This spring, as you spend time hiking or recreating in one of your favorite state parks, keep an eye out for an insect with a name almost as evocative as its striking appearance – the mourning cloak!
Nymphalis antiopa, also known as the Camberwell beauty in Great Britain, is easily recognizable due to its wings, which feature an irregularly-shaped bright yellow border with a row of iridescent blue spots on the inner edge. Some other historical names for the species also reflect its appearance, including “grand surprise” and “white petticoat.”
The mourning cloak is unusual in that it overwinters as an adult, hiding in tree cavities and under loose bark. It starts flying again as soon as the days warm up, even where there’s still snow on the ground.
Not just native to the northeast, the mourning cloak is broadly distributed around the hemisphere – in fact, it’s the state insect of Montana! Their wingspan ranges from 2 ¼ to 4 inches and they have one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly at 10 to 12 months. Their favorite snacks include rotting fruit or tree sap, and they can often be found gathering on oak trees.
They’re also highly distinguishable in their immature form as the spiny elm caterpillars, with black spiny bodies run through with a streak of reddish to orange colored dots. After feeding on young leaves, the caterpillars will pupate and emerge in their adult form mid-summer. Some adults migrate in the fall, and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala.
Late fall through early spring is a great time to look for abandoned bird nests in our parks. These nests provided homes for young birds last year and are so well built that they have lasted through the harshest of winter weather
When you come upon a nest during your hike, there are a few things to consider when trying to identify which bird species built the nest.
Different bird species live and nest in different habitats or places. Some birds nest along river banks, while others nest on the ground, on a cliff, in a shrub or dead tree, in a tangle of vines, in trees, or even floating on water. In winter, the easiest nests to find are the ones in trees, shrubs, and vines.
How far off the ground is the nest? Birds such as robins will nest 10 -20 feet off the ground, while a cardinal will build a nest 1 -10 feet off the ground. As with habitat, nest height can help with nest identification.
The overall shape of the nest is also a clue as to which species built the nest. Goldfinches, like many bird species, build cup-shaped nests. Mourning doves build saucer-like nests. Marsh wrens build a ball-shaped nests and orioles build a pendant-shaped nest.
The nests that we see in winter are made from sturdy materials such as plant matter (grass, bark, twigs, small roots, and tree branches), which may be held together by dried mud or spider webs.
Some common nests you may see on your walk:
One of the most common nests that you can see is an American robin nest. Robins usually build their nests in coniferous trees, like pine trees, that have a couple of horizontal branches near each other. They will also build their nests in the eaves of buildings and gutters. Robins use twigs and dead grass to build a cup-shaped platform nest. Once the nest is formed, the inside of the nest is reinforced with soft mud then the inside of the nest is lined with dry fine grass. These nests are between 10 and 20 feet off the ground and are quite durable thanks to the mud lining.
Blue jays build their cup-shaped nests on horizontal branches or forks in tree branches. They build their nests in conifer or deciduous trees like maple and oak trees 5 to 20 feet off the ground. The nest is built from twigs, strips of bark, lichen, moss, and grass. Sometimes the blue jay nest builder will use mud to hold the nest together like a robin. The nest is lined with small roots.
This chipping sparrow nest from Hamlin Beach State Park shows the cup-shaped nest made from dry grass and small roots. Look for these nests in deciduous trees between 1 and 10 feet off the ground.
An American goldfinch nest sits in a sapling along the edge of a field in Allegany State Park. This cup shaped nest is made of tiny roots and plant fibers which are held together by spider webs. Look for these nests between 1 and 30 feet off the ground.
Ospreys are commonly seen nesting on the light poles at Wellesley Island State Park. They use sticks to build their saucer-shaped nest which they line with grass, sod, bark, or other material. Each year they add more sticks to the nest; with nests growing to over 12 feet deep and 6 feet across as generations of osprey use the same nest.
