Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Lights Out For The Birds

Twice a year, billions of birds migrate throughout the United States between their wintering and breeding grounds. These birds typically migrate south in the fall and will migrate north again in the spring. That means right now in New York State, birds are passing through as they travel down south to warmer climates. All types of birds will be seen migrating during the seasons, including warblers, shorebirds, raptors, and more.

Birds will usually spend their days saving their energy, resting, and finding food sources and during the night will use most of their energy flying. Migratory birds are typically nocturnal travelers, which means they gain the most mileage during the night hours. While we are asleep after an event filled day, there can be an estimated 150 million to upwards of 300 million birds travelling overhead in one given night. Even though the day is over for us and is our time to relax and unwind, the night hours are highly active for migrating birds!

The official New York State bird, the Eastern Bluebird, migrates south in the fall to spend its winters in the southeaster U.S. or Mexico. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)
Dark-eyed junco (female) migrate south into New York from Canada and sometimes hang around all winter. (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Nighttime migration poses different threats to these birds, particularly in big cities. Large buildings are typically lit up with hundreds of bright lights throughout all hours of the night. This light pollution can significantly change birds’ behaviors, including migration patterns, foraging for food, and communication with other birds in the area. Light pollution can distract the birds as they might start to think it is daytime, because they cannot process light sources like we can. All of these behaviors are a waste of energy for birds, making their long journey much more dangerous.

According to the National Park Service, nighttime light pollution in the U.S. has gotten much worse in decades after World War II, so much that now eight in ten Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. And this is an increasing issue for migrating birds.

This National Park Service map shows the growth of light pollution in the U.S. since the 1950s

Birds and State Parks

New York State Parks are a great place to visit to catch a view of migrating birds. The forests, meadows, wetlands, and other natural areas in State Parks provide some of the most crucial habitats for these birds along their journey, and have helped them survive over the years by offering shelter and food. In some parks there are specific areas designated as Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs). Of the 62 BCAs throughout the state, 27 are within State Parks.

An area can be designated as a BCA if it is judged as important habitat for one or more species based on certain criteria. There are many BCA locations throughout the state, such as Saratoga Spa State Park that is home to more than 100 different bird species. You can find the location of Saratoga Spa State Park and other BCAs on the map provided below and the State Parks website. You can also check the State Parks events list for birding events near you!

A map of the Bird Conservation Area in Saratoga Spa State Park.

In addition to BCAs, there are also areas recognized nationwide by the National Audubon Society to help protect birds and their habitats; Important Bird Areas (IBAs). One example in New York State is Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Westchester county, and is home to 180 different bird species! Check out the National Audubon Website to see Rockefeller State Park Preserve and all the other IBAs in New York State.

What Is The “Lights Out” Movement?

The “Lights Out” movement is a nationwide event that was created in in Chicago in 1999 by the National Audubon Society to help reduce the number of bird fatalities. Since then, the effort has spread to cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

Bird fatalities are more directly caused by the amount of energy birds are wasting during the night because of the heavy light pollution across the United States. This energy is being wasted on flying around, using more vocalization and the exhaustion is leaving them more vulnerable to other threats around them.

If you’re interested in watching migrations, a tool that can be used is the BirdCast migration tool. This website has many resources for nationwide and local monitoring. The nationwide mapping tools include a live forecast of the density of the birds migrating as well as a 3-day prediction forecast of what it could look like. In addition to the nationwide prediction forecast, you can also check out a live animated video of the current migration patterns each day!

Use the slider bar to see how the BirdCast migration changes between Oct. 6 and October 14.

Another neat tool that this website includes is a live local alerting map that is specific for a county, city, or town. The local maps tell you how many birds to expect flying over your area that night and what the next couple nights look like as well. This tool provides important information so you can participate in helping the birds during their migration.

There are two large windows for bird migrations;: one in the fall and one in the spring. Bird migration can take place from August through November with peak migration in October in the fall and from March through June with peak migration in May in the spring. Check out the links provided above to get more information on BirdCast and when peak migration is happening in your area!

