Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

What to do with a Thousand Acres of Swallow-wort?

With 80-foot cliffs overlooking eastern Lake Ontario, 14 miles of hiking trails, a dog park, a state-of-the-art playground, a residential cottage that sleeps eight, and a globally rare ecosystem, Robert G. Wehle State Park is a gem.

This striking landscape also has a military history of helping to defend the country. Between 1895 and 1947 before it was a park, the U.S. military used this property as training grounds. The park includes remnants of the Stony Point Rifle Range, where soldiers trained for combat, as well as shoreline concrete observer posts where spotters oversaw aerial gunnery target practice.

In 1963, the U.S. Army sold this land to Louis Wehle, founder of the post-Prohibition Genesee brewery, and Thomas Nagle, a Rochester car dealer. In succeeding years, Wehle and his son, Robert, maintained the property as a cattle farm, game preserve, and rural retreat for raising of internationally-renowned hunting dogs . After Robert Wehle’s death in 2002, the state Department of Environmental Conservation acquired the land, later passing it State Parks to establish as Robert G. Wehle State Park in 2003.

Click on this slideshow below for scenery at the park:

But visitors to this park may notice something else beyond its beauty _ large areas overrun by a strange, twining vine that seems to grow everywhere that is not mowed lawn, leaving few if any other plants surviving. Before his death, Robert Wehle was trying, with limited success, to control this invasive plant, known as pale swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum rossicum).

Now, decades after it was used to help train soldiers, this park is again on the front lines of a new mission: To be part of a campaign to learn whether a small moth found in Europe and Asia can help fight this invading perennial plant, which has spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Pale swallow-wort at the entrance to Robert G. Wehle State Park in Jefferson County. The plant has begun to turn yellow at the end of the summer.


But first, what is this aggressive interloper that drives out other plants wherever it spreads?

Also given the ominous name of “dog-strangling vine,” pale swallow-wort is a native of Ukraine that was introduced to North America in the mid- to late-1800s as an ornamental vine in herbariums and greenhouses. Once here, it began expanding into old fields, pastures, and woodland understories. Pale swallow-wort wipes out native plants in its path due to its vast root system, immense seed production and seed dispersal method (seeds look similar to milkweed seeds and can float far away in the wind), and the production of allelochemicals that inhibit growth of other nearby plants and protect it from grazing animals. Whitetail deer, which will eat most plants, avoid it.

Pale swallow-wort also poses a threat to New York’s population of native Monarch butterflies, which require milkweed to reproduce. Monarchs are known to confuse swallow-wort with milkweed and lay their eggs on it. Due to the chemical composition of swallow-wort, Monarch larvae that feed on the plant usually don’t survive.

All of these traits combine to create the ‘perfect’ invasive species and a land manager’s worst nightmare. So, what has been done and what is still being done to control this tenacious weed?

Robert Wehle noticed this plant on his property, according to anecdotal accounts. The cattle herds that he kept could have suppressed the plant’s invasion in pastures through grazing and trampling.  Wehle also utilized fire management to maintain some fields, which could have held swallow-wort at bay temporarily. Records also indicate he tried chemical herbicides to control swallow-wort infestation. This suggests that, like subsequent scientific studies conducted have shown, that Wehle found grazing and burning were not effective control techniques. 

After the land became a State Park, grazing, burning, and chemicals were no longer done.  Instead, staff began mowing areas around the entrance, maintenance shop, parking lots, rental compound, and trails frequently, which cuts back swallow-wort before it matures enough to produce seeds. But only so much mowing could be done on a 1,100-acre property.

Where mowing stops at Robert G. Wehle State Park, pale swalow-wort often begins.
Pale swallow-wort along trails in the park, above and below. The plant turns yellow in the fall.
The flowers of pale swallow-wort.

A plan to address this issue was adopted in 2010 by State Parks, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The first step was to raise public awareness of the problem. Interpretive signage was installed at most trailheads throughout the park to inform visitors. Boot brush stations were placed at the entrance/exit to the park for patrons to clean off their footwear to limit the spread of swallow-wort and its seeds off the property . The feathery seeds can easily stick to shoes, clothing and even the fur of dogs being walked.

That same year, State Parks hired an excavation company to carry out an experiment that may show promise for restoring degraded portions of Wehle’s globally rare Alvar ecosystem. Alvar is a grass- and sedge-dominated community, with scattered shrubs and sometimes trees. The community occurs on broad, flat expanses of calcareous bedrock, like limestone or dolostone, covered by a thin veneer of mineral soil.

