Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

The Wonderful World of Mason Bees

In honor of National Pollinator Week last month, let’s give a tribute to a native New York bee. While there are hundreds of bee species in the state, this shout-out is for one species – the mason bee.


A mason bee (Osmia sp.) (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

“What are Mason Bees?”

While there are over 400 species of bees in New York State, mason bees comprise only about 7 percent of that diversity. These small bees are important pollinators of crops, wildflowers, and many other woodland, meadow and wetland plants. Unlike honeybees, which are sial in nature, mason bees are solitary. They construct individual nests in hollow reeds or other plant stems, pre-existing cavities, or burrows found in dead wood. Their name stems their practice of transporting mud to nesting areas to build structures in which they eventually lay eggs.

Mason bees come from the tribe Osmini of the family Megachilidae. In New York State, mason bees include genera such as Osmia, Hoplitis, Chelostoma, and Heriades. Each genera has specific characteristics. Also, these mild-mannered bees only sting if provoked or cornered, so they are ideal for observing up close.

Osmia Mason Bees: When referring to “mason bees”, many people would generally reference them to the bees of genera Osmia. A key trait of these types of bees that they are an energetic fast flier. Osmia mason bees tend to be small-to-medium in size with a robust build and relatively large heads. Within the genera, there are three subgenera (or subspecies): Helicosmia, Melanosmia, and Osmia. In New York, there are at least 25 native Osmia species.

Blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) (Photo Credits – USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Hoplitis Mason Bees: They are the pollinators of woodland shrubs and trees, garden flowers and berries, while also visiting some varieties of commercial fruit. What makes them different from Osmia mason bees is that their bodies are slenderer. Hoplitis mason bees tend to be black to darkly-colored with pale abdominal stripes. These bees use chewed leaves, dirt, pebbles, or wood particles to construct walls between the brood cells of their nests. There are seven Hoplitis species found in New York.

The face of a Hoplitis spoliata (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Chelostoma Mason Bees: They are the only type of mason bee native to New York State that is represented solely by one species, the mock orange Chelostoma, Chelostoma philadelphi

Mock orange chelostoma bee (Chelostoma philadelphi) (Photo Credit – USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory

Their appearance is small and ant-like, with disproportionately long jaws compared to the rest of its body. Bees that fall within this genus tend to be picky about which plants that they feed on and pollinate. Thus, the mock orange Chelostoma is a pollinator of the mock orange shrub (genus Philadelphus after which the bee was named). However, for those who are bee enthusiasts, there are also two non-native species of Chelostoma in New York that tend to feed on bellflowers.

Heriades Bees: Last, but certainly not least, is the resin bee, genus Heriades. What are resin bees? Resin bees and mason bees are quite similar to one another in terms of their lifestyles; they are both solitary bees; living in nests rather than hives. But unlike the other three genera, resin bee nests are located in the ground. Heriades bees can forage on a range of plants, not prioritizing one over the other when pollinating crops and wild plants. These bees tend to be dark in color with a slender-to-medium build, having sparse body hair that cover their bodies.

“What is the life cycle of a mason bee?”

While their lives are short, mason bee are very hard workers, making then truly a “busy bee.” 

There is only one generation of mason bee per year.

Inside each nest tunnel or cavity, there are about 5 or 6 cocoons each containing a full-grown bee awaiting the right time to emerge. Each cocoon within the tunnel is separated by a thin mud wall placed there by the adult mother bee the spring before. The end of each tunnel is capped with a thick plug of mud or chewed leaves to keep the young safe through the winter.

In spring, after the temperate hits a consistent high of 55 degrees, both male and females emerge from their cocoons. Male bees always emerge first, remaining close to the nest, leaving their mark while waiting for the female mason bees. They leave only to feed on the nectar from flowers and plants.  

Females hatch unable to fly, and immediately mate with the waiting male mason bees.  Females mate with several males during this period. After mating, the males die and complete their life cycle. Unlike their females in their species, male mason bees only live for a few days.

Osmia at nest’s entrance (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

A Female’s World

Female mason bees begin to nest about 3 to 4 days after mating, usually preferring to nest in preexisting holes. The bees plug the bottom of the hole with mud, then begin to bring both pollen and nectar from nearby plant blossoms to place in the hole as well.

