Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Respect for Rattlers

Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head and rattle. Like other pit-vipers, timber rattlesnakes possess a heat-sensitive organ, or pit, on either side of the head that allow them to detect prey. Their rattles are comprised of segments that accumulate each time a snake sheds its skin, which is every 1-2 years in this region. Counting the number of rattle segments is not an accurate way of aging snakes, as rattles wear and break off. Rattles are used as a warning to potential predators to stay away, making a distinct buzzing noise when rattled.

Timber rattlesnakes can occur in two color patterns: The black phase, which consists of dark bands against a dark background, and the yellow phase, which consists of dark bands on a lighter background. Color shades and band patterns vary from snake to snake.

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Their distinctive cross-bands allow them to camouflage themselves from unsuspecting prey as well as from predators. Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals, but will also consume birds, amphibians or other snakes. They ambush prey as it passes by and inject a controlled amount of venom with “hinged” hollow fangs. They then release the animal, wait, and follow its chemical trail to consume it. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in maintaining stable numbers of prey populations, such as rodent species that can carry diseases and destroy crops.

The venom from a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated, but bites are rare. Snakes will not go out of their way to pursue or bite a person. They have the ability to sense the vibrations of an approaching creature and if it is too large to be prey, they rely on their camouflage to hide or they retreat. It requires precious energy to produce venom- Timbers will bite as a last resort if they are cornered and feel threatened. There has not been a death from a timber rattlesnake bite in New York State in several decades. In all of my encounters with these snakes, both for study purposes and chance encounters, one has never struck. While they might coil in a defensive posture and rattle as a warning, the snakes simply want to go on their way and be left alone. It is important to give them space.

These snakes will hibernate together in a den below the frost line, and it’s not uncommon for other snake species to den with them. The same den will be used for generations. They can live up to 30 years, though most live 16-22 years.  Male timber rattlesnakes reach sexual maturity at about 5 years whereas females don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-11 years. Females give birth every 3-5 years, and they are among a few species of snakes that give birth to live young. Their slower reproduction rates make them even more susceptible to the threats they face.

Timber rattlesnakes were once more abundant. Indiscriminate killing and a bounty system, as well as unregulated collecting has greatly reduced their numbers, completely eliminating them from some areas. Though the bounty was repealed in the 1970’s and they are now protected by law in New York State, they still face poaching. Snakes are purposefully killed out of a misplaced fear or disdain, or are collected for the illegal pet trade. Snakes can also be killed by vehicles while attempting to bask in roads or cross them in search of food or a mate. Timber rattlesnakes are a slower moving snake, and they tend to freeze when they sense vibration, such as that of an oncoming car. This puts them at greater risk of being run over. People have said that snakes stretched out across the road look like sticks. It’s important for drivers to be observant in order to avoid hitting snakes (or any animal) in the road, and heed animal crossing signs.

Amy McGinnis, 2011
Timber Rattlesnake that was run over attempting to cross the road. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2011

Habitat loss due to human development and frequent recreational use of land has also had a negative impact on timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, snakes in the eastern United States are facing decline due to a deadly fungal disease. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the few populations of timber rattlesnakes left in New York State and the habitat that supports them. Surveys are conducted and sightings are tracked to help determine the size and health of populations. Snakes are also fitted with transmitter devices for tracking and monitoring. One of the biggest efforts in the conservation of Timber Rattlesnakes is raising public awareness. By educating people about the snakes at sites where they occur, it increases safety for visitors and for the snakes. While they can pose a threat to people (similar to many other species of wildlife), these graceful animals are not bad and are not out to get anyone. They occupy a key niche in the natural community and food web and help to keep the ecosystem in balance. It is rare to encounter a timber rattlesnake in New York State because of their reclusive and docile nature. However, if you do see one, remember — as with all wildlife — to keep your distance for your safety as well as to not stress the animal. Take the time to watch from a distance to appreciate the beauty of a part of the natural world we live in. Whether snakes fascinate or frighten you, if you are walking through their home territory, it’s important to be aware. Respecting their space benefits both you and the snakes.

Amy McGinnis 2015
Rattlesnakes often hide under rock ledges and crevices and come out to bask in the sun. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2015

Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks

NYNHP
CHALLENGE! Can you find the rattlesnake in this picture? Photo by NYNHP

Resources:

NY Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guide

Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet

USGS: National Wildlife Health Center: Snake Fungal Disease

NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life provides detailed maps and status across North America

Likin’ the Lichens in New York State

If you frequent nature trails, you have likely passed by stones or trees with some kind of crusty material on the surface.  Is it a moss?  No, moss is a plant.  Is it a fungus?  Well, yes and no.  This crust is actually a partnership between at least two different organisms, making a composite organism called lichen (pronounced “LIKE-en”).