Using a skid steer in selected areas, crews scraped away soil containing swallow-wort roots from limestone bedrock. Once most of the soil was gone, swallow-wort could not take root on bare rock. The areaa was then reseeded with native species. Other native plants showed up on their own, freed from the smothering competition from the swallow-wort. But these efforts could not be used everywhere in the park.

An area of the park reclaimed from pale swallow-wort by scraping off soil and later reseeding it with native plants.
In addition to the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence regions, pale swallow-wort is found in other areas of the state, including the Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley. (Photo credit – New York State Invasive Species Information, http://nyis.info/)

Where does the moth come into this ongoing effort? For the last two years, Parks and its partners at Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Wells College, SUNY Cortland, and the University of Rhode Island have been using Robert G. Wehle State Park to study the viability of Hypena opulenta moths to suppress this invader.

This approach – the use of a natural enemy to deal with an invasive species – is known as biocontrol. In order to ensure that a new introduced species will not negatively impact other plants and animals, the effects must be extensively studied before any widespread use or release can be permitted. It cannot be overstated how extensively biocontrols are scrutinized before potential approval for release. Study can continue for years or even decades. Only after research confirms there will be little or little to no impacts to native species will federal regulators approve the biocontrol to be released.

In this case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2017 approved the release of the moths for field testing as biocontrol for pale swallow-wort. After the moths lay eggs on the swallow-wort, the larvae that later emerge eat the plant’s leaves.

For the last two seasons, Hypena moths were placed in cages in areas of swallow-wort at Robert G. Wehle State Park, as well on as nearby Grenadier Island in Lake Ontario off Cape Vincent. The cages ensured that the moths would be confined to the test areas.

Results from 2020 showed promise as one cage showed 100 percent defoliation of swallow-wort within four weeks by the caterpillars. Preliminary results from this year were not as successful. However, this is all part of the scientific process as the battle against the invasive continues with Robert G. Wehle State Park playing its part.

A Hypena opulenta moth inside the mesh cage over a patch of pale swallow-wort. The moth will lay its eggs on the plants.
After eggs hatch, the emerging caterpillars begin eating the plant leaves.
After four weeks, the caterpillars have eaten all the leaves in this cage. (All photos above credited to the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.)

Hopefully one day we can say the tide is turning. Eradication is likely not possible, but containment could give native plants a better chance at a peaceful co-existence. If you visit the park, remember: Use the bootbrushes and check your clothes! Don’t inadvertently spread the ‘perfect invasive.’


Cover Shot – A pale swallow-wort infestation at Robert G. Wehle State Park. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Pete Zimmer, Stewardship Specialist, Mid-State Capital District/Thousand Islands Region, NYS Parks



Resources


Learn more about the biocontrol project from the report below by the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management:

More information is also available from the New York State Invasive Species Research Institute.


The 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture also describes early efforts to contain pale swallow-wort.

The Life and Times of Gonzo the Black Vulture

On July 22, 1997, Gonzo the Black Vulture stepped timidly onto northern soil for the first time at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Valley. Born five years earlier at the Memphis Zoo, and later transferred to the Nashville Zoo, where he served as and education ambassador, Gonzo had made a northbound journey many members of his species would later take.

Early on in his career, Gonzo had developed a significant droop in his left wing, prompting surgery for a partial amputation to aid in his mobility. During his surgery, veterinarians discovered that Gonzo also suffered an irregular heartbeat.  While it would be an early retirement from commercial zoo life, Gonzo would not be arriving alone in New York’s strange and unfamiliar landscape.

Gonzo in his enclosure at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.

Like Gonzo himself, black vultures are historically southerners. They are a neotropical species ranging from South America to Virginia, which remained the case up to the mid-20th century. However, beginning in the 1980’s and increasingly ever since, black vultures have been engaging in a northward expansion.

Sixteen years prior to Gonzo’s arrival at Trailside, the first ever black vulture was recorded in New York state at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on November 1, 1981 by Dan Smiley, a resident naturalist at the nearby Mohonk Preserve.  In 1997, the same year as Gonzo’s arrival, the first black vulture “nest” was recorded nearby on the eastern side of Bonticou Crag in Ulster County by Joe Bridges, a research associate with the Mohonk Preserve. The term “nest” is to be taken lightly, as black vultures aren’t much for creature comforts.  Like all new world vulture species, black vultures forego building nests instead opting for hard-to-reach rocky crags and recesses in caves, hollow logs, brush piles, thickets, and abandoned buildings to lay their clutch of eggs.

