Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Owl Pellets: An Answer to the Question, “What Was for Dinner?”

Walking through the forest, especially under big trees, you might come across something rather interesting on the ground beneath you.  It’s pretty small and dark colored.  Maybe it’s a pine cone?  Looking closer, you notice this peculiar item is covered in fur, but is obviously not alive.  You poke it with a stick and notice it’s a little squishy.  Maybe it’s animal scat?  You peer even closer and notice that it might even have some small bones sticking out.  What you may have found is an owl pellet.

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Owl pellet on the forest floor, photo by Jace Stansbury

Owls are a bird of prey, which means they hunt other animals.  They rely on their excellent vision and even better sense of hearing to locate a meal.  Their feet are armed with sharp claws, or talons, that latch onto prey.  Instead of having sharp teeth like mammal predators such as coyotes and bobcats, owls have a sharp, down-curved beak that helps them eat meat.

When an owl eats another animal it usually swallows that animal whole.  However, not every part of the ingested animal can be digested by the owl.  The second of two stomachs in the owl’s digestive system is able to separate the digestible parts from the non-digestible parts of their meal, which includes fur, hair, bones, and teeth.  These non-digestible parts are then packed tightly into a neat package inside the owl’s stomach and later regurgitated, almost as if the owl is throwing up.  Because the pellet partially blocks their digestive system, an owl usually can’t swallow new prey until it expels the pellet made from the last one.

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Small owl pellet, photo by Phillp R. Brown

What is so fascinating about owl pellets is that the bones inside them can be identified.  This helps us learn what owls like to eat!  Some things to look for in a pellet to help you identify an owl’s prey are the jaws of rodents, which should have the long (usually orange) front teeth, and bird beaks or feet.  Unless you can see feathers in the pellet, bones are typically the best way to identify their prey.  Other bones that can usually be identified include the pelvis, femur (upper leg bone), humerus (upper arm bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).

Jason Bottom
Rodent skull found in an owl pellet, photo by Jason Bottom

In the winter and early spring, a good place to look for owl pellets is under evergreen trees.  Why?  Because owls tend spend most of their time in evergreen trees in winter because they provide the best cover to stay hidden from other birds that might harass them during the day.  So the next time you are in the forest, be on the lookout for owls in the trees, and their pellets at your feet!

Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are the most common species of owl in New York State.  Snowy Owls, Barn Owls and even Great Gray Owls may be seen irregularity in New York as well.  More information can be found here.

Post by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

Featured image: Barred owl by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

American Robin – Nature’s Harbinger of Spring

The last snow on the ground has finally melted away. It’s early spring. The first hints of warmth are beating down from the sun. Life, for as long as you can remember, has been cold and white… has it been 6 weeks? No, maybe 2 months… longer? Who knows how long it has been since you’ve seen green grass, but it is a glorious sight. The bright green of new growth surrounds you. You finally get a chance to sit out on your back deck with a nice cocktail after work when all of a sudden you hear a “whinney” from a tree in your side yard… you know this sound. It means spring is officially here. And as if it knew you were thinking of it, a flash of orange descends onto your yard on a mission for a tasty treat.

The American robin, Turdus migratorius (Latin for migratory thrush), is the first sign of spring for many in northern North America. Though its range stretches south into areas where it can be viewed year around, it is typically one of the earliest birds to lay its eggs during the spring breeding season. These resourceful thrushes make their nest out of anything from paper to twigs. They will smear mud to hold the nest all together and often will make a soft lining out of grass. A protected and safe nesting site can sometimes produce up to three broods with multiple chicks in one year.

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Robin eggs, photo by Laslovarga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Common
With a sleek gray to brown back and head and a rusty orange chest and belly, there isn’t any other bird in North America that can really be mistaken for an American robin. When in flight, a white patch under the tail and lower belly can be noticed. Sexual dimorphism, or the visual difference between male and female, within this species isn’t very noticeable, but the female does tend to have a more pale head.

This large member of the thrush family uses a wide range of habitats from wide open spaces like lawns and tundra, to neighborhoods with scattered trees and shrubs, as well as deciduous and evergreen woodlands. Robins are often found hopping along or standing erect on a lawn searching for invertebrates, such as earthworms or grubs, but can also be seen in bushes and trees feeding on caterpillars, fruits and berries. Typically, a robin’s diet changes throughout the day, with more yummy earthworms in the morning — thus the phrase “the early bird catches the worm” — and more delectable berries in the afternoon. During the late fall and winter months, they often gather in large flocks (sometimes numbering close to 250,000 individuals!) to eat berries and roots that are still available. Sometimes, when winter flocks feed exclusively on crabapples or honeysuckle berries, they can become intoxicated due to the fermentation of sugars in the berries! When birds become intoxicated from fermented berries, most are just a bit tipsy and you might not be able to notice any signs. However, when some birds overdo it, they may have trouble perching, hopping/walking, and controlling their flight, often crashing into branches and each other. Sadly, this also includes crashing into larger obstacles, like buildings, which can lead to the bird’s death.