How Can You Help?

Some suggestions to help get you started with the Lights Out Movement for nighttime hours:

  • Turn off exterior decorative lighting
  • Turn off interior lighting, or use curtains and blinds
  • Install automatic motion sensors and controls wherever possible
  • Click on the link to check out the full list of suggestions: Lights Out Movement. One of the local efforts is based in New York City.

After visiting State Parks and seeing the many different species of birds that are in New York State, it is important for all of us to do our part to help keep them safe. The National Audubon Society provides suggestions on how to decrease light pollution on a local level, which will help birds during their migration. It is estimated that 253 million annual bird deaths from collisions are from residential areas compared to 340 million from tall buildings and skyscrapers. Your part at home is just as important as businesses!

Participating in the Lights Out movement helps more birds safely reach their migration grounds, giving you and your family more opportunities to see them in New York State Parks! To make an official pledge with the movement, sign up here.


Cover Shot – A map of Bird Conservation Areas in New York State Parks.

Post by Allyson Paradis, Wildlife Unit Assistant, NYS Parks

More Resources from the NYS Parks Blog

Golden Opportunities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

On February 24, 2009, two visitors to Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park were enjoying a sunny walk on Davis Road when two BIG birds flew overhead, going north.  “Golden Eagles!” exclaimed these experienced bird watchers.  Both were volunteers at the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society’s (DOAS) Franklin Mountain Hawk Watch which is known for its … Continue reading Golden Opportunities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

Training Protects Threatened Rattlesnakes

Twenty-five years ago, as a young Fish and Wildlife Technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I was recruited for an unusual field outing on State parkland in the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York: a first of its kind, hands-on training to become a certified nuisance rattlesnake responder.  

As a responder, I would be on a short list of people willing to safely and legally relocate timber rattlesnakes that had wandered into compromising situations on private property – a win-win for both the homeowner and snake.  No such system was in place in the Hudson Valley and, without it, many homeowners took matters into their own hands, often with a shovel or shotgun.

Randy Stechert, a long-time herpetologist and regional rattlesnake expert who has worked through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, led our small group to a remote rocky clearing in search of Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. The largest of New York State’s three venomous snake species (the others being the northern copperhead and massasauga rattlesnake), the timber rattlesnake was in trouble, owing to centuries of habitat loss and direct persecution, including a bounty system lasting into the 1970s.

These depredations were so effective the State declared the species Threatened in 1983, a designation requiring conservation measures to keep it from slipping to Endangered status or worse. Currently under New York State Environmental Conservation Law, it is illegal to capture, kill or possess any native snake at any time without a permit, including rattlesnakes.

The mission of that long-ago outing was to familiarize our ragtag group of would-be responders with this species in the flesh. Randy would show us a wild rattlesnake and how to safely handle it, while imparting his wisdom about all things rattlesnake in his booming baritone voice.

And boy did he deliver.

I will never forget the robust, nearly all-black rattlesnake plucked from a huckleberry patch and deposited on the open bedrock just feet in front of me. Most memorable was how easily we could stand beside this now agitated wild animal with little concern about its intentions. It was in a clearly defensive posture, coiled and ready to repel any further attacks from this presumably malevolent band of primates.

A black morph timber rattlesnake. Colors range from nearly jet black, to browns, to sulfur yellow. (Photo credit – DEC/William Hofman)
A yellow morph timber rattlesnake.

In the ensuing decades, and after handling dozens of rattlesnakes in my research and as a nuisance responder, I’ve come to understand them as pacifists at heart.  Despite their considerable weaponry – two hypodermic needle-like fangs and potent venom – they really just want to be left alone.  In fact, their first response to human presence is to remain motionless, and hope their camouflage shields them from detection.  If detected and a retreat is available, such as a rock crevice, they will typically make a rapid exit to safety.  But if they feel exposed, vulnerable, and without a means for escape, they quickly switch gears in an attempt to intimidate their aggressor.  A cornered rattlesnake coils, inflates to look more girthy, and rapidly vibrates its namesake rattle to audibly back up the message. This menacing version is our popular notion of a rattlesnake but, ironically, is merely a response to the perceived threat posed by us. 

