Tag Archives: Taconic Outdoor Education Center

Summer Stewards of Hudson Highlands

Welcome to the Hudson Highlands, New York City’s backyard!  Just a short train ride or a car ride from NYC, people can regain their sense of summer freedom in the network of trails throughout the Eastern Hudson Highlands.  Patrons come from all over – day-trippers from neighboring states, as well as international hikers staying in NYC – to enjoy a pleasant hike.  The trails are as diverse as the people who visit, and there is a trail for every type of hiking goal.

breakneck-photo-by-penelope-guccione
Breakneck, photo by Penelope Guccione

Breakneck Ridge and the Washburn/Cornish Trailhead are two of the most popular trailheads, which are places where trails begin.  These trailheads are where you are likely to bump into a summer trail steward.  New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (NYNJTC) staff is stationed at Breakneck while State Parks stewards are posted at Washburn on weekends and either location during the weekdays.  Say hello to the trail stewards at either spot; they can help suggest the best route options and point out unique features that can be found along your desired hike.  Trail stewards from State Parks are based out of the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC): Outdoor Educators, Student Conservation Association (SCA) members, and seasonal staff who all teach about the natural world.  Stewards are happy to answer questions about any animals you have seen or plants you have discovered.  You can even chat to get some information about local history and places to go post-hike.

Trail stewards are here to empower people with information about safety and about protecting the fragile natural area of the state park.  Working as a part if visitor services, trail stewards help hikers make more informed, positive decisions.  Did you know that trail blazes or trail markers indicate which way the trail winds through the forest?  Trail stewards are there to help brief people on how to read the blazes so that hikers stay on the trail.  Wandering off trail has a devastating impact on the mountains’ natural resources, which supports rare species and sensitive natural communities.  Some hikers purposefully stray from the path, thereby creating false or social trails that can easily mislead novice hikers and escalate erosion, a major issue in the state park.  The rocky summit communities along the ridgeline can be destroyed by visitors trampling the low lying vegetation.  So tread lightly and stick to the designated trails and viewpoints marked on the trail maps.  The goal is to allow people to utilize the mountains as a recreational resource without harming or putting too much stress on the ecosystem.  When hikers make informed decisions, the state park stays in better condition for current and future generations.

Breakneck and Washburn trailheads are the last outposts before you begin your journey to the ridgetops and woods, so make sure to prepare ahead of time.  There are many trails that intersect and overlap.  Grab a free detailed, colored map of the Eastern Hudson Highlands as well as valuable advice from the stewards.  Make sure to bring plenty of water: at least one to two liters during the hot, humid summer months.  Water needs vary based on climate, exertion, and individual needs.  Just remember that there are no water fountains or pumps along the trails.  Washburn has complimentary water most weekends in the summer to help unprepared hikers avoid dehydration.  Snacks may also be useful, providing fuel for long and strenuous hikes.  Other helpful items may include sunscreen, sturdy hiking shoes, and bug spray.  Trail stewards will remind you to “Leave No Trace” (LNT).  LNT is a set of seven principles that provide an outline for outdoor ethics, such as, “Plan and Prepare,” “Carry Out Items that you Carry In,” “Leave what you Find,” “Respect Wildlife,” and “Be Considerate of Other Visitors.”  Essentially, you want to leave no trace of your visit so that the mountains look the same as before entering the state park.  The LNT outdoor ethics are critical for patrons to observe in order to preserve the natural splendor of the Hudson Highlands.

hudson-highlands-photo-by-penelope-guccione
Hudson Highlands, photo by Penelope Guccione

State Parks is also planning for improved management of the park by collecting and analyzing data.  Trail stewards keep track of the number of hikers who start their hikes from these trailheads and conduct surveys to get vital feedback from patrons.  Hikers can help influence future planning in the region by taking a moment to complete a brief survey.  You can take the survey by speaking with a summer trail steward or answering the questions online.  You can help by taking surveys for other trails by clicking on “Survey” under “Quick Links” at the bottom of the State Parks’ website.

