Mute swans are large, impressive birds that many people are delighted to see in public water bodies and in New York State Parks.
However, many people are unaware that mute swans are a non-native species which can create negative impacts in our parks. Mute swans (Cygnus olor) were introduced to the U.S. from Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s as decorative accessories to zoos, parks, and private estates.
In New York State, Mute swans were particularly popular on private estates on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. Many of these pet swans escaped from captivity or were intentionally released into the wild. Since their introduction, wild mute swans have successfully expanded their habitat to the extent that it is now a source of concern for natural resource managers
Environmental Impacts: What do we have against swans, anyway?
Mute swans are highly territorial and will aggressively defend their large territories against other birds—including native waterfowl. This hurts our native bird populations by limiting their access to feeding areas and potential nesting sites. Mute swans may also act aggressively towards humans who walk, swim, or boat too close to their nesting sites.
Besides being physically threatening, mute swans place a greater strain on the aquatic habitats where they feed. Their long necks reach a greater number of underwater plants than other birds’. Besides eating aquatic plants, mute swans tend to uproot much of the aquatic vegetation where they feed, which would otherwise provide food and shelter for native waterfowl species, fish and other organisms.
The tundra swan is one of two native swan species in New York State (the other is the trumpeter swan, see below). A graceful tundra swan is an incredible sight for bird lovers. The average tundra swan has wingspan stretching just over five feet. While the tundra swan is the smallest swan species observed in New York State, averaging more than 14 pounds, they are still larger than a Canada Goose. While Tundra Swans are similar in size and coloring to trumpeter swans, their voice is distinctly different. Listen for their clear hooting, which sounds like klooo or kwooo.
They typically feed on shellfish, aquatic plants, and occasionally grains. While tundra swans spend most of the breeding season in the Arctic, where nesting and hatching takes place, these strong birds migrate southwards annually and frequently rest, feed, and eat in New York State Parks.
Trumpeter swans are the largest of the North American waterfowl, weighing as average 23 pounds. Their call is a gentle nasal honk, lower in tone than the tundra swan. The trumpeter swan was almost rendered extinct by the high demand for swan feathers for use as quill pens throughout the 1600s-1800s. Trumpeter swans have successfully rebounded and they are relatively common in North America today, but they continue to be rare in New York. Providing and protecting suitable nesting habitat could be key to helping New York trumpeter swan populations grow.
In a few places where the mute swan population is particularly high, State Parks is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Wildlife Services to manage population growth and protect aquatic species and habitats in State Parks. In order to do so most effectively, State Parks is utilizing an integrated, multi-pronged approach:
Public Education: Many people value the presence of mute swans, but are often unaware that they are an invasive species which can negatively impact the ecology of parks. Educating the public is key to managing wildlife and promoting ecosystem health.
No Feeding Policy: All State Parks have a strict no-feeding policy for all wildlife. Feeding wildlife can be harmful to them and set up dangerous situations for people.
Habitat modification: Like Canada geese, mute swans seek out grassy lawns and open areas adjacent to water bodies. By allowing shoreline vegetation to grow taller, or by installing fencing, we can make it more difficult for mute swans to travel from water to land — therefore making park facilities less attractive habitats.
Nest and Egg Treatment: Oil blocks the exchange of oxygen through the shell and prevents young birds from hatching. Following the guidelines set by the Humane Society, parks’ staff always perform a float test before treating eggs. If an egg floats, it means that an air sac has formed and a chick has begun developing. By oiling swan eggs early in the season before chicks have begun developing, State Parks staff and partners are able to prevent halt swan reproduction. This process helps reduce the local population over time. A permit is required to disturb any swan nest or eggs on park or private property.
Population Control: In order to protect endangered or threatened plants as well as significant natural communities in or near State Parks boundaries, lethal methods may be used to manage mute swan populations. As in all cases of animal control, lethal measures are only considered as a last resort.
Now that summer is here, when you head to the boat launch for a day on the water, you will often run into a friendly face in a blue vest. These are Boat Stewards! Boat Stewards are educators who share their knowledge of invasive species and how to prevent boats from spreading such species into other waterbodies.
You can expect to run into stewards across much of New York State, since there are more than 200 Stewards who are part of various programs. Here at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, our Boat Steward program is run in collaboration with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).