The snake’s rattle is made from rings of keratin – the same hardened protein our fingernails and hair are made of. A new rattle segment is formed every time a snake sheds its skin. When the snake rapidly shakes its tail, the rings vibrate and produce a rattling or buzzing noise used by the snake as a warning to keep away. (Photo credit – New Hampshire Fish and Game Department/Brendan Clifford.)
Hear a rattlesnake rattle…

Since that indelible first encounter with a wild rattlesnake on State Park land, I have become increasingly entwined with this charismatic species. I’ve rescued them from homeowner’s yards, conducted field surveys for their winter dens, and ultimately took a very deep dive into unraveling the timber rattlesnake’s mating system and reproductive ecology as a graduate student.   

Still managed by the DEC, the nuisance rattlesnake response program includes most members of that original group recruited in the mid-1990s.  While Randy Stechert continues to host trainings (now done with captive snakes, rather than wild ) in recent years, he has passed the torch to another generation of trainers, including myself here at State Parks. 

Where I work at  Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park , natural resource staff, backcountry rangers and our own zookeepers have been trained using our captive rattlesnakes under this program, expanding Parks’ in-house capacity to respond to nuisance situations at all our locations. 

Other conservation measures have been installed as well in recent years.  For example, all park development projects are “screened” by location to assess their potential for rattlesnake impacts. When possible, projects sited within snake habitat are scheduled for November to March, when the snakes are less likely to be active and in harm’s way.  When this can’t be done, the contractor is required to develop a rattlesnake response plan and have an onsite snake monitor to head off conflicts. In some cases, when habitat loss or direct impacts are considered unacceptable, the project is relocated, reconfigured, or even denied.

The timber rattlesnake has been a survivor, persisting in the rocky uplands of the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier and eastern Adirondacks for at least the last six thousand years. Our past concerted efforts to eliminate it from the landscape were unsuccessful, and good thing. As more species disappear and the fabric of nature unravels, thread by thread, the value of having formidable, wild creatures about us only increases.

State parklands are a critical refuge for this imperiled snake in New York and can remain this way with a little foresight, planning, and, frankly, empathy, on our part.  If we can successfully accommodate the long-term survival of the timber rattlesnake, it will bode well for biodiversity overall.

Timber rattlesnakes reach the northern limit of their range in New York and New England.(Photo credit – NYS DEC)
A researcher marked this snake’s rattle with red paint to aid future identification.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake?


If you are on State parkland or elsewhere in the wild, observe the snake from a safe distance (at least six feet), and take a moment to enjoy this majestic animal. If you snap a picture with your cell phone and want to share it with others over social media, it is best to do this without disclosing exact location information. You can either share a screenshot or make sure location services are disabled on your phone. This will keep the location secret from snake poachers attempting to mine online location data. After briefly observing the snake, back away and make a detour around its location to continue your hike.

In a nuisance situation where the snake’s presence is problematic, such as in or near a dwelling or public space, a certified relocation expert can be obtained by calling 911 or the DEC. Please remember: Do not attempt to disturb or capture the snake yourself.  Seeking expert assistance in this instance is one way to help New York preserve its biodiversity.


Cover shot – A yellow morph timber rattlesnake blends into the forest floor. All pictures NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Ed McGowan, PhD, Director of Science and Trailside Museums & Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park

Resources


New York Natural Heritage Program guide to the timber rattlesnake.

Read a recent scientific study on how rattlesnakes use their rattles to make a snake sound closer than it actually is.

Read about a DEC and multi-agency investigation between 2006 and 2009 into the illegal wildlife trade in rattlesnakes, other reptiles and amphibians.

Learn more about the timber rattlesnake in this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog…


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 … Continue reading Respect for Rattlers

Hungry Hungry Caterpillars

Throughout much of New York State earlier this summer, fuzzy caterpillars were rampaging through natural forests and well-kept gardens alike. Maybe you noticed these bristly little critters wobbling along, or even had an itchy rash after touching their mildly stinging hairs!

