Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

The Petaltail’s Tale

Each June and July, visitors to several gorge parks are rewarded with an unusual treat – the chance to see a “living fossil.”

The term “living fossil” refers to species that have evolved very little over the course of millions of years. Some well-known examples of living fossils include elephant sharks, ginkgo trees, and horseshoe crabs. Although all of these organisms have evolved, these species have stayed so similar that fossils from millions of years ago are still recognizable as ancestors to the modern species.

Petaltail on Rocks, photo by State Parks
A gray petaltail perches in the sun along a gorge trail, photo by State Parks.

Meet the gray petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi), a species of dragonfly that closely resembles its ancestors who were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Jurassic Period – almost 200 million years ago!  During that time, the petaltail dragonfly was part of very widespread family known as the Petaluridae. Today, however, there are only 11 species of Petaluridae remaining worldwide.

The gray petaltail is found in several of the Finger Lakes gorge parks the gray petaltails love hunting in the gorges, because they can go to the sunny side of the gorge to get warm, which allows them to move much faster.  Petaltails are drawn to the gorges to lay their eggs in the soggy seeps on wooded slopes. Most dragonflies lay their eggs in water bodies. The eggs grow into juvenile dragonflies, called nymphs that also typically live in water.  That is not the case for the gray petaltail nymphs! The gray petaltail is the only species of dragonfly that does not have fully aquatic nymphs. Instead, the petaltail nymphs live and grow while hidden in the mud, moss and moist leaf litter in the forest seeps. As the nymphs mature, they climb up the trunks of trees to become the adult dragonflies that can fly fast and free all around the gorge.

Dragonfly nymphs - Wikimedia
Petaltail nymphs look very similar to these aquatic dragonfly nymphs, photo by 2109tristan https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragonfly_nymphs_2013-06-20_16-36.jpg

While they are not nearly as large as their Jurassic ancestors, today’s petaltails are one of the larger species of dragonflies, with a wingspan of up to 5 inches wide.  Their distinct black and gray coloring also makes it easy to identify.  This species often perches upon rocks and tree trunks, but it is not uncommon for it to perch upon a passerby! Although they are large and ferocious insect predators (eating thousands of mosquitoes), dragonflies are harmless to humans. If you are lucky enough to be chosen as a dragonfly perch, you may be startled, but either brush them away very gently or just enjoy it!

Petaltail caught during odonate survey, Becky Sibner
Gray petaltail caught during an odonate (dragonfly) survey, photo by Becky Sibner, State Parks.

The gray petaltail is listed as a species of special concern within New York State, as it is only known in specialized habitat in a small number of locations.  NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) continues to survey for them and recently found another new site for them. Luckily, some of those locations are within New York’s state parks, providing habitat protection to this fascinating species – and maybe a chance to see this primitive insect for yourself, especially in June and July.

Petaltail_habitat_Lundgren_NYNHP
Look for gray petaltails in habitats  like this, photo by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Post by Laura Young, FORCES Environmental Education Steward & Becky Sibner, Stewardship Project Coordinator, State Parks

Featured image: gray petaltail on a Jack-in-the-pulpit, Kerry Wixted

Sources:

Paulson, D. (2011). Dragonflies and damselflies of the East. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

NY Natural Heritage Conservation Guide for gray petaltail

Gray petaltail, IUCN 2017. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-1. <http://www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 12 May 2017.

Dragonflies – living fossils

Email correspondence with Jason J. Dombroskie, Ph.D. Manager, Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) & Coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL)

Who’s Looking For The Teacher?

You’re walking through the woods on a late spring day and a loud bird song bursts from forest.  It sounds as if the bird is repeatedly saying ‘tea-cher,’ getting louder with each note.  You pause to look for the bird, thinking it may be the size of a robin, a blue jay, or maybe something bigger because it is so loud, but you don’t see anything.

The song starts again, and there on the forest floor, you see a small light brown bird with dark brown streaking on its breast singing ‘tea-cher, teacher’. That bird is only about half the size of a robin. It’s an ovenbird, a bird known for an over-sized voice and a unique nest that looks like an old-fashioned outdoor oven, after which the bird is named.

