Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Pausing to Ponder Pollinators

It is Pollinator Week, the week we celebrate pollinators small and tiny.  Our native pollinators, including bumble bees, mining bees, bee flies, longhorn beetles, and flower moths, play an important role in supporting the diversity of plant life in New York. Since 2016, State Parks staff has been working hard to help protect our native pollinators by cultivating native plant gardens and meadows.

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Pollinator gardens are a great way to attract a variety of pollinators and provide a place for people to see and learn about plants and pollinators up close. Unlike natural areas, these areas often contain a familiar garden plants like daffodils, marigolds, petunias, snapdragons, Stella Dora lilies, garden iris, cosmos, and many other non-native plants that provide color and variety and attract pollinators. However, by adding in plants that are native to New York State, you boost the value to the insects. Native pollinators evolved with the native flora, so they do better on these plants.  Some examples of native flora that are good for gardens are violets, blue flag iris, wood lily, butterfly weed (not to be confused with the non-native butterfly bush see below), asters, goldenrods, native sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, azalea, and many others. Using a variety plants helps to support both the insect “generalists” who use many kinds of flowers, as well as the “specialists” that go to only one or a few types of flowers. Pollinator gardens in State Parks offer a good way for you to learn about some plants that occur in the park or region too.

Pollinator meadows are larger areas from a quarter acre to many acres, typically where old fields containing a mix of native and pasture grasses are supplemented with native plant species that attract pollinators. This is the type of area that works well for planting milkweed, goldenrods, native grasses (like little bluestem, panic grass, big bluestem), and other species that don’t need a lot of care and that tend to spread. To maintain the meadow habitat, these sites are best managed by occasional mowing to keep woody plants from moving in. Targeted weeding is also needed to keep any non-native invasives from getting a foothold. But managing a meadow close to a woodland is a plus as a number of pollinators make their home their and visit the meadows for food.

GanondaganMeadow
The grassland at Ganondagan State Historic Site is a great place to find our native pollinators.

There are many lists of plants recommended for pollinator gardens or meadows but be wary as some contain plants that are not native to New York state. They also sometimes include non-native invasives which you really don’t want!

Fritilary aug 2017
Fritillary butterfly enjoys some milkweed at Caleb Smith State Park.

And beware that some common names can be confusing. For example, butterfly bush vs butterfly weed are not remotely related! Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a purple flowered shrub that is popular but not native and can be invasive. Best to avoid that one.  In contrast, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is an orange flowered milkweed native to NY and a great choice for attracting pollinators to your garden or meadow. To determine if a plant species is native to NY go to NY Flora Atlas.

NY State Parks staff have created more areas that make it easy for you to learn about native flora and fauna. The following places offer excellent spots for you to see native pollinators and learn about the plants they depend on. Take time this week to ponder pollinators at one of State Parks’ pollinator gardens or meadows.

Some of the parks will also have special pollinator programs during both Pollinator Week and over the summer, where you can search for and identify native pollinators.

cassie-meadow Allegany
Pollinator program at Allegany State Park.

Learn more about our native pollinators and other insects:

Hohm, Heather, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants, Pollination Press LLC; 2014.

NY Natural Heritage Program and the Empire State Native Pollinator Survey

Wilson, Joseph S, The Bees In Your Backyard, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Xerces Pollinator Conservation

More information on insects and flowers:

Websites

BugGuide

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Books

McKenny, Margaret and Roger Tory Peterson, A Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America

Newcomb, Lawrence, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

Tallamy, Douglas and Rick Darke, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded

Where is Jack?

Jack is in the pulpit.

Who is Jack?

‘Jack’ is the spike flower cluster (or spadix) of the early spring wildflower known as bog onion, wild turnip, brown dragon, and most commonly jack-in-the-pulpit.  Jack’s pulpit is a modified leaf (known as a bract) that wraps around and drapes over the top of the flower like a hood.

BractSpadix

Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) are perennial plants that are found in moist woodlands throughout New York.  They can grow from 12”-26” inches tall, with the leaves in clusters of three on a separate stalk.

The flowers, Jacks, that we see are either female or male. Smaller, younger jack-in-the-pulpits make male flowers and older, larger plants produce female flowers.  It takes three years for the plants to start to produce the green flowers.

The plant relies upon flies including fungal gnats and lake flies to pollinate the flowers. They are attracted to the flower’s fungal, mushroom, smell.  Gnats and flies can escape from the male flowers through a small hole in the side of the flower, but they get stuck inside the female flowers because there is no escape route.

Once the flower is fertilized, plants produce a green fruit/seed stalk in summer, which turns a bright red in fall.

