Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

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.

Growing the Future in Gilded Age Greenhouses

State Parks contain a diversity of habitats, from forest and fields, to shrub swamp, marshes and streams. All these landscapes support a wide variety of native plants.

As part of efforts at Parks to restore land and protect biodiversity, it is important to have the right plants for the right habitats in order to support healthy ecological function, provide critical habitat for wildlife and reduce the threat from invasive species.

Such projects require a source of plants that are native to the area. Since it can be difficult to find such plants commercially, the Plant Materials Program was started at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in 2016.

This program was created by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team, which was working at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ontario County, to restore a grassland habitat critical for endangered birds. And the job called for 200 different species of native plants.

Since then, such plants have been grown in the Sonnenberg’s historic greenhouses in Canandaigua, at the north end of its namesake lake in the Finger Lakes region, to cover parks projects in the eastern part of New York. Many of the Sonnenberg greenhouses had been vacant for years, so this was a perfect match for the facility.

Seedings for native plants, grown from seeds hand-collected in the field by State Parks staffers at the Plant Materials Program, fill the greenhouses at Sonnenberg.

Plant Materials Program Coordinator Brigitte Wierzbicki, Lead Technician David Rutherford and technician Elizabeth Padgett, supported by seasonal staff, partners, and interns, run the program. To fill orders, they identify native species in the field, sustainably collect seeds, propagate those seeds in the greenhouses, and deliver plants back to project sites.

Now in its fourth year, the Ganondagan project aims to recreate the oak savanna grasslands found there in the 1600’s, when the land was managed by the Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) people. This last season, the Plant Materials Program provided more than 5,000 plants towards this project, and over 100 pounds of hand-collected seed have been sown on site.

Currently, the Plant Materials Program provides for environmental stewardship projects across six State Park regions of the state, from the Finger Lakes Region and eastward to the Taconic Region. The program also works with Parks Western District Nursery and its Native Landscape Resource Center, managed by Kevin McNallie at Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, which provides native plantings for the western regions of the state.

Additional guidance on plant suitability for specific habitats or sites is provided by NY Natural Heritage Program.

Why Native Plants?

A wealth of literature points to native plants and species diversity as critical factors for successful restoration. Native plantings are better able to compete against invasive species than non-native plants. Planting more native species also increases both plant and animal diversity. Ensuring that plants are not only native, but regionally appropriate and genetically diverse increases the likelihood that the plantings will be successful and contribute to their local ecosystem.

Plant Materials Program staff search for wild, naturally-occurring populations for each project within the same ecoregion. Ecoregions are zones defined by their plants, soil, geography, geology, climate, and more. Plants that live in the same ecoregion have adaptations that help each species survive in those precise conditions, so seed has the best chance of survival if it is replanted within that zone.

New York State is split into 42 different ecoregions, with each region warranting a different seed collection so that seed is often not shared across projects. In the Sonnenberg greenhouses, plants are not allowed to hybridize (or cross-pollinate) with plants from other regions. Preserving the plant genetics of each ecoregion is important to maintain each unique habitat.

Science of Collecting Native Seeds

Seed collection involves more than just taking a seed from a plant. Our collectors ensure collections aren’t harming the population. Only a small fraction of seed is taken from each plant, so that enough seed remains to support that population, and to serve as food for insects and other animals.

Populations of a plant must be large enough to support seed collection. Areas are monitored before and after collection, and they are not collected from again for multiple years. The conservation of intact ecosystems is more effective than planting and restoring ecosystems, so it is important that seeds are collected in a way that protects existing plant populations.

Measures are also taken to capture genetic diversity, including collecting multiple times a season and using field techniques to collect evenly or randomly across a population. Collectors avoid selecting for specific traits, as that can reduce a population’s ability to adapt, and can in turn negatively impact other populations.

Native Plants Help an Endangered Butterfly

In the Capital Region, the Plant Materials Program collects wildflower seed to support Parks Stewardship staff in restoring rare butterfly habitat. Saratoga Spa State Park is home to the state and federally-endangered, and globally-rare Karner blue butterfly. This small butterfly lives in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and during its caterpillar stage, it feeds on only one wildflower: the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis).

