Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Leapin’ Lizards

A flick of a tail or a blur dash across a rock – was that a lizard? Are there lizards in New York?

Yes, New York is home to three native lizard species.  Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles that spend most of their time on rocks, sunning themselves on flat open spots or hiding in crevices. They also crawl up on logs, stumps and sometimes even up the trunk of the tree. However, male lizards are known for defending their territory from other male lizards by doing push-ups followed by head bobs.  If this does not work, the defending male lizard may attack and bite the intruding lizard.

Lizards are all very well camouflaged, but if you are really lucky you might spot one of these reptiles on one if you hike in the southern Hudson Valley or in Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.

Two of the three New York lizard species are considered rare in the state. Conservation measures are particularly important to maintain the populations of these vulnerable critters. State Parks works to protect habitat and educate park visitors about these seldom seen animals.

Two of these lizard types are called skinks.  Skinks are a type of lizard with no visible neck, a long tail, and short legs. (Some skinks in other parts of the world have no legs at all!)  Skinks have smooth scales, compared to other lizards which have keeled scales (scales that have a ridge down the middle).  Smooth scales give the skink a shining gloss-like appearance whereas lizards with keeled scales have a dull matte-like appearance.  (See below)

Scales

If a skink loses part of its tail to a predator or they release their tail to escape a predator, it will regrow (regenerate) a new tail. The new tail will not have the same shape as the old tail.  Female skinks stay with their eggs after they lay them to guard the eggs until they are hatched.

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Juvenile five-lined skink, note the blue tail. Photo by State Parks.

The most common lizard in New York is the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). Juvenile five-lined skinks are quite striking with their uniform black body, yellow stripes, and bright blue tails.  As these animals approach adult state, the blue color on their tails fades to gray.  Adult females five-lined skinks have faded stripes on their heads, but their body stripes remain strong. Look for these lizards on the ground on rocky summits and sloping hillsides with mixed deciduous trees.  They mostly scurry along the ground, only occasionally climbing shrubs and trees.  On sunny days, you might see one soaking up the sun on a rock or log.

Five-lined skinks are between five and eight inches long, including their tails.  They primarily eat insects and other invertebrates. Larger skinks also eat small shrews and other lizards.  Skinks avoid being eaten by darting as fast as they can from an open area to a hiding spot.  Look for these lizards from April through October in the some of the Hudson Valley State Parks such as Bear Mountain State Park and Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve.

male coal skink Jean Gawalt
Male coal skink. Artwork by Jean Gawalt; courtesy Conservationist magazine

One of our rare lizards is the coal skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) is found in central and western New York.  Coal skinks are identified by the two wide black stripes, bordered by yellow stripes, that run along the length of the body on to the tail.  Like the five-lined skinks, juvenile coal skinks have blue tails.  Some people believe that the blue tail on a juvenile skink is very distasteful and acts as a warning to would-be predators. The main defense of most coal skinks is running quickly away from a threat or predator.

Coal skinks live in forested places, usually near a swamp or other wetland.  You might see one on a rocky hillside near a wetland.  Unlike five-lined skinks, they do not bask in the sun; they are commonly found under the leaf litter, or under loose flat rocks or moss.  Their coloration helps them hid on the forest floor. If they get frightened, they run to water.

Coal skins are the smallest of our native lizards, measuring about seven inches long from nose to tail. Their diet consists of insects, including crickets, millipedes, and spiders.

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Adult fence lizard, note the wavy coloration on the side of the body, photo courtesy of NY Natural Heritage Program.

Lastly, the northern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus hyacinthinus) is a state threatened lizard that lives in the southeastern park of the state.  Their common name comes from their habit of basking in the sun on fence railings.

Male northern fence lizards have unpatterned grayish-brown back, bluish sides that are boarded by black and blue throats.  Females, on the other hand, have a distinct pattern on their back of irregular wavy cross bands; their bellies are white and there is a patch of either red, yellow, or orange at the base of their tails. Fence lizards measure up to seven and a half inches long.

They prefer to live on dry, rocky hillsides in oak or oak-pine forests where they eat insects and spiders.  They can be active both day and night, depending on the temperature.

If you are lucky, you might come upon a male fence lizard during mating season.  If you do, stop to watch him defend his territory by standing stiff-legged and pushing out his head to show his blue throat.

Remember that these are wild lizards and should never be taken home as pets. Collection has caused the populations of our native lizards to decline in some areas.

2013.05.17 TR and FL Skink Jesse W. Jaycox 01
Two of New York’s native reptiles, five-lined skink in lower right, timber rattlesnake in upper left, photo by State Parks.

Learn more about our New York lizards:

Fence lizards occur in a few locations in eastern NY, including in some of our state parks.