Beginning the Memorial Day weekend, 20 Stewards are stationed at 25 different State Park boat launches. These experts can answer your questions about aquatic invasive species (AIS) within New York State, provide educational information on many species, and will help check that there are no aquatic hitchhikers on your boat or trailer!
All our stewards within the state will be wearing masks and social distancing for your protection and theirs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please arrive with your boats and equipment already clean, drained, and dried and be willing to help our stewards conduct inspections while maintaining social distance. Please follow the protocols for social distancing and wearing masks in public while at the launches.
When you arrive or leave a boat launch, a Steward will ask to perform a voluntary inspection on your watercraft and encourage you to join them. Remember, please practice social distancing, and stay six feet away from Stewards while they perform their duties.
Inspections apply to both power boats and paddlecraft, like canoes and kayaks.
While completing the inspection, Stewards are on a mission to find all visible plant or animal material attached to the watercraft and trailer and will point out places on the boat where aquatic invasive species often get caught. Stewards also gather information from boaters through a short survey to help understand the movement of AIS across the New York State.
At many locations across the state, Stewards operate Watercraft Decontamination Stations, also known as Boat Wash Stations. Decontamination stations are a free high-temperature, high-pressure wash for your boat.
Boat Wash Stations are highly effective at eradicating aquatic invasive species we might not be able to see with our naked eye, such as young Zebra Mussels or Spiny Waterfleas. The ESF-NYS OPRHP program operates two such units located at Allan Treman State Marine Park on Cayuga Lake and Conesus Lake State Boat Launch.
When stewards are not at the launch, they are busy collaborating with many partner organizations to partake in all levels of invasive species management. They participate in sampling for AIS, mapping new infestations, and large-scale removals of invasive species such as Water Chestnut.
Since the program’s inception in 2014, our boat stewards have conducted more than 100,000 inspections and interacted with more than 250,000 boaters. In 2019, stewards intercepted 3,803 boats that were carrying invasive species.
Each of these boats could have led to a new introduction that has potential to cause significant harm to ecological, economic, and human health.
While there aren’t public events in State Parks this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday, some of our facilities are still helping the planet every day in the fight against man-made climate change.
Each year, Parks use more than 50 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to power some 5,000 buildings, including offices, comfort stations, maintenance barns, nature and visitor centers, cabins, historic sites, and other unique facilities like golf courses and pools.
To feed more renewable power into the grid and reduce its demand for fossil fuel-fired electricity, Parks has been installing photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays since 2012. There are now 32 arrays in place, with more expected this year in the Hudson Valley and Long Island regions.
Once the new arrays are completed this year, State Parks will be covering 15 percent of its total statewide energy consumption through solar power, up from the current 4 percent.
These new arrays will offset all the power demand in the Park’s Taconic Region on the eastern side of the Hudson River, which includes 14 parks and eight historic sites in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester counties.
Adding solar power – which unlike natural gas or other fossil fuels does not produce the greenhouse gases that are driving man-made climate change – also saves Parks money on its utility bills. Each year, solar arrays are trimming nearly $340,000 from what Parks would otherwise pay for its electricity!
To perform this work, which both fights climate change and saves money, Parks have trained 100 staff members to design and install our solar arrays.
Parks selects locations for PV arrays that will not disturb natural areas of the park or areas of recreation. They are often installed on rooftops, the back of parking lots, or in other areas that have previously been disturbed.
Parks also applies for financial rebates from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYERDA) to lower the cost of each project, with savings then reinvested to fund future PV projects. Parks also coordinates with private utility companies to connect its arrays to the grid.
Completed in 2017, Robert Moses State Park made history as being the largest PV installation built by state employees _ its 2,432 American-made panels cover the length of two football fields! This array generates about 950,000 kWh annually, saving more than $100,000 in electricity bills. (For comparison’s sake, the average household in New York State uses about 8,000 kWh annually, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Solar power made made Robert Moses the first electric energy neutral state park of its size in the country. The array even covers the energy usage of Captree State Park which makes it the second electric energy neutral state park.
Parks also funded, developed, built and managed the first PV installation on the roof of a building listed on the National Historic Register at Peebles Island State Park, headquarters of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Bureau of Historic Preservation Field Service.
The 450 panels installed on the roof of Peebles’ historic Bleachery Building are projected to generate more than 188,000 kWh and save about $22,500 in utility bills annually. The array covers approximately 30 percent of the building’s energy use. The array at Peebles Island is also used a training location for students from Hudson Valley Community College and the Glenmont Job Corps.
