Category Archives: Family Fun

“Bate” and Switch

Happy Halloween! Children all over are dressing up in their costumes to head out trick-or-treating. But these children, disguised as spooky vampires or Wonder Woman, aren’t the only ones with a few tricks up their sleeve. Animals can use disguises too! Some animals have actually developed physical or behavioral characteristics that copy other species or objects, a strategy called mimicry. Using appearances, sounds, smells, or behaviors, mimicry provides an animal with some advantage, usually protection from predators. But unlike kids throwing on a costume for a day, the mimic’s display isn’t a conscious choice by the animal; rather it is the product of millions of years of natural selection. Because the mimicry helps the animal survive in some way, those characteristics are more likely to be passed on to the next generation.

There are many types of mimicry. Batesian mimicry, named after the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates, is one of the most common forms and occurs when a tasty or vulnerable creature mimics an unsavory or dangerous creature. Below are several examples of Batesian mimicry that can be found right in your backyard!

Hoverflies are excellent mimics, warding off predators with their coloration. These small flies are harmless, but with their black and yellow stripes they look like stinging bees and wasps. They can often be seen hovering at flowers, feeding on nectar and pollen. Can you tell which two photos are of hoverflies and which two are not?

Here’s another example of mimicry through colors and patterns. “Eyespots” may mimic the eyes of a larger animal and serve to scare away potential predators, especially young birds. Eyespots can frequently be found on the wings of butterflies and moths, as well as on caterpillars.

These two species of caterpillars have clear eyespots near the front of their bodies. These body markings could help the caterpillar mimic the look of a snake or other more threatening predator. The actual eyes are located on the head, which is the smaller bump at the base of the large pseudo-head.

Another deception – the eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar mimics the appearance of bird poop in its early stages, which reduces the likelihood of getting eaten by birds or other insects.

A second type of mimicry is called Müllerian mimicry, named after the German naturalist Fritz Müller, in which several species that are equally harmful or unsavory have evolved with shared characteristics. Predators quickly learn to avoid that characteristic, which then benefits all the mimicking species. One example of this is the monarch and viceroy butterfly. Scientists have determined that birds tend to dislike the taste of both butterflies. By sharing a similar color and pattern, these butterflies are advertising that they are not tasty and birds are more likely to avoid both species.

Viceroys and monarchs can be difficult to tell apart. If you look at the lower wing of the butterfly, viceroys have a bold black line that monarchs do not have. Also, viceroys are usually smaller than monarchs.

Mimicry is not only used by animals, but plants and fungi use it as a survival strategy too. There are orchids that have evolved to resemble female insects, so that male insects will be attracted to the fake mate and will collect and/or deposit pollen when they land on the flower. There are fungi that mimic the smell of rotting meat to attract insects, which then help spread the fungi’s spores. There are plants that very precisely mimic the chemical signals released by insects during mating season, which attracts more potential pollinators to the plant.

Mimicry plays a very important role in the survival of many species. It is a complex system involving plants and animals, predators and prey alike, each trying to deceive for safety, food, or propagation. So this Halloween, when kids are in full disguise, think about all the plants and animals that have precisely developed costumes too. If some prey can’t come up with a good trick, the predator may be in for a treat!

Pug Costume - Public Domain
Similar to the hoverfly, domestic dogs have sometimes been known to mimic bees, though with much less success – Happy Halloween! Image – Public Domain

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association and State Parks

Featured image: praying mantis by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

Adventure Awaits At Allegany

What’s your idea of adventure? Is it something exotic like scuba diving, mountain climbing or bungee jumping? Perhaps something quieter, such as camping under the stars or exploring a stream in search for brook trout? Adventures can be big or small, but they all push us out of our comfort zones as we learn about new activities and exciting areas of our world.

Allegany State Park, known as the “Wilderness Playground of Western New York” is one such place where adventure abounds. With 65,000 acres of pristine forests, miles of trails, serene lakes and natural beauty everywhere, it’s hard not to find an activity to enjoy.

The Outdoor Adventure Series hosted by the Environmental Education and Recreation Department offers informative, hands-on, free clinics for all those want to be adventurous souls. Each program is led by an outdoor enthusiast who shares their knowledge and passion of their favorite activity. They bring their gear, suggest what you may need to get started and then let you try your hand at fly fishing, paddle boarding or geocaching.

Allegany State Park hosts several unique events throughout the year, such as Geobash, one of the biggest geocaching events around;  Raccoon Rally, a bike festival featuring both  road and mountain bike races  and the Art Roscoe Loppet cross country ski race. The Adventure series promotes these events by hosting a program about the sport or activity in the same month as the event to give people the chance to try a new sport or volunteer at the event. Remember it’s about getting people out, trying something new.

