Tag Archives: Conservation

Cool Finds from Afield – NY Natural Heritage Program in State Parks

Every year, the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) conducts field surveys in New York State Parks in search of rare plants and animals and high quality natural areas and features. There are always adventures as well as some surprises. Here a few highlights from 2018.

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NY Natural Heritage Program survey in parks across the state, to document rare flora, fauna and natural communities. Photo in Allegany State Park by J. Lundgren

Bear Bath

We surveyed dozens of vernal pools in Parks this season as part of a statewide project to help identify pools that are critical for critters like fingernail clams, fairy shrimp, wood frogs, spotted salamanders and others. Just as we finished our vegetation sampling in a vernal pool in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, a huge black bear wandered in and sat down! So close. We watched quietly until it wandered off, then packed up our gear to head to the next site. What a great day!

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This a huge vernal pool, filled with water in spring and mostly dry now. That dark spot in the center is the black bear that came to visit. Photo by J. Lundgren.

The Joys of Sedge-ing

Keen eyesight and a skill for noticing subtle differences in the structure and color of plant parts is required to find rare plants. Sedges, a grass-like plant, are among the tougher species to identify. A trick is to looks for the triangular stems – “sedges have edges” – as opposed to round stems of rushes and grasses. From there, botanists use plant keys to figure out the identity.

Botanist Richard Ring and our summer botany assistant Ian Laih set out to to the hilltops in Franny Reese and Storm King State Parks in search of rare sedges. Success! They documented new locations in both parks for two rare and easily overlooked sedges; black-edged sedge (Carex nigromarginata) and Reznicek’s sedge (C. reznicekii).

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A Flurry of Rare Dragonflies – Three in One Day!

The zoology team documented three species of rare dragonflies in one day at Harriman State Park: sable clubtail (Gomphus rogersi), arrowhead spiketails (Cordulegaster obliqua), and spatterdock darner (Rhionaeschna mutata)! The park’s forest habitat interlaced with streams, wetlands and ponds provides habitat for these cool critters.

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The rare sable clubtail (Gomphus rogersi) photographed and released. Photo E. White.

Piping Plovers Return to NY’s Great Lake shoreline

State Parks and NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) stewards discovered a pair of nesting Piping Plovers at a park on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and worked to keep them safe from pedestrians and dogs. Four chicks successfully hatched and entered the world. This is a really big deal, as the Great Lake plovers are federally endangered and the last successful fledging of chicks on NY lakeshores was in 1984! NYNHP had previously identified this area as among the best beach and dune habitats on Lake Ontario and has been working with State Parks to support protection of the rare species and habitats there. (Note you may be familiar with the piping plovers of the Atlantic coast which are listed as federally threatened).

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Note the colored bands which are put on the piping plovers to help identify individuals and track their movements. Photo by Alison Kocek.

Something Old and Something New

There are always many more places to survey and surprises to find. In the small Gilbert Lake State Park, while looking unsuccessfully for vernal pools, we were surprised to find a small patch of old-growth forest with large, over 120-year old ash, red oak, beech and maple. In Minnewaska State Park Preserve, NYNHP Botanist and Parks biologists surveyed the site of a proposed climbing route where a tiny rare fern, the mountain spleenwort (Asplenium montanum), was known. They confirmed and mapped an extensive population of the fern and also found a small but new location for the rare Appalachian sandwort (Mononeuria glabra). The new climbing routes can now be planned to avoid impacts to the rarities.

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Fen Finds

Park’s Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team discovered a new location for a rare Rich Sloping Fen community and assisted NYNHP ecologist with vegetation sampling. Fens are a type of wetland fed by groundwater and that tend to be less acidic than bogs which are typically rain-water fed. They often support rare plant species too and sure enough, NYNHP ecologist spotted the leaves of the state-threatened marsh lousewort (Pedicularis lanceolata), a new record for this plant. Park staff returned to photograph and document it when it bloomed in August.

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Salamandering

Allegany State Park in late June was the time to look for salamanders. Zoologist Ashley Ballou discovered a rare longtail salamander (Eurycea longicauda) near where they were last reported in 2009. This is a significant update of this almost 10-year old record. The park supports extensive and high-quality habitat for this and other more common amphibians like the red efts and red-backed salamander which we also saw during the surveys.

