Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

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!


Empire State Native Pollinator Survey – You Can Help!

Summer is in full swing, with flowers blooming and bees buzzing. Our native pollinators, which also include flies, butterflies, and beetles, are an important part of New York’s ecosystems. They work hard to pollinate our trees, wildflowers, gardens, and crops. Some of these native pollinators appear to be declining. To learn more, scientists have been evaluating the populations of pollinators throughout New York as part of the four year Empire State Native Pollinator Survey (ESNPS).

The ESNPS is a project that aims to determine the distribution and conservation status of target pollinator species in New York. This project is made possible through work by both scientists conducting statewide surveys and community members submitting pollinator pictures and specimens they have observed.

In the last few years, zoologists with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) have visited more than 60 State Parks throughout New York State searching for a variety of target pollinator species. Community scientists have also been contributing their finds with photos added to the ESNPS iNaturalist project page.

More than 21,000 observations had been submitted to this multi-year project byMarch 2021, with the project constantly growing. These observations have been submitted by over 600 people and represent over 1,400 species. The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey is accepting photo submissions through September 2021 and you can help!

Be A Community Scientist

Do you want to help contribute to pollinator survey efforts? The project is accepting photo submissions through September 2021! Photographs can be submitted through the ESNPS iNaturalist project page or through the iNaturalist app after joining the project online. This can be a fun activity to do solo or with friends and family the next time you visit a State Park. Pollinators can be found in a variety of habitats – keep an eye out for wildflowers on warm and sunny days to see what you can find.  If you are able to snap some good pictures and upload them to iNaturalist, experts can help you identify the species you have found. It is a great way to learn, too.

What to Look For

Below are some pictures of the target species for this project that have been found in New York State Parks. New York’s pollinators have so much variety! These are just a few examples of what to look for and photograph.

Cuckoo Bee


One of the interesting bumble bees we have in New York is Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae). Cuckoo bumble bees are a group of parasitic bees that are unable to collect pollen or raise young. These bees will take over the already established nests of other bumble bees by invading and incapacitating or killing the queen. The Cuckoo bumble bee then forces the workers to raise its young.

Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae) Photo Kevin Hemeon

Bee Mimics

Look closely at the Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) and Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis); these are flies that are called bee mimics. Bee mimics can look very similar to bees, hornets, or wasps. Imitating insects with stingers is a defense mechanism for these harmless flies. 

Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) Photo Paweł Pieluszyński
Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis) Photo Laura Shappell
Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) Photo Alan Wells

Longhorn Beetles

The project is also interested in information on the 100 species of longhorn beetles. These beetles generally have very long antennae and come in a wide variation of colors and patterns. They too are pollinators.

Strangalepta Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalepta abbreviata) Photo Alan Wells
Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus) Photo Alan Wells

Where Should I Look?

You can find native pollinators all over. State Parks have a great variety of natural habitats where you can find interesting pollinators. Sunny days with not too much wind are ideal. Some of the counties that would benefit from additional surveys are Chenango, Cortland, Fulton, Lewis, Montgomery, Orleans, Tioga, and Yates.

Look for flowers along trails through fields, meadows, dunes, forests, or even in marshes and stream sides if you kayak or canoe. Stop and look for a bit to see if any pollinators settle down on the flowers. Photograph from a distance first and then try to move in for some close-ups. The insects are often so intent on feeding that they don’t fly away.

If you can help, sign up for the Empire Pollinator Survey ESNPS iNaturalist project page and submit your photos on that project page or the APP before Sept. 30, 2021. The results from the project are anticipated to be available in spring 2022.

Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program  www.nynhp.org

Resources

Read more about State Parks and our efforts with pollinators in previous posts in the NYS Parks Blog.

Protecting Pollinators

Across New York, State Parks staff is working hard to help support the diverse populations of pollinators from bees to butterflies, beetles, wasps, and more.  Here’s a sample of the pollinator protection projects going on this year in State Parks. Rockefeller State Park Preserve Wild Bees Photo Exhibit Working from their photographs from both Rockefeller … Continue reading Protecting Pollinators

State Parks Strengthens Niagara River Island Ecosystem

Just upriver in Erie County from Niagara Falls State Park lies New York State’s third largest island. Home to more than 20,000 people and split by Interstate-190, Grand Island is 28 square miles and divides the Niagara River into east and west branches.

