Tag Archives: Wildlife

Raptor Migration and Hawk Watching

When we think about spring and fall in the northeast, we often dwell on the extraordinary changes that occur to our trees and other plants. In the spring, we yearn for green to replace the barren gray and white of winter; in fall we marvel at the warm oranges, reds, and yellows that are on display as our trees prepare for winter. But there is an equally amazing change that is occurring at the same time, one we often fail to realize because we simply don’t look up: the mass migration of raptors. Whether it is the sheer majesty of a bald eagle, the raw power of a northern goshawk, the pure speed of the peregrine falcon, or the extinct-ness of the Velociraptor, raptors have captured the minds and imaginations of people and cultures for generations. Raptors, also called “birds of prey,” include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, ospreys, harriers, and owls.

Raptor-watching, normally referred to as “hawk watching,” is a great way to spend a spring or autumn afternoon and can be enjoyed in many of our State Parks. Hawk watching is a draw for both veteran and novice bird watchers alike. Raptors are highly visible during their migration as they soar through the skies, unlike songbirds who hide in dense shrubs and tree tops. If you go to popular hawk watching sites during migrations (www.hawkcount.org), you will often find other observers and official hawk counters. These fellow birding enthusiasts are always eager to help you identify the shapes and flight patterns of certain groups and species. With a bit of practice, you’ll be a veteran in no time!

Migration

Migration is no joke and (as you can imagine) can be exhausting. Some species, such as broad-winged hawks, travel over 4,500 miles in about 9 weeks. Why do these birds go through all this trouble, anyways? Your first guess might be that the birds are escaping the cold. However, if so, then why don’t they stay closer to the equator, where it is always warm? The suggestion that temperature triggers migration is a very common misconception and is often connected to human behavior. Many northerners head south for warmer climates to escape the winter chill. Those who spend their entire winters in the south are even given the name “snowbirds.” With bird migrations, they aren’t escaping the cold; they are often migrating due to the lack of food availability in the winter.

Picture this (shouldn’t be hard for us Northeasterners)… the sun starts setting lower in the sky, the days grow shorter, and the frigid air from the north starts blowing. Plants go through an amazing transition. Annual plants who have dropped their seeds have reached the end of their life, while perennial plants drop their leaves, transferring their energy into their roots and stems to outlast the winter. The world feels a bit barren with the browns and whites of winter. Those plants provide food for insects and many small mammals. When the plants retreat, these small animals follow suit with either long slumbers or feeding off their stockpile of nuts and seeds in their winter dens. Even our ponds and streams can’t provide a bounty, for water denizens are sealed under a thick layer of ice. If you were a raptor, would you stay around and risk not finding food, or would you soar south where food is still plentiful? That said… not all raptors leave. Driving along major highways, you’ll often see red-tailed hawks perched high above, waiting for a mouse or rabbit to make the mistake of exposing themselves. Food is still around, it is just harder to come by. Raptors who do fly south must compete with southern resident birds for food and roosting sites. This added competition is OK though, for the adult raptors only need to worry about feeding themselves. However, when the desire for mating and offspring arises, these southern retreats don’t provide enough food to feed hungry young bellies. So, adults return to their summer breeding grounds… right when their unsuspecting prey emerges from their long winter retreat.

Like humans, raptors concentrate along specific routes while traveling long distances. So, just like you would find more people driving cars on highways than backroads, you’ll find more raptors along flyways. Here in the Northeast, we are part of the Atlantic flyway. Raptor flyways are normally found over level terrain. Mountains, large lakes, and oceans create obstacles that raptors cannot easily cross. Mountains do have a very important role to play, besides being simple barriers. In North America our mountain ranges run north-south. When cross winds hit these ridge an updraft is created, which raptors then use to help them soar and stay aloft. These updrafts mean raptors need to flap their wings less, conserving an enormous amount of energy for their long trip.