NYS Dept. of Conservation Lizards of New York

NY Falls Lizard Species of New York (Upstate)

Featured image, five-lined skink by Robert Escott

Late Spring Flora

Finally the weather is warming and the flowers are popping out. Time to get outside and look for spring flora! You can find wildflowers in the woods, at the pond or along a stream, in the dunes, or maybe even in your back yard or neighborhood. Here are some native wildflowers in bloom to look out for in May and June.

In the Woods

One of the best places to see an abundance of spring flora is in moist hardwood forests with sugar maple, basswood, ash, and red oak. These are often on slopes and along streams. More acidic forests or drier forests dominated by pines, black or scarlet oak, huckleberries, and blueberries tend to have a less-diverse spring flora. These are common on rocky soils, ridgetops, sandplains (like Long Island or Saratoga). Below are some common wildflowers to look for in either of these types of forests.

Wood anemones (Anemone) are named after the Greek word for “wind”. They have five white petals, divided leaves – shaped kind of like an outstretched hand – and start to bloom before the trees are fully leafed-out. Believe it or not, these are actually related to buttercups!Wood anemone S Young NYNHP1

Bellworts (Uvularia spp.) are common woodland flowers in our parks. They have delicate bell-shaped flowers with six pale yellow petals. There are three common bellwort species in NY state: large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) that likes nutrient-rich or calcareous soils, perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), and sessile-leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia). The latter is the most common across the state and is also known by the name “wild oats.”

Large bellwort Steve Young NYNHP1

Our native dogwoods (Cornus spp.) have white to pink flowers and include one flowering tree species, several shrubs, and one non-woody (herbaceous) wildflower species. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) grows low to the ground, but its flowers look just like those of the flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). They may even be blooming at the same time. Dogwoods are identified by the curving veins on the leaves, and flowers with four white or pink bracts that look like petals.

Bunchberry Steve Young NYSNHP1

Shrubby dogwood Gregory Edinger NYNYP1

In Wetlands, Ponds or Streams

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is an easy one to spot because it grows in big clumps or sometimes in large patches. It is always in wet spots, either along slow streams or in open or forested wetlands or seeps. Like the anemones above, this too is in the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family.

Marsh marigold Steve Young NYNHP1

Canada lily (Lilium canadense) grows in somewhat open forested wetlands and wet thickets — habitats that are often harder to see from trails and boardwalks. This beautiful lily is widespread across the state, but not nearly so common as marsh marigold.

Canada lily Timothy Howard NYNHP.1jpg

In June, start looking for water lilies in vegetated ponds. We have several native pond lilies, including this stunning White pond lily (Nymphaea odorata) and several yellow pond lilies (Nuphar spp.). Water lilies often serve as landing pads for insects like bees, beetles, damselflies, dragonflies and frogs often hide in the water nearby. You may see some of these critters if you approach slowly and quietly; it’s a good way to keep kids interested too.

White pond lily Kimberly Smith NYNHP1

Sunny Spots from High to Low: Outcrops, Shorelines, and Dunes

Some plants need a lot of sun and can tolerate extremes of heat, wind and/or drought. Here are some of those rugged spring wildflowers to look for:

On rocky trails and summits in the Palisades and Hudson Highlands Parks and elsewhere, look for the pale, yellow flowers of bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). Bush honeysuckle is one of our native honeysuckles and it attracts many pollinators. It is much less common than the non-native honeysuckles, so a little harder to find and often overlooked.

Bush honeysuckle Gregory Edinger NYNYP1

Find a rocky outcrop, rocky lakeshore, or streamside outcrop anywhere in the state and you may find this delicate looking flower: the Bellflower or Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). You can find it on the rocky shorelines of Lake Ontario in Wehle State Park or other Thousand Islands Parks, on streamside outcrops in the Finger Lakes or Whetstone State Park gorges, or on the rocky summits and slopes of parks like Minnewaska, Hudson Highlands, or Taconic State Parks. This is the bellflower you are most likely to see, but there are native and non-native lookalikes (though usually not in these open rocky spots).

Harebell-bellflower J Lundgren NYNHP1

How about on the sunny dunes of Long Island? Have you ever seen Beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa) in full bloom? It grows in gray-green mounds on the dunes and sports its tiny but profuse yellow blooms in June. Visit duneside trails at Jones Beach, Hither Hills, Napeague, or Orient Beach State Park. Remember to stay on trails to protect this fragile ecosystem. Local native bees take advantage of this food source.Beach heather Steve Young & Kimberly Smith NYNHP

What’s in a name?