These crazy caterpillars are Lymantria dispar, which you may have called gypsy moths in the past. Why not just call them gypsy moths? What is really in a name?

This is an exciting time as we wait to hear the new official common name for our moth, Lymantria dispar, but for this blog post we’ll call them L. dispar for short. Currently, the Entomological Society of America has is considering options for new names under the Better Common Names Project, in order to “bar names referencing ethnic or racial groups and names that might stoke fear.”

There is a plethora of fun characteristics for this moth which could apply to a new name. I personally vote for something akin to “Pricklecater,” “Blue-Red Spotted Messworm” or “Itchy Eww Moth.”

A L. dispar caterpillar up close.

Anyways… back to our story.

A native of Europe, L. dispar were accidentally released into the wild in 1869 and have since become “naturalized” in 19 Northeastern states. This means they have shoved their way into local food webs as they munch down on foliage then in turn become a tasty food source for birds, bugs, and other predators.

For the most part, they are active participants in the wonderous world of ecology. They are citizens playing their part in a complex and everchanging ecosystem. A single L. dispar caterpillar can eat about a square meter of plant material during its short lifetime, but one caterpillar doesn’t do too much damage.

The problem is that one female moth can lay more than 1,000 eggs in a single mass, which stick to the sides of trees, and are browish and gummy-looking.

That’s a lot of eggs!

The female moths, which are white, lay their egg masses on the sides of trees after mating. The masses are brownish and gummy in appearance.

Every 10 to 12 years, the L. dispar population explodes exponentially and hundreds of thousands of tiny caterpillars hatch in the spring. Once hatched, they use a strand of silk to “balloon” away on the wind until they find a newly leafing tree to eat and eat and eat.

To experience these numbers, I’d like you to imagine walking your favorite path in the woods. Shaded from the hot sun, you can hear the gentle pitter-patter of rain sprinkling down through the canopy. How peaceful… There is no better place in all the world on this cloudless day.

“Cloudless day? But isn’t it raining?” you ask.

Oh yes, something is raining down… but it’s not water.

Scientifically known as frass, this tiny spherical poop from thousands of very hungry caterpillars is dropping down onto your head and shoulders, as these little machines diligently convert the lush green leaves overhead into little brown balls of poo.

Not great. Pretty gross.

These baby caterpillars have small, young jaws, and prefer soft new budding leaves until they are old enough to chew tougher vegetation. While they prefer hardwood trees, they will eat more than 300 different plant species when hungry enough, stripping away all foliage until trees and bushes are left embarrassingly naked.

This can be a problem.

Caterpillar can strip away much of leaf material. Usually, trees can survive it, as long as it does not happen too many years in a row.

When deciduous trees like oak, birch and maple are eaten by caterpillars, they usually have enough stored energy to push out another set of leaves before the summer is through. It takes multiple years of defoliation to weaken these trees to the point of death. However evergreen trees cannot bounce back as quickly. Coniferous (evergreen) trees put lots of energy into their tough, thick, needle-like leaves, and will likely die if more than half of their needles are eaten.

Most years the caterpillars are fairly harmless, except during these incredibly destructive outbreaks which reoccur in a slow but disastrous cycle. Due to this pattern, L. dispar are considered cyclical pests.

In the adult stage L. dispar moths are not destructive at all, as they do not eat anything (no digestive system) and only live for a few days. The white fluffy females have pretty wings used for decoration rather than flying, and release a hormone into the air for male moths to find them. Females remain on the sides of trees as the males fly in search of the females’ scent.The female will lay fuzzy egg masses on whatever surface she’s near and the life cycle will begin again.

This is where we can take some control over the situation. By counting the egg masses in the wintertime, we can predict how many L. dispar caterpillars will hatch in the Spring and we can prepare a plan of defense. 

Natural Population Controls


While major L. dispar outbreaks can resemble a plague of locusts consuming everything in their path, nature often has a way of correcting imbalances. At low densities, vertebrate predators keep the population in check, but are ineffective at controlling massive numbers of prey. Bird bellies just aren’t big enough!