And there will be much more to come. State Parks intends to aggressively increase its solar footprint in order to cover half of its statewide electrical consumption by 2025.
From our smallest arrays to our largest arrays, each PV installation is working to create a greener state parks system every day and for many Earth Days to come!
Cover Photo- Robert Moses State Park solar array. All photos by NYS Parks.
By Caity Tremblay, Parks Energy and Sustainability Bureau
All eyes in the class were on Amanda Trienens as she applied a mild acidic solution onto a piece of discolored old stonework. “Cleaning can really make for a ‘wow’ factor,” she said, as the solution lifted away years of grime.
Six men and three women were with her in the basement of the S.T.E.A.M Garden – a maker space and learning lab on Central Avenue in Albany – attending a certificate course that explores techniques for cleaning and restoration of historic masonry.
A consultant on restoration projects including the U.S. Supreme Court, the original World Trade Center site in New York City, and inventor Thomas Edison’s original stucco garage in West Orange, N.J., Trienens was a visiting expert in class that night. She is founder and principal conservator at Columbia County-based consulting firm Cultural Heritage Conservation LLC.
Aimed at training more people to better handle restoration projects in older buildings, the program was developed in 2017 by two staff at Parks: Elizabeth Martin, an architect with the Capital Program, and Dan McEneny, a program coordinator at the Division for Historic Preservation.
Through partnerships, the program offers courses to the general public in rehabilitation of historic wooden windows, preservation carpentry and woodworking, and historic plaster repair, with future offerings in roofing repair, and weatherization of historic properties. In addition, last year Martin oversaw the offering of the masonry course for staff at the Palisades Park Region, a new expansion of the program.
“New York has been undergoing a boom in the restoration of historic properties and needs more skilled craftspeople who know how to perform this kind of specialized work,” said McEneny.
“Billions of economic development dollars are being spent in New York, particularly upstate, on preservation projects, and this translates into local jobs in construction, new markets for local businesses, and bolsters the revitalization of villages, towns and cities,” he said.
The growing need for these skilled workers was identified in the 2015-2020 NYS Historic Preservation Plan, after community stakeholders told planners that finding such workers was becoming more difficult.
“There are many opportunities in the historic trades right now,” said Jude Cleary, the HVCC instructor running the historic masonry course. “These opportunities are only going to increase as we employ restoration programs on existing buildings for environmental reasons as well as historical reasons.”
At the course, Albany resident Kenneth Arrington said he hoped this training could lead him to a new job.
He had worked as an operating engineer for heavy equipment and as a building maintenance mechanic before recently losing his position. Officials at his local unemployment insurance office had told him about the Historic Trades Program.
For Tony Mariano, a retired pharmacist who lives in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood, the course is a way to fuel his passion to care for his historic home, and to help his neighbors do the same. “I found out about this after my wife saw an ad on Facebook,” said Mariano, who has taught himself plumbing and electrical work.
“I would say that I am a skills collector,” said Dave Publow, a South Troy resident and former bicycle mechanic who is gutting and restoring a former commercial building in that neighborhood for potential use as a print studio and incubator space.
Publow has already taken the carpentry and window restoration courses through the Historic Trades Program. “I really wanted to leap into this with both feet,” he said.
As Susan Sfarra applied cleaning solution to a piece of stonework, she said her neighbors in Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District encouraged her to take the course.
“Many of us in the Stockade are worried about a lack of qualified workers,” said Sfarra, who owns a brick home dating to 1838, and who also is the daughter and granddaughter to bricklayers and masons.
“My plan is to take all the courses. When you own an older home, it is a privilege, and you really are a caretaker,” she said.
The Historic Trades Program will help preserve more historic homes and neighborhoods, said Historic Albany Foundation Executive Director Pamela Howard.
“Historic Albany Foundation has been pleased to be a partner in the Historic Preservation Trades Program with HVCC since the beginning. Having skilled and trained preservation trades people is critical to the preservation of our historic homes and neighborhoods,” she said. “In addition, introducing a new professional audience to our Architectural Parts Warehouse is critical for both incoming and outgoing salvaged items to keep them from the landfills and getting them back into local homes.”
Find more courses in the Historic Trades Program in the Albany region here.