Lichens are made of multiple fungi – a diverse group of organisms including mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and others – living with algae and/or algae-like bacteria called cyanobacteria.  The fungi provide a pleasant, hydrated shelter to live in, while their partner provides food through photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis means using sunlight, water, and CO2 to create sugar (and the oxygen that we breathe, no big deal).  Cyanobacteria can also “fix” or make use of nutrients from the air, further helping the fungi to grow.  This mutual relationship between different species is what biologists call symbiosis.

2 - lichen at Shepards Tooth (photo by Tim Howard)
Lichen in an alpine meadow, amidst sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia).  Shepherds Tooth, Adirondacks. (Photo by Tim Howard, NYNHP)

Thanks to the many possible fungi-algae-bacteria combinations, lichens take on many different forms and colors.  In New York State alone, there are over 800 types of lichens!  Lichens can look like small flaky crusts (“crustose”), flat leaf-like growths (“foliose”), or even branched (“fruticose”) like miniature shrubs.   Many take on a greenish-grey hue, but other colors include brown, black, white, yellow, bright orange, red, and blue.  You might see these unique fungal partnerships on all kinds of surfaces along nature trails – adding a nice flair to wooden sign posts, historic stone walls, boulders, tree bark, the forest floor, and decaying logs.

Cultural Significance

People have used lichens for a variety of purposes for thousands of years.  Lichens with antibiotic properties have been used in traditional medicines and embalming practices.  Some of the more brilliant-colored lichens have been used to make dyes for yarn, cloth, and even litmus paper (a quick, easy way to measure how acidic something is).   Several cultures worldwide include lichens in their diets, making soups, side dishes, beverages, and even molasses.  But watch out – not all lichens are safe to eat!  Those involving cyanobacteria can produce toxins; these lichens have historically been used as poisons in hunting.

3 - Many uses of lichen (photos from wikipedia and mycopigments dot com, referencing Noah Siegel)
Top left: Lichen-dyed yarn.  Top right: Lichen-coated litmus paper.  Bottom: Black lichen in cuisine. (Photos by Noah Siegal at mycopigments.com, Wikimedia commons, and Public Domain, respectively)

While all these uses of lichens are interesting, we at New York State Parks want you to simply enjoy observing the beauty and impact of lichens in their natural habitats.

Lichens in Nature

Lichens serve several important roles in our parks.  As one of the first lifeforms that established on land, they helped create much of the world we live in today.  They play a role in soil formation, slowly breaking large rocks down into smaller pieces.  Then they carry out processes that add essential nutrition to forest soils, allowing trees and plants to grow.  Lichens also benefit wildlife.  Northern flying squirrels, deer, and moose are among those known to graze on lichens, particularly in the winter.  In the spring, birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher often use lichen to build and camouflage their nests.

Lichen populations also give important clues about environmental health.  Studies have shown lichen to be sensitive to air pollution, and so a decline in lichen may be a warning sign of worsening air quality nearby.  Similarly, lichen growth rates react to long-term changes in moisture and temperature, and so they can help monitor the climate.  Scientists take advantage of the slow-growing nature of certain lichens and use their size or branching patterns to estimate the age of rocks in the forests, similar to tree rings on a tree stump.

4 - Rock Lichen, circle, New Jersey (photo by Steve Young)
A closer look at lichen growing outward on a rock. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP

 

By keeping an eye on the lichens in our parks, we can discover fascinating patterns in our local ecosystems.  And we can have a deeper appreciation for the beautiful landscapes that New York State has to offer!

See if you can spot these and other lichens the next time you are out enjoying nature:

 

11 - Enchanted forest (photo by Julie Lundgren) 94_F11LUN05
An enchanted forest: lichens and moss decorate the trees, ground, and rocks. Although subtle and unassuming, lichens play a vital role in shaping the complex ecosystems found throughout New York State. (Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP)

Post by Erin Lennon, State Parks

Featured image:  A common sight: lichen attached to tree bark in New York State. (Photo adapted from Wikipedia, public domain)

Resources:

Video featured on NPR’s Science Friday: “Hunting Wild Lichen.”

U.S. Forest Service factsheet: “Lichens – Did you Know?

BBC article on soils and lichen in creating the planet we know today. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151205-one-amazing-substance-allowed-life-to-thrive-on-land

NYT article on a 2016 ground-breaking discovery that yeasts are an additional part of many lichens: “Two’s Company, Three’s a Lichen?

List of the Lichens of New York, by Richard Harris in 2004.

Happy Arbor Day

What is it about trees that can make you stop and look?

Is it the sunlight on the trunks of yellow birch that catches your eye – the bark silvery-gold and curling? Or the smooth gray bark of beech –  easy to look for scars from bear claws on this canvas. Or perhaps it is the rough platy bark of a shagbark hickory that intrigues you.  No matter what catches you about a particular tree, your gaze inevitably follows the trunk up it’s base, and continues upward into the canopy where the branches are silhouetted against the sky. The beautiful spectacle prompts many questions: How old is it? What has it been through? Are there any animals up there?

