Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

What’s That? That’s SCAT!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, the snow is falling, the air is crisp, and the hiking opportunities in State Parks abound. While marveling at the snow-encrusted majesty of the pine and hardwood branches, don’t forget to look down and take a peek at one of the less glamorous and stately aspects of a wintertime hike – wildlife scat! Analyzing who’s who with number two might be the number one way to figure out who is visiting the trails with you, as well as how long ago they were there.

Hunters have long used scat to help with the hunt, determining if animals were around and when, following the scat clues to their quarry. Wildlife watchers and photographers have also used this tool to seek out wildlife. What you can learn from scat can be interesting to anyone, no matter if your intent is to hike, hunt, or just unwind in nature.

Is the scat frozen? The animal could have been around last night. Is the scat desiccated, or dried out and old looking? It could be scat from last season. Can you see if the scat melted snow around it? The animal might not be far away. Are there more than a couple of piles of scat? There could be more than one animal around. Does the scat contain fur? There may be predators hunting.  Scat can be an amazing addition to your toolbox to determine presence and habit of a variety of wildlife around. Here are some photos of common scat piles to help you infer who your wild neighbors are in the woods.

Deer scat might be the most common scat to be found on the trail. Deer scat is usually in pellets and in a pile. If the pile is under leaf litter, or a layer of snow, it is most likely old (see below photo). Deer scat can also be in a more “wet” or “patty” form, but pellets are usually still distinguishable. Shiny or wet scat can indicate a deer is close by!  Deer produce pellets about 13 times a day, a product of their near constant grazing. Bigger bucks can leave bigger poo piles than the does. You can also look further into the scat signs, and see what the deer are preferring to eat. Hunters often organize a hunt around the transition corridors of feeding and bedding areas. Lots of scat in a certain type of feeding area (i.e. clover, grass, apples) would indicate that deer may be accessing this area daily to eat.  Deer beds and poo in cover areas, like scrubby emergent forest, would indicate deer access that area to sleep. A hunt that is set up between those areas, where the deer are apt to travel every day, might have the most chance of being successful.

Deer scat both
Deer scat, fresh (right) and old (left).

Rabbit scat is also very common in brushy areas, and is usually round. Rabbit scat is generally smaller than deer scat and can be more spread out in the feeding area. Look for rabbit scat near low bushes or other available cover. In a strange evolutionary twist, rabbits also produce a second type of scat, called cecotropes, that they eat shortly after depositing. These powerful pellets are full of beneficial gut bacteria.

Cottontail scat_J Jaycox
Cottontail scat.

Porcupine scat can contain woody fiber, as they eat twigs and bark. Scat may also be at the entrance to their dens; they don’t seem to need to keep a clean house. Dens can sometimes have mounds of scat around them, if used over multiple seasons. It is theorized that porcupines’ scat piles could provide some warmth in the winter.  Porcupine scat can resemble deer scat, but is somewhat cashew-shaped, as opposed to the rounder deer pellets.

Porcupine den & scat_M Rogers
Porcupine den with scat (broken down) along the entrance.

Foxes, and others in the canid family, like to make a point to be sure you see their scat. They often lay their brick and mortar on top of a rock or something high to mark their territory. Fox scat does not smell as foul as your house pet’s deposits; however it does have a distinct musky odor. Fox scat usually contains hair and is very dark with distinct twisted ends, unlike house dog scats, which are tubular with blunt ends.

Fox scat_M Rogers
Fox scat

If you are lucky, you might see bear scat on your next hike! Bear scat is usually characterized as a “plop” instead of pellets. Bear scat can be in enormous piles and can be a variety of colors and consistency depending on their last meal. Bears are omnivores, and so can have nuts, hair, or berries visible in their scat. Bears can also be attracted to food caches in town, like bird feeders, before the long snooze in the winter (see photo below). Bear scat also does not smell as strongly as other scat, and in times where they have a vegetarian diet, can smell quite pleasant (for poo).

Bear Scat both
Bear scat, note the seeds in the right photo

Another very common scat is that of the turkey. Turkey scat, like other birds, contains both urine and feces. The white part of a bird’s scat is the urine.  You can actually tell a male gobbler from a female hen by the shape of the scat. Male turkeys generally balance the budget in a J shape, while females are more in a pile, with a slight spiral to it.  This is because of the anatomy of a female turkey, which has a wider cloaca for eggs to pass through.