Blue Lupine. (Photo Credit- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Karner blue butterfly on lupine. (Photo credit- C. Voight)

Picking seeds from the right lupine plants is extremely important, as the chemical makeup of lupine has been shown to vary across the range of the species. Introducing a new strain of lupine might be harmful or even toxic for the butterflies. For example, the same species of lupine growing in another state could be different enough from the ones growing at Saratoga Spa State Park that, if planted there, could be toxic to the Karner blue butterflies living in the park.

A 2015 study found that survival and development of the Karner blue was linked to which lupines caterpillars had fed upon. Expanding lupine at Saratoga Spa through local seed is the safest option to protect the unique genetics of both the butterflies and lupine.

New Life for Sonnenberg’s Historic Greenhouses

Each spring, the Plant Materials Program grows a new cycle of plants in Sonnenberg’s historic Lord & Burnham greenhouses. These are greenhouses which date back to the Gilded Age of the early 1900s and reflect the botanical passions of the home’s original residents, Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, two prominent philanthropists.

The historic greenhouse complex at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. (Photo Credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion)
One of the greenhouses that is currently under restoration. A not-for-profit group that manages the site is fundraising to help support such work. (Photo credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion).

At the time of construction between 1903 and 1915, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg reflected state-of-the-art technology. Only a handful of other such Lord & Burnham structures survive today, with some major examples found at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

The federal government acquired the Sonnenberg grounds in 1931 and passed it to a not-for-profit preservation organization in 1972. State Parks bought the property in 2005, while the not-for-profit group continues to manage it and raise funds to support the restoration of these historically-significant greenhouses.

This 50-acre estate and its greenhouses, gardens, and Queen Anne-style mansion are all open to the public from May through October. A portion of the greenhouses interprets the legacy of the site, including a palm house, orchid house, and cactus house.

Patrons can tour the greenhouses utilized by the Plant Materials Program and learn about the thousands of plants grown for restoration of native ecosystems. Housing the program at Sonnenberg expands the interpretative value for park visitors and supports the restoration of these historic structures.

During this long winter, know that the next generation of native plants for New York State Parks projects is being nurtured in a historic greenhouse complex that dates to the Gilded Age, and come spring, will be ready to preserve and protect some of our most precious places.

Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in winter. The site is open May 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

Post by Brigitte Wierzbicki, Plant Materials Program Coordinator

Cover photo by Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Site


Consider Native Species When Planting At Home

  •  Check if you have natives already coming up in your garden or yard. It is likely that you already have some native plants that are providing habitat, and these will be best adapted to your local ecosystem. Use indentification resources to see what is from NY or New England. Apps like iNaturalist, online guides like GoBotany, or field guides like Newcomb’s (Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb) are great resources for getting started.

  • Native Plantfinder is a great resource to choose which plants are native to your zip code! It also ranks plants based on the number of native butterflies and moths that can use the plants—meaning you will be bringing in more wildlife into your garden including pollinators and birds. It is still in development and only a small fraction of these will be available commercially, so double check your favorites with what’s available.
  • Use the New York Flora Atlas to ensure the plant you’re interested in is native to the state. Even better if it’s native to the county you’re planting in!
  • Utilize the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Saratoga Tree Nursery. The 2020 Seedling Sale is currently ongoing and is an affordable way to purchase native plants and support environmental conservation work in the state.
  • Check out the Native Plant Nursery Directory to find your local native plant nursery. Request that your local garden center carries native plants, and ideally, ones that are from New York. Often the native species in nurseries are sourced from outside of New York, or even the southern U.S. These won’t be as well adapted to New York.
  • Avoid cultivars of native species. You may find some natives in nurseries with different names signifying they have been bred for different colors or flower shapes. These changes can reduce the ecosystem function of the plants, or even populations beyond your garden if they are able to breed. Our native species evolved with the native pollinators, and changes can make the plants completely unusable for native pollinators.
  • Do not collect from the wild for your garden. Taking from the wild can be more damaging to the ecosystem than the benefit that it may bring to your garden. Collecting from the wild is also often illegal. Many factors need to be considered for safe harvests, and many of our plant populations are experiencing declines due to development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, deer overabundance, climate change, and more. It can be hard to know if the seeds you’re taking will damage the population or remove a critical food source, so don’t take the risk!

