Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

A View from the Treetops: A week in the life of a forest health specialist

My name is Abigail Pierson and I am a Forest Health Specialist for NYS Parks. The scope of my work covers almost all the state parks in the western half of New York state, making each week always something new and exciting.

My week begins with the usual desk work of contacting park managers and anything else to ensure a smooth work week. However, by 10 a.m. my coworker and I are hopping in the work van and traveling to a state park. Once we’ve arrived, my partner and I begin setting up our tents and going over our schedule for the week. When the work day comes to end, it’s time for arguably the most intricate task of the day, dinner.

Abby and her current NYS Parks staffer and climbing partner, James Boyd.

Our meals are cooked on a two-burner camp stove, so chaos usually ensues when we are both starving and trying to prepare full course meals. Trying to make a full meal on one burner each serves as a microcosm of the balance of respect, teamwork, trust, and cooperation needed for the success of our team.  We spend every morning, afternoon, and night together for five days of the week. This job requires a lot of trust. We are climbing tall trees for research purposes, so our safety depends on each other. It is amazing to have a job/life experience like this where your co-worker becomes such an integral part of your life.

It’s always interesting climbing out of our dew-covered tents each morning; seeing everything in nature slowly coming to life all around us. Our days move by very fast. I eat a quick breakfast, after which I grab my climbing gear and data collection tools and begin the hike into a hemlock stand.

We are monitoring for hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) an invasive insect species native to Japan that can kill entire hemlock stands in 4 to 10 years. Our hikes to these hemlock stands can range from a half mile to three miles, and this is where the real fun begins. We put on our helmets and safety glasses and begin sending our rope up and over one of the branches in the middle canopy of the tree. Once we have our single rope set up and secured on the tree, one of us straps on our climbing harness and begins the ascent, which can be a hundred feet or more up into the air.

Abby gears up with NYS Parks staffer Jake Sidey during a 2016 climb.
Abby having fun a phone app with NYS Parks staffer and 2017/18 climbing partner Ben Jablonski.

A beautiful thing about our climbing setup is we cause no damage to the tree. Our goal is to save these majestic giants, not injure them. Once I reach the top section of the rope, I attach myself directly to the tree using a flip line. A flip line is a short adjustable section of rope that goes around the trunk of the tree and attaches to both sides of my harness.

It’s a good thing I’m a tree hugger because I must hug the tree as I use flip lines to ascend to the top canopy of the tree. It is a very intense experience being on flip lines because it is up to myself and this tree to keep me safe. In many ways, we are trusting the trees with our lives just as much as the trees are trusting us with theirs.

Climbing to the very top canopy of a tree that usually towers over the rest of the forest canopy is an indescribable experience. It feels as if, for a moment, you are larger than the forest itself. After all that hard work of getting to the top canopy I always take a moment to take in the beauty of nature that is surrounding me.

The View from the Top.

Once I’ve taken in the view it is right back to work. I take a small sample of a branch from the top canopy and put it into a labeled Baggie. As I descend back down the tree, I take samples from the middle and lower canopies. These samples allow us to identify if the tree is healthy or its level of infestation by HWA, a tiny aphid-like insect that gradually kills hemlocks by feeding on the juices in their needles.

The information that we gather helps show how widespread HWA is in the state and which hemlocks might still have the potential to be saved.

Here, and below, A close up of the telltale fluffy white insect egg masses that indicate HWA infestation.

If left unchecked, HWA could wipe out the majority of eastern hemlocks in New York, a species that is the third most common tree in the state. Hence the importance of slowing or even stopping its spread as quickly as possible. Widespread hemlock mortality would have a lasting impact on ecosystems, streams, flora and fauna, and even the look of the landscape.

Hemlock mortality in parks especially is a scary thing for me to imagine as patrons would no longer be able to enjoy the parks the same way that they can now. Some of our most well-known parks, including Letchworth, Allegany, Watkins Glen, and others like Stonybrook and Thacher, feature hemlocks along most major trails and vista points. Campgrounds and picnic areas of many parks enjoy cooling shade courtesy of hemlocks. If those hemlock stands were to die back the park would look barren, be unsafe due to erosion and dead limbs, and the internal ecosystems would be negatively impacted as well.

On the left, hemlock trees killed by HWA. On the right, a healthy, uninfested hemlock.

Click here for a map showing how HWA has spread in New York State.

What can you do to help? According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, if you believe you have found HWA:

  • Take pictures of the infestation signs (include something for scale such as a coin or ruler).
  • Note the location (intersecting roads, landmarks or GPS coordinates).
  • Fill out the hemlock woolly adelgid survey form.
  • Email report and photos to DEC Forest Health foresthealth@dec.ny.gov or call the Forest Health Information Line at 1-866-640-0652.
  • Contact your local Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) by visiting http://www.nyis.info/.
  • Report the infestation at iMapInvasives.
  • Slow the spread of HWA in our forests by cleaning equipment or gear after it has been near an infestation, and by leaving infested material where it was found.