By Cephas (Own work) [GFDL (httpwww.gnu.orgcopyleftfdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ovenbird, by Cephas (Own work) [GFDL (httpwww.gnu.orgcopyleftfdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The female ovenbird builds her domed shaped nest on the forest floor.  She builds it from the inside out using pieces of bark, small twigs, grasses, dead leaves and even hair.  She leaves a side entrance so she and her mate can care for the young birds once they hatch.  After she has finished weaving the nest, the female ovenbird drops small twigs and sticks on top of the nest to hide it from predators such as garter snakes, eastern chipmunks, and raccoons.

Kent McFarland
Ovenbird nest, photo by Kent McFarland

The next  time you walk through the forest, listen for these birds. If you do spot one or see a bird quickly fly off of the forest floor, be careful where you step. Look closely to see if you can find that unique dome-shaped nest on the ground.  If you are lucky enough to spot one, view from a distance for just a minute and then move on so the parent can get back to the nest.

Featured image by Tim Lenz, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Sources and where to learn more about ovenbirds:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University: Visual Resources for Ornithology

Xeno-Cantohttps://nysparksnaturetimes.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/xc118066-ovenbird-d-parker-2011.mp3

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 and rattle. Like other pit-vipers, timber rattlesnakes possess a heat-sensitive organ, or pit, on either side of the head that allow them to detect prey. Their rattles are comprised of segments that accumulate each time a snake sheds its skin, which is every 1-2 years in this region. Counting the number of rattle segments is not an accurate way of aging snakes, as rattles wear and break off. Rattles are used as a warning to potential predators to stay away, making a distinct buzzing noise when rattled.

Timber rattlesnakes can occur in two color patterns: The black phase, which consists of dark bands against a dark background, and the yellow phase, which consists of dark bands on a lighter background. Color shades and band patterns vary from snake to snake.

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Their distinctive cross-bands allow them to camouflage themselves from unsuspecting prey as well as from predators. Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals, but will also consume birds, amphibians or other snakes. They ambush prey as it passes by and inject a controlled amount of venom with “hinged” hollow fangs. They then release the animal, wait, and follow its chemical trail to consume it. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in maintaining stable numbers of prey populations, such as rodent species that can carry diseases and destroy crops.

The venom from a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated, but bites are rare. Snakes will not go out of their way to pursue or bite a person. They have the ability to sense the vibrations of an approaching creature and if it is too large to be prey, they rely on their camouflage to hide or they retreat. It requires precious energy to produce venom- Timbers will bite as a last resort if they are cornered and feel threatened. There has not been a death from a timber rattlesnake bite in New York State in several decades. In all of my encounters with these snakes, both for study purposes and chance encounters, one has never struck. While they might coil in a defensive posture and rattle as a warning, the snakes simply want to go on their way and be left alone. It is important to give them space.

These snakes will hibernate together in a den below the frost line, and it’s not uncommon for other snake species to den with them. The same den will be used for generations. They can live up to 30 years, though most live 16-22 years.  Male timber rattlesnakes reach sexual maturity at about 5 years whereas females don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-11 years. Females give birth every 3-5 years, and they are among a few species of snakes that give birth to live young. Their slower reproduction rates make them even more susceptible to the threats they face.

Timber rattlesnakes were once more abundant. Indiscriminate killing and a bounty system, as well as unregulated collecting has greatly reduced their numbers, completely eliminating them from some areas. Though the bounty was repealed in the 1970’s and they are now protected by law in New York State, they still face poaching. Snakes are purposefully killed out of a misplaced fear or disdain, or are collected for the illegal pet trade. Snakes can also be killed by vehicles while attempting to bask in roads or cross them in search of food or a mate. Timber rattlesnakes are a slower moving snake, and they tend to freeze when they sense vibration, such as that of an oncoming car. This puts them at greater risk of being run over. People have said that snakes stretched out across the road look like sticks. It’s important for drivers to be observant in order to avoid hitting snakes (or any animal) in the road, and heed animal crossing signs.

