Knox Farm State Park (Knox), located in East Aurora, is the former country estate of the celebrated Knox family. Seymour H. Knox, founding partner of the F.W. Woolworth Company, purchased the property in the 1890’s to train Standardbred and carriage horses. The Knox family made significant contributions to the business, educational, and cultural legacy of Western New York and owned the property until 2000 when it was sold to the state. Today the park consists of 633 acres, roughly 400 of which are grasslands and 100 acres of woodlots and wetland areas.
The grasslands provide a unique opportunity to enjoy a diversity of life that cannot be found in many other places in Western New York. Visitors can hike, ride horseback, cross-country ski, or snowshoe through the scenic trails. No matter the season, Knox always provides a memorable experience.
After the winter thaw, some of the most anticipated yearly arrivals to the park are the boisterous bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks. Both bird species only nest in grasslands and can be found in large numbers throughout the park. Bobolinks breeding in Knox may have migrated from as far away as Argentina, making them the longest migrator of any of the New World passerines, or perching birds! Males perform a captivating display flight making a series of buzzes and whistles that sound like R2-D2 from Star Wars.
Female bobolink, photo by Paul Bigelow
Male bobolink, photo by Paul Bigelow
Another grassland representative of the park, the eastern meadowlark, is usually heard before it is seen. They can be found along the trails singing their sweet, lazy whistles from atop a fence post or stalk of high grass. Like bobolinks, female eastern meadowlarks build their nests in a small depression on the ground, hidden amongst the tall grasses. Other grassland birds you may encounter are savannah sparrows, field sparrows, and eastern bluebirds.
While walking the trails you may also encounter a striking resident of the park, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton), named for the orange and black colors of George Calvert, the first Lord of Baltimore. The caterpillars of these beautifully marked butterflies can be found in wet areas of the park where they feed on white turtlehead (Chelone glabra). However, they are more frequently encountered along the grassland trails where they make use of English plantain (Plantago lanceolate). Adults can be found nectaring on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and other flowers in the designated butterfly meadow.
Baltimore checkerspot caterpillar, photo by Niagara Programs Office
Baltimore checkerspot adult, photo by Niagara Programs Office
A walk through the grasslands of Knox will always yield an exciting surprise. From incredible vistas to the theatrical display flights of male bobolinks, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a feeling of bliss. All trails in the park are easy to walk and some paths are even paved, making them accessible to all. If you haven’t made a trip to Knox Farm yet, be sure to mark it on your list and enjoy this unique and diverse park.
This spring, as you spend time hiking or recreating in one of your favorite state parks, keep an eye out for an insect with a name almost as evocative as its striking appearance – the mourning cloak!
Nymphalis antiopa, also known as the Camberwell beauty in Great Britain, is easily recognizable due to its wings, which feature an irregularly-shaped bright yellow border with a row of iridescent blue spots on the inner edge. Some other historical names for the species also reflect its appearance, including “grand surprise” and “white petticoat.”
The mourning cloak is unusual in that it overwinters as an adult, hiding in tree cavities and under loose bark. It starts flying again as soon as the days warm up, even where there’s still snow on the ground.
Not just native to the northeast, the mourning cloak is broadly distributed around the hemisphere – in fact, it’s the state insect of Montana! Their wingspan ranges from 2 ¼ to 4 inches and they have one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly at 10 to 12 months. Their favorite snacks include rotting fruit or tree sap, and they can often be found gathering on oak trees.
They’re also highly distinguishable in their immature form as the spiny elm caterpillars, with black spiny bodies run through with a streak of reddish to orange colored dots. After feeding on young leaves, the caterpillars will pupate and emerge in their adult form mid-summer. Some adults migrate in the fall, and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala.
Between the months of April to September, monarch butterflies will travel up north from Mexico to New York as part of their annual migration and breeding season. During this time, multiple generations of monarch butterflies will breed and disperse across the Northeast region. With so many generations occurring in a short time period, it is vital that there are enough breeding areas, or waystations, for the monarchs to rely on for food and shelter. Over the past decade, the Eastern Monarch butterfly population has been on the decline due to logging of trees in overwintering areas, climate change, the possibility of disease and parasites, and the destruction of milkweed, which is the food source for the caterpillars. It is imperative that we prevent any further decline of their population for this massive migration results in pollination of many flowers throughout the monarch butterflies journey.
