Since January, we have been members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps. We work in New York State Parks and state-owned campgrounds and improve the infrastructure (structures that we use to access and enjoy spaces – such as roads, trails, buildings, etc.) of these natural areas. One of our first experiences as members of this program took place in Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. Our project was to work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) workers, and produce thunder boxes (box toilets), outhouses, and register boxes (for trailheads). We helped cut, paint, and attach all of the pieces, and then put them together in a way that would help people in the future easily assemble them in the field. Our crew enjoyed carpentry projects such as this. We did more than just improve our carpentry skills during those cold March days, we created friendships within our own crew and with the workers in Saranac Lake. To show their appreciation for our hard work, our project partner took us to the summit of White Face Mountain, the fifth tallest mountain in New York! We got to ride in an elevator made by the Civilian Conservation Corps – the group that our Corps is based on. We also explored the weather station that is situated at the summit and marvel at the gorgeous high peaks of the Adirondacks. This was a great time and was just an introduction to the adventures that would follow!
Marlena testing out one of the outhouses, photo by Michaela Aney
Marlena and Rebecca at the Summit of Whiteface Mountain, photo by Michaela Aney
In June, our crew ventured to Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca. Our job was to rebuild steps on the Gorge Trail. When we arrived, we found a steep trail covered by asphalt and parking barriers and we had the task to remove it all. We started by prying up the heavy concrete barriers and chipping away at the asphalt. Once removed, we then had to carry it all either up or down the hill, depending on what part of the trail we were on. We estimate that we moved more than 20 tons of material over the course of about 18 days! We then began cutting wood and digging dirt to install box steps – 147 steps to be exact! These steps were made from 3 pieces of wood, continuously stacked on top of each other and filled with gravel. The new steps are safer for hikers and will slow down trail erosion allowing park visitors to enjoy the trail for many years to come!
It was a lot of hard work, but we were rewarded with thousands of thank yous from park visitors, beautiful views (Ithaca really is gorges!), and the satisfaction that comes with another completed project.
These were two of the amazing projects we completed this year.
Post by Michaela Aney and Marlena Vera-Schockner, 2016 ECC members
Twenty miles east of New York City, on Long Island, over six million people every year head to Jones Beach State Park for some fun in the sun. This popular beach also happens to be one of the most popular spots in New York State for the endangered Piping plover to nest. The Piping plover is a small, sandy colored shorebird with yellow/orange legs, and a black band strapped across its neck. After they arrive, they chow down on a diet made up of mostly invertebrates (think insects and mollusks), and make their homes at the base of the dunes. Unfortunately, due to extensive hunting in the 19th century for their feathers along with increased beach recreation post-World War II their populations have seen a steep decline. Plover stewards are tasked with reversing this downward trend and protecting these shorebirds from the bevy of visitors. Every summer, the conservation efforts begin with the construction of a “symbolic fence.”
Symbolic fence is erected all along the beach in areas where plovers nest and is a simple combination of metal posts, orange string, and orange flagging. Once the fences are built and the plovers arrive, it’s up to the plover stewards to find the nests. Unlike a songbird, piping plovers nest on the ground in round, shallow depressions called “scrapes.” To create a scrape, male plovers walk around the dunes finding locations they would like to nest, then simply scoop out the sand with their feet. They make several scrapes, so females have a variety of spots to choose as a nest. Once they choose a scrape, the plovers will line the pit with shell fragments to reinforce the ground where the eggs will be laid. Plovers will leave and return to their scrape via the same routes forming “Highways.”
Piping plover broken wing display. Photo by Kim Rondinella.
A newly hatched Piping Plover chick! Photo by Kim Rondinella.
Running piping plover chick. Photo by Kim Rondinella.
Plover stewards use observable highways along with sightings of broken wing displays to determine how close they are to a nest. Plovers feign being injured to draw attention away from their nest and chicks. They lure the predator to follow them by stealthily walking out of the nest and pretending to have a broken wing. As they parade, they tempt the potentially voracious animals away from the nest, only to fly away at the last second before being captured! Even though they use sneaky tactics, the plovers still need some help. So, every year plover stewards build shelters called exclosures around the nests which keep out hungry animals. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is conducting a study to assess the effectiveness of exclosures. They do this by comparing predation of exclosed nests versus non- exclosed nests.
Come June, the exclosures become obsolete as the eggs begin to hatch. Newly hatched chicks can’t fly and are still in danger of being crushed by vehicles driving on the beach. Public vehicles are therefore not allowed on the beach during this time. At State Parks there is still a need for park vehicles to travel the beach for daily tasks, such as trash removal and maintaining the mounds of sand in front of the lifeguard chairs. Plover stewards escort the vehicles to help keep the chicks safe. It takes chicks between 28-35 days to fledge, or to learn how to fly. During this time the chick will transform from looking like a cotton ball on sticks to an almost identical version of its parents.
Long walks on the beach watching these plovers grow- up may sound glorious, but there are some occupational hazards to being a plover steward. During a plover survey walk it’s impossible to avoid another shorebird nesting in the dune habitat: the threatened Least tern. Unlike plovers, Least terns guard their nests viciously: dive-bombing, squawking, and even defecating on anything that comes near including a plover steward. Yet there are strategies that a plover steward can use to happily coexist with the Least terns! These are including but not limited to walking slowly and confidently and placing a long stick in his/her backpack.
