This year, the New York State Bird Conservation Area (BCA) Program celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since 1997, the BCA Program has been promoting the conservation of birds and their habitats on designated state-owned lands and waters in New York State. There is no other program like it in the United States. The BCA Program is modeled after Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Program but is backed by legislation. Sites are considered for BCA designation if they meet criteria relating to high concentrations of birds, bird diversity, or the presence of at-risk species. Recognizing a site as a BCA brings awareness to the needs of birds on state-owned lands and encourages management that benefits the bird populations. While the BCA Program focuses on birds, the program also benefits other species that share the same habitats.
Audubon has partnered with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) on the BCA Program since its beginning, and has held up the BCA Program as a model for other states to protect birds. This fall, Audubon was delighted to join State Parks in celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the program, in conjunction with the designation of the 60th BCA in Ganondagan State Park.
In recent years, Audubon’s partnership with State Parks has expanded to include Audubon in the Parks initiative, which is a partnership with Audubon New York, State Parks and its Regional Commissions, Audubon Chapters, and friends groups to advance bird conservation in State Parks, specifically focusing on BCAs and IBAs. Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon assists with the implementation of BCA management recommendations, conducts bird monitoring, and helps with other strategies and research activities that benefit priority birds and habitats. In addition, Audubon advocates for funds to ensure that habitats are preserved and managed in a way that benefits priority birds and further connect people to these unique places.
Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon has been active in more than 50 State Parks across the state, including 20 BCAs. This successful initiative continues to grow through projects like the one recently completed at Schodack Island State Park, which has been designated as a BCA because of nesting Cerulean Warblers and wintering Bald Eagles. Led by the Audubon Society of the Capital Region, this BCA project included building bird blinds for visitors to view birds without disturbing them and removing invasive species within the park. The chapter continues to foster a community connection to the park and importance of this BCA by hosting eagle walks and other events such as the recent Schodack Island Raptor Fest.
Audubon congratulates New York State on the BCA program and looks forward to continuing the strong partnership with State Parks to make New York a better place for birds and people.
In April 2016, a wildfire engulfed around 2,000 acres of the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains. The “Gunks” (a nickname for the Shawangunks) are well-known not only for climbing, but also for the globally unique community of high altitude dwarf pitch pine barrens which hold some interesting and charismatic flora and fauna. This year marks one year after the fire and it has been a very interesting time to be at Sam’s Point. Park staff have taken advantage of what some may consider destruction to learn more about the unique ecosystem that evolved along with fire. Student Conservation Association interns, State Park staff, and volunteer citizen scientists have researched how the ecological community at Sam’s Point is responding to the fire.
In the weeks after the 2016 fire, the State Parks staff set up twenty random plots within the pine barrens to study the regrowth of the forest after the fire. One year later, we continue to collect data on the changes that are taking place as the ecosystem bounces back. At each research site, pitch pines are measured and any new growth, or lack thereof, is recorded. We also search for pitch pine seedlings and this year we found more of them in our plots than last year! Pitch pines are a fire dependent species – this means that throughout their existence they have evolved to grow in areas with high incidence of fire and have adapted to survive and thrive in these areas. Perhaps most importantly to pitch pine survival, their pine cones need extreme heat, like the high heat produced from fire, to open up to release their seed. Although the high intensity of the fire may have damaged many of the older pitch pines, we can see the beginnings of a new forest through our observations.
Pitch pine seedling, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Forest regrowth, 2017, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
At four of the 20 fire-regeneration plots, we took photos to collect visual data on changes over time. We are able to see changes in vegetation during the growing season and are able to compare vegetation levels from this year to last year. After a fire burns an ecosystem, the intensity of the burn creates a mosaic pattern on the land, making patches of different habitat. For those areas that are more severely burned, different plants may be found in those areas than areas that were less severely burned. Through our data collection, we compare what is happening in different areas of the forest that were affected differently after the fire. We also look at any changes that occur over time as plants recolonize the scorched earth.
Another study that was conducted this year was a breeding bird survey, where we compared the different bird species found in the burned area of the pine barrens to birds that were found in the unburned areas. Since the fire burned nearly half of the Sam’s Point Area, we looked at whether this change in habitat displaced breeding birds, welcomed new species, or if the number of breeding bird stayed the same. Interns, staff, and volunteers braved early mornings in May and June to conduct surveys in the park. Most often, we heard the eastern towhee telling us to “drink your tea”, the prairie warbler’s ascending song, and the “witchity witchity” of the common yellowthroat. These species were found all over the park and we did not see many differences between the species we found within the burned area and outside of it. Generally, the differences we found had more to do with other aspects of habitat (i.e. birds were closer to water, closer to deciduous trees, etc.) than to the damage from the fire.