Courses on historic window restoration are also being held this month in the Buffalo region, sponsored by State Parks and First Niagara.
Read Hudson Valley Community College’s announcement on the Historic Trades Program.
Cover Shot: Kenneth Arrington (left), and Tony Mariano, watch with another other student as Amanda Trienens demonstrates a cleaning technique. (All photos-NYS Parks)
By Brian Nearing, Parks Deputy Public Information Officer
State Parks contain a diversity of habitats, from forest and fields, to shrub swamp, marshes and streams. All these landscapes support a wide variety of native plants.
As part of efforts at Parks to restore land and protect biodiversity, it is important to have the right plants for the right habitats in order to support healthy ecological function, provide critical habitat for wildlife and reduce the threat from invasive species.
This program was created by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team, which was working at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ontario County, to restore a grassland habitat critical for endangered birds. And the job called for 200 different species of native plants.
Since then, such plants have been grown in the Sonnenberg’s historic greenhouses in Canandaigua, at the north end of its namesake lake in the Finger Lakes region, to cover parks projects in the eastern part of New York. Many of the Sonnenberg greenhouses had been vacant for years, so this was a perfect match for the facility.
Plant Materials Program Coordinator Brigitte Wierzbicki, Lead Technician David Rutherford and technician Elizabeth Padgett, supported by seasonal staff, partners, and interns, run the program. To fill orders, they identify native species in the field, sustainably collect seeds, propagate those seeds in the greenhouses, and deliver plants back to project sites.
Now in its fourth year, the Ganondagan project aims to recreate the oak savanna grasslands found there in the 1600’s, when the land was managed by the Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) people. This last season, the Plant Materials Program provided more than 5,000 plants towards this project, and over 100 pounds of hand-collected seed have been sown on site.
Currently, the Plant Materials Program provides for environmental stewardship projects across six State Park regions of the state, from the Finger Lakes Region and eastward to the Taconic Region. The program also works with Parks Western District Nursery and its Native Landscape Resource Center, managed by Kevin McNallie at Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, which provides native plantings for the western regions of the state.
A wealth of literature points to native plants and species diversity as critical factors for successful restoration. Native plantings are better able to compete against invasive species than non-native plants. Planting more native species also increases both plant and animal diversity. Ensuring that plants are not only native, but regionally appropriate and genetically diverse increases the likelihood that the plantings will be successful and contribute to their local ecosystem.
Plant Materials Program staff search for wild, naturally-occurring populations for each project within the same ecoregion. Ecoregions are zones defined by their plants, soil, geography, geology, climate, and more. Plants that live in the same ecoregion have adaptations that help each species survive in those precise conditions, so seed has the best chance of survival if it is replanted within that zone.
New York State is split into 42 different ecoregions, with each region warranting a different seed collection so that seed is often not shared across projects. In the Sonnenberg greenhouses, plants are not allowed to hybridize (or cross-pollinate) with plants from other regions. Preserving the plant genetics of each ecoregion is important to maintain each unique habitat.
Science of Collecting Native Seeds
Seed collection involves more than just taking a seed from a plant. Our collectors ensure collections aren’t harming the population. Only a small fraction of seed is taken from each plant, so that enough seed remains to support that population, and to serve as food for insects and other animals.
Populations of a plant must be large enough to support seed collection. Areas are monitored before and after collection, and they are not collected from again for multiple years. The conservation of intact ecosystems is more effective than planting and restoring ecosystems, so it is important that seeds are collected in a way that protects existing plant populations.
Measures are also taken to capture genetic diversity, including collecting multiple times a season and using field techniques to collect evenly or randomly across a population. Collectors avoid selecting for specific traits, as that can reduce a population’s ability to adapt, and can in turn negatively impact other populations.
Native Plants Help an Endangered Butterfly
In the Capital Region, the Plant Materials Program collects wildflower seed to support Parks Stewardship staff in restoring rare butterfly habitat. Saratoga Spa State Park is home to the state and federally-endangered, and globally-rare Karner blue butterfly. This small butterfly lives in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and during its caterpillar stage, it feeds on only one wildflower: the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis).
Picking seeds from the right lupine plants is extremely important, as the chemical makeup of lupine has been shown to vary across the range of the species. Introducing a new strain of lupine might be harmful or even toxic for the butterflies. For example, the same species of lupine growing in another state could be different enough from the ones growing at Saratoga Spa State Park that, if planted there, could be toxic to the Karner blue butterflies living in the park.