Yellow warbler nests, like this nest from Evangola State Park, are found in small trees and bushes in woodlands near water. Their cup-shaped nests are usually about 10 feet off the ground, but can be as high as 60 feet. The nest is made from grass, nettles, and thin bark strips, which is surrounded by spider webs and plant fibers. If you can look in the nest, you may see the remains of the nest lining of cattail, cottonwood, and cattail seeds and deer hair.
Spotting one of these Baltimore oriole nests can be a treat. Baltimore orioles build their pendant-shaped nest in American elm, maple and basswood trees between 15 and 30 feet off the ground. The nest is made from fine plant fibers such as grass, strips of grapevine bark and as you can see here blue man-made fibers. Baltimore orioles tangle and knot the fibers together to form the nest. The nest is built in three phases, the flexible outer portion is completed first, followed by springy fibers on the inside of the bowl. The springy fibers help the nest to maintain the pendant-shape. Finally, the inside of the nest is lined with downy fibers like dandelions.
One of the most common nests that you may see are not bird nests but squirrel nests. These leaf nests, or dreys, are made from twigs that are woven together into a ball shape in a tree crotch with an entry on the side of the nest.. They are lined with damp leaves and moss. Dreys have a variety of functions from being a winter retreat from winter’s cold to spring and summer homes for young squirrels.
Mice are unexpected nest box visitors. If you open up a nest box during your hike, you might encounter mice, like these deer mice, who use the nest box as a warm place to hide during winter’s cold days.
Make your next hike a nest hunt hike! If you do find a nest, tag us on Instagram, #nystateparks.
Dugmore, A. Radclyffe.; Bird homes. The nests, eggs and breeding habits of the land birds breeding in the eastern United States; with hints on the rearing and photographing of young birds, New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902, c1900.
Harrison, Hal H. A Field Guide to Bird Nests in the United States East of the Mississippi River, Boston, Houghton Mifflin; Expanded, Subsequent edition, 1998.
Many animals live in the Northeast, including wild felines like bobcats (Lynx rufus) (Image 1). Once heavily hunted for their prized and beautiful fur coats, the remarkable American bobcat (Lynx rufus) population has recently rebounded in the Northeast. This remarkable feline resides in young forest and shrub communities along wetlands and along the shrubby areas next to agricultural fields. Recently, bobcats have expanded their home range to mature forest communities of oak-beech-hemlock. In doing this transition to new habitats, the bobcat added young deer, squirrels, and chipmunks to their diet of beaver, muskrats, rabbits, and rodents but also young deer, squirrels, and chipmunks. Like all felines, these hunters will be found “hiding” among shrubs, tree branches, on ledges, or even laying down as flat as possible on the ground. Their fur pattern and coloration, like all cats, acts like camouflage and helps the bobcats hide in the surrounding environment while stalking prey or taking a nap.
Several wild feline species, including bobcats, either make their home or once made their home in New York. The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) (Image 2, left) have made a presence and have been observed hunting or hiding among the far northern forests of New York. Eastern mountain lion or cougar (Image 2, right) have been absent from much of their eastern range, including New York State for nearly two hundred years. In the western states Mountain Lions have a secure presence while in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp of Florida their presence is much smaller.
Image 2, Canada lynx, photo by Michael Zahra
Image 3, Cougar (mountain lion or catamont), public domain image.
All cats have a distinct look – predatorial eyes located in front of their heads with upright ears. Like our domestic cats, New York felines have tails, some are just shorter than others. Bobcats have either short stubs on their behinds or shortened tails. The bobcat also has a white behind that traces up to the underside of the tail and has a darkened tip.
The lynx always has a short, stubbed tail and a distinct black cap on the entire tail tip.
