Category Archives: Cool Science

Evangola State Park: Lake Erie’s Winter Playground!

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.

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An unbroken forested ski trail at Evangola.
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The only sound while skiing is the soft crunching of the snow as you glide through the woods.

Cross-country skiing is a wonderful way to connect to nature!

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Fresh snow clings onto the branches, enhancing the beauty of trees and shrubs.

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.

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Evangola Snowmobile Trail.

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.

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Snowshoers head out on the trail.

With a variety of tracks along the way…….

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A skier discovers eastern coyote tracks.

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.

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Four toed animals include the fox, coyote and dogs. Raccoon prints have 5 clear toes. Deer tracks resemble a divided heart. Image from NYS Dept. of Conservation
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White-tailed Deer are often seen crossing the trail, photo by Ed Conboy Jr.
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A skier checks out the Evangola Nature Center. The nature center is open Memorial Day to Columbus Day and is sometimes used as a resting spot during winter sports programs.
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When the snow gets deeper and the world turns quiet…

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.

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The “Forest to Lake” snowshoe hike traverses Evangola’ s forested trails……
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….and ends with a majestic look at the ice formations of Lake Erie!

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.

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Even the rim trail fence can bow with the weight of wind driven ice waves!
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The “Rim Trail’s” chain link fence with ice.
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A lone skier checks out the “Rim Trail” view. During winter, arctic waterfowl and even an occasional Snowy Owl can be seen. Some of the biggest Red Oak in the park also occur along this trail.
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A winter icescape along the rim trail.
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Lake Erie ice volcano vents can be seen from above along Evangola’ s “Rim Trail”.
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Throughout Evangola’s winter trails there is plenty to see including the iconic “Scotty’s Covered Bridge”!
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Evangola Sunsets during winter can be spectacular too!

Winter is a great time to get outside and explore Evangola State Park. So, come join our outdoor snowshoe hikes and cross-country ski programs or get out on your own to enjoy the park’s “lake-effect” snow trails.

Post by Dave McQuay, Evangola State Park environmental educator

The Untold Origin Story of the Falls

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Aunt Sarah’s Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park

Over the last 12,000 years, the landscape of the Finger Lakes region has undergone colossal change. Hidden in cracks and valleys throughout the region are wondrous geologic remnants of that change. So abundant is the splendor of these wonders that many locals have become numb to the consistent gurgling of waterfalls on their daily commute through, for example, the Village of Montour Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park, where residents often pass Aunt Sarah’s Falls on Route 14. Yet no two of the over 2,000 gorges that call the Finger Lakes home are the same; each has a different fingerprint with a different number of curves, caverns, and cascades.

The Finger Lakes themselves are a unique natural phenomenon. There are no other lakes quite like them in the world. Eleven north flowing lakes, varying in length and depth, span over 120 miles of the western section of New York. They range from Canadice Lake, at a mere 3 miles long, to Cayuga Lake, which stretches for 38.2 miles; and from the relatively shallow Honeoye Lake, at 30 feet deep to Seneca Lake, which plunges steeply for 634 feet.

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Map of the Finger Lakes, accessed from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_New_York

About 2.5 million years ago dawned the age of ice. In this region, glaciers are thought to have been over 3,000 feet high, or about the size of two Empire State buildings stacked on top of each other! It is a result of these glaciers growing that we now have “finger lakes”; before we had “finger rivers.” All our U shaped lake basins were originally V shaped river valleys. As the glaciers bulldozed their way through the valleys, the unrelenting force gouged out the walls. About 12,000 years ago, a change in climate warmed the earth, ending the reign of the Ice Age.

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As the glaciers started to recede, their melting ice filled the lakes and exposed steep U shaped valley walls. All around would have been hanging valleys comprised of massive waterfalls dropping straight into the lakes. Today, every gorge near the lakes, including those south of the lakes, began its story as one of those waterfalls and has since eroded back into the rock.

“Ithaca is Gorges” is an iconic phrase in Ithaca, referring to the numerous gorgeous gorges around this city at the base of Cayuga Lake. This clever pun, however, has a forgotten key third part. As the massive waterfalls started to erode back into the rock, the eroded sediment built up at the base of the lake. This erosion was so rapid that our lakes are miles shorter than they were originally. “Ithaca is Gorges” because it was formed by the gorges and would not exist without them!