Maybe you’d like to have an adventure without many people around. Quiet water activities such as kayaking, fly fishing and paddle boarding are things anyone can do at any age.  Local shops such as Sportsman Outlet in Bradford, PA provide kayaks to try. Not only will they help you decide what kind of kayak you might like, they also advise you what gear you should take with you to be safe on the water, such as a life vest.  Adventure Bound on the Fly in Ellicottville, NY, introduces one of the newest sports – paddle boarding, and one of the most graceful – fly fishing to young and old giving all a chance to paddle on Quaker Lake or cast with finesse.

If it’s the woods that calls your name, programs such as mountain biking, cross country skiing, backpacking or camping might be more to your taste. Just Riding Along out of Bradford, PA, offers all kinds of mountain bikes – fat bikes, fast bikes and bikes with all the bells and whistles.  Find dirt on the Art Roscoe trails which become tracked cross country ski trails when the snow flies in December. The Allegany Nordic Patrol not only keeps skiers safe during the winter, but they help educate winter enthusiasts about the joys of gliding and sliding on skis through a winter wonderland of snow cover trees.

Camping has always been a favorite activity since the park was first founded in 1921. The first adventurous souls camped in old WWI tents on platforms. Today the education staff pulls out tents, hammocks, and backpacks of all shapes and sizes for even the youngest of explorers to get out in the woods. Staff also answers questions such as what to take, how to pack, and what to do if you see a bear – all important things to know when going out in the woods of Allegany.

The Outdoor Adventure Series covers a wide range of interesting activities for every season, from photographing fall colors, to snowshoeing under a full moon, to fishing for native trout, and paddling on a warm summer night watching the sun set across a lake.

No matter what you try, I agree with Amelia Earhart: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”.

Be sure to check out the last two programs this year:

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 – 5:00- 7:00 – Summit Warming Hut – Night Hike- What’s in your Pack? Night hike on Bear Paw trail following a short program on the 10 essentials we should carry in our packs. Bring a flashlight or head lamp.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 -5:00- 6:30 – Summit Warming Hut – Prepare for Cross Country Ski Season – Allegany Nordic will discuss everything you need to know about cross country skiing, from equipment selection to proper clothing.

These programs are open to the public and weather dependent. For more information, visit the Allegany State Park Facebook page or contact the Environmental Education Department at 716-354- 9101 ext. 236.

Post by Adele Wellman, State Parks

Fall in Love with Autumn Camping

If you think camping in a state park campground is enjoyable in the summer, wait until you experience an overnight getaway in September or early October, when New York’s outdoors is awash in enough colors and sounds of the season to overwhelm the senses.

The autumn mist rising from the water’s surface on a brisk morning, paddling along a tree-lined shore edged in spectacular reds, oranges and golds, the crunch of leaves underfoot on a hike, the aroma of coffee over a crackling fire — these are just a few of the experiences awaiting those campers who prefer to camp once the crowds thin, schools are back in session, and Labor Day is in the rearview mirror.

Benefits to fall camping include fewer neighbors, fewer bugs, and a greater selection of sites from the peak summer season.  With the right clothes and gear, the slightly cooler temperatures make fall camping more comfortable than in the commonly muggy dog days of summer.

Plan to extend a leaf-peeping day trip and sleep under the autumn stars. You can book ahead to reserve a spot or opt for a spontaneous adventure and just grab your gear and go. Many state park campgrounds throughout New York are still open with availability for tent and trailer sites, yurts, cabins, and cottages.

Here are just a few of our fall favorites:

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Listen to the rustling leaves while you camp at Allegany State Park, photo by State Parks.

At 65,000 acres, Allegany State Park is the perfect setting for embracing nature’s colorful palette in the fall months.  Lakes, ponds, and miles of trails, beckon outdoor lovers for hiking, biking, nature walks, fishing, paddling, and more.  Choose from tent and trailer sites, cabins, and cottages.

The Middle Falls At Letchworth State Park
Ballooning at Letchworth State Park, photo by Jim Vallee.

In the Genesee Valley, the sweeping views at Letchworth State Park are jaw-dropping in every season, but add vibrant foliage to the mix and prepare to be amazed by the sheer grandeur.  For campers, the park offers tent and trailer sites and cabins.  Visit the new Humphrey Nature Center or explore the gorge trail on your own — views from Inspiration Point and Middle Falls are a must-see.

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Enjoy the waterfalls at Taughannock Falls State Park, photo by State Parks.

