Category Archives: Stewardship

What to do with a Thousand Acres of Swallow-wort?

With 80-foot cliffs overlooking eastern Lake Ontario, 14 miles of hiking trails, a dog park, a state-of-the-art playground, a residential cottage that sleeps eight, and a globally rare ecosystem, Robert G. Wehle State Park is a gem.

This striking landscape also has a military history of helping to defend the country. Between 1895 and 1947 before it was a park, the U.S. military used this property as training grounds. The park includes remnants of the Stony Point Rifle Range, where soldiers trained for combat, as well as shoreline concrete observer posts where spotters oversaw aerial gunnery target practice.

In 1963, the U.S. Army sold this land to Louis Wehle, founder of the post-Prohibition Genesee brewery, and Thomas Nagle, a Rochester car dealer. In succeeding years, Wehle and his son, Robert, maintained the property as a cattle farm, game preserve, and rural retreat for raising of internationally-renowned hunting dogs . After Robert Wehle’s death in 2002, the state Department of Environmental Conservation acquired the land, later passing it State Parks to establish as Robert G. Wehle State Park in 2003.

Click on this slideshow below for scenery at the park:

But visitors to this park may notice something else beyond its beauty _ large areas overrun by a strange, twining vine that seems to grow everywhere that is not mowed lawn, leaving few if any other plants surviving. Before his death, Robert Wehle was trying, with limited success, to control this invasive plant, known as pale swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum rossicum).

Now, decades after it was used to help train soldiers, this park is again on the front lines of a new mission: To be part of a campaign to learn whether a small moth found in Europe and Asia can help fight this invading perennial plant, which has spread throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Pale swallow-wort at the entrance to Robert G. Wehle State Park in Jefferson County. The plant has begun to turn yellow at the end of the summer.


But first, what is this aggressive interloper that drives out other plants wherever it spreads?

Also given the ominous name of “dog-strangling vine,” pale swallow-wort is a native of Ukraine that was introduced to North America in the mid- to late-1800s as an ornamental vine in herbariums and greenhouses. Once here, it began expanding into old fields, pastures, and woodland understories. Pale swallow-wort wipes out native plants in its path due to its vast root system, immense seed production and seed dispersal method (seeds look similar to milkweed seeds and can float far away in the wind), and the production of allelochemicals that inhibit growth of other nearby plants and protect it from grazing animals. Whitetail deer, which will eat most plants, avoid it.

Pale swallow-wort also poses a threat to New York’s population of native Monarch butterflies, which require milkweed to reproduce. Monarchs are known to confuse swallow-wort with milkweed and lay their eggs on it. Due to the chemical composition of swallow-wort, Monarch larvae that feed on the plant usually don’t survive.

All of these traits combine to create the ‘perfect’ invasive species and a land manager’s worst nightmare. So, what has been done and what is still being done to control this tenacious weed?

Robert Wehle noticed this plant on his property, according to anecdotal accounts. The cattle herds that he kept could have suppressed the plant’s invasion in pastures through grazing and trampling.  Wehle also utilized fire management to maintain some fields, which could have held swallow-wort at bay temporarily. Records also indicate he tried chemical herbicides to control swallow-wort infestation. This suggests that, like subsequent scientific studies conducted have shown, that Wehle found grazing and burning were not effective control techniques. 

After the land became a State Park, grazing, burning, and chemicals were no longer done.  Instead, staff began mowing areas around the entrance, maintenance shop, parking lots, rental compound, and trails frequently, which cuts back swallow-wort before it matures enough to produce seeds. But only so much mowing could be done on a 1,100-acre property.

Where mowing stops at Robert G. Wehle State Park, pale swalow-wort often begins.
Pale swallow-wort along trails in the park, above and below. The plant turns yellow in the fall.
The flowers of pale swallow-wort.

A plan to address this issue was adopted in 2010 by State Parks, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The first step was to raise public awareness of the problem. Interpretive signage was installed at most trailheads throughout the park to inform visitors. Boot brush stations were placed at the entrance/exit to the park for patrons to clean off their footwear to limit the spread of swallow-wort and its seeds off the property . The feathery seeds can easily stick to shoes, clothing and even the fur of dogs being walked.