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Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Updrafts are extremely helpful… when the wind actually blows. So, what do raptors do in early fall, when the sun is still high in the sky and the winds relatively calm? Physics, my friend. Even if you aren’t an avid hawk watcher, you have probably noticed vultures or hawks flying in large circles with their wings wide and high in the sky. This trick is called soaring flight and it is raptors mastering flight on thermal air currents. Thermal air currents, or thermals, are created when air heated by the sun rises from the ground into the sky. Thermals are often formed along the slopes of hills, but can also form over flat ground. As this warm air rises it cools and condenses, forming puffy, beautiful clouds. If you have a sunny, warm day with puffy clouds, it is also probably a good day for thermals and a good day for raptors to soar overhead.

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Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Thermals typically do not form over open water; water releases heat evenly and slowly. Without any type of thermal or updraft most raptors must resort to flapping their wings, which uses an extraordinary amount of energy. If raptors decide to migrate over large bodies of water and need to flap the entire way, they are taking a huge risk: if they run out of energy, they will most likely drown. So, when raptors come across a large body of water while migrating, they typically hug the shoreline until they find a short way to cross. These short crossings often form bottlenecks where thousands of raptors pass through every year. One of the largest bottlenecks in the world happens to be in Veracruz, Mexico, where tens to hundreds of thousands of raptors migrating from central and eastern North America pass through, trying to skirt between the Gulf of Mexico and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range.

Identification

The identification of raptors hundreds of feet in the air, where you can often only see a silhouette against a cloud, can seem… daunting. Luckily, with a bit a practice it might be easier than you feared. Hawk watchers often utilize an identification protocol called the SPASMATIC method:

Shape Relative sizes and proportions of wings, tail, and head
Pattern/plumage Contrasting patterns of dark and light
Actions How does the bird fly or what is it doing?
Size How big is the bird in comparison to other birds?
Multiple
Attributes
Use as many of the above characteristics as possible
Trust
In the
Concept
Believe in your ability to judge these characteristics

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

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Hawk silhouettes, image from Learn.org

Accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk) typically chase and feed on songbirds in woodlands with closely spaced trees, so when in flight they have short, rounded wings and long narrow tails.

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Sharp-shinned hawk, note the long tail and rounded wings. By Steve Berardi, accessed from Flicker

Buteos (red-tailed, broad-winged, red-shouldered, and rough-legged hawks) have broad-shaped wings for soaring and perching on high branches.

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Red-tailed hawk, note the dark band of feathers across the belly. This can be seen in all birds, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon) often catch prey in mid-flight in open spaces and depend on speed to capture swift prey, so when in flight you can see that they have pointed wings.

An american kestrel ( perched on a wooden post.
American kestrel

Harriers have broad, strong wings held in the distinctive v-shape (or dihedral shape), which allows them to fly low and slow at ground level, typically around grasslands and marshes. Northern harriers are the only harriers found in our region.

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Northern harrier, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Vultures (turkey and black vultures) have long and broad wings, which aids in soaring over fields and woods while searching for carrion. Turkey vultures hold their wings in the v-shape, but black vultures lack the v-shape almost entirely.

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Turkey vulture, note the difference in feather color between the top and the bottom of the wings,

Osprey distinctively look like large gulls in both body and wing shape. Their wings help them hover over water where they dive feet first into the water to capture fish.

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Osprey in flight, note the distinctive coloration of the feather, photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region

Eagles (bald eagle and golden eagle) have large wingspans to soar high in the air; this also aids them in capturing food in large open spaces on the ground or over water.

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Golden eagle in flight, note the large, long wings, photo by Juan Lacruz

Get out and Hawk watch!

New York has multiple premier Hawk watch locations, with many of them having designated hawk counters. HawkCount gives you the ability to find hawk  watch locations across North America, contacts of designated hawk counters or coordinators, and new and historical data that has been collected at these locations.

We hope you enjoy your next hawk watching adventure. Why not make your next hawk watching experience at a designated hawk watching site in a New York State Park? Here are a few to check out!

Happy birding!

To learn more about hawk watching and to find great resources, visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website.

Robert Moses State Park on Long Island

Out on the south shore of Long Island is a barrier beach called Fire Island, where the First Island Hawkwatch can be found at the east end of Robert Moses State Park. This all-volunteer watch provides coverage from September to November and has access to a hawk watch platform.

To get to the hawk watch platform, proceed south on Robert Moses Parkway and cross the bridge to Robert Moses State Park. From the water tower circle, proceed East to parking lot #5. Park here and walk east toward the lighthouse.

