Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Nest Hunt

Late fall through early spring is a great time to look for abandoned bird nests in our parks.  These nests provided homes for young birds last year and are so well built that they have lasted through the harshest of winter weather

When you come upon a nest during your hike, there are a few things to consider when trying to identify which bird species built the nest.

Habitat

Different bird species live and nest in different habitats or places. Some birds nest along river banks, while others nest on the ground, on a cliff, in a shrub or dead tree, in a tangle of vines, in trees, or even floating on water.  In winter, the easiest nests to find are the ones in trees, shrubs, and vines.

Height

How far off the ground is the nest?  Birds such as robins will nest 10 -20 feet off the ground, while a cardinal will build a nest 1 -10 feet off the ground. As with habitat, nest height can help with nest identification.

Shape

The overall shape of the nest is also a clue as to which species built the nest.  Goldfinches, like many bird species, build cup-shaped nests.  Mourning doves build saucer-like nests.  Marsh wrens build a ball-shaped nests and orioles build a pendant-shaped nest.

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Nest Materials

The nests that we see in winter are made from sturdy materials such as plant matter (grass, bark, twigs, small roots, and tree branches), which may be held together by dried mud or spider webs.

Some common nests you may see on your walk:

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One of the most common nests that you can see is an American robin nest. Robins usually build their nests in coniferous trees, like pine trees, that have a couple of horizontal branches near each other.  They will also build their nests in the eaves of buildings and gutters.  Robins use twigs and dead grass to build a cup-shaped platform nest.  Once the nest is formed, the inside of the nest is reinforced with soft mud then the inside of the nest is lined with dry fine grass.  These nests are between 10 and 20 feet off the ground and are quite durable thanks to the mud lining.

Bird_nest_JLundgren3
photo by Julie Lundgren

Blue jays build their cup-shaped nests on horizontal branches or forks in tree branches. They build their nests in conifer or deciduous trees like maple and oak trees 5 to 20 feet off the ground.  The nest is built from twigs, strips of bark, lichen, moss, and grass. Sometimes the blue jay nest builder will use mud to hold the nest together like a robin. The nest is lined with small roots.

ChippingSparrowHamlin

This chipping sparrow nest from Hamlin Beach State Park shows the cup-shaped nest made from dry grass and small roots.  Look for these nests in deciduous trees between 1 and 10 feet off the ground.

GoldfinchMaybe

An American goldfinch nest sits in a sapling along the edge of a field in Allegany State Park.  This cup shaped nest is made of tiny roots and plant fibers which are held together by spider webs.  Look for these nests between 1 and 30 feet off the ground.

Osprey _WellesleyIsland

Ospreys are commonly seen nesting on the light poles at Wellesley Island State Park. They use sticks to build their saucer-shaped nest which they line with grass, sod, bark, or other material. Each year they add more sticks to the nest; with nests growing to over 12 feet deep and 6 feet across as generations of osprey use the same nest.

Yellow Warbler EvangolaSP (MN)

Yellow warbler nests, like this nest from Evangola State Park, are found in small trees and bushes in woodlands near water. Their cup-shaped nests are usually about 10 feet off the ground, but can be as high as 60 feet. The nest is made from grass, nettles, and thin bark strips, which is surrounded by spider webs and plant fibers. If you can look in the nest, you may see the remains of the nest lining of cattail, cottonwood, and cattail seeds and deer hair.

BOriole_Henry T. McLin
photo by Henry T. McLin

Spotting one of these Baltimore oriole nests can be a treat. Baltimore orioles build their pendant-shaped nest in American elm, maple and basswood trees between 15 and 30 feet off the ground. The nest is made from fine plant fibers such as grass, strips of grapevine bark and as you can see here blue man-made fibers. Baltimore orioles tangle and knot the fibers together to form the nest.  The nest is built in three phases, the flexible outer portion is completed first, followed by springy fibers on the inside of the bowl. The springy fibers help the nest to maintain the pendant-shape. Finally, the inside of the nest is lined with downy fibers like dandelions.

