Tag Archives: endangered species

Hope Takes Wing for Endangered Bird

Here in New York, we have residents nicknamed ‘snow birds’: People who enjoy summers on New York’s beaches, but escape our harsh winters by traveling south to Florida. Making that journey right along with them is another species of beach bum — the small, endangered shorebird called the Piping Plover.

Usually weighing about two ounces or less, the Piping Plover is a tiny bird that is undeniably and objectively cute; just ask anyone that is working to restore the population. It’s a bird that’s easy to fall in love with but that requires hard work to recover.

There are three distinct populations of Piping Plover: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes, which both breed in New York State, and the Great Plains. Due to shoreline habitat loss and disturbance, all three populations significantly declined in the mid-twentieth century, leading to their listing under the Endangered Species Act as threatened (Atlantic and Great Plains populations) and endangered (Great Lakes population) in 1986.

The recovery of the Piping Plover has been a slow and intensive process. At the time of listing, the endangered Great Lakes population had only an estimated 17 breeding pairs — with no birds nesting on the Great Lakes shores of New York. For 29 years, no plover nests had been seen on New York’s lake shores.

Finally, in 2015 a pair of Piping Plovers showed up on the eastern shoreline of Lake Ontario in and around Sandy Island Beach State Park in Oswego County.

Sandy Island Beach State Park is located on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. (Credit: Google Maps)

New York State Parks and Department of Environmental Conservation employees, Audubon New York employees, and volunteers teamed up to monitor the plovers and reduce disturbances from humans and predators in hopes that the birds would stick around and raise their young.

Although the birds were not successful that year, plovers kept returning each summer to the State Park, and in 2018 and again in 2019, were able to raise chicks

These adult Piping Plovers, banded with orange flags on their legs, successfully nested at Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. The male plover (right), can be distinguished from the female by its bolder brow and neck bands.

Throughout the spring and summer months when Piping Plovers are found at breeding sites, shorebird technicians monitor nests and chicks until young birds are fledged, meaning they are capable of sustaining flight. Researchers also band as many plovers as they can in the Great Lakes. Used for identification, bird banding is a common research practice, and is an extremely useful tool in understanding behavior, life expectancy, population sizes, and migrations of birds.

Above: A trained and licensed bander prepares to apply unique bands to a chick in 2018. Below: In 2018, the Piping Plover chicks had Lord of the Rings-inspired nicknames: Frodo (right) and Pippin (left) show off their new bands as they scurry back to their nearby parents. Photo Credit: Tom Morrissette.

For endangered populations, banding can provide essential information about site use that can guide future conservation in both breeding and wintering grounds. For the plovers at Sandy Island Beach State Park, bird banding helped researchers track two fledglings after migration, one to Georgia in 2018 and another to Florida in 2019. These were the first Great Lakes fledglings from New York to be spotted in their wintering grounds in the south.

The young birds are each marked with a unique combination of bands, like name tags, which allows staff to identify individual birds and assign fun nicknames to the newly hatched chicks. The fledge sighted in Georgia in 2018 was named Gimli, and our 2019 fledge, affectionately nicknamed Chewie (proper name Chewbacca) was spotted in Florida soon after it had left New York. The first fledge from the Great Lakes seen on wintering grounds in 2019, little Chewie had made the nearly 1,300-mile journey in only three to four days!

Chewie (background) and its sibling, Yoda (foreground) both successfully fledged from Sandy Island Beach State Park in 2019. They can be distinguished by the unique combination of colored bands on their legs.

This feat is no small matter, as plovers face many challenges before the eggs have even hatched. Coastal development has reduced available nesting habitat, and the open sand suitable for nesting is also the most desirable location for human recreation. Conflict with humans can lead to birds abandoning territory, nesting attempts, and even viable eggs. If a nest can be established, the threat of predation now looms.

Piping Plovers lay their eggs in the sand. These nests generally contain four eggs, and the adults often spend time “decorating” the nests with delicate rocks and shell fragments.

Plovers lay their well-camouflaged eggs in shallow depressions, called scrapes, on sparsely vegetated sand. This makes it easy for plovers to spot predators, but also provides no protection from critters that discover the nests. Therefore, it is common for shorebird stewards to build an exclosure around the nest. This is a fence with spaces large enough for plovers to pass through, but small enough to prevent predators from reaching the eggs (click here to learn more about the work of State Parks Plover Stewards). This can prevent eggs from becoming a meal for foxes, crows, gulls and other predators, but still does not guarantee hatching. Their beach home can get flooded by high water levels and the exposed sand can become very hot.