RobRoutledge,
Jack-in-the-pulpit seed stalk in the fall, Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

Resources and more information:

iNaturalist, Jack- in-the-Pulpit

New York Botanical Garden, Jack-in-the-pulpit: Pollination by Deception

New York Flora Atlas, Arisaema triphyllum ssp. triphyllum

St. Olas College, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Wikipedia, Arisaema triphyllum

Wildflowers of the Southeastern US. Jack in the Pulpit

In Search of the Early Bloomers

The ground is thawing out and the skunk cabbage is up – it’s time to start searching for the purple rock cress (Cardamine douglassii), a state-threatened plant. You may also find its more common cousins, all members of the mustard family – yes, like the mustard you eat, but with white to pink flowers rather than yellow. Moist woodlands with oak, hickory, and maple are a good place to look, including forests with vernal (spring) pools. Perhaps you might be out looking for frogs and salamanders around this time of year, if so -keep an eye out for these early flowering plants, too. Woodland rock cresses tend to be small, only about 3 to 8 inches tall, so they are easy to miss. If you see some patches of green that are not mosses or mounds of sedges (grass-like plants), take a closer look – you may be rewarded with some delicate flowers.

VernalPool_JLundgren
Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Forests with vernal pools or small streams or wetlands are a good place to look for these cresses.

Log_JLundgren
Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Look for patches of green on the forest floor and take a closer look. You might find some flowers.

CutLeavedRockCress_JLundgren
Cut-leaved rock cress or cut-leaved toothwort, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

A close-up of that woodland patch of green reveals this beautiful plant, the cut-leaved rock cress or cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), a common woodland wildflower. This used to go by the name Cardamine laciniata or Dentaria laciniata. It is easy to identify by its lacy leaves that look a bit like bird tracks.

CressLeaves_KPerkins
Rock cress, photo by Kelly Perkins, NYNHP.

Several of the other rock cresses, including the purple rock cress, have smaller and less complex leaves like this or just small roundish leaves on the stem or at the base of the plant (see in background).

SpringCress_SYoung
Spring cress, photo by Steve Young, NYNHP.

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) is another common cress that blooms very early. The flowers can range from white to pink, and it can be hard to tell this apart from the rare purple rock cress. Note that all of the flowers in the mustard family have 4 petals regardless of their color.

CDouglassii_JLundgren
Purple rock cress, photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Here is the rare Cardamine douglassii, so similar to the spring cress above. One has to consult the botanical keys in order to figure out which species you have. Some trout lilies are coming up too (leaves at upper left).

PurpRockCress_Scale_KWebster
Purple rock cress, photo by State Parks.

NY Natural Heritage and State Parks staff discovered two new locations for this rare species in State Parks in the past few years and hope that more are found in this year’s early spring surveys.

CressSeedPod_KWebster
Photo by State Parks.

The flowers of the cresses don’t last long, only until the trees leaf out. Once in fruit, you can still recognize them by their elongate seed pods, which give rise to yet another common name for this group of plants, the “rockets”.

Post written by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Featured image by Kyle Webster, State Parks

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. NYNHP conducts many kinds of surveys and studies to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

Recommended references for identifying the rock cresses:

https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/genus/cardamine/

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. Little, Brown and Co. 1989.

For more information:

NY Flora Atlas Purple Rock Cress

NYNHP Conservation Guides Purple Rock Cress

I’d Like to Spy the World a Cloak

This spring, as you spend time hiking or recreating in one of your favorite state parks, keep an eye out for an insect with a name almost as evocative as its striking appearance – the mourning cloak!

Nymphalis antiopa, also known as the Camberwell beauty in Great Britain, is easily recognizable due to its wings, which feature an irregularly-shaped bright yellow border with a row of iridescent blue spots on the inner edge. Some other historical names for the species also reflect its appearance, including “grand surprise” and “white petticoat.”

The mourning cloak is unusual in that it overwinters as an adult, hiding in tree cavities and under loose bark. It starts flying again as soon as the days warm up, even where there’s still snow on the ground.

Not just native to the northeast, the mourning cloak is broadly distributed around the hemisphere – in fact, it’s the state insect of Montana! Their wingspan ranges from 2 ¼ to 4 inches and they have one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly at 10 to 12 months. Their favorite snacks include rotting fruit or tree sap, and they can often be found gathering on oak trees.

Hectonichus
Nymphalis antiopa (mourning cloak) caterpillar, photo by Hectonichus, accessed from Wikimedia Commons

They’re also highly distinguishable in their immature form as the spiny elm caterpillars, with black spiny bodies run through with a streak of reddish to orange colored dots. After feeding on young leaves, the caterpillars will pupate and emerge in their adult form mid-summer. Some adults migrate in the fall, and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala.

Post by Ben Mattison , State Parks

Butterflies and Moths, mourning cloak

University of Florida,  Featured Creatures mourning cloak

Wikipedia, Nymphalis antiopa

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?