For Gonzo’s first years at Trailside, his neighbors outside his enclosure would consist primarily of his slightly larger and keen-smelling counterpart, the turkey vulture, which was the dominant vulture species in the Hudson Highlands at the time. Black vultures such as Gonzo lack the turkey vulture’s sense of smell, instead relying their sharp eyesight while coasting thermals to forage for meals.  Unable to smell carrion, black vultures have adapted a new strategy, relying instead on turkey vultures to do the work for them.  To find food, all black vultures need to do is keep an eye on the lower-soaring turkey vultures. Once the turkey vulture descends, the black vulture follows close behind.

How to tell a black vulture from a turkey vulture


Since his early days at Trailside, Gonzo bore witness to a population boom in New York of his species, a black vulture golden age. The latest large-scale survey of New York birds was performed during 2000 to 2005, splitting the state into 5,000 geographic blocks.  It confirmed black vulture nests in five blocks and reported suspected nests in 100; a significant increase since the last survey, performed during 1980 to 1985, which reported no found or suspected nests. Since then, its safe to say that the population has continued to increase as evidenced on local Christmas Bird Counts and the community science site eBird.org.

As to why the black vultures have taken up this avian manifest destiny to spread into New York, we are left only to speculate. Climate change may be a driving factor, turning New York’s colder climate into something milder and more habitable for black vultures.  However, the black vulture’s range has shifted northward only along the eastern seaboard from Virginia, and along the Hudson River north to the St. Lawrence, with little change in the Midwest.

 Other possible causes include an increase in deer and other mammal populations, and vehicle traffic, leading to increased food availability from roadkill, and greater tolerance of the species and increased protection under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The range of the black vulture in North America is extending northward. The darker purple regions is where the birds are common, while the lighter regions are where the vultures are spreading, but less commonly found. (Photo credit – Audubon Society)

Despite being called “vultures”, black vultures and other new world species bear little similarity to old world species. Their common characteristics are a result of convergent evolution, or traits selected for a similar lifestyle.  Both share bald featherless heads, perfect for rooting around in carcasses without ruffling any feathers. Both share similar circular flight patterns, utilizing the energy saving tactic of coasting on thermals. And both share the same highly corrosive digestive system; the PH of a black vulture’s stomach acid rests just above 0, akin to car battery acid and nearly 100 times as concentrated as human stomach acid.

Black vultures are instead more closely related to storks with whom they share an interesting, yet effective means of thermoregulation[1]. If a warming climate is the culprit behind the black vulture’s expansion, they will, without a doubt, continue to thrive in warmer climates thanks to urohidrosis; or the habit in some birds of defecating onto the scaly portion of the legs as a cooling method, using evaporative cooling of the fluids.

[1] Thermoregulation is the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperatures is very different

Additionally, keeping in mind that a black vulture’s stomach acid is highly acidic, they produce a sterile excrement which cleanses their feet of bacteria and parasites, which may accumulate due to their scavenger lifestyle. Two birds with one stone, if you will

 Black vultures will also simultaneously thermoregulate and sanitize through the process of sunbathing.  Often observed with wings out and backs to the sun, these birds are warming their bodies while utilizing the UV radiation from sunlight to kill bacteria and parasites on their feathers.

As adults, black vultures experience few predators. Their main threat comes in the form of nest predation either by raccoons or foxes.  Despite their relative safety, vultures still maintain a gruesome defense mechanism against predation; defensive vomiting. Utilizing their stomach acid once more, black vultures are able to produce a foul smelling and corrosive vomit that acts as a deterrent and mace for predators.

In addition to clever adaptations, black vultures themselves are undoubtedly intelligent birds, this trait being readily observable in Gonzo and other captive black vultures. Gonzo observed and interacted with the world around him with great curiosity.  Behind his soulful brown eyes, there was a spectacular presence, a timid and gentle personality with an almost irrefutable perception and understanding.

The social intelligence hypothesis posits that human “intelligence” has evolved in order to adapt to complex interpersonal relations and is generally accepted in the current theory of evolution. It is believed that as the size of the group increases, it becomes necessary to adapt to more complex social relationships within the group, driving the selective pressures for increased neocortex size.  Black vultures are not exempt from this theory, belonging to flocks largely composed of family units and roosting in large masses in the evening.