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Going Buggy

We did a lot of work on insects! The Empire State Native Pollinator survey was highlighted in a previous state parks blog Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers. There are still hundreds of specimens to be identified this winter, but some new rare insect species records have been confirmed already and there is such astounding diversity and beauty!

And thanks to expertise of others, we also obtained about 30 new records for rare moths in State Parks! Rare micro-lepidoptera (the smallest moths) were found in 8 state parks by Jason Dombroskie of Cornell University. And Hugh McGuinness finalized the results of a contract with us for moth surveys at two Long Island parks last year, adding a total of 20 records for rare moth species. All of this information goes into the NYNHP Rare Species Database.

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Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP)

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. NYNHP conducts many kinds of surveys and studies to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

All photos by NYNHP for use by permission only.

The Hudson River’s “Tough Turtles”

During the summer months along the Hudson River south of Troy, New York, it’s easy to notice the tides rising and falling, herons wading in the shallow streams, and the giant cargo ships purposefully streaming up and down the river. Difficult to spot, however, are the river’s many turtles. Several varieties call the Hudson home, but the northern (also called common) map turtle is perhaps the most interesting and understudied.

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Northern map turtle “Princess” hanging out while her tracker tag dries before her release. Scientists use these tags to locate the turtles for months after capture.

Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) are large river turtles that get their name from the intricate circling pattern on their shells, which resemble the elevation lines on a map. These turtles are relatively secretive. In urban areas they have to work especially hard to find what they need to survive. For one thing, turtles need good basking objects—places where they can come out of the water safely and sun themselves to warm up. Fallen trees or rocks make the best basking habitat, specifically ones that are farther out into the water so they can easily escape from potential predators. Because of the tides, many potentially good basking objects aren’t reachable as they are either too high up the bank or underwater at any given time.

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Scientists quietly observe northern map turtle “Luna” nesting from a safe distance. This nest received protection from predators and likely hatched successfully months later.

Another problem is finding places to lay their eggs. All turtles lay eggs and the northern map turtle is no exception. Most turtles prefer loose, sandy soil with plenty of sunlight for the eggs to develop successfully. Temperature determines the gender of the tiny map turtle babies—eggs toward the cooler, bottom of the nest often become males, while those eggs toward the warmer top (that therefore get more sun and heat) will become females. But in this highly urban area, good places to nest are few and far between. Natural areas, like those found in some of the State Parks along the river, help provide habitat for them. These spots seem perfect for northern map turtles, but they do tend to have a couple of drawbacks: 1) road and foot traffic and 2) predators smelling the eggs and destroying the nests soon after they’ve been laid. In addition, well-meaning people who are simply curious about these turtles (and with good reason!) approach nesting females that may “spook” and stop laying. People should give nesting turtles some space and observe quietly from a distance.

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Probable northern map turtle nest destroyed by a predator. Shells that appear twisted indicate some animal has eaten them, whereas more intact shells mean the nest has likely hatched successfully.

 

Because good turtle habitat is hard to find in an urbanized section of the river, researchers Dr. James Gibbs and Master of Science candidate Julia Vanaman from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are working to identify what habitats are most important to map turtles. Aquatic plants, basking objects, forest along the river banks, and shoreline development all likely play a role in where these turtles choose to spend their time. Once the researchers understand why a turtle likes an area, they can pass along that information to state and local park managers who can protect habitat and take measures to enhance it (e.g., by creating nesting habitat or increasing the number of available basking objects). With these habitat improvements, hopefully these fascinating turtles will stick around for many years to come.