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Devonian Sea was found in western and central New York

The extremely fast rate of erosion in our gorges alludes to its rich ancient natural history dating back long before the Ice Age. The 380-million-year-old layers of rock in the gorge were each once the bottom of an expansive inland ocean that covered much of the eastern states. The earth, as we know it, was unrecognizable; life was just beginning to take a foothold on land. In the little town of Gilboa, NY, proof of this timeframe can be found in the oldest fossilized trees worldwide. The early roots of these Gilboa trees were pioneering the rocky, unforgiving earth on the edge of the Devonian sea.

This tropical inland sea – which was at that time located below the equator – was the result of a collision between the North American and European continents. When they collided, North America subducted, or went under Europe, and Europe crinkled up creating the Acadian Mountain range just off the coast of New York. These impressive mountains were estimated to have been as big, if not bigger, than the Himalayas are today!

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Evidence of the Devonian Sea can be seen at Watkins Glen State Park

Much of the sediment found in the inland sea would have come from the erosion of these mountains, but the depth of this water would have, over time, also affected the type of sediment found on this ocean bottom. Gradually, the buildup of layers would have caused enough pressure to solidify the underlying sediment into rock. This is known as compaction. This means that every layer of rock in our gorges, be it the more brittle rocks, such as shale, or the denser rocks, such as sandstone and limestone, were once at the bottom of an ocean!

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The layers however are only half of the puzzle influencing the speed of erosion in the gorge. Breaking up the layers, in a stunning display of natural masonry, are countless straight line fractures. There are fractures or joints that follow the gorges east to west and those that span across the gorge north to south, intersecting at almost perfect right angles. Notice the unnatural looking straight lines and right angles in the photo of Robert H. Treman State Park.

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Looking up the creek at Robert Treman State Park

These joints date back about 300 million years. At this time, all the continents were joining together to form one enormous supercontinent.  Pangea, which translates directly to “all earth,” stretched from pole to pole. If you study a map of the world’s continents, you may notice that the western edge of Africa matches up with the eastern edge of the United States like a jig saw puzzle. The stress of this collision alone, however, was not the force required to create the fractures.

Instead, it caused straight line weak points in the rock perpendicular to the pressure. Meanwhile, a batch of methane gas had matured under pressure and heat and took advantage of the weak points to escape from the depths of earth. After this event, 30 million years quietly passed while Africa unassumingly rotated around North America. This quiet rotation was disturbed 270 million years ago when another batch of methane gas matured under heat and pressure, again utilizing the weakened rock to escape. The timing of this second release just so happened to occur when Africa was at about a 90 degree angle from where the first batch of methane gas escaped, forming joints that meet up at almost perfect right angles. Next time you find yourself in the Finger Lakes, keep an eye out for these natural right angles, they’re everywhere!

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Taughannock Falls amphitheater has thousands of joints that contributed to the bowl shape
The top of the falls has two joints intersecting at a right angle.

Considering all 380 million years of the gorges’ rich natural history;

  • the glaciers that created the U-shaped lakes and the hanging valleys
  • the joints that resulted from the release of methane gas through the weakened rock
  • and the layers of rock – shale, sandstone, and limestone, remnants of an ancient inland sea
  • an ingenious combination of forces all working together to form the gorges in only 12,000 years comes to light. In short, as the water easily erodes away the brittle shale and undercuts itself, the joints or fractures that break up the creek bed speed up the erosion process by causing chunks of the denser rocks – sandstone and limestone to fall at a time. The water, therefore, never has to take the time to erode away the denser types of rock. In consequence, we can affectionately say that “Although our gorges are 12,000 years old, their story can be told in no less than 380 million years.”

Post by Tamara Beal, Finger Lakes 2018 Student Conservation Association Intern

A Real Winter Wonderland

It is without question that Niagara Falls State Park is one of the most beautiful places our state and country has to offer, drawing an average of nine million tourists every year. People come from all over the world to experience the power and wonder that is Niagara Falls. Designated as a national historic site and the nation’s very first state park, it comes as no surprise the amount of attention it receives.