Comparing photo points, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Student Conservation Association Interns, Park staff, and volunteer Citizen Scientists assist in studying the effects of the 2016 fire on the ecosystem, photo by Leah Rudge, SCA
Fire has a long history on the Shawangunk Ridge and pitch pines are not the only species that has adapted to thrive with fire. Up until the 1960’s, berry pickers swarmed the mountainsides in the summer, picking huckleberry and blueberry and selling their juicy finds to city dwellers. Sometimes, they set fire to the ridge so that the next year, their bounty would be sweeter (in both size and taste!) Going further back into the history of the ridge, the Native Americans would also set similar, controlled fires, which today we would call prescribed burns, to keep the ecosystem healthy and productive. Although the 2016 fire was an intense wildfire and not a prescribed burn, we received the bounty of increased berry production in 2017. In mid-July the blueberries flourished, and modern day berry pickers, as well as animals that eat berries, such as chipmunks, squirrels, deer, birds, and bear, were able to indulge in these treats. By the end of July, the huckleberries had joined in on the fun so that at our August Berry Bonanza event, visitors could taste test and compare blueberry and huckleberry and choose their preference before they entered the berry-lined trails.
The 2016 wildfire at Sam’s Point has given us a lot to think about in the last year. We continue to learn more about our unique little corner of the world, and we share what we have learned with our visitors. We are also able to enjoy the beauty of the rebirth of an ecosystem. This strange, otherworldly beauty inspires park-goers with a new type of scenery they may have never seen before, making this one of a kind ecosystem seem even more special. To learn more about Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve or to get involved in Citizen Science visit https://parks.ny.gov/parks/193 , or even better, come visit us in person! We look forward to sharing our park with you.
Post by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern
Featured image by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern
You may have noticed something new in the water at Rockland Lake State Park. These are floating treatment wetlands! Read our post below to find out more about these water treatment platforms.
Why are they here?
In recent years, harmful algal blooms have become common in Rockland Lake. These algae blooms are largely caused by an unhealthy increase in nutrients such as phosphorous in the lake. The nutrients come from many sources nearby, including excess lawn/garden fertilizers that wash into storm ditches after a rainfall, then drain into Rockland Lake. One culvert (inlet) with consistently high nutrient levels is located near Parking Field 5 and it was chosen as the location for a new floating treatment wetland. The goal of adding a floating wetland to the lake is to reduce the amount of nutrients – and by extension, harmful algal blooms – in the lake.
What are they?
Floating treatment wetlands (a.k.a. floating wetlands/islands) help to bring the benefits of natural wetlands to polluted water. They filter water to improve water quality and they provide important habitat for a variety of plants and animals. Floating wetlands can come in different shapes and sizes, but in general, wetland plants are supported atop a buoyant platform, with roots exposed in the lake water below.
What do they do?
Floating treatment wetlands help to create the right balance of submerged and non-submerged wetland habitat based on each individual site’s needs. As the plants grow, they use-up excess nutrients in the water. In addition, communities of beneficial bacteria form a film around the roots, further helping to filter nutrients and pollutants. Higher/lower elevations create areas with varying oxygen levels, promoting these different biological filtering methods. The floating platform blocks sunlight, preventing the growth of algae. Lastly, fish and wildlife enjoy the new addition to their habitat.
Floating wetland materials arrive by truck in late July 2017, photo by State Parks
More floating wetland materials. Plants from a local nursery include: tussock sedge (Carex stricta), swamp rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), Blueflag iris (Iris versicolor), and soft rush (Juncus effuses), photo by State Parks
Floating wetland materials. These special polyester supports will help hold the plants in-place for years to come., photo by State Parks
Constructing the floating wetland! Some of the plants are submerged, while others are elevated on an island., photo by State Parks
One of several floating wetland units., photo by State Parks
Constructing the floating wetland! Units are assembled near the shore, to be later brought to the target location., photo by State Parks.
Another close-up, with thin netting around the edge to protect the young plants from birds., photo by State Parks.
Close-up of a floating wetland unit. Brick weights help keep the plants evenly balanced, with roots below water, photo by State Parks.
Floating wetland at Parking Field 5 culvert, September 2017, photo by State Parks.
Finished floating wetland, installed at Parking Field 5 culvert. The green “spilled paint” look on the water is a harmful algal bloom. Photo from early August 2017, photo by State Parks.
