Category Archives: Cool Science

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.

Deer scat both
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.

Cottontail scat_J Jaycox
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.

Porcupine den & scat_M Rogers
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.

Fox scat_M Rogers
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).

Bear Scat both
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.

Mink scat both
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.

Goose_M Rogers
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

5 Common Myths About Our State Park Critters

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!

  1.  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!

Little brown bat credit USFWS, Ann Froschauer
The little brown bat is one of the most common bats in New York. Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS
  1.  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.

American Toad-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
The American toad is one of three toad species in New York. Photo by Lilly Schelling, New York State Parks
  1.  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!

Porcupine-BioDome-2
Porcupines often rest in trees. Photo by J. Gloverderivative work: WolfmanSF (talk) – Porcupine-BioDome.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5
  1.  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.

  1.  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.

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association and New York State Parks

Featured image: Eastern Pipistrelle, photo by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

Their Blood Runs With Antifreeze

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.

jm-storey-carleton-university
Frozen wood frog in Ken Story’s Lab, Carleton University, photo by JM Storey , Carleton University

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:

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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.

Resources

Cold-blooded in the cold: hibernation Conservationist for Kids, NYS Dept. Conservationist

Emmer, Rick. How do frogs survive winter? Why don’t  they freeze to death? Scientific American

Ken Storey Lab

Rosen, Meghan. Natural antifreeze prevents frogsicles, Science News

Videos

NOVA scienceNOW (2012, July 23). Frozen Frogs.

Smithsonian Channel. (2015, June 18). Frogsicles: Frozen But Still Alive.

Fire Dependent Communities

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.

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.

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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