Know The Needles

This time of year, much of New York’s landscape is dappled with bare-branched deciduous trees and dark, evergreen conifers. These cone-bearing conifer trees are adapted to survive harsh, cold weather, from the microscopic structure of the leaf to the overall shape of the entire tree. Despite the needle-like shape, conifer leaves serve much the same function as the flat, broad leaves of a sugar maple or oak tree. Most conifers keep their needles year-round. Do you know which New York native conifer drops its needles every fall? It is the tamarack (Larix laricina), a member of the larches, shown below.

ChangingTamaracks
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

TamarackNeedles
Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

On the left, these tamaracks are changing color. Every autumn the needles turn bright yellow and will fall off the tree by winter, so they are not considered an “evergreen.” On the right, a closer view of tamarack needles, which grow from a woody spur in clusters of ten to twenty. The needles are approximately ¾” to 1 ¼” inches long.

When talking about evergreens, pines may first come to mind, but conifers also include firs, spruces, hemlocks, and others. But how do we tell which is which? Here are a few quick tips to help narrow down the tree group simply by looking at the needles.

Pines

First, let’s look at pines. Pine trees have needles in bundles on the stem. The number per bundle depends on the species, but if you find bundles of five needles or less, you’ve likely discovered a pine. There are six native species of pine in New York, but two you may be most likely to encounter are white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa).

WhitePineTree
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

WhitePineTreeRobert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org
Robert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org

WhitePineNeedles2
Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

The eastern white pine (left) and its bundled needles (middle and right). This species of pine has five needles per bundle (and as a memory trick, there are five letters in the word “white”). The needles are soft and flexible, measuring about 2 to 4 inches long.

Spruces

Spruce trees have needles that are individually attached to the branch with small woody pegs. A key characteristic for spruce needles is that they are square and can roll easily between your fingers. They are usually sharply pointed. Also, if any needles are shed the woody pegs make the branch feel rough, unlike the smooth branches of firs. There are three native spruces in New York: the white spruce (Picea glauca), the black spruce (Picea mariana), and the red spruce (Picea rubens).

WhiteSpruceTree
Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

WhiteSpruceNeedles
Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

The white spruce (left) and its needles (right), notice the woody pegs that attach the needle to the branch. Needles are stiff and measure about ½” to ¾” inches long. This species is sometimes called skunk spruce or cat spruce due to the strong odor from broken needles.

Firs

Fir needles are also individually attached, but unlike spruces, they are attached by what resembles a suction cup (look for a circular base). They are typically soft and flat with rounded needle tips. There are two whitish lines on the bottom of the needle. Another distinguishing characteristic of firs is that their cones stand upright on the branches, rather than droop down. The only native fir that can be found in New York is the balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

BalsamFirTree
Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

BalsamFirNeedles
Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

A stand of balsam fir (left) and its needles (right). Balsam fir needles are dark green and measure around ¾” to 1 ½” in length. The tips of the needles can be blunt, rounded, or notched.

Hemlocks

Hemlocks have individually attached needles that are flat. Unlike firs, each hemlock needle has a small stem attached to a woody peg. In New York there is only one native hemlock species, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). While you’re out testing your needle identification skills, keep an eye out for the invasive pest hemlock woolly adelgid, which creates white woolly masses at the base of hemlock needles. This insect causes tree health to decline and can lead to the death of the hemlock in as little as four years.

EasternHemlockTree
David Lee, Bugwood.org

EasternHemlockNeedles
Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

A young eastern hemlock stand (left) and its needles with stems (right). Needles are usually a shiny green. On the underside of each needle, you can see two characteristic white lines (shown in the picture). The needles are typically one inch or less in length.

So there you have it! Next time you’re out scratching your head, wondering if you’ve encountered a white spruce or a white pine, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • Are the needles in bundles or individually attached?
  • Does the needle roll easily between your fingers or is it flat?
  • Are the needles attached to a stem, woody peg, or a “suction cup” structure?

Just by taking a quick look (and maybe pluck) at the needles, it is often possible to categorize the conifer into pine, spruce, fir, or hemlock. If you come across a conifer that doesn’t fit into these categories, try looking at cedars or junipers too. And the best part of studying conifers is that you can look at needles all year long! Unless it’s a tamarack, of course.