After accumulating enough food for her young, the female lays eggs on top of the pollen and seals the cell with thin mud. She repeats this process until either the entire length of the tunnel is used or until she lays all of her eggs. The sperm that was stored from mating with the male mason bee acts as a fertilizer for the eggs, but only if she wants to have female offspring. An unfertilized egg will become male. Typically, two-thirds of cocoons will be male mason bees.

Hatching in a few days, larvae devour the pollen and nectar mixture in the nest. The amount of mixture that the female gathered determines the size of the emerging bees of the following spring. The larger the piles of pollen and nectar, the larger the bees.

In about ten days, the larvae spin into a cocoon and pupate inside. Towards the end of summer, the bees turn in to an imago, their adult stage and remains in their cocoon until next spring.  Their roles completed, the female mason bees die that fall and the cycle begins all over again.

“How do you make a mason bee house?”

Well I am glad you asked. This is a really fun way to attract mason bees to your yard.

An example of a solitary bee house was constructed by Sarah Witalka, a conservation steward for the Thousand Islands Region at Westcott Beach State Park, while working at its pollinator garden. If you are not that big into woodworking, you are not out of luck. Stewards at Westcott Beach made one with an old Gatorade bottle and hollow plant stems.

A home-made mason bee house (Photo Credit – Sarah Witalka, Conservation Steward for Thousand Islands Region)
 

Here’s how!

  1. Gather hollow stems from large flower stalks like goldenrod, daisies, black-eyed-susan, or Phragmites (also known as reed).
  2. If you do not know, Phragmites are an invasive reed that can be easily found by water and ditches. Keep the stems but leave the flowering head or seeds at the site or discard bag so you do not spread this invasive weed around!
  3. Score the stalks with a knife (always have an adult present to do this part), then snap the lengths.
  4. If using reed or grass, cut so that each tube ends in a node and is solid. Otherwise plug one end of each tube with mud.
  5. If that part is not done and the end of the tube was left open, a bee would not use it.
  6. Put as many tubes in the bottle as will fit, open end facing out towards you.
  7. Then use twigs to fill the spaces, so everything remains snug.
  8. If the original tubes were a little long for the bottle, a lip could be added in order to keep the rain off.
  9. Lastly, attach twine to hang it with.

Tips for placement:

  1. The front of the house should have a south or southwest exposure where it will get the most sun in winter to keep bees warm. REMEMBER! Bees are cold-blooded and they need the warmth of the sun to get going!
  2. Choose a secure and peaceful place, not one that sways or is noisy and full of movement; areas protected from high winds.
  3. Hang at eye level to keep them safe from critters and easy to check.
  4. Avoid installing the bee house right next to a bird feeder or birdhouse.
  5. Placed within about 300ft./100m of your garden, fruit & nut trees or berry patches to get the most benefit of these pollinators
  6. Plant or encourage NY native plants in your yard to benefit the native bees.
Osmia distincta is one of the more colorful mason bees (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)
 

Mason bees are among the hundreds of pollinators in North America that you can learn about. Learn to appreciate the job that these insects are committed to do every single year.

If you would like to read more about mason bees, follow these links to obtain a broader knowledge on not just mason bees, but all kinds of native bees.


Cover photo- Female Mason bee on a flower (Photo credit- Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)

Post by Kelley Anne Thomas, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member;and Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program


Websites and Links

Bee Diversity in New York Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 

The Honeybee Conservancy- Mason Bees

Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation

USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

“Big Day” Birding Adventure in State Parks of Western New York

Planning for a New York State Parks birding “big day” started before the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world and lives. Originally, it called for a team of three to four birders to see how many species could be tallied in one day while visiting only State Parks during the height of spring migration in May.

Besides being a fun adventure, I wanted to highlight the fabulous birding opportunities for visitors to the State Parks in Western New York, and bring attention to habitat restoration projects in several parks that have enhanced the birding in the parks. The third week of May is the best time to see the most bird species in Western New York and it was perfect that my kids and wife were scheduled to be away for a trip to Boston.  

While the school trip and the team approach didn’t work out due to COVID, my original target date of May 20th held up and I embarked on a solo, New York State Parks only, birding big day. Of course, this was done while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance from other Parks visitors as spelled out in these guidelines.

And the day started early…

Sunrise at Golden Hill State Park.