Drey

One of the most common nests that you may see are not bird nests but squirrel nests. These leaf nests, or dreys, are made from twigs that are woven together into a ball shape in a tree crotch with an entry on the side of the nest..  They are lined with damp leaves and moss. Dreys have a variety of functions from being a winter retreat from winter’s cold to spring and summer homes for young squirrels.

MiceUsingNestbox

Mice are unexpected nest box visitors.  If you open up a nest box during your hike, you might encounter mice, like these deer mice, who use the nest box as a warm place to hide during winter’s cold days.

Make your next hike a nest hunt hike!  If you do find a nest, tag us on Instagram, #nystateparks.

Learn more about New York’s winter bird nests:

Boring, Mel. Birds, Nests, and Eggs, Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1998.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Dugmore, A. Radclyffe.; Bird homes. The nests, eggs and breeding habits of the land birds breeding in the eastern United States; with hints on the rearing and photographing of young birds, New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902, c1900.

Harrison, Hal H. A Field Guide to Bird Nests in the United States East of the Mississippi River, Boston, Houghton Mifflin; Expanded, Subsequent edition, 1998.

Heinrich, Bernd, Which Bird Made That Nest? Northland Woods, 2009.

Massachusetts Audubon Society, Nests in Winter.

West Virginia Wildlife Magazine, What’s That Clump of Leaves?

 

Felines in the Northeast

BobcatTerry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Image 1, Bobcat, Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Many animals live in the Northeast, including wild felines like bobcats (Lynx rufus) (Image 1). Once heavily hunted for their prized and beautiful fur coats, the remarkable American bobcat (Lynx rufus) population has recently rebounded in the Northeast. This remarkable feline resides in young forest and shrub communities along wetlands and along the shrubby areas next to agricultural fields. Recently, bobcats have expanded their home range to mature forest communities of oak-beech-hemlock. In doing this transition to new habitats, the bobcat added young deer, squirrels, and chipmunks to their diet of beaver, muskrats, rabbits, and rodents but also young deer, squirrels, and chipmunks.  Like all felines, these hunters will be found “hiding” among shrubs, tree branches, on ledges, or even laying down as flat as possible on the ground. Their fur pattern and coloration, like all cats, acts like camouflage and helps the bobcats hide in the surrounding environment while stalking prey or taking a nap.

Identification

Several wild feline species, including bobcats, either make their home or once made their home in New York. The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) (Image 2, left) have made a presence and have been observed hunting or hiding among the far northern forests of New York. Eastern mountain lion or cougar (Image 2, right) have been absent from much of their eastern range, including New York State for nearly two hundred years. In the western states Mountain Lions have a secure presence while in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp of Florida their presence is much smaller.

Characteristics 

All cats have a distinct look – predatorial eyes located in front of their heads with upright ears. Like our domestic cats, New York felines have tails, some are just shorter than others.  Bobcats have either short stubs on their behinds or shortened tails. The bobcat also has a white behind that traces up to the underside of the tail and has a darkened tip.

The lynx always has a short, stubbed tail and a distinct black cap on the entire tail tip.

Ear tufts are present on both lynx and bobcat. Tufts of the bobcat are shorter than a lynx, or they may not be present at all. Lynx, on the other hand, will always have the distinct black tufts on top of the ears. Bobcats tend to have some black-brown-grey pattern or variation in colors compared to the more streamlined tannish-grey color and white chest of the lynx. Lynx also are notably wearing Elizabethan bowtie-like ruffs with black tips, which are lacking in the other two cats. Coloration of the hock, or the portion of the hind leg below what we commonly associate as the joint, are different in bobcats and lynx. Bobcats have black, dark brown, or dark grey. The hock of a lynx is not a dark color but rather an extended, continued coloration of their body. Lynx also have white on the insides of their legs.

Cats walk with an athletic stride and cautiously stalk their prey while hiding from plain sight.

