Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

The Ghost Plant: A Closer Look At The Spookiest Plant In The Forest

What’s black and white and spooky all over? The ghost plant! More commonly known as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) since it is said to resemble a Native American peace pipe, it is also known as corpse plant, death plant, and ghost flower. This unusual looking plant is often mistaken as a fungus because it is mostly white and doesn’t have any chlorophyll… but it is really a flowering plant and is actually part of the same Family (Ericaceae) that includes blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, and Rhododendrons. Weird, right?

indian_pipe (missouri department of conservation)
Photo by Missouri Department of Conservation

You’ll often find Indian pipes in dark and spooooky environments. Since it doesn’t have any chlorophyll it doesn’t need light to photosynthesize its own food. Instead, the food source for this plant is a lot more sinister, for it is actually a parasite! Specifically, Indian pipes are parasitic on mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees (epiparasitism), meaning both the fungi and trees both benefit from each other. The tree gathers sunlight and use it to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars and other carbohydrates. The fungi harvest minerals in the soil. The tree and fungi then exchange these resources in a process that resembles a harmonious story of cooperation and mutual benefit. It is then exploited by the Indian pipe.

What happens is the tree obtains its energy (sugars and other carbohydrates) from photosynthesis and the fungus obtain some of those sugars directly from the tree roots. So how does the Indian pipe get its energy from the fungus? Some menacing tom-foolery, that’s how! The Indian pipe actually tricks the fungus into thinking it is forming a mycorrhizal relationship, but in fact the Indian pipe is parasitizing the fungus! The Indian pipe essentially gets a free ride and doesn’t have to produce its own energy or absorb its own minerals. Typically, when a parasite exploit a host the host fights back, but for some reason the fungus and tree goes along with the Indian pipe’s menacing ploy.

By Staben, accessed from Wikicommons
Indian pipe flowers, photo by Staben, accessed from Wikicommons

After months, and sometimes years, of gathering its nutrients from the fungus into its root system, the Indian pipe, almost rather suddenly, develops above ground. White stalks and then flowers are produced, which are then pollinated by insects. Once pollinated the Indian pipe releases tens of thousands of extremely tiny seeds, which hardly have the food storage capacity to start a new plant. Those seeds are dispersed long distances by wind and settles to the ground. Once there, the seeds actually don’t start growing right away. In fact, the seeds chemically mimic a tree’s root systems and wait for certain types of mycorrhizal fungus to come along. The fungus then attaches to the seed as it would to a tree, but then is forced into providing nutrients the tiny seeds needs to grow! So essentially, from seedling to growth to pollination to seed dispersal, the Indian pipe does almost absolutely nothing itself!

Ryan Hodnett, accessed from Wikicommons
Dried Indian pipe flowers, photo by Ryan Hodnett, accessed from Wikicommons

Due to its fascinating nature, the Indian pipe has been immortalized by many poets and storytellers in their works, including Emily Dickinson, whose favorite flower was the Indian pipe. She drafted the poem “‘Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe-” in 1879:

Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –
Not any voice imply it here –
Or intimate it there –
A spirit – how doth it accost –
What function hath the Air?
This limitless Hyperbole
Each one of us shall be –
‘Tis Drama – if Hypothesis
It be not Tragedy –

Post by Matt Brincka, State Parks

A Spider Sampler

Few creatures are as iconic in the public imagination as the spider. From the ancient Greek myth of Arachne, the Akan folktale character Anansi, or the titular hero of Charlotte’s Web, these stealthy, silk-spinning predators have a long history of popping up in our shared myths and stories.

However, despite their cultural prominence, these awesome hunters are often unfairly feared and misunderstood. Spiders play an important role in balancing our ecosystems, such as by consuming pests that may destroy crops or carry disease. Fortunately, there’s no better way to learn about our fascinating eight-legged friends than by getting out to our state park system and seeing them first hand!

Spiders belong to the class Arachnida, which encompasses other joint-legged invertebrates such as scorpions, ticks, mites and harvestmen – some 100,000 species all in all!

In New York’s seasonal northern climate, spiders typically live about a year. They typically survive the winter as eggs and develop into adulthood during the summer. All spiders produce silk – thin, strong protein strands produced in the abdomen. Although best-known as the raw material for spider webs, not all spiders use their silk to catch prey – they may also use it to cover egg sacs, create waterproof retreats or to produce draglines to help them travel long distances on the breeze.