At Trailside, where the black vultures seemed to have designated the bear exhibit as their daytime roost, their community engagements can be observed through mutual preening, playful chasing, food sharing, and the occasional scuffle. But perhaps the best example of their sociality was seen with Gonzo.

 Confined to his exhibit, Gonzo began receiving vulture visitors, and over the years they grew in number to the point which on any given day a sizeable flock of wild black vultures could be seen mingling with Gonzo. Perhaps they were assessing the mystery as to why this member of their species was captive, putting their bald little heads together in a sort of vulture think-tank, or perhaps, lacking his own flock, the wild vultures assimilated him into their own.

Keepers at Trailside have observed on numerous occasions, the passing of food between cage bars to the flock; perhaps, an altruistic sharing of of a captive bird’s bounty. Food sharing in wild vultures is typically only observed within members of the same family.  Perhaps Gonzo viewed this flock as a sort of family. Between shared mice and fish, did the vultures swap tales of harsh winters, open skies, and a northbound journey? Voiceless secrets told hushed through throats lacking a syrinx[2]

[2] The syrinx is the lower larynx or voice organ in birds, situated at or near the junction of the trachea and bronchi and well developed in songbirds

Because Black vultures lack the organ responsible for birdsong in many species, their vocal repertoire consists mainly of huffs, grunts, and hisses. Click here to hear a recording of a black vulture from the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.

On the black vulture’s sociability, Charles Darwin wrote:

 “These vultures certainly may be called gregarious, for they seem to have pleasure in society, and are not solely brought together by the attraction of a common prey. On a fine day a flock may often be observed at a great height, each bird wheeling round and round without closing its wings, in the most graceful evolutions. This is clearly performed for the mere pleasure of the exercise, or perhaps is connected with their matrimonial alliances.”

It certainly does appear that black vultures perform many activities through the sheer pleasure the action brings.  Play is widely regarded as a hallmark of intelligence in birds, observable in both crows and ravens.  It is an activity which helps an individual gain information regarding its environment; and play in many forms can be observed in the vultures of Bear Mountain.  In the bear den and along the zoo trail, black vultures can be seen taking turns chasing each other, tossing about hay, playing with sticks and feathers, ripping apart paper bags, tugging on the mesh of exhibits.

Trailside’s resident black bear, Sadie, shares her exhibit with a wild black vulture.

Play is also one of the reasons many Hudson Valley residents are at odds with vultures. In their exploration of this world, it turns out black vultures can be quite destructive. Their favorite pastimes including tearing rubber from windshield wipers, and shingles from roofs.

Several years ago the Bear Mountain Inn experienced nearly $10,000 in roofing damage by black vultures and, as of 2017, black vultures are estimated to have cause nearly $75,000 in damages statewide. Much like teenagers, if you have enough black vultures in one place without enough to do, they’re bound to get up to trouble. As a consequence, many Hudson Valley businesses and residents are now flying in face of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and federal law, taking up arms against the vultures. Several methods of deterrence include lasers, sprinklers, pyrotechnics, trapping and effigies; but with a population on the rise, conflict with humans is only more likely to increase.

On the other side of the coin, black vultures are a necessary asset to our ecosystem, serving as “nature’s cleanup crew” feeding on the dead and diseased other carnivores wouldn’t dare venture near, their stomach acid allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with rabies, botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers. Their work halts the further transmission of these diseases between humans and other wildlife, a role which, in the age of a zoonotic pandemic like COVID-19, is paramount.

For all those still at odds with the black vulture, Gonzo served as a shining exemplar of his species positive qualities, and magnificent beauty, connecting the black vulture in the minds of many to a handsome bird, with a quiet, yet inquisitive personality.

Gonzo passed away at Trailside on Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 29 ½ years old. While longevity records for black vultures are scarce, Gonzo may have well been one of the oldest specimens in captivity.  He leaves behind the legacy of being one of New York’s pioneer black vultures, who instilled a passion and understanding for his species in many visitors.

Gonzo is survived by his flock, a family he made all his own, the wild vultures of Trailside. Months later, the occasional solemn vulture could still be seen idling outside what was once his aviary, wearing all black feathers, dressed as if for mourning.

Gonzo gives himself a health sunbath.

Post and photographs by Malerie Muratori, Student Conservation Association intern at Trailside Zoo.