Still, Piping Plovers are adapted to these conditions and are dedicated and attentive parents. Exclosed nests have a high chance of reaching their hatch date.

The new chicks hatched safely within the wire of the predator exclosure that was placed around the nest. But they won’t stay in there for long!

But our small friends are not in the clear yet! The chicks are precocial, meaning they are able to leave the nest only a few hours after hatching. The highly mobile chicks obtain food on their own under the watchful eyes of their parents, but constant running can easily exhaust the hatchlings and makes them an easy target for predators.

Combined with the stressors of human recreation, it truly becomes a miracle to reach fledging age. Humans can disturb plovers, often unintentionally, by scaring adults off nests, preventing adults and young from feeding near the water, or even accidentally stepping on nests and eggs. Remember that these birds are very small with feathers and eggs that are well camouflaged for sandy beaches, so be sure to keep an eye out when visiting beaches with designated nesting areas!

It should be no surprise to learn that, on average, for every pair of plovers only about one chick typically survives to fledging. This one fledgling must then face a long journey south to wintering grounds on their own. That two young birds, including Chewie, were raised at Sandy Island Beach State Park and made it to their winter homes was a good sign. Continued monitoring in New York will tell us whether these plovers return to raise their own young.

This map shows the typical migration routes for all three populations of Piping Plover. Credit: Illustration by Megan Bishop/Cornell Lab of Ornithology and accessed via Facebook page for Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort.

From egg-laying and hatching to fledging and migrating, Piping Plovers face threats and obstacles at every turn. Since the return of the Piping Plovers to the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, there have been six successful fledges from Sandy Island Beach State Park. Until we know if the young survived their first migration south, it can be difficult to gauge the success of the recovery plan. Therefore, this incredible flight of young Chewie, documented by its unique bands, is a symbol of success and high hopes for the ongoing efforts to recover the population of this charismatic shorebird.


Post by Lindsey DeLuna, OPRHP Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member

Cover Photo: The fledgling from Sandy Island Beach State Park, nicknamed “Chewbacca,” after his arrival at a Florida beach in early August 2019. Photo Credit: Wendy Meehan.

To learn more about Piping Plover banding and how to report sightings, follow the links below:

https://www.greatlakespipingplover.org/reporting-plover-observations

https://www.fws.gov/northeast/pipingplover/report_bands.html

All photos, unless otherwise stated, were provided courtesy of Alivia Sheffield, the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator at Sandy Island Beach State Park and a trained staff member. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe distance, and never approach nests or chicks.

Hailing More Snails

When ten endangered Chittenango Ovate Amber snails (COAS), located in only one known location in the world: Chittenango Falls State Park, were brought into an SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) lab for captive breeding and did not reproduce over the summer of 2014, graduate student Cody Gilbertson and advisor Rebecca Rundell knew they had to adjust something. Eventually the ten COAS were released, but as luck would have it, during the trial, a stowaway baby COAS came in on vegetation that was offered to COAS adults.  The tiny snail on the plant was placed in an enclosure to monitor closely. This was the beginning of a rapid learning curve for Gilbertson on the food preferences of COAS. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (in charge of endangered species permitting) granted permission for them to keep the one snail over winter and raise it alone in the lab. From this blessing in disguise, Gilbertson was able to figure out the specific species of leaves this one snail she named “Hatch” preferred to eat – dead cherry leaves! Cherry leaves collected in the spring were consumed regularly and “Hatch” began to grow rapidly. Gilbertson knew it was risky keeping a small hatchling snail because in the past, 80% of hatchlings would die within the first two weeks of life in captivity. She thought it was unlikely “Hatch” would live, but this one snail persisted and survived in the lab showing her what it most preferred to eat, and she watched closely. It turns out this was a very practical way of finding out what COAS needs without harming individuals.

