When autumn arrives, what comes to your mind first? Many say the changing foliage or enjoying a hike along a trail, savoring those crisp days given to us during this time of year.
However, here in the Niagara Region of New York, autumn holds an annual event that is well-worth a journey down into the Niagara Gorge! It is the time of year when in addition to viewing the raging rapids, you can also see the river at low water. This is all made possible because of additional water being diverted for the New York Power Authority and the Ontario Power Company to produce hydroelectricity.
Regulated under The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 (revised in 1950), the US and Canada are allowed to divert water for the purpose of power generation as long as they agree to preserve the scenic beauty of the Falls and the Niagara River. Thus, the erosion rate of the falls is reduced significantly. The cliff face is more stable and it makes it easier to maintain the viewing areas at Niagara Falls State Park.
Summer Flow occurs from April 1 until October 31, with 50% of the river water diverted above the Falls during the day and 75% diverted during evening hours to produce electricity.
Winter Flow occurs from November 1-March 31, when 75% of the water above the Falls is diverted, thus we get to see only a quarter of the water flow over the falls.
This offers opportunities to explore part of the exposed Whirlpool Sandstone rock layer in the Niagara Gorge during the winter flow. The Whirlpool Sandstone layer is underwater during the summer flow.
There are guided hikes available with the Niagara Region Park Programs Office in November; in 2017 they are Saturday, November 11 & Saturday, November 18. The hike will take you beyond the Whirlpool to the site of the rapids viewing area. At one time, the exposed rocks were a scenic stop for the Great Gorge Route, an electric trolley line that ran from 1895-1935, running from Niagara Falls to Lewiston, NY. The route also journeyed over to Canada (1899-1932) on what was known as the Niagara Belt Line.
At this trolley stop, passengers were able to walk down the stairs to better view the incredible “giant wave” as seen in the historic postcard below.
Post by Carol Rogers, State Parks.
Featured image: Niagara River Backdrift, accessed from Wikicommons
New York State is home to a variety of animals! There are nearly 100 mammal species, 375 bird species, and over 70 species of reptiles and amphibians found in New York. While we try our best to understand these animals, sometimes myths spread about them that may not be true. Can turtles come out of their shells? Do toads give you warts? These common animal myths stem from folklore, old sayings, misunderstandings, and more, but we can do our best to separate fact from fiction. Let’s take a look at some top myths about a few animals found in New York State Parks!
Are bats blind?
No, bats are not blind! The bats found in New York are part of a group called microbats, which do rely heavily on echolocation (the location of objects by reflected sound) to navigate and find insect prey. Scientists who have examined the eyes of these bats have determined that they have some night vision as well as limited daylight vision. Some species even have ultraviolet (UV) vision. Though not found in New York, megabats—the fruit-eaters—rely primarily on vision and smell, rather than echolocation. Overall, vision is important to help bats avoid predators and find food and shelter.
Fun fact: While several animals can glide (like flying squirrels), bats are the only mammals known in the world that are capable of true and sustained flight!
Will touching a toad give you warts?
Good news for all of us that grew up catching frogs and toads. No, touching a toad will not give you warts! Warts are actually caused by a virus that is spread between people. This myth probably began because of the bumpy skin on a toad’s back. There are two bumps to be careful of though; behind the eyes of toads are two large areas called parotoid glands. As a defense mechanism, these glands produce a toxin that causes irritation to a predator’s mouth. So if you do catch a toad, it is still a good idea to wash your hands afterwards.
Can porcupines shoot their quills?
No, a porcupine cannot shoot its quills! First, let’s take a look at what a quill is. A quill is a very stiff, hollow hair that can be found mixed in with the softer hair of a porcupine. When threatened, a porcupine’s quills may stand up to scare away the threat, but they cannot be shot from the porcupine’s body. There must be direct contact with the quills for them to dislodge, but even the lightest touch can be enough to dislodge a quill or two. Best to keep our distance around porcupines!
Fun fact: The North American porcupine has around 30,000 quills!
Can turtles come out of their shells?