One of the ways we can support the monarch is to prevent the loss of milkweed and other native flora throughout the migration path. The destruction of milkweed has been caused in part from the over use of herbicides and more extensive and frequent mowing along roadsides. By leaving more edges, meadows and fields unmown milkweed will often come back. Milkweed is important to every part of the monarch butterfly’s lifecycle because the plant provides the butterfly with a breeding ground to lay eggs on, a food source for the caterpillars after the eggs hatch, and the flowers provide nectar for the adults to feed on after their metamorphosis. Milkweed also helps protect monarch butterflies from predators due to the caterpillars ingesting toxins that the plant produces. After the caterpillars metamorphosis into butterflies, the toxins collected in their bodies makes them poisonous to eat. The nectar from the flowers on the milkweed, as well as other plant species, provides the adults with the energy to travel back down to Mexico and throughout the winter.
State Parks is working throughout the state on efforts to reduce mowing, support native milkweeds and other native flora, and to prevent loss of habitat to invasive species like swallowwort. A number of parks have established butterfly gardens or meadows to allow for up-close observation. In Western New York, State Parks has teamed up with Budd Termin from Niagara County Community College to create Monarch Watch gardens in the state parks as refuge for the butterflies during the migration season. Wilson-Tuscarora State Park has a monarch watch garden and plans for a garden are under way for Beaver Island State Park. Already established butterfly gardens at other state parks will eventually get certify under Monarch Watch as monarch waystations. The mission of these gardens is to provide the milkweed and other native plants for the monarchs, as well as other pollinators, in order to reestablish their population size. If anyone is curious on how the project is going, they can follow @Mission_Monarch on Twitter, or if anyone is interested in learning more about monarch conservation efforts and what they can do to contribute, they can visit Monarch Watch.
New York State Parks is abuzz with excitement for pollinators. From June 20-26, we celebrate both National Pollinator Week and New York State Pollinator Awareness Week. Our local bees, butterflies, moths, birds and other pollinators are to thank for most of the food we eat, as well as for many of the trees and flowers we enjoy every day. As these animals go from flower to flower to drink nectar, they accidentally carry sticky pollen from the anthers to the stigma, the male and female parts of flowers. This fertilizes the eggs, which grow into seeds and fruits that we enjoy.
One of the ways you can show appreciation for these fantastic pollinators is to get out to natural areas in State Parks and enjoy the native flora. You can also explore native plant gardens and learn more about using native plant species in your own backyard to attract pollinators. Last year we paid homage to a few of our favorite New York pollinators. This year, let’s have a closer look at some of the plants and the pollinators that visit them.
Just as pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, so too do the native plants that they enjoy. Different plants attract different types of pollinators. Look for all kinds of flowers in the woods, wetlands, meadows, gardens or orchards and you are apt to see some pollinators at work. Below are some of the native pollinators and flora found in State Parks, with photos from the NY Natural Heritage Program. NYNHP works in partnership with State Parks (OPRHP) to assess and conduct inventories of natural areas in state parks and helps to protect habitats that support common and rare species alike, including these important pollinators.
Whether you are a hiker, gardener, farmer, or food-lover you can enjoy and support our local pollinators! Maintaining natural areas, meadows or gardens with a variety of plants can help to sustain all the life stages of a wide range of insects from bees to butterflies.
If you are interested in creating a backyard oasis for native pollinators, look for plants that are native to your area of the state and, if possible, grown near where you live. Consider planting different types of flowers; gardens with an array of flowers blooming at different times provide food for a variety of pollinators throughout the season. Look for white, yellow or blue flowers to attract bees. Red tubular flowers attract hummingbirds (bees don’t even see red). Butterflies prefer bright flowers, particularly reds, oranges, and purple (like fall asters). Moths are attracted to white, purple, or pink flowers with strong, sweet scents, especially those emitting a scent at night. See resources below on pollinators and native plants in your area.
State Parks is celebrating pollinators at these events across the state:
Clay Pit Ponds State Park – Time Tuesdays, June 21 @ 10am
Learn about our native pollinators by making crafts, playing games, and socializing with other toddlers! Parent or care giver is required to stay. Ages 1-3 (flexible). Please call (718) 605-3970 ext 201 for more information.
Saratoga Spa State Park – Butterfly Walk Friday, June 24 @2:00pm
Did you know restoring a habitat is like building a neighborhood? Come enjoy a light hike at the Karner Blue site and learn what butterflies live in the same neighborhood as the Karner Blue butterfly. Please wear hats and sunscreen. You may want to bring binoculars or a magnifying glass to see butterflies up close. This program is appropriate for ages 7 and up. Registration is required. Please call 518-584-2000 ext. 122. This program is free.