Ear tufts are present on both lynx and bobcat. Tufts of the bobcat are shorter than a lynx, or they may not be present at all. Lynx, on the other hand, will always have the distinct black tufts on top of the ears. Bobcats tend to have some black-brown-grey pattern or variation in colors compared to the more streamlined tannish-grey color and white chest of the lynx. Lynx also are notably wearing Elizabethan bowtie-like ruffs with black tips, which are lacking in the other two cats. Coloration of the hock, or the portion of the hind leg below what we commonly associate as the joint, are different in bobcats and lynx. Bobcats have black, dark brown, or dark grey. The hock of a lynx is not a dark color but rather an extended, continued coloration of their body. Lynx also have white on the insides of their legs.
Cats walk with an athletic stride and cautiously stalk their prey while hiding from plain sight.
If you were to place your hand on paint and press on a surface, a hand print would form showing your fingertips and palm. Just like our hand prints, all feline paw prints would also show their tips and a palm as shown in Image 4. The size and height of our fingers differ and so do the paw tips of cats (Image 4). In cat paw prints, we find four paw tips at different heights above the “M” shaped palm print. Cat lead finger is similar to our middle finger print, which would be at the highest height of the paw. The pinky would be the smallest print and at the lowest height, as would our pinkies. We would see the last other two cat paw tips varying in height and size as we would find the ring finger and the pointer finger vary our finger prints. Also, distinct with cats is the formation of a circle around the tips and palm that results from the fur on the paws. This shape is very distinct with the lynx as shown in Image 5 as a print inside this circle.
Generally, the bobcat pawprints are round and roughly a couple inches in the size. Lynx’s pawprints are twice this size. Lynx have a smaller diameter in their tip and “M” shaped palm prints and have greater spacing between the positioning of their tips and their palm. The reason for the smaller diameter and greater spacing between the tips and palm is due to the denser fur on the paws. The mountain lion has the largest pawprint, totaling 3 inches in diameter or larger. If you happen to see the felines in motion, note the paws of the lynx as being large, plush slippers in comparison to the bobcat.
Felines will mark their territory through scents. Just like our domestic feline friends, bobcats, lynx, and mountain lions will rub their faces, scratch their paws, and even spray to mark their territory. Glands that produce a scent are found on the face, between the toes of the paws, and by the tail (Image 6). On the head, they are found at the base of the ears (pinna glands), on the eyebrows (temporal glands), on the cheeks (cheek glands), at the base of the whiskers (perioral glands), and at the base of the chin (submand ibular).
Scent marking is why the wild felines in the forest and your domestic cat rub their face all over trees, rocks, and other objects. Scratching vertically on trees, or furniture, and kicking their hind legs are common ways cats mark their scent on objects through the interdigital glands between their toes. Also, notably rubbing their bum on objects leaves scents from their anal glands (Image 7). Hair can also be left on trees, stumps, rocks, and other objects as the feline rubs. Looking for their presence through hair on objects, scratch marks on trees, or two strips of unearthed vegetation leading to a pile of material (Image 7 & 8). You can also sniff for a musky urine smell on the undersides of decaying or falling trees, limbs, branches, or ledges.
Image 7, lynx marking a tree, image accessed from Locomote.
Image 8, bobcat marking a rock, images accessed from NatureofMan
Finding evidence or seeing one of New York’s native cats can be quite a treat. If you do see a native cat, let us know!
Along the shores of Lake Erie, Evangola State Park becomes a winter sports mecca as the lake’s famous lake-effect snowstorms blanket the park! Lake-effect snow occurs when cold, Canadian air moves across Lake Erie evaporating its open waters and causing intense, local snow bands which can drop one to two inches of snow per hour.
Burning calories while relieving stress, cross-country skiing is a popular activity on the parks peaceful and tranquil trails.
Cross-country skiing is a wonderful way to connect to nature!
Three major trail systems are avaliable at Evangola State Park. The Evangola Snowmobile Trail is located on the east side of the park and snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails are on the west side.
Many snowshoers and skiers utilize the 3.5 mile snowmobile trail since it is lightly used by snowmobilers. The trail is fairly flat and easy for beginners.
The Evangola Cross-Country Ski and Snowshoe trail is an easy two mile loop trail through forest and shrubby wetlands.The trail starts at the baseball field located on the west side of the park and goes right into the woods.
