Category Archives: Nature Centers

Be a Voyageur!

Since the 1980s, there has been a 36-foot long, 16 passenger (plus two staff), fiberglass Voyageur canoe at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center in Wellesley Island State Park. No one really knows where the canoe came from or exactly what year it arrived, but there are a few stories told about its origins.  Some say there used to be five Voyageur canoes located in parks along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario and some say the canoe was made by NYS Parks’ employees.  Ultimately, the mystery of its origin is part of its mystique.  What they will say is that every summer for about the last 30 years park visitors and Nature Center staff have headed out on daily trips in our canoe to learn about the history of the Voyageurs and to explore the ecology of Eel Bay, the Narrows, and Escanaba Bay.

Voyageur canoe trips leave the Nature Center docks at 9 am and return at 11 am, but there is plenty for staff to do before anyone ever steps foot into the boat.  If it has rained, staff must bail the canoe and dry the wooden seats for passengers.

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Novice voyageurs head out on their first journey, photo by State Parks.

They also move the boat into place on the docks so it is ready for the day.  When that day’s voyageurs come down to the dock house they are fitted with personal floatation devices (PFD’s) and paddles while being taught about the fundamentals of paddling before heading out to the canoe.  Loading the canoe with passengers can be quite tricky, as people who are likely to be stronger paddlers must be strategically positioned in the boat and the canoe must be balanced on the water to safely leave the docks.  Once the canoe is balanced and its passengers comfortable, staff jump in at the bow (front) and stern (back) and slowly steer the boat out into Eel Bay.

The staff member sitting at the bow of the boat begins the interpretation as the large boat gets underway.  They talk about how the canoe weighs 1,000 pounds empty and how it is made of fiberglass.  As the passengers paddle, they discuss the importance of Eel Bay as a large, shallow water bay on the St. Lawrence.  Then conversation shifts to the Voyageurs who were part of the French fur trading companies that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The interpreter weaves a tale about the adventures Voyageurs had as they transported furs, predominately beaver, from Montreal to trading posts along the shores of Lake Superior.  As the boat rounds the sharp turn into the Narrows passengers learn what a day in the life of a Voyageur was like, from what they ate to how they were paid.  The staff member sitting in the stern who has been quietly working to steer the boat will ease it to a stop as the canoe coasts into Escanaba Bay.  Passengers will spend a little time admiring the plentiful water lilies that dot the bay before reversing course and heading back towards the Nature Center.  On the return trip to our docks, some time is dedicated to floating along in silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the majestic St. Lawrence River.

Molly Farrell
Pat and Aziel Snyder standing next to the newly restored Voyageur canoe. Doesn’t it look beautiful? Photo by State Parks.

The canoe had begun to show its age in recent years but last winter Pat Snyder of River Restorations, a local boat restoration company, beautifully restored it to top condition.  A few sections of the gunnels were replaced, the gunnels and seats sanded down and refinished, the seats reinforced to help prevent deflection when people are stepping into the boat, and the fiberglass shell was repainted.  The canoe once again looks majestic and is ready to go out on the water!

Each July and August, look for the return of our sleek Voyageur canoe to the Nature Center’s dock.  For just $4 (anyone over 13) or $2 (under 13) you can join staff from the Nature Center on a memorable journey on smooth waters, travelling the shorelines of Wellesley Island.

For information on upcoming trips, please visit our Facebook page (Minna Anthony Common Nature Center- Friends).  To have enough paddle power to steer the boat, we must have at least 8 people over the age of 18 on board.  To reserve a spot on a trip, please call the Nature Center at 315-482-2479.

Post by Molly Farrell, July 2018

Learn more about Voyaguers:

Durbin, William; The Broken Paddle; Delacorte Press, NY, 1997.

Ernst, Kathleen; The Trouble and Fort La Point; Pleasant Company Publications, Middleton, WI, 2000.

Adventure Awaits At Allegany

What’s your idea of adventure? Is it something exotic like scuba diving, mountain climbing or bungee jumping? Perhaps something quieter, such as camping under the stars or exploring a stream in search for brook trout? Adventures can be big or small, but they all push us out of our comfort zones as we learn about new activities and exciting areas of our world.