A 2015 study found that survival and development of the Karner blue was linked to which lupines caterpillars had fed upon. Expanding lupine at Saratoga Spa through local seed is the safest option to protect the unique genetics of both the butterflies and lupine.
New Life for Sonnenberg’s Historic Greenhouses
Each spring, the Plant Materials Program grows a new cycle of plants in Sonnenberg’s historic Lord & Burnham greenhouses. These are greenhouses which date back to the Gilded Age of the early 1900s and reflect the botanical passions of the home’s original residents, Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, two prominent philanthropists.
At the time of construction between 1903 and 1915, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg reflected state-of-the-art technology. Only a handful of other such Lord & Burnham structures survive today, with some major examples found at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.
This 50-acre estate and its greenhouses, gardens, and Queen Anne-style mansion are all open to the public from May through October. A portion of the greenhouses interprets the legacy of the site, including a palm house, orchid house, and cactus house.
Patrons can tour the greenhouses utilized by the Plant Materials Program and learn about the thousands of plants grown for restoration of native ecosystems. Housing the program at Sonnenberg expands the interpretative value for park visitors and supports the restoration of these historic structures.
During this long winter, know that the next generation of native plants for New York State Parks projects is being nurtured in a historic greenhouse complex that dates to the Gilded Age, and come spring, will be ready to preserve and protect some of our most precious places.
Post by Brigitte Wierzbicki, Plant Materials Program Coordinator
Cover photo by Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Site
Consider Native Species When Planting At Home
Check if you have natives already coming up in your garden or yard. It is likely that you already have some native plants that are providing habitat, and these will be best adapted to your local ecosystem. Use indentification resources to see what is from NY or New England. Apps likeiNaturalist, online guides like GoBotany, or field guides like Newcomb’s (Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb) are great resources for getting started.
Native Plantfinder is a great resource to choose which plants are native to your zip code! It also ranks plants based on the number of native butterflies and moths that can use the plants—meaning you will be bringing in more wildlife into your garden including pollinators and birds. It is still in development and only a small fraction of these will be available commercially, so double check your favorites with what’s available.
Use the New York Flora Atlasto ensure the plant you’re interested in is native to the state. Even better if it’s native to the county you’re planting in!
Utilize the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Saratoga Tree Nursery. The 2020 Seedling Sale is currently ongoing and is an affordable way to purchase native plants and support environmental conservation work in the state.
Check out the Native Plant Nursery Directoryto find your local native plant nursery. Request that your local garden center carries native plants, and ideally, ones that are from New York. Often the native species in nurseries are sourced from outside of New York, or even the southern U.S. These won’t be as well adapted to New York.
Avoid cultivars of native species. You may find some natives in nurseries with different names signifying they have been bred for different colors or flower shapes. These changes can reduce the ecosystem function of the plants, or even populations beyond your garden if they are able to breed. Our native species evolved with the native pollinators, and changes can make the plants completely unusable for native pollinators.
Do not collect from the wild for your garden. Taking from the wild can be more damaging to the ecosystem than the benefit that it may bring to your garden. Collecting from the wild is also often illegal. Many factors need to be considered for safe harvests, and many of our plant populations are experiencing declines due to development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, deer overabundance, climate change, and more. It can be hard to know if the seeds you’re taking will damage the population or remove a critical food source, so don’t take the risk!
Bakker, J.D. & Wilson, S.D. (2004) Using ecological restoration to constrain biological invasion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41, 1058–1064.
Fargione, J.E. & Tilman, D. (2005) Diversity decreases invasion via both sampling and complementarity effects. Ecology Letters, 8, 604–611.
Handel, K. (2015) Testing local adaptation of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) to its single host plant the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation).
Hereford J. 2009. A quantitative survey of local adaptation and fitness trade-offs. American Naturalist 173:579-588.
Johnson R, Stritch L, Olwell P, Lambert S, Horning ME, Cronn R. 2010. What are the best seed sources for ecosystem restoration on BLM and USFS lands? Native Plants Journal 11(2): 117-131.
Kline, V.M. (1997) Orchards of oak and a sea of grass. In: Packard, S.; Mutel, C.F., editors. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Washington, DC: Island Press:3-21.
Omernik, J. M. (1987). Ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Annals of the Association of American geographers, 77(1), 118-125.