Category Archives: Nature Centers

The Life and Times of Gonzo the Black Vulture

On July 22, 1997, Gonzo the Black Vulture stepped timidly onto northern soil for the first time at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Valley. Born five years earlier at the Memphis Zoo, and later transferred to the Nashville Zoo, where he served as and education ambassador, Gonzo had made a northbound journey many members of his species would later take.

Early on in his career, Gonzo had developed a significant droop in his left wing, prompting surgery for a partial amputation to aid in his mobility. During his surgery, veterinarians discovered that Gonzo also suffered an irregular heartbeat.  While it would be an early retirement from commercial zoo life, Gonzo would not be arriving alone in New York’s strange and unfamiliar landscape.

Gonzo in his enclosure at the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.

Like Gonzo himself, black vultures are historically southerners. They are a neotropical species ranging from South America to Virginia, which remained the case up to the mid-20th century. However, beginning in the 1980’s and increasingly ever since, black vultures have been engaging in a northward expansion.

Sixteen years prior to Gonzo’s arrival at Trailside, the first ever black vulture was recorded in New York state at Minnewaska State Park Preserve on November 1, 1981 by Dan Smiley, a resident naturalist at the nearby Mohonk Preserve.  In 1997, the same year as Gonzo’s arrival, the first black vulture “nest” was recorded nearby on the eastern side of Bonticou Crag in Ulster County by Joe Bridges, a research associate with the Mohonk Preserve. The term “nest” is to be taken lightly, as black vultures aren’t much for creature comforts.  Like all new world vulture species, black vultures forego building nests instead opting for hard-to-reach rocky crags and recesses in caves, hollow logs, brush piles, thickets, and abandoned buildings to lay their clutch of eggs.

For Gonzo’s first years at Trailside, his neighbors outside his enclosure would consist primarily of his slightly larger and keen-smelling counterpart, the turkey vulture, which was the dominant vulture species in the Hudson Highlands at the time. Black vultures such as Gonzo lack the turkey vulture’s sense of smell, instead relying their sharp eyesight while coasting thermals to forage for meals.  Unable to smell carrion, black vultures have adapted a new strategy, relying instead on turkey vultures to do the work for them.  To find food, all black vultures need to do is keep an eye on the lower-soaring turkey vultures. Once the turkey vulture descends, the black vulture follows close behind.

How to tell a black vulture from a turkey vulture


Since his early days at Trailside, Gonzo bore witness to a population boom in New York of his species, a black vulture golden age. The latest large-scale survey of New York birds was performed during 2000 to 2005, splitting the state into 5,000 geographic blocks.  It confirmed black vulture nests in five blocks and reported suspected nests in 100; a significant increase since the last survey, performed during 1980 to 1985, which reported no found or suspected nests. Since then, its safe to say that the population has continued to increase as evidenced on local Christmas Bird Counts and the community science site eBird.org.

As to why the black vultures have taken up this avian manifest destiny to spread into New York, we are left only to speculate. Climate change may be a driving factor, turning New York’s colder climate into something milder and more habitable for black vultures.  However, the black vulture’s range has shifted northward only along the eastern seaboard from Virginia, and along the Hudson River north to the St. Lawrence, with little change in the Midwest.

 Other possible causes include an increase in deer and other mammal populations, and vehicle traffic, leading to increased food availability from roadkill, and greater tolerance of the species and increased protection under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The range of the black vulture in North America is extending northward. The darker purple regions is where the birds are common, while the lighter regions are where the vultures are spreading, but less commonly found. (Photo credit – Audubon Society)

Despite being called “vultures”, black vultures and other new world species bear little similarity to old world species. Their common characteristics are a result of convergent evolution, or traits selected for a similar lifestyle.  Both share bald featherless heads, perfect for rooting around in carcasses without ruffling any feathers. Both share similar circular flight patterns, utilizing the energy saving tactic of coasting on thermals. And both share the same highly corrosive digestive system; the PH of a black vulture’s stomach acid rests just above 0, akin to car battery acid and nearly 100 times as concentrated as human stomach acid.

Black vultures are instead more closely related to storks with whom they share an interesting, yet effective means of thermoregulation[1]. If a warming climate is the culprit behind the black vulture’s expansion, they will, without a doubt, continue to thrive in warmer climates thanks to urohidrosis; or the habit in some birds of defecating onto the scaly portion of the legs as a cooling method, using evaporative cooling of the fluids.

[1] Thermoregulation is the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperatures is very different

Additionally, keeping in mind that a black vulture’s stomach acid is highly acidic, they produce a sterile excrement which cleanses their feet of bacteria and parasites, which may accumulate due to their scavenger lifestyle. Two birds with one stone, if you will

 Black vultures will also simultaneously thermoregulate and sanitize through the process of sunbathing.  Often observed with wings out and backs to the sun, these birds are warming their bodies while utilizing the UV radiation from sunlight to kill bacteria and parasites on their feathers.