John Boyd Thacher State Park outside Albany

The Helderberg Escarpment Hawk Watch is found just outside Albany, NY at John Boyd Thacher State Park. At the overlook parking lot, hawk watchers can view thousands of broad-winged hawks and other migrating raptors during the park’s annual mid-September Hawkwatch Festival.

To get to overlook parking lot take I-90 to Exit 4 onto Rt 85 west. Follow Rt. 85 for about 11 miles and make a right onto Thacher Road (Rt. 157). “The Overlook” parking area is about 2 miles up the escarpment.

Braddock Bay Park outside Rochester

The great Braddock Bay area outside of Rochester, NY, is one of the top hawk watching sites in New York and is considered a migration “hot spot.” Millions of birds migrate through the area every spring as they head to breeding grounds farther north. In 1996 over 140,000 raptors were counted migrating through the area, and on April 27, 2011 they tallied 42,235 hawks: the biggest spring flight day recorded in the U.S. and Canada. The official hawk count is conducted only in the spring season between March and May. Viewers can use the hawk watch platform found in Braddock Bay Park, which is owned by State Parks and operated by the Town of Greece. The Braddock Bay Raptor Research (BBRR) has conducted the hawk watch since 1986.

To get to Braddock Bay take the Lake Ontario State Parkway until the East Manitou Road/Braddock Bay Park exit. Turn north onto East Manitou Road and turn left into Braddock Bay Park. When you come to a T in the road turn right and continue until you see the hawk watch platform on your left.

Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

The site is adjacent to parking lot at the crest of the road through Betty & Wilbur Davis State Park. It has excellent views to the west over and across the Cherry Valley Creek Valley, and south and southeast. The view to the north is good. The hill obstructs the views northeast and due east.

Check out our 2016 blog post about Golden Eagle migration surveys by Delaware Otsego Audubon Society.

By Matt Brincka, State Parks

Juvenile bald eagle featured image by Matt Brincka, State Parks

Fire Improves Bird Habitat at Ganondagan State Historic Site

Have you heard about wildfire outbreaks in California or New York on the news? Do you know how a prescribed burn and wildfire differ from one another?  A prescribed burn is very different from a wildfire. Prescribed burning is a management tool that is precisely planned for safety and meeting set goals, while wildfires often occur unpredictably and without warning. State Parks utilizes prescribed burning for both public safety and conservation purposes. This past spring, at the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, prescribed burning was used for both conservation and to replicate traditions of the Seneca people.

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Control lines are created at the edge of the area to be burned so that the fire does not escape designated areas. These lines are approximately 12 feet wide and are kept wet and clear of fire by prescribed burn staff, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Ganondagan State Historic Site (Ganondagan) celebrates and interprets the lives and culture of the Seneca people, specifically the Seneca that lived on site between 1655-1687. The site is 570 acres, and in 2009, a 70-acre portion was set aside for grassland management. Journal entries from European visitors during the time of Seneca occupation, described the areas surrounding Ganondagan. In 1669, explorers Galineē and Dollier described vast oak openings with sparse, but lofty, oak trees and grasses taller than a man that extended for hundreds of miles in every direction.¹ These observations paint a picture of warm season grasslands, with grasses reaching heights of 8 feet or taller, sparse wildflowers and oak trees around their fringe.² Warm season grasses begin growing in June, reaching full maturity by August or September. Some of the earliest observations indicate that the Seneca people burned these grasslands annually, managing them to attract game animals and birds, and to facilitate nut collection.³

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Prescribed fire at Ganondagan was lit with drip torches, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

The 70 acres set aside for grassland management began its transformation in 2009, with the goal of recreating the landscape that existed for the Seneca at Ganondagan almost 400 years ago. A fully established warm season grassland can support many forms of life, and at Ganondagan it is a haven for rare grassland bird species. Grasslands are ecosystems maintained by natural disturbances like fire. Without disturbance, a grassland will gradually go through the steps of succession to become a shrubland and later a forest.

Before the prescribed burn at Ganondagan in May 2017, the grasslands had begun to build up a thick thatch layer, decreasing both the amount of sunlight reaching its sun-loving plants and the amount of bare ground between plants (which grassland birds and mammals like for habitat).

