Tag Archives: citizen science

From Ashes to Awesome: Sam’s Point

In April 2016, a wildfire engulfed around 2,000 acres of the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains. The “Gunks” (a nickname for the Shawangunks) are well-known not only for climbing, but also for the globally unique community of high altitude dwarf pitch pine barrens which hold some interesting and charismatic flora and fauna. This year marks one year after the fire and it has been a very interesting time to be at Sam’s Point. Park staff have taken advantage of what some may consider destruction to learn more about the unique ecosystem that evolved along with fire. Student Conservation Association interns, State Park staff, and volunteer citizen scientists have researched how the ecological community at Sam’s Point is responding to the fire.

In the weeks after the 2016 fire, the State Parks staff set up twenty random plots within the pine barrens to study the regrowth of the forest after the fire. One year later, we continue to collect data on the changes that are taking place as the ecosystem bounces back. At each research site, pitch pines are measured and any new growth, or lack thereof, is recorded. We also search for pitch pine seedlings and this year we found more of them in our plots than last year! Pitch pines are a fire dependent species – this means that throughout their existence they have evolved to grow in areas with high incidence of fire and have adapted to survive and thrive in these areas. Perhaps most importantly to pitch pine survival, their pine cones need extreme heat, like the high heat produced from fire, to open up to release their seed. Although the high intensity of the fire may have damaged many of the older pitch pines, we can see the beginnings of a new forest through our observations.

At four of the 20 fire-regeneration plots, we took photos to collect visual data on changes over time. We are able to see changes in vegetation during the growing season and are able to compare vegetation levels from this year to last year. After a fire burns an ecosystem, the intensity of the burn creates a mosaic pattern on the land, making patches of different habitat. For those areas that are more severely burned, different plants may be found in those areas than areas that were less severely burned.  Through our data collection, we compare what is happening in different areas of the forest that were affected differently after the fire. We also look at any changes that occur over time as plants recolonize the scorched earth.

Changes over time, State Parks
Photo Points taken by Park staff and interns at Sam’s Point Area fire regeneration plots showing how the forest understory has changed in the past year, photo by State Parks and SCA.

Another study that was conducted this year was a breeding bird survey, where we compared the different bird species found in the burned area of the pine barrens to birds that were found in the unburned areas. Since the fire burned nearly half of the Sam’s Point Area, we looked at whether this change in habitat displaced breeding birds, welcomed new species, or if the number of breeding bird stayed the same. Interns, staff, and volunteers braved early mornings in May and June to conduct surveys in the park. Most often, we heard the eastern towhee telling us to “drink your tea”, the prairie warbler’s ascending song, and the “witchity witchity” of the common yellowthroat.  These species were found all over the park and we did not see many differences between the species we found within the burned area and outside of it. Generally, the differences we found had more to do with other aspects of habitat (i.e. birds were closer to water, closer to deciduous trees, etc.) than to the damage from the fire.

Fire has a long history on the Shawangunk Ridge and pitch pines are not the only species that has adapted to thrive with fire. Up until the 1960’s, berry pickers swarmed the mountainsides in the summer, picking huckleberry and blueberry and selling their juicy finds to city dwellers. Sometimes, they set fire to the ridge so that the next year, their bounty would be sweeter (in both size and taste!) Going further back into the history of the ridge, the Native Americans would also set similar, controlled fires, which today we would call prescribed burns, to keep the ecosystem healthy and productive. Although the 2016 fire was an intense wildfire and not a prescribed burn, we received the bounty of increased berry production in 2017. In mid-July the blueberries flourished, and modern day berry pickers, as well as animals that eat berries, such as chipmunks, squirrels, deer, birds, and bear, were able to indulge in these treats. By the end of July, the huckleberries had joined in on the fun so that at our August Berry Bonanza event, visitors could taste test and compare blueberry and huckleberry and choose their preference before they entered the berry-lined trails.

The 2016 wildfire at Sam’s Point has given us a lot to think about in the last year. We continue to learn more about our unique little corner of the world, and we share what we have learned with our visitors. We are also able to enjoy the beauty of the rebirth of an ecosystem. This strange, otherworldly beauty inspires park-goers with a new type of scenery they may have never seen before, making this one of a kind ecosystem seem even more special. To learn more about Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve or to get involved in Citizen Science visit https://parks.ny.gov/parks/193 , or even better, come visit us in person! We look forward to sharing our park with you.

Post by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

Featured image by  Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

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.

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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