If you’d like to learn more about some key conifers, check out this blog post to learn about identifying specific species you may encounter in State Parks!

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, State Parks

Resources:

Cover Photo – Eastern Hemlock: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=298754

The Untold Origin Story of the Falls

AuntSarahsFalls
Aunt Sarah’s Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park

Over the last 12,000 years, the landscape of the Finger Lakes region has undergone colossal change. Hidden in cracks and valleys throughout the region are wondrous geologic remnants of that change. So abundant is the splendor of these wonders that many locals have become numb to the consistent gurgling of waterfalls on their daily commute through, for example, the Village of Montour Falls, just south of Watkins Glen State Park, where residents often pass Aunt Sarah’s Falls on Route 14. Yet no two of the over 2,000 gorges that call the Finger Lakes home are the same; each has a different fingerprint with a different number of curves, caverns, and cascades.

The Finger Lakes themselves are a unique natural phenomenon. There are no other lakes quite like them in the world. Eleven north flowing lakes, varying in length and depth, span over 120 miles of the western section of New York. They range from Canadice Lake, at a mere 3 miles long, to Cayuga Lake, which stretches for 38.2 miles; and from the relatively shallow Honeoye Lake, at 30 feet deep to Seneca Lake, which plunges steeply for 634 feet.

FingerLakesMapWikimedia
Map of the Finger Lakes, accessed from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_New_York

About 2.5 million years ago dawned the age of ice. In this region, glaciers are thought to have been over 3,000 feet high, or about the size of two Empire State buildings stacked on top of each other! It is a result of these glaciers growing that we now have “finger lakes”; before we had “finger rivers.” All our U shaped lake basins were originally V shaped river valleys. As the glaciers bulldozed their way through the valleys, the unrelenting force gouged out the walls. About 12,000 years ago, a change in climate warmed the earth, ending the reign of the Ice Age.

WatkinsGlen

As the glaciers started to recede, their melting ice filled the lakes and exposed steep U shaped valley walls. All around would have been hanging valleys comprised of massive waterfalls dropping straight into the lakes. Today, every gorge near the lakes, including those south of the lakes, began its story as one of those waterfalls and has since eroded back into the rock.

“Ithaca is Gorges” is an iconic phrase in Ithaca, referring to the numerous gorgeous gorges around this city at the base of Cayuga Lake. This clever pun, however, has a forgotten key third part. As the massive waterfalls started to erode back into the rock, the eroded sediment built up at the base of the lake. This erosion was so rapid that our lakes are miles shorter than they were originally. “Ithaca is Gorges” because it was formed by the gorges and would not exist without them!

Devonian
Devonian Sea was found in western and central New York

The extremely fast rate of erosion in our gorges alludes to its rich ancient natural history dating back long before the Ice Age. The 380-million-year-old layers of rock in the gorge were each once the bottom of an expansive inland ocean that covered much of the eastern states. The earth, as we know it, was unrecognizable; life was just beginning to take a foothold on land. In the little town of Gilboa, NY, proof of this timeframe can be found in the oldest fossilized trees worldwide. The early roots of these Gilboa trees were pioneering the rocky, unforgiving earth on the edge of the Devonian sea.

This tropical inland sea – which was at that time located below the equator – was the result of a collision between the North American and European continents. When they collided, North America subducted, or went under Europe, and Europe crinkled up creating the Acadian Mountain range just off the coast of New York. These impressive mountains were estimated to have been as big, if not bigger, than the Himalayas are today!

WatkinsGlen1
Evidence of the Devonian Sea can be seen at Watkins Glen State Park

Much of the sediment found in the inland sea would have come from the erosion of these mountains, but the depth of this water would have, over time, also affected the type of sediment found on this ocean bottom. Gradually, the buildup of layers would have caused enough pressure to solidify the underlying sediment into rock. This is known as compaction. This means that every layer of rock in our gorges, be it the more brittle rocks, such as shale, or the denser rocks, such as sandstone and limestone, were once at the bottom of an ocean!

SandstoneShale

The layers however are only half of the puzzle influencing the speed of erosion in the gorge. Breaking up the layers, in a stunning display of natural masonry, are countless straight line fractures. There are fractures or joints that follow the gorges east to west and those that span across the gorge north to south, intersecting at almost perfect right angles. Notice the unnatural looking straight lines and right angles in the photo of Robert H. Treman State Park.