Turkey scat both
Turkey Scat (both likely female), note the footprints on left photo.

Another elusive animal you may see by scat rather than seeing in the fur, is the mink. A small furbearer, like the weasel, a mink’s scat is tiny, braided and pointed, with a twisted end. Mink also like to advertise their bathroom breaks on top of logs or stones, like foxes and coyotes. You can tell the difference between mink and weasels easily in the winter, as mink do not change their fur coats out for the camouflage that weasels do. Weasels should be white this time of year.

Mink scat both
Two photos of mink scat, note the twisted ends.

Another avian visitor common to parks is the Canada goose, as well as the snow goose. Both geese, like turkeys, have a distinct white cap on their scat. Goose poop however is more of a long log, and usually found around beaches and other waterbodies in the parks. Geese are normally pretty comfortable around people, and buildings, so you are more likely to see goose scat on the lawns and beaches rather than in the woods on trails.

Goose_M Rogers
Goose scat.

Our final foray into the wonderful world of waste is with one of the largest visitors to the Parks. Moose are more common in the Adirondacks, but have also been seen in the Taconic Highlands.  Moose scat can look like supercharged deer scat. Pelletized, and in piles, moose scat most closely resembles deer scat winter. In the summer months when their diet is more wet, moose scat may resemble cow patties. It can also trick people into thinking it is bear scat. To determine the origin, check out the mode of digestion. Moose are ruminants.  Like cows, they have four compartments in their stomach, so four times the digestion efficiency, and so usually poop fully digested food. Their scat is generally uniformly composed.  Bears are omnivores, with one stomach, and their scat can be more variable in composition, often with undigested berries and hair.

Moose_M Rogers
Moose scat.

Winter hikes are some of the most fun and most unique hiking in NYS Parks, and most Parks do not charge entrance fees in the colder months. Come prepared with extra winter clothing, first aid packs, and always let someone know your plan in case of emergencies. And don’t forget that the feces of many species can be an informative and fun addition to your knowledge of wildlife and outdoors.

Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks

Featured image https://www.flickr.com/photos/bepster/43762108/ .

A Conservation Cornerstone Celebrates 20 Years

This year, the New York State Bird Conservation Area (BCA) Program celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since 1997, the BCA Program has been promoting the conservation of birds and their habitats on designated state-owned lands and waters in New York State. There is no other program like it in the United States. The BCA Program is modeled after Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Program but is backed by legislation.  Sites are considered for BCA designation if they meet criteria relating to high concentrations of birds, bird diversity, or the presence of at-risk species. Recognizing a site as a BCA brings awareness to the needs of birds on state-owned lands and encourages management that benefits the bird populations. While the BCA Program focuses on birds, the program also benefits other species that share the same habitats.

Cerulean Warbler.
A rare cerulean warbler, photo by Charlie Trampani.

Audubon has partnered with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) on the BCA Program since its beginning, and has held up the BCA Program as a model for other states to protect birds. This fall, Audubon was delighted to join State Parks in celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the program, in conjunction with the designation of the 60th BCA in Ganondagan State Park.

Ganondagan photo
Dedication of the Bird Conservation Area at Ganondagan State Historic Site, photo by Laura McCarthy, Audubon NY.

In recent years, Audubon’s partnership with State Parks has expanded to include Audubon in the Parks initiative, which is a partnership with Audubon New York, State Parks and its Regional Commissions, Audubon Chapters, and friends groups to advance bird conservation in State Parks, specifically focusing on BCAs and IBAs. Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon assists with the implementation of BCA management recommendations, conducts bird monitoring, and helps with other strategies and research activities that benefit priority birds and habitats. In addition, Audubon advocates for funds to ensure that habitats are preserved and managed in a way that benefits priority birds and further connect people to these unique places.

BirdersFilmoreGlenStatePark_JillianLiner
Audubon New York staff and members bird watching in Fillmore Glen State Park, photo by Jillian Liner, Audubon NY.

Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon has been active in more than 50 State Parks across the state, including 20 BCAs. This successful initiative continues to grow through projects like the one recently completed at Schodack Island State Park, which has been designated as a BCA because of nesting Cerulean Warblers and wintering Bald Eagles. Led by the Audubon Society of the Capital Region, this BCA project included building bird blinds for visitors to view birds without disturbing them and removing invasive species within the park. The chapter continues to foster a community connection to the park and importance of this BCA by hosting eagle walks and other events such as the recent Schodack Island Raptor Fest.

Birdblind AIP ASCR
Members of Audubon Society of the Capital District constructing a bird blind at Schodack Island State Park, photo by Laura McCarthy, Audubon NY

Audubon congratulates New York State on the BCA program and looks forward to continuing the strong partnership with State Parks to make New York a better place for birds and people.

More about BCA’s

Map of Bird Conservation Areas

Post by: Jillian Liner, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon New York

Nutty Over Nuts

Fall is an especially good time to find all kinds of nuts on the forest floor, in a picnic area in the park, or maybe even in your neighborhood or back yard. Let’s take a look and learn how to identify some of these wild nuts.

In technical botanical terms, all of these “nuts” are called the “fruit”. The fruit is defined as the seed and the package which holds the seed. So, for example, the acorn is the “fruit” of an oak tree, and inside is the nut which is a type of seed. If you use plant keys you will see those terms, but for general use, it is ok to call them all nuts!

Acorns are some of the most common types of nuts. Do you know what tree they come from? Acorns come from oak trees. Oaks are found far and wide across New York State and the United States so you should be able to find oak trees and acorns in a park near you. Acorns come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the type of oak they are from. They are a favorite food of squirrels, turkeys, deer, and other animals.

Red oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Red oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Red oak acorns are big (over 1 inch long) and roundish like a fat egg. They have very flat caps that cover only a small part of the acorn. The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is the most common oak species in NY and its state parks.

Scarlet oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Scarlet oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) acorns are less than 1 inch long and have shiny caps with tight scales. Scarlet oaks are common in Eastern NY, usually found on sandy or rocky soils. If you look closely at this picture, you can see a small round hole in the acorn: a sign that it was eaten by some type of insect.

Bur oak acorn_photo by Julie Lundgren
Bur oak acorn, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The large size and heavy fringe of this acorn cap tell us that these are from bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), one of our less common oak species in NY. Sometimes you will only the acorns caps, as the nuts have been carried away by squirrels.

Walnuts

What nut looks like a green tennis ball? That would be the black walnut (Juglans nigra), from the tree of the same name. They have a really strong smell and can stain your clothes, so handle with care. Over time they turn brown and dry out. Black walnuts can be eaten but it takes a lot of work to dry and husk them. They also make a beautiful natural dye.

Black walnuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Fresh black walnuts can get almost as big as a tennis ball. As they age and dry out, they get smaller like the one in the center. photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

The butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) is a closely related to black walnut and has very similar nuts. They start out bright green like the black walnut, but are shaped more like footballs rather than the tennis balls shape of black walnuts.

Butternuts ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

By early fall, the butternuts nuts have dried up and lost their fuzzy husk and they look very much like the English walnuts you buy in the store. This butternut was found empty. Both black walnuts and butternuts are edible but it can be tough to find one that hasn’t already been snacked on by a squirrel!

Butternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Butternuts in mid-fall, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Hickory

Hickories are another very important tree for wildlife including turkey, deer, chipmunk, squirrel, mice and others. Of the 20 hickory species found in North America, five species are native to New York State. A good key to identifying these is found here.

Hickory shells ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Hickory nuts can have thin or thick-walled husks like the two types shown here, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.
Pignut_Bitternut_photo by Julie Lundgren
Pig nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Pignut (Carya glabra), Mockernut (Carya tomentosa) and Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) hickory have thin husks like this. There are two types of nuts: ones that keep their husk on as they mature or ripen (“indehiscent”) and those with husks that split completely and fall off the nut by the end of fall (“dehiscent”). One has to look at the leaves and/or buds to properly identify these species. As its name suggests, Bitternut is one that is not palatable to either wildlife or people.

