Tag Archives: Hudson River

Marsh Madness: Restoration of Iona Marsh from Invasive Phragmites

Iona Island, located along an elbow of the Hudson River in Bear Mountain State Park, is technically an archipelago of three islands connected by marshlands. Iona has had many owners in its storied history, prior to being bought by New York State in the 1960s. The Island was host to Native American tribes for thousands of years, who took advantage of the plentiful shellfish along its shores. In the last few hundred years, it has been the site of an unsuccessful vineyard, a hotel and weekend destination for NYC residents, a U.S. Navy arsenal, and a partially built park recreation area. The eastern side of the island past the railroad tracks has been closed to the public since the 1980s, but a small portion of the island consisting of the five remaining Navy buildings is used for storage for the Palisades Interstate Park system. The rest of the island has returned to a more natural state of woods, meadows, and rocky outcroppings and serves as a sanctuary for wintering bald eagles.  The island achieved National Natural Landmark status in 1974, and was designated a NYS Bird Conservation Area and Audubon Important Bird Area shortly thereafter.

A key natural feature at Iona is the extensive marshlands, 153 acres in all, flanking its western side.  Part of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve (HRNERR), this brackish tidal marsh (marshes with water that has different concentrations of salt depending on the tides) teams with life including fish, waterfowl, waterbirds, plants, and crustaceans. In recent times, the rich biodiversity of the marsh, including a number of state rare species, has been threatened by Phragmites australis, or as it is more widely known, common reed.

Common reed (Phragmites australis) is a plant that was likely brought to the US from Europe and Asia in the 1800s through ship ballast or the water taken in by ships to allow them to balance on long voyages. Commonly referred to as just Phragmites, this non-native plant is invasive in the U.S., displacing and crowding out native plant species, such as cattails, rushes, asters, and many others. In turn, the presence of this species has undermined the complex web of marsh dependent organisms.

The non-native Phragmites is identifiable by its tall stature, dark blue-green leaves, and tendency to form dense stands, with little to no possibility for native species to grow in the areas that they occupy. A native species of phragmites (Phragmites americanus) occurs in NY as well, but this smaller plant with reddish stems grows with less density so it does not crowd out other flora.

Pre20018 Iona
Iona Island Marsh in 2008 before treatment. Phragmites dominate the background.

The phragmites problem at Iona Marsh began in the early 1960s, when the first small colony appeared near a pipe draining into the marsh. Over the next 40 years, phragmites steadily expanded until it covered nearly 80 percent of the marsh area. Researchers tracking these changes noted a concurrent decline in marsh specialist birds and specialized brackish marsh plants, including state rarities.  In an effort to reverse these trends, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, while partnering with Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Highlands Environmental Research Institute, started a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) funded management program in 2008 focused on a 10-acre test area. The goal was to reduce the invasive phragmites, and make room for native plants to once again occupy the area. If the program was successful in this small area (1/15th of the marsh), it could be expanded to additional marshlands.

A multi-faceted control and monitoring program has been developed and implemented and the results have been dramatic. More than 90% of the phragmites was eliminated within one year and nearly 97% by the third year. Researchers saw the return of huge meadows of annual native marsh plants, including some state-threatened species, followed by perennial cattail stands. Marsh specialist birds such as Virginia rail, least bittern (State-threatened), and marsh wren followed soon thereafter.  Based on this success, the project was expanded to an adjacent 32-acre area of the marsh known as Ring Meadow. Both areas now have less than five percent Phragmites cover, an overall success on the journey to reestablish native vegetation.

2017 Image
Map of the Iona Island Marsh Treatment Areas

While complete eradication of the Phragmites may be impossible to achieve, success can be maintained through continued monitoring and spot treating remaining and new patches.  Bird and vegetation surveys are conducted annually, as are measurements of sediment build-up on the marsh surface, as it relates to sea level rise.  The goal remains to restore the native plant communities in the marsh to promote biodiversity. A healthy, native marsh community will lead to increased productivity and habitats for fish, birds, and mammals – many of them specially adapted to the brackish conditions at Iona.  With continued management, the long-term outlook is positive for this Hudson River jewel, one of only four large brackish marshes on the Hudson.

RingMeadow
Ring Meadow in 2016. Cattail and blooming Rose Mallow have regrown where phragmites once were.

Interested in seeing Iona Marsh for yourself? While public canoeing and kayaking are not allowed in the marsh itself to protect this unique place, through collaboration with the State Parks, NYS DEC offers free public canoe programs each summer.  Not a fan of getting on the water? Iona Island is accessible by road. There is a parking lot approximately ½ mile onto the island, right before the railroad tracks (the boundary of the public accessible areas), where you can park and view the marsh. Lucky visitors may spot waterfowl, muskrats, frogs, turtles, wetland birds, deer, or even bald eagles!