Allegany State Park, known as the “Wilderness Playground of Western New York” is one such place where adventure abounds. With 65,000 acres of pristine forests, miles of trails, serene lakes and natural beauty everywhere, it’s hard not to find an activity to enjoy.

The Outdoor Adventure Series hosted by the Environmental Education and Recreation Department offers informative, hands-on, free clinics for all those want to be adventurous souls. Each program is led by an outdoor enthusiast who shares their knowledge and passion of their favorite activity. They bring their gear, suggest what you may need to get started and then let you try your hand at fly fishing, paddle boarding or geocaching.

Allegany State Park hosts several unique events throughout the year, such as Geobash, one of the biggest geocaching events around;  Raccoon Rally, a bike festival featuring both  road and mountain bike races  and the Art Roscoe Loppet cross country ski race. The Adventure series promotes these events by hosting a program about the sport or activity in the same month as the event to give people the chance to try a new sport or volunteer at the event. Remember it’s about getting people out, trying something new.

Maybe you’d like to have an adventure without many people around. Quiet water activities such as kayaking, fly fishing and paddle boarding are things anyone can do at any age.  Local shops such as Sportsman Outlet in Bradford, PA provide kayaks to try. Not only will they help you decide what kind of kayak you might like, they also advise you what gear you should take with you to be safe on the water, such as a life vest.  Adventure Bound on the Fly in Ellicottville, NY, introduces one of the newest sports – paddle boarding, and one of the most graceful – fly fishing to young and old giving all a chance to paddle on Quaker Lake or cast with finesse.

If it’s the woods that calls your name, programs such as mountain biking, cross country skiing, backpacking or camping might be more to your taste. Just Riding Along out of Bradford, PA, offers all kinds of mountain bikes – fat bikes, fast bikes and bikes with all the bells and whistles.  Find dirt on the Art Roscoe trails which become tracked cross country ski trails when the snow flies in December. The Allegany Nordic Patrol not only keeps skiers safe during the winter, but they help educate winter enthusiasts about the joys of gliding and sliding on skis through a winter wonderland of snow cover trees.

Camping has always been a favorite activity since the park was first founded in 1921. The first adventurous souls camped in old WWI tents on platforms. Today the education staff pulls out tents, hammocks, and backpacks of all shapes and sizes for even the youngest of explorers to get out in the woods. Staff also answers questions such as what to take, how to pack, and what to do if you see a bear – all important things to know when going out in the woods of Allegany.

The Outdoor Adventure Series covers a wide range of interesting activities for every season, from photographing fall colors, to snowshoeing under a full moon, to fishing for native trout, and paddling on a warm summer night watching the sun set across a lake.

No matter what you try, I agree with Amelia Earhart: “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”.

Be sure to check out the last two programs this year:

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 – 5:00- 7:00 – Summit Warming Hut – Night Hike- What’s in your Pack? Night hike on Bear Paw trail following a short program on the 10 essentials we should carry in our packs. Bring a flashlight or head lamp.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 -5:00- 6:30 – Summit Warming Hut – Prepare for Cross Country Ski Season – Allegany Nordic will discuss everything you need to know about cross country skiing, from equipment selection to proper clothing.

These programs are open to the public and weather dependent. For more information, visit the Allegany State Park Facebook page or contact the Environmental Education Department at 716-354- 9101 ext. 236.

Post by Adele Wellman, State Parks

State Parks Welcomes a New Nature Center

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Exploring Letchworth State Park geology at the Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Doug Kelly, State Parks

Interpreting might seem like a strange way to describe what the naturalists and historians at Letchworth State Park do.  Instead of interpreting one human language to another, they tell the stories of the people who came before and of the beings with no languages; the rocks, trees and animals that make the park such a special place.

This need to educate the public about the park started even before there was a park. William Letchworth (1823 – 1910) assembled the Council Grounds and a museum to engage the strangers who came to his property on railroad excursion trains. He had trails and carriage paths which visitors could walk and enjoy the clean air and shady trees.  He brought orphans from Buffalo to enjoy the country and learn vocational skills from his farmhands and household servants.

Following Letchworth, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society created the Letchworth Arboretum and built the William Pryor Letchworth Museum.  The society intended there to be a research and educational aspect to the work they did. Most of their efforts were directed to building roads and facilities for visitors and transforming the park into a public space.

