Category Archives: Research

Bird Banding at Crown Point State Historic Site

The small girl skipped ahead of her family on the grassy path toward the bird banding station, a couple of picnic tables covered with a canopy, with two tents pitched nearby.   Five rows of mist netting were strung along alleys in the dense brush, with hopes that birds would fly into them and get caught so that they could be studied, banded, and released.  Master bird bander Gordon Howard sat at one of the tables with a tiny bird in his hand, a book open in front of him.   He gently stretched the wing feathers to look for different color patterns and signs of wear to help him determine the age of the bird.

The girl and her family walked up to Gordon, and he smiled and explained what he was doing.   When he was finished, he asked if she would like to hold and release the brightly colored male yellow-rumped warbler.  She nodded her head, and Gordon showed her how to gently wrap her small fingers around the bird’s neck and body so that it would not be injured.  A broad smile spread across her face as she felt the soft, warm feathers and the rapidly beating heart of the bird.  Her parents took pictures, and then Gordon told her to gently toss the bird into the sky and let go.  The warbler flew from her hand right back into the hawthorn shrubs and began feeding, preparing for its migration further north.   Although the bird had left her hand, the memory never left the child.

Bird banding began at the Crown Point State Historic Site 41 years ago by J.M.C. “Mike” Peterson.  Spring migrant birds have been monitored here every year since for two weeks in early to mid-May.   Over 17,000 individual birds of 106 different species have been banded here, with each bird receiving a small metal band with a unique identifying number that is placed around its leg like a bracelet.  Information on each bird that is banded, such as species, sex, age, and condition, is forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees all bird banding in the United States.  If the bird is ever found again, the band number can be reported to the USFWS and much can be learned about the bird’s movements.  The current main banders are Gordon Howard, Gary Lee, and Tom Barber, with help from several other banders and a number of volunteers.  Visitors are welcome from 7 AM to 5 PM every day of the season, which runs this year from the afternoon of May 6 to the morning of May 22.  Educational programs about birds and bird banding are offered to school groups, birding clubs, and civic organizations.  Reservations for these are arranged by contacting Gordon by email at ghoward@clemson.edu.

Bird banding has several values, including education, determining bird longevity, and figuring out migration routes.   The Crown Point peninsula that juts north into Lake Champlain is an excellent place to capture and study migrating birds, because birds concentrate here to feed and rest on their journey northward each spring.  Many of these songbirds wintered in South or Central America, and are migrating to their summer breeding ranges in New York, New England, and Canada.

If you go to visit, the best time of day is early to mid-morning.  Calm, dry days are usually better than windy, wet days.  Park in the lot by the museum, and walk up the blacktop road toward the barns.   Then follow the signs that direct you onto the grassy path to the banding center which is tucked in by the brushy edge.  Wear casual clothes and boots or shoes that can handle mud.  Bring your family, a camera, binoculars, and your sense of wonder.

Post by Ellie George, volunteer with the Crown Point Bird Banding Association

Photos were supplied with one time use permission from the photographers Ellie (Eleanor) George and Thomas Barber.
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Hailing More Snails

When ten endangered Chittenango Ovate Amber snails (COAS), located in only one known location in the world: Chittenango Falls State Park, were brought into an SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) lab for captive breeding and did not reproduce over the summer of 2014, graduate student Cody Gilbertson and advisor Rebecca Rundell knew they had to adjust something. Eventually the ten COAS were released, but as luck would have it, during the trial, a stowaway baby COAS came in on vegetation that was offered to COAS adults.  The tiny snail on the plant was placed in an enclosure to monitor closely. This was the beginning of a rapid learning curve for Gilbertson on the food preferences of COAS. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (in charge of endangered species permitting) granted permission for them to keep the one snail over winter and raise it alone in the lab. From this blessing in disguise, Gilbertson was able to figure out the specific species of leaves this one snail she named “Hatch” preferred to eat – dead cherry leaves! Cherry leaves collected in the spring were consumed regularly and “Hatch” began to grow rapidly. Gilbertson knew it was risky keeping a small hatchling snail because in the past, 80% of hatchlings would die within the first two weeks of life in captivity. She thought it was unlikely “Hatch” would live, but this one snail persisted and survived in the lab showing her what it most preferred to eat, and she watched closely. It turns out this was a very practical way of finding out what COAS needs without harming individuals.

When Gilbertson brought two more COAS in from the wild during summer 2015, adults flourished on the improved diet and reproduction occurred resulting in over 600 baby COAS in just two months! The two snails mated with each other and about seven days after mating, egg masses were laid.  A total of about six egg masses were laid by each snail with about 33 eggs in each egg mass. About 270 of these snails were released back to their wild habitat to help expand the wild population of COAS. The other 300+ snails are still in our lab and are thriving. Over 130 snails have reached maturity (over 14mm in shell length) and over 30 egg masses from the captive born snails have been produced so far.

This research, supported by United States Fish and Wildlife Service, has pushed the recovery of COAS species forward with some very large steps:

1) Researchers have performed a first ever release of captive snails back to the wild

2) Scientists now have information about what COAS eat and what they may need to survive in the wild and in captivity

3) Over 300 snails remain in captivity for assisting in securing this species existence.

However, there is still much to learn about this unique and rare species in our upstate NY backyard. Scientists will need to monitor and care for both the wild and captive populations over time for us to tell if this work is successful long term. But they have certainly put their best foot forward!

Gilbertson with 'Hatch'
Gilbertson with “Hatch,” photo by Cody Gilbertson

Post and photos by Cody Gilbertson, graduate student SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Happy Second Birthday Nature Times!