References

Bakker, J.D. & Wilson, S.D. (2004) Using ecological restoration to constrain biological invasion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41, 1058–1064.

Fargione, J.E. & Tilman, D. (2005) Diversity decreases invasion via both sampling and complementarity effects. Ecology Letters, 8, 604–611.

Handel, K. (2015) Testing local adaptation of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) to its single host plant the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation).

Hereford J. 2009. A quantitative survey of local adaptation and fitness trade-offs. American Naturalist 173:579-588.

Johnson R, Stritch L, Olwell P, Lambert S, Horning ME, Cronn R. 2010. What are the best seed sources for ecosystem restoration on BLM and USFS lands? Native Plants Journal 11(2): 117-131.

Kline, V.M. (1997) Orchards of oak and a sea of grass. In: Packard, S.; Mutel, C.F., editors. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Washington, DC: Island Press:3-21.

Omernik, J. M. (1987). Ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Annals of the Association of American geographers77(1), 118-125.

Plant Conservation Alliance, P. (2015). National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration 2015-2020. Bureau of Land Management. Available at: https://www. blm. gov/programs/natural-resources/native-plant-communities/national-seed-strategy.

Cake Trees And Clermont

“Can we plant a cake tree?”

The question caught me off guard.

“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”

It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.

I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.

“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.

 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”

“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”

I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.

Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.

Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Clermont in the 1890s.

Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.

Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.

To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.

It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.

Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.

It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 

Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.

Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.

We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.

We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 

After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.

This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.

And to dream more dreams of cake trees.


Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.

All photographs provided by New York State Parks

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year.

Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, with as many as 100,000 gulls stopping over the river during the winter and fall.

The river is attractive to gulls because it offers them food and shelter, and serves as a rest stop for long migrations from the arctic to the Atlantic coast. As well as providing plenty of small fish, the area also serves as protection from storms that can affect the Great Lakes during the wintertime.

Created in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of visitors annual drawn by the immense power and beauty of the thundering cataracts. Looking down from the edge of Niagara Gorge in autumn or winter, the air above the turbulent waters is at times white with wheeling and diving gulls.

In recognition of the river’s important habitat for feeding, nesting, wintering, and during migration, it has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.

Just down the river, Fort Niagara State Park on Lake Ontario also is recognized as part of this area.


“The site is particularly noteworthy as a migratory stopover and wintering site for Bonaparte’s Gulls, with one-day counts ranging from 10,000-50,000 individuals (2-10% of the world population). One-day Ring-billed Gull counts vary from 10,000-20,000, and one-day Herring Gull counts vary from 10,000-50,000. The river also hosts a remarkable diversity and abundance of waterfowl.”

Audubon Society on Important Bird Area in Niagara River Corridor

These gull populations peak in the winter, so going bird-watching is a great way to get outdoors during the cold season and see yet another wonder that the falls, the river and this region have to offer.

If you choose to go birding along the river this season, here are some gulls you might end up seeing:

Bonaparte’s Gull

A nonbreeding Bonaparte’s Gull in flight. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)
A breeding adult Bonaparte Gull, with its distinctive black head. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Bonaparte’s Gull is a small gull with a white underbelly, grey back, and thin, black beak. The top outer parts of its wings have wedges of white edged in black. Breeding adults have black heads but nonbreeding and young gulls have a white head with a dark smudge behind its eye. These gulls like to winter near people and, in fact, are the only gulls that regularly nest in trees!

Ring-Billed Gull

A Ring-Bill Gull stands on a rock. (Credit-State Parks)

Ring-Billed Gulls have yellow beaks with a black band, or ‘ring’, encircling it. The breeding adult has a gray back and black wingtips. In the winter, these birds develop tan streaking across the head. These yellow-legged birds may be found further inland.

Herring Gull

An adult Herring Gull. (Credit-State Parks)

Herring Gulls are on the larger side and are much like the quintessential seagull. They have yellow eyes, pale pink legs, and a red spot on the bottom of their yellow beaks. An adult has a grey mantle and black wingtips, much like the Ring-Billed Gull. These birds start of uniformly dark and then get paler and they grow older, their plumages varying over their first four years. Herring Gulls may be found year-round along the Niagara.