Shellbark Hickory_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shellback Hickory nut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Wow – what nuts are these? These are the thick husks of the Shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), a tree that is rare in NY. The husks range from 1.5 inches to nearly 3 inches long, and the nuts inside would be pointed at both ends. That’s one tough nut to crack! These husks were empty, but you can see how the cavity tapers to a point at each end. The more common Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is very similar, but the nuts are rounded at the base and the husks do not exceed 2 inches long. Nuts from both of these trees are sweet and edible.

American Chestnut

American Chestnut_photo by Julie Lundgren
American chestnut, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

If you find one of these, consider yourself very lucky! This is the fruit and nut of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Although a blight killed off the large trees, some sprouts persisted and some trees do get large enough to produce nuts like this. These spikes are so sharp you can’t even pick them up with your bare hands, which keeps animals from eating the nut inside. Eventually the husks open up to release the nut in hopes that a new tree will grow.

Quiz Time – What Nuts are These?

Piles hickory shells_photo by Julie Lundgren
Shell pile at the base of a tree, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

It’s easy to overlook them, but look around the base of the trees and sometimes you will find piles of nuts – empty or maybe whole. All kinds of nuts are a very important food source for wildlife. The ones shown above (mixed in with the leaves) are mostly the empty shells or husks of hickory nuts that were eaten by animals.

Shell assortment ADJ_photo by Julie Lundgren
Can you find the following nuts: black walnut, a half-eaten butternut, 2 kinds of hickory nuts, and caps from some acorns? Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Learn More

Want to learn more about nuts and tree fruits of all kinds? Below are some good books and websites to get you started.

Fruit Key and Twig Key book_photo by Julie Lundgren
“Fruit Key and Twig Key to Trees and Shrubs” by William Harlow, photo by Julie Lundgren.

GoBotany – an online tool for identifying plants in New England but includes most tree species found in NY state too.

Shellbark Hickory NYNHP Conservation Guide

New York Flora Atlas

Photos and post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

From Ashes to Awesome: Sam’s Point

In April 2016, a wildfire engulfed around 2,000 acres of the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains. The “Gunks” (a nickname for the Shawangunks) are well-known not only for climbing, but also for the globally unique community of high altitude dwarf pitch pine barrens which hold some interesting and charismatic flora and fauna. This year marks one year after the fire and it has been a very interesting time to be at Sam’s Point. Park staff have taken advantage of what some may consider destruction to learn more about the unique ecosystem that evolved along with fire. Student Conservation Association interns, State Park staff, and volunteer citizen scientists have researched how the ecological community at Sam’s Point is responding to the fire.

In the weeks after the 2016 fire, the State Parks staff set up twenty random plots within the pine barrens to study the regrowth of the forest after the fire. One year later, we continue to collect data on the changes that are taking place as the ecosystem bounces back. At each research site, pitch pines are measured and any new growth, or lack thereof, is recorded. We also search for pitch pine seedlings and this year we found more of them in our plots than last year! Pitch pines are a fire dependent species – this means that throughout their existence they have evolved to grow in areas with high incidence of fire and have adapted to survive and thrive in these areas. Perhaps most importantly to pitch pine survival, their pine cones need extreme heat, like the high heat produced from fire, to open up to release their seed. Although the high intensity of the fire may have damaged many of the older pitch pines, we can see the beginnings of a new forest through our observations.

At four of the 20 fire-regeneration plots, we took photos to collect visual data on changes over time. We are able to see changes in vegetation during the growing season and are able to compare vegetation levels from this year to last year. After a fire burns an ecosystem, the intensity of the burn creates a mosaic pattern on the land, making patches of different habitat. For those areas that are more severely burned, different plants may be found in those areas than areas that were less severely burned.  Through our data collection, we compare what is happening in different areas of the forest that were affected differently after the fire. We also look at any changes that occur over time as plants recolonize the scorched earth.

Changes over time, State Parks
Photo Points taken by Park staff and interns at Sam’s Point Area fire regeneration plots showing how the forest understory has changed in the past year, photo by State Parks and SCA.