However, when L. dispar caterpillars are densely packed into one area, viruses and funguses can spread rapidly. These are naturally occurring diseases which are always present in the environment, but only take significant effect when populations are grossly out of control. Researchers have identified one virus specialized to L. dispar which kills 90 percent of infected caterpillars. This virus has since been converted into an effective treatment which brings the population down to healthy levels.

This natural method of population control is the preferred way to control the situation since it doesn’t harm any other species. However, this treatment must occur very soon after the caterpillars hatch, otherwise the damage will already be done.

These last few months we’ve seen many caterpillars eating their way through New York, and next year could be even worse in some places… or not. It all depends how well nature’s natural defenses have worked.

Measures are being taken at State Parks to perform egg mass surveys to try and predict next year’s population and prepare for any treatments accordingly. Let’s not repeat the summer of 1981 when 13 million acres of forest were defoliated! Our poor defenseless trees!


Post by Juliet Linzmeier, Student Conservation Association member, Invasive Species Unit, NYS Parks

Cover shot – A L. dispar caterpillar. All shots from NYS Parks.

A close-up of a female L. dispar moth.

Resources

DISCLAIMER: The following materials have not been updated on the new common name for L. dispar, and refer to this pest as “Gypsy Moth”.


Want to learn more about these moths and efforts to protect the forest? The DEC has great information here at Gypsy Moth – NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation

Prefer watching videos? The DEC also did a 30-minute Facebook Live post, which covers the history, morphology, control methods, and more!


Empire State Native Pollinator Survey – You Can Help!

Summer is in full swing, with flowers blooming and bees buzzing. Our native pollinators, which also include flies, butterflies, and beetles, are an important part of New York’s ecosystems. They work hard to pollinate our trees, wildflowers, gardens, and crops. Some of these native pollinators appear to be declining. To learn more, scientists have been evaluating the populations of pollinators throughout New York as part of the four year Empire State Native Pollinator Survey (ESNPS).

The ESNPS is a project that aims to determine the distribution and conservation status of target pollinator species in New York. This project is made possible through work by both scientists conducting statewide surveys and community members submitting pollinator pictures and specimens they have observed.

In the last few years, zoologists with New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) have visited more than 60 State Parks throughout New York State searching for a variety of target pollinator species. Community scientists have also been contributing their finds with photos added to the ESNPS iNaturalist project page.

More than 21,000 observations had been submitted to this multi-year project byMarch 2021, with the project constantly growing. These observations have been submitted by over 600 people and represent over 1,400 species. The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey is accepting photo submissions through September 2021 and you can help!

Be A Community Scientist

Do you want to help contribute to pollinator survey efforts? The project is accepting photo submissions through September 2021! Photographs can be submitted through the ESNPS iNaturalist project page or through the iNaturalist app after joining the project online. This can be a fun activity to do solo or with friends and family the next time you visit a State Park. Pollinators can be found in a variety of habitats – keep an eye out for wildflowers on warm and sunny days to see what you can find.  If you are able to snap some good pictures and upload them to iNaturalist, experts can help you identify the species you have found. It is a great way to learn, too.

What to Look For

Below are some pictures of the target species for this project that have been found in New York State Parks. New York’s pollinators have so much variety! These are just a few examples of what to look for and photograph.

Cuckoo Bee


One of the interesting bumble bees we have in New York is Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae). Cuckoo bumble bees are a group of parasitic bees that are unable to collect pollen or raise young. These bees will take over the already established nests of other bumble bees by invading and incapacitating or killing the queen. The Cuckoo bumble bee then forces the workers to raise its young.

Fernald’s Cuckoo Bumble Bee (Bombus flavidus=fernaldae) Photo Kevin Hemeon

Bee Mimics

Look closely at the Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) and Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis); these are flies that are called bee mimics. Bee mimics can look very similar to bees, hornets, or wasps. Imitating insects with stingers is a defense mechanism for these harmless flies. 

