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.
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.
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.
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!
This time of year, much of New York’s landscape is dappled with bare-branched deciduous trees and dark, evergreen conifers. These cone-bearing conifer trees are adapted to survive harsh, cold weather, from the microscopic structure of the leaf to the overall shape of the entire tree. Despite the needle-like shape, conifer leaves serve much the same function as the flat, broad leaves of a sugar maple or oak tree. Most conifers keep their needles year-round. Do you know which New York native conifer drops its needles every fall? It is the tamarack (Larix laricina), a member of the larches, shown below.
On the left, these tamaracks are changing color. Every autumn the needles turn bright yellow and will fall off the tree by winter, so they are not considered an “evergreen.” On the right, a closer view of tamarack needles, which grow from a woody spur in clusters of ten to twenty. The needles are approximately ¾” to 1 ¼” inches long.
When talking about evergreens, pines may first come to mind, but conifers also include firs, spruces, hemlocks, and others. But how do we tell which is which? Here are a few quick tips to help narrow down the tree group simply by looking at the needles.
First, let’s look at pines. Pine trees have needles in bundles on the stem. The number per bundle depends on the species, but if you find bundles of five needles or less, you’ve likely discovered a pine. There are six native species of pine in New York, but two you may be most likely to encounter are white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa).
The eastern white pine (left) and its bundled needles (middle and right). This species of pine has five needles per bundle (and as a memory trick, there are five letters in the word “white”). The needles are soft and flexible, measuring about 2 to 4 inches long.
Spruce trees have needles that are individually attached to the branch with small woody pegs. A key characteristic for spruce needles is that they are square and can roll easily between your fingers. They are usually sharply pointed. Also, if any needles are shed the woody pegs make the branch feel rough, unlike the smooth branches of firs. There are three native spruces in New York: the white spruce (Picea glauca), the black spruce (Picea mariana), and the red spruce (Picea rubens).
The white spruce (left) and its needles (right), notice the woody pegs that attach the needle to the branch. Needles are stiff and measure about ½” to ¾” inches long. This species is sometimes called skunk spruce or cat spruce due to the strong odor from broken needles.
Fir needles are also individually attached, but unlike spruces, they are attached by what resembles a suction cup (look for a circular base). They are typically soft and flat with rounded needle tips. There are two whitish lines on the bottom of the needle. Another distinguishing characteristic of firs is that their cones stand upright on the branches, rather than droop down. The only native fir that can be found in New York is the balsam fir (Abies balsamea).
A stand of balsam fir (left) and its needles (right). Balsam fir needles are dark green and measure around ¾” to 1 ½” in length. The tips of the needles can be blunt, rounded, or notched.
Hemlocks have individually attached needles that are flat. Unlike firs, each hemlock needle has a small stem attached to a woody peg. In New York there is only one native hemlock species, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). While you’re out testing your needle identification skills, keep an eye out for the invasive pest hemlock woolly adelgid, which creates white woolly masses at the base of hemlock needles. This insect causes tree health to decline and can lead to the death of the hemlock in as little as four years.
A young eastern hemlock stand (left) and its needles with stems (right). Needles are usually a shiny green. On the underside of each needle, you can see two characteristic white lines (shown in the picture). The needles are typically one inch or less in length.
So there you have it! Next time you’re out scratching your head, wondering if you’ve encountered a white spruce or a white pine, ask yourself these simple questions:
Are the needles in bundles or individually attached?
Does the needle roll easily between your fingers or is it flat?
Are the needles attached to a stem, woody peg, or a “suction cup” structure?
Just by taking a quick look (and maybe pluck) at the needles, it is often possible to categorize the conifer into pine, spruce, fir, or hemlock. If you come across a conifer that doesn’t fit into these categories, try looking at cedars or junipers too. And the best part of studying conifers is that you can look at needles all year long! Unless it’s a tamarack, of course.
If you’d like to learn more about some key conifers, check out this blog post to learn about identifying specific species you may encounter in State Parks!