* 4:40 a.m., Golden Hill State Park, Niagara County. While listening in the darkness for any vocalizing nocturnal birds, an Eastern Whip-poor-will sounded off like an emphatic alarm clock– “whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will!” This uncommon migrant to this region was the first great addition to my big day list. Two more heard vocalizing shortly thereafter in another part of the park to add to the excitement.

Many bird species started singing as sunrise approached and then after sunrise, I quickly realized that it was going to be a great day because there were warblers and other migrant birds all throughout the park.


Cerulean Warbler at Golden Hill State Park

I departed Golden Hill around 8:45 a.m. with 93 species, including 22 warbler species. I also realized that luck was working in my favor, as evidenced by one notable example. While scanning Lake Ontario with my spotting scope, I heard a Cerulean Warbler sing from some trees behind me. I turned away from the lake to go find this rare migrant and watched a pair of Sandhill Cranes fly by as I walked. Had I not turned when the warbler sang, I would have missed the cranes!

* Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, Four Mile Creek State Park, and Fort Niagara State Park, Niagara County, through 1 p.m.  The lakeshore parks were all filled with migrant birds and it was tough to leave them even though I was well behind schedule at this point. With 109 species already, it was time to head south along the Niagara River for some species I had “staked out” in the weeks beforehand.


Red-tailed Hawk at Fort Niagara State Park
Swainson’s Thrush at Four Mile Creek State Park
Bay-breasted Warbler at Four Mile Creek State Park
Red-eyed Vireo at Fort Niagara State Park

* 1:10 p.m. Joseph Davis State Park, Niagara County. Not only was the Pied-billed Grebe still present as I was hoping, but I found another sitting on a nest. After some quick photos to document the breeding activity of this State-listed threatened species for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas III project, I hiked the trails to find a few other likely breeding species that were present a week earlier. It’s rewarding to see that the vegetative habitat in the eastern part of the park is still in good shape after an invasive species removal and bird habitat restoration project was completed in 2013. I was involved in that project design through my employer Ecology and Environment Inc (E&E)., a WSP company, as part of grant funded project with Buffalo Audubon Society and Audubon New York.


Pied-billed Grebe at Joseph Davis State Park
Baltimore Oriole at Joseph Davis State Park

*2 p.m. Artpark State Park, Niagara County. Even among local birders, not too many people think of Artpark as a birding destination; however, an upland grassland habitat was created on the Lewiston Plateau as part of a 2003 project involving E&E and the Village of Lewiston with funding from the NYS Environmental Protection Fund and Niagara County. This grassland has hosted Grasshopper Sparrows for years, and this year I discovered rare Clay-colored Sparrows there as well.


Grasshopper Sparrow
Orchard Oriole

While I expected to get these two “staked out” species, I also picked up two nice bonus species with Black Vulture and Merlin, both seen flying from the expansive view looking toward the Niagara Gorge. My list was up to 120 species.

* 2:45 to 4 p.m., Reservoir State Park and Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara County. A quick check of the Lewiston Reservoir provided an Osprey but not any hoped-for shorebird species. While Niagara Falls State Park is one of my favorite local places to go birding, I didn’t spend a lot of time there beyond picking up a few expected species in the afternoon on this warm day. Falling more behind schedule, I had to drop one of the planned stops and reluctantly passed by Buckhorn Island State Park, which is a great place to go birding. However, I felt that I had better chances of adding new species at other parks with less hiking time. I likely missed out on a few species there.

* 4:15 p.m. Beaver Island State Park, Erie County. This spring, the local birders have regularly visited the recently restored marsh habitat along the Niagara River in East River Marsh. Marsh birds have really taken to this location and I added a handful of species including Sora and Marsh Wren to my list. It’s been delightful to see such a rapid response from birds to this restored habitat. New York State Parks took on the design and construction project efforts with funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This serves as a great predecessor to some upcoming similar projects at Buckhorn Island State Park.

*5:50 p.m. Amherst State Park, Erie County. This is the park where the warmest day of the spring caught up with me through more than fatigue. I’m a regular visitor to the park in spring and fall for birding and family hikes but I’m always there in the early morning. I had never seen so many people in the park as on this visit and I knew right away that birding would be a challenge, as well as trying to maintain social distancing even though most in the park did not share that concern. I picked up two staked out species plus an obliging White-breasted Nuthatch, a common species that I was in danger of missing out on for the day.