Industry and commerce dominated this river and its shoreline for more than a century, leaving a legacy of water pollution, fish unsafe to eat, and loss of wildlife habitat so extreme that in 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the entire 36-mile river an Area of Concern.

That federal listing set the stage for years of remediation efforts by New York State to clean up the river and shoreline. And now, it has led to State Parks, working with several partners, to begin the next chapter in healing the river – the restoration of several wetland areas of habitat along Grand Island critical for many fish and bird species that rely on the river for survival.

Grand Island is in the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

These projects focus on two State Parks on the island – the 895-acre Buckhorn Island State Park on the northern tip, a nature preserve which has some of the island’s best remaining marshland wildlife habitat, and the more-developed, 950-acre Beaver Island State Park on the southern tip.

With funding support from the EPA under a plan finalized in 2018, Parks staff have finished two habitat restoration projects at Grand Island and two more are under way this season.

At Beaver Island in the south, offshore rocky reefs have been added in the river to an area called East River Marsh to protect the shoreline from further erosion caused by boat wakes and wind. Thousands of native plants have been planted by hand to provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife.

In the north, Buckhorn Island has one of the largest remaining cattail marshes on the Niagara River. At a place called Burnt Ship Creek, contractors hired by Parks have created open water channels and “potholes” in the marsh to provide pathways needed for fish such as Northern Pike to feed and spawn. The new open spaces also allow sheltered nesting sites for such secretive marsh birds as the threatened Least Bittern, which prompted the conservation group Ducks Unlimited to partner with State Parks for this restoration project.

Habitat restoration projects on Grand Island by New York State Parks and other entities are shown on this map. Buckhorn Island State Park is at the northern tip of the island, and Beaver Island State Park is at the southern tip.
Completed habitat restoration project at Burnt Ship Creek at the northern tip of Grand island near Buckhorn Island State Park.

This season, parks crews are working at a place called Grass Island, which is not actually an island at all, but rather an area of shallow water filled with cattails and other aquatic plants, both above the water and submerged. Sometimes also called Sunken Island, Grass Island is just east of Buckhorn Island State Park across from the city of Niagara Falls.

In addition to cattails and other plants visible above the water, Grass Island is also made up of many acres of submerged plants, predominantly a species known as water celery or American eel grass. This plant provides food and cover for several types of fish, including the Muskellunge, the state’s largest freshwater sportfish, which spawns among the eel grass each spring. The Upper Niagara River is one of state’s most important habitats for this fish.

Above the water, many species of waterfowl and marsh birds use the island for nesting, feeding and nighttime cover. Pied-billed Grebes, a threatened species in New York, nest and raise chicks there in the summer. During the fall migration of Purple Martins, the birds will roost in the cattails by the thousands.

Grass island, as seen in a drone photograph. On the above map, Grass Island is at the top right of Grand Island.

Together, Grass Island forms a 20-acre ecosystem designated as a protected wetland by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). While Grass Island provides some of the most important habitat in the Niagara River above the falls, this area has been steadily shrinking in recent decades due to wave erosion caused by boat wakes or wind. Between 2007 to 2018, Grass Island shrank by more than a third, losing an estimated 1.5 acres of its above-water vegetation.

Use the slider bar to show the decreasing size of Grass Island. The left image is from September 2018, while the right image was taken in August 2007.

This season at Grass Island, Parks contractors are constructing underwater rock reefs similar to those successfully constructed at East River Marsh. Once the reefs are finished, crews will add submerged tree trunks with the roots still attached (called rootwads) to provide underwater structure needed for good fish habitat. Also, large numbers of native wetland plants will be planted behind the protective rock reefs to expand the area with dense vegetation.

Also this summer, similar rock reefs, rootwads, woody material, and native plantings will be installed along the shoreline at Buckhorn Island State Park to restore and protect coastal wetlands. And finally, another similar project is in the works for the shoreline along the new West River Shoreline Trail at Buckhorn.

These projects join other ongoing conservation efforts at Grand Island being done by DEC, and the Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group. Find a FAQ on the projects here.