This is the first time that floating treatment wetlands have been used in New York State Parks. Environmental staff will determine the effectiveness of this project by monitoring water quality changes over time (e.g. harmful nutrient levels and algal blooms by the inlet as well as lake-wide). If successful, then floating wetlands may be used to help treat stormwater pollution and improve other aquatic habitats in New York.
Post by April Brun, Gabriella Cebada Mora, and Erin Lennon.
Rockland photos by Gabriella Cebada Mora, Aissa Feldmann, Matt Brincka, and Erin Lennon.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an invasive plant from Europe and Asia that can overcrowd native wetland plants. It is easily recognized by its tall and showy purple spike of flowers in the summer, lance-shaped leaves and square stems. As an invasive species, it lacks its natural predators and can spread quickly, producing as many as 2.7 million seeds a year.
Wetlands are rich habitats that support a diversity of plant, insect and animal species, such as marsh marigold (Caltha palustris,) twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella,) painted turtle (Chrysemys picta,) green heron (Butorides virescens.) The introduction and spread of purple loosestrife has resulted in the loss of native plant and animals that depend on wetland habitats. In addition, purple loosestrife limits the growth of rare plants and can clog drainage ways and ditches, negatively affecting adjacent land and crops.
Since purple loosestrife grows in wetlands, methods to control this plant and promote native biodiversity aren’t always easy. Small young infestations can be removed using hand tools, but care must be taken to dig out all of the root portions to avoid regrowth. This may not be feasible for larger, more established infestations. The flower heads cut be cut, bagged and disposed of to prevent seed production and the spread of this plant. Chemical herbicides can be utilized by licensed applicators that follow strict protocols to avoid contaminating water bodies and non-target native species. However, there is an easier way to fight this invasive: biological control or biocontrol. Biocontrol is the control of an invasive species by introducing a natural predator of that species following very specific federal and state regulations and testing to make sure there will be no other negative impacts on the ecosystem. In this case, the biocontrol is the small purple loosestrife beetle, a beetle of the genus Galerucella. These are native to Europe and Asia and feed on purple loosestrife in its native range, keeping the plant in check.
Scientists must thoroughly test any biocontrol species to make sure they only affect the target invasive species and don’t negatively impact native species. In the U.S., studies have shown the beetles to be very host-specific, feeding and reproducing predominately on purple loosestrife. The beetles do not completely eradicate purple loosestrife, but they suppress the plants’ growth and ability to reproduce by feeding on its stems, buds and leaves. Thus, they reduce the plants’ dominance and impact within the ecosystem. Since 1992, biologists working under state and federal permits have released millions of these beetles at numerous sites across the northeast, including at several New York State Parks, such as Silver Lake State Park in western NY. In NY, the Department of Environmental Conservation continues to monitor the numbers and effectiveness of the beetles and to ensure there are no unforeseen problems.
The beetles are released in the summer when loosestrife is actively growing. They overwinter in the soil near the host plants and emerge in the spring to reproduce, with females laying eggs from May to June. When they hatch, the larvae feed on the loosestrife’s young growth and work their way down the plant where they eventually enter the soil to pupate. They emerge as adults in the summer and the cycle continues. Though they are not strong fliers, occasionally the beetles have been found 10-12 miles away from the initial release site.
Release sites for the beetles are determined by the dominance of purple loosestrife. These sites usually have a high percentage of loosestrife plants where hand removal of them is difficult. Biologists must submit an application to the Department of Environmental Conservation to justify the need for the beetles and receive a permit. The number of beetles depends on the size of the purple loosestrife infestation. Silver Lake State Park is one location where the beetles have been used as a biocontrol for this invasive plant. Silver Lake has an approximate 40 acre wetland with a purple loosestrife population of about 15%. In 2010, 800 Galerucella beetles were released in an effort to control the loosestrife. One meter by one meter plots were established in order to monitor the survivorship of the beetles and the defoliation, or the loss of leaves, stems and flowers, of the plants where the beetles have fed on them. Each summer after the beetles have emerged, the plots are assessed to determine the effectiveness of the beetles and if any more should be released. This is done by looking at the number of loosestrife plants that are defoliated (eaten, not flowering) vs. the number that are flowering, as well as the number of beetles that are seen. More beetles have been released at Silver Lake State Park since the initial 800 in 2010; the purple loosestrife plants have remained contained to that area and their growth has been restricted. In 2016, State Parks biologists expanded the program to Letchworth State Park.