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A successful prescribed burn is designed to keep the fire within control lines and the smoke up and away from people and homes, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Time of year can play an important role in how an ecosystem reacts to a burn. At Ganondagan, a spring burn was chosen to cut off early growth of invasive species and to promote the growth of the warm season grasses like big bluestem and Indian grass. Future prescribed burning done on the site may happen in different seasons depending on the desired outcome. For example, a prescribed burn taking place in this warm season grassland in the fall would promote the growth of forbs (broad leaved plants), such as wildflowers. Regardless of the timing, a properly done prescribed burn will not completely remove grasses or forbs, but can help achieve the best plant composition for grassland birds.

Prescribed burning was the perfect way to manage the grasslands at Ganondagan: it created a disturbance to maintain the ecosystem, returned carbon and nitrogen to the soil in the form of ash, and opened the grassland to more sunlight. This burn also provides a unique opportunity for educators to interpret this management tool, once used by the Seneca at Ganondagan to maintain the grasslands in the 17th Century, and now updated for the 21st century!

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The ‘mop up’ of a prescribed burn ensures that all of the fire is completely out and, as in the case of the Ganondagan Prescribed Burn, can take longer than the burn itself, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

This valuable management tool will continue to be used at the Ganondagan State Historic Site and are exploring future opportunities.

Post by Whitney Carleton-DeGeorge and Michael Galban , State Parks

Featured image: Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

1 Galinée, René de Bréhant de. (env. 1670) 1903. “Le Voyage De MM. Dollier et Galinée.” In Exploration of the Great Lakes 1669-1670 by Dollier de Casson and de Bréhant de Galinée, ed. James H. Coyne. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records.

² Parker, Arthur – New York State Archeologist – “The League of the Five Nations – a Story of the Aboriginal Empire State” published in Livingston County Historical Society 34th Annual Meeting, Geneseo, NY, 1910.

³Donck, Adriaen van der, 1620-1655. (Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant. English) A description of New Netherland / Adriaen van der Donck; edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A Starna; translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys; foreword by Russell Shorto.

The Petaltail’s Tale

Each June and July, visitors to several gorge parks are rewarded with an unusual treat – the chance to see a “living fossil.”

The term “living fossil” refers to species that have evolved very little over the course of millions of years. Some well-known examples of living fossils include elephant sharks, ginkgo trees, and horseshoe crabs. Although all of these organisms have evolved, these species have stayed so similar that fossils from millions of years ago are still recognizable as ancestors to the modern species.

Petaltail on Rocks, photo by State Parks
A gray petaltail perches in the sun along a gorge trail, photo by State Parks.

Meet the gray petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi), a species of dragonfly that closely resembles its ancestors who were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Jurassic Period – almost 200 million years ago!  During that time, the petaltail dragonfly was part of very widespread family known as the Petaluridae. Today, however, there are only 11 species of Petaluridae remaining worldwide.

The gray petaltail is found in several of the Finger Lakes gorge parks the gray petaltails love hunting in the gorges, because they can go to the sunny side of the gorge to get warm, which allows them to move much faster.  Petaltails are drawn to the gorges to lay their eggs in the soggy seeps on wooded slopes. Most dragonflies lay their eggs in water bodies. The eggs grow into juvenile dragonflies, called nymphs that also typically live in water.  That is not the case for the gray petaltail nymphs! The gray petaltail is the only species of dragonfly that does not have fully aquatic nymphs. Instead, the petaltail nymphs live and grow while hidden in the mud, moss and moist leaf litter in the forest seeps. As the nymphs mature, they climb up the trunks of trees to become the adult dragonflies that can fly fast and free all around the gorge.

Dragonfly nymphs - Wikimedia
Petaltail nymphs look very similar to these aquatic dragonfly nymphs, photo by 2109tristan https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragonfly_nymphs_2013-06-20_16-36.jpg

While they are not nearly as large as their Jurassic ancestors, today’s petaltails are one of the larger species of dragonflies, with a wingspan of up to 5 inches wide.  Their distinct black and gray coloring also makes it easy to identify.  This species often perches upon rocks and tree trunks, but it is not uncommon for it to perch upon a passerby! Although they are large and ferocious insect predators (eating thousands of mosquitoes), dragonflies are harmless to humans. If you are lucky enough to be chosen as a dragonfly perch, you may be startled, but either brush them away very gently or just enjoy it!