WatkinsGlen2
Looking up the creek at Robert Treman State Park

These joints date back about 300 million years. At this time, all the continents were joining together to form one enormous supercontinent.  Pangea, which translates directly to “all earth,” stretched from pole to pole. If you study a map of the world’s continents, you may notice that the western edge of Africa matches up with the eastern edge of the United States like a jig saw puzzle. The stress of this collision alone, however, was not the force required to create the fractures.

Instead, it caused straight line weak points in the rock perpendicular to the pressure. Meanwhile, a batch of methane gas had matured under pressure and heat and took advantage of the weak points to escape from the depths of earth. After this event, 30 million years quietly passed while Africa unassumingly rotated around North America. This quiet rotation was disturbed 270 million years ago when another batch of methane gas matured under heat and pressure, again utilizing the weakened rock to escape. The timing of this second release just so happened to occur when Africa was at about a 90 degree angle from where the first batch of methane gas escaped, forming joints that meet up at almost perfect right angles. Next time you find yourself in the Finger Lakes, keep an eye out for these natural right angles, they’re everywhere!

TaughannockBoth
Taughannock Falls amphitheater has thousands of joints that contributed to the bowl shape
The top of the falls has two joints intersecting at a right angle.

Considering all 380 million years of the gorges’ rich natural history;

  • the glaciers that created the U-shaped lakes and the hanging valleys
  • the joints that resulted from the release of methane gas through the weakened rock
  • and the layers of rock – shale, sandstone, and limestone, remnants of an ancient inland sea
  • an ingenious combination of forces all working together to form the gorges in only 12,000 years comes to light. In short, as the water easily erodes away the brittle shale and undercuts itself, the joints or fractures that break up the creek bed speed up the erosion process by causing chunks of the denser rocks – sandstone and limestone to fall at a time. The water, therefore, never has to take the time to erode away the denser types of rock. In consequence, we can affectionately say that “Although our gorges are 12,000 years old, their story can be told in no less than 380 million years.”

Post by Tamara Beal, Finger Lakes 2018 Student Conservation Association Intern

Compliments of the Season

Every year, Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer and Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany recreate the sights, sounds, and smells of the holiday season in Colonial New York’s Upper Hudson Valley.

Salutations Rural Felicitya
Rural Felicity sings Saluations

Crailo was once a fortified home belonging to Hendrick van Rensselaer, a member of a wealthy Dutch family involved in settling the Upper Hudson Valley during the mid-1600s. For the van Rensselaers and other Dutch colonists, holidays on the Hudson began with the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. According to the legend, the Dutch St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas visited homes and filled good children’s shoes with treats and gifts. In 1675, Crailo’s owner, Maria van Rensselaer, purchased suntterclaesgoet, or “Sinterklaas goodies,” (possibly a special type of cookie) in Albany, in what might be the earliest reference to Sinterklass in New Netherland and New York.

St. Nicholas Day began the holiday season in Colonial New York, and Epiphany, commonly known as Twelfth Night, marked the end of the Christmas season.  In Western Christianity, the Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi, or Three Kings, to Bethlehem. This was traditionally celebrated on January 6th, the 13th day and the ‘twelfth night’ after Christmas.

Liaisons Plaisantesa
Liaisons Plaisantes plays in one of Schuyler Mansion’s parlors.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and English residents of Albany and the Upper Hudson Valley celebrated Twelfth Night with both religious services and high-spirited entertainment. While there are no primary sources that describe exactly how the Schuyler family celebrated the holiday at Schuyler Mansion in Albany, letters and journals do mention popular customs such as calling on friends, throwing parties, and hosting elaborate meals. Alongside this, were the traditions of wassailers, or carolers parading through the streets and the Twelfth Night cake – an elaborate confection with a bean baked inside. The person who found the bean in their cake slice was crowned “King” for the evening and led the evening’s toasts!

CakeEd
Twelfth Night cake ready to be cut

Each January, Schuyler Mansion and Crailo recreate some of these colonial era traditions with their own 17th and 18th century-inspired Twelfth Night celebrations.  Schuyler Mansion’s “Salutations of the Season!” features live musical performances, reenactors in 18th century clothing, refreshments, and an evening of cheer. While across the Hudson at Crailo, Dutch colonial reenactors prepare traditional Dutch foods over the open hearth, play historic games, and celebrate “Twelfth Night” in true 17th century style.