Thacher Nature Center – Honeybees Are Buzzin’, June 25 @ 2pm
Summertime brings flowers and a hive packed with activity! Come and learn all about honeybees as you view the colony in our indoor observation hive. See the busy workers, the specialized drones and the ever-important queen bee in action! Learn how to dance like a bee, and view the world from a bee’s perspective. Afterwards, take a walk to observe our honeybees at work in the gardens. Please register by calling 518-872-0800.
Letchworth State Park – Butterfly Beauties, June 26 @ 2pm
Study the beauty and composition of hundreds of dried butterfly specimens representing most of the world’s butterfly families. Dozens of local and New York species, as well as those found in the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, are specially noted. Butterfly structure and local natural history will be featured in two new butterfly videos. This is an excellent primer for the Butterfly Walk on July 9th. (Look for details in the upcoming summer issue of The Genesee Naturalist.) All workshops meet in the Conference Room in the Visitor Center and Regional Administration Building located in Letchworth State Park. Please call (585) 493-3680 for more information.
Ganondagan State Historic Site – Planting for Ethnobotany Workshop Saturday, August 6, 2016 @9:00am-11:00am
Participants will help plant native plants in the Green Plants Trail and the Pollinator Grassland at Ganondagan. Ages 8 and up. Registration Required. Please call (585) 924-5848 for more information.
Please note, some of the plants listed in this resource are native to the ecoregion but not to NY state. Please check the NY Flora Atlas to confirm which are native to New York before choosing your planting list.
— NY Flora Atlas – list of plants known in NY and which are native or not
Spring has finally arrived, and with it comes the birth of this year’s first generation of Karner blue caterpillars. When these caterpillars hatch from the eggs that were laid by last year’s second generation of adults, they will eat only one thing, the leaves of the wild blue lupine plant. And you thought your kids were picky eaters!
Wild blue lupine is a perennial plant that prefers dry, sandy soils in open patches of land. It is typically found in pine barrens and oak savanna plant communities. These habitats require ecological disturbances, such as wildfires, to sustain the sunny, open areas that wild blue lupine needs to survive. Land development and the suppression of natural disturbances in these areas have led to degradation and loss of habitat, causing drastic declines in Karner blue butterfly populations. As a result of this, the Karner blue butterfly was declared endangered in New York in 1977 and federally endangered in 1992. The Karner blue butterfly’s range extends from Minnesota to New Hampshire, along the northern portion of the blue lupine’s range. In New York, populations are found from the Albany Pine Bush north to Glens Falls, with a segment of suitable habitat found in Saratoga Spa State Park.
There are two generations of Karner blue butterflies born each year, the first of which hatches in May from eggs that were laid the previous July. This timing coincides with the blooming of wild blue lupine flower stalks. The caterpillars spend about two to three weeks feeding on wild blue lupine leaves before they pupate. The adult Karner blue butterflies emerge at the end of May or beginning of June and typically live for about a week. During this time, the adult females lay their eggs on the underside of wild blue lupine leaves or stems. The eggs take around a week to hatch and the second generation of adults appear in mid-July to early August. This time the females lay their eggs on the ground close to the stem of a blue lupine plant to provide them with more protection as they overwinter.
Adult Karner blue butterflies are relatively small, with an average wingspan of about one inch. You can tell the difference between males and females by looking at the coloration on the tops of their wings. Males’ wings are silvery blue to violet blue with a black margin and white fringed edges, while females’ wings are grayish brown towards the edges, turning into violet-blue in the centers of the wings. Both males and females are gray with black spots on their undersides and have a band of orange crescents along the edges of both wings. Females also have bands of orange crescents on the tops of their wings, while males do not.
Male Karner blue butterfly. Photo by Paul Labus, The Nature Conservancy, Indiana.
Female Karner blue butterfly. Photo by Paul Labus, The Nature Conservancy, Indiana.
Underside of the Karner blue butterfly. Photo by USFWS; Phil Delphey.
There are 18.5 acres of endangered Karner blue butterfly habitat in Saratoga Spa State Park. In recent years, restoration efforts have re-established approximately 5 of these acres as suitable Karner blue butterfly habitat. This was accomplished through the removal of small trees and shrubs that had taken over the habitat, as well as the scraping away of topsoil to remove invasive plant seeds and to expose the sandy soils that wild blue lupine needs to grow. Wild blue lupine and native nectar species were then planted in the exposed sandy soil. Saratoga Spa State Park staff monitors the Karner blue butterfly population and provide educational programs to the public about this endangered beauty.
In celebration of Earth Day, students from the Waldorf School contributed to the Karner blue butterfly habitat restoration effort by spreading the seed of the native blue lupine plant on 1.5 acres at Saratoga Spa State Park. Funding for this project was provided by Governor Cuomo’s NY Parks 2020 Initiative.