That same year, State Parks hired an excavation company to carry out an experiment that may show promise for restoring degraded portions of Wehle’s globally rare Alvar ecosystem. Alvar is a grass- and sedge-dominated community, with scattered shrubs and sometimes trees. The community occurs on broad, flat expanses of calcareous bedrock, like limestone or dolostone, covered by a thin veneer of mineral soil.

Using a skid steer in selected areas, crews scraped away soil containing swallow-wort roots from limestone bedrock. Once most of the soil was gone, swallow-wort could not take root on bare rock. The areaa was then reseeded with native species. Other native plants showed up on their own, freed from the smothering competition from the swallow-wort. But these efforts could not be used everywhere in the park.

An area of the park reclaimed from pale swallow-wort by scraping off soil and later reseeding it with native plants.
In addition to the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence regions, pale swallow-wort is found in other areas of the state, including the Finger Lakes and Hudson Valley. (Photo credit – New York State Invasive Species Information, http://nyis.info/)

Where does the moth come into this ongoing effort? For the last two years, Parks and its partners at Cornell University, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), Wells College, SUNY Cortland, and the University of Rhode Island have been using Robert G. Wehle State Park to study the viability of Hypena opulenta moths to suppress this invader.

This approach – the use of a natural enemy to deal with an invasive species – is known as biocontrol. In order to ensure that a new introduced species will not negatively impact other plants and animals, the effects must be extensively studied before any widespread use or release can be permitted. It cannot be overstated how extensively biocontrols are scrutinized before potential approval for release. Study can continue for years or even decades. Only after research confirms there will be little or little to no impacts to native species will federal regulators approve the biocontrol to be released.

In this case, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2017 approved the release of the moths for field testing as biocontrol for pale swallow-wort. After the moths lay eggs on the swallow-wort, the larvae that later emerge eat the plant’s leaves.

For the last two seasons, Hypena moths were placed in cages in areas of swallow-wort at Robert G. Wehle State Park, as well on as nearby Grenadier Island in Lake Ontario off Cape Vincent. The cages ensured that the moths would be confined to the test areas.

Results from 2020 showed promise as one cage showed 100 percent defoliation of swallow-wort within four weeks by the caterpillars. Preliminary results from this year were not as successful. However, this is all part of the scientific process as the battle against the invasive continues with Robert G. Wehle State Park playing its part.

A Hypena opulenta moth inside the mesh cage over a patch of pale swallow-wort. The moth will lay its eggs on the plants.
After eggs hatch, the emerging caterpillars begin eating the plant leaves.
After four weeks, the caterpillars have eaten all the leaves in this cage. (All photos above credited to the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.)

Hopefully one day we can say the tide is turning. Eradication is likely not possible, but containment could give native plants a better chance at a peaceful co-existence. If you visit the park, remember: Use the bootbrushes and check your clothes! Don’t inadvertently spread the ‘perfect invasive.’


Cover Shot – A pale swallow-wort infestation at Robert G. Wehle State Park. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Pete Zimmer, Stewardship Specialist, Mid-State Capital District/Thousand Islands Region, NYS Parks



Resources


Learn more about the biocontrol project from the report below by the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management:

More information is also available from the New York State Invasive Species Research Institute.


The 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture also describes early efforts to contain pale swallow-wort.

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.

Kinderhook Home A Revolutionary War Story of War, Loss, and Exile

On Route 9, just south of the village of Kinderhook in Columbia County, a sign proudly proclaims it as the birthplace and home of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. President. Next to that is a purple-and-gold sign for the local Elks lodge.

Right across the street sits an unassuming two-story red brick house with dormer windows. While locals know it as the Tory House, there isn’t a sign. But this house has its own story to tell about early New York, one of a family among many thousands that picked the losing side in the Revolutionary War and ended up years later losing that home to the victors in a practice that was to be banned in the U.S. Constitution.

That family was named van Alstyne, one of the many families with Dutch roots that settled in the region during the 18th century to farm. The family had three sons _ Abraham, the oldest; Peter, the middle son; and John, the youngest. By the time that the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Peter had built his family the red brick house in Kinderhook on land that he and his brothers had inherited as teenagers two decades earlier when their father died.