Buckhorn Island State Park is also a listed Bird Conservation Area, with its marsh providing important nesting habitat for threatened species such as Least Bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren. The marsh serves as a feeding, resting and breeding area for ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. Common Tern find suitable habitat for foraging here. Additional birds of interest include a variety of species of ducks, herons, coots, moorhens, and rails. Spring and fall migrations along the Niagara River corridor can bring large numbers of gulls to this site.

Some of the birds of Grand Island known to be in the Bird Conservation Area.

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year. Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, … Continue reading Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter


Together, these wetland restoration projects at Grand Island aim to maintain and strengthen this urban island ecosystem in a river that fuels the spectacular waterfalls only a few miles away that draw millions of visitors each year.

If a visit to Niagara Falls is in the works, consider also making a trip to Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park, both of which have car-top boat launch sites, to see this part of Niagara River and witness some of the efforts to help restore it. Please remember that these are sensitive ecological areas and habitats for secretive wildlife, so be respectful and take care when visiting these special places.

As always, whenever hiking, or in this instance, more likely paddling, consider “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Learn more on how to practice “Leave No Trace” by clicking on this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Beaver Island State Park: This park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, about four miles of bike and nature trails, nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18 hole championship disc golf course, an 18-hole championship golf course. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.

Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society and built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland who visited the family farm on several occasions.

Buckhorn Island State Park: For a wilder experience, try this less visited park, which is a nature preserve of marsh, meadows and woods that mark the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. There are nearly two miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The preserve includes two launches for kayaks and canoes. There is ongoing restoration to re-establish wetland cover and water levels and increase the diversity of native flora and fauna. This effort aims to increase public access with more non-intrusive trails, overlooks and bird watching blinds.


Cover shot: A work barge involved in habitat restoration at Grass Island. All photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Post by David Spiering, Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Coordinator, NYS Parks

Get Out and Explore … The Long Island Region of New York State Parks

Cactus actually grows along the beach at a State Park in Long Island, the southernmost point in New York State.

At 120 miles long and 23 miles at its widest point, Long Island is home to nearly 8 million people, making it the most populated island in the United States, but also has places wild and remote to hike and explore nature. This region is noted for its beaches, golf courses, arboretums and grand estates, containing 30 State Parks and two arboreta to enjoy. The eastern end of Long Island is forked, and at the end of each fork is a State Park: Montauk on the south and Orient Beach on the north.

Formed by glacial movement that ended some 10,000 years ago, Long Island readily exhibits its origins, from the rocky bluffs of the north shore, including giant  boulders, called glacial erratics, to the fine grained, sandy beaches of the south shore, remnants of the glacial outwash plain. The region’s parks highlight many of these features, providing wonderful opportunities to get out and explore!

To start, any successful hike starts with a good map. Maps for hiking trails and a variety of other useful information on State Parks, including those in the Long Island region and other regions, are now available on the NYS Parks Explorer app. The free app, which is available for use on Android and iOS devices, is easy to download, user friendly and allows patrons to have park information readily available every State Parks facility across the state.

Trail maps are also available on each individual park website page at parks.ny.gov and at the main office of each park. Links to maps are also included in the trail descriptions in this post. Be sure to download maps ahead of time to your phone or tablet, and maybe even carry a paper copy as a back up to aid your hike.

As with all hikes, there are a few things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Check the weather forecast before you go, and dress appropriately. Wear sturdy, yet comfortable shoes or boots, bring enough water and snacks, and perhaps carry a camera to capture what you see. Be mindful of wildlife and give it appropriate space, particularly in areas marked as protected, such as for shorebird nesting.

Always be aware of your surroundings and mindful of hikes on steep terrain or those that go near cliff tops. Having a small first-aid kit available in case of an emergency is never a bad idea.

Hiking poles are also useful on longer hikes and can transfer some of the stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back.

Hikers should plan their route in advance, know how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. If weather conditions change for the worse, be prepared to turn back. Don’t let a desire to reach a specific destination make you press on. Since daylight is not an unlimited resource, even in spring and summer when days are longer, tossing a flashlight or headlamp into your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.

State Park facilities are carry-in, carry-out, so don’t leave trash behind. Follow Leave No Trace principles to keep trails clean for everyone.

Additionally, as incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard.

Lastly, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, remember to practice safe social distancing, particularly in parking lots and at trailheads, and use face coverings when a distance of six feet cannot be maintained, even if you have been vaccinated. To learn more about important COVID safety guidelines, click HERE.