Cousin to the musical hermit thrush and wood thrush, the robin is also an impressive songster. However, as one of the first birds to sing at dawn – or predawn – they make many a camper grumpy from the early wake-up call. The song is a loud, repeated musical whistle that ascends and descends through a series of notes. They have a variety of calls ranging from an alarm ‘yeep chuck’ to a loud ‘whinney’. To hear their songs and calls, or to learn some more cool facts about American Robins, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.  Get started by listening to robins call below.

Some interesting tidbits:

  • Only 40% of nests produce offspring
  • Only 25% of young robins survive the first year
  • The average lifespan is 2 years; longest known is 14 years
  • State bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin
  • They occur across almost all of Canada and the United States
  • Known to winter as far south as Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and Cuba
  • Was featured on the Canadian $2 bill (no longer in use)

Post by Matt Brincka, State Parks

More than forty winks: who will be hibernating this winter?

When the temperature drops and the days grow shorter, many of us feel like climbing into bed and waiting it out. Well, for a lot of animals in New York State, this is exactly what they do. To conserve energy during the season when food sources become scarce, some animals go into an inactive or sleep-like state called hibernation.  How and where the animal hibernates, as well as the amount of time it hibernates usually varies by species, but all end hibernation when the warmer spring weather returns.

 

Most mammals will prepare for hibernation by spending the months leading to winter gorging themselves and building up their fat stores. To these animals, every day is Thanksgiving when they are getting ready to hibernate. Once the animals sense shorter days, colder temperatures, and less food, it knows that hibernation should soon begin.

When most people think of an animal hibernating, they think of a bear curled up asleep in its den all winter long. While bears do hibernate, they are not the only animals that spend their winter this way. Many other mammals, including reptiles, amphibians and even insects hibernate the winter months away.

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Let’s take a closer look at these hibernation strategies. While bears hibernate in their pre-made dens, groundhogs will build special burrows just for hibernation. Deer mice don’t completely hibernate but instead enter a light hibernation often conserving warmth by snuggling together. The little brown bat enters into such a heavy state of hibernation that they appear to be dead with their breathing slowing so much it could take an hour for them to take one breath.  The meadow jumping mouse is one of the longest hibernators; they sleep from early October until early May

Cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles hibernate differently than warm-blooded animals. Instead of sleeping the months away, they will enter a state of suspended animation sometimes called brumation. Animals that are in brumation are actually semi-conscious and have no control over their body temperature.  Snakes, turtles, and frogs will undergo brumation in burrows, mud or underwater anywhere  the temperature might be above freezing  for them to survive. Often times they will borrow themselves so far they are below the frost line. Some frogs cannot hide from winter’s cold; they hibernate under rocks and logs and may freeze during the cold winter days.  Natural chemicals and processes in the animal’s blood prevent them from freezing.  The animal’s body produces an “anti-freeze” (a cryoprotectant) as the temperature begins to drop; the animal’s body concentrates sugars and other compounds that prevent the animal’s organs from freezing.  The antifreeze prevents the animal’s organs from freezing.  A frozen animal will stop breathing and the heart will stop beating. Most of the fluid in the blood pools in the animal’s body cavity.  Learn more about freezing frogs in a previous blog.

 

Some insects known for hibernating are the Mourning cloak butterflies and Woolly bear caterpillars. One of the first species you see when spring is on its way, the Mourning cloak butterfly, spends the winter months frozen but alive usually under loose tree bark. One of the most recognizable insects, the woolly bear caterpillar can spend its winters frozen as well. These insects also survive freezing by producing a cryoprotectant that shields their tissues from being damaged by the freezing temperatures.

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One mammal that does not hibernate is humans, so make sure to get out and enjoy all the beauty New York State Parks has to offer this winter!