TrackGuide_CatskillMountaineer
Image 4, Image above compares mountain lion, lynx, and bobcat pawprints. image courtesy of Catskill Mountaineer

Pawprints

If you were to place your hand on paint and press on a surface, a hand print would form showing your fingertips and palm. Just like our hand prints, all feline paw prints would also show their tips and a palm as shown in Image 4. The size and height of our fingers differ and so do the paw tips of cats (Image 4). In cat paw prints, we find four paw tips at different heights above the “M” shaped palm print. Cat lead finger is similar to our middle finger print, which would be at the highest height of the paw. The pinky would be the smallest print and at the lowest height, as would our pinkies. We would see the last other two cat paw tips varying in height and size as we would find the ring finger and the pointer finger vary our finger prints. Also, distinct with cats is the formation of a circle around the tips and palm that results from the fur on the paws. This shape is very distinct with the lynx as shown in Image 5 as a print inside this circle.

LynxTrack_JLS Photography
Image 5, Image above taken by JLS Photography – Alaska showing the distinct circular fur outline around the lynx’s pawprint.

Generally, the bobcat pawprints are round and roughly a couple inches in the size. Lynx’s pawprints are twice this size. Lynx have a smaller diameter in their tip and “M” shaped palm prints and have greater spacing between the positioning of their tips and their palm. The reason for the smaller diameter and greater spacing between the tips and palm is due to the denser fur on the paws. The mountain lion has the largest pawprint, totaling 3 inches in diameter or larger. If you happen to see the felines in motion, note the paws of the lynx as being large, plush slippers in comparison to the bobcat.

MaleCatScent_PicturesOfCats.org
Image 6

Territory Marking

Felines will mark their territory through scents. Just like our domestic feline friends, bobcats, lynx, and mountain lions will rub their faces, scratch their paws, and even spray to mark their territory. Glands that produce a scent are found on the face, between the toes of the paws, and by the tail (Image 6). On the head, they are found at the base of the ears (pinna glands), on the eyebrows (temporal glands), on the cheeks (cheek glands), at the base of the whiskers (perioral glands), and at the base of the chin (submand ibular).

Scent marking is why the wild felines in the forest and your domestic cat rub their face all over trees, rocks, and other objects. Scratching vertically on trees, or furniture, and kicking their hind legs are common ways cats mark their scent on objects through the interdigital glands between their toes. Also, notably rubbing their bum on objects leaves scents from their anal glands (Image 7). Hair can also be left on trees, stumps, rocks, and other objects as the feline rubs. Looking for their presence through hair on objects, scratch marks on trees, or two strips of unearthed vegetation leading to a pile of material (Image 7 & 8). You can also sniff for a musky urine smell on the undersides of decaying or falling trees, limbs, branches, or ledges.

Finding evidence or seeing one of New York’s native cats can be quite a treat.  If you do see a native cat, let us know!

References and learn more:

Morse, Sue, Bobcats (October 4, 2018)

NYS Dept. of Conservation Bobcat

NYS Dept. of Conservation  Canada Lynx

NYS Dept. of Conservation Eastern Cougar

US Fish and Wildlife Service, Canada Lynx

Post by Irene Holak, State Parks

Which Track is That? A Look at Winter Animal Tracks Throughout State Parks

Winter is a wonderful time of the year, there’s snow and ice everywhere in our State Parks. Within that snow and ice, you can see traces of what animals have been there – maybe even just moments before you arrive! One of the traces that can help you identify which animal it came from is their tracks.

To determine what animal the track came from, you should look at several different factors. First, the condition of the snow the track is in makes a big difference in how a track looks (wet snow leads to more clear tracks and drier, powdery snow has less clearly defined tracks). Second, you should think about the gait of the animal (how it moves). There’s four different types of gaits that most animals use in their daily activities: the walk, the trot, the gallop and the jump. And lastly, you must look at the shape of the track including the number of toes present, which can vary in size depending on the animal that made it. For more information on identification of winter tracks, please see this blog.