Petaltail caught during odonate survey, Becky Sibner
Gray petaltail caught during an odonate (dragonfly) survey, photo by Becky Sibner, State Parks.

The gray petaltail is listed as a species of special concern within New York State, as it is only known in specialized habitat in a small number of locations.  NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) continues to survey for them and recently found another new site for them. Luckily, some of those locations are within New York’s state parks, providing habitat protection to this fascinating species – and maybe a chance to see this primitive insect for yourself, especially in June and July.

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Look for gray petaltails in habitats  like this, photo by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Post by Laura Young, FORCES Environmental Education Steward & Becky Sibner, Stewardship Project Coordinator, State Parks

Featured image: gray petaltail on a Jack-in-the-pulpit, Kerry Wixted

Sources:

Paulson, D. (2011). Dragonflies and damselflies of the East. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

NY Natural Heritage Conservation Guide for gray petaltail

Gray petaltail, IUCN 2017. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-1. <http://www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 12 May 2017.

Dragonflies – living fossils

Email correspondence with Jason J. Dombroskie, Ph.D. Manager, Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) & Coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL)

Wildlife Spotlight: Furbearer frenzy: The Mink

Scientific name: Mustela vison

Small predator furbearers are some of the most fun, and most uncommon, animals to see in the wild. And mink are some of the most secretive in this group! Minks are in the weasel family and can grow to about the size of a housecat. Unlike weasels however, mink do not change color in winter. Mink are generally dark furred, with a distinctive white patch on their chins. Mink seem to be more common in the southern tier of New York State, so keep an eye out for these adorable buggers on your hikes in that area.

Mink were traditionally prized and trapped for their soft, glossy coats. Mink coats were a status symbol in the early 20th century, with most coats made from wild-caught mink. However, the 1950s through the 1970s saw a large increase in the production of farmed mink, especially from Europe, which reduced the burden on the wild populations. Today, trapping licenses for mink are available through the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the season is open when the population can withstand normal trapping pressures. DEC reports that the mink population is stable and able to sustain the trapping that still exists.

Mink are excellent swimmers, and they can also climb trees. Their clawed and webbed feet make them versatile predators. They are opportunistic predators, meaning they prey on crayfish, frogs, lizards, eggs, earthworms- pretty much anything they can find! They prefer wetland, or stream habitats, and will actually use existing burrows for their dens. They prefer muskrat holes, and some individuals have even been reported to evict (and eat) a resident muskrat to use a preferred hole.

Don’t forget to report mink and any other furbearers you see to DEC, to help with annual population data collection on these seldom seen species:

Email: wildlife@dec.ny.gov

Online: Upstate NY

Long Island

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Post by Keleigh Reynolds, State Parks

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American mink, By Mink_in_the_park.jpg qmnonic derivative work Mariomassone (Mink_in_the_park.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Oh Those Autumn Leaves

This weekend, take a walk, ride your bike, go for a paddle and enjoy the beautiful fall colors in a state park.

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Sugar maples at Allegany State Park, photo by Tom LeBlanc
Photo contest entry Bear Mountain State Park
Enjoy the lakeside views at Bear Mountain State Park, photo by Renee Moskowitz
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Look up at the trees at Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site, photo by State Parks
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Bike along the carriage paths at Minnewaska State Park Preserve, photo by State Parks
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Walk by the ponds and elegant birch trees at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park, photo by State Parks
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Camp by a stream under the color of beech, birch, and maples at Allegany State Park, photo by Tom LeBlanc
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Watch some wildlife like these buffleheads on a pond at Betty and Wilbur Davis, photo by State Parks
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Check out the view from the Grafton fire tower, a vast hemlock-northern hardwood forest in Grafton Lakes State Park, photo by State Parks
Kayaking in the Fall - Moreau State Park
Paddle at Moreau State Park, photo by State Parks
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Stroll at Taughannock Falls State Park, photo by State Parks
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Walk near the St Lawrence River at Waterson Point State Park, photo by State Parks

Autumn is such a great time to enjoy the outdoors in our State Parks.