New York State took over management of the park in 1930.  In the 1970s there was a statewide effort to mesh parks with schools and use the parks as educational tools for students. Interpreters were hired and nature and history programs started. By 1974, the National Audubon Society joined in a partnership with the Genesee State Park Region Commission to investigate building nature centers at Letchworth and Hamlin Beach State Parks. Although nothing came of this venture, the idea for a nature center at Letchworth never went away.

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Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

In 2016, the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park opened on June 20 and was made possible by a joint fundraising effort of the Letchworth Nature Center Campaign Committee, which includes representatives of the Genesee Regional Parks Commission, the Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York State Parks, and the Natural Heritage Trust.  The campaign raised private funds that were matched 2 to 1 by New York State thanks to Governor Cuomo’s economic development initiatives.  The Letchworth Nature Center Campaign Committee was chaired by Peter Humphrey who also, along with his wife, provided an extremely generous donation to kick start the fundraising campaign.  The Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park was named in his honor, recognizing the great role Peter Humphrey played in making the project a reality.

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State Park educators lead a tour of the Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Doug Kelly

The goal of the Humphrey Nature Center is to deepen the visitor experience of Letchworth State Park, which was voted the #1 state park in the nation in 2015.  The 5,000 square foot, year-round, sustainable facility will help to enhance the exceptional educational and interpretive programming already offered to visitors.  Meeting and classroom space, state-of-the-art, hands-on exhibits, a butterfly garden, bird observation area and trails that leave right from the building enrich the visitor’s understanding of the unique history, geology, and environment found in Letchworth State Park.

The next time you are in Letchworth, be sure to visit the Humphrey Nature Center for a program, to explore the exhibits, or just to talk with one of the knowledgeable naturalists.  Remember, the Humphrey Nature Center is just your launching point into the fascinating natural history of Letchworth State Park!

Post by Elijah Kruger and Steph Spittal, Letchworth State Park educators

Amphibians on the Move!

As temperatures rise, spring rains roll in, and the ground thaws, the amphibians of New York are preparing themselves for a great migration. On the 10th of March, a group of about 30 volunteers congregated near Hop Field at Thacher State Park armed with flashlights and buckets. With great excitement they looked along the road edges for salamanders and frogs, hoping to help them cross the road as the amphibians migrated to woodland pools. Throughout most of the year, mole salamanders and woodland frogs spend their time burrowed under rocks and leaves on the forest floor, but each spring salamanders and frogs can migrate up to a quarter mile to woodland pools to breed. The mass migrations to the vernal pools occur during spring rainstorms with temperatures above 40 degrees.

The rain was intermittent that night, and although spring peepers and leopard frogs were escorted across the road, no salamanders were found. The migrations typically happen in late March and early April, so there is still hope! On nights when the conditions are right, many nature enthusiasts can be seen on roadways close to wetlands helping the amphibians safely cross the road. If you are interested in getting involved in preventing vehicle related deaths during these mass migrations, contact your local State Park or local DEC office. These organizations sometimes coordinate volunteers to come together on rainy nights to help salamanders cross busy roads. The more volunteers there are to help, the more amphibians will successfully breed! Before you help the amphibians, be sure to brush up on your identification! Here is a sampling of the native amphibians that you could see in New York.

Mole Salamanders:

Blue Spotted
Blue spotted Salamander, By Greg Schechter [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The blue spotted salamander is black with pale blue flecks all over its body. It can grow from 3.5 to 5.5 inches long. They are frequently seen in woodlands.

The spotted salamander is black and has yellow spots. It can grow up to 8 inches long. It is one of the most common salamanders in the area, and if you go out on a migration night there is a good chance that you will see it!

Jefferson salamander
Jefferson Salamander, By Unspecified (Vermont Biology Technical Note 1) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Jefferson salamander is dark brown and has pale blue spots on its limbs and lower sides. The blue speckling is best seen on younger salamanders. It can crossbreed with the blue spotted salamander and usually grows to 4.5 to 7 inches long.

Red eft
Red Eft, By Jason Quinn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This red eft/ red spotted newt can secrete poisonous toxins. When it is on land in its juvenile stage, it is orange. However, in its aquatic adult stage it is an olive brown color and has a wide paddle like tail.