There are about 40,000 identified spider species worldwide. Here, we’re going to focus on just a handful of the more common species you might find in New York state – and imagine what they might say if they could speak for themselves.

Marbled Orb Weaver (20)bst
Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus)

As a Marbled Orbweaver, I tend to get around. We’re found all over the continent grasses – basically anywhere in the woods or near streams or other running water. So when people ask me where I’m from, I tend to be at a loss – North America, I guess? When I look in the mirror I don’t see just another Araneus –  I see me.” – Jose, Marbled Orbweaver, Brooklyn.

Shamrock Spider
Shamrock spider, Araneus trifolium

“I wake up early every day to at what’s left of yesterday’s web and build a brand new one in its place. Some people call me a perfectionist – I think I just see the value of a job well-done, even if you don’t always get noticed for it. Personally, I think it’s more satisfying to find meaning in the work you do – which you can control – rather than on being recognized, which you can’t.” Mike, Shamrock Spider, Utica.

yellow garden spider DWSP
Yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia

“It can be lonely being a Garden Spider sometimes. I’m diurnal, so I like to be out during the day, unlike my nocturnal orb weaving cousins. But I just try to keep my head down, refreshing that web glue every day and eating my lunch out in the sunshine.” – Shereen, Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Niagara Falls.

Learn more about New York Spiders:

Borror, Donald J. and Richard E. White, A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998

BASF Spider Identification Guide

NY State Dept. of Conservation  Common Spiders of NY Brochure

Post by Ben Mattison, State Parks

THE HART OF THE MATTER: AMERICAN HART’S-TONGUE FERN IN NYS PARKS

Tucked away in cracks and crevices along the steep, rocky ravines and plunge basins of Clark Reservation and Chittenango Falls State Parks resides one of the rarest and most endangered ferns in the United States; the American hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum). In fact, 94% of all hart’s-tongue ferns in New York are contained within these two Central New York State Parks!

The name “hart’s-tongue” was given to this unique plant due to the resemblance of the fronds (leaves) to the tongue of an adult red deer, also known as a “hart.” The “American” moniker was placed in front to distinguish the North American variety from its closest relative, the European hart’s-tongue fern, which is common throughout much of Europe and the United Kingdom.

AHTF at Clark M Serviss
American hart’s-tongue ferns at Clark Reservation State Park. Note the resemblance of the frond to that of the tongue of a deer, also known as a hart.

Few people are likely to ever encounter this unusual looking fern in the wild due to the rugged nature of its unique habitat. Those who are fortunate enough to gaze upon the strange fronds of a hart’s-tongue might have a reaction similar to that of American photographer Dr. H. E. Ransier in 1926:

“Richer than millionaires! Happier than Kings! Envied by multitudes! May be said of hobnobbers with Hart’s-tongues.”

Dr. Ransier’s enthusiasm for the hart’s-tongue fern is one that has been shared by countless students, botanists, pteridomaniacs (fern enthusiasts), nature lovers, and park patrons alike over the 211 years since its discovery just outside of Syracuse, NY in 1807. Additional hart’s-tongue populations have since been discovered in Ontario, Canada, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and a few unusual relicts in southern Tennessee and northern Alabama. However, the loss of several populations due to limestone quarrying, deforestation, urban expansion, and illegal collection resulted in the placement of the fern on the United States Endangered Species List in 1989. Currently, drought induced by climate change and invasion of the habitat by non-native plants also threaten many hart’s-tongue populations.

Hart’s-tongues are extremely sensitive to changes in climate and have very specific habitat requirements. They are most often found on steep, rocky, moss-covered slopes with north to east aspects in partial to full shade. The soils are well-drained and rich in calcium and magnesium. Hart’s-tongue researchers in New York have found that these habitats remain significantly cooler and more humid than immediately adjacent forests. The availability of quality habitat is critical to the growth and reproduction of the ferns. Very few of these types of habitats exist in New York State, which is why conservation of the habitat of the ferns is essential for their recovery.

AHTF Habitat M Serviss
Steep, rocky ravines and plunge basins provide the typical habitat for hart’s-tongue fern in New York.