Great Black-Backed Gull

A Great Blacked-Back Gull in flght. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

The Great Black-Backed Gull is the world’s largest gull! It has black wings and mantle, a white underside as an adult, and red rings around its eyes. Like the Herring Hull, younger birds’ plumages change as they age; the younger Great Black-Backed Gulls can be differentiated because of higher contrast in their colors than the young Herring Gull. These gulls come to Niagara from the East Coast.

Iceland Gull

An iceland Gull in flight. (Credit-Audubon Society)

Iceland Gulls are slightly smaller than Herring Gulls. These gulls, when adults, have a pale gray mantle and wingtips that can vary in color, from white in the east to black in the west. The darker winged gulls used to be labeled ‘Thayer’s gulls’ and considered a different species, but the two were combined in 2017. These gulls come to Niagara from the Arctic.

Sabine’s Gull

A Sabine’s Gull in flight (Credit-Audubon Society)

This small gull has a spectacular wing pattern, long pointed wings, a notched tail, and a short black bill with a yellow tip . Generally a prized sighting for birders, because it nests on tundra of the high Arctic and migrates south at sea, often well offshore. Those from eastern Canada and Greenland mostly migrate eastward across North Atlantic and then south.

These are just six of the 19 different species of gulls have been spotted here. So, grab your binoculars and see for yourself!


Sources:

Cover Photo: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Audubon Society of New York: https://ny.audubon.org/

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Important Bird Areas of Canada: https://www.ibacanada.com/

Hope Takes Wing for Endangered Bird

Here in New York, we have residents nicknamed ‘snow birds’: People who enjoy summers on New York’s beaches, but escape our harsh winters by traveling south to Florida. Making that journey right along with them is another species of beach bum — the small, endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover.

Usually weighing about two ounces or less, the Piping Plover is a tiny bird that is undeniably and objectively cute; just ask anyone that is working to restore the population. It’s a bird that’s easy to fall in love with but that requires hard work to recover.

There are three distinct populations of Piping Plover: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, which both breed in New York State, and the Great Plains. Due to shoreline habitat loss and disturbance, all three populations significantly declined in the mid-twentieth century, leading to their listing under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (Atlantic and Great Plains populations) and endangered (Great Lakes population) in 1986.

The recovery of the Piping Plover has been a slow and intensive process. At the time of listing, the endangered Great Lakes population had only an estimated 17 breeding pairs — with no birds nesting on the Great Lakes shores of New York. For 29 years, no plover nests had been seen on New York’s lake shores.

Finally, in 2015 a pair of Piping Plovers showed up on the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in and around Sandy Island Beach State Park in Oswego County.

Sandy Island Beach State Park is located on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. (Credit: Google Maps)

New York State Parks and Department of Environmental Conservation employees, Audubon New York employees, and volunteers teamed up to monitor the plovers and reduce disturbances from humans and predators in hopes that the birds would stick around and raise their young.

Although the birds were not successful that year, plovers kept returning each summer to the State Park, and in 2018 and again in 2019, were able to raise chicks

These adult Piping Plovers, banded with orange flags on their legs, successfully nested at Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. The male plover (right), can be distinguished from the female by its bolder brow and neck bands.

Throughout the spring and summer months when Piping Plovers are found at breeding sites, shorebird technicians monitor nests and chicks until young birds are fledged, meaning they are capable of sustaining flight. Researchers also band as many plovers as they can in the Great Lakes. Used for identification, bird banding is a common research practice, and is an extremely useful tool in understanding behavior, life expectancy, population sizes, and migrations of birds.

Above: A trained and licensed bander prepares to apply unique bands to a chick in 2018. Below: In 2018, the Piping Plover chicks had Lord of the Rings-inspired nicknames: Frodo (right) and Pippin (left) show off their new bands as they scurry back to their nearby parents. Photo Credit: Tom Morrissette.

For endangered populations, banding can provide essential information about site use that can guide future conservation in both breeding and wintering grounds. For the plovers at Sandy Island Beach State Park, bird banding helped researchers track two fledglings after migration, one to Georgia in 2018 and another to Florida in 2019. These were the first Great Lakes fledglings from New York to be spotted in their wintering grounds in the south.