As adults, black vultures experience few predators. Their main threat comes in the form of nest predation either by raccoons or foxes.  Despite their relative safety, vultures still maintain a gruesome defense mechanism against predation; defensive vomiting. Utilizing their stomach acid once more, black vultures are able to produce a foul smelling and corrosive vomit that acts as a deterrent and mace for predators.

In addition to clever adaptations, black vultures themselves are undoubtedly intelligent birds, this trait being readily observable in Gonzo and other captive black vultures. Gonzo observed and interacted with the world around him with great curiosity.  Behind his soulful brown eyes, there was a spectacular presence, a timid and gentle personality with an almost irrefutable perception and understanding.

The social intelligence hypothesis posits that human “intelligence” has evolved in order to adapt to complex interpersonal relations and is generally accepted in the current theory of evolution. It is believed that as the size of the group increases, it becomes necessary to adapt to more complex social relationships within the group, driving the selective pressures for increased neocortex size.  Black vultures are not exempt from this theory, belonging to flocks largely composed of family units and roosting in large masses in the evening.

At Trailside, where the black vultures seemed to have designated the bear exhibit as their daytime roost, their community engagements can be observed through mutual preening, playful chasing, food sharing, and the occasional scuffle. But perhaps the best example of their sociality was seen with Gonzo.

 Confined to his exhibit, Gonzo began receiving vulture visitors, and over the years they grew in number to the point which on any given day a sizeable flock of wild black vultures could be seen mingling with Gonzo. Perhaps they were assessing the mystery as to why this member of their species was captive, putting their bald little heads together in a sort of vulture think-tank, or perhaps, lacking his own flock, the wild vultures assimilated him into their own.

Keepers at Trailside have observed on numerous occasions, the passing of food between cage bars to the flock; perhaps, an altruistic sharing of of a captive bird’s bounty. Food sharing in wild vultures is typically only observed within members of the same family.  Perhaps Gonzo viewed this flock as a sort of family. Between shared mice and fish, did the vultures swap tales of harsh winters, open skies, and a northbound journey? Voiceless secrets told hushed through throats lacking a syrinx[2]

[2] The syrinx is the lower larynx or voice organ in birds, situated at or near the junction of the trachea and bronchi and well developed in songbirds

Because Black vultures lack the organ responsible for birdsong in many species, their vocal repertoire consists mainly of huffs, grunts, and hisses. Click here to hear a recording of a black vulture from the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.

On the black vulture’s sociability, Charles Darwin wrote:

 “These vultures certainly may be called gregarious, for they seem to have pleasure in society, and are not solely brought together by the attraction of a common prey. On a fine day a flock may often be observed at a great height, each bird wheeling round and round without closing its wings, in the most graceful evolutions. This is clearly performed for the mere pleasure of the exercise, or perhaps is connected with their matrimonial alliances.”

It certainly does appear that black vultures perform many activities through the sheer pleasure the action brings.  Play is widely regarded as a hallmark of intelligence in birds, observable in both crows and ravens.  It is an activity which helps an individual gain information regarding its environment; and play in many forms can be observed in the vultures of Bear Mountain.  In the bear den and along the zoo trail, black vultures can be seen taking turns chasing each other, tossing about hay, playing with sticks and feathers, ripping apart paper bags, tugging on the mesh of exhibits.

Trailside’s resident black bear, Sadie, shares her exhibit with a wild black vulture.

Play is also one of the reasons many Hudson Valley residents are at odds with vultures. In their exploration of this world, it turns out black vultures can be quite destructive. Their favorite pastimes including tearing rubber from windshield wipers, and shingles from roofs.

Several years ago the Bear Mountain Inn experienced nearly $10,000 in roofing damage by black vultures and, as of 2017, black vultures are estimated to have cause nearly $75,000 in damages statewide. Much like teenagers, if you have enough black vultures in one place without enough to do, they’re bound to get up to trouble. As a consequence, many Hudson Valley businesses and residents are now flying in face of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and federal law, taking up arms against the vultures. Several methods of deterrence include lasers, sprinklers, pyrotechnics, trapping and effigies; but with a population on the rise, conflict with humans is only more likely to increase.

On the other side of the coin, black vultures are a necessary asset to our ecosystem, serving as “nature’s cleanup crew” feeding on the dead and diseased other carnivores wouldn’t dare venture near, their stomach acid allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with rabies, botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers. Their work halts the further transmission of these diseases between humans and other wildlife, a role which, in the age of a zoonotic pandemic like COVID-19, is paramount.

For all those still at odds with the black vulture, Gonzo served as a shining exemplar of his species positive qualities, and magnificent beauty, connecting the black vulture in the minds of many to a handsome bird, with a quiet, yet inquisitive personality.

Gonzo passed away at Trailside on Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 29 ½ years old. While longevity records for black vultures are scarce, Gonzo may have well been one of the oldest specimens in captivity.  He leaves behind the legacy of being one of New York’s pioneer black vultures, who instilled a passion and understanding for his species in many visitors.

Gonzo is survived by his flock, a family he made all his own, the wild vultures of Trailside. Months later, the occasional solemn vulture could still be seen idling outside what was once his aviary, wearing all black feathers, dressed as if for mourning.