Earlier this summer, that house – still used as a residence more than two centuries later – was named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places because of the story of Peter Sander van Alstyne and his family. The narrative of this post is based on research for that nomination submitted on behalf of State Parks by the late Ruth Piwonka, a former member of the Historic Preservation Division at State Parks, and a later Parks consultant and historian for Kinderhook.

Peter Sander Van Alstyne was 32 years old in 1775, already a successful farmer, married and with a young family. A local judge appointed by the Colonial government, he found himself caught up in the conflict the following year when a group of town members come to his home to forcefully tell him that his office, resting on royal authority, no longer had authority to settle disputes over debts. That same year, the beleaguered judge was chosen to be a member of the Albany Committee on Correspondence, a kind of shadow authority created by patriot supporters. But as a supporter of British authority (known as Tory, or a Loyalist), van Alstyne was not to last long on the committee, and he and more than a dozen other suspected Loyalists in that body were soon ordered arrested and imprisoned in 1776.

Many New Yorkers felt as van Alstyne did about their loyalty to England. Some studies estimate that about half of the state’s 200,000 residents held Loyalist sentiments, giving New York the highest percentage of Loyalists among the 13 colonies. Like van Alstyne, many New Yorkers took up arms to oppose what they saw as an an “unnatural” rebellion against the legitimate government.

Van Alstyne was released from jail in early 1777, but after being forced by threats to leave his home, he headed north to join British forces in Canada, and by summer was marching with British General John Burgoyne’s army from Lake Champlain in a bid to capture Albany as part of a strategic plan to split the rebellious colonies in two. His Kinderhook home was being used as a staging point for Loyalists and military supplies in the event that Albany fell.

But that moment was not to come, and van Alstyne was there when Burgoyne’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga that September, a battle that marked a turning point in the American Revolution and convinced the French to support the rebels.

Surrender of General Burgoyne, painted by John Turnbull, 1822. Showing Burgoyne presenting his sword to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, this painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol. Peter Sander van Alstyne took part in this battle – on the losing side. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)

By 1778, van Alstyne had gone to New York City and Long Island, which were under British control, to command sailors who fought in small boats called bateaux. His armed opposition to the Revolution by this point had put his life at risk. Continental troops stationed near his Kinderhook home were trying to catch him, and had captured some of his associates, some of whom were put to death as traitors. By October 1779, van Alstyne had been formally indicted as an “enemy of the state” by New York authorities under what was called the Forfeiture Act. As the war neared an end, New York officials in early 1783 ordered him stripped of his lands, his livestock, and his home, where his brother John’s family was living.

On Sept. 8, 1783, only five days after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, van Alstyne and his family, along with many other displaced Loyalists from Columbia, Rockland, Orange, Ulster, Westchester, and Dutchess counties, as well as some of the troops from Major Robert Rogers, of the famed Rogers’ Rangers backcountry unit, set sail for British-controlled Canada, according to a 1901 account published by Columbia University.

Settling on the northern shore of Lake Ontario near Quinte Bay, van Alstyne received a government land grant of 1,200 acres and became a prominent member of the community, being appointed a judge and later winning election to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. He died in 1800, at age 57.

The former Kinderhook resident was among thousands of New York Loyalists, perhaps as many as 35,000 people, who left the state during and after the Revolutionary War for refuge in British dominions including Canada, according to the 1901 Columbia University account. That came from a total state population of about 200,000, so the forced migration represented about one in every six New Yorkers.

The 1901 account from Columbia University estimated that during the war, there were “at least 15,000 New York Loyalists serving in the Brish army and navy, and at least 8,500 Loyalist militia, making a total in that state of 23,500 Loyalist troops. This was more than any other colony furnished, and perhaps as many as were raised by all others combined.”

The legacy of these Loyalists who left New York can be found in the historic structures along the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. Said State Parks historic researcher William Krattinger, “I focus quite a bit on the built and architectural environment and have seen examples of Dutch-framed barns and houses erected in Ontario, undoubtedly erected by builders from the Hudson, Mohawk and Schoharie valleys who were banished to the north after the Revolution. These New Yorkers brought their material culture with them.”