Bare-eyed Bee-mimic Fly (Mallota bautias) Photo Paweł Pieluszyński
Eastern Hornet Fly (Spilomyia longicornis) Photo Laura Shappell
Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major) Photo Alan Wells

Longhorn Beetles

The project is also interested in information on the 100 species of longhorn beetles. These beetles generally have very long antennae and come in a wide variation of colors and patterns. They too are pollinators.

Strangalepta Flower Longhorn Beetle (Strangalepta abbreviata) Photo Alan Wells
Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus) Photo Alan Wells

Where Should I Look?

You can find native pollinators all over. State Parks have a great variety of natural habitats where you can find interesting pollinators. Sunny days with not too much wind are ideal. Some of the counties that would benefit from additional surveys are Chenango, Cortland, Fulton, Lewis, Montgomery, Orleans, Tioga, and Yates.

Look for flowers along trails through fields, meadows, dunes, forests, or even in marshes and stream sides if you kayak or canoe. Stop and look for a bit to see if any pollinators settle down on the flowers. Photograph from a distance first and then try to move in for some close-ups. The insects are often so intent on feeding that they don’t fly away.

If you can help, sign up for the Empire Pollinator Survey ESNPS iNaturalist project page and submit your photos on that project page or the APP before Sept. 30, 2021. The results from the project are anticipated to be available in spring 2022.

Post by Ashley Ballou, Zoologist, NY Natural Heritage Program  www.nynhp.org

Resources

Read more about State Parks and our efforts with pollinators in previous posts in the NYS Parks Blog.

Protecting Pollinators

Across New York, State Parks staff is working hard to help support the diverse populations of pollinators from bees to butterflies, beetles, wasps, and more.  Here’s a sample of the pollinator protection projects going on this year in State Parks. Rockefeller State Park Preserve Wild Bees Photo Exhibit Working from their photographs from both Rockefeller … Continue reading Protecting Pollinators

State Parks Strengthens Niagara River Island Ecosystem

Just upriver in Erie County from Niagara Falls State Park lies New York State’s third largest island. Home to more than 20,000 people and split by Interstate-190, Grand Island is 28 square miles and divides the Niagara River into east and west branches.

Industry and commerce dominated this river and its shoreline for more than a century, leaving a legacy of water pollution, fish unsafe to eat, and loss of wildlife habitat so extreme that in 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the entire 36-mile river an Area of Concern.

That federal listing set the stage for years of remediation efforts by New York State to clean up the river and shoreline. And now, it has led to State Parks, working with several partners, to begin the next chapter in healing the river – the restoration of several wetland areas of habitat along Grand Island critical for many fish and bird species that rely on the river for survival.

Grand Island is in the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

These projects focus on two State Parks on the island – the 895-acre Buckhorn Island State Park on the northern tip, a nature preserve which has some of the island’s best remaining marshland wildlife habitat, and the more-developed, 950-acre Beaver Island State Park on the southern tip.

With funding support from the EPA under a plan finalized in 2018, Parks staff have finished two habitat restoration projects at Grand Island and two more are under way this season.

At Beaver Island in the south, offshore rocky reefs have been added in the river to an area called East River Marsh to protect the shoreline from further erosion caused by boat wakes and wind. Thousands of native plants have been planted by hand to provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife.

In the north, Buckhorn Island has one of the largest remaining cattail marshes on the Niagara River. At a place called Burnt Ship Creek, contractors hired by Parks have created open water channels and “potholes” in the marsh to provide pathways needed for fish such as Northern Pike to feed and spawn. The new open spaces also allow sheltered nesting sites for such secretive marsh birds as the threatened Least Bittern, which prompted the conservation group Ducks Unlimited to partner with State Parks for this restoration project.

Habitat restoration projects on Grand Island by New York State Parks and other entities are shown on this map. Buckhorn Island State Park is at the northern tip of the island, and Beaver Island State Park is at the southern tip.
Completed habitat restoration project at Burnt Ship Creek at the northern tip of Grand island near Buckhorn Island State Park.