Photo credit:   PIPC Archives

Dr. Ed McGowan,  2017 Annual Report Iona Island Marsh

Post by Jesse Predmore, SCA

Edited by: Dr. Ed McGowan & Chris O’Sullivan

Featured image: lulun & kame accessed from Flickr

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.

Princess
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.

Luna
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.

Nest
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

From glass eels to silver eels and everything in between The life stages of the American Eel

Imagine yourself hiking next to a babbling creek.  You come to a small waterfall surrounded by rocks.  The rocks glisten from the spray of the falls.  You walk closer and see dozens of small snake like creatures slithering over the wet rocks.  You watch them move from the top of the rock pile to the bottom.  Then they slide back into the creek.

You saw the American eel utilizing one of its unique adaptations.  Their bodies are coated in a mucus layer, providing protection and a way to absorb oxygen through their skin.  This mucus, in combination with their muscular bodies, allows them to move out of water and across land to avoid barriers.  This, and other adaptations, makes the American eel able to live in more diverse habitats compared to most other fish species.

American eels are fish, despite their snake like appearance, and the only species of eel that live in North America.  They are catadromous, migrating from the saltwater of the Sargasso Sea to the freshwater of streams and lakes.  The Sargasso Sea spans a part of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and Puerto Rico.  Once they reach maturity, they journey back there to spawn.

The vastness of the Sargasso Sea makes it tough for researchers to locate and observe eels spawning in the wild.  At this point, observations of spawning eels remain to be made, although one silver eel was tracked to the Sargasso Sea. Researchers believe the eels die right after spawning.  Some mystery surrounds the final life stages of the American eel.

What happens as they grow?

Let us review the known information about the life stages of the eel.  The eel’s life begins in the Sargasso Sea.  First, they resemble a willow leaf.   These small, oblong, transparent fish, called leptocephali, lack the snake like form of adult eels.  They are about one inch long and rely on the ocean currents to bring them to the east coast.  This journey takes about one year.

Lept
The beginning life stage of the American Eel is called a leptocephalus and these leptocephali use the current to travel to the East Coast. Kils at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Now they resemble vermicelli or rice noodles.  At two inches long and still transparent, they are called glass eels.  They make their way into estuaries which connect saltwater to freshwater.  Many of them find themselves in water bodies of local New York State parks along the Hudson River.  Once in freshwater, they develop a brown coloration.  This signifies the shift to their next life stage as elvers.

Glass
The American eel in their glass eel life stage as they arrive to the coast. Chris Bowser

As the elvers grow longer over the next few years, they enter their yellow eel stage.  They live in this stage right before they reach full maturity.  Their size varies based on sex.  Males can grow to two feet long whereas females can reach sizes of four feet.  Their size in each life stage is based on their surrounding environment.  They become silver eels when they reach full maturity to start their migration.

This silver eel stage happens to be the most understudied of all the life stages.  There is no set age that eels are known to reach full maturity and age cannot be determined from external characteristics. Researchers look to study silver eels right before they begin their migration.

What kind of research?

Sarah’s motivation to study silver eels stemmed from her previous experiences working with them in their other life stages.  Her work with eels started with a summer project at Bard College, eight years ago.  After graduation she continued to work with glass eels, elvers, and yellow eels as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern at the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Estuary Program.  Studying silver eels seemed like the next logical and exciting step for her. Sarah Mount at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry conducted research on yellow and silver eels.  Her research led to a model that sorts yellow and silver eels into different maturity classes.  The model relies on external characteristics such as the length, weight, eye diameter, pectoral fin length, head length, head width, and body depth of the eels to differentiate maturity classes. This means that future researchers can utilize this model to study the relative age of eels with a capture and release method that does not harm the fish.

With the guidance of Karin Limburg at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, she developed her research ideas into a master’s level study.  With the help of colleagues at the Hudson River Research Reserve, she spent two summers and two autumns collecting yellow and silver eels from the streams of the Hudson River estuary.

Interns
SCA interns at the Hudson River Research Reserve help Sarah set up a silver eel fyke net. Chris Bowser

Silver eels migrate at night during rain events in the autumn.  To catch them, Sarah set up a fyke net the day before a predicted rain storm.  This v-shaped net spanned the width of the stream and was removed the next morning.

