Tag Archives: citizen science

Keep An Eye Out For HWA

The winter is a great time to visit State Parks in New York. Even in these colder months, opportunities for recreation are abundant and each year State Parks welcomes cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and hikers, who enthusiastically explore the many miles of trail that are open and maintained for winter activities.

Many recreationists are as eager to hit the trails in the winter as in the warmer months, but most are likely not aware that by enjoying their favorite winter past-time, they are also able to aid State Parks Biologists and staff in detecting an insidious invasive pest.

The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), is a non-native, invasive aphid-like insect that infests Eastern Hemlocks throughout New York State, and across most of the eastern US. The insect attacks the tree by attaching to the underside of the branch at the base of the needles, and feeding on the sap. The tree will respond by shutting down resources to the damaged areas. Eventually, as the infestation spreads, the tree dies – the insects having essentially sucked the life out of it.

Currently, work is being done throughout NY State to try to slow the spread of this pest. However, in order to combat HWA, researchers first need to know where it has (and hasn’t) been found. This creates an opportunity for concerned and conservation-minded citizens to provide a great service to the parks they love, and to help to protect the natural beauty that they cherish.

Hemlocks, one of many coniferous (cone-bearing) species throughout New York State, can best be identified by their needles, which are flat, generally a little more than an inch long, and have two white lines running parallel on the underside. The winter months are the best time of year to check these trees for HWA. The insects, which lay eggs in the fall, coat the egg sacks with a white, woolly protective layer, which allows the developing young to survive the winter. This white “wool” also makes the egg sacks very visible throughout the winter months (mainly December-March), and allows observers, with little to no formal training, to detect the presence of HWA in hemlocks.

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HWA egg sacks on an Eastern Hemlock branch. Note the two white lines on the underside of the needles. Photo by Alyssa Reid, NYS Parks.

Checking for HWA is easy – simply flip a hemlock branch over, and scan the base of the needles for the presence of white, woolly, round egg-sacks. While some larger hemlocks have branches that are un-reachable, many of the smaller trees have overhanging branches that can easily be reached without leaving the trail. Take note of where you are, and anything that looks suspicious (many smart phones will even allow you to save your location), and let Parks staff know where you found HWA before you head home for the day.

So, as you head out on the trail this season, consider pausing from time-to-time to inspect a nearby hemlock branch or two. NY State’s hemlocks need our help, and you can play an important role in conservation, while enjoying the outdoors!

For more information, or to find out how to volunteer and learn more about HWA and invasive forest pests, contacts NYS Parks Invasive Species Staff: 845-256-0579.

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HWA surveys are an important way to help out, while exploring New York’s winter wonderland. Photo by Alyssa Reid, State Parks

Post by Sarah Travalio, State Parks

Wildlife Spotlight: Furbearer frenzy: The Mink

Scientific name: Mustela vison

Small predator furbearers are some of the most fun, and most uncommon, animals to see in the wild. And mink are some of the most secretive in this group! Minks are in the weasel family and can grow to about the size of a housecat. Unlike weasels however, mink do not change color in winter. Mink are generally dark furred, with a distinctive white patch on their chins. Mink seem to be more common in the southern tier of New York State, so keep an eye out for these adorable buggers on your hikes in that area.

Mink were traditionally prized and trapped for their soft, glossy coats. Mink coats were a status symbol in the early 20th century, with most coats made from wild-caught mink. However, the 1950s through the 1970s saw a large increase in the production of farmed mink, especially from Europe, which reduced the burden on the wild populations. Today, trapping licenses for mink are available through the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the season is open when the population can withstand normal trapping pressures. DEC reports that the mink population is stable and able to sustain the trapping that still exists.

Mink are excellent swimmers, and they can also climb trees. Their clawed and webbed feet make them versatile predators. They are opportunistic predators, meaning they prey on crayfish, frogs, lizards, eggs, earthworms- pretty much anything they can find! They prefer wetland, or stream habitats, and will actually use existing burrows for their dens. They prefer muskrat holes, and some individuals have even been reported to evict (and eat) a resident muskrat to use a preferred hole.