Lights Out For The Birds

Twice a year, billions of birds migrate throughout the United States between their wintering and breeding grounds. These birds typically migrate south in the fall and will migrate north again in the spring. That means right now in New York State, birds are passing through as they travel down south to warmer climates. All types of birds will be seen migrating during the seasons, including warblers, shorebirds, raptors, and more.

Birds will usually spend their days saving their energy, resting, and finding food sources and during the night will use most of their energy flying. Migratory birds are typically nocturnal travelers, which means they gain the most mileage during the night hours. While we are asleep after an event filled day, there can be an estimated 150 million to upwards of 300 million birds travelling overhead in one given night. Even though the day is over for us and is our time to relax and unwind, the night hours are highly active for migrating birds!

The official New York State bird, the Eastern Bluebird, migrates south in the fall to spend its winters in the southeaster U.S. or Mexico. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)
Dark-eyed junco (female) migrate south into New York from Canada and sometimes hang around all winter. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Nighttime migration poses different threats to these birds, particularly in big cities. Large buildings are typically lit up with hundreds of bright lights throughout all hours of the night. This light pollution can significantly change birds’ behaviors, including migration patterns, foraging for food, and communication with other birds in the area. Light pollution can distract the birds as they might start to think it is daytime, because they cannot process light sources like we can. All of these behaviors are a waste of energy for birds, making their long journey much more dangerous.

According to the National Park Service, nighttime light pollution in the U.S. has gotten much worse in decades after World War II, so much that now eight in ten Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. And this is an increasing issue for migrating birds.

This National Park Service map shows the growth of light pollution in the U.S. since the 1950s

Birds and State Parks

New York State Parks are a great place to visit to catch a view of migrating birds. The forests, meadows, wetlands, and other natural areas in State Parks provide some of the most crucial habitats for these birds along their journey, and have helped them survive over the years by offering shelter and food. In some parks there are specific areas designated as Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs). Of the 62 BCAs throughout the state, 27 are within State Parks.

An area can be designated as a BCA if it is judged as important habitat for one or more species based on certain criteria. There are many BCA locations throughout the state, such as Saratoga Spa State Park that is home to more than 100 different bird species. You can find the location of Saratoga Spa State Park and other BCAs on the map provided below and the State Parks website. You can also check the State Parks events list for birding events near you!

A map of the Bird Conservation Area in Saratoga Spa State Park.

In addition to BCAs, there are also areas recognized nationwide by the National Audubon Society to help protect birds and their habitats; Important Bird Areas (IBAs). One example in New York State is Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Westchester county, and is home to 180 different bird species! Check out the National Audubon Website to see Rockefeller State Park Preserve and all the other IBAs in New York State.

What Is The “Lights Out” Movement?

The “Lights Out” movement is a nationwide event that was created in in Chicago in 1999 by the National Audubon Society to help reduce the number of bird fatalities. Since then, the effort has spread to cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

Bird fatalities are more directly caused by the amount of energy birds are wasting during the night because of the heavy light pollution across the United States. This energy is being wasted on flying around, using more vocalization and the exhaustion is leaving them more vulnerable to other threats around them.

If you’re interested in watching migrations, a tool that can be used is the BirdCast migration tool. This website has many resources for nationwide and local monitoring. The nationwide mapping tools include a live forecast of the density of the birds migrating as well as a 3-day prediction forecast of what it could look like. In addition to the nationwide prediction forecast, you can also check out a live animated video of the current migration patterns each day!

Use the slider bar to see how the BirdCast migration changes between Oct. 6 and October 14.

Another neat tool that this website includes is a live local alerting map that is specific for a county, city, or town. The local maps tell you how many birds to expect flying over your area that night and what the next couple nights look like as well. This tool provides important information so you can participate in helping the birds during their migration.

There are two large windows for bird migrations;: one in the fall and one in the spring. Bird migration can take place from August through November with peak migration in October in the fall and from March through June with peak migration in May in the spring. Check out the links provided above to get more information on BirdCast and when peak migration is happening in your area!

How Can You Help?

Some suggestions to help get you started with the Lights Out Movement for nighttime hours:

  • Turn off exterior decorative lighting
  • Turn off interior lighting, or use curtains and blinds
  • Install automatic motion sensors and controls wherever possible
  • Click on the link to check out the full list of suggestions: Lights Out Movement. One of the local efforts is based in New York City.