Of course, trees with showy flowers – like magnolia, cherry, or crabapple – always grab our attention. But all our broadleaf trees also have flowers, so look a little closer for those that are not so conspicuous. Among the first to flower in the spring are the maples, a hint of color in the treetops. Look for red tassels on red maple (Acer rubrum) or silver maple (Acer saccharinum) or green on sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Norway maple (Acer platanoides) has larger yellow-green flowers. Take a closer look at these little bouquets; you can usually find clusters that have fallen to the ground.

Red maple_Donald Cameron_One time use for this blog
Red maple (Acer rubrum) flowers. Photo by Donald Cameron 2017, GoBotany, used with permission.

A nice tree to look for in the spring is serviceberry, also known as shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis and A. arborea). Its delicate white flowers show up long before the other trees leaf out, so you can spot these trees more easily in spring than in the summer. There are also several shrub species of Amelanchier in NY State, all with similar flowers.

And later in the season, in May-June, look for the straight-as-a-pole tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) whose flowers look like yellow-green tulips!

Trees become a busy place in the spring too. Bees and other insects feed on the nectar and pollen of the flowers above. Woodpeckers search for insects under the bark and many animals hide out or make their home in tree cavities – bats, owls and other birds, raccoons, squirrels, and porcupines. Bears climb trees for safety and sometimes curl up in the base of big hollow trees. With all that activity, trees are a good place for wildlife watching, whether in your neighborhood or in a state park or historic site.

Birding at Minnewaska_Jubilee Feist
Binoculars are good for watching wildlife and also for getting a better look at the trees. This volunteer was making a list of birds at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on I Love My Park Day.

NY State Parks are home to countless beautiful trees.  Look for many mature and outstanding trees around the mansions and other historic sites, at campgrounds and picnic areas, and in the forests that cover nearly 80% of State Park lands. Get out and enjoy the trees on Arbor Day – and every day – in your neighborhood and favorite parks.

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program. Photos by NYNHP or other as noted; for use by permission only.

Unseen Buds

We salute National Poetry Month with a poem by Walt Whitman, the 19th century poet whose birthplace is a New York State Historic Site.

UNSEEN BUDS

Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well,

Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or

cubic inch,

Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn,

Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping;

Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting,

(On earth and in the sea – the universe – the stars there in the

heavens,)

Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless,

And waiting ever more, forever more behind.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of grass, 1891-1892

Take some time this month to see the poetry in the unseen buds and early spring flowers in a state park or historic site near you.

Owl Pellets: An Answer to the Question, “What Was for Dinner?”

Walking through the forest, especially under big trees, you might come across something rather interesting on the ground beneath you.  It’s pretty small and dark colored.  Maybe it’s a pine cone?  Looking closer, you notice this peculiar item is covered in fur, but is obviously not alive.  You poke it with a stick and notice it’s a little squishy.  Maybe it’s animal scat?  You peer even closer and notice that it might even have some small bones sticking out.  What you may have found is an owl pellet.

Owl Pellet_JACE STANSBURY
Owl pellet on the forest floor, photo by Jace Stansbury

Owls are a bird of prey, which means they hunt other animals.  They rely on their excellent vision and even better sense of hearing to locate a meal.  Their feet are armed with sharp claws, or talons, that latch onto prey.  Instead of having sharp teeth like mammal predators such as coyotes and bobcats, owls have a sharp, down-curved beak that helps them eat meat.

When an owl eats another animal it usually swallows that animal whole.  However, not every part of the ingested animal can be digested by the owl.  The second of two stomachs in the owl’s digestive system is able to separate the digestible parts from the non-digestible parts of their meal, which includes fur, hair, bones, and teeth.  These non-digestible parts are then packed tightly into a neat package inside the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated, almost as if the owl is throwing up.  Because the pellet partially blocks their digestive system, an owl usually can’t swallow new prey until it expels the pellet made from the last one.

Pellet_Philip R Brown
Small owl pellet, photo by Phillp R. Brown

What is so fascinating about owl pellets is that the bones inside them can be identified.  This helps us learn what owls like to eat!  Some things to look for in a pellet to help you identify an owl’s prey are the jaws of rodents, which should have the long (usually orange) front teeth, and bird beaks or feet.  Unless you can see feathers in the pellet, bones are typically the best way to identify their prey.  Other bones that can usually be identified include the pelvis, femur (upper leg bone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).

Jason Bottom
Rodent skull found in an owl pellet, photo by Jason Bottom

In the winter and early spring, a good place to look for owl pellets is under evergreen trees.  Why?  Because owls tend spend most of their time in evergreen trees in winter because they provide the best cover to stay hidden from other birds that might harass them during the day.  So the next time you are in the forest, be on the lookout for owls in the trees, and their pellets at your feet!

Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are the most common species of owl in New York State.  Snowy Owls, Barn Owls and even Great Gray Owls may be seen irregularity in New York as well.  More information can be found here.

Post by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

Featured image: Barred owl by Lilly Schelling, State Parks