Imagine that when you were very little, your mom drilled a small hole in a plant and placed you inside. The plant’s reaction to the hole was to quickly enlarge that section of the plant where the tiny you was nestled. This new plant growth gives you a round home that protects you from the weather and provides all the food you need to grow into an adult. This round home is called a gall.
Most galls are formed by insects, others by fungus or bacteria. Each gall is unique to the plant that it grows on. Galls come in a variety of colors from red to yellow, green and black. There are three types of galls:
Leaf galls are the most common. They can be found on the lower or upper part of the leaf, and they may deform the leaf.
Twig and stem galls look like an odd growth on the stems and twigs of plants. They can be small or large.
Flower or bud galls disfigure a plant’s flowers or buds.
The Smithsonian notes that in North America alone, there are almost 1,500 different insect species that cause plant galls and most of them, over 800 species, make galls on oak trees.
Here is a sampling of some of the many galls you may see during your winter walks:
Oak apple gall
Walking under an oak tree, you may notice small, brown balls about the size of a ping pong ball hanging from the branches. These galls are the home of the oak apple gall wasp, Amphibolips confluenta. The galls are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. If you see a small hole in the gall, that hole was made by the adult wasp as it was emerging from the gall last summer. Oak apple galls are commonly seen on scarlet and black oaks.
Oak apple gall after the wasp has emerged, Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Male,oak apple gall wasp, photo accessed from Wikipedia
Goldenrod ball gall
Round galls on a goldenrod stem are an indication that a goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) is living inside the gall. Fly larvae live inside the gall all winter and emerge in the spring. You can find these swollen stems in meadows and along paths.
Goldenrod gall after the fly has emerged, photo by Mara Koenig_USFWS, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Golden gall fly, photo by USDA Forest Service – Ogden , USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Eastern spruce gall
Eastern spruce gall adelgids (Adelges abietis) cause galls on both Norway and white spruce. Look for the small (½”-1” long) pineapple shaped galls near the tips of the branches. One sign of eastern spruce gall adelgid is a scattering of brown spruce branch tips on the ground under a spruce tree. The tips break off during a heavy snow storm or wind storm.
Eastern spruce gall, photo by Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org
Eastern spruce gall adelgid, photo by Lorraine Graney, Bartlett Tree Experts, accessed from Bugwood.org
Cedar-apple gall and rust
The fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiana infects both cedar trees and apple trees during its two-year life cycle. In the winter, look for the fungus on eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as eastern juniper) trees. Spores develop in the gall during the early spring and they are released in May and June after a warm rain. If the spores land on apple or pear trees, they will infect the leaves of the tree where they land. Spores from cedar-apple gall on apple or pear leaves are released in June and July and may infect nearby cedars and other kinds of junipers and the cycle continues again.
Cedar apple rust on a cedar tree, photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Cedar apple rust on a apple leaves, photo by George Hudler, Cornell University, accessed from Bugwood.org.
One bacteria that forms galls is Rhizobium Rhizobium radiobacter. Grapes, walnuts, black cherry and other stone fruits are susceptible to Rhizobium radiobacter. The bacteria enters a plant when an insect or weather-related event injures the plant. For example, if the winter is severe, plants are more likely to get damaged from strong winds and crown gall bacteria will enter the plant. These galls can become enormous, over three feet in diameter when in the crown or body of trees, thus the name crown gall.
The wild turkey is native to North America, but suffered severe declines due to wide-scale forest clearing and over hunting. By the mid-1800’s, this great bird was gone from New York state and much of the northeast. However, in the mid to late 1940’s, some wild turkeys were observed along the NY and PA border from Allegany State Park to the Genesee River Valley, a sign that the habitat might be recovering and able to support them again. So, in the early 1950’s, the New York State Conservation Department (forerunner to the NYS Dept. of Conservation) began a restoration effort in the early 1950s. They started with game farm turkeys, but after a few years, this effort failed because the game farm birds were not wild enough to avoid predation and lacked the capacity to survive.