After visiting State Parks and seeing the many different species of birds that are in New York State, it is important for all of us to do our part to help keep them safe. The National Audubon Society provides suggestions on how to decrease light pollution on a local level, which will help birds during their migration. It is estimated that 253 million annual bird deaths from collisions are from residential areas compared to 340 million from tall buildings and skyscrapers. Your part at home is just as important as businesses!

Participating in the Lights Out movement helps more birds safely reach their migration grounds, giving you and your family more opportunities to see them in New York State Parks! To make an official pledge with the movement, sign up here.


Cover Shot – A map of Bird Conservation Areas in New York State Parks.

Post by Allyson Paradis, Wildlife Unit Assistant, NYS Parks

More Resources from the NYS Parks Blog

Golden Opportunities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

On February 24, 2009, two visitors to Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park were enjoying a sunny walk on Davis Road when two BIG birds flew overhead, going north.  “Golden Eagles!” exclaimed these experienced bird watchers.  Both were volunteers at the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society’s (DOAS) Franklin Mountain Hawk Watch which is known for its … Continue reading Golden Opportunities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

Training Protects Threatened Rattlesnakes

Twenty-five years ago, as a young Fish and Wildlife Technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I was recruited for an unusual field outing on State parkland in the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York: a first of its kind, hands-on training to become a certified nuisance rattlesnake responder.  

As a responder, I would be on a short list of people willing to safely and legally relocate timber rattlesnakes that had wandered into compromising situations on private property – a win-win for both the homeowner and snake.  No such system was in place in the Hudson Valley and, without it, many homeowners took matters into their own hands, often with a shovel or shotgun.

Randy Stechert, a long-time herpetologist and regional rattlesnake expert who has worked through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, led our small group to a remote rocky clearing in search of Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. The largest of New York State’s three venomous snake species (the others being the northern copperhead and massasauga rattlesnake), the timber rattlesnake was in trouble, owing to centuries of habitat loss and direct persecution, including a bounty system lasting into the 1970s.

These depredations were so effective the State declared the species Threatened in 1983, a designation requiring conservation measures to keep it from slipping to Endangered status or worse. Currently under New York State Environmental Conservation Law, it is illegal to capture, kill or possess any native snake at any time without a permit, including rattlesnakes.

The mission of that long-ago outing was to familiarize our ragtag group of would-be responders with this species in the flesh. Randy would show us a wild rattlesnake and how to safely handle it, while imparting his wisdom about all things rattlesnake in his booming baritone voice.

And boy did he deliver.

I will never forget the robust, nearly all-black rattlesnake plucked from a huckleberry patch and deposited on the open bedrock just feet in front of me. Most memorable was how easily we could stand beside this now agitated wild animal with little concern about its intentions. It was in a clearly defensive posture, coiled and ready to repel any further attacks from this presumably malevolent band of primates.

A black morph timber rattlesnake. Colors range from nearly jet black, to browns, to sulfur yellow. (Photo credit – DEC/William Hofman)
A yellow morph timber rattlesnake.

In the ensuing decades, and after handling dozens of rattlesnakes in my research and as a nuisance responder, I’ve come to understand them as pacifists at heart.  Despite their considerable weaponry – two hypodermic needle-like fangs and potent venom – they really just want to be left alone.  In fact, their first response to human presence is to remain motionless, and hope their camouflage shields them from detection.  If detected and a retreat is available, such as a rock crevice, they will typically make a rapid exit to safety.  But if they feel exposed, vulnerable, and without a means for escape, they quickly switch gears in an attempt to intimidate their aggressor.  A cornered rattlesnake coils, inflates to look more girthy, and rapidly vibrates its namesake rattle to audibly back up the message. This menacing version is our popular notion of a rattlesnake but, ironically, is merely a response to the perceived threat posed by us. 

The snake’s rattle is made from rings of keratin – the same hardened protein our fingernails and hair are made of. A new rattle segment is formed every time a snake sheds its skin. When the snake rapidly shakes its tail, the rings vibrate and produce a rattling or buzzing noise used by the snake as a warning to keep away. (Photo credit – New Hampshire Fish and Game Department/Brendan Clifford.)
Hear a rattlesnake rattle…

Since that indelible first encounter with a wild rattlesnake on State Park land, I have become increasingly entwined with this charismatic species. I’ve rescued them from homeowner’s yards, conducted field surveys for their winter dens, and ultimately took a very deep dive into unraveling the timber rattlesnake’s mating system and reproductive ecology as a graduate student.   

