Tag Archives: Conservation

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.

Amy McGinnis, 2011
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.

Amy McGinnis 2015
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

NYNHP
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.

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
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.

budd-termin-and-meg-janis-with-milkweed-plants-at-wilson-tuscarora-state-park-in-may-2016-photo-by-i-love-my-parks-day-volunteer
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.

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
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.

deer_path
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

All About the Brook Trout: New York’s State Fish

Brook trout (Salvenlinus fontinalis) also known as “speckled trout,” “specks,” and “brookies,” aren’t actually trout. They are really a type of char, more closely related to the Arctic char than to true trout. However, the brook trout, true trout, char, and salmon are all in the family Salmonidae, making them all closely related. The gorgeous brook trout is New York’s state fish and is greatly prized amongst naturalists and anglers. The native brook trout can be recognized and differentiated from other types of trout by its unique colors. Brook trout have a dark green and yellow “wormlike” pattern on their backs, which fades into green sides with yellow spots and red spots surrounded by blue halos. Their stomachs range in color from white to bright orange, depending on food sources and the time of year. One of the most easily recognizable parts of the brook trout are its fins, which are a deep red with a black stripe and a white stripe underneath along the edge of each fin. In the fall, one can see why New York chose the brook trout as its state fish when spawning occurs and the fish’s colors intensify.

Artist Brook Trout
An artist’s representation of a brook trout. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brook_trout.jpg

Brook trout live in streams with cold, clean water. They require high amounts of oxygen in the water, dissolved oxygen in order to breathe, as do many of the aquatic insects that the trout feed upon. Trout eat a variety of foods, including mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, scuds, smaller fish, and snails. Larger brook trout will also eat terrestrial insects such as ants or grasshoppers and have even been known to eat mice that accidentally fall into streams! Because brook trout need very clean water to survive and are highly sensitive to pollution, their presence is a good indicator of a healthy stream.

Several conservation efforts by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and organizations like Trout Unlimited have focused on protection of the native brook trout in New York. The brook trout is native to the eastern part of the United States from Maine to Georgia, including New York. Populations of brook trout can be found in, Allegany State Park, Bowman Lake State Park, Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, Chittenango Falls State Park, Harriman State Park, and many other state parks with small tributaries. Restoration work to increase brook trout habitat has been done in Allegany State Park, which boasts many wild trout streams that are readily enjoyed by anglers.

Brookie in water
A brook trout. Photo taken and owned by James St. John on flickr.com, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/21714855433. No changes were made.

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and introduction of non-native species, the brook trout has less suitable places to live than it did 200 years ago. Brook trout cannot tolerate water temperatures that are too high; as the water temperature increases, the dissolved oxygen decreases. The cutting of trees along stream banks and the loss of trees due to invasive insect species can contribute to temperatures rising and can affect native brook trout populations. Trees provide needed shade over streams and keep water temperatures low, even on hot summer days. When these trees are removed or die, sunlight is able to reach streams and causes water temperatures to rise. One important tree along some stream banks is the hemlock. Hemlock trees provide more shade than hardwood trees and do an excellent job of keeping streams cool. Unfortunately, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), an insect that invades and kills hemlocks, is affecting hemlocks all over the east. HWA is causing thousands of these trees to die. As hemlocks die, hardwood trees will take their places. While this will still provide shade to the streams, the temperatures will still rise because hardwoods provide less shade than hemlocks.

Pollution also affects brook trout by decreasing oxygen levels and poisoning the fish. A form of pollution called “agricultural runoff,” which includes manure and fertilizers, can cause an increase of aquatic plants to grow in streams. These plants eventually die and consume dissolved oxygen when they decompose. If there are too many decomposing plants in a stream, dissolved oxygen levels can be greatly decreased and affect brook trout severely. Pollution also decreases pH in water, making it more acidic, which allows more metals to be dissolved into the water. These metals can interfere with the brook trout’s body functions and cause developing eggs and fry to die.

Another major cause of habitat loss for the native brook trout is the past introduction of the brown trout (Salmo trutta) as a sport fish, which is native to Europe. Brown trout were brought to the United States due to their popularity with anglers. This is because they are aggressive fighters and can grow quite large. Brown trout can withstand higher water temperatures than the brook trout and are less sensitive to changing conditions. Because the brown trout is more aggressive, it can find food and shelter more easily than the brook trout. Brown trout will sometimes prey on the brook trout’s young. Streams in which brown trout have been introduced almost always have a noted decrease in native brook trout populations.

