to the musical hermit thrush and wood thrush, the robin is also an impressive songster. However, as one of the first birds to sing at dawn – or predawn – they make many a camper grumpy from the early wake-up call. The song is a loud, repeated musical whistle that ascends and descends through a series of notes. They have a variety of calls ranging from an alarm ‘yeep chuck’ to a loud ‘whinney’. To hear their songs and calls, or to learn some more cool facts about American Robins, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.  Get started by listening to robins call below.

Some interesting tidbits:

  • Only 40% of nests produce offspring
  • Only 25% of young robins survive the first year
  • The average lifespan is 2 years; longest known is 14 years
  • State bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin
  • They occur across almost all of Canada and the United States
  • Known to winter as far south as Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and Cuba
  • Was featured on the Canadian $2 bill (no longer in use)

Post by Matt Brincka, State Parks

Hidden Treasures in New York State Parks

No need to chase down the end of a rainbow to find a hidden treasure.  What if I told you that you could find unique knick-knacks, rubberstamps and secret messages in parks near you?  This spring I challenge you to explore participating New York State Parks and Historic Sites and try out these fun treasure-hunting activities!

Geocaching (geo= Earth, caching= hiding/storing) is a great hide-and-seek activity that started in 2000 with the rise of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.  Geocachers use location coordinates and a GPS device such as a smartphone to find a hidden container.

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A geocache hidden near a tree. Geocaches can vary greatly in size and appearance. Public domain image

Inside each container is a logbook, and if the container is big enough there are trinkets that you can see and swap (See Resources below for details about the different kinds of geocaches).  Occasionally the “hidden treasure” is the scenic location itself.  If searching in a New York State Park, it’s not uncommon for geocaches to be along trails with peaceful waterbodies or iconic views nearby.  Bring a buddy or two to serve as extra eyes, especially since GPS location information can vary by a few meters.

Letterboxing is a much older hobby (at least 150 years old) which involves exchanging unique rubber-stamped images instead of trinkets.  Traditionally you find the hiding places using clues or written directions, but some hybrid letterboxes may have coordinates as well.

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The famous Cranmere Pool letterbox in England, photo by Patrick Gueulle

Each letterbox has a special, often hand-made rubber stamp for you to stamp into a journal like a passport; in return, you use your own personal stamp to “sign” the letterbox logbook.  This outdoor activity began in the mid-1800s, when a trail guide left his business card in a bottle at Cranmere Pool in Dartmoor, England.  Others who hiked through the notoriously rough terrain found the bottle, and they began to place their own business cards inside as a way to say, “I was here.”  This turned into travelers hiding boxes in the woods and meadows for postcards and, eventually, stamps.  If you like clues, art, traveling and walking through beautiful trails, then I recommend giving letterboxing a try.

Who can participate in these local adventures?  Anybody!  Both activities are a great way to find new nature trails, historic sites or hidden treasures near you.  Are you ready to go letterboxing or geocaching in New York State Parks?  Here’s how!

Search for an active geocache/letterbox at a Park near you.

There are different websites and mobile apps to search for letterbox clues and geocache spots (See Resources below).  Use the “Search” features to find stamps or caches nearby, in a place you’d like to visit, or at a State Park that you enjoy.  Letterboxes and geocaches have been found in every region of the state.  Just remember that locations are subject to change, as caches/stamps can go missing or can be retired by their owners.  As a courtesy, people often record their findings online to update the status of a letterbox/geocache.

Pack your supplies

If you are geocaching:

  • The geocache coordinates
  • GPS device or cell phone
  • A pen
  • (optional) A trinket of your own

If you are letterboxing:

  • The letterbox clues/directions
  • A notebook
  • Your own, “signature” rubber stamp
  • (optional) Your own ink-pad, just in-case
  • A pen to sign, date and write any comments about your trip in the letterbox journal or your own. Make sure to sign with your trail name and not your real name!