Amy McGinnis, 2011
Timber Rattlesnake that was run over attempting to cross the road. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2011

Habitat loss due to human development and frequent recreational use of land has also had a negative impact on timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, snakes in the eastern United States are facing decline due to a deadly fungal disease. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the few populations of timber rattlesnakes left in New York State and the habitat that supports them. Surveys are conducted and sightings are tracked to help determine the size and health of populations. Snakes are also fitted with transmitter devices for tracking and monitoring. One of the biggest efforts in the conservation of Timber Rattlesnakes is raising public awareness. By educating people about the snakes at sites where they occur, it increases safety for visitors and for the snakes. While they can pose a threat to people (similar to many other species of wildlife), these graceful animals are not bad and are not out to get anyone. They occupy a key niche in the natural community and food web and help to keep the ecosystem in balance. It is rare to encounter a timber rattlesnake in New York State because of their reclusive and docile nature. However, if you do see one, remember — as with all wildlife — to keep your distance for your safety as well as to not stress the animal. Take the time to watch from a distance to appreciate the beauty of a part of the natural world we live in. Whether snakes fascinate or frighten you, if you are walking through their home territory, it’s important to be aware. Respecting their space benefits both you and the snakes.

Amy McGinnis 2015
Rattlesnakes often hide under rock ledges and crevices and come out to bask in the sun. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2015

Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks

NYNHP
CHALLENGE! Can you find the rattlesnake in this picture? Photo by NYNHP

Resources:

NY Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guide

Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet

USGS: National Wildlife Health Center: Snake Fungal Disease

NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life provides detailed maps and status across North America

Likin’ the Lichens in New York State

If you frequent nature trails, you have likely passed by stones or trees with some kind of crusty material on the surface.  Is it a moss?  No, moss is a plant.  Is it a fungus?  Well, yes and no.  This crust is actually a partnership between at least two different organisms, making a composite organism called lichen (pronounced “LIKE-en”).

Lichens are made of multiple fungi – a diverse group of organisms including mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and others – living with algae and/or algae-like bacteria called cyanobacteria.  The fungi provide a pleasant, hydrated shelter to live in, while their partner provides food through photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis means using sunlight, water, and CO2 to create sugar (and the oxygen that we breathe, no big deal).  Cyanobacteria can also “fix” or make use of nutrients from the air, further helping the fungi to grow.  This mutual relationship between different species is what biologists call symbiosis.

2 - lichen at Shepards Tooth (photo by Tim Howard)
Lichen in an alpine meadow, amidst sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia).  Shepherds Tooth, Adirondacks. (Photo by Tim Howard, NYNHP)

Thanks to the many possible fungi-algae-bacteria combinations, lichens take on many different forms and colors.  In New York State alone, there are over 800 types of lichens!  Lichens can look like small flaky crusts (“crustose”), flat leaf-like growths (“foliose”), or even branched (“fruticose”) like miniature shrubs.   Many take on a greenish-grey hue, but other colors include brown, black, white, yellow, bright orange, red, and blue.  You might see these unique fungal partnerships on all kinds of surfaces along nature trails – adding a nice flair to wooden sign posts, historic stone walls, boulders, tree bark, the forest floor, and decaying logs.

Cultural Significance

People have used lichens for a variety of purposes for thousands of years.  Lichens with antibiotic properties have been used in traditional medicines and embalming practices.  Some of the more brilliant-colored lichens have been used to make dyes for yarn, cloth, and even litmus paper (a quick, easy way to measure how acidic something is).   Several cultures worldwide include lichens in their diets, making soups, side dishes, beverages, and even molasses.  But watch out – not all lichens are safe to eat!  Those involving cyanobacteria can produce toxins; these lichens have historically been used as poisons in hunting.

3 - Many uses of lichen (photos from wikipedia and mycopigments dot com, referencing Noah Siegel)
Top left: Lichen-dyed yarn.  Top right: Lichen-coated litmus paper.  Bottom: Black lichen in cuisine. (Photos by Noah Siegal at mycopigments.com, Wikimedia commons, and Public Domain, respectively)

While all these uses of lichens are interesting, we at New York State Parks want you to simply enjoy observing the beauty and impact of lichens in their natural habitats.

Lichens in Nature

Lichens serve several important roles in our parks.  As one of the first lifeforms that established on land, they helped create much of the world we live in today.  They play a role in soil formation, slowly breaking large rocks down into smaller pieces.  Then they carry out processes that add essential nutrition to forest soils, allowing trees and plants to grow.  Lichens also benefit wildlife.  Northern flying squirrels, deer, and moose are among those known to graze on lichens, particularly in the winter.  In the spring, birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and the Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher often use lichen to build and camouflage their nests.