*6:50 p.m. Woodlawn Beach State Park, Erie County. A walk on the beach on a beautiful evening with the sun starting to set over Lake Erie was picturesque but without any new shorebird or gull species that I was hoping to add. A Cooper’s Hawk seen from the parking lot kept up the streak of adding at least one new species at each park on the day.

*8 p.m. Knox Farm State Park, Erie County. The last stop was good to get Eastern Meadowlark and American Kestrel in the extensive grasslands and then the last addition for the day was a Wood Duck that I saw fly into the woods. With sunset nearly on hand, I called it a day and headed home.

And what a birding adventure it was. The final count was 138 species, which was much better than I was expecting. Other notable numbers were 185 miles by car, over 30,000 steps on foot, and 11 State Parks visited.

While I have known of the tremendous birding in these parks for many years, it was great to get out and experience so many of them in one big day. It only reinforced to me how important these parks are for providing bird habitat, and how habitat restoration projects I’ve been involved with professionally have improved bird habitat even more at several of the parks.

Birding has been one of the best ways for me and many others to get outside during these pandemic times. A big day is at the more extreme end of the birding hobby, and not the way for someone to start into birding. Visiting your local State Park is a great place to go and start out.  For the more experienced birders, the bar has been set at 138 species for a New York State Parks (only!) big day. I’ll be interested to read about the efforts of others who try a similar adventure.


Cover Photo- Baltimore Oriole at Joseph Davis State Park. All photos by Mike Morgante.

By Mike Morgante, Senior Group Leader, Ecology and Environment Inc.


Resources

  1. The New York Breeding Bird Atlas III has something for everyone from beginner birders to the most experienced.
  2. Find background information and recordings of bird calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  3. Review the 23 separate Bird Conservation Areas to be found in New York State Parks across the state.

Protect Our Waters: Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers!

Now that summer is here, when you head to the boat launch for a day on the water, you will often run into a friendly face in a blue vest. These are Boat Stewards! Boat Stewards are educators who share their knowledge of invasive species and how to prevent boats from spreading such species into other waterbodies.

You can expect to run into stewards across much of New York State, since there are more than 200 Stewards who are part of various programs.  Here at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, our Boat Steward program is run in collaboration with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).

Beginning the Memorial Day weekend, 20 Stewards are stationed at 25 different State Park boat launches. These experts can answer your questions about aquatic invasive species (AIS) within New York State, provide educational information on many species, and will help check that there are no aquatic hitchhikers on your boat or trailer!

Photo 5

A boat steward checks a boat the the Deans Cove boat launching station at Cayuga Lake State Park in the Finger Lakes Region.

All our stewards within the state will be wearing masks and social distancing for your protection and theirs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please arrive with your boats and equipment already clean, drained, and dried and be willing to help our stewards conduct inspections while maintaining social distance. Please follow the protocols for social distancing and wearing masks in public while at the launches.

When you arrive or leave a boat launch, a Steward will ask to perform a voluntary inspection on your watercraft and encourage you to join them. Remember, please practice social distancing, and stay six feet away from Stewards while they perform their duties.

Inspections apply to both power boats and paddlecraft, like canoes and kayaks.

While completing the inspection, Stewards are on a mission to find all visible plant or animal material attached to the watercraft and trailer and will point out places on the boat where aquatic invasive species often get caught. Stewards also gather information from boaters through a short survey to help understand the movement of AIS across the New York State.

At many locations across the state, Stewards operate Watercraft Decontamination Stations, also known as Boat Wash Stations. Decontamination stations are a free high-temperature, high-pressure wash for your boat.

Phpto 4

A boat steward at Conesus Lake State Boat Launch, Livington County, at the uses a high-pressure wash to remove invasive species from a boat.

Boat Wash Stations are highly effective at eradicating aquatic invasive species we might not be able to see with our naked eye, such as young Zebra Mussels or Spiny Waterfleas. The ESF-NYS OPRHP program operates two such units located at Allan Treman State Marine Park on Cayuga Lake and Conesus Lake State Boat Launch.



When stewards are not at the launch, they are busy collaborating with many partner organizations to partake in all levels of invasive species management. They participate in sampling for AIS, mapping new infestations, and large-scale removals of invasive species such as Water Chestnut.

Since the program’s inception in 2014, our boat stewards have conducted more than 100,000  inspections and interacted with more than 250,000 boaters. In 2019, stewards intercepted 3,803 boats that were carrying invasive species.