Overall, tree climbing is a phenomenal experience that allows us to experience the sheer beauty of the hemlock tree and surrounding forest, while also allowing us make the in-depth assessment needed to ensure that the natural beauty is preserved.

Helping to save the amazing environment we live in, educating the public on invasive species, and being up close and personal with nature every day is an amazing gift. This job allows me to fulfill all my strongest passions simultaneously and I could not be luckier to have this opportunity.

Born to climb: A young Abby is geared up for tree climbing up by her father, Dr. Timothy G. Pierson, during Penn State Agricultural Progress Days. Abby later got her bachelor’s degree in environmental science/biology from Penn State, where her father worked as a forester.

Post by Abigail Pierson, Forest Health Specialist

Pausing to Ponder Pollinators

It is Pollinator Week, the week we celebrate pollinators small and tiny.  Our native pollinators, including bumble bees, mining bees, bee flies, longhorn beetles, and flower moths, play an important role in supporting the diversity of plant life in New York. Since 2016, State Parks staff has been working hard to help protect our native pollinators by cultivating native plant gardens and meadows.

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Pollinator gardens are a great way to attract a variety of pollinators and provide a place for people to see and learn about plants and pollinators up close. Unlike natural areas, these areas often contain a familiar garden plants like daffodils, marigolds, petunias, snapdragons, Stella Dora lilies, garden iris, cosmos, and many other non-native plants that provide color and variety and attract pollinators. However, by adding in plants that are native to New York State, you boost the value to the insects. Native pollinators evolved with the native flora, so they do better on these plants.  Some examples of native flora that are good for gardens are violets, blue flag iris, wood lily, butterfly weed (not to be confused with the non-native butterfly bush see below), asters, goldenrods, native sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, azalea, and many others. Using a variety plants helps to support both the insect “generalists” who use many kinds of flowers, as well as the “specialists” that go to only one or a few types of flowers. Pollinator gardens in State Parks offer a good way for you to learn about some plants that occur in the park or region too.

Pollinator meadows are larger areas from a quarter acre to many acres, typically where old fields containing a mix of native and pasture grasses are supplemented with native plant species that attract pollinators. This is the type of area that works well for planting milkweed, goldenrods, native grasses (like little bluestem, panic grass, big bluestem), and other species that don’t need a lot of care and that tend to spread. To maintain the meadow habitat, these sites are best managed by occasional mowing to keep woody plants from moving in. Targeted weeding is also needed to keep any non-native invasives from getting a foothold. But managing a meadow close to a woodland is a plus as a number of pollinators make their home their and visit the meadows for food.

GanondaganMeadow
The grassland at Ganondagan State Historic Site is a great place to find our native pollinators.

There are many lists of plants recommended for pollinator gardens or meadows but be wary as some contain plants that are not native to New York state. They also sometimes include non-native invasives which you really don’t want!

Fritilary aug 2017
Fritillary butterfly enjoys some milkweed at Caleb Smith State Park.

And beware that some common names can be confusing. For example, butterfly bush vs butterfly weed are not remotely related! Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a purple flowered shrub that is popular but not native and can be invasive. Best to avoid that one.  In contrast, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is an orange flowered milkweed native to NY and a great choice for attracting pollinators to your garden or meadow. To determine if a plant species is native to NY go to NY Flora Atlas.

NY State Parks staff have created more areas that make it easy for you to learn about native flora and fauna. The following places offer excellent spots for you to see native pollinators and learn about the plants they depend on. Take time this week to ponder pollinators at one of State Parks’ pollinator gardens or meadows.

Some of the parks will also have special pollinator programs during both Pollinator Week and over the summer, where you can search for and identify native pollinators.

cassie-meadow Allegany
Pollinator program at Allegany State Park.

Learn more about our native pollinators and other insects:

Hohm, Heather, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, Pollination Press LLC; 2014.

NY Natural Heritage Program and the Empire State Native Pollinator Survey

Wilson, Joseph S, The Bees In Your Backyard, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Xerces Pollinator Conservation

More information on insects and flowers:

Websites

BugGuide

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Books

McKenny, Margaret and Roger Tory Peterson, A Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America

Newcomb, Lawrence, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

Tallamy, Douglas and Rick Darke, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Where is Jack?

Jack is in the pulpit.

Who is Jack?

‘Jack’ is the spike flower cluster (or spadix) of the early spring wildflower known as bog onion, wild turnip, brown dragon, and most commonly jack-in-the-pulpit.  Jack’s pulpit is a modified leaf (known as a bract) that wraps around and drapes over the top of the flower like a hood.

BractSpadix

Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) are perennial plants that are found in moist woodlands throughout New York.  They can grow from 12”-26” inches tall, with the leaves in clusters of three on a separate stalk.

The flowers, Jacks, that we see are either female or male. Smaller, younger jack-in-the-pulpits make male flowers and older, larger plants produce female flowers.  It takes three years for the plants to start to produce the green flowers.

The plant relies upon flies including fungal gnats and lake flies to pollinate the flowers. They are attracted to the flower’s fungal, mushroom, smell.  Gnats and flies can escape from the male flowers through a small hole in the side of the flower, but they get stuck inside the female flowers because there is no escape route.