Don’t forget to report mink and any other furbearers you see to DEC, to help with annual population data collection on these seldom seen species:

Email: wildlife@dec.ny.gov

Online: Upstate NY

Long Island

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Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks

1024px-mink_in_the_park_by-mink_in_the_park-jpg-qmnonic-derivative-work-mariomassone-mink_in_the_park-jpg-cc-by-2-0-httpcreativecommons-orglicensesby2-0-via-wikimedia-commons
American mink, By Mink_in_the_park.jpg qmnonic derivative work Mariomassone (Mink_in_the_park.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.jpg

News Flash! Fireflies Are Flashing In Allegany State Park

On June 1st in Allegany State Park, the first fireflies of the season were spotted, bringing great excitement. Why? Lots of parks have fireflies, but not the Synchronous Firefly – once thought to exist in only a handful of places in the world, but now known in scattered locations from Georgia to southwestern New York.  The (Photinus carolinus), flashes only from late June to mid-July and prefers dark mature forests, over 1200 feet with low vegetation and a water source. Fireflies or lightening bugs are actually a beetle that can produce its own luminescent light.  Each species of firefly (there are over 170 species in the US) has its own unique flash pattern. Colors differ too. The male Synchronous Fireflies flash 8 to 10 times all in unison, then they stop for 10-15 seconds depending on the temperature. They wait for the female to flash back, then they repeat the display again and again into the wee hours of the morning. The best time to see this phenomenon is between 10 pm to 2 am.

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Adult Synchronous Firefly, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/PhotinusCarolinus.jpg

Once they find each other, they mate, the females lay eggs, and then the adults die. The larvae hatch in a 3-4 weeks and devour worms and slugs. These small, blackish caterpillar-like predators inject their prey with a fluid which causes numbness, then they suck out the gooey innards. The larvae hibernate in small burrows in the soil and emerge as adults in a few months.

Some people ask, “Why don’t we see as many fireflies as we did as children?” Are we just not noticing? Or not outside as much? Unfortunately, firefly populations have declined, mainly due to light pollution, habitat destruction, and pesticides. How can you help? Check out www.firefly.org to find to more information or take part in a Firefly Watch though the Boston Museum of Science.  To see what the firefly display looks like, check out Radim Schreiber’s website.

Catching fireflies is a fun summer activity, you can put them in a jar to get a close-up look. But then let them go so they can find their mates and contribute to the next generation for us to enjoy next year.

Allegany State Park will be offering special programs to provide visitors with the opportunity to view the Synchronous Fireflies this June. Please check our Facebook page in mid-June for more information. In the event of severe thunderstorms, the event will be cancelled. However, the fireflies do display in rain and you may still observe them on your own if you wish. Displays of the Synchronous firefly are best observed in a dark mature forest in order to experience the full effect. And if you miss these, you can watch for other more common species of fireflies in your back yard, campsite, or parks across the state from June to August.  For information on this and other programs, please check Allegany State Park’s activity schedule on Facebook or call 716-354-9101 ext. 232.

Post by Adele Wellman, OPRHP, Allegany State Park, Lead Naturalist

Golden Opportunities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

Park OfficeOn February 24, 2009, two visitors to Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park were enjoying a sunny walk on Davis Road when two BIG birds flew overhead, going north.  “Golden Eagles!” exclaimed these experienced bird watchers.  Both were volunteers at the Delaware Otsego Audubon Society’s (DOAS) Franklin Mountain Hawk Watch which is known for its number of migrating Golden Eagles during the late fall.  The Golden Eagle is one of the largest raptors (birds of prey) in North America, not that common in eastern New York, but well worth keeping an eye out for.

During spring and fall migration, raptors use prominent ridges to save energy by riding updrafts that lift and/or push birds toward their destination.  On sunny days, warm air may spiral upward, creating thermals (columns of warm air) that lift birds to higher elevations.  Raptors soar and glide as much as possible, saving their own energy resources during the long journey.  In early spring, they are on their way to nesting territory.  For Golden Eagles coming through New York, that Destination is in Labrador, Quebec and Ontario, Canada.  Some Goldens stay the winter in our state, so in February it is hard to say if these were birds headed north or had been here all winter.

DOAS conducted Golden Eagle surveys at Davis Park in the spring of 2010, 2011, and 2012 with an average of 35 Goldens heading north each March.  Since then, area hawk watchers have counted raptors there when conditions seemed favorable, averaging 16 Goldens each March.  Data is collected by the Hawk Migration Association of North America and can be viewed at hawkcount.org.  (Look for DOAS-Davis State Park.)  It’s interesting to look at daily accounts to compare wind direction, wind speed, temperature and number of raptors identified, along with non-raptor sightings.

Diane_Graf photo
Wind break at sunset, Diane Graf, DOAS volunteer

Site supervisor Joe Ritton has been an enthusiastic supporter of the counting efforts at Davis Park.  He built a wind break for the team near cabins 4 and 5 in early March.  It provides shelter from the ever-present wind, and prevents spotting scopes from blowing over.  The view to the south, west and north are wonderful with the park elevation being 1971 feet.  Here’s a 360 panoramic view from a point above the wind break:

Take the virtual tour!