Note: Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) occur across much of eastern North America from the Mississippi River, north to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, and east to small portions of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Hudson river systems. In New York State, the map turtle is considered vulnerable to decline and is recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state’s wildlife action plan. For more information, please check out the following links:

New York State Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Rare Animal Status List

Common Map Turtle Distribution Map

Turtles of New York State

NatureServe northern map turtle

NatureServe Map

Post and photos by Julia Vanaman, Master of Science candidate, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Featured image attribution: By Dger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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 and rattle. Like other pit-vipers, timber rattlesnakes possess a heat-sensitive organ, or pit, on either side of the head that allow them to detect prey. Their rattles are comprised of segments that accumulate each time a snake sheds its skin, which is every 1-2 years in this region. Counting the number of rattle segments is not an accurate way of aging snakes, as rattles wear and break off. Rattles are used as a warning to potential predators to stay away, making a distinct buzzing noise when rattled.

Timber rattlesnakes can occur in two color patterns: The black phase, which consists of dark bands against a dark background, and the yellow phase, which consists of dark bands on a lighter background. Color shades and band patterns vary from snake to snake.

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Their distinctive cross-bands allow them to camouflage themselves from unsuspecting prey as well as from predators. Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals, but will also consume birds, amphibians or other snakes. They ambush prey as it passes by and inject a controlled amount of venom with “hinged” hollow fangs. They then release the animal, wait, and follow its chemical trail to consume it. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in maintaining stable numbers of prey populations, such as rodent species that can carry diseases and destroy crops.

The venom from a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated, but bites are rare. Snakes will not go out of their way to pursue or bite a person. They have the ability to sense the vibrations of an approaching creature and if it is too large to be prey, they rely on their camouflage to hide or they retreat. It requires precious energy to produce venom- Timbers will bite as a last resort if they are cornered and feel threatened. There has not been a death from a timber rattlesnake bite in New York State in several decades. In all of my encounters with these snakes, both for study purposes and chance encounters, one has never struck. While they might coil in a defensive posture and rattle as a warning, the snakes simply want to go on their way and be left alone. It is important to give them space.

These snakes will hibernate together in a den below the frost line, and it’s not uncommon for other snake species to den with them. The same den will be used for generations. They can live up to 30 years, though most live 16-22 years.  Male timber rattlesnakes reach sexual maturity at about 5 years whereas females don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-11 years. Females give birth every 3-5 years, and they are among a few species of snakes that give birth to live young. Their slower reproduction rates make them even more susceptible to the threats they face.

Timber rattlesnakes were once more abundant. Indiscriminate killing and a bounty system, as well as unregulated collecting has greatly reduced their numbers, completely eliminating them from some areas. Though the bounty was repealed in the 1970’s and they are now protected by law in New York State, they still face poaching. Snakes are purposefully killed out of a misplaced fear or disdain, or are collected for the illegal pet trade. Snakes can also be killed by vehicles while attempting to bask in roads or cross them in search of food or a mate. Timber rattlesnakes are a slower moving snake, and they tend to freeze when they sense vibration, such as that of an oncoming car. This puts them at greater risk of being run over. People have said that snakes stretched out across the road look like sticks. It’s important for drivers to be observant in order to avoid hitting snakes (or any animal) in the road, and heed animal crossing signs.

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Timber Rattlesnake that was run over attempting to cross the road. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2011

Habitat loss due to human development and frequent recreational use of land has also had a negative impact on timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, snakes in the eastern United States are facing decline due to a deadly fungal disease. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the few populations of timber rattlesnakes left in New York State and the habitat that supports them. Surveys are conducted and sightings are tracked to help determine the size and health of populations. Snakes are also fitted with transmitter devices for tracking and monitoring. One of the biggest efforts in the conservation of Timber Rattlesnakes is raising public awareness. By educating people about the snakes at sites where they occur, it increases safety for visitors and for the snakes. While they can pose a threat to people (similar to many other species of wildlife), these graceful animals are not bad and are not out to get anyone. They occupy a key niche in the natural community and food web and help to keep the ecosystem in balance. It is rare to encounter a timber rattlesnake in New York State because of their reclusive and docile nature. However, if you do see one, remember — as with all wildlife — to keep your distance for your safety as well as to not stress the animal. Take the time to watch from a distance to appreciate the beauty of a part of the natural world we live in. Whether snakes fascinate or frighten you, if you are walking through their home territory, it’s important to be aware. Respecting their space benefits both you and the snakes.