Prepare for the weather/terrain 

As with any kind of adventure, consider the weather and terrain beforehand.  A few geocaches and letterboxes are indoors, but many others require going out on a trail.  If you are treasure-hunting on a sunny day, wear a hat and bring water.  Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts if going out in colder weather, or in an area that might require you to be walking on a path with lots of brush nearby.  Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes, and keep an eye out for poison ivy, stinging nettles, slippery surfaces, etc.

Learn the rules & be respectful of nature. 

Stay on trails, and do not trample native plants in search of a letterbox or geocache.  If you see any litter while out on a trail, remember, “Cache In, Trash Out.”  This is part of an environmental beautification effort by geocachers worldwide.  When you find what you’re looking for – whether letterbox or geocache – be subtle.  You don’t want to ruin the surprise for others, and you definitely don’t want to draw the attention of folks who might not be letterbox- or cache- friendly.  Put everything back exactly where you found it and as you found it, and remember to record your find (or attempt) online!  See online communities and resources below for other code-of-conduct guidelines.

Have fun!
You may find yourself discovering new places you never knew existed in your own neighborhood, or trails you wouldn’t have otherwise visited. You can log your experiences at one of the many hobby websites.

letterboxing stamp (photo by Erin Lennon)
Stamp, inkpad, and notebook by a river, photo by Erin Lennon, State Parks

Resources and Relevant Links:

For geocache locations & rules: www.geocaching.com, www.earthcache.org, http://www.cachegeek.com/cache-listing-sites.html, and see various mobile apps (search “geocaching” in the app store for your smartphone).  For some services, you may need to create an account.  As a note, State Parks is not affiliated with any geocaching or letterboxing organizations.  And always check with landowners and local rules before creating new caches or routes.

For letterbox locations & rules: http://www.atlasquest.com/, http://www.letterboxing.org/

Policy for placing geocaches/letterboxes in NY State Parks: State Parks Geocache Guidance.

Keep in mind that cache/box locations and maintenance statuses are subject to change.  Here are a few State Parks and Historic Sites to begin your search for geocaches or letterboxes:

Geocache

Post by Erin Lennon, State Parks

 

Early New York Ironworks

The Copake Iron Works was established in 1845 along the Bash Bish Brook near the Massachusetts border by Lemuel Pomeroy (1788-1849).  Pomeroy  was a prosperous businessman from Pittsfield, MA. After operating an iron furnace in nearby Ancram, NY for the Livingston family, and being involved with the New York and Albany Railroad he started the Copake Iron Works. In 1853 he encouraged the New York and Harlem Railroad to expand the rail line to the ironworks and growing hamlet of Copake Falls Ironworks.   Remarkably, the Ironmasters house and some worker housing from this early period are intact today.

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Copake Iron Works, 1888, State Parks image

In 1861, John Beckley of Cannan, CT purchased the Iron Works.  He sold it one year later to Frederick Miles (1815-1896) of Salisbury, CT. Miles elevated the operation to new heights and the Copake Iron Works developed a reputation for producing high quality iron products such as railroad wheels and axles. Miles also replaced the first furnace with the one that is still on site today and being stabilized by the Friends of Taconic State Park. Miles, who served in Congress with future Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley, entrusted the day-to-day operations to his son William A. Miles.  Thanks to William, and with the good fortune of what is still standing at the property, the Copake Iron Works constitutes the largest group of iron-making remnants in the larger tri-state “Iron Heritage” area. In 2016, the Copake Iron Works was designated a Hudson River Valley National Heritage area by the National Parks Service.

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The Copake Iron Works Museum showcases iron-making artifacts, and some 25 interpretative signs throughout the beautiful natural setting illustrate iron-making operations in great detail.  Friends of Taconic State Park (Friends) supports the activities of the Taconic State Park – Copake Falls Area, with an emphasis on the preservation of the historic Copake Iron Works. The Friends group staff the museum every weekend in season and takes visitors into the blast furnace.

Parking is plentiful for cars and buses and there are also picnic facilities at the museum.  Stop on over for a visit.