Frogs:

Wood Frog
Wood Frog, By USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Wood Frog) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The wood frog has an extremely high freeze tolerance and can live in a variety of habitats including forests, tundra, and bogs. It has the nickname “Lone Ranger” because the coloration on its face resembles a mask. Last year a bill was proposed by a class of 3rd graders to declare the wood frog the State Amphibian of New York. To see the bill’s progress check out this website.

Peeper
Spring Peeper, By Justin Meissen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The spring peeper has large vocal sacs that it uses to create high pitched tones during the spring mating season. It typically grows to about one inch long and has a dark X marking on its back. Listen to the call of a male spring peeper.

Leopard frog
Leopard Frog, By Douglas Wilhelm Harder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The leopard frog gets its name from the irregularly shaped dark patches on its legs and back and can grow to be 3 to 5 inches long. They were once the most abundant frog species in North America, but they suffered large population declines in the 1970s.

Recommended Links:

Salamander Migration Extraordinaire” Check out this naturalist’s blog post  that has videos of spotted salamanders and Jefferson salamanders migrating to a vernal pool. There is amazing underwater footage of the salamanders at the breeding site!

Check out this video of Ranger Eric Powers from Your Connection to Nature to learn more information about vernal ponds and the animals that rely on them!

Post written by: Emily Crampe, SCA Member, Thacher State Park

Sources for text:

http://www.vernalpool.org/inf_mol.htm

http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/82722.html

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/amphibians/northern-leopard-frog/

https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_12201-32988–,00.html

 

Tracking The Elusive New England Cottontail

New England Cottontail
New York’s rarest native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

 

It is a typical morning at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC) in Fahnestock State Park. The sunshine beams through the forest, a chorus of song birds are greeting the day, and 60 elementary school students are making their way to breakfast to fuel up for an active day of learning in the outdoors. Meanwhile, a familiar truck and crew rolls in to begin their workday visiting several small animal traps set in specific locations in hopes that at least one will contain a rabbit, particularly a New England Cottontail.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) is collaborating with State Parks, and the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct important research about the population decline of native New England Cottontail. Over the past decade, studies have indicated that their numbers have decreased about 50%. The two major factors contributing to the population decrease are loss of suitable habitat, and the expanding range of the Eastern Cottontail. The only native rabbit species east of the Hudson River is the New England Cottontail; however the range of the Eastern Cottontail has been expanding and now overlaps this territory which causes competition for resources. Predation is also playing a role in the decreasing population; part of this research project is keeping an eye on who’s eating New England Cottontails by using trail cameras. These cameras placed in baited locations and use a motion sensor to take pictures when an animal walks by. Different predators are “captured” in a photo as they come to investigate the bait, which shows the species that a present in the rabbit survey area.

Back at the TOEC, the students are gathering to meet with their instructors for their morning lesson, the phone suddenly rings. “We have a rabbit” says the voice on the other end. Flexibility is part of the job description of an outdoor educator, and no one passes up an opportunity to enjoy a teachable moment, especially when it involves a live animal. All plans are dropped for the moment and after a short walk the students quietly approach the researchers who are preparing to identify, collect data, and radio tag the small mammal.

Juvenile
Measuring a juvenile New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Many of students who visit the TOEC are from the New York City area and rarely get to experience being this close to a truly wild animal, and they have a lot of questions such as: “Why is it in a pillowcase?”, “How long are its feet?”, “Is that a baby?” and “What’s That!?”. Their sense of wonder is contagious and the SUNY ESF researchers return the enthusiasm by answering the barrage of questions being hurled at them, while also safely collecting data on their captive rabbit. Measurements are taken, and the data is recorded onto forms and will go into a large database to allow for comparison across the entire northeast. The final step is to attach a small antenna to the rabbit’s back so that the researchers will be able to locate the individual rabbit again through radio telemetry. Now comes the exciting part! The rabbit is released, and in a flash it darts away, immediately out-of-sight, camouflaged amongst the underbrush.

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A well camouflaged New England Cottontail. Can you see the antennae? photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Upon reflection, many students will say seeing the rabbit was their favorite part of the week, and they walk away with the feeling of being included in something important. Nothing teaches better than experience; giving students the chance to interact with a living, breathing part of the ecosystem around them. It sure makes for a pretty great day.

Post by Dana Mark, environmental educator at TOEC