Lichen populations also give important clues about environmental health.  Studies have shown lichen to be sensitive to air pollution, and so a decline in lichen may be a warning sign of worsening air quality nearby.  Similarly, lichen growth rates react to long-term changes in moisture and temperature, and so they can help monitor the climate.  Scientists take advantage of the slow-growing nature of certain lichens and use their size or branching patterns to estimate the age of rocks in the forests, similar to tree rings on a tree stump.

4 - Rock Lichen, circle, New Jersey (photo by Steve Young)
A closer look at lichen growing outward on a rock. (Photo by Steve Young, NYNHP

 

By keeping an eye on the lichens in our parks, we can discover fascinating patterns in our local ecosystems.  And we can have a deeper appreciation for the beautiful landscapes that New York State has to offer!

See if you can spot these and other lichens the next time you are out enjoying nature:

 

11 - Enchanted forest (photo by Julie Lundgren) 94_F11LUN05
An enchanted forest: lichens and moss decorate the trees, ground, and rocks. Although subtle and unassuming, lichens play a vital role in shaping the complex ecosystems found throughout New York State. (Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP)

Post by Erin Lennon, State Parks

Featured image:  A common sight: lichen attached to tree bark in New York State. (Photo adapted from Wikipedia, public domain)

Resources:

Video featured on NPR’s Science Friday: “Hunting Wild Lichen.”

U.S. Forest Service factsheet: “Lichens – Did you Know?

BBC article on soils and lichen in creating the planet we know today. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151205-one-amazing-substance-allowed-life-to-thrive-on-land

NYT article on a 2016 ground-breaking discovery that yeasts are an additional part of many lichens: “Two’s Company, Three’s a Lichen?

List of the Lichens of New York, by Richard Harris in 2004.

Happy Arbor Day

What is it about trees that can make you stop and look?

Is it the sunlight on the trunks of yellow birch that catches your eye – the bark silvery-gold and curling? Or the smooth gray bark of beech –  easy to look for scars from bear claws on this canvas. Or perhaps it is the rough platy bark of a shagbark hickory that intrigues you.  No matter what catches you about a particular tree, your gaze inevitably follows the trunk up it’s base, and continues upward into the canopy where the branches are silhouetted against the sky. The beautiful spectacle prompts many questions: How old is it? What has it been through? Are there any animals up there?

Of course, trees with showy flowers – like magnolia, cherry, or crabapple – always grab our attention. But all our broadleaf trees also have flowers, so look a little closer for those that are not so conspicuous. Among the first to flower in the spring are the maples, a hint of color in the treetops. Look for red tassels on red maple (Acer rubrum) or silver maple (Acer saccharinum) or green on sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Norway maple (Acer platanoides) has larger yellow-green flowers. Take a closer look at these little bouquets; you can usually find clusters that have fallen to the ground.

Red maple_Donald Cameron_One time use for this blog
Red maple (Acer rubrum) flowers. Photo by Donald Cameron 2017, GoBotany, used with permission.

A nice tree to look for in the spring is serviceberry, also known as shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis and A. arborea). Its delicate white flowers show up long before the other trees leaf out, so you can spot these trees more easily in spring than in the summer. There are also several shrub species of Amelanchier in NY State, all with similar flowers.

And later in the season, in May-June, look for the straight-as-a-pole tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) whose flowers look like yellow-green tulips!

Trees become a busy place in the spring too. Bees and other insects feed on the nectar and pollen of the flowers above. Woodpeckers search for insects under the bark and many animals hide out or make their home in tree cavities – bats, owls and other birds, raccoons, squirrels, and porcupines. Bears climb trees for safety and sometimes curl up in the base of big hollow trees. With all that activity, trees are a good place for wildlife watching, whether in your neighborhood or in a state park or historic site.

Birding at Minnewaska_Jubilee Feist
Binoculars are good for watching wildlife and also for getting a better look at the trees. This volunteer was making a list of birds at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on I Love My Park Day.

NY State Parks are home to countless beautiful trees.  Look for many mature and outstanding trees around the mansions and other historic sites, at campgrounds and picnic areas, and in the forests that cover nearly 80% of State Park lands. Get out and enjoy the trees on Arbor Day – and every day – in your neighborhood and favorite parks.

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program. Photos by NYNHP or other as noted; for use by permission only.