Each of these boats could have led to a new introduction that has potential to cause significant harm to ecological, economic, and human health.

Species that Stewards most commonly find in the regions covered by our program are Eurasian Watermilfoil, Curly Leaf Pondweed and Zebra Mussels.


Cover shot- Boat stewards at the start of the 2019 season. (All photographs from NYS Parks and reflect 2019 boating season)

Post by Mallory Broda, Program Coordinator (Program Support Specialist), ESF- NYS OPRHP Boat Steward Program


Help Do Your Part to Protect Our Waterways

*     Clean, drain, and dry your watercraft and equipment thoroughly before visiting other waterbodies.

*      Inspect and remove debris and mud from boats, trailers, and equipment before and after each use.

*      Dispose of all debris and bait in trash cans or above the waterline on dry land.

*      Drain all water-holding compartments including live wells, bait wells, and bilge areas. If possible, disinfect with hot water (140°F) for at least 30 seconds.

*      Dry boats, trailers, and all equipment before use in another water body. A minimum of 5-7 days in dry, warm conditions is recommended.

*      Do not dispose of unwanted aquarium pets or bait fish in waterbodies, ditches, or canals.

#IProtectNYWaters

Spotted Turtles on the Move For Spring!

While we must stay put this season to help protect ourselves and those we love, other creatures here in New York are making their seasonal spring migrations.

Among those are spotted turtles. These small, attractive reptiles can be found throughout much of New York in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island, and in the plains of western and central New York. They generally emerge from their winter hideaways in March or early April (Gibbs et al. 2007).

Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) are more tolerant of cold water and are one of the first aquatic turtles to become active; you might see them basking throughout winter depending on temperatures. Early spring is the best time of the year to spot these turtles. There is ample food with salamanders and frogs laying their eggs in vernal pools (Beaudry et al. 2009). They will also eat aquatic insects and other invertebrates such as slugs, worms, and snails (Gibbs et al. 2007). When looking for turtles, keep an eye out for them basking in small pools, marshes, and other wetlands on rocks, logs, and along the shoreline.

The reason these turtles are called spotted turtles is obvious when you see one – the black carapace (upper shell) and skin are covered in small, round yellow dots. This color pattern could reduce the turtle’s likelihood of capture since it resembles the floating duckweed present in many frequently used habitats. This camouflaging pattern makes it difficult to find spotted turtles when they are in the water.

Spotted turtles are thought to be declining throughout their range, and there are several threats that may be contributing to the decline. These turtles can experience high mortality from crossing roads as they move between wetlands during the spring and in search of nesting and upland summer locations.  (Beaudry et al. 2009, Ernst and Lovich 2009).

Nesting female mortality is especially bad for spotted turtle populations, since it can take 10-15 years before a female is old enough to reproduce.

Spotted turtles can live over 40 years, so once a female reaches reproductive age it has many years of egg laying ahead. Turtle eggs and juveniles have a high mortality rate, so it is important to keep these older females around to keep producing eggs, only a small fraction of which will reach adulthood.

A spotted turtle shows its distinctive yellow markings. (Photo Credit- Jesse W. Jaycox)
The bottom shell, or plastron, l of a spotted turtle. (Photo Credit- Jesse W. Jaycox)

One important habitat requirement of spotted turtles is relatively shallow, clear, and clean water with a soft, muddy bottom (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009). They will spend most of the spring within these wetland habitats, until females travel to find a nesting site in early June.

Spotted turtles will practice estivation, a period of dormancy during high temperatures, by retreating into the muck at the bottom of wetlands, into muskrat burrows, or under vegetation in the surrounding uplands during the warm summer months when many wetlands are drying up (Gibbs et al. 2007, Ernst and Lovich 2009, Joyal et al. 2001, Milam and Melvin 2001).

Learn about the distribution of spotted turtles at Nature Serve.

Other threats spotted turtles face are collection for the pet trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive plants, and predators (Ernst and Lovich 2009, NYSDEC 2020). Spotted turtles are a target for the commercial pet trade (CITES 2013) due to their small size and attractive coloring.

Habitat loss and invasive plants encroaching on wetland habitats can reduce the amount of suitable habitat these turtles have available to use throughout the year. They need upland buffers around wetland habitats for nesting, movement between wetlands, and summer estivation (Milam and Melvin 2001), and these habitats are frequently fragmented by development and roads.