Hempstead Lake State Park, 100 Lake Drive, West Hempstead (516)766-1029: Situated in western Long Island, this park is a family-friendly facility that includes playgrounds and picnic areas. Within its 737 acres are several bodies of water: Hempstead Lake, the largest lake in Nassau County, as well as Northwest Pond, Northeast Pond, MacDonald Pond, Shodack Pond and South Pond. Popular for picnicking and fishing, this suburban park offers peaceful nature walks. A lovely green oasis surrounded by suburbia, it is a good spot for bird watching, and the colorful oak forests reflecting off the water are beautiful in the fall.

Some popular trails include:

  • Blue: 1 mile – Located on the North side of the Southern State Parkway, starting near Eagle Ave, this secluded natural trail overlooks North West Pond and meets the Green Trail near Hempstead High School.
  • Green : 1 mile – Also located on the North side of the Southern State Parkway, this natural trail runs parallel to the green trail.  It has views of the Hempstead Golf and Country Club, connecting to the Blue Trail near Hempstead High School.
  • Red: 3 mile – Located South of the Southern State Parkway, this natural trail overlooks Hempstead Lake.  Parallel hiking trails exist along the shoreline on the East and West sides of Hempstead Lake.
  • Bike trail: 2.4 mile – Mostly paved, this trail connects the parking fields, playgrounds, and walking paths throughout the park.  Sections of the trail are on service drives with vehicular traffic.

Find a trail map here.

Getting there: Take exit 18 off the Southern State Parkway. Make a right off the exit and follow the road south to reach the parking lots.

Hemstead Lake

Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Oakdale (631) 581-1005: At 3,473 acres, this preserve on the South Shore is the largest State Park on Long Island. A former hunting and fishing club, the land has been protected from development for more than 150 years. As a result, it is a pristine area that is home many rare species. The Preserve had more than over 50 miles of trails, but there are five established marked trails.

Yellow: 1 mile long (2 miles round trip) an easy walk through oak forest that ends at the trout hatchery, where trout have been raised for over 100 years.

Red: 1.5 miles – travels on the east side of the river, the red trail weaves through pine and oak forest and also ends at the hatchery. Either the red or the yellow trails can be taken back to the parking lot.

Green: 3.6 miles – travels the north – south length of the park.

Blue: 8 miles – a long loop that goes through some of the less travelled areas of the preserve.

Greenbelt: 4.4 miles – the Greenbelt trail runs between the north and south shores of Long Island, and part of it travels through the preserve.

Find a trail map here.

Getting there: the only entrance to the Preserve is located on the westbound side of Sunrise Highway (Route 27) in Bohemia.

A view during the fall of the Connetquot River from the Bunces Bridge, which is found on the Green and White trails.

Camp Hero State Park, 1898 Montauk Highway, Montauk (631) 668-3781: Located on the tip of the south fork, this unusual facility covers 415 acres of woodlands and bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was once a U.S. military installation commissioned for coastal defense during World War II that was disguised to look like a fishing village.

The military radar array at Camp Hero.

Listed as a National Historic Site, the park opened in 2002 and includes several trails, including the Paumonok Trail at 3.4 miles that travels around the park an and offers dramatic ocean views, as well as shorter trails of a half-mile or less that lead to the historic military buildings.

The bluffs here feature a geological formation called hoodoos, which are tall, thin spires of rock or hardened soil. Hoodoos typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements.

Find a trail map here.

Hoodoos at Camp Hero State Park.

Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve, 25 Lloyd Harbor Road, Huntington (631) 423-1770): The park has roots in history, residing on the former grounds of the 1750-acre estate of investment banker and philanthropist Marshall Field III. Developed in 1921, it was a self-sufficient farm including its own water and electrical supply. Many of the structures still exist.

Earlier history can be found at the 1711 Henry Lloyd Manor house. The land has several different ecosystems including pine forests, a freshwater pond, tulip poplar forests, a saltwater marsh, and grasslands.

This large park has many trails for pedestrians, equestrians and cyclists. The most popular is the 2.4 mile paved loop trail, which is bicycle and stroller-friendly. The trail passes the Marshall Field III estate, which offers a beautiful vista of the Fresh Pond, the Long Island Sound, and Connecticut.

Find a map here.