By the end of August, the plovers along with the Least terns will fly thousands of miles south for their annual migration. For many plover stewards it is hard to see these tiny shorebirds leave after months of meticulous observation. But they will be back next year!
Post by Keegan Mobley and Allison Philpott, Jones Beach State Park Plover Stewards and Student Conservation Association members
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.
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.
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.
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
In the northeast, winter days can seem to drag on after the holiday season. Snowstorms seen to occur every three days and a constantly blowing wind chills the air to -10oF. It’s the type of weather that makes you wonder why humans don’t hibernate. While we can’t control the seasons; winter will always bring shorter days, the moon will revolve around the earth and the earth will revolve around the sun, we can change our mindset and that is what maple sugaring is about.
The maple sugaring season is almost a spiritual experience that lifts you through the last doldrums of winter. It ignites every sense. Imagine hearing the taps of sap into a metal bucket hung on a tree, the sweet steam lifting off the evaporator immersing your nose in warmth, the crackling fire fueling the evaporator, and of course the sweet taste of liquid gold. The whole experience does not occur unless the right weather conditions are present.
Hudson Valley Sugar Farm at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center, photo by Marlena Vera-Schockner
The release of sap in the spring is a sign that the trees are finally waking up from their winter rest. The ideal sap running conditions are warm days and cold nights. This temperature fluctuation causes the sap to run up and down the tree each day. The maple season may only last for as little as ten days, but they are an intense ten days. Intense because of the time needed to collect and boil down the sap, and it is the boiling down of the sap that takes the most time.
Do you ever wonder why pure maple syrup tends to cost five times more than pancake syrup? It because it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup! There is a lot of energy involved to boil down the sap that contains 2% sugar to the sticky syrup containing 66% sugar content. Everyone around helps collect sap, tend to the evaporator, and bottle syrup. Tremendous effort goes into each gallon of syrup and it is all worth it in the end. There is no better feeling than creating something from start to finish and enjoying your success with the ones you cherish.
There are signs in nature that tell you when the maple season is over. The temperature stays above freezing during the night ceasing the sap to run up and down the tree. The buds on the trees start to burst open and the sap turns cloudy and is less sweet. A natural siren goes off-spring peepers serenade the woods as they emerge from their winter hibernation. It’s a bittersweet ending for the sugaring season. The transformation of sap to syrup is over for the year, but now the forest has come back to life and it is time for spring.
Post by Marlena Vera-Schockner, SCA Member served at Taconic Outdoor Education Center at Fahnestock State Park, 2015
What started in 1931 as a simple idea to put unemployed New Yorkers to work on state-funded public works projects through the New York Temporary Emergency Relief Administration grew to become the largest peace time utilization of people and equipment in US history – the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC. Many New York State Parks including Thacher State Park, Fahnestock State Park, Lake Taghkanic State Park, Selkirk Shores State Park, Thacher State Park, Green Lakes State Park, Letchworth State Park, Hamlin Beach State Park, Chenango Valley State Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park and more benefited from the work that was performed by over 200,000 CCC members from 1933-1942. During these nine years, 61 camps of 200 CCC members built roads, trails, cabins, and stonewalls, planted trees, worked on early invasive species detection and removal and more. The Allegany and lower Hudson Valley regions were considered the highest environmental priority and had CCC camps each year, while other encampments would last a season or two, moving on to another location when the job was done.
About 40 different CCC camps were spread across the state each year. The typical CCC member was between 18-25 years old, “unemployed, unmarried, healthy, not in school, from a needy family, and capable of doing work” (Thompson). Most CCC members were white males; however New York also had CCC camps for Native Americans, African Americans, WWI veterans (separate camps for white and African American veterans), and separate camps for women (known as She-She-She Camps).
This January, New York State is reviving the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration conservation corps with the inaugural New York State Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC) and a 10-month residential program modeled after the CCC. The program is open toNew York State students and residents aged 18-25, with an emphasis on veterans and expanding diversity. The 50 ECC members will be based at SUNY Morrisville where they will receive eight weeks of specialized trainings and certifications lead by the Student Conservation Association – Hudson Valley Corps . Then, starting in March and running through early November, ECC members will work in State Parks, Department of Environmental Conservation and other state agency lands on projects across the state focused on:
Open Space Management, maintaining and improving hundreds of miles on New York’s hiking trails
Recreation and Access Mapping, monitoring and mapping over 10,000 acres of public land for safe recreational use
Natural Resource Stewardship, invasive species removal and protection of native species and ecosystems
Environmental Education and Outreach, educating New Yorkers on conservation and stewardship of public lands
Infrastructure and Sustainability, helping to cut New York’s energy consumption and energy costs through the construction of renewable energy projects.
During the 10-months, ECC members will get a chance to work on their education plans and develop career skills. At the end of their service they will be given a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
Building on their hands-on experiences and training, ECC members will be poised to become New York’s next generation of conservation leaders. Learn more about the ECC in future blogs.
Post by Susan Carver, OPRHP. Slideshow photos courtesy of OPRHP.
Thompson, Craig; 75 Years Later: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corp; Conservationist, New York State Department of 85 Environmental Conservation, February 2008; http://www.dec.ny.gov/pubs/42768.html.