Meanwhile, a healthy breeding population of wild turkeys expanded from Pennsylvania into the Allegany State Park region of New York. Park managers then gave the Conservation Department permission to trap turkeys in the park, initiating the wild turkey trap and transfer program which began in 1958 and concluded successfully in 1974. This program allowed for more rapid expansion of the turkey population to suitable unoccupied habitats.
The turkeys trapped in Allegany State Park were moved to several areas in the Region and then throughout the state. In addition to the in-state trap and transfer, turkeys from the park were also sent to Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont. Other trapping efforts in the region and elsewhere in New York sent birds to Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island and the Canadian Province of Ontario. New York turkeys helped re-establish populations throughout the Northeast, Midwest and southeastern Canada.
Nets ready to trap a flock of turkeys.
Turkeys caught in a net.
Conservation Department staff and local volunteers place the turkeys into boxes. Afterwards, the birds were moved to their new homes.
New York State Conservation Department was one of the pioneers among state agencies to restore wild turkey populations in the United States. This program would not have been successful without the cooperation of Allegany State Park and to this day is recognized as one of the greatest wildlife management success stories of North America.
As part of my duties as an Invasive Species Project Steward, it has been my pleasure to join the Forest Health Specialists in their fieldwork. The Forest Health Specialists travel to priority park lands throughout the region to survey and monitor for forest pests, with an emphasis on areas previously treated for pests and on early detection of emerging threats to forest health. Although our focus in these surveys have been hemlock woolly adelgid, southern pine beetle, and spotted lanternfly (see DEC website or email email@example.com for more information), we see so much more in our state’s lush woodlands. Spending time in wild spaces and amongst such biodiversity ignites a sense of curiosity that no number of office supplies can replicate. Dendrology (the study of trees and shrubs), entomology (insect study) herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), ornithology (bird study) – with all these -ologies everywhere you turn, how can you ever pick just one to invest your energy in learning about? The more time I spent hunting for the aforementioned pests, I found myself increasingly drawn to the study of one particular organism: mushrooms. Maybe I liked how they can be beautiful and disgusting, delicious and deadly, beneficial or parasitic, and all share a space within the field of mycology. Whatever the reason, I found them fascinating and had plenty of run-ins with them.
One particularly distinct and common mushroom is chicken of the woods, scientifically named Laetiporus sulphureus. It is also called sulfur shelf because of the sulfur-yellow color of the pores, and its overlapping disk-like growth form protruding from oak, hemlock and other trees like a shelf. Each lobe is an inch thick, up to 20 inches across and can weigh up to a pound apiece! It is very common in our neck of the woods- the specimen pictured here was found at Waterson Point State Park in the Thousand Islands, though I have also seen it at Minnewaska State Park, John Boyd Thacher State Park, and Harriman State Park.
Another fungus you may see protruding off a tree, often birch, is the hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius), named as such for the hoof shape and hardness of the brown-ringed cap (Roberts and Evans, 383). It has also been called tinder polypore because “amadou,” the inner fibrous flesh, was historically used as tinder to start fires and cauterize wounds (Lincoff, 457).
Also in the polypore family, Polyporaceae, is the Cinnabar-red polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) pictured below. The distinct red caps are 1-5 inches wide and round, often growing on dead deciduous trees (Lincoff, 486). Another member of Polyporaceae is the violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biformis). They have round, overlapping caps up to 3 inches wide with a leathery texture and are brown with purple, wavy margins. They are found by the hundreds on deciduous trees, and over time will diminish them into sawdust (Lincoff, 490)!
False turkey-tail (Streum ostrea) is another fungus often growing on downed deciduous trees, although not a member of Polyporaceae. Its name stems from often being misidentified for the fungus turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor), which is a polypore (Lincoff, 497). The species name ostrea is Latin for “oyster,” the shape of the tan, tough and papery caps, often tinted green with algae (Roberts and Evans, 438). Research indicates that they produce laccase, an enzyme used to break down contaminants.