However, something most people miss out on is the endless beauty of Niagara Falls in the winter. Watching the cascading water crash through the pure white snow and ice creates a unique and memorable experience only attainable during the winter. Visiting the Falls in the wintertime offers tourists stunning views and the beauty of freezing mist covering the landscape.

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Overlooking the frozen Cave of the Winds Staircase, photo by Nicole Czarnecki.

 

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Impromptu snowball fight, photo by Nicole Czarnecki.
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Frozen tree just before the Falls, photo by Nicole Czarnecki.

The newly constructed Cave of the Winds pre-show attraction is now open year-round and offers audiences interactive and virtual exhibits as well as an escape from the chilly temperatures.

Although the Park has received some attention recently pertaining to the beautiful winter wonderland, some articles have mentioned the falls being “iced over” or “freezing over”. It is important to note that the only documented incident of the Falls being frozen completely came in March of 1848 when the Buffalo Express Newspaper stated the cause to be ice damming at the mouth of Lake Erie. The installation of an ice boom at the mouth of the Niagara River has made the likelihood of this event recurring very low if not impossible. Even during the infamous Polar Vortex of 2014 the Falls continued to flow.

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Light show in January 2014 during the Polar Vortex, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This does not mean that it has not come very close to freezing since then. During the early 1900’s tourists would often walk out onto “ice bridges” forming across the top of the Falls. This activity proved to be very dangerous and was forbidden after February 1914.

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People standing on ice above the Falls 1909, photo from Niagara Falls Pubic Library.

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All photos provided by State Parks Naturalist Nicole Czarnecki were taken during the Winter Wonder Photography hike. Look for other events at Niagara Falls and surrounding parks this winter on their Facebook page.

Post by Kristin King, State Parks

What’s That? That’s SCAT!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the snow is falling, the air is crisp, and the hiking opportunities in State Parks abound. While marveling at the snow-encrusted majesty of the pine and hardwood branches, don’t forget to look down and take a peek at one of the less glamorous and stately aspects of a wintertime hike – wildlife scat! Analyzing who’s who with number two might be the number one way to figure out who is visiting the trails with you, as well as how long ago they were there.

Hunters have long used scat to help with the hunt, determining if animals were around and when, following the scat clues to their quarry. Wildlife watchers and photographers have also used this tool to seek out wildlife. What you can learn from scat can be interesting to anyone, no matter if your intent is to hike, hunt, or just unwind in nature.

Is the scat frozen? The animal could have been around last night. Is the scat desiccated, or dried out and old looking? It could be scat from last season. Can you see if the scat melted snow around it? The animal might not be far away. Are there more than a couple of piles of scat? There could be more than one animal around. Does the scat contain fur? There may be predators hunting.  Scat can be an amazing addition to your toolbox to determine presence and habit of a variety of wildlife around. Here are some photos of common scat piles to help you infer who your wild neighbors are in the woods.

Deer scat might be the most common scat to be found on the trail. Deer scat is usually in pellets and in a pile. If the pile is under leaf litter, or a layer of snow, it is most likely old (see below photo). Deer scat can also be in a more “wet” or “patty” form, but pellets are usually still distinguishable. Shiny or wet scat can indicate a deer is close by!  Deer produce pellets about 13 times a day, a product of their near constant grazing. Bigger bucks can leave bigger poo piles than the does. You can also look further into the scat signs, and see what the deer are preferring to eat. Hunters often organize a hunt around the transition corridors of feeding and bedding areas. Lots of scat in a certain type of feeding area (i.e. clover, grass, apples) would indicate that deer may be accessing this area daily to eat.  Deer beds and poo in cover areas, like scrubby emergent forest, would indicate deer access that area to sleep. A hunt that is set up between those areas, where the deer are apt to travel every day, might have the most chance of being successful.

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Deer scat, fresh (right) and old (left).

Rabbit scat is also very common in brushy areas, and is usually round. Rabbit scat is generally smaller than deer scat and can be more spread out in the feeding area. Look for rabbit scat near low bushes or other available cover. In a strange evolutionary twist, rabbits also produce a second type of scat, called cecotropes, that they eat shortly after depositing. These powerful pellets are full of beneficial gut bacteria.