What can you do to help protect these cryptic little turtles? If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a spotted turtle in the wild, admire it from afar and leave it undisturbed. All native species of turtles in New York are protected and cannot be collected without a permit.

If you happen to see one crossing the road, pull over in a safe place and help it along. Make sure to move the turtle to the side of the road that it was facing, otherwise it will just turn around and cross the road again!

A researcher holds a juvenile spotted turtle. (Photo Credit- Matthew D. Schlesinger)

Cover Photo- Wikipedia Commons

Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program

References

https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/44388.html

https://guides.nynhp.org/spotted-turtle/

Ernst. C. H., and J. E. Lovich. 2009. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Second edition, revised and updated. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. xii + 827 pp.

Beaudry, Frederic, Phillip G. deMaynadier, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2009. Seasonally dynamic habitat use by spotted (Clemmys guttata) and Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) in Maine. Journal of Herpetology 43:636-645.

Gibbs, J.P., A.R. Breisch, P.K. Ducey, G. Johnson, J.L. Behler, and R.C. Bothner. 2007. The amphibians and reptiles of New York State. Oxford University Press, NY.

Joyal, Lisa A., Mark McCollough, and Malcolm L. Hunter Jr. 2001. Landscape ecology approaches to wetlands species conservation: A case study of two turtle species in souther Maine. Conservation Biology. 15(6): 1755-1762.

Milam, J. C., and S. M. Melvin. 2001. Density, habitat use, movements, and conservation of spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) in Massachusetts. Journal of Herpetology 35:418-427.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 2020. Spotted turtle fact sheet. Available https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7150.html. (Data accessed March 2020).

Parks Cave As Sanctuary for Embattled Bats

More than a decade after a devastating, bat-killing fungus was first discovered at a State Parks cave in the Capital Region before sweeping across half of the U.S., that same cave now offers a glimmer of hope for some survivors.

Hailes Cave stretches for nearly a mile beneath the 100 million-year-old limestone escarpment at Thacher State Park in the rural western portion of Albany County. It was in this cave, long an important winter hibernation site for thousands of bats, that state wildlife biologists in 2007 observed the first cases of what was later known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

This fungal disorder kills bats by infecting their skin, disturbing their hibernation, exhausting critical fat reserves needed for winter survival, and rousting them early from caves to starve without insects to eat. WNS has swept out since in all directions, killing millions of bats in 32 states and seven Canadian provinces

“White nose” refers to a ring of white fungus seen on the nose of affected bats, and which can spread to the rest of its body. The fungus originates in Europe and Asia, where native bats have developed a resistance to it.

Map shows how White Nose Syndrome has spread since its first discovery 2007 in Hailes Cave in Thacher Thacher State Park. Click here to see an animation of this map. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

With bat populations exposed to WNS in the U.S. plummeting by 90 percent or more, the outlook has been uniformly bleak for more than a decade, since there are no known methods of treating infected bats or eliminating the cave-dwelling fungus, identified as Pseudogyymnoascus destructans.

Some Bats Fending Off White Nose Syndrome

But now, it appears that a certain species of bat – the little brown bat, or Myotis lucifugus – is evolving its own natural resistance to better survive the fungal infections, according to a December 2019 study of hibernating bats in a former cement mine in Ulster County in the Hudson Valley. (The location of this mine is not revealed to reduce the risk of human intrusion, which can reduce the bats’ potential for survival.)

Little brown bats cling to the ceiling at Hailes Cave during their hibernation. This is when bats enter a episodic state called “torpor,” in which their metabolism slows. Torpor allows the tiny mammals to sustain critical levels of body fat reserves needed to survive hibernation until springtime, when they can emerge and find insects to eat. (Photo Credit- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)
A little brown bat infected with the white fungus around its nose and face. The fungus can also spread to other parts of the bat’s body, and disrupts the bat’s period of torpor, causing it to use critical body fat reserved critical to surviving hibernation. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation).
State Parks biologist Casey Holzworth checks cracks and crevices for hibernating bats during a 2015 visit to Hailes Cave to count the bat population. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

The recent study is co-authored by Carl Herzog, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC); Craig L. Frank, with the Department of Biological Sciences at Fordham University, and April D. Davis, with the Griffin Laboratory at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany.