This common inkcap, Coprinopsis atramentaria, was found at Mills Norrie State Park along the Hudson River. The name atramentaria comes from the Latin word “atramentum,” meaning ink (www.first-nature.com). The French mycologist Jean Baptiste Francois Pierre Buillard, who first described the species and named it, realized that the gills turn to a liquid with age and can be used to make ink. The cap is light gray, thin and shaped like a partially opened umbrella with a smooth white stem and can be found growing on stumps, roadsides, and gardens.
Keep a lookout on your woodland adventures for the highly sought-after chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), also called golden chanterelles for their yellow-orange coloration. They have smooth stems that widen at the top to a funnel-shaped cap with gills on the underside and a smooth top with wavy edges. This is one of the best-known mushrooms and is exported commercially worldwide (Roberts and Evans, 476). The ones pictured here were found at Schunnemunk State Park in the Hudson Valley.
In your exploration of State Parks, you are likely to stumble upon puffballs, family Agaricaceae, growing in the leaf litter. They are round to upside-down-pear shaped, sometimes with a grainy texture and usually 3 inches tall and 2 inches wide. They are called puffballs because as they mature, a hole opens on the top of the rounded cap that enables the spores to puff out. Historically, they were used to seal wounds, start fires, and stun bees as we use smoke today. But be cautious around them, their spores are known to irritate the nose and eyes, and if breathed in excess can cause an allergic reaction in the lungs called lycoperdonosis (Roberts and Evans, 520). The puffballs pictured below were sighted at Taconic Outdoor Education Center in the Hudson Valley. The giant puffball (Calvatio Gigantea) is a particularly interesting variation that has been seen on State Parks’ land. As its name implies, they are round, smooth and typically 30 inches by 30 inches. The largest recorded, however, was up to 5 feet wide and weighed in at over 40 pounds (Roberts and Evans, 512)!
Then there’s the coral mushrooms, named for their resemblance to undersea coral colonies. These white spindles (Clavaria fragilis) were found growing in the leaf litter at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. The species name fragilis pays homage to the extremely brittle nature of the fungus (Roberts and Evans, 486). It used to be called Clavaria vermicularis, white worm fungus because of its tubular white spines growing upwards in a cluster (Lincoff, 400).
It’s relative, golden spindles (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) is also a saprotroph, meaning it feeds on dead matter like leaf litter (Roberts and Evans, 494). Golden spindles also grow in unbranched needles, but as the name implies, are yellow.
This white coral (Ramariopsis kunzei) was also found growing in the leaf litter of the forest floor at Minnewaska State Park. Unlike the spindles, the fruitbodies of the white coral are branched. There is still much to be learned about this species (Roberts and Evans, 504).
A much shyer mushroom, despite the name, is lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus). It is also called bearded tooth, as it grows downward from trees or logs in a cluster of white spindles up to 3 inches long. Similar to human teeth, it yellows as it ages. In Asia it is called monkey head and is used to strengthen the immune system, available as a pill for stomach ulcers or as a tonic drink in a can (Roberts and Evans, 468). The cluster shown here was found at Minnewaska State Park.
Mushrooms like moisture and cool temperatures, so now is the time to seek them out. I am sure you will have no trouble finding them, and although they can be very tricky to identify, perhaps you may recognize some of the species featured here on the many trails located at our State Parks. Happy Mushroom hunting, but remember not to disturb them, as they are a much-needed member of the ecosystem.
Post by Sara Mitsinikos, SCA intern
“Coprinopsis Atramentaria (Bull.) Redhead, Vilgalys & Moncalvo – Common Inkcap.” Coprinopsis Atramentaria, Common Inkcap Mushroom, First Nature.
Lincoff, Gary H. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Mushrooms. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Roberts, Peter, and Shelley Evans. The Book of Fungi: a Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World. University of Chicago Press, 2011.