Schuyler Mansion’s “Salutations of the Season!” and Crailo’s “Twelfth Night” will be held January 5, 2019 from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM.  These evening programs are a unique opportunity to celebrate the end of the holiday season in historic fashion.  The celebrations also represent the rich and storied history of New York’s upper Hudson Valley – settled by the Dutch, taken by the English, and then a hotbed of military and political activity in the era of the American Revolution.

“Salutations of the Season!” and “Twelfth Night” single-site Admission: $6.00 Adults / $5.00 Seniors & Students / $1.00  Children (12 and under) / $4.00 Friends Members. Combination Tickets for Admission to both Crailo and Schuyler Mansion: $8.00 Adults / $7.00 Seniors & Students / $2.00 Kids / $6.00 Friends members. For further information about this or other programs at Crailo and Schuyler Mansion State Historic Sites, please visit www.parks.ny.gov, find us on Facebook, or call us! Crailo: (518) 463-8738 / Schuyler Mansion: (518) 434-0834.

First Day Hikes 2019

Whether it’s a much-needed elixir after a long holiday season or a first step in making (and keeping!) a resolution to be active in the new year, the 2019 First Day Hikes (FDH) are sure to draw thousands into New York’s great outdoors.

Each year on January 1, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) host these family-friendly events on public parkland across the State. This year’s line-up of 79 hikes includes some exciting new destinations in communities on the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and many more!

PinkJacket
Hikers at Two Rivers State Park, southern Finger Lakes

The popular, outdoor New Year’s Day tradition is in its 8th year. The first First Day Hikes were held in Massachusetts in 1992, but have since spread nationwide. This year marked the first time the FDH went ‘international’, with events held in neighboring Ontario, Canada.

Here in New York, the event has grown significantly since its inception. The 2019 First Day Hikes will be offered at more than 51 state parks and historic sites with some facilities offering multiple hikes for different age groups, skill level and locations. In addition, DEC will host 19 hikes at wildlife areas, trails and environmental education centers. Staff from State Parks and DEC, along with volunteers, will lead the walks and hikes, which range from one to five miles depending on the location and weather conditions.

RedJacket
Exploring the trails in Moreau Lake State Park, eastern New York

For last year’s event, Mother Nature really tested people’s mettle. With frigid temperatures and snowy conditions across the state last New Year’s Day, a number of parks, sites, wildlife areas and nature centers cancelled or postponed their First Day Hike program, but many soldiered on and welcomed participants all bundled up who were looking forward to heralding in 2018 in the outdoors.

In fact, a pair of intrepid First Day Hikers braved the elements and joined not one, but two (!) First Day Hikes out in western New York. A Miami couple honeymooning in Niagara Falls attended the morning First Day Hike at DeVeaux Woods State Park, and had so much fun they decided to join the afternoon ice-covered FDH program at iconic Niagara Falls State Park (shown below).

NiagaraFalls
A beautiful day for a hike in Niagara Falls State Park.

Some host locations welcome dogs on leashes and several have flat, even surfaces for strollers. Participants are encouraged to contact the park for information and pre-registration where noted. A sample of this year’s programs feature a seal walk, walking history tour, snowshoe waterfall hike, pet-friendly treks, bird count gorge walks, military musicology, canal towpath walk, and other fun options.

Bridge
HIkers pause for a photo in  Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley.

If conditions permit, some First Day Hikes may include snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with equipment for rent if available, or participants can bring their own. Many host sites will be offering refreshments and giveaways. A map and details about hike locations, difficulty and length, terrain, registration requirements and additional information are listed at parks.ny.gov and dec.ny.gov.

Taughnnock

This New Year’s Day, be inspired by the Florida newlyweds who attended two hikes in a single day in Niagara, or the hundreds of brave souls who joined the gorge walk at Taughannock Falls State Park in the Finger Lakes (shown above), or the families and friends who embrace the winter wonderland at state parks and DEC sites across our state… and start your own tradition today.

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How Galling!