The Finger Lakes gorge parks also provide a stunning backdrop for camping this time of year.  Take a break from campfire cooking and enjoy the bounty of farm-to-table restaurants or the premier wineries in the area. Home to 19 waterfalls, Watkins Glen State Park on Seneca Lake welcomes campers to an array of wooded campsites (many with electric hookups) and rustic cabins.  Walk along the winding paths of the gorge or take a bike ride on the nearby Catharine Valley TrailTaughannock Falls State Park on Cayuga Lake leaves visitors spellbound with its namesake waterfall and rocky cliffs that perch high above the gorge.

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Fall camping with a furry friend at Green Lakes State Park, photo by State Parks.

The only thing more colorful than the fall foliage at Green Lakes State Park is the actual Caribbean-like hues of the glacial lakes themselves.  With campsites nearby including many full-service sites and renovated cabins, campers also have easy access to the park’s 20 miles of hiking trails and championship golf course.

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If you camp at Moreau Lake State Park, take a hike around the lake, photo by State Parks.

Moreau Lake State Park is situated in the foothills of the Adirondacks with tent and trailer sites, cabins and cottages. Hike or bike on the 27 miles of trails and enjoy paddling and fishing on the scenic waters of the park’s beautiful lake or the Hudson River.  Wildlife viewing is a favorite!

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Autumn campers at Taconic State Park, photo by State Parks

Taconic State Park offers autumn campers incredible sites for tents or trailers, cabins and cottages, and plenty to see and do including biking, hiking, fishing, paddling, and more.  As part of the adventure, be sure to check out the Harlem Valley Trail, the South Taconic Trail, Bash Bish Falls, and the Copake Iron Works Museum.

 

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Fall colors at Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site, photo by State Parks

Tip:  Whether planning a fall camping adventure or taking a leaf-peeping day-trip, a good resource to determine peak color location is the I Love NY Fall Foliage Report issued weekly.

Kids in Nature

You’ve probably heard about kids not getting outdoors and in nature enough these days. The good news is you don’t have to be an expert on the outdoors to take kids into nature! Kids are curious beings. Taking the time to look and discover is more important than knowing the names of everything or how things work.

Kids are natural explorers outside, so your biggest challenge will be getting them back indoors. Others may not be used to bugs,  dirt and the freedom to look around and discover, so it may take a little encouragement.

Let’s get outside! Whether you are a parent, friend, babysitter, educator here are 7 fun ideas for getting kids outside in nature.

Tiny Explorers: All you have to do is make sure they are safe and they will figure out the rest. Walking on spongy grass, dabbling in puddles – who doesn’t love puddles – or feeling the roughness of a big log and learning the words to describe what they are feeling in nature is all part of the experience.

Beaches on Lakes, Rivers or the Ocean: These are great spots for exploring. There are almost always bugs,  shells and rocks to find. And of course water and sand make for endless opportunities for building castles and moats. Look for Learn-to-Swim classes, too. Lessons will help kids (and you) feel more at ease on the waterfront. 

Stream Watchers: Shallow rocky streams are also intriguing – especially for more active kids that like to climb on rocks or logs, launch sticks and watch them float down stream, and look for fish, frogs, stream insects and snails. Avoid fast moving or deep streams that can be hazardous. Remember to put any animals back where you found them as that is their home. 

Young Scientists: If your child has a deep interest in nature, they might like keeping a nature notebook like a real scientist. This boy was learning about logs in a program at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. How big is the log, were there holes, is there moss ora mushroom on it; did you see any insects or other animals on or inside it? Or collect some leaves – how many kinds can you find? Or draw pictures of the different insects and caterpillars one finds in the garden of meadow.

Bird and butterfly watching: This takes a bit more patience, waiting and watching, to see birds, butterflies or even dragonflies! But it is amazing what you can see when you take the time to watch. This activity is good for older kids as it takes some skill to focus the binoculars. Younger kids can practice using binoculars made from cardboard tubes. If you are new to this, look for guided programs aimed at young people or families. 

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Youth with binoculars, photo by USDA

Get the Bug: Get a little butterfly net and see what you can find. This can be a good prop for kids who get bored with walks or just looking at stuff. Swinging a net, whether or not it catches anything, can be fun. Best to learn what bees and wasps look like first though, and to aim for the butterflies and moths instead. Look for fun pollinator activities at parks near you- these activities are for kids of all ages.    

Bike Riding: Bike riding in parks is great way to see and hear nature. You would be surprised at how much one is learning even when not specifically focused on looking at the trees, the birds or the bugs. Animals will dart across the trail or scurry away as you get closer, birds will be singing, and you will pass by hundreds of different species of plants (trees, wildflowers, ferns), increasing  your awareness of the diversity of the natural world. Having a physical activity and a sense of accomplishment from a bike ride or a hike can help sustain interest in getting outdoors. Check out trail maps on parks’ websites and remember your helmets! 