Gonzo gives himself a health sunbath.

Post and photographs by Malerie Muratori, Student Conservation Association intern at Trailside Zoo.

First Day Hikes 2020

Many New Yorkers thrive in winter and are eager for falling temperatures and consistent snowfalls. To these hardy adventurers, a few extra layers of gear combined with the snowy terrain of parklands is a winning recipe for fitness, togetherness and outdoor fun.

Welcome the new decade, enjoy the winter landscapes, and unwind after a hectic holiday season by joining a First Day Hike on January 1, 2020.

First Day Hike

There are more than 75 such hikes planned at state parks, historic sites, wildlife areas, trails and public lands across the state as part of the 9th annual First Day Hikes program. This map can help find one near you…

Hikes are being offered at more than 50 state parks and historic sites (with some facilities offering multiple hikes for different age groups, skill levels and destinations within the park) and 21 state lands, wildlife areas, Forest Preserve trails and environmental education centers run by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Staff from State Parks and DEC, along with volunteers and partners at many sites, will lead these family-friendly walks and hikes, which range from one to five miles depending on the location and conditions. Remember to dress appropriately and keep this old Scandinavian saying in mind: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

First Day hikers at Taughannock Falls State Park.

A sample of this year’s programs feature a seal walk, walking history tour, snowshoe waterfall hike, pet-friendly treks, gorge walks, fire towers, and more. If weather conditions permit, some First Day Hikes may include snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Many host sites will be offering refreshments and giveaways.

Participants are encouraged to contact the park for information and pre-registration where noted.

Never too young to go out for a hike.

And know that you are part of something that is happening all across America. First Day Hikes, which started in Massachusetts in 1992, are now a national event taking place in all 50 states.

Last year nearly 55,000 people rang in the New Year, collectively hiking over 133,000 miles throughout the country on the guided hikes.  Numerous others hiked state park trails throughout the day.

If you’ve never been on a First Day Hike, 2020 is the year!


Cover photo: First Day hikers at a DEC fire tower. These hikers are wearing traction gear on their boots, which is important in steep or icy conditions.

Post by NYS Parks Staff

Bear Mountain State Park and PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School, Bronx

Since the fall of 2016, approximately 300 seventh graders from the P.S./I.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx have enjoyed an annual field trip to Bear Mountain State Park, thanks to the Connect Kids Field Trip Grant program run by  State Parks.  The hour-long journey from the school affords views of spectacular autumnal foliage and the Hudson River Valley to our urban students.

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Students pause at the top of Bear Mountain, enjoying the views of the Hudson River

Arriving at the site the students divide into two groups: one group hikes a portion of the Appalachian Trail, while the other visits the animal exhibitions at the Trailside Museum and engages in organized outdoor play outside the Bear Mountain Inn.  (Some of our students suffer from asthma and don’t choose the mountain hike.) They return to school thoroughly exercised, full of excitement from their experiences hiking or observing firsthand the animals at the Zoo. The trip coincides with an English Language Arts unit of study focused on memoir, or personal narrative. For many, the hike up the mountain has afforded the first opportunity to hike a woodland trail that our students have ever experienced, and they write about their experience and recall it throughout the year proudly.

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Because we teachers applied late in the fall, we traveled to Bear Mountain in early December of 2016.  The smell of the pines was intoxicating, but a light snow had just fallen, making the trail slippery and a bit treacherous on the way up. We conceded that the mountain top was beyond our reach that day, and did our best to lead the students back down the trail as carefully as we could. We wished we had foreseen the footwear that the students needed to better negotiate the trail under slippery conditions – some were wearing sneakers with little tread.

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PS 218 students on the trail in early December

In our second year, we scheduled our trip in early October, and our mountain hikers encountered a blazing hot Indian summer day.  Though we reached the top of Bear Mountain, a few children had inexplicably brought loaded backpacks, which created all kinds of challenges for our teacher crew. Yellow jackets were abundant near the picnic areas below; one student was stung!  We realized later how much we needed to bring an abundant supply of water for the return trip home on the buses. Vomiting incidents drove home that there were risks related to the heat, but junk food and dehydration played a part as well.

This year, the buses were very late departing the school, which cut short our time and made it impossible to reach the top of the mountain.  NYC morning rush hour traffic can be unpredictable; next year we will be sure to request our buses earlier.  At the end of the day, a shortcut on a loosely pebbled trail led to multiple scraped knees.

Each year, we realize how we can plan better for the next!  So, for your Kids Connect Trip, be sure you …

  • Require comfortable and appropriate footwear, depending on time of year; jackets if appropriate
  • Limit backpack weights. Test as kids leave bus (allow only lunches and a drink)
  • Outlaw sweet drinks, and chips or sweets for the ride! Students should eat a good breakfast!
  • Bring first aid kits for bee stings, cuts, bug bites
  • Stock an abundant supply of water on your buses
  • Secure contacts of individual bus driver
  • Remember your bus permit and paperwork to verify your site visit with a signature from Parks administrative staff

Post and photos by Heather Baker Sullivan, PS 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School teacher

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.

Unknown photographer 2003
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