Once the flower is fertilized, plants produce a green fruit/seed stalk in summer, which turns a bright red in fall.

RobRoutledge,
Jack-in-the-pulpit seed stalk in the fall, Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

Resources and more information:

iNaturalist, Jack- in-the-Pulpit

New York Botanical Garden, Jack-in-the-pulpit: Pollination by Deception

New York Flora Atlas, Arisaema triphyllum ssp. triphyllum

St. Olas College, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Wikipedia, Arisaema triphyllum

Wildflowers of the Southeastern US. Jack in the Pulpit

In Search of the Early Bloomers

The ground is thawing out and the skunk cabbage is up – it’s time to start searching for the purple rock cress (Cardamine douglassii), a state-threatened plant. You may also find its more common cousins, all members of the mustard family – yes, like the mustard you eat, but with white to pink flowers rather than yellow. Moist woodlands with oak, hickory, and maple are a good place to look, including forests with vernal (spring) pools. Perhaps you might be out looking for frogs and salamanders around this time of year, if so -keep an eye out for these early flowering plants, too. Woodland rock cresses tend to be small, only about 3 to 8 inches tall, so they are easy to miss. If you see some patches of green that are not mosses or mounds of sedges (grass-like plants), take a closer look – you may be rewarded with some delicate flowers.

VernalPool_JLundgren
Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Forests with vernal pools or small streams or wetlands are a good place to look for these cresses.

Log_JLundgren
Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Look for patches of green on the forest floor and take a closer look. You might find some flowers.

CutLeavedRockCress_JLundgren
Cut-leaved rock cress or cut-leaved toothwort, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

A close-up of that woodland patch of green reveals this beautiful plant, the cut-leaved rock cress or cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), a common woodland wildflower. This used to go by the name Cardamine laciniata or Dentaria laciniata. It is easy to identify by its lacy leaves that look a bit like bird tracks.

CressLeaves_KPerkins
Rock cress, photo by Kelly Perkins, NYNHP.

Several of the other rock cresses, including the purple rock cress, have smaller and less complex leaves like this or just small roundish leaves on the stem or at the base of the plant (see in background).

SpringCress_SYoung
Spring cress, photo by Steve Young, NYNHP.

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) is another common cress that blooms very early. The flowers can range from white to pink, and it can be hard to tell this apart from the rare purple rock cress. Note that all of the flowers in the mustard family have 4 petals regardless of their color.

CDouglassii_JLundgren
Purple rock cress, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Here is the rare Cardamine douglassii, so similar to the spring cress above. One has to consult the botanical keys in order to figure out which species you have. Some trout lilies are coming up too (leaves at upper left).

PurpRockCress_Scale_KWebster
Purple rock cress, photo by State Parks.

NY Natural Heritage and State Parks staff discovered two new locations for this rare species in State Parks in the past few years and hope that more are found in this year’s early spring surveys.

CressSeedPod_KWebster
Photo by State Parks.

The flowers of the cresses don’t last long, only until the trees leaf out. Once in fruit, you can still recognize them by their elongate seed pods, which give rise to yet another common name for this group of plants, the “rockets”.

Post written by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Featured image by Kyle Webster, State Parks

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. NYNHP conducts many kinds of surveys and studies to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

Recommended references for identifying the rock cresses:

https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/genus/cardamine/

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. Little, Brown and Co. 1989.

For more information:

NY Flora Atlas Purple Rock Cress

NYNHP Conservation Guides Purple Rock Cress

I’d Like to Spy the World a Cloak

This spring, as you spend time hiking or recreating in one of your favorite state parks, keep an eye out for an insect with a name almost as evocative as its striking appearance – the mourning cloak!

Nymphalis antiopa, also known as the Camberwell beauty in Great Britain, is easily recognizable due to its wings, which feature an irregularly-shaped bright yellow border with a row of iridescent blue spots on the inner edge. Some other historical names for the species also reflect its appearance, including “grand surprise” and “white petticoat.”

The mourning cloak is unusual in that it overwinters as an adult, hiding in tree cavities and under loose bark. It starts flying again as soon as the days warm up, even where there’s still snow on the ground.

Not just native to the northeast, the mourning cloak is broadly distributed around the hemisphere – in fact, it’s the state insect of Montana! Their wingspan ranges from 2 ¼ to 4 inches and they have one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly at 10 to 12 months. Their favorite snacks include rotting fruit or tree sap, and they can often be found gathering on oak trees.

Hectonichus
Nymphalis antiopa (mourning cloak) caterpillar, photo by Hectonichus, accessed from Wikimedia Commons

They’re also highly distinguishable in their immature form as the spiny elm caterpillars, with black spiny bodies run through with a streak of reddish to orange colored dots. After feeding on young leaves, the caterpillars will pupate and emerge in their adult form mid-summer. Some adults migrate in the fall, and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala.

Post by Ben Mattison , State Parks

Butterflies and Moths, mourning cloak

University of Florida,  Featured Creatures mourning cloak

Wikipedia, Nymphalis antiopa