All posts by New York State Parks

Hail the Snails!

Need to slow down your fast-paced life?

The Chit in its natural habitat, by C. Gilbertson
The chits are well camouflaged for living in the leaf litter, by C. Gilbertson

Try watching a snail! No seriously, it’s quite calming. They glide along and seemingly know exactly where they are going. They are curious, and if you listen really carefully, you may hear them munching away when they eat!

Cody Gilbertson, a Master’s student of conservation biology at SUNY-ESF, has been working with and watching snails since 2010. On top of that, the species she works with is a small land snail that is also one of the most endangered species of New York. This little snail is quite famous because it is only found at one location in the entire world!

Not a bad field site! By P. Harper
Not a bad field site! By P. Harper

The Chittenango Ovate amber snail resides at Chittenango Falls State Park. At the base of a waterfall 167 feet in height, this unique species goes about its business amongst rocky ledges and lush vegetation. This summer, teams of volunteers signed up to help Gilbertson assess the size of the snail population and contribute data for her research.

In these snail surveys, volunteers survey small plots of snail habitat for a set amount of time, capturing small snails in tupperware containers as they go. After the collection, all the captured snails are sorted an identified, so we can figure out which are Chittenango Ovate Amber Snails (affectionately called “Chits”) and which are other snail species. After the count, the Chits are released back where they were found and the other snails are removed.

The team scrambles over rocks! By P. Harper
The team scrambles over rocks! By P. Harper

The data from these surveys is part of Gilbertson’s greater study on the life cycle of this rare snail and figuring out what is necessary for their survival. What do they eat? What conditions do they need to survive? How the heck do they live through upstate New York winters? She is looking for new methods to increase this snail’s overall numbers with a goal to help stabilize their population and create a template for other conservation efforts for land snail species.

Captive COAS_Cody Gilbertson_SUNYESF
This baby snail was born in captivity, and may provide clues to how we can protect the endangered chits. By C. Gilbertson

Another important aspect of the project is captive breeding. So far, Gilbertson has successfully bred a biologically similar snail species and yielded roughly 3000 hatchlings. She is also looking at how many other snail species live in isolated populations within New York State to find out if isolated populations are common or rare in this family of snails.

Not many people slow down to examine the small beings on earth. Some animals may almost be invisible, but they all play a big part in ecosystems and the small size of the animal does not make them less important. So next time you’re feeling rushed in life, take a moment to watch a snail, you’d be amazed at the calm steady creature before you!

Featured image is of Chittenango Falls at Chittenango Falls State Park, by Paris Harper.

Post by Cody Gilbertson and Paris Harper

Protecting Mud Lake

Riddell_Skunk_cabbage_ParisHarper
Skunk cabbages grow in the damp peat at the shady, forested edge of the bog.

NYS Parks often has to perform a balancing act between meeting the needs of the wildlife and environments, and providing the opportunities for recreation that sometimes negatively impact ecosystems, but also allow people to experience nature and buoy the public interest in maintaining and protecting our parks.

Mud Lake, at Robert V. Riddell (RVR) State Park in Delaware County, is a good example of such a place. The NY Natural Heritage program (NYNHP) completed a vegetation map based on field surveys at Robert V. Riddell State Park, and has documented one rare insect species and a high quality dwarf shrub bog, both at Mud Lake. Mud Lake is a very scenic feature in the park, but as park use increases, this fragile ecosystem faces greater risks. For this reason, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) is looking to provide better visitor access to Mud Lake while protecting the fragile bog and pond habitat.

Given that RVR has only recently been designated a state park, there has been relatively little development beyond trail surveys and invasive species removal. Because the park is so close to Hartwick College, one of the most important uses of the park is for education and research, which only adds to the importance of protecting a rare and high-quality ecosystem like Mud Lake. Hartwick College has been a long time partner of State Parks and continues to utilize Robert V. Riddell State Park for educational opportunities.

Mud Lake is located on the parcel of land recently acquired from Hartwick College. It’s a small, spring-fed pond surrounded by forest and circled by a narrow band of spruce and tamarack trees, transitioning to low shrubs, and finally to a floating mat of sphagnum peat at the edge of the open water. This type of ecosystem is called a dwarf shrub bog, and it is a particularly fragile environment. Wild cranberries only grow in dwarf shrub bogs, as do carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. These plants can be found growing out of the peat moss.

Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!
Pitcher plants grow out of peat moss, which is lower in nutrients than regular soil. Pitcher plants capture and digest insects to make up for this!

The peat is strong enough to walk on, but the water flowing through the thick vegetative mat gives you the feeling of standing on a waterbed – I was afraid of falling through!

The peat will hold up up, but not without getting your shoes wet!
The peat will hold you up, but not without getting your shoes wet!

Visitor access to Mud Lake is challenging. Currently, there is no defined pathway that can take you from the edge of the forest out to the open pond and bog area. This means any park visitors that want to get a closer look are making their own paths through the edge of the bog, and putting fragile plants at risk of being crushed.