Let’s look at some tracks that have been seen throughout our State Parks:

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Here’s evidence of a mink on the ice of one of the streams within Allegany State Park, photo by T. LeBlanc
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This is the track of a long-tailed weasel also seen within Allegany State Park. Fun fact: long-tailed weasels have a very high rate of metabolism and they eat about 40% of their body weight per day! photo by Thomas LeBlanc
turkey_tleblanc
Above you can see track of a turkey. To learn more about Allegany State Park’s role in wild turkey restoration, please see this blog. photo by Thomas LeBlanc)
coyote_rabbott
And a coyote track was spotted within Allegany State Park. As you can see, there is a bit of fur and a splotch of blood so perhaps this coyote just finished his lunch! Photo by Randall Abbott.
fisher_rsibner
Within the Finger Lakes Region, park staff noticed this track of a fisher at Keuka Lake State Park. Photo by Becky Sibner
deer_wcarleton
The tracks above, found at Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area, are from a deer. The large spot is where the deer had stopped to browse. Photo by Whitney Carleton
blackbear_kbroz
This is the footprint of a black bear, found at Mark Twain State Park. For more information on female black bears in the wintertime, please look at this blog. Photo by Kira Broz
raccoon_kbroz
Also, seen at Mark Twain State Park, is a raccoon. The most important sense of the raccoon is their sense of touch – they have hyper-sensitive front paws adorned with vibrissae (a type of hair that aids in tactile sensing) that allows them to identify objects before fully touching them! Photo by Kira Broz
greysquirrel_glamitina
At Letchworth State Park, you can see the tracks of a squirrel as compared to a human footprint for a scale reference. Photo by Gary Lamitina
bobwhite_amcintyre
Above is the tracks and wing impressions of a Northern Bobwhite, a small quail, seen at Connetquot River State Park Preserve on Long Island. Photo by Annie McIntyre
pinecone_pcutul
At Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, you can see the tracks of a squirrel and some mystery tracks as well…which turns out to be from a pine cone as seen in the insert! Photo by Peter Cutul
bobcat_pcutul
At Harriman State Park, you can find the tracks of a bobcat as seen here. For more information on bobcats and other wild cats of the Northeast, please check the blog again in a few weeks for the upcoming post on that subject! Photo by Peter Cutul
weasel_pcutul
Also at Harriman State Park, the tracks of what is believed to be a short tailed weasel can also be found! Photo by Peter Cutul
oter_ewagner
Looking around Grafton Lakes State Park, river otter tracks can be seen in the snow. Photo by Elizabeth Wagner

As you can see, there is still a great diversity of animals to be found within our State Parks – even in the cold of winter! So, the next time you’re hiking the trails at a State Park, look around you and see what tracks you can see!

Scat is another trace that animals leave behind.  If you are interested in learning more about winter scat ID, check out this blog.

Post by April Brun, State Parks

Disclaimer: All identifications are just suspected, none are confirmed by a wildlife biologist.

Resources:

Animal Track Activity Sheet, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources

Long-tailed weasel, NatureWorks

My Animal Sign Field Guide, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Tracks, New York State Conservationist, February 2015

Early Birds Get More than the Worm

In the wild, February and March may seem like the worst time for a bird to raise a family, with challenges including frigid temps, sleet, wind, and snow. But this is no ordinary bird, this is a great bird—a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). These large, thick-bodied raptors- weighing in at 2.5 to 5 pounds with 4 ½ to 5’ wingspans –  are one of the most widespread owls in North America and have plenty of ‘don’t mess with me’ moxie. They have a very diverse diet, including small mammals, rabbits, geese, herons, amphibians and reptiles, skunks, porcupines – and even other raptorial birds. It is this adaptability and tenacious behavior that gives them a leg up on surviving tough conditions.

Great Horned Owls are among the earliest birds to breed each year, with males staking out territory from other males beginning in October. Most Great Horned Owls mate for life and every autumn they reestablish their bonds by loudly calling to each other. Like many birds, they have a range of vocalizations. Their classic hoot is unmistakable, a deep slightly muffled resonating “hoo-h’HOO–hoo-hoo” call with the female’s voice slightly higher in pitch than the male’s.

While establishing their territory they will seek out a suitable nest. They don’t build their own– instead, they use abandoned real estate like an old Red-tailed Hawk nest or a hollowed tree cavity, even a cliff ledge will do.