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Cottontail scat.

Porcupine scat can contain woody fiber, as they eat twigs and bark. Scat may also be at the entrance to their dens; they don’t seem to need to keep a clean house. Dens can sometimes have mounds of scat around them, if used over multiple seasons. It is theorized that porcupines’ scat piles could provide some warmth in the winter.  Porcupine scat can resemble deer scat, but is somewhat cashew-shaped, as opposed to the rounder deer pellets.

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Porcupine den with scat (broken down) along the entrance.

Foxes, and others in the canid family, like to make a point to be sure you see their scat. They often lay their brick and mortar on top of a rock or something high to mark their territory. Fox scat does not smell as foul as your house pet’s deposits; however it does have a distinct musky odor. Fox scat usually contains hair and is very dark with distinct twisted ends, unlike house dog scats, which are tubular with blunt ends.

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Fox scat

If you are lucky, you might see bear scat on your next hike! Bear scat is usually characterized as a “plop” instead of pellets. Bear scat can be in enormous piles and can be a variety of colors and consistency depending on their last meal. Bears are omnivores, and so can have nuts, hair, or berries visible in their scat. Bears can also be attracted to food caches in town, like bird feeders, before the long snooze in the winter (see photo below). Bear scat also does not smell as strongly as other scat, and in times where they have a vegetarian diet, can smell quite pleasant (for poo).

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Bear scat, note the seeds in the right photo

Another very common scat is that of the turkey. Turkey scat, like other birds, contains both urine and feces. The white part of a bird’s scat is the urine.  You can actually tell a male gobbler from a female hen by the shape of the scat. Male turkeys generally balance the budget in a J shape, while females are more in a pile, with a slight spiral to it.  This is because of the anatomy of a female turkey, which has a wider cloaca for eggs to pass through.

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Turkey Scat (both likely female), note the footprints on left photo.

Another elusive animal you may see by scat rather than seeing in the fur, is the mink. A small furbearer, like the weasel, a mink’s scat is tiny, braided and pointed, with a twisted end. Mink also like to advertise their bathroom breaks on top of logs or stones, like foxes and coyotes. You can tell the difference between mink and weasels easily in the winter, as mink do not change their fur coats out for the camouflage that weasels do. Weasels should be white this time of year.

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Two photos of mink scat, note the twisted ends.

Another avian visitor common to parks is the Canada goose, as well as the snow goose. Both geese, like turkeys, have a distinct white cap on their scat. Goose poop however is more of a long log, and usually found around beaches and other waterbodies in the parks. Geese are normally pretty comfortable around people, and buildings, so you are more likely to see goose scat on the lawns and beaches rather than in the woods on trails.

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Goose scat.

Our final foray into the wonderful world of waste is with one of the largest visitors to the Parks. Moose are more common in the Adirondacks, but have also been seen in the Taconic Highlands.  Moose scat can look like supercharged deer scat. Pelletized, and in piles, moose scat most closely resembles deer scat winter. In the summer months when their diet is more wet, moose scat may resemble cow patties. It can also trick people into thinking it is bear scat. To determine the origin, check out the mode of digestion. Moose are ruminants.  Like cows, they have four compartments in their stomach, so four times the digestion efficiency, and so usually poop fully digested food. Their scat is generally uniformly composed.  Bears are omnivores, with one stomach, and their scat can be more variable in composition, often with undigested berries and hair.

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Moose scat.

Winter hikes are some of the most fun and most unique hiking in NYS Parks, and most Parks do not charge entrance fees in the colder months. Come prepared with extra winter clothing, first aid packs, and always let someone know your plan in case of emergencies. And don’t forget that the feces of many species can be an informative and fun addition to your knowledge of wildlife and outdoors.

Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks

Featured image https://www.flickr.com/photos/bepster/43762108/ .

The Niagara Gorge at Low Water

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.

Photo by Nicole Czarnecki

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.

Gorge at Low Water

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.

NIA gorge low water

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.

Great Gorge Viewing

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.

Giant Wave Postcard

Post by Carol Rogers, State Parks.

Featured image:  Niagara River Backdrift, accessed from Wikicommons