Post by Jim Mackin, Friends of Taconic State Park

On land and In Water: 2016 Invasive Species Removal Efforts

Terrestrial Invasive Species

Since 2010, State Parks has hired seasonal Invasive Species Strike Teams to perform removals of terrestrial invasive plants in New York State Parks and Historic Sites.  The work of the Strike Teams allows Parks staff to identify and protect areas of ecological significance that are vulnerable to the growing threat that invasive species pose.

In 2016, two crews were hired, an Eastern Strike Team and a Western Strike Team. Each crew worked a 25-week field season (May 30 – November 18), camping out for much of the time and carrying heavy packs and gear to work sites.

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2016 Eastern and Western Strike Teams, photo by Robert O’Brien, State Parks.

The Eastern Strike Team covered Parks and Historic Sites in the Saratoga-Capital, Taconic, Palisades and Long Island regions.

  • Over the course of the field season, the crew visited 29 parks in 12 counties.
  • They worked on 38 different projects, targeting 32 invasive plant species.
  • The top three focal species were: Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus – 18 acres removed), Phragmites (Phragmites australis – 12 acres removed) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii – 10 acres removed).
  • Surveys and invasives removals were done on a total of 98 acres.
  • Much of the work focused on protecting rare elements including:
    • Karner Blue Butterfly and Sandplain Gerardia – federally endangered
    • Slender Blue Flag Iris and the rare Pink Tickseed – state threatened
    • Cerulean Warbler and Golden Winged Warbler – state listed species of special concern
    • A globally rare maritime grassland habitat
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Taylor Ouderkirk, Casey Bannon, Mike Ferri, David Hendler, photo by Taylor Ouderkirk, State Parks.
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Left: Eastern Strike Team removes Asiatic sand-sedge at Jones Beach, NY; Right: Strike Team member David Hendler removes black swallow-wort, photos by Casey Bannon, State Parks.

The Eastern Strike Team also spent a portion of their time surveying for the Southern Pine Beetle, an insect native to the southeast U.S., which has spread to the northeast, causing large-scale pine die-off on Long Island. The beetle has been detected in traps in State Parks in the Hudson Valley, but no confirmed infestations have yet been found in Pitch Pines in that region. Surveys were conducted in Schunnemunk State Park, Harriman State Park, and Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

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The Eastern Strike Team performs Southern Pine Beetle surveys at Minnewaska State Park Preserve, photo by Sarah Travalio, State Parks.

The Western Strike Team focused on the Finger Lakes, Central, Thousand Islands, Niagara, Allegany and Genesee Regions.

  • Over the course of the field season, they visited 22 parks in 15 counties.
  • They worked on 50 different projects, targeting 19 invasive plant species.
  • The top three focal species were: Pale Swallowwort (Cynanchum rossicum), Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) and Buckthorn (Rhamnus spp.).
  • Topping the ranks in numbers or volume removed were: 2.79 acres of Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) surveyed and removed, 35,025 Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata ) plants, 34 bags of Pale Swallowwort (Cynanchum rossicum), and 7 dumpsters filled with Phragmites (Phragmites australis).
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    The 2016 Western Strike Team (left to right): Sienna McDonald, Phil Bossert, Dallas Ortel, and Melissa Kirby, photo by State Parks.
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Western Strike Team members Phil Bossert (left) and Dallas Ortel (right) remove honeysuckle at John Burroughs Memorial Field State Historic Site, photos by Sarah Travalio, State Parks.

State Parks also hired two Forest Health Specialists to perform surveys for two non-native insect pests: Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) and Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). These surveys alert New York State Parks invasive species staff to new infestations, assist staff in identifying infested trees that can potentially be saved and allow for the identification and removal of trees that may pose a risk to the safety of park patrons. Forest Health Specialists also performed HWA canopy monitoring (tree-climbing) surveys at sites where HWA-infested trees had been treated previously with chemical insecticides. At these sites, the crew collected data on infestation levels and overall tree health in order to assist invasive species staff in monitoring the effectiveness of treatments.