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Rattlesnakes often hide under rock ledges and crevices and come out to bask in the sun. Photo by Amy McGinnis, State Parks, 2015

Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks

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CHALLENGE! Can you find the rattlesnake in this picture? Photo by NYNHP

Resources:

NY Natural Heritage Program Conservation Guide

Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet

USGS: National Wildlife Health Center: Snake Fungal Disease

NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life provides detailed maps and status across North America

Monarchs Migrate to State Parks

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.

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Monarch butterfly and a bee feeding on the nectar from a swamp milkweed in Wilson Tuscarora State Park in August 2016. Photo by J. Harris

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.

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Budd Termin and Meg Janis with milkweed plants at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park in May 2016 Photo by an I Love My Parks day Volunteer

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.

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Monarch butterfly laying her eggs on a swamp milkweed located in the butterfly garden at Wilson Tuscarora State Park in August 2016. Photo by J. Harris

Post by Jillian Harris, State Parks

 

Outdoor Activities in State Parks: Hunting

Among the many recreational outdoor activities available in our state parks, hunting is one that many may overlook. Hunting is a long-standing tradition in our nation, both as a necessity and an opportunity to be connected with the outdoors. Hunting is a safe and economically important activity; providing an excellent source of food and promoting family traditions while nurturing an understanding and respect for the environment and the complexity in which it functions. Today, an individual looking to take advantage of hunting opportunities must first complete a hunter safety course, and obtain a hunting license.  The hunter safety course will provide instruction on firearm/ bow safety and planning a hunt, by providing information about the biology of the game species in New York State.

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A hunter with her dog, photo by Bellamy Reynolds

During this fall season many New York residents and out-of-staters will venture out into the woods and wetlands to take part in the multiple hunting seasons that New York State has to offer. Among the vast huntable acreage across the state are properties managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and New York State Parks. In State Parks alone there are about 80 parks, 3 historic sites, 3 golf courses and 50 boat launches that provide opportunities to hunt an array of wildlife from small game, waterfowl to big game species like bear and deer.

Being a hunter – what does it take?

Let’s take a step back and investigate what is involved in becoming a hunter. Besides the hunter safety course and a New York State Hunting license, the hunter must understand the biology of the animal and how that animal interacts with its habitat. Hunters have to be keen observers in order to be successful. Let’s learn about some of the signs a hunter looks for when pursuing whitetail deer.

Deer Path: Deer tend to travel through the forest in a path of least resistance – clear of downed trees and shrubs. Over time these paths become visible as the deer travel them regularly, just like a hiking trail.

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A deer path, from, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeer_Path.JPG

Tree Rubs: Male deer, or “bucks”, will make rubs on small trees with their antlers to mark their territory, deposit scent and declare their presence to other deer. A hunter must look for rubs in the woods and learn how to tell the difference between and old rub and a new rub. This can be done by closely looking at the tree. A new rub will have the presence of shavings or sawdust on top of the leaf litter that are scraped off when the buck makes a rub. Additionally a new rub will be contrastingly much lighter in color compared to an old rub that is weathered and darker.

Scat: Where deer eat, they poop! A hunter will look for fresh scat (poop) as evidence of recent activity. Fresh scat will be on top of the leaf litter – whereas old scat will be noticeably under leaves and sticks.

Sounds: Deer make a variety of sounds including a soft bleat, grunting, stomping with their hooves, and blowing air. The varying sounds and body language have different meanings. For example a deer may stomp their hooves and blow air out their nose when they smell or see a person in the woods. Observing how deer interact with each other and the sight and scent of humans helps a hunter better understand deer behavior.

A hunter should look for signs of deer well before the hunting season begins to learn the habits of the animal he/she is hunting. Equally important is practice, practice, practice! To be proficient with a firearm or bow a hunter must hone their skills year round. Hunting isn’t easy, it takes practice, time and a lot of patience to be successful. There are many hunter safety education courses available through DEC including the popular “Becoming an Outdoor Woman” (BOW) series. Take a look for yourself.

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Learn more:

Department of Environmental Conservation Sportsman Education

Post by Lilly Schelling, State Parks