Still managed by the DEC, the nuisance rattlesnake response program includes most members of that original group recruited in the mid-1990s.  While Randy Stechert continues to host trainings (now done with captive snakes, rather than wild ) in recent years, he has passed the torch to another generation of trainers, including myself here at State Parks. 

Where I work at  Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park , natural resource staff, backcountry rangers and our own zookeepers have been trained using our captive rattlesnakes under this program, expanding Parks’ in-house capacity to respond to nuisance situations at all our locations. 

Other conservation measures have been installed as well in recent years.  For example, all park development projects are “screened” by location to assess their potential for rattlesnake impacts. When possible, projects sited within snake habitat are scheduled for November to March, when the snakes are less likely to be active and in harm’s way.  When this can’t be done, the contractor is required to develop a rattlesnake response plan and have an onsite snake monitor to head off conflicts. In some cases, when habitat loss or direct impacts are considered unacceptable, the project is relocated, reconfigured, or even denied.

The timber rattlesnake has been a survivor, persisting in the rocky uplands of the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier and eastern Adirondacks for at least the last six thousand years. Our past concerted efforts to eliminate it from the landscape were unsuccessful, and good thing. As more species disappear and the fabric of nature unravels, thread by thread, the value of having formidable, wild creatures about us only increases.

State parklands are a critical refuge for this imperiled snake in New York and can remain this way with a little foresight, planning, and, frankly, empathy, on our part.  If we can successfully accommodate the long-term survival of the timber rattlesnake, it will bode well for biodiversity overall.

Timber rattlesnakes reach the northern limit of their range in New York and New England.(Photo credit – NYS DEC)
A researcher marked this snake’s rattle with red paint to aid future identification.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake?


If you are on State parkland or elsewhere in the wild, observe the snake from a safe distance (at least six feet), and take a moment to enjoy this majestic animal. If you snap a picture with your cell phone and want to share it with others over social media, it is best to do this without disclosing exact location information. You can either share a screenshot or make sure location services are disabled on your phone. This will keep the location secret from snake poachers attempting to mine online location data. After briefly observing the snake, back away and make a detour around its location to continue your hike.

In a nuisance situation where the snake’s presence is problematic, such as in or near a dwelling or public space, a certified relocation expert can be obtained by calling 911 or the DEC. Please remember: Do not attempt to disturb or capture the snake yourself.  Seeking expert assistance in this instance is one way to help New York preserve its biodiversity.


Cover shot – A yellow morph timber rattlesnake blends into the forest floor. All pictures NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Ed McGowan, PhD, Director of Science and Trailside Museums & Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park

Resources


New York Natural Heritage Program guide to the timber rattlesnake.

Read a recent scientific study on how rattlesnakes use their rattles to make a snake sound closer than it actually is.

Read about a DEC and multi-agency investigation between 2006 and 2009 into the illegal wildlife trade in rattlesnakes, other reptiles and amphibians.

Learn more about the timber rattlesnake in this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog…


Respect for Rattlers

Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head … Continue reading Respect for Rattlers

Hungry Hungry Caterpillars

Throughout much of New York State earlier this summer, fuzzy caterpillars were rampaging through natural forests and well-kept gardens alike. Maybe you noticed these bristly little critters wobbling along, or even had an itchy rash after touching their mildly stinging hairs!

These crazy caterpillars are Lymantria dispar, which you may have called gypsy moths in the past. Why not just call them gypsy moths? What is really in a name?

This is an exciting time as we wait to hear the new official common name for our moth, Lymantria dispar, but for this blog post we’ll call them L. dispar for short. Currently, the Entomological Society of America has is considering options for new names under the Better Common Names Project, in order to “bar names referencing ethnic or racial groups and names that might stoke fear.”

There is a plethora of fun characteristics for this moth which could apply to a new name. I personally vote for something akin to “Pricklecater,” “Blue-Red Spotted Messworm” or “Itchy Eww Moth.”

A L. dispar caterpillar up close.

Anyways… back to our story.

A native of Europe, L. dispar were accidentally released into the wild in 1869 and have since become “naturalized” in 19 Northeastern states. This means they have shoved their way into local food webs as they munch down on foliage then in turn become a tasty food source for birds, bugs, and other predators.

For the most part, they are active participants in the wonderous world of ecology. They are citizens playing their part in a complex and everchanging ecosystem. A single L. dispar caterpillar can eat about a square meter of plant material during its short lifetime, but one caterpillar doesn’t do too much damage.