Did you know that every plant (and known organism) is given a unique scientific name? Those are the names in parentheses above. The scientific name consists of a genus followed by a species name like Lilium (genus name) + canadense (species name) = Lilium canadense. While there may be few different plants referred to as Canada lily, or someone might call this plant a meadow lily or wild yellow-lily, the scientific name of Lilium canadense refers to just one kind of plant. So, biologists and landscapers and other people working with plants or animals will use the scientific names when they want to make it clear exactly what species they are referring to. You will see these names in the wildflower guides (books or websites) noted below.

The scientific name also helps to see what species are related — organisms with the same genus name are closely related. So Lilium canadense and Lilium superbum are closely related because they are both in the Lilium genus. Common names are not reliable for this purpose. For example, the white water lily is not a close cousin of the Liliums, as it is in a different genus (Nymphaea). In fact these two kinds of “lilies” are in completely different plant families, the Liliaceae and the Nymphaceae, like distant branches on the family tree.

Both called lilly Timothy Howard and Kimberly Smith, NYNHP

TO LEARN MORE:

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. Paperback. 1989. The standard field guide for flora in the northeast. Relies on flower structure so takes a little more time to learn, but includes more species than Peterson’s guide.

Peterson Field Guides, Wildflowers – key by color and shape. Great for the casual observer, or if just starting out, try the Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers.

Go Botany – a great online plant key to flora of New England, but includes most of plants you will see in New York.

NY Flora Atlas – the most current taxonomy, atlas, see what is native or not, rare or common, links to other sources.

NY Flora Association – information about field trips, classes, “Learn 10” programs for all levels, calendar of botany field trips and events across the state, links to other information on flora.

NYNHP Conservation Guides – These provide descriptions of the Natural Communities in New York – different kinds of forests, wetlands and other habitats. Use Advanced Search to find what types are in your county. Each Guide gives a few examples of where you can see it and some characteristic plants.

Post by Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP).

Images by NYNHP 2018; may be used with permission only.  http://www.nynhp.org

Babies Abound! Little Critters in State Parks

Spring is in the air and baby animals abound in our State Parks. Look and listen for some of these young critters in our parks. Remember, it is best to watch them from a distance so you do not scare the young animal or its parent. If you see a young animal that looks like it is abandoned, please leave it be. It is most likely fine on its own or has a parent close by and waiting for you to back away. It is fun to explore and watch, but don’t stay in one spot too long so that the animals can go back to their daily activities.

Box Turtle_E Becker
A class gets a close-up look at a young box turtle at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. The turtle was handled briefly and then released where it was found. If you find turtles crossing the road or trail, you can move them to safety by putting them on the side where they were headed.
baby raccoon FNSP
A pair of young raccoons peek out from behind a tree at Fort Niagara State Park.
MonarchCaterpillar3_E Becker
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of the monarch caterpillars preferred plants. You can find milkweed in along unmown trail edges and in meadows in many State Parks
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A red fox vixen keeps a watchful eye over a pair of kits at Letchworth State Park.
Drone hatching_Greg Kofsky
Warm weather brings the honey bees back into action. Here, a drone honey bee (at left) is hatching from the hive at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center.
S. Montefinise
Canada geese and goslings at Jones Beach State Park. Adult geese can be pretty aggressive about protecting their babies, so watch quietly from a distance. The goslings can be a lot of fun to watch as they scurry about.
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Mother mallard and her many ducklings.
Fawn_G Lamitina2
A white-tailed deer fawn hiding in the brush at Letchworth State Park. The mother is close by, watching you and waiting for you to move on. You have to look hard and move quietly to get a chance to see these youngsters in the woods.
Red Eft at Thacher -Photo by Lilly Schelling
Red efts are the young stage of the aquatic eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). You can hold this one gently, but keep it close to the ground as it will run right out of your hand. This one was seem at John Boyd Thacher State Park.
BarnSwallow Chicks-Photo by Lilly Schelling
Red efts are the young stage of the aquatic eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). You can hold this one gently, but keep it close to the ground as it will run right out of your hand. This one was seem at John Boyd Thacher State Park.
chickadee
Black-capped chickadees nest in tree cavities or will use birdboxes as seen here.
ecottentail
You might see Eastern cottontails in your back yard, local park or in the campground or picnic area in many of the state parks.
Eaglet
Bald eaglet are really big baby birds. This one has been banded by wildlife biologists. The blue and silver leg bands help identify the bird when it is seen elsewhere over the course of its adult life.
killfawn
Young killdeer on the run at Allegany State Park. They have a really loud call and may be seen in open areas like lawns and parking lots! Killdeer are precocial birds, meaning they leave the nest shortly after they are hatched.
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Eastern phoebe nestlings getting a little too big for their nest. Time to try out those wings.
roughwingedswallow
Northern rough-winged swallow fledgling.
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Young snapping turtle covered in duck weed from its pond. Remember that bigger snapping turtles bite, so keep your distance.
woodfrog
A very tiny wood frog, identifiable by the dark mask on its face. It’s ok to hold them gently for a bit, but let them go so they can grow up in their home in the woods.
wooduckwithmarshmellow
Woodchuck mom and her pups in Allegany State Park. The white one was known as “Marshmallow.”
woodcock
A young American woodcock hides in the underbrush, so well camouflaged and thus seldom seen.
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A young dusky salamander found in a wet log at Allegany State Park. It is great to explore and find young animals. Keeping hands off can keep them safe and allow you to observe their behavior in their natural habitat.