Historically, Hailes Cave has been a critical statewide cave for hibernating bats. Caves provide a constant temperature above freezing all winter long that allows bats to hibernate until spring, and as such, is called a hibernaculum. During this period, bats are in a state called torpor, in which their bodily functions slow dramatically, allowing them to slowly draw down a reserve of body fat needed to survive until spring, when insects return as a food supply.

Hailes Cave can be tight quarters. State researchers crawl on their hands and knees to reach the bat hibernaculum. Read Parks’ staffer Emily DeBolt’s account of the 2015 visit here. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

Hailes Cave Shows Rebound in Bat Population

Researchers have found that the numbers of bats hibernating at Hailes Cave, which plummeted after the onset of WNS to a low of about 1,200 bats by 2010, have been steadily rebounding, and by 2019 totaled about 7,200 animals. Before the fungus arrived, however, bat populations at Hailes were at least double this level. Bat populations at the Ulster County hibernaculum also increased significantly during that same period.

Most importantly, the recent study found that little brown bats at the Ulster County site are somehow developing a natural resistance to the fungal infection, so that an increasing number of bats get only a moderate infection, or perhaps no infection at all, even though the fungus is present in the cave. And this resistance appears to be behind the increased population at Hailes Cave.


“Clearly, Hailes Cave provides what little brown bats need, but exactly what those factors are is a subject of some speculation… there is some research suggesting that caves draw bats from a geographically larger summer range than mines, because caves have been available for thousands of years, whereas most mines only became available in the 20th century.”

DEC Wildlife Biologist Carl Herzog

Normally, bats wake from torpor during hibernation about once every three weeks. Bats infected with WNS were waking up every week and using up precious calories in the winter months, causing them to leave caves early and die of starvation. Now, little brown bats are waking up an average of once every two weeks, the study found.

This allows these bats remain in hibernation longer and retain sufficient fat reserves needed to survive until spring. Exactly how the little brown bats are developing this resistance to WNS is still unknown.

However, this encouraging evolutionary adaptation applies only to little brown bats, meaning that other bat species found at Hailes Cave, including the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) are so far demonstrating no such defense, and their numbers are not rebounding.

The resurgence in the little brown bat at Hailes is also tempered by the fact that this species has not rebounded at other bat caves surveyed by state wildlife officials in Albany and Schoharie counties. This implies that surviving WNS-resistant bats from around the region might be congregating in Hailes for reasons as yet unknown. Brown bats can travel many miles from their summer ranges to ar hibernaculum, with the record for a little brown bat being a journey of 300 miles.

But for now, the study is a small bit of hope in a story that so far has been very grim.

State Parks, DEC and Cave Explorers Group Work Together To Protect Hailes Cave

In 2013, to protect the remaining beleaguered bats at Hailes from being disturbed by human intruders, crews from Thacher State Park, DEC and the Schoharie-based, not-for-profit Northeastern Cave Conservancy installed a two-ton steel “bat gate” near the Hailes entrance. The gate has bars that allow bats to come and go, but blocks human entry.

Crews haul steel bars for the construction of the “bat gate” inside the entrance to Hailes Cave. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)
The “bat gate” is welded into position. (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

Read this 2014 account in the New York State Parks blog about the gate project…

State Parks crews at Thacher keep an eye on the cave to ensure the gate remains in place to deter trespassers. When crews last spring noticed that some emerging bats died after becoming trapped in burdock patches near the mouth of the cave, those plants were cut away.

Every entry by people into a hibernaculum while the bats are present is likely to cause harm to the bats. It is illegal to enter most active bat hibernation sites in New York. To help the bats, people must stay away to prevent spread of WNS and to not disturb the bats.

Hailes Cave is among the largest bat hibernation caves in New York, and plays an important role in supporting our remaining bats. This cave, along with the Ulster County mine site, is now also giving us insight into how this tiny mammal appears capable of a rapid evolutionary response to a fungal attacker, which may help it to survive as a species.


Post by Brian Nearing, State Parks Deputy Public Information Officer

Cover Shot: Little brown bats cling to the ceiling at Hailes Cave (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)

What Can You Do To Help Bats?

  • Build a bat house for their use during the summer season.
  • Reduce your use of pesticides and more, based on these tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For More Information

Read the Bats of New York brochure; some of these bats are rarer than they were when brochure was created.

New York Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guides, which cover seven of the nine species of bats found in NY.