Getting there: From Main Street in Huntington, take West Neck Road north for about 4.5 miles, where it will become Lloyd Harbor Rd. The entrance will be on the left in about .4 mile.

A view of Fresh Pond, the Long Island Sound, and Connecticut in the distance from the Marshall Fields III estate at Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve.

Jones Beach State Park, 2400 Ocean Parkway, Wantagh (516) 785-1600: With more than 2,400 acres of marine environment, the flagship park at Jones Beach is a unique spot located on the south shore bordering the Atlantic Ocean, offering seven miles of fine-grained white quartz-sand beachfront to enjoy. The pristine area of the West End includes more than 100 acres of coastal dune habitat. There are no established trails, but there are eight parking lots, each one provides access to the beachfront, and the ocean vistas are unrivalled.

Birders and those seeking a quieter experience can watch for a variety of shore birds, such as oystercatchers, terns, skimmers, plovers, and many more. Children can collect shells along the seashore and encounter large horseshoe crabs. A pleasant pastime is a long, leisurely walk on the beach to the east or west of the central part of the park, where fewer people will be encountered.

The Atlantic Ocean at Jones Beach.

Those who wish to ride their bikes may do so year-round on our boardwalk.  Glide along the beach on Long Island’s premier bike path, the Ocean Parkway Coastal Greenway, which begins at Cedar Creek Park in Seaford. From there it’s a 5.4 mile ride to Jones Beach’s East Bathhouse on the Boardwalk.  There you can either lock up your bike for a stroll, or keep cycling to the food concessions.

Or stay on the extension on the north side of Ocean Parkway to pedal another 3.6 miles to Tobay Beach where there are more restaurants and a playground. The bike path extends even further east, 13 miles, to Captree State Park. Restrooms are available on the bikeway at mileage 5.4 to 9. 

At Jones Beach, if you choose to stay the path of the two-mile boardwalk, the new multi-use path extends from the boardwalk at Field 1 to the West End area of the park for an additional 2.3 miles.

Find a map here.

A section of the newly completed Ocean Park Coastal Greenway on the way to Jones Beach State Park.

Orient Beach State Beach Park, 4000 Main Road (Route 25), Orient (631) 323-2440: Located on the eastern tip of the north fork of Long Island, this unique 363-acre park stretches southwest into Gardiners Bay. It has a playground, picnic areas, kayak rental and more than eight miles of waterfront beach.

A walk west on the beachfront goes along ‘Long Beach’, a rich ecosystem which was designated a “National Natural Landmark” in 1980.  Native prickly pear cactus is abundant there. At only .3 miles, the Roy Lathan trail has interpretive signs that highlight the unique flora and other shore plants.

The park also is open for kayakers, with water routes around Hallock’s Bay and the Gardiner’s Bay side of Orient Point as described in this guide.

Find a trail map here.

Getting there: Head east on Sound Avenue, which will become Route 48 and then Route 25, which will take you to the end of the island. The entrance in on the right.

Long Beach at Orient Beach State Park

Sunken Meadow State Park: Rte. 25A and Sunken Meadow Parkway, Kings Park (631) 269-4333: Located on the north shore of Long Island, Sunken Meadow State Park has 1,287 acres and a variety of habitats, including woodlands, tidal creek, saltwater marshes and about 1.5 miles of beachfront. Amenities include swimming, kayak launch, playgrounds, ball fields, picnic areas, golf course, and a .75-mile boardwalk along the beach.

There are unmarked trails through the woodlands, many that are used for cross country track meets. Some of the more popular trails include:

Wetland trail: The trail is a 2.6 mile out-and-back trail that runs alng the saltmarsh, through woodlands and back along the creek to the inflow of fresh water near the southern border of the park.

Greenbelt Trail: This 32-mile trail spans the width of the island from Hecksher State Park on Great South Bay north to Sunken Meadow State Park being the northern most point. In the park, the Greenbelt Trail traverses 2.5 miles, and offers beautiful views from the bluff of the Long Island and Connecticut.

Get a trail map here.

Getting there: Head north on the Sunken Meadow Parkway, which ends at the park.

Long Island Sound as seen from the Greenbelt Trail in Sunken Meadow State Park.

Cover Shot – Prickly pear cactus grows in the sandy soil at Orient Beach State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.