When Gilbertson brought two more COAS in from the wild during summer 2015, adults flourished on the improved diet and reproduction occurred resulting in over 600 baby COAS in just two months! The two snails mated with each other and about seven days after mating, egg masses were laid.  A total of about six egg masses were laid by each snail with about 33 eggs in each egg mass. About 270 of these snails were released back to their wild habitat to help expand the wild population of COAS. The other 300+ snails are still in our lab and are thriving. Over 130 snails have reached maturity (over 14mm in shell length) and over 30 egg masses from the captive born snails have been produced so far.

This research, supported by United States Fish and Wildlife Service, has pushed the recovery of COAS species forward with some very large steps:

1) Researchers have performed a first ever release of captive snails back to the wild

2) Scientists now have information about what COAS eat and what they may need to survive in the wild and in captivity

3) Over 300 snails remain in captivity for assisting in securing this species existence.

However, there is still much to learn about this unique and rare species in our upstate NY backyard. Scientists will need to monitor and care for both the wild and captive populations over time for us to tell if this work is successful long term. But they have certainly put their best foot forward!

Gilbertson with 'Hatch'
Gilbertson with “Hatch,” photo by Cody Gilbertson

Post and photos by Cody Gilbertson, graduate student SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Getting to Know the Karner Blue Butterfly

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.

Lupine 1
Wild blue lupine. Photo by USFWS; Joel Trick.

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.

Larva 2
Karner blue caterpillar (larva). Photo by Paul Labus, The Nature Conservancy, Indiana.

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.

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.

Saratoga Earth Day 2015 - 01
Waldorf School students spreading blue lupine seed. Photo by John Rozell, OPRHP.

Saratoga Earth Day 2015 - 05
Waldorf School students replenishing their seed supply. Photo by John Rozell, OPRHP.

 

Post by Allie Smith, Saratoga Spa State Park.

Sources:

Karner blue butterfly factsheet, NYS DEC,

http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7118.html

Karner blue butterfly, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species, http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/kbb/kbb_fact.html

Karner blue butterfly, USDA Forest Service,

http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/karner_blue_butterfly.shtml

Karner blue butterfly factsheet, NYS DEC,

http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7118.html

Wild lupine and karner blue butterflies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Endangered Species,

http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/kbb/lupine.html

 

 

 

 

Wildlife Spotlight: Least Terns

A rare denizen of NYS Parks in Long Island is the least tern. This state-threatened species is challenged by both loss of nesting habitat, as well as predation by rats, dogs, cats, and other birds.

The least tern is so named because it is the smallest member of the gull and tern family, growing to a maximum of only nine inches in body length. These beautiful birds make their homes on the Atlantic coast. In the winter, least terns migrate to the southern United States and the Mexican coast, but once it becomes warmer, they return to the beaches of Long Island to nest. Even though they are small, least terns are mighty. If an intruder crosses a nest, the tern will dive at the possible predator screeching to frighten the danger away. Least terns also make a habit to roosting with larger terns for protection.

The importance of Long Island shoreline habitat to least terns, as well as a plethora of other migratory bird species, is the main reason why some Long Island beaches are off limits to dogs. Even where pets are allowed, be conscious of how your dog might be affecting wildlife and protect the habitat of this small, but magnificent bird.

featured image is a pair of least terns, by Larry Master. Post by Paris Harper

Lost Ladybugs

The nine-spotted ladybug
The nine-spotted ladybug

Some species of ladybugs are becoming rarer in North America. Many once-common native species are being replaced by exotic ladybugs from other parts of the world. Scientists are not sure how this will affect ecosystems and important role that ladybugs play in keeping population of plant-feeding insects, like aphids, low. To learn more about ladybug biodiversity, The Lost Ladybug Project and the New York

The two-spotted ladybug
The two-spotted ladybug

Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) are asking the citizens of New York to join together in finding out what ladybugs are in New York and where the rare ladybugs are hiding.

The fun part is that ladybug species are pretty easy to identify, check out the Lost Ladybug Project’s field guide. Some ladybugs can be identified solely from photographs, so feel free to send in pictures of ladybugs that you think might be uncommon or rare.

The transverse ladybug. Photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University
The transverse ladybug. Photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University

Participate in the Lost Ladybug Project by taking pictures and uploading them using the online submission form, or by downloading the Lost Lady App (available for iphone and android).

NYNHP will be tracking rare 3 species of ladybugs in New York: The nine-spotted ladybug, the two-spotted ladybug, and the transverse ladybug. Thanks for your help!

featured image is the transverse ladybug. Photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University.