  • Over the course of the 18-week field season, the crew was able to visit 17 different parks.
  • HWA canopy monitoring surveys were performed in 8 parks, and a total of 42 trees were surveyed.
  • All hemlock trees that had been treated with insecticides in previous years showed either no sign of infestation or signs of improvement.
  • Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) surveys were performed in 14 different parks, and the crew confirmed two new sites of EAB infestation.
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Forest Health Specialists Jacob Sidey and Abigail Pierson prepare to climb a hemlock at Robert H. Treman State Park and Abigail shows how they climb using just ropes and no spikes, photos by Sarah Travalio, State Parks.
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Surveying hemlocks: Jacob Sidey (left and center) at Mine Kill State Park and Abigail Pierson (right) at Robert H Treman State Park, photos by Sarah Travalio, State Parks.

Aquatic Invasive Species

The New York State Park’s Boat Steward Program is one of many boat steward programs throughout New York State. These programs provide targeted educational programming to increase awareness about aquatic invasive species (AIS) and other environmentally significant issues.

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Ariana London, Lake Champlain Steward, completes a boater survey on her tablet computer at the Great Chazy boat launch in 2015, photo by Meg Phillips, State Parks.

Did you know that NY State Parks adopted regulations in 2015 to help try to protect our lakes and rivers from the costly effects of invasive species? Find an FAQ about the new regulations here.

The regulations states that a boater:

  • shall not launch or retrieve their watercraft from a Parks-owned boat launch facility unless the watercraft’s water-containing compartments (livewell, bilge, bait bucket) are dry.
  • has inspected the watercraft to ensure that there is not plant or animal material attached to the motor, trailer, body of the vessel, etc.

The Boat Steward Program has stewards at many of our Parks-owned boat launches across the state who conduct educational boat inspections to provide step-by-step instructions on ways you can effectively inspect your boat and dispose of invasive species. These demonstrations are both free and voluntary.

Boat Stewards can help you learn about what to do to prevent spreading aquatic invasives and what to look for. They are primarily educators and do not play a role in the enforcement of regulations.

Many Parks-owned boat launches across the state are also equipped with disposal stations for aquatic plant or animal material. The disposal stations are designed to provide a place for plant or animal material to dry out in an upland area. The dried out material is typically collected and placed in the garbage to prevent any further spread.

When you come across a red-shirted Boat Steward, please stop and ask any questions you may have.

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Becca Reile, Buffalo Harbor Steward, completes a boat inspection in 2015, photo by Meg Phillips, State Parks.

2016 Boat Steward Program Highlights:

  • 2016 was the first year of a 2-year $500,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand the boat steward program at state park launches
  • 16 stewards worked 30 launches within the Great Lakes Basin, Lake Champlain Basin, and Saratoga Lake
  • There were 21,431 voluntary inspections out of 22,344 boats (95% of boaters allowed their boat to be inspected)
  • 2,982 boats were discovered carrying aquatic invasive species
  • 54,627 boaters interacted with Stewards, with many boaters receiving education about Clean-Drain-Dry and aquatic invasive species
  • 11 invasive species removal projects in partnership with Strike Teams and other partners
  • 10 educational events
  • Approximately 500 bags, or around 12.5 tons, of water chestnut were removed from Selkirk Shores State Park.
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Jared Reed, Saratoga Lake Steward, participates in Invasive Species Awareness Week in Albany , photo by Matt Brincka, State Parks.
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Kelly Butterfield, Sunset Bay Steward, and Holly Flanigan, Fort Niagara Steward, pulling water chestnut (an aquatic invasive species) at Grindstone Marsh in Selkirk Shores State Park, photo by Matt Brincka, State Parks.

Click on these links for more information about the Boat Steward Program and aquatic invasive species.

If you are interested in volunteering to help remove invasive species in your area, become a member of your local Partners for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) program.

If you are interesting in seasonal work removing invasive species in State Parks, check out the State Parks employment page.