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Golden eagle in flight, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/79/Golden_Eagle_1.jpg

Hawk watching requires patience, watching the sky until the exciting moment when a bird appears as a tiny dot in the distance and approaches, bringing many possibilities: Is it large or small? What type is it: a Buteo, Accipiter, Falcon, Harrier, Eagle, Osprey?  How many species are in a group of birds?  Is the bird an adult or is it immature?  The questions are many, and finding the answers is challenging.  Wind can keep birds far away, lighting can make colors seem to change, and birds show different shapes when seen at certain angles.  Practice is necessary to learn identification skills.  Spending time with an experienced counter at an established hawk watch is a wonderful way to learn.  Although Golden Eagles have been highlighted in this article, there will be many other species of raptors during migrations, too.  Look for Bald Eagles, Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, and Ospreys.

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Bring a chair, good binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one.  A beautiful, calm day is most appealing to the potential hawk watcher, but without wind there will be few raptors.  Good visibility is important and raptors don’t migrate in the rain, so look for snow, fog or rain in the forecast when planning whether or not to come for raptors.

Those who are interested in spending more than one day looking for raptors at the Park may wish to rent a cabin.  Barred Owls have been heard during the night as well a late in the day.  Peace and quiet prevail.

Post by Becky Gretton, DOAS member and golden eagle watch volunteer

Invasive Species Spotlight: Monitoring for Hemlock Woolly Adelgid

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid appears as white fluffy balls on the underside of hemlock branches during the cooler months.
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid appears as white fluffy balls on the underside of hemlock branches during the cooler months.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) is a tiny, invasive insect which kills hemlock trees in a matter of 6 years. Please see the previous post on HWA for more information. The insect was introduced in Virginia in the early 1900’s, and has steadily spread since then. New York state contains all stages of HWA infestation. There are heavily infested areas like the lower Hudson Valley, which have harbored HWA for 20+ years and contain increasing numbers of declining and dead hemlocks. Moderately infested areas include the Finger Lakes, where some areas have HWA and some do not. Several HWA early detections were made in Western NY’s Allegany State Park by dedicated volunteers, trained by Park staff to survey for the insect. Allegany just has a few isolated patches of HWA, and State Parks is working to keep those patches small. So far, the Adirondacks have escaped infestation, but they are not immune.

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This map shows the spread of HWA by township since 1987. Map from http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7250.html.

How do we know all this information? The first step in determining if HWA is present is simply to look for it. Surveying for HWA takes diligence; the insects’ most visible life stage is the egg sac, which is present in the fall and winter. A hand lens is necessary to identify the tiny adults in the summer. Primarily through grant funding and volunteers, Parks has surveyed for HWA in 20 State Parks, and that number increases every year.

Survey technique demonstration for volunteers in Allegany State Park.
Survey technique demonstration for volunteers in Allegany State Park.

After surveying, maps are created and examined and hemlock stands are prioritized for treatment. Prioritization is a rigorous process which includes collaboration with state and local experts. These experts ask questions like: Do dead/dying hemlocks pose a health and safety risk here? Is there an area of ecological significance, for example, an old growth stand or is there an insect or animal present which is dependent on hemlocks? Will the loss of hemlocks create a significant, negative change to aesthetics? Is this an area of early detection, where treatments could make a big difference?

Mark Whitmore, of Cornell University, gazing at a hemlock in serious decline at Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
Mark Whitmore, of Cornell University, gazing at a hemlock in serious decline at Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

Treatment for HWA does exist. Parks has chosen our methods through regular consultation with experts, based not only on what works, but what has the least impact on the environment. Pesticides are carefully sprayed onto the bark of hemlock trees, in the spring or early fall. The pesticides are taken up rapidly through the bark and into the tree, where hemlock’s circulation system takes it throughout the tree, to all the little branches. The HWA will not survive on treated hemlocks for the next 7 years. While this is certainly not a permanent solution, it does buy us much needed time.

In conjunction with these treatments, Parks is also releasing biological control beetles. Biological control insects have an extensive approval process which can take a decade or more through the USDA. Many states have biological control review processes as well, including NY. These processes are designed to assess and evaluate the insect and its host specificity, the reproductive and cross breeding potential, and other factors. If, and only if, the insect is passes the host specificity and other tests, is it approved for release. Many biological control insects have been explored for control of HWA, one showing some promise is Laricobius nigrinus. These biological control beetles feed exclusively on HWA, and while they will not eliminate their food source, they can keep HWA populations in check so they are no longer killing hemlocks. While this is the ideal end result, it can take a decade or more before this is attained. Releasing a few hundred L. nirginus against millions of HWA means we need to buy time, through the use of pesticides, as these beetles work to increase their populations to levels where they can match HWA and keep it in balance.

Invasive insects are notoriously difficult to contain. While we may never stop the onward march of HWA, we can reduce the negative impacts of hemlock loss in specific areas through human intervention.

Sign up for an upcoming iMap Invasives training to learn how to report HWA when you spot it in State Parks’ forests.

Post and photos by Alyssa Reid.