No, there’s no way a turtle can come out of its shell! A turtle’s upper shell, called the carapace, is partly made of bone from the turtle’s rib cage and is actually fused to the turtle’s backbone. The lower shell is called the plastron and the two shells are joined by a bony bridge. The shell is part of the body and grows along with the turtle, which is different from crabs and lobsters that must molt or shed their exoskeleton. And to address another common animal misunderstanding, turtles are able to feel when something touches their shells, due to the presence of nerve endings in the shell.
The Eastern box turtle has a hinge on its plastron (lower shell). This allows it to tuck its head, arms, and legs away from predators, forming a tightly sealed “box.” Photo by John Triana, Regional Water Authority, Bugwood.org
A turtle’s backbone is fused to the upper shell, shown in this drawing of a turtle’s skeleton. Photo Public Domain
Do all bees die after they sting you?
No, it depends on the species! Honey bees, for example, have barbs (hooks) on their stinger that can stick into the skin of the target and prevent the stinger from being pulled out by the bee. If the barbs are stuck in the target’s skin, the stinger is torn away from the bee’s body when it tries to fly away and the honey bee dies. Other bee and wasp species, including bumblebees, yellowjackets, and paper wasps, have stingers with small barbs, enabling them to sting multiple times.
A stinger’s barb size varies by species. This stinger belongs to a paper wasp. Photo by Insects Unlocked, CC BY 2.0
A honey bee can only sting once. Photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org
Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association and New York State Parks
Featured image: Eastern Pipistrelle, photo by Lilly Schelling, State Parks
Here in mid-autumn, most of State Park’s summer resident birds and some insects have flown off to warmer climates, but many other animals remain through the winter. Some of the year-round residents are either scurrying around looking for extra food to help to get them through the winter while others are looking for a safe place to sleep away the winter, protected from the cold and snow.
For a handful of animals in the park, finding a place away from the cold and snow can be a challenge due to their inability to dig deep into the ground to escape the cold. Instead, they burrow under the leaves, rocks, rotting logs, or tree bark to escape the worst that winter offers. So a few animals like wood frogs, common box turtles, red efts, and mourning cloak butterflies have a different strategy – the ability to tolerate freezing!
These close to the surface locations protect the animals from snow, ice, wind but not cold winter temperatures. When the temperature in the hibernation spot drops below 32o F, these hibernators freeze, solid.
And there they can remain until the warming days of spring when they thaw, have a snack, and head off to breed.
Some of the animals that tolerate freezing include:
How are they able to freeze solid then defrost and still be alive? Natural chemicals and processes in the animal’s blood prevent them from freezing. The animal’s body produces an “anti-freeze” as the temperature begins to drop; the animal’s body concentrates sugars and other compounds that prevents the animal’s organs from freezing. The antifreeze prevents the animal’s organs from freezing. A frozen animal will stop breathing and the heart will stop beating. Most of the fluid in the blood pools in the animal’s body cavity.
In spring, as the weather warms, the animal starts to defrost, and its lungs and heart resume working. They defrost from the inside out, with the legs and feet being the last to defrost.
Surviving by freezing is just one of the amazing adaptations animals have developed to survive northern winters.
“Forest Fire Scorches 3,000 Acres in Ulster Park” was the headline of a story in the New York Times on April 21, 2008. The park was Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. From when it was first reported on April 17 to when it was finally out on April 29, the Outlook Fire burned roughly 2,800 acres in the park. People from 134 state and local agencies came together to control the largest fire to hit the region in 60 years. Recently, another large fire in Minnewaska, the fire at Sam’s Point that burned over 1500 acres in April and May 2016.
Fire damaged pitch pine, May 2008, OPRHP photo
Mopping up fire remnants, Minnewaska State Park , April 2008, OPRHP photo
These fires were both wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fire in the forest or fields which spreads quickly and is difficult to control. Historically, wildfires were ignited by lightning strikes. Wildfires are a natural component of many different ecosystems; they have helped to maintain healthy native flora, fauna and systems around the world for thousands of years.
Fires help ecosystems in many ways. They help plants by opening up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor to enable new seedlings to grow; adding nutrients to the soil and raises the soil pH, giving plants an extra boost of natural fertilizer; reducing the competition for water and soil nutrients by thinning out the underbrush; and decreasing some invasive species and forest pests and diseases. But other invasive species can proliferate after fire, so preventing their spread is an important management strategy.