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Some State Parks trails are great for bicycling, photo by Josh Teeter

What to do when you don’t know the answers?

What is it? Kids will ask but they don’t expect you to always have an answer. Feel free to say you don’t know, but take the time to look a little closer to explore together. “Hmmm, it is some kind of animal – see how it hops. It is very tiny. Can you see its eyes?” or “What a nice flower. Do you think the bees like it? Let’s watch to see if any bees or butterflies or other insects come to the flowers to feed. They like the sweet nectar.” A tip from educators: don’t reply with “it’s just a bug” or “just a flower”because everything is novel and interesting.

What is it doing? See if they can come up with an idea of what the animal is doing. Are they swimming, jumping, sunning, sleeping, searching for food, talking (in animal language), fighting, or running away. Why are they running away? Why do they burrow in the sand? If you don’t know, children often come up with pretty good ideas about what is going on if you encourage them to take the time to watch.

Special for 4th Graders!

Every Kid in a Park Program: Free entry for 4th grade students and accompanying family into National Parks across the country and NY State Parks in 2017  and

State Parks offer ideal places to bring children – the trails, interpretive signs, and beaches are ideal spots for kids to explore the nature world.  We hope to see you there!

Recommended Guide Books – check your library, bookstore or online distributor:

Peterson First Guides: A series of small, inexpensive books on insects, wildflowers, mammals, caterpillars, seashores, birds, and other topics. Highly recommended for young and old as an introduction and guide to more common plants and animals one might encounter.

Backyard Birds (Field Guides for Young Naturalists) by Karen Stray Nolting, Jonathon Latimer and Roger Tory Peterson 1999.

The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards 2011.

The Bumper Book of Nature: A User’s Guide to the Great Outdoors by Stephen Moss 2010.

The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown-ups by Gina Ingolgia 2013. Published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden and full of questions and answers about trees in both city and countryside.

 Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program. The author grew up exploring the back yard and woods and has spent a lifetime working as an environmental educator and ecologist.

Busy Beavers and Awesome Osprey; a Canoeing Adventure on Canopus Lake

It is a lovely day in the early summertime, 80o and sunny, with a gentle breeze.  Outdoor educators Daniel Marshall and Ursula Svoboda from the Taconic Outdoor Education Center are preparing to guide weekend canoe tours on beautiful Canopus Lake located in sprawling Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park in Putnam County.

“What a gorgeous day to be out on the water!” proclaims a very eager Marshall.

“I hope we see a bald eagle like last time!” replies Svoboda.

No matter the canoe tour guide, a visitor is in for a treat, as all of the educators (guides) from the nearby Taconic Outdoor Education Center.  These guides are friendly, knowledgeable, and bring their own unique perspective on the natural history and ecology of the region.  The hour and a half tour circles the shoreline of the 65-acre lower portion of the man-made lake, weaving in and out of numerous small islands.

The lake, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, is both a recreational and ecological jewel in the park.  In summer, you can find people swimming and sunbathing, paddling in kayaks, and fishing for largemouth bass and yellow perch along the shoreline.  Chain pickerel, brown bullhead catfish, and black crappie also lurk through the aquatic plants below the surface.  A lake such as Canopus, although made by humans, provides a very rich ecosystem.  Other critters that spend most of their time in the water include painted turtles and water snakes such as northern water snake and black rat snake.  There are even predacious water beetles in the lake; beetles are large enough to eat small fish!

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Predaceous Diving Beetle, photo by cotinis

Canopus Lake also attracts animals from the forest ecosystem that may be looking for a drink of water or a place to hunt along the water’s edge.  Beaver activity is evident with toppled trees along the shoreline and a large wood/mud dam near the CCC dam.  Osprey (state special concern species), bald eagles (state threatened) and other birds of prey soar overhead.  Osprey are excellent at fishing, plunging into the water and, more often than not, emerge with a fish in their talons. What makes this canoe trip so exciting is that one really never knows what they might be lucky enough to observe when out on the water!

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North osprey grabs a yellow perch

Canoe tours cost $5 per person and leave from the park’s boat launch along Route 301 just south of the park office.  Some of the boats can accommodate four people (two paddlers and two passengers.)  Reservations are encouraged by calling (845) 265-3773.  Come experience this fun summertime activity for yourself!

Post by Aaron Donato, State Parks

Aaron Donato and canoeing group
Fun times canoeing on Canopus Lake, photo by Aaron Donato