Take time this spring to enjoy our State Parks little critters!

Thank you to all staff who contributed to this post.

Trees Spring Ahead

red_maple_buds_JLundgren

Spring is here and the tree buds are starting to pop. Red maple (Acer rubrum) is among the first to flower, revealing little tassles of red and orange. The leaves will emerge a bit later.

silver_maple_JLundgren

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is another early bloomer. Perhaps this tree was named after its silvery flowers.

Beech trees are late comers — the long skinny buds and last year’s leaves are still holding tight. They are easy to spot in the woods before everything greens up.

Beech combined
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud and leaves.

Remember all that snow and how heavy it was? If you find trees arching over a trail or at odd angles in the woods, that may be a sign that it survived a heavy load of snow like these hemlocks. Trees are amazingly resilient and strong.

hemlocks_in_snow1_JLundgren
Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches bent down by the weight of the snow.

Before long the trees will be greening up and a new season of growth, with the sounds of birds, insects, and wildlife, will return. Take a walk through the woods. Look how small we are compared to the trees!

Bennington
Immersed in the woods on a trail at Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Do you feel inspired, in awe, empowered or claustrophobic under a canopy of trees? More than 80% of NY State Parks and Historic Sites are covered in forest, so you can find spots like this in a park near you.

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Tree canopy at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, Staten Island.

Perhaps you prefer viewing the trees from a distance or sitting under a favorite tree. NYS Historic Sites are great places for this: Crown Point on Lake Champlain (below), Olana on the Hudson, Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, Lorenzo in Cazenovia, or Hyde Hall at Glimmerglass are a few spots to enjoy big trees.

Crown Pt
Crown Point State Historic Site offers scenic vistas and some beautiful trees.

Take a little time this Arbor Day to appreciate our tall tree friends and spring into action with some walks in the woods or a stroll along a tree-lined path.

Post and photos by Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program, NYNHP. NYNHP works in partnership with State Parks to survey and map rare species and natural communities in the parks to aid in stewardship of their natural resources.

The Coming of the Phoebe

As spring returns to New York, so does the eastern phoebe. This charming bird begins its courtship and nest-building in March and April. Since April is also National Poetry Month, it seems fitting to pay tribute to this little bird. The following ode to the phoebe was written by John Burroughs (1837-1921), the beloved New York naturalist who was born on April 3.

John Burroughs Memorial State Historic Site is a great place to listen for eastern phoebes!

 The Coming Of Phoebe

John Burroughs

When buckets shine ‘gainst maple trees
And dropp by dropp the sap doth flow,
When days are warm, but still nights freeze,
And deep in woods lie drifts of snow,
When cattle low and fret in stall,
Then morning brings the phoebe’s call,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ a cheery note,
While cackling hens make such a rout.

When snowbanks run, and hills are bare,
And early bees hum round the hive,
When woodchucks creep from out their lair
Right glad to find themselves alive,
When sheep go nibbling through the fields,
Then phoebe oft her name reveals,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ a plaintive cry,
While jack-snipes call in morning sky.

When wild ducks quack in creek and pond
And bluebirds perch on mullein-stalks,
When spring has burst her icy bond
And in brown fields the sleek crow walks,
When chipmunks court in roadside walls,
Then phoebe from the ridgeboard calls,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ and lifts her cap,
While smoking Dick doth boil the sap. 

Listen to the phoebe sing: 

Call recorded by Ian Davies

John Burroughs Boy and Man By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
From John Burroughs Boy and Man by Clara Barrus
Sources:

Barrus, Clara, John Borroughs Boy and Man,  Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920.

‘Breeding Season Dates.’ New York State Department of Conservation https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/brddate.pdf.

Burroughs, John, Birds and Bough, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906.

‘Eastern phoebe.’ Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/overview.

‘Eastern phoebe song.’ Xeno-canto Foundation, https://www.xeno-canto.org/explore?query=+gen%3A%22sayornis%22+rec%3A%22ian+davies%22.