The young birds are each marked with a unique combination of bands, like name tags, which allows staff to identify individual birds and assign fun nicknames to the newly hatched chicks. The fledge sighted in Georgia in 2018 was named Gimli, and our 2019 fledge, affectionately nicknamed Chewie (proper name Chewbacca) was spotted in Florida soon after it had left New York. The first fledge from the Great Lakes seen on wintering grounds in 2019, little Chewie had made the nearly 1,300-mile journey in only three to four days!

Chewie (background) and its sibling, Yoda (foreground) both successfully fledged from Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. They can be distinguished by the unique combination of colored bands on their legs.

This feat is no small matter, as plovers face many challenges before the eggs have even hatched. Coastal development has reduced available nesting habitat, and the open sand suitable for nesting is also the most desirable location for human recreation. Conflict with humans can lead to birds abandoning territory, nesting attempts, and even viable eggs. If a nest can be established, the threat of predation now looms.

Piping Plovers lay their eggs in the sand. These nests generally contain four eggs, and the adults often spend time “decorating” the nests with delicate rocks and shell fragments.

Plovers lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow depressions, called scrapes, on sparsely vegetated sand. This makes it easy for plovers to spot predators, but also provides no protection from critters that discover the nests. Therefore, it is common for shorebird stewards to build an exclosure around the nest. This is a fence with spaces large enough for plovers to pass through, but small enough to prevent predators from reaching the eggs (click here to learn more about the work of State Parks Plover Stewards). This can prevent eggs from becoming a meal for foxes, crows, gulls and other predators, but still does not guarantee hatching. Their beach home can get flooded by high water levels and the exposed sand can become very hot.

Still, Piping Plovers are adapted to these conditions and are dedicated and attentive parents. Exclosed nests have a high chance of reaching their hatch date.

The new chicks hatched safely within the wire of the predator exclosure that was placed around the nest. But they won’t stay in there for long!

But our small friends are not in the clear yet! The chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The highly mobile chicks obtain food on their own under the watchful eyes of their parents, but constant running can easily exhaust the hatchlings and makes them an easy target for predators.

Combined with the stressors of human recreation, it truly becomes a miracle to reach fledging age. Humans can disturb plovers, often unintentionally, by scaring adults off nests, preventing adults and young from feeding near the water, or even accidentally stepping on nests and eggs. Remember that these birds are very small with feathers and eggs that are well camouflaged for sandy beaches, so be sure to keep an eye out when visiting beaches with designated nesting areas!

It should be no surprise to learn that, on average, for every pair of plovers only about one chick typically survives to fledging. This one fledgling must then face a long journey south to wintering grounds on their own. That two young birds, including Chewie, were raised at Sandy Island Beach State Park and made it to their winter homes was a good sign. Continued monitoring in New York will tell us whether these plovers return to raise their own young.

This map shows the typical migration routes for all three populations of Piping Plover. Credit: Illustration by Megan Bishop/Cornell Lab of Ornithology and accessed via Facebook page for Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort.

From egg-laying and hatching to fledging and migrating, Piping Plovers face threats and obstacles at every turn. Since the return of the Piping Plovers to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there have been six successful fledges from Sandy Island Beach State Park. Until we know if the young survived their first migration south, it can be difficult to gauge the success of the recovery plan. Therefore, this incredible flight of young Chewie, documented by its unique bands, is a symbol of success and high hopes for the ongoing efforts to recover the population of this charismatic shorebird.


Post by Lindsey DeLuna, OPRHP Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member

Cover Photo: The fledgling from Sandy Island Beach State Park, nicknamed “Chewbacca,” after his arrival at a Florida beach in early August 2019. Photo Credit: Wendy Meehan.

To learn more about Piping Plover banding and how to report sightings, follow the links below:

https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/reporting-plover-observations

https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/report_bands.html

All photos, unless otherwise stated, were provided courtesy of Alivia Sheffield, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator at Sandy Island Beach State Park and a trained staff member. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe distance, and never approach nests or chicks.