Great Horned Owl family
Great Horned Owl, at the nest with her Owlets

When January arrives the parents-to-be will be settled in and ready to start a family. The female will lay 1-4 eggs and incubate the eggs for 30-37 days through all kinds of weather.  Only the female can incubate the eggs as she has a featherless patch on her abdomen called a “brood patch,” an area that has many blood vessels and is very efficient at transferring her body heat to the eggs. While she is incubating and brooding the young chicks, the male will hunt for them, but if the food he provides is insufficient she will also hunt for the family. Great Horned Owls are large birds and it takes owlets longer to grow than say a robin and longer to develop and master complex skills.

Great Horned Owl Feather
Great-horned owl feathers have a velvety texture and combined with tiny serrations along each feather edges called flutes which muffle their wing beats allowing owls to silently swoop down on their prey unnoticed.

Nesting early is a risky move but there are definite advantages. By day 45, the young are fully feathered and capable of flight and by the time spring arrives, these youngsters are ready to practice their main craft– hunting.  Not only are temperatures milder but there is now an abundance of young inexperienced prey animals, such as rabbits, mice, squirrels and chipmunks who are also venturing out on their own. These predators can now hone their flying and hunting skills under ideal conditions all because their parents were early birds.

Owl Talons
When clenched, an adult Great Horned Owl’s talons lock down like a ratchet and require a force of 28 lbs. to pry them back open.
Tiger Owl Eye
Owls have huge eyes compared to their body size– larger eyes are able to take in more light which is picked up by their rod- and cone-shaped photoreceptors. Rods allow them to see well in dim light, but colors, not as well. Cones help distinguish colors but only when our surroundings are well lit. Humans have about 200,000 rods per square millimeter while owls have close to a million rods per square millimeter. This is then magnified by the owl’s tapetum lucidum or ‘eyeshine,’ a feature humans do not have. This layer of tissue located behind the retina reflects all available light to those photoreceptor rods and provides superior night vision.

For More Information

Cornell Lab of Ornithology https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id

Audubon Guide to North American Birds https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-horned-owl

Flies that Know Snow

On a warm afternoon this winter, keep an eye out for snow flies walking on the snow.  Snow flies are typically a yellow brown to light brown fly with a body of about one quarter inch long, not including their long legs. Snow flies are wingless – scientists assume that they lost their wings because it takes too much energy to fly in winter. However, being wingless makes the snow flies more at risk of being eaten by predators. This may be why we see them in winter when there are fewer predators out. Snow flies are similar to woolly bear caterpillars and wood frogs, in that their bodies produce a natural antifreeze that prevents these small insects from freezing during winter.

onetimeuseonly
Adult snow fly, note the fly’s long legs, photo by Brandon Woo.

Little is known about the life history of snow flies. Scientists have found that females lay eggs in the winter. In the lab, eggs hatch in as little as eight days or as long as three weeks. But where the female lays her eggs, what the larvae eat, how long the larvae take to develop into adults, and where the larvae or adults live in winter remains a mystery.

Giant Eastern Crane Fly on the screen
Giant eastern crane fly clings to a window screen, Bob Travis, accessed from Flickr.

Snow flies are related to crane flies, like the above giant eastern crane fly (Pedicia albivitta).  You may have seen a giant eastern crane fly clinging to window screens in the late summer.  At first glance, you might have thought it was a large mosquito. But if you look carefully, you will notice that the crane fly does not have a proboscis – or tube mouth – like a mosquito. Since they can’t bite you, it is safe to hold them in your hand to take a closer look.

chionea_tom murray_bugguide
Chionea scita, photo by Tom Murray, accessed from Bugguide

One common New York snow fly is Chionea scita that was first described in 1848. The translation of this fly’s scientific name is snow (chion in Greek) knows (scita in Latin).

If you see any snow flies this winter, please let us know!

References

BugGuide Chionea scita

 Byers, George W. The crane fly genus Chionea in North America, 1983. University of Kansas Science Bulletin.

Catalogue of the Craneflies of the World

Hansen, Amy. Bugs And Bugsicles : Insects In The Winter  Honesdale, Pa. : Boyds Mills Press, 2010.

Schrock, John Richard. Snow Flies, The Kansas School Naturalist, Volume 38, Number 2 – May 1992, updated 2005.

Wikipedia Chionea

Featured image: Chionea by MUSE, accessed from WikiCommons.