The introduction of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) has also contributed to decreased brook trout populations, but to a lesser extent.  Both the introduction of brown and rainbow trout create competition for resources that the brook trout did not have to contend with before.

Fortunately, New York no longer stocks browns or rainbows in waters where populations of native brook trout are found in order to preserve the species. Many of these populations prevail in high mountain elevations in the Adirondack Park, as the brook trout is particularly talented at jumping up waterfalls. In fact, a brook trout can jump up to four times its body length if the pool they jump from is deep enough! This unique ability has allowed native populations to thrive in areas with many small waterfalls and pools. Today, dam removal and the installation of fish ladders also help to conserve brook trout habitat. Fish ladders provide a series of pools on an incline that allow fish to jump up over barriers. These installations allow waters to remain passable, even in dammed waters. Populations of brook trout exist in several places throughout New York, and the determined angler or observer can find many of these beautiful fish. Hopefully, with continued efforts of conservationists across New York state the brook trout population will continue to thrive and one day, increase.

Young Brookies
Young brook trout, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brook_trout_in_cool_water_(7725114898).jpg.

Post by Mikey Bard, avid fly fisher and SCA/Americorps Member serving as Assistant Environmental Educator at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.

Tracking The Elusive New England Cottontail

New England Cottontail
New York’s rarest native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

 

It is a typical morning at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC) in Fahnestock State Park. The sunshine beams through the forest, a chorus of song birds are greeting the day, and 60 elementary school students are making their way to breakfast to fuel up for an active day of learning in the outdoors. Meanwhile, a familiar truck and crew rolls in to begin their workday visiting several small animal traps set in specific locations in hopes that at least one will contain a rabbit, particularly a New England Cottontail.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) is collaborating with State Parks, and the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct important research about the population decline of native New England Cottontail. Over the past decade, studies have indicated that their numbers have decreased about 50%. The two major factors contributing to the population decrease are loss of suitable habitat, and the expanding range of the Eastern Cottontail. The only native rabbit species east of the Hudson River is the New England Cottontail; however the range of the Eastern Cottontail has been expanding and now overlaps this territory which causes competition for resources. Predation is also playing a role in the decreasing population; part of this research project is keeping an eye on who’s eating New England Cottontails by using trail cameras. These cameras placed in baited locations and use a motion sensor to take pictures when an animal walks by. Different predators are “captured” in a photo as they come to investigate the bait, which shows the species that a present in the rabbit survey area.

Back at the TOEC, the students are gathering to meet with their instructors for their morning lesson, the phone suddenly rings. “We have a rabbit” says the voice on the other end. Flexibility is part of the job description of an outdoor educator, and no one passes up an opportunity to enjoy a teachable moment, especially when it involves a live animal. All plans are dropped for the moment and after a short walk the students quietly approach the researchers who are preparing to identify, collect data, and radio tag the small mammal.

Juvenile
Measuring a juvenile New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Many of students who visit the TOEC are from the New York City area and rarely get to experience being this close to a truly wild animal, and they have a lot of questions such as: “Why is it in a pillowcase?”, “How long are its feet?”, “Is that a baby?” and “What’s That!?”. Their sense of wonder is contagious and the SUNY ESF researchers return the enthusiasm by answering the barrage of questions being hurled at them, while also safely collecting data on their captive rabbit. Measurements are taken, and the data is recorded onto forms and will go into a large database to allow for comparison across the entire northeast. The final step is to attach a small antenna to the rabbit’s back so that the researchers will be able to locate the individual rabbit again through radio telemetry. Now comes the exciting part! The rabbit is released, and in a flash it darts away, immediately out-of-sight, camouflaged amongst the underbrush.

Camouflage
A well camouflaged New England Cottontail. Can you see the antennae? photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Upon reflection, many students will say seeing the rabbit was their favorite part of the week, and they walk away with the feeling of being included in something important. Nothing teaches better than experience; giving students the chance to interact with a living, breathing part of the ecosystem around them. It sure makes for a pretty great day.

Post by Dana Mark, environmental educator at TOEC