New York State Parks has become increasingly involved with hart’s-tongue fern conservation over the last 10 years. Seasonal teams of FORCES stewards (Friends of Recreation, Conservation, and Environmental Stewardship), affectionately referred to as “The Fern Crew”, have carefully dug out hundreds of thousands of invasive plants from Clark Reservation and Chittenango Falls State Parks in an ongoing effort to protect the fern’s very sensitive and rare habitat. The Fern Crew is largely made up of college interns pursuing degrees in conservation biology or related fields and is overseen by Park staff.

In 2015, after 100 years and several failed reintroduction efforts by various organizations, researchers were successful in reintroducing greenhouse-propagated hart’s-tongue ferns into the wild! As a result, two existing populations were expanded and New York State’s first new hart’s-tongue population was created! Reintroduction efforts were led by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY and New York State Parks, working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NY Natural Heritage Program. The FORCES program contributed many hours of labor to make this project a success.

Forces
The FORCES Fern Crew transplanted 2,000 greenhouse propagated hart’s-tongue ferns in 2015 (left). A hart’s-tongue fern transplant looking spectacular after 3 years in the field (right).

Future plans to continue propagation of hart’s-tongues are currently in the works at one of only two greenhouse facilities within the New York State Park’s system, Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua, NY. In a remarkable historical twist, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg Gardens were built by the very same woman who donated Clark Reservation State Park to New York State in 1915, Mary Clark Thompson. Keep your eye out for the amazing American hart’s-tongue fern at Sonnenberg Gardens in the coming years, as it may be your only chance to catch a glimpse of the fern that has enchanted generations of enthusiasts!

Clark_Sonnenberg
Mary Clark Thompson (left) donated Clark Reservation State Park (top right) to New York in 1915, including several hart’s-tongue fern populations. She also built the greenhouses at Sonnenberg Gardens (bottom right) that will soon be used to propagate hart’s-tongue ferns for reintroduction back into Clark Reservation.

Click here to learn more about this rare fern.

Blog post by Mike Serviss, Conservation Project Coordinator for Clark Reservation and Chittenango Falls State Parks.

All photos by Mike Serviss (New York State Parks), except the photos of Mary Clark Thompson and Sonnenberg Gardens, which were obtained from https://www.sonnenberg.org/

Help Keep Wildlife Wild

A busy squirrel scurries through a picnic area.

 A sparrow hops around on the ground near the campsite fire pit.

 A small herd of deer graze on the short grass near the playground.

New York State Parks provide a home to countless species of wildlife. They also provide a way for us visitors to experience and enjoy endless wildlife encounters. It is important to remember that wild animals live in balance with their habitat, eating foods that provide them with the best nutrition. There are different reasons people may want to feed wild animals such as ducks, chipmunks, deer, or raccoons, but feeding wildlife can cause much more harm than good.

Reasons not to feed wild animals:

 It leads to poor nutrition.

Feeding wild animals “people foods” like bread, marshmallows, or popcorn impacts their health in several ways. Animals have specific diets and these human foods do not contain the nutrients needed to keep the animal healthy. Like with people, poor nutrition in baby animals may even lead to health problems as the young animals grow. Young ducks and geese, for example, may develop a defect in their wings if fed an improper diet. This syndrome, commonly called “Angel Wing,” is incurable in adults and likely leads to an early death because the bird is unable to fly. In addition, when animals are continuously fed people food, they could become dependent on that food source and stop feeding on their natural foods. Young animals may not learn how to feed normally and could become less able to survive in their natural habitat.

It changes their behavior.

Have you ever had seagulls try to steal your French fries? Wildlife that are accustomed to being fed lose their natural fear of people. They might learn to associate all people with food, which leads them to become bolder towards humans. This could become a safety issue and unfortunately the animal may need to be permanently removed. Animals that are fed human food may also become more aggressive towards each other as they compete for food scraps. Feeding can influence migration as well; animals dependent on an unnatural food source may not migrate during the normal time of year.

It can increase the chance of disease.

Food provided by people can cause wildlife to gather in greater numbers than normal, which can increase the spread of disease. Some of these diseases can even be spread to people. This is another important reason to leave wild animals be.

