Tag Archives: Wildlife

Predator Study At State Parks

A research study out of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) is collaborating with Fahnstock State Park and Wonder Lake State Park in Putnam County to look at predator populations as part of an ongoing study of the declining population of New England cottontails (NEC), Sylvilagus transitionalis. NEC is a rabbit native to the northeastern U.S., but studies indicate that in the past decade, the population of NEC has decreased by as much as 50%. Some populations of the cottontails are in New York State Parks, and learning more about best management practices is critical to protecting this species.

As the New England cottontail (NEC) is a declining species being considered for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act, there are a lot of ongoing efforts to create habitat for these rabbits in the Northeast. The hope is these efforts will preemptively restore populations of NEC in the region, making it unnecessary to list the species as endangered.

The two greatest contributing factors to the decline of NECs are loss of habitat and the introduction of the Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus. While the two cottontail species are almost identical in appearance, the Eastern Cottontail generally outcompetes NECs for food and