As the summertime comes to a close, the trail stewards move from their summer post to other duties until the next summer season.  While the trail stewards may be gone, the trails are still eager to be traveled.  Soon there will be a crisp nip in the air signaling the beginning of autumn.  Will you be there when the forest erupts in a sea of rich, fall colors?  Will you help uphold the outdoor ethics to safeguard the natural resources of the Hudson Highlands?

Learn more about the forest and summits on these trails:

Pitch Pine-Oak-Heath Rocky Summit

Chestnut Oak Forest

Appalachian Oak-Hickory Forest

Post by Catherine Francolini, State Parks

breakneck-sunset-photo-by-karoline-nowillo
Breakneck Sunset, photo by Karoline Nowillo

Tracking The Elusive New England Cottontail

New England Cottontail
New York’s rarest native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

 

It is a typical morning at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC) in Fahnestock State Park. The sunshine beams through the forest, a chorus of song birds are greeting the day, and 60 elementary school students are making their way to breakfast to fuel up for an active day of learning in the outdoors. Meanwhile, a familiar truck and crew rolls in to begin their workday visiting several small animal traps set in specific locations in hopes that at least one will contain a rabbit, particularly a New England Cottontail.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) is collaborating with State Parks, and the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct important research about the population decline of native New England Cottontail. Over the past decade, studies have indicated that their numbers have decreased about 50%. The two major factors contributing to the population decrease are loss of suitable habitat, and the expanding range of the Eastern Cottontail. The only native rabbit species east of the Hudson River is the New England Cottontail; however the range of the Eastern Cottontail has been expanding and now overlaps this territory which causes competition for resources. Predation is also playing a role in the decreasing population; part of this research project is keeping an eye on who’s eating New England Cottontails by using trail cameras. These cameras placed in baited locations and use a motion sensor to take pictures when an animal walks by. Different predators are “captured” in a photo as they come to investigate the bait, which shows the species that a present in the rabbit survey area.

Back at the TOEC, the students are gathering to meet with their instructors for their morning lesson, the phone suddenly rings. “We have a rabbit” says the voice on the other end. Flexibility is part of the job description of an outdoor educator, and no one passes up an opportunity to enjoy a teachable moment, especially when it involves a live animal. All plans are dropped for the moment and after a short walk the students quietly approach the researchers who are preparing to identify, collect data, and radio tag the small mammal.

Juvenile
Measuring a juvenile New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Many of students who visit the TOEC are from the New York City area and rarely get to experience being this close to a truly wild animal, and they have a lot of questions such as: “Why is it in a pillowcase?”, “How long are its feet?”, “Is that a baby?” and “What’s That!?”. Their sense of wonder is contagious and the SUNY ESF researchers return the enthusiasm by answering the barrage of questions being hurled at them, while also safely collecting data on their captive rabbit. Measurements are taken, and the data is recorded onto forms and will go into a large database to allow for comparison across the entire northeast. The final step is to attach a small antenna to the rabbit’s back so that the researchers will be able to locate the individual rabbit again through radio telemetry. Now comes the exciting part! The rabbit is released, and in a flash it darts away, immediately out-of-sight, camouflaged amongst the underbrush.

Camouflage
A well camouflaged New England Cottontail. Can you see the antennae? photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Upon reflection, many students will say seeing the rabbit was their favorite part of the week, and they walk away with the feeling of being included in something important. Nothing teaches better than experience; giving students the chance to interact with a living, breathing part of the ecosystem around them. It sure makes for a pretty great day.

Post by Dana Mark, environmental educator at TOEC

Sweet Days Are Coming

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.

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.

Inserting_the_tap
Tapping a maple tree, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Maple_syrup_production#/media/File:Inserting_the_tap.jpg

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.

Flower
Sugar maple flower, http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3380/3497922622_2de9730b02_z.jpg

Post by Marlena Vera-Schockner, SCA Member served at Taconic Outdoor Education Center at Fahnestock State Park, 2015