Imagine that when you were very little, your mom drilled a small hole in a plant and placed you inside. The plant’s reaction to the hole was to quickly enlarge that section of the plant where the tiny you was nestled. This new plant growth gives you a round home that protects you from the weather and provides all the food you need to grow into an adult. This round home is called a gall.

Most galls are formed by insects, others by fungus or bacteria. Each gall is unique to the plant that it grows on. Galls come in a variety of colors from red to yellow, green and black. There are three types of galls:

Leaf galls are the most common. They can be found on the lower or upper part of the leaf, and they may deform the leaf.

MapleBladderGallMite, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources , Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bugwood.org
Maple Bladder Gall, photo by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources , Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, accessed from Bugwood.org

Twig and stem galls look like an odd growth on the stems and twigs of plants. They can be small or large.

OakBulletGall_Dawn Dailey O'Brien, Cornell University, Bugwood.org
Oak bullet gall, photo by Dawn Dailey O’Brien, Cornell University, accessed from Bugwood.org.

Flower or bud galls disfigure a plant’s flowers or buds.

AshFlowerGall, A. Steven Munson, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Ash flower gall, photo by A. Steven Munson, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.

The Smithsonian notes that in North America alone, there are almost 1,500 different insect species that cause plant galls and most of them, over 800 species, make galls on oak trees.

Here is a sampling of some of the many galls you may see during your winter walks:

Oak apple gall

Walking under an oak tree, you may notice small, brown balls about the size of a ping pong ball hanging from the branches. These galls are the home of the oak apple gall wasp, Amphibolips confluenta. The galls are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. If you see a small hole in the gall, that hole was made by the adult wasp as it was emerging from the gall last summer.   Oak apple galls are commonly seen on scarlet and black oaks.

Goldenrod ball gall

Round galls on a goldenrod stem are an indication that a goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) is living inside the gall. Fly larvae live inside the gall all winter and emerge in the spring.  You can find these swollen stems in meadows and along paths.

Eastern spruce gall

Eastern spruce gall adelgids (Adelges abietis) cause galls on both Norway and white spruce.  Look for the small (½”-1” long) pineapple shaped galls near the tips of the branches.  One sign of eastern spruce gall adelgid is a scattering of brown spruce branch tips on the ground under a spruce tree. The tips break off during a heavy snow storm or wind storm.

Cedar-apple gall and rust

The fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiana infects both cedar trees and apple trees during its two-year life cycle. In the winter, look for the fungus on eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as eastern juniper) trees. Spores develop in the gall during the early spring and they are released in May and June after a warm rain. If the spores land on apple or pear trees, they will infect the leaves of the tree where they land.  Spores from cedar-apple gall on apple or pear leaves are released in June and July and may infect nearby cedars and other kinds of junipers and the cycle continues again.

Crown gall

One bacteria that forms galls is Rhizobium Rhizobium radiobacter. Grapes, walnuts, black cherry and other stone fruits are susceptible to Rhizobium radiobacter. The bacteria enters a plant when an insect or weather-related event injures the plant. For example, if the winter is severe, plants are more likely to get damaged from strong winds and crown gall bacteria will enter the plant. These galls can become enormous, over three feet in diameter when in the crown or body of trees, thus the name crown gall.

CrownGallWilliamJacobi, ColoradoStateUBugwood
Crown gall, photo by William Jacobi, Colorado State Univeristy, accessed from Bugwood.org

References and Additional Resources:

Brandeis University Biology Department, About Insect Galls.

Cornell University, Insect Diagnostic Laboratory, Galls on Plants.

Felt, Ephraim Porter and Millet Taylor Thompson, Key to American Insect Galls, New York State Museum Bulletin, The University of the State of New York, No. 200, August 1, 1917.

Jorgensen, Neil, A Sierra Club Naturalist Guide: Southern New England, Sierra Club Books, 1978.

Morton Arboretum, Plant Galls.

NYS Dept. of Conservation, Gall Making Insects Unsightly, Yet Ingenious,

Smithsonian BugInfo Insect and Mite Galls.

Stokes, Donald, Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Nature in Winter, Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Thompson, Millet Taylor, Illustrated Catalogue of American Insect Galls Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company, 1907.

University of Minnesota Extension, Insect and Mite Galls.

The official blog for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation

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