Good news, bird lovers! Not all birds are leaving New York for the winter. This beautiful bird, the Rough-legged hawk or roughy, spends its summers in the Arctic tundra, but when winter comes along he or she takes up residence in Southern Canada and the Northern United States, including New York State. So this winter you might see them circling high above or sitting at the highest point on a tree scanning an open grassy field for a bite to eat. These birds prefer to hunt on open grasslands, farmland, and large open wetlands. This type of habitat is similar to the grassy tundra of their summer homes. State Parks you may see a Rough-legged hawk are Jones Beach State Park, Golden Hill State Park, Chimney Bluffs State Park, Point au Roche State Park, and Clermont State Historic Site. Other northern visitors that you may encounter while looking for roughys are Snow buntings and Short-eared owls – they also prefer the same type of open land to find food.
Some characteristics to look for when identifying a Rough-legged hawk are the dark patches at the bend of the wing and a dark bellyband and a white bib around the throat (and no red tail like one of its cousins). There are light and dark color varieties of this species, so a bird book should always be on hand when searching for this and other bird of prey!
Roughys search for food from utility poles or while hovering over the ground. They use their powerful eyesight to spot small mammals like mice and voles far below in grassy fields. Then they swoop down to catch the food in their talons.
Don’t be surprised if you look up and see one (or two) of these high flyers in the next few months.
The most abundant species of waterfowl in the world, snow geese or snows (Chen caerulescens), breed in the high arctic and spend winters in the eastern U.S., primarily along the Mississippi river and Atlantic coastal states. In our area, during both their fall and spring migration, snow geese tend to linger in the Adirondacks for a month or more, often times in huge flocks of thousands of birds. You are apt to hear them before sighting them. They sound like a huge throng of baying hounds moving slowly but steadily into your range of hearing, and then you may spot them flying way overhead. If they are close enough, you immediately recognize their snow white bodies and jet black wingtips. You can see them on Lake Champlain, the St. Lawrence River, and the large lakes and marshes in the Finger Lakes region. Point au Roche State Park is a great place to see them up close in the fall as the birds linger on Lake Champlain.
Strong, graceful fliers, snows come down to land by performing a falling leaf maneuver—all of a sudden they seem to lose their balance and start tumbling out of the sky. To watch a large flock of them tumble out of the blue can be pretty amusing. They rank as one of the noisiest birds, barking continually as they fly and vocalizing even as they feed.
You might notice a dark goose or two. Snow geese occur in white or blue colormorphs or forms which ornithologists considered different species until DNA evidence in 1983 confirmed them as one. They tend to mate with their respective colormorphs and they also segregate somewhat geographically, with most blues breeding and wintering in the middle of the continent and most whites in the east.
Snows feed almost exclusively on plants, preferably in wet areas such as marshes, lakes, impoundments, and waterlogged soil. They eat everything from stems to leaves to rhizomes and tubers, and have a decided weakness for agricultural fields, which they work for waste grains and seeds. Their primary method of feeding involves grubbing for rhizomes, tubers and roots by pulling the entire stem of the plant from the soil, with the result that a large flocks can entirely denude an area of vegetation.
Snow geese mate for life and develop strong family bonds, with young birds staying with their parents until their second or third year. Snow geese populations in North America have increased exponentially and in some regions by as much as nine percent a year, which most ornithologists and wildlife managers consider unsustainable. Essentially victims of their own success, snow geese degrade the habitat in their nesting colonies by eliminating most plant matter and leaving only exposed peat or bare mineral soil, a situation that not only puts pressures on them but also on other species, such as semi-palmated sandpipers and red-necked phalaropes. But for now, this boom in the population makes for good chances to see snow geese. So get out and enjoy these beautiful birds. Enjoy the show.
Point Au Roche State Park is a beautiful and diverse park with a lot to offer visitors. By visitors we’re talking both the reptile and human kinds. Not only does the park offer spectacular views of Lake Champlain for park visitors, it also provides great habitat for painted turtles!
Beginning in September 2012, two SUNY Plattsburgh students and Professor Danielle Garneau began their first field experience handling painted turtles. The goal of the project was to compare sex ratio and age structure of turtle populations in both urban, as well as rural ponds in Clinton County, New York. This research is part of the Ecological Research as Education Network’s (EREN) on-going TurtlePop project that is a collaboration among numerous colleges across the country.