This 1786 painting by James Peachy, a British military surveyor, shows American Loyalists camped out on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River at Johnstown (across from present-day Ogdensburg) during the summer of 1784 as part of their relocation into new lands in Canada. (Photo Credit – American Revolution Institute – Society of the Cincinnati)

Two years after van Alstyne’s death, New York State officials passed a law in 1802 to renew its still incomplete efforts to confiscate a list of Loyalist properties – a list that included van Alstyne’s Kinderhook home. Offering a bonus to anyone who pointed out forfeited property that had still not been seized, the law described those who had forfeited that property for opposing the Revolution as “attainted.” This concept originates from English criminal law, in which those condemned for a serious capital crime against the state lost not only their life, but also their property, the ability to bequeath property to their descendants, and any hereditary titles.

New York’s bid to seize and sell off remaining Loyalist property two decades after the end of the war came even though the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, specifically prohibits “bills of attainder” passed by legislatures to condemn those deemed state enemies and seize their property.

Here the trail of what happened to van Alstyne’s red brick house grows cold. A clear title to prove who owned the home after van Alstyne lost ownership appears in the public record only starting in the 1850s, although records of forfeiture and sale for other Loyalist properties in Columbia County do exist.

The fate of this home represents just one family’s part of the larger story of how the end of the Revolutionary War meant exile and loss for thousands of New Yorkers who had sided with England, and how the fallout of that time continued for years until the Revolution could truly considered to be ended.


Cover Shot _ Peter Sander Van Alstyne house, Kinderhook. All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, New York State Parks

Resources

Learn more about the Loyalist experience in New York State, using these sources:

A New York Public Library blog post on the 1802 list of Loyalist property to be confiscated in New York State.

A 1901 study into Loyalism in New York State by Alexander Clarence Flick, published by Columbia University Press.

An account by the National Library of Scotland into the lives of two New York Loyalists.

A NYS Parks Blog post about Hudson Valley Loyalist Frederick Philipse III, one of the richest men in Colonial New York whose home is now Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, Westchester County.

Getting to Know the Natural Heritage Trust

Did you know that New York State’s public lands and waters have had a charitable partner for more than 50 years? The Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) was established in 1968 as a non-profit, public benefit corporation with the mission to support parks, outdoor recreation, historic preservation and land and water conservation throughout state lands.

During this time, the NHT has worked with its agency partners — New York State Parks, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Department of State (DOS) to raise funds, secure grants and support programs in benefit of the state’s environmental, outdoor, and historic resources

New York has a long and cherished history of private support for parks and public lands. Starting more than a century ago, large land donations and philanthropy formed the very beginnings of the New York State Park system. During Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s administration, the state established the Natural Heritage Trust to provide the organizational structure for park philanthropy.

In the decades that followed, countless examples of generosity at all levels — from small individual donations to a favorite park or trail, to large foundation grants for construction projects — have supported parks and nature centers, conserved significant historic and cultural sites, and protected natural resources in state lands across New York. 

The impact of philanthropy is found throughout New York’s State Parks. Places such as the Emma Treadwell Nature Center and the Park Center at Thacher State Park; the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park; Harriman State Park, and the Rockefeller State Park Preserve would not have been possible without significant support from the families who bear their names. Philanthropy also built and cares for Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park; the Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park, the Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Gateways along the Empire State Trail in Western New York.

The free loaner Bike Library at Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn is supported in part by the Natural Heritage Trust.
A gateway at Buffalo Harbor State Park supported by a donation to the Trust by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation.

The Trust also raises funds to expand access to outdoor recreation through programs like Connect Kids to Parks, Ladders to the Outdoors, Learn-to-Swim, the Bike Library at Shirley Chisholm State Park; youth camping opportunities at DEC’s overnight summer camps and sports programs at Riverbank State Park. Our support boosts large events like the Memorial Day Air Show and annual fireworks display at Jones Beach State Park.

The NHT also works in partnership with Friends groups and other non-profits.  It is currently the fundraising partner to The Autism Nature Trail at Letchworth State Park. To date, over $3 million has been raised for the construction of this innovative, fully privately funded sensory trail for families of visitors with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities..