This season, parks crews are working at a place called Grass Island, which is not actually an island at all, but rather an area of shallow water filled with cattails and other aquatic plants, both above the water and submerged. Sometimes also called Sunken Island, Grass Island is just east of Buckhorn Island State Park across from the city of Niagara Falls.

In addition to cattails and other plants visible above the water, Grass Island is also made up of many acres of submerged plants, predominantly a species known as water celery or American eel grass. This plant provides food and cover for several types of fish, including the Muskellunge, the state’s largest freshwater sportfish, which spawns among the eel grass each spring. The Upper Niagara River is one of state’s most important habitats for this fish.

Above the water, many species of waterfowl and marsh birds use the island for nesting, feeding and nighttime cover. Pied-billed Grebes, a threatened species in New York, nest and raise chicks there in the summer. During the fall migration of Purple Martins, the birds will roost in the cattails by the thousands.

Grass island, as seen in a drone photograph. On the above map, Grass Island is at the top right of Grand Island.

Together, Grass Island forms a 20-acre ecosystem designated as a protected wetland by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). While Grass Island provides some of the most important habitat in the Niagara River above the falls, this area has been steadily shrinking in recent decades due to wave erosion caused by boat wakes or wind. Between 2007 to 2018, Grass Island shrank by more than a third, losing an estimated 1.5 acres of its above-water vegetation.

Use the slider bar to show the decreasing size of Grass Island. The left image is from September 2018, while the right image was taken in August 2007.

This season at Grass Island, Parks contractors are constructing underwater rock reefs similar to those successfully constructed at East River Marsh. Once the reefs are finished, crews will add submerged tree trunks with the roots still attached (called rootwads) to provide underwater structure needed for good fish habitat. Also, large numbers of native wetland plants will be planted behind the protective rock reefs to expand the area with dense vegetation.

Also this summer, similar rock reefs, rootwads, woody material, and native plantings will be installed along the shoreline at Buckhorn Island State Park to restore and protect coastal wetlands. And finally, another similar project is in the works for the shoreline along the new West River Shoreline Trail at Buckhorn.

These projects join other ongoing conservation efforts at Grand Island being done by DEC, and the Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group. Find a FAQ on the projects here.

Buckhorn Island State Park is also a listed Bird Conservation Area, with its marsh providing important nesting habitat for threatened species such as Least Bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren. The marsh serves as a feeding, resting and breeding area for ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. Common Tern find suitable habitat for foraging here. Additional birds of interest include a variety of species of ducks, herons, coots, moorhens, and rails. Spring and fall migrations along the Niagara River corridor can bring large numbers of gulls to this site.

Some of the birds of Grand Island known to be in the Bird Conservation Area.

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year. Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, … Continue reading Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter


Together, these wetland restoration projects at Grand Island aim to maintain and strengthen this urban island ecosystem in a river that fuels the spectacular waterfalls only a few miles away that draw millions of visitors each year.

If a visit to Niagara Falls is in the works, consider also making a trip to Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park, both of which have car-top boat launch sites, to see this part of Niagara River and witness some of the efforts to help restore it. Please remember that these are sensitive ecological areas and habitats for secretive wildlife, so be respectful and take care when visiting these special places.

As always, whenever hiking, or in this instance, more likely paddling, consider “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Learn more on how to practice “Leave No Trace” by clicking on this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Beaver Island State Park: This park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, about four miles of bike and nature trails, nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18 hole championship disc golf course, an 18-hole championship golf course. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.

Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society and built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland who visited the family farm on several occasions.

Buckhorn Island State Park: For a wilder experience, try this less visited park, which is a nature preserve of marsh, meadows and woods that mark the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. There are nearly two miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The preserve includes two launches for kayaks and canoes. There is ongoing restoration to re-establish wetland cover and water levels and increase the diversity of native flora and fauna. This effort aims to increase public access with more non-intrusive trails, overlooks and bird watching blinds.


Cover shot: A work barge involved in habitat restoration at Grass Island. All photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Post by David Spiering, Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Coordinator, NYS Parks