State Park Signage.JPG

As you can see, feeding wildlife has many serious consequences. Animals do not understand the negative impacts of feeding; with your help, we can keep our park animals wild and healthy by not feeding them. And, it is State Parks’ policy to prohibit the feeding of wildlife by the public at all state parks and historic sites.

You do not need to feed the wildlife to enjoy their presence. Instead, try quietly watching the ducks from a nearby bench at the shore, snap some pictures of a deer from a safe distance, or break out the binoculars at a bird blind to get a better look at wildlife. If you don’t have binoculars, your local park nature center may have some available to share!

Ossining Grd 5 A Swaim
Ossining Fifth Graders watch birds at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. photo by Anne Swaim, Saw Mill River Audubon.

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, State Parks

Featured image: Petr Kratochvil – http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/5756, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13281242

Monitoring for Southern Pine Beetle

Earlier this year, the Invasive Species Management Team kicked off the spring with the installation of several southern pine beetle (SPB) traps at Minnewaska State Park Preserve and a few other locations. Southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis, is a 2-4mm long bark beetle, reddish brown to black in color, that hails from the southeastern United States and attacks pine trees. The female will locate a host tree, most commonly one with a compromised defense system as noted by the presence of alpha-pinene, a chemical released by stressed trees. The females then release the pheromone frontalin to attract males for mating, as well as other males and females. Males also secrete a pheromone, endo-brevicomin, summoning more beetles to congregate. The beetles enter the trees through cracks in the bark. In an effort to eject the beetle, pine trees will produce resin to push them out. The resulting little, lumpy sap nuggets are called pitch tubes and are a good indicator of SPB infestation. Once in the tree, SPB starts constructing curved tubes, or galleries, in the cambium to lay their eggs in. It is in the cambium that we find the xylem and phloem tissue, which transports water and nutrients through the tree and therefore helping the tree growth. Larvae move to the inner bark immediately after hatching, and then to the outer bark to feed as they mature. When they become adults, they chew round exit holes in a “shotgun” pattern, large enough only to fit a pencil tip. The exit holes are another sign of infestation to be on the lookout for. The chewing of galleries disrupts the flow of water and nutrients, resulting in the needles fading and ultimately tree death in as little as 2-4 months. The Long Island Central Pine Barrens have been particularly damaged by SPB. This may be due in part to the lack of fire as a management technique to thin stands, reducing competition and therefore resulting in healthier trees. Additionally, smoke from fires overpowers the beetle’s pheromonal communication, thus impeding their spread.

Because of how widespread SPB distribution has become, eradication of the species is simply not possible. The main method employed to suppress invasions is the cutting and removal of infested trees. A more proactive method includes monitoring pines for the early infestations of SPB to enable a rapid response to the arrival of SPB; bringing us back to Minnewaska State Park Preserve. The Sam’s Point area of Minnewaska is home to the only dwarf pine ridges ecosystem in the world, making it a globally unique and rare site. Therefore, monitoring for the arrival of SPB is imperative for the preservation of this rare pitch pine barrens as well as more common pitch pine communities of Minnewaska.

Nick and trap

Entomologist Tom Schmeelk with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) came to Minnewaska to hoist the traps and explain how they work. The traps used are Lindgren funnel traps, with a chain of funnels that mimics a tree stem. Several lures, or packets of pheromoneswere placed inside the trap which is then hung in a hardwood tree several feet off the ground and from the trunk. The lures utilized are frontalin, the sex pheromone secreted by females, and endo-brevicomin, the aggregation pheromone secreted by males. In addition, alpha-pinene was attached, a host volatile produced by stressed trees. The beetles are lured to the trap and funneled into a collection cup, the contents of which are sent to DEC to be checked for the presence of SPB.

For those concerned that the traps will attract beetles into the park that otherwise would’ve remained absent, rest assured that these are short-range traps that would only lure beetles within a few mile radius- meaning they only attract beetles already in the area. Being unaware of their presence in the park would be the much bigger risk to the park’s pine dominated ecosystems and all the species that depend on these, including the rare dwarf pines. Last year all the traps remained empty, let’s hope for the same this year!

Post by Sarantia Mitsinikos, Invasive Species Project Steward with SCA/Americorps/State Parks

Featured image: southern pine beetle, Steven Valley, Oregon Department of Agriculture, Bugwood.org