Tag Archives: student conservation association

Trails Stewardship in the Finger Lakes

Here in the Finger Lakes, one of the best ways to access the natural beauty of the area is by taking a hike on one of the many trails that can be found within the region’s state parks. The trails (in parks such as Watkins Glen, Taughannock Falls, Robert H. Treman, and Fillmore Glen) lead hikers through a variety of environments, including mature forests, meadows, lake shores, and wetlands. Of course, hikers can also enjoy the deep gorges, dramatic cascades, and waterfalls the region is famous for! Over the years, hiking has gained popularity nationwide. With thousands of miles of hiking trails, New York State has a lot to offer people looking to get outside. The Finger Lakes region of the State Park system sees several hundred thousand visitors each year, many of whom come to hike the trails. Foot traffic, weather, and time have left some of the trails in Finger Lakes state parks eroded and in need of repair. This erosion not only makes the hiking experience less enjoyable for trail users, it also leads to negative impacts on the surrounding ecosystems. To meet this problem head-on, the Finger Lakes Regional Trail Crew (FLRTC) was developed in the spring of 2017.

Crew
Some of the hard-working members of the Finger Lakes Regional Trail Crew, photo by State Parks

The main goal of the trail crew is to maintain safe and enjoyable hiking trails for park visitors, while protecting the natural and historic resources of the park. Currently the FLRTC consists of three Parks staff members and a diverse group of local volunteers. The Excelsior Conservation Corps also helps out with specific projects. In 2018, the trails crew will host two interns from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) Parks Corps devoted to trail stewardship. This team effort has led to a tremendous amount of progress towards the Finger Lakes Park’s trail improvement goals.

Boardwalk
Boardwalks protect wet areas or fragile habitat and make for easier walking for visitors, photo by State Parks.

Trail work, as a rule, takes a large amount of physical effort and creative problem solving. The work done by the FLRTC is no exception. Traditional tools and building techniques are often employed. Many of the trails in need of repair are in areas that are not accessible by vehicles or equipment. As a result, many of the materials used in trail construction have to be carried in by hand; it takes a strong crew to lug in lumber, stone, and gravel. Sometimes materials have to be moved down into or across the area’s gorges. The trail crew uses high-strength zip lines to accomplish this task. This is the safest method and protects the fragile slopes and vegetation.

Zipline
Boardwalks protect wet areas or fragile habitat and make for easier walking for visitors, photo by State Parks.

All of this hard work pays off in the form of functional, safe and visually pleasing staircases, boardwalks, and bridges that blend with the surroundings.

 As you get out on the trails this year, take a minute to look down from the beautiful scenery. The trail you are on most likely took a lot of hard work to build and maintain – but chances are the park staff and volunteers behind the work loved every minute of it!

 Post by Zachary Ballard, State Parks

SCA Service Project at Sam’s Point Preserve

It was a beautiful Monday morning as my fellow Student Conservation Association Hudson Valley AmeriCorps members and I made the trek to the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Members were coming from as far north as Moreau Lake State Park (near the Adirondacks) and as far south as Jones Beach State Park on Long Island.  I had come to Sam’s Point before to volunteer with bird surveys, so I was thrilled to return to this spot for our service project.  We had gathered at what would be our home base for the next three days – us in a circle, cars in the background, and a spectacular view of Sam’s Point itself.  We had gathered here for the 9/11 Patriots’ Day of Remembrance and held a moment of silence to reflect on that day 16 years ago, as well as the service we would be providing for the parks.

Before we could get started, some orientation was in order, as there was a lot of information to cover.  Sam’s Point has a rare population of ridgetop dwarf pitch pine barrens, supporting wildlife such as birds, fishers (small mammals related to weasels), and porcupines.  In April 2016, a wildfire broke out in the area, and efforts are underway to study the resilience of this ecosystem.  We were able to see more of the area by hiking up to the scenic overlook as well as to the super cool ice caves!

Invasive plant removal crew_EN
Some of the invasive species removal crew

There were multiple projects being done in our three days of service.  Two crews worked on erosion control devices on the Verkeerderkill Falls Footpath. One crew worked on making water bars, trail structures that take the water off the trail. Another crew worked on building bog bridges, low wooden bridge structures that raise the trail out of the water or other sensitive area. The third crew was constructing invasive plant boot brush stations at various entrances around the park preserve.  I was part of the invasive species crew for the service project.  Our main focus was removing spotted knapweed, a purple flower that grew on the edge of the Loop Road. We had been out in the sun working hard on knapweed removal, and towards the end of the day, decided to move in the shade to work on stilt grass.

Invasives crew on the trail_EN
On the trail in Sam’s Point Area.

 

While pulling knapweed for many hours at a time, SCA members were able to have some fun.  We had started to play the game Murder on the Trail, which is where the “killer” would stick out their tongue at a person, and five minutes, later the “victim” had to die dramatically. Aaron (one of the program managers) came to check in on us and did not know we were playing this game –   he wasn’t sure what was happening when someone dropped to the ground.  Other fun things included exploring Lake Maratanza and finding baby snakes!  From the beginning of the trail at the bottom of the ridge, all the way to the top, past Sam’s Point towards Lake Maratanza, we pulled almost half a mile of knapweed. That’s a lot of knapweed!

The other teams worked hard and played hard too! The bog bridging crew installed over 170 feet of new bog bridges and the water bar crew improved almost a quarter mile of trail on one of the park preserve’s most popular trails. The boot brush crew installed three new boot brush stations to educate the public about invasive species and help stop the spread of invasive plant seeds.’

Three project photos

After three days of hard work and camping out at Sam’s Point, it was time for all of us to return to our homes in the Hudson valley.  We had done great work for the park and I was happy to be a part of it.

Thank you to the SCA, SCA members, State Parks, and the staff of Sam’s Point. Until next time!

Post by Emily Enoch, SCA Hudson Valley AmeriCorps Member

Personal Experiences: Excelsior Conservation Corp

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!

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.

cut-with-chainsaw
All of the steps were cut by a chainsaw! , photo by Michaela Aney

These were two of the amazing projects we completed this year.

Post by Michaela Aney and Marlena Vera-Schockner, 2016 ECC members

Learn more about the Excelsior Conservation Corps.

Plover Stewards: Guardians of the Endangered Piping Plover

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.”

Tire Tracks
Symbolic fencing setup. Photo by Keegan Mobley

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.”

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.

Exclosure
Installed piping plover nest exclosure. Photo by Kim Rondinella.

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.

Least Tern
Least tern straight ahead! Photo by Kim Rondinella.

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

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