Some of natural communities in the state — places like Minnewaska, the Shawangunk Ridge, Albany Pine Bush, Long Island Central Pine Barrens and many areas within State Parks are fire-adapted, meaning they can survive wild fires. If fact, the need occasional fires. The plants have special features to survive fires. Pitch pine are one of the best known fire-adapted trees, and they are common in Minnewaska. If a pitch pine tree is damaged in a wild fire, the roots are not always killed and new growth will sprout from the base or the trunk of what appears to be a dead tree. Chestnut oak is another tree that is able to withstand fires due to the thick bark. Other plants have seeds that lie safe below the surface, called a “seed bank”, waiting to grow when conditions are right like when there is space and more light following a fire. And perennials like the ferns and trillium and starflower lie dormant underground (like tulip bulbs in your garden), ready to burst upward every spring and summer.
And some plants are fire dependent, meaning that they need fire to thrive or greatly benefit from fire. Pitch pine is a good example of this. Although some pitch pine cones will open on a hot summer day which drops the seeds to the ground, a fire also exposes the bare soil that helps their seeds to sprout.
Fires can help animals too, including insects, by creating new openings in the forest for the animals to thrive and by leaving snags (dead trees) which provide places for raccoons, squirrels, and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds to nest in. Many animals avoid fire by burrowing deeper in to the ground, flying off, or skirting the edge of the fire. Very rarely will an animal be trapped by a fire. Some species of beetles and birds hunt along the edge of the fire, looking for their prey as it escapes the fire.
Life was blooming in Minnewaska just after the Outlook Fire. In coordination with the New York Natural Heritage Program and State Parks. a team of scientists worked together to study effects of the fire on breeding birds, tree regeneration, and vegetation response. Within a couple of weeks, there were hints of green. Approximately a month after the fire had ended, there was abundant new life in the Pine Barrens, with ferns and Canada mayflower sprouting up, trillium and lady’s slipper flowering, and a wood thrush nest with eggs hidden amongst the charred leaf litter. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, scrub oak, huckleberry, and other trees and shrubs showed new leaves, bright green against the blackened landscape. Not lost after all, but alive and well.
Susan Carver, State Parks and Julie Lundgren, NYNHP
Visible downstream at the lowest level of the gorge, is the oldest visible rock layer within the gorge wall. This layer was deposited along a coastal area of a warm shallow sea in the late Ordovician Period, alternating between below and above sea level. The periodic exposure of the iron rich sediments resulted in the coloration visible in the sedimentary rock of the Queenston Shale. As you travel upstream the tilt of this layer causes it to disappear below visible levels.
The rocks seen in the walls of the Niagara Gorge are sedimentary; they are made from sediments deposited in a shallow sea that covered much of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada around 440 to 410 million years ago (middle part of the Silurian Period). Rocks, such as limestone, shale, sandstone and dolostone, are seen as distinct layers. Some of these layers, for instance the soft, easily eroded Rochester Shale below the caprock of Niagara Falls, contain a great diversity of marine fossils, such as brachiopods, trilobites, corals and crinoids.
These rocks are layered, from oldest at the bottom to youngest at the top along a long ridge known as the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is a prominent cliff-forming cuesta that extends from western New York into southern Ontario, northward to the upper peninsula of Michigan, and then bends downward into eastern Wisconsin and Illinois. The escarpment is capped by relatively hard, resistant rocks of the Silurian-age Lockport Group (chiefly dolostones and limestones), which are underlain by less resistant rocks (shales and sandstones, such as the Rochester Shale).
Near the end of the last ice age, around 12,300 years ago, the Niagara River began to flow over the Niagara Escarpment, located at what is now Lewiston, New York. Through the process of erosion the falls have receded to their present location. In the past, the falls receded on average 3-6 feet per year. However, the rate has been greatly reduced due to flow control and diversion for hydropower generation, to a mere 3-6 inches per year. 50,000 years from now, at the present rate of erosion, the remaining 20 miles south to Lake Erie will have been undermined. There won’t be a falls anymore, but rather a series of steep rapids!
While visiting Niagara Falls, or hiking in the Niagara Gorge, take some time to marvel in the events and processes that took place over time. From continental collisions to ice-age glaciers and the present day Great Lakes drainage basin, we are fortunate enough to witness the interactions of nature.