The final life stages of the American eel still remain a mystery.  Sarah Mount’s research begins to solve it both for future research and for herself.  Her model will help future researchers understand when eels reach their full maturity to begin their migration.  When asked about her next steps she said, “Now the only missing piece left is the ocean, I’ve got to get out to the Sargasso Sea sometime.”

Post by Brianna Rosamilia,  Master of Science candidate in Environmental Interpretation at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

 

The 3 Season Paddler: Safety Tips for Extending Your Boating Season

The tang of a slightly warm breeze rattled the yellow leaves of the cottonwoods under a dome of grey clouds welcoming an intrepid group of fall paddlers chasing the last vestiges of summer at Schodack Island State Park on the Hudson River near Albany.

“We weren’t planning to go out on to the Hudson River for this trip, but were headed to the kayak launch at Schodack Creek on the eastern side of the island,” Ro Woodard recalled. “It has tidal waters like the Hudson and snakes through the phragmites reeds and cattails swamp under the mighty bridges of the CSX Railroad and NYS Thruway.  It was exciting to think, as I drove over the Thruway bridge and looked down to the creek, that I would be soon seeing the secrets of the marsh from a water’s eye view rather than a bird’s eye view.”

Warm fall and winter days might tease paddlers into heading for their favorite open water, but the warm air temperatures can deceptively mask the dangers of the cold water surrounding our boats as we paddle. NYS OPRHP would like to remind paddlers and sportsmen who venture out on the water between November 1 and May 1 that everyone in boats less than 21 feet in length  (this includes motor boats, too) MUST WEAR a US Coast Guard approved life jacket while underway.  OPRHP also recommends that everyone wear a life jacket if the water temperature is less than 70o F.

All boaters (and, yes, paddlers are boaters) should be aware of the possibility of a sudden unexpected swamping, capsize, or a fall overboard into the cold water. At the onset of a sudden cold water immersion there is an initial uncontrollable gasp reflex leading to hyperventilation and increased heart rate and blood pressure which can result in immediate drowning. Go to Cold Water Boot Camp to see what this reaction looks like.  A life jacket may save your life by keeping your head above water and your body floating you while you get your breathing in control.  Next you should attempt self-rescue by getting back in or on your boat.  You have about 10 -20 minutes depending on the temperature of the water before your muscles and nerves cool down and stop functioning;   even good swimmers can’t control their movements and ultimately experience swimming failure.   Again, the life jacket can make all the difference because it will float you.   This is a sobering message for those going out for what they hope to be a fine day on the water.  Remember to wear your life jacket, because it can make all the difference.

Late season paddlers should dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature with either a wet suit or dry suit under your life jacket.  Bring along safety equipment to help with rescue in case of a capsize: pump, rescue bag, sling, paddle float, whistle, visual distress signals, and a VHF radio or cell phone is a waterproof bag.  Also take a course to learn how to use the equipment and how to rescue a paddler who is in the water, empty the water from their boat and get them back inside before you head out for your cold season paddling trip. It is important to have essential skills and equipment, which we hope we never have to use, with you when you kayak and canoe.  The American Canoe Association has a variety of courses for all level of paddlers.

Always paddle with a group if possible and be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you are expected to return.  Take a boating safety course and refrain from the use of alcohol when paddling.  Boating safety courses can be found at http://nysparks.com/recreation/boating/boating-safety-class.aspx  and a free online paddle sport safety course at www.paddlecourse.com.

Click on an image above to enlarge it and read the caption.

The properly dressed and equipped group enjoyed a pleasant afternoon sweeping upstream on the incoming tide, sharing summer paddling stories and watching the sky hoping for a glimpse of one of the many eagles which inhabit the shores of the Park.  They passed under the bridges to the sound of a honking horn.  The honking must have come from a sharp-eye paddler who was crossing the bridge in his or her car and spotted us paddling. After encountering a tree across the narrowing creek, they turned around to head south just as the tide was turning and the current carried them back to the launch ramp. No eagles on this trip, but a flock of crows soared over head as we finished our day.

The fabulous fall padding season has wound down. The air temperatures are dropping and so is the water temperature.  Though lots of us summer paddlers put away our kayaks and canoes until spring, many hearty paddlers continue to enjoy the late fall paddling until ice forces them off the water. If that paddler is you, remember to wear your life jacket, let someone know when and where you are paddling, dress to stay warm, bring your safety equipment, don’t drink alcohol while out on the water, and paddle with a group if possible.   The rest of you, we’ll see you in the spring!

Post and photos by Ro Woodard, Marine Services Bureau, OPRHP.