With a variety of tracks along the way…….
A fun activity while skiing or snowshoeing is to investigate fresh animal tracks. The tracks left behind are a magical record of a nocturnal creature’s travel, allowing a glimpse into their secret lives.
One of the advantages of snowshoes is the ability to go off trail and through deep snow with ease.
Snowshoeing is fun for all ages.
The Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office has free snowshoes to loan to adults and children and many people bring their own snowshoes. It is easy to learn snowshoeing and participants become proficient on their first winter snowshoe hike.
Stunning Ice Formations
A spectacular winter trail at Evangola is the “Rim Trail” along towering cliffs over Lake Erie, where you can see all the way to Canada on a clear day! But clear skies or cloudy, check out some of nature’s ice sculptures all along the shore.
It’s cold outside, it takes forever to get the kids bundled up and out the door. Is it worth all the trouble? You bet! You don’t need a lot of planning, just a few tips and tricks to encourage kids – and you – to enjoy the outdoors in winter.
Look for hats and hoods that are not just fun or cute, but that are also warm and comfy (and don’t keep falling over their eyes). Warm and waterproof boots, mittens – not gloves – to keep those fingers warm, and a scarf if it is really nippy or windy out. For the little ones, mitten clips or strings keeps them from getting lost. If it is sunny, don’t forget to apply some sunscreen on the face and ears, and fair eyed kids and adults may want sunglasses.
Photo by Magnus Manske, accessed from WikiCommons
Build a Snow Sculpture
We all hope for snow! Building snow people or forts or animals, small or large is always fun. My father once built us a snow duck we could sit on. Look for leaves, sticks, and berries on the ground to decorate your snow sculpture with.
Let’s Go Sledding! Snowshoeing! Hiking!
Many parks have places for sledding. Pick the size of slope that is right for the kids and a location without trees or other hazards. Likewise, choose the right size route for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or hiking and make it fun. If there is no snow, there are still lots of places to hike. Avoid icy trails. You can find flat trails around a lake or campground or on bike paths that are good for beginner snowshoeing and hiking with or without snow. Some of the nature centers even have snowshoes to borrow. Start small and work up to a longer outing. Older kids may enjoy the challenge of a longer day out; just remember to bring lunch and water and plan for some stops.
Look for Animals Kids are good at spotting animals and animal tracks. Stop and look and listen for squirrels and birds in the bushes and trees. You don’t need to be able to identify what animal it is, just take the time to look. Where do the tracks go? Are they big or small? What kind of animal do you think it might be? Common animal tracks to see in the winter at the park are squirrels, dogs, birds, snowshoe hare, and deer.
Northern cardinals are a common winter bird, photo by Julie Lundgren
If you are on the beach, you can look for tracks in the sand or snow, photo by Julie Lundgren
Need a little help? Take part in a park-led activity like a snowshoe hike or ice fishing day.
Be an Explorer
There are all kinds of cool things to see in winter. Take the time to look around, it’s amazing what you can find. Some kids are naturally curious, others may need a little encouragement or direction to get started. If so, make a game out of it like a scavenger hunt for shapes, colors and/or things. Try this: find a sign of 1 animal; a place where an animal might hide; the shape of the letters U,V,X,Y; something green, something blue.
Take a Break – Bring a Treat
Bring a little treat and stop outside on a log or a bench to have a snack and water. Tangerines, raisins, apple slices, pretzels, nuts are some healthy choices but a little chocolate or a cookie doesn’t hurt. Bringing a thermos and having hot chocolate or tea to have outside seems really special after sledding or midway through a hike or ski.
Know when to come indoors
If it is really cold or windy, pay attention to signs of getting too cold. Noses, ears, and fingers can easily get cold and frostbite may happen when the temperatures drop. Get out of the cold if any of you can’t feel your fingers or toes or start shivering. And plan your outing so you are done well before the daylight dims, as temperatures drop when the sun goes down.Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program.