Galerucella beetles fed on these loosestrife leaves at Silver Lake State Park, photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
Several Galerucella beetles on a loosestrife plant at Silver Lake State Park, photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
The extent of purple loosestrife has declined dramatically in areas with this biocontrol. It is unlikely that the beetles will eliminate purple loosestrife populations entirely. The hope is that as more Galerucella beetles are released across the state, the invasive loosestrife will be diminished, making room once again for the native flora and fauna at these sites.
Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
Featured image, Galerucella calmariensis beetle on a purple loosestrife, by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
July 9th -15th, 2017 marks the fourth annual New York Invasive Species Awareness Week! Each year, New York designates one week to highlight the environmental impacts of invasive species and what we can do to help. This year’s theme, “Invasive Species Reality Check: Where We Are & Where We Need to Go,” focuses on past successes and goals for the future. Invasive species affect all of us, and we could use your help to detect and prevent the further spread of invasive species in New York.
What are invasives? Invasive species are plants, animals (don’t forget about insects!), or other organisms that are accidentally or intentionally introduced from a different region or country (meaning they are non-native), and that cause harm to the environment and the economy. In general, invasive species tend to be adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions. They grow and spread quickly, and because they are non-native, they do not have natural controls like predators or diseases that would normally reduce their numbers. Therefore, invasives are able to displace native plant and animal species and the organisms that depend on those native species.
Keep in mind that not all non-native species become invasive – it is the species that are very successful and have the potential to negatively impact large areas that become a problem. In New York, several especially problematic invasives include: giant hogweed, a huge plant that can cause severe burns and blisters on skin; water chestnut, an aquatic plant that forms dense, impenetrable mats on the water’s surface; and the emerald ash borer, a beetle that has already killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America.
Giant hogweed can grow more than 14 feet tall. If you see it, do not touch it! Photo by DEC
Water chestnut is frequently pulled out by hand from kayaks and canoes, seen here at Rockland Lake State Park. Photo by State Parks
Have you ever seen a purple triangular prism hanging in the trees? It’s actually a trap for the emerald ash borer. Photo by State Parks
One high priority invasive species that we could use your help detecting is called oak wilt, a fungal disease that affects oak trees. It can kill trees in the red oak group (oaks with pointed leaf tips) in as little as 2-6 weeks! Trees in the white oak group (oaks with rounded leaf tips) are less susceptible to the disease, but can still be killed in a matter of years. This July and August, look for oak leaves that are turning brown, starting at the outer edge and progressing into the middle of the leaf. The leaves may fall off of the tree in the spring and summer, often when parts of the leaf are still green. The oak tree’s branches may begin to die off from the top of the tree downward. If you see any of these symptoms, it is crucial that you contact DEC Forest Health via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-640-0652. Read more from the Department of Environmental Conservation about this destructive invasive. Last year, there were only 15 cases of oak wilt reported in New York. Your eyes on the ground could assist in the rapid identification of any new cases and help prevent the spread of this disease.
Oak tree infected with oak wilt. Photo by NYS DEC
The discolored leaf from a tree in the red oak group. Photo by NYS DEC
If you are ready to take action and learn more about invasive species, you’re in luck! This week there will be interpretive hikes and paddling events, presentations, webinars, invasive species removal projects, and more, all across New York State. Check out the Invasive Species Awareness Week (ISAW) calendar or see if your local State Park or nature center is hosting an event. Last year, New York State hosted over 120 ISAW events and had more than 2,000 participants. So whether you just learned about invasive species from reading this blog post or you’re already able to spot the difference between the highly invasive aquatic Hydrilla plant and the common native look-alike Elodea canadensis (learn more about that here!), we need your help. Learn, act, tell your friends. Public awareness and action plays an essential role in halting the spread of invasive species and preventing new introductions.
There was fun for all at an ISAW event last year at Allegany State Park, where kids made emerald ash borer masks. Photo by State Parks
Cleaning your boots after a hike helps to stop the spread of invasives. Photo by Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS
Here are five easy tips that can make a big difference:
Use local firewood – buy it or gather it where you will be burning it so you don’t transport forest pests.
Plant only non-invasive plants in your garden, or even better, plant native plants. You can use the New York Flora Atlas to check which plants are native to New York.
Clean your boots or your bike tires at the trailhead after hitting the trail – seeds of invasive plants can get stuck on your boots, clothes, or tires. You don’t want invasives in your yard or your other favorite hiking spots.
Get involved – volunteer to help protect your local natural areas, join your local PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) to stay informed, or become a citizen scientist by using iMapInvasives to report infestations of invasive species right from your smartphone.
New York Invasive Species Awareness Week is coordinated by The New York State Invasive Species Council (ISC), Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC) and Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISMS) in partnership with numerous other agencies, organizations, and groups.
Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association & State Park