Participants perform the same experimental protocol to determine if a greater number of adult males exist within urban turtle populations, and if this is a nationwide trend. The decline in young females is thought to result from their high rate of road kill when laying eggs at roadsides. An additional cause of death for urban painted turtles is an increase in the abundance of mesopredators (e.g., skunks, raccoons, opossum, foxes) who raid nests for eggs. Since starting, the TurtlePop project has offered field research experiences to many SUNY Plattsburgh students.
About a year into the project, as participants grew ever more curious, a radio-telemetry dimension was added by placing a VHF transmitter on the top of turtle’s shells in order to monitor their movement around a gold course pond complex (urban site) in the city of Plattsburgh. Findings suggest that city turtles do not tend to wander far from the shores of their pond and commonly used basking sites (e.g., downed trees, rocks).
In the summer of 2015, with the help of Point Au Roche State Park Naturalist and SUNY Plattsburgh Ecology alumnus Gillian Dreier-Lawrence, park visitors and college students had the opportunity to participate in and contribute to this growing collaborative research effort at Point Au Roche State Park. We are learning that Point Au Roche State Park has high turtle abundance; approximately 33 individuals were caught over three months of trapping in the lower ponds. Plans to further investigate the turtle population at Point Au Roche are in the works, as the large number of turtles found indicate that the population size at the park is likely quite large, only 11 marked turtles have been recaptured so far!
Post by Danielle Garneau, Associate Professor at SUNY Plattsburgh
In my two months as a New York State Parks Boat Steward on Lake Champlain I have already collected two aquatic invasive species: the banded mystery snail and the zebra mussel. I encountered the banded mystery snail at two different boat launch sites by the shore of Lake Champlain near Point Au Roche State Park. The zebra mussels are often found attached to rocks, driftwood, and recreational equipment that has been in the water for some duration.
The banded mystery snail is native to the southern United States and its introduction to this region can be traced back to 1867 when an amateur biologist released 200 of the snails into the Hudson River. This event was followed by subsequent introductions from aquariums owners. The snails can grow to be 1.75 inches long and 1.5 inches wide, with anywhere from one to four red bands on the shell. This species also lives in very high densities. Scientists are still studying the ecological effects of banded mystery snail invasion on natural communities. However, the presence of the species has been shown to decrease the survival rates of large mouth bass eggs in ponds and in the lab, which may eventually lead to a decline in fish populations in Lake Champlain.
Zebra Mussels attached to a piece of driftwood at the Point Au Roche State Park boat launch on Lake Champlain. Photo by Megan Phillips, OPRHP.
Photo of a Banded Mystery Snail collected from the Point Au Roche State Park boat launch, submitted by watercraft inspection steward Ariana London. Identification confirmed by specialists at SUNY Oneonta.
The zebra mussel is an aggressive species that has spread very quickly since its first introduction to North America from Russia in 1989. By the mid-1990’s the species had become established in Lake Champlain. It is a D-shaped mollusk that is less than 2 inches long and has a distinctive brown zebra pattern on the shell. It poses great threats to native environments because it lives in dense populations of up to 750,000 specimens per square meter. Zebra mussels will attach themselves to any hard surface including native mussels, plants, man-made objects (such as piers and boat motors), and will even adapt to live on soft sediment. They are able to attach to objects by spinning a mass of tiny fibers called byssal threads that allow them to cling to any surface. Their larvae (veligers) are microscopic and float near the surface of the water which makes them easily transportable by boats or any recreational watercraft. Zebra mussels are strong competitors. One way that they outcompete native species is by grazing on large volumes of phytoplankton, thereby reducing the food resources available for native mussel species. They also take up large amounts of space on the lake substrate that is needed for fish spawning. Additionally, they cause drastic economic damage each year by clogging pipes and pumps at wastewater treatment facilities and damaging municipal drinking water systems, hydroelectric power plants and irrigation systems.
While it is possible that Lake Champlain may never be free of the zebra mussels and the banded mystery snail, we can still ensure that these species do not spread to ponds, lakes and streams that are not yet infested. I feel incredibly honored to be part of the effort to stop the spread of the aquatic invasive species by educating people on what they can do to help.
Remember to clean, drain and dry your watercraft after use. To reduce the risk of spreading invasive mussels and snails in their veliger stage, boaters may opt to wash their watercraft and flush the engine with hot water. Research indicates that zebra mussels in the veliger stage cannot withstand water warmer than 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and adults will experience mortality at temperatures greater than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. For a list of hot water, high pressure boat washing station in the North Country/Adirondack Park area, click here.
Post by Ariana London, OPRHP Thousand Island Region Boat Steward.