For many New Yorkers, parks are cherished places where families spend valuable time together. Gifts to the NHT are often made in memory and in honor of friends and loved ones for whom a park, trail or place in nature had particular significance. From memorial benches and tribute tiles to estate planning, the NHT is honored to provide this opportunity of remembrance for so many. To learn more about this type of giving to the NHT, visit www.naturalheritagetrust.org. All donations to the NHT are fully tax-deductible.

Careful financial stewardship guides the NHT’s mission, resulting in a robust organization prepared to expand the impact of private philanthropy and strategic partnerships throughout New York State.  The NHT currently holds just over $59 million in total assets, including more than $32 million for permanent endowments.

During the 2020-21 fiscal year, it managed over $18 million in program and activity revenues, donations, grants, and corporate sponsorships, while expending approximately $12.4 million in support of a wide variety of exemplary projects like those described above.

Individual donations made up nearly a third of donations to the Trust last year, with the rest coming from foundations, corporations and Friends groups.

The investment policies of the Trust also reflect its responsible stewardship and the environmental and social values inherent in its mission. In early 2021, the NHT’s Board of Directors approved the incorporation of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria into the Trust’s investment decisions to encourage sustainable business practices and ethical behavior of companies.

Parks are a vital part of New York’s social fabric. They connect communities and offer both respite and relaxation, and adventure and exploration. New Yorkers are proud of their parks and the NHT is honored to be entrusted with the thousands of donations New Yorkers make every year to support them.

The NHT is eager to connect with supporters. It recently launched a new website and Facebook page. Learn more about supporting the parks, historic site and outdoor programs you love by visiting the NHT on its website, connecting on Facebook or signing  up for its e-newsletter.


Post by Sally Drake, Executive Director of the Natural Heritage Trust

Read the 2021 Annual Report of the Natural Heritage Trust by clicking below.

Training Protects Threatened Rattlesnakes

Twenty-five years ago, as a young Fish and Wildlife Technician with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I was recruited for an unusual field outing on State parkland in the Hudson Highlands of southeastern New York: a first of its kind, hands-on training to become a certified nuisance rattlesnake responder.  

As a responder, I would be on a short list of people willing to safely and legally relocate timber rattlesnakes that had wandered into compromising situations on private property – a win-win for both the homeowner and snake.  No such system was in place in the Hudson Valley and, without it, many homeowners took matters into their own hands, often with a shovel or shotgun.

Randy Stechert, a long-time herpetologist and regional rattlesnake expert who has worked through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere, led our small group to a remote rocky clearing in search of Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. The largest of New York State’s three venomous snake species (the others being the northern copperhead and massasauga rattlesnake), the timber rattlesnake was in trouble, owing to centuries of habitat loss and direct persecution, including a bounty system lasting into the 1970s.

These depredations were so effective the State declared the species Threatened in 1983, a designation requiring conservation measures to keep it from slipping to Endangered status or worse. Currently under New York State Environmental Conservation Law, it is illegal to capture, kill or possess any native snake at any time without a permit, including rattlesnakes.

The mission of that long-ago outing was to familiarize our ragtag group of would-be responders with this species in the flesh. Randy would show us a wild rattlesnake and how to safely handle it, while imparting his wisdom about all things rattlesnake in his booming baritone voice.

And boy did he deliver.

I will never forget the robust, nearly all-black rattlesnake plucked from a huckleberry patch and deposited on the open bedrock just feet in front of me. Most memorable was how easily we could stand beside this now agitated wild animal with little concern about its intentions. It was in a clearly defensive posture, coiled and ready to repel any further attacks from this presumably malevolent band of primates.

A black morph timber rattlesnake. Colors range from nearly jet black, to browns, to sulfur yellow. (Photo credit – DEC/William Hofman)
A yellow morph timber rattlesnake.