Wooly Bear Video:

http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/frozen-planet/videos/woolly-bear-caterpillars/

Resources:

Cold-blooded in the cold: hibernation Conservationist for Kids, NYS Dept. Conservationist

Post by Kristin King, State Parks

featured image from Wikicommons

The Return of the Eagle

Between 1950 and 1972, chemical contaminations such as DDT almost eliminated bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The chemicals lead to soft, very breakable eggs resulting in no baby bald eagles and a drastic decline in the population, at which time the species was put on the NYS endangered species list as well as the federal list. By 1960, only one active eagle nest was known in New York State. So, in the late 1970’s, an intensive restoration program began to rebuild the population in the state, to hopefully remove them from the list. The program involved bringing in and raising wild bald eagles from the Great Lakes region and Alaska in hopes that the birds would reestablish the population here in New York. The project, known as “hacking”, was a big success! In 2014, a statewide survey found approximately 330 nests in New York, 250 of which were occupied by breeding pairs, causing the species to be moved from  endangered status to threatened within the state. In addition, the birds’ successful recovery across the U.S. led to the removal of bald eagles from the federal Endangered Species list.

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Immature bald eagles often hang out near the nest during the summer. Notice that these birds are all brown, indicating they were born this year. Photo by State Parks.

Bald eagles mate for life and will usually return to the same nesting site year after year, somewhere near their birth nest area. Bald eagle pairs perform various activities together before mating, such as sharing food, building the breeding nest, and sometimes even courtship flights. The nesting season in New York ranges from the beginning of January to the end of August. Between September and December some birds may stay if there is open water and ample food, while others may migrate to a wintering location. During the nesting season, the eagles are extremely sensitive to human disturbances, such as loud noises, fast movement, or being too close to the nest. If too many disturbances happen during the nesting season, the eagles may leave or even abandon their nest. This past summer, State Parks and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enacted a plan to help protect the bald eagles nesting in Beaver Island State Park from these human disturbances. Similar protections are in place for eagles nesting in other State Parks such as on the Hudson River, Thousand Islands, and other regions.

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One of many “no motorized vessel” buoys located around the nesting area. Photo by Josh Wulf,2016.

One protective measure is to keep motorized vessels away from the nesting bald eagles. The “no motorized vessel” buoys extend 330 feet all around the nesting area in all directions. Non-motorized vessels such as kayaks or canoes are permitted. In all cases, there are still federal navigation laws around the islands to help protect the habitat, such as maintaining a 5 mph speed limit while within 100 feet of the shoreline. There are also signs on the land that note the edge of the prohibited area for anyone walking on foot. You can help by paying attention to signs to keep your distance from nesting eagles and also avoid disturbing groups of eagles you may see in the winter.

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Immature bald eagle in late winter. Notice the white feathers are starting to come in, but the bird still lacks the white head of the adults. Photo by Gary McDannel, 2014.

Preserving and maintaining good habitat in State Parks has played an important role to the return of this majestic species. With the cooperation of everyone, we can continue to enjoy the wonder of seeing bald eagles on New York’s lakes and rivers, thanks to the remarkable recovery effort that brought the eagles back.

For more information on bald eagles and the protection, please visit the NYSDEC website:

Viewing Tips

Life History

Protection

Post by Jillian Harris, State Parks

 

Wildlife Spotlight: Furbearer frenzy: The Mink

Scientific name: Mustela vison

Small predator furbearers are some of the most fun, and most uncommon, animals to see in the wild. And mink are some of the most secretive in this group! Minks are in the weasel family and can grow to about the size of a housecat. Unlike weasels however, mink do not change color in winter. Mink are generally dark furred, with a distinctive white patch on their chins. Mink seem to be more common in the southern tier of New York State, so keep an eye out for these adorable buggers on your hikes in that area.

Mink were traditionally prized and trapped for their soft, glossy coats. Mink coats were a status symbol in the early 20th century, with most coats made from wild-caught mink. However, the 1950s through the 1970s saw a large increase in the production of farmed mink, especially from Europe, which reduced the burden on the wild populations. Today, trapping licenses for mink are available through the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the season is open when the population can withstand normal trapping pressures. DEC reports that the mink population is stable and able to sustain the trapping that still exists.

Mink are excellent swimmers, and they can also climb trees. Their clawed and webbed feet make them versatile predators. They are opportunistic predators, meaning they prey on crayfish, frogs, lizards, eggs, earthworms- pretty much anything they can find! They prefer wetland, or stream habitats, and will actually use existing burrows for their dens. They prefer muskrat holes, and some individuals have even been reported to evict (and eat) a resident muskrat to use a preferred hole.

Don’t forget to report mink and any other furbearers you see to DEC, to help with annual population data collection on these seldom seen species:

Email: wildlife@dec.ny.gov

Online: Upstate NY

Long Island

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Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks

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American mink, By Mink_in_the_park.jpg qmnonic derivative work Mariomassone (Mink_in_the_park.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.jpg