Another study that was conducted this year was a breeding bird survey, where we compared the different bird species found in the burned area of the pine barrens to birds that were found in the unburned areas. Since the fire burned nearly half of the Sam’s Point Area, we looked at whether this change in habitat displaced breeding birds, welcomed new species, or if the number of breeding bird stayed the same. Interns, staff, and volunteers braved early mornings in May and June to conduct surveys in the park. Most often, we heard the eastern towhee telling us to “drink your tea”, the prairie warbler’s ascending song, and the “witchity witchity” of the common yellowthroat.  These species were found all over the park and we did not see many differences between the species we found within the burned area and outside of it. Generally, the differences we found had more to do with other aspects of habitat (i.e. birds were closer to water, closer to deciduous trees, etc.) than to the damage from the fire.

Fire has a long history on the Shawangunk Ridge and pitch pines are not the only species that has adapted to thrive with fire. Up until the 1960’s, berry pickers swarmed the mountainsides in the summer, picking huckleberry and blueberry and selling their juicy finds to city dwellers. Sometimes, they set fire to the ridge so that the next year, their bounty would be sweeter (in both size and taste!) Going further back into the history of the ridge, the Native Americans would also set similar, controlled fires, which today we would call prescribed burns, to keep the ecosystem healthy and productive. Although the 2016 fire was an intense wildfire and not a prescribed burn, we received the bounty of increased berry production in 2017. In mid-July the blueberries flourished, and modern day berry pickers, as well as animals that eat berries, such as chipmunks, squirrels, deer, birds, and bear, were able to indulge in these treats. By the end of July, the huckleberries had joined in on the fun so that at our August Berry Bonanza event, visitors could taste test and compare blueberry and huckleberry and choose their preference before they entered the berry-lined trails.

The 2016 wildfire at Sam’s Point has given us a lot to think about in the last year. We continue to learn more about our unique little corner of the world, and we share what we have learned with our visitors. We are also able to enjoy the beauty of the rebirth of an ecosystem. This strange, otherworldly beauty inspires park-goers with a new type of scenery they may have never seen before, making this one of a kind ecosystem seem even more special. To learn more about Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve or to get involved in Citizen Science visit https://parks.ny.gov/parks/193 , or even better, come visit us in person! We look forward to sharing our park with you.

Post by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

Featured image by  Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

Stars in the Forest

In late summer, if the humidity is high and we’ve had lots of rain, look for earth stars on the forest floor.  Found in hardwood forests with beech, maple, birch, and ash trees, earth stars are the fruiting bodies of underground mushrooms.

Sporocarps, or fruiting bodies, are a specialized part of a mushroom that produce mushroom spores. These spores are how mushrooms spread, carried by the wind to new locations.  Puff balls and truffles are other examples of mushroom fruiting bodies and you may have seen mushroom spores if you have ever kicked a dry puff ball. The grey powder that comes out of the puff ball are mushroom spores.

Earth star fruiting bodies make up only a small portion of a mushrooms mass.  The rest of the mushroom is growing underground as mycelium, thread-like part of the mushroom.  A mycelia (a single strand of mycelium) takes up nutrients from the place where they are growing. You may have seen mycelium growing under a log or in a pile of old leaves.

By André-Ph. D. Picard from WikiCommons
Mushroom mycellium, photo by André-Ph. D. Picard from WikiCommons

Since mycelium grow underground, it is hard to know the size of the fungus.  In 1998, forestry scientists discovered a single fungus from a honey mushroom in the Blue Mountains in Oregon that was found in nearly four square miles (1,665 football fields) of forest soil.

While the fungi in the northeast US are not as large as the northwest US, it is still fun to find mushrooms in the forest.  Keep an eye out for earth stars and other mushroom fruiting bodies during your walks and hikes in State Parks. Late summer through mid-October is a great time to see them.  If you do find some, share your photo.

Learn more about earth stars and other New York mushrooms:

Baroni, Timothy J.; Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada; Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2017.

Bessette, Alan; Mushrooms of Northeastern North America; Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Rock, Stephen J. “Hunting Mushrooms”, NYS DEC Conservationist, July 2013: 23-27

Mushroom Observer

Join a mushroom club, they sometime lead walks in state parks and state historic sites:

Central New York Mycological Society

Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association

Long Island Mycological Club

Mid-Hudson Mycological Association

Mid York Mycological Club

New York Mycological Society

Rochester Area Mycological Association

Susquehanna Valley Mycological Society

Western NY Mycology Club

Featured image by Lilly Schelling, State Parks