In the ensuing decades, and after handling dozens of rattlesnakes in my research and as a nuisance responder, I’ve come to understand them as pacifists at heart.  Despite their considerable weaponry – two hypodermic needle-like fangs and potent venom – they really just want to be left alone.  In fact, their first response to human presence is to remain motionless, and hope their camouflage shields them from detection.  If detected and a retreat is available, such as a rock crevice, they will typically make a rapid exit to safety.  But if they feel exposed, vulnerable, and without a means for escape, they quickly switch gears in an attempt to intimidate their aggressor.  A cornered rattlesnake coils, inflates to look more girthy, and rapidly vibrates its namesake rattle to audibly back up the message. This menacing version is our popular notion of a rattlesnake but, ironically, is merely a response to the perceived threat posed by us. 

The snake’s rattle is made from rings of keratin – the same hardened protein our fingernails and hair are made of. A new rattle segment is formed every time a snake sheds its skin. When the snake rapidly shakes its tail, the rings vibrate and produce a rattling or buzzing noise used by the snake as a warning to keep away. (Photo credit – New Hampshire Fish and Game Department/Brendan Clifford.)
Hear a rattlesnake rattle…

Since that indelible first encounter with a wild rattlesnake on State Park land, I have become increasingly entwined with this charismatic species. I’ve rescued them from homeowner’s yards, conducted field surveys for their winter dens, and ultimately took a very deep dive into unraveling the timber rattlesnake’s mating system and reproductive ecology as a graduate student.   

Still managed by the DEC, the nuisance rattlesnake response program includes most members of that original group recruited in the mid-1990s.  While Randy Stechert continues to host trainings (now done with captive snakes, rather than wild ) in recent years, he has passed the torch to another generation of trainers, including myself here at State Parks. 

Where I work at  Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park , natural resource staff, backcountry rangers and our own zookeepers have been trained using our captive rattlesnakes under this program, expanding Parks’ in-house capacity to respond to nuisance situations at all our locations. 

Other conservation measures have been installed as well in recent years.  For example, all park development projects are “screened” by location to assess their potential for rattlesnake impacts. When possible, projects sited within snake habitat are scheduled for November to March, when the snakes are less likely to be active and in harm’s way.  When this can’t be done, the contractor is required to develop a rattlesnake response plan and have an onsite snake monitor to head off conflicts. In some cases, when habitat loss or direct impacts are considered unacceptable, the project is relocated, reconfigured, or even denied.

The timber rattlesnake has been a survivor, persisting in the rocky uplands of the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier and eastern Adirondacks for at least the last six thousand years. Our past concerted efforts to eliminate it from the landscape were unsuccessful, and good thing. As more species disappear and the fabric of nature unravels, thread by thread, the value of having formidable, wild creatures about us only increases.

State parklands are a critical refuge for this imperiled snake in New York and can remain this way with a little foresight, planning, and, frankly, empathy, on our part.  If we can successfully accommodate the long-term survival of the timber rattlesnake, it will bode well for biodiversity overall.

Timber rattlesnakes reach the northern limit of their range in New York and New England.(Photo credit – NYS DEC)
A researcher marked this snake’s rattle with red paint to aid future identification.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake?


If you are on State parkland or elsewhere in the wild, observe the snake from a safe distance (at least six feet), and take a moment to enjoy this majestic animal. If you snap a picture with your cell phone and want to share it with others over social media, it is best to do this without disclosing exact location information. You can either share a screenshot or make sure location services are disabled on your phone. This will keep the location secret from snake poachers attempting to mine online location data. After briefly observing the snake, back away and make a detour around its location to continue your hike.

In a nuisance situation where the snake’s presence is problematic, such as in or near a dwelling or public space, a certified relocation expert can be obtained by calling 911 or the DEC. Please remember: Do not attempt to disturb or capture the snake yourself.  Seeking expert assistance in this instance is one way to help New York preserve its biodiversity.


Cover shot – A yellow morph timber rattlesnake blends into the forest floor. All pictures NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.

Post by Ed McGowan, PhD, Director of Science and Trailside Museums & Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park

Resources


New York Natural Heritage Program guide to the timber rattlesnake.

Read a recent scientific study on how rattlesnakes use their rattles to make a snake sound closer than it actually is.

Read about a DEC and multi-agency investigation between 2006 and 2009 into the illegal wildlife trade in rattlesnakes, other reptiles and amphibians.

Learn more about the timber rattlesnake in this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog…


Respect for Rattlers

Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head … Continue reading Respect for Rattlers