To protect Mud Lake and also to enhance visitor experiences, OPRHP is in the process of designing a boardwalk from the upland edge of the bog to the water’s edge, including a gathering space where groups of students and other visitors can be brought to view the bog. However, building a solid structure on a bog presents unique challenges. Last winter, core samples taken from the peat went as far as 27 feet deep and still did not hit hard earth. At the tree line, solid ground was 20 feet below the surface of the soft, damp peat layer. OPRHP is still working on resolving all the construction challenges in this project, but we are hard at work to protect Mud Lake.

Surveyors at work on Mud Lake
Surveyors at work on Mud Lake

featured image is of Mud Lake in early May. Post and photos by Paris Harper 

Wildlife Spotlight: the Bee Fly

The bee fly is an adorable insect which can be seen buzzing around wildflowers in spring and summer. The one in this photo was seen near the shoreline at Harriman State Park. Bee flies are named for their round, fuzzy bodies and habit of flying from flower to flower in search of food. Unlike bees, however, these flies don’t sting! That long nose is called a proboscis, and it serves the same function as a hummingbird’s beak, allowing the bee fly to sip nectar from flowers. But as cute and harmless as the adult bee flies are, they start their lives as ferocious little larva! Bee Flies lay their eggs in the same burrows solitary bees dig for their own eggs. When the fly larvae hatch, they eat the bee’s winter cache of pollen, and then they eat the baby bees, too!

We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper
We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper

100 Years at Thacher State Park

A 1920s postcard showing the original ladder on the Indian Ladder Trail.
A 1920s postcard showing the original ladder on the Indian Ladder Trail.

John Boyd Thacher State Park will be hosting a Centennial Celebration on Saturday, September 13th from 10am to 7pm. This free event will feature a variety of fun things to do, including live birds of prey, guided hikes to Tory and Hailes Caves, live music from Oobleck and Hair of the Dog, and kids’ activities including horse-drawn wagon rides, bouncy castles, a climbing wall and pony rides, along with outdoor workshops from L.L. Bean. A ceremony will be held at Thacher Point at 11:00am as at the original dedication 100 years ago.

On September 14th, 1914, Emma Treadwell Thacher joined Governor Martin Glynn and over 1,000 other attendees to formally dedicate 350 acres of the Helderberg Escarpment in memory of her late husband, John Boyd Thacher. Since that day, John Boyd Thacher State Park has expanded to cover over 2400 acres with 25 miles of hiking trails and 9 picnic pavilions to be enjoyed by the public. Please join us on September 13th as we celebrate our history and look forward to the next century of John Boyd Thacher State Park.

Predator Study At State Parks

A research study out of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) is collaborating with Fahnstock State Park and Wonder Lake State Park in Putnam County to look at predator populations as part of an ongoing study of the declining population of New England cottontails (NEC), Sylvilagus transitionalis. NEC is a rabbit native to the northeastern U.S., but studies indicate that in the past decade, the population of NEC has decreased by as much as 50%. Some populations of the cottontails are in New York State Parks, and learning more about best management practices is critical to protecting this species.

As the New England cottontail (NEC) is a declining species being considered for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act, there are a lot of ongoing efforts to create habitat for these rabbits in the Northeast. The hope is these efforts will preemptively restore populations of NEC in the region, making it unnecessary to list the species as endangered.

The two greatest contributing factors to the decline of NECs are loss of habitat and the introduction of the Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus. While the two cottontail species are almost identical in appearance, the Eastern Cottontail generally outcompetes NECs for food and habitat, edging the native species out of its former range. While loss of habitat and the introduction of the Eastern cottontail are both factors contributing to the decline of New England Cottontail, this study looks at predation in conjunction with other management practices.

Predation accounts for almost all natural mortality in NECs. As such, increases or decreases in the predator community would have serious consequences for the cottontail population. Most management projects have focused on enhancing habitat for NECs, but this study considers whether those projects might have the unintended consequence of altering the predator communities in such a way that cottontail survival is reduced. If that’s the case, then it will be necessary to consider predator management strategies when managing habitat for NEC. Results from this study will help inform habitat managers and recover NEC populations.

The project, led by PhD student Amanda Cheeseman and Dr. Jonathan Cohen, both from SUNY-ESF, together with Scott Silver of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Putnam Highlands Audubon, uses trail cameras targeting mammal predators, in combination with visual and auditory surveys for hawks, owls, and eagles, to examine predator communities in areas where different ways of controlling and managing NEC habitat are already being practiced. The project is taking place across multiple sites in Putnam and Dutchess counties. The pictures above were taken in Fahnstock State ParkThe information from the predator study will be compared to data from radio-collared cottontails in order to get a complete picture of the predator-prey relationships in New England Cottontail habitats.

featured image is of the New England Cottontail, Sylvilagus transitionalis, by Michael Merchand, NYNHP