 

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In this second year of Nature Times we have gotten to know snapping turtles, carnivorous plants, black squirrels, and Sammi, Trailside Museums’ 36 year old bald eagle.  We’ve learned how trails are mapped, how a flock of sheep and goats have become one of State Parks’ 21st century mowing crews, and ways to explore State Parks on foot, in kayaks, on snowmobiles, and on frozen lakes. The stories have featured all kinds of work that State Parks staff and volunteers do throughout the year to help preserve and protect some of New York’s unique and exceptional places. These range from protecting sand dunes on Lake Ontario and old-growth forest at Allegany, to creating native grasslands at Ganondagan State Historic Site, and monitoring invasive species infestations and removing invasive species both on land and water.

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We mark this second birthday with 61 new followers and over 24,000 page hits!  And we thank the 32 staff, interns, and partner organizations who have shared their passion for State Parks through the blogs that they have written. We also want to recognize our partnership with the New York Natural Heritage Program who helped in initiating this feature and continues to provide support.

We look forward to continuing our celebration of State Parks in the months to come in Nature Times.  Hope to see you soon at one of our Parks or Historic Sites!

From glass eels to silver eels and everything in between The life stages of the American Eel

Imagine yourself hiking next to a babbling creek.  You come to a small waterfall surrounded by rocks.  The rocks glisten from the spray of the falls.  You walk closer and see dozens of small snake like creatures slithering over the wet rocks.  You watch them move from the top of the rock pile to the bottom.  Then they slide back into the creek.

You saw the American eel utilizing one of its unique adaptations.  Their bodies are coated in a mucus layer, providing protection and a way to absorb oxygen through their skin.  This mucus, in combination with their muscular bodies, allows them to move out of water and across land to avoid barriers.  This, and other adaptations, makes the American eel able to live in more diverse habitats compared to most other fish species.

American eels are fish, despite their snake like appearance, and the only species of eel that live in North America.  They are catadromous, migrating from the saltwater of the Sargasso Sea to the freshwater of streams and lakes.  The Sargasso Sea spans a part of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and Puerto Rico.  Once they reach maturity, they journey back there to spawn.

The vastness of the Sargasso Sea makes it tough for researchers to locate and observe eels spawning in the wild.  At this point, observations of spawning eels remain to be made, although one silver eel was tracked to the Sargasso Sea. Researchers believe the eels die right after spawning.  Some mystery surrounds the final life stages of the American eel.

What happens as they grow?

Let us review the known information about the life stages of the eel.  The eel’s life begins in the Sargasso Sea.  First, they resemble a willow leaf.   These small, oblong, transparent fish, called leptocephali, lack the snake like form of adult eels.  They are about one inch long and rely on the ocean currents to bring them to the east coast.  This journey takes about one year.

Lept
The beginning life stage of the American Eel is called a leptocephalus and these leptocephali use the current to travel to the East Coast. Kils at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Now they resemble vermicelli or rice noodles.  At two inches long and still transparent, they are called glass eels.  They make their way into estuaries which connect saltwater to freshwater.  Many of them find themselves in water bodies of local New York State parks along the Hudson River.  Once in freshwater, they develop a brown coloration.  This signifies the shift to their next life stage as elvers.

Glass
The American eel in their glass eel life stage as they arrive to the coast. Chris Bowser

As the elvers grow longer over the next few years, they enter their yellow eel stage.  They live in this stage right before they reach full maturity.  Their size varies based on sex.  Males can grow to two feet long whereas females can reach sizes of four feet.  Their size in each life stage is based on their surrounding environment.  They become silver eels when they reach full maturity to start their migration.

This silver eel stage happens to be the most understudied of all the life stages.  There is no set age that eels are known to reach full maturity and age cannot be determined from external characteristics. Researchers look to study silver eels right before they begin their migration.

What kind of research?

Sarah’s motivation to study silver eels stemmed from her previous experiences working with them in their other life stages.  Her work with eels started with a summer project at Bard College, eight years ago.  After graduation she continued to work with glass eels, elvers, and yellow eels as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern at the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Estuary Program.  Studying silver eels seemed like the next logical and exciting step for her. Sarah Mount at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry conducted research on yellow and silver eels.  Her research led to a model that sorts yellow and silver eels into different maturity classes.  The model relies on external characteristics such as the length, weight, eye diameter, pectoral fin length, head length, head width, and body depth of the eels to differentiate maturity classes. This means that future researchers can utilize this model to study the relative age of eels with a capture and release method that does not harm the fish.

With the guidance of Karin Limburg at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, she developed her research ideas into a master’s level study.  With the help of colleagues at the Hudson River Research Reserve, she spent two summers and two autumns collecting yellow and silver eels from the streams of the Hudson River estuary.

Interns
SCA interns at the Hudson River Research Reserve help Sarah set up a silver eel fyke net. Chris Bowser

Silver eels migrate at night during rain events in the autumn.  To catch them, Sarah set up a fyke net the day before a predicted rain storm.  This v-shaped net spanned the width of the stream and was removed the next morning.

The final life stages of the American eel still remain a mystery.  Sarah Mount’s research begins to solve it both for future research and for herself.  Her model will help future researchers understand when eels reach their full maturity to begin their migration.  When asked about her next steps she said, “Now the only missing piece left is the ocean, I’ve got to get out to the Sargasso Sea sometime.”

Post by Brianna Rosamilia,  Master of Science candidate in Environmental Interpretation at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

 

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.

Camouflage
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