The problem is that one female moth can lay more than 1,000 eggs in a single mass, which stick to the sides of trees, and are browish and gummy-looking.

That’s a lot of eggs!

The female moths, which are white, lay their egg masses on the sides of trees after mating. The masses are brownish and gummy in appearance.

Every 10 to 12 years, the L. dispar population explodes exponentially and hundreds of thousands of tiny caterpillars hatch in the spring. Once hatched, they use a strand of silk to “balloon” away on the wind until they find a newly leafing tree to eat and eat and eat.

To experience these numbers, I’d like you to imagine walking your favorite path in the woods. Shaded from the hot sun, you can hear the gentle pitter-patter of rain sprinkling down through the canopy. How peaceful… There is no better place in all the world on this cloudless day.

“Cloudless day? But isn’t it raining?” you ask.

Oh yes, something is raining down… but it’s not water.

Scientifically known as frass, this tiny spherical poop from thousands of very hungry caterpillars is dropping down onto your head and shoulders, as these little machines diligently convert the lush green leaves overhead into little brown balls of poo.

Not great. Pretty gross.

These baby caterpillars have small, young jaws, and prefer soft new budding leaves until they are old enough to chew tougher vegetation. While they prefer hardwood trees, they will eat more than 300 different plant species when hungry enough, stripping away all foliage until trees and bushes are left embarrassingly naked.

This can be a problem.

Caterpillar can strip away much of leaf material. Usually, trees can survive it, as long as it does not happen too many years in a row.

When deciduous trees like oak, birch and maple are eaten by caterpillars, they usually have enough stored energy to push out another set of leaves before the summer is through. It takes multiple years of defoliation to weaken these trees to the point of death. However evergreen trees cannot bounce back as quickly. Coniferous (evergreen) trees put lots of energy into their tough, thick, needle-like leaves, and will likely die if more than half of their needles are eaten.

Most years the caterpillars are fairly harmless, except during these incredibly destructive outbreaks which reoccur in a slow but disastrous cycle. Due to this pattern, L. dispar are considered cyclical pests.

In the adult stage L. dispar moths are not destructive at all, as they do not eat anything (no digestive system) and only live for a few days. The white fluffy females have pretty wings used for decoration rather than flying, and release a hormone into the air for male moths to find them. Females remain on the sides of trees as the males fly in search of the females’ scent.The female will lay fuzzy egg masses on whatever surface she’s near and the life cycle will begin again.

This is where we can take some control over the situation. By counting the egg masses in the wintertime, we can predict how many L. dispar caterpillars will hatch in the Spring and we can prepare a plan of defense. 

Natural Population Controls


While major L. dispar outbreaks can resemble a plague of locusts consuming everything in their path, nature often has a way of correcting imbalances. At low densities, vertebrate predators keep the population in check, but are ineffective at controlling massive numbers of prey. Bird bellies just aren’t big enough!

However, when L. dispar caterpillars are densely packed into one area, viruses and funguses can spread rapidly. These are naturally occurring diseases which are always present in the environment, but only take significant effect when populations are grossly out of control. Researchers have identified one virus specialized to L. dispar which kills 90 percent of infected caterpillars. This virus has since been converted into an effective treatment which brings the population down to healthy levels.

This natural method of population control is the preferred way to control the situation since it doesn’t harm any other species. However, this treatment must occur very soon after the caterpillars hatch, otherwise the damage will already be done.

These last few months we’ve seen many caterpillars eating their way through New York, and next year could be even worse in some places… or not. It all depends how well nature’s natural defenses have worked.

Measures are being taken at State Parks to perform egg mass surveys to try and predict next year’s population and prepare for any treatments accordingly. Let’s not repeat the summer of 1981 when 13 million acres of forest were defoliated! Our poor defenseless trees!


Post by Juliet Linzmeier, Student Conservation Association member, Invasive Species Unit, NYS Parks

Cover shot – A L. dispar caterpillar. All shots from NYS Parks.

A close-up of a female L. dispar moth.

Resources

DISCLAIMER: The following materials have not been updated on the new common name for L. dispar, and refer to this pest as “Gypsy Moth”.


Want to learn more about these moths and efforts to protect the forest? The DEC has great information here at Gypsy Moth – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation

Prefer watching videos? The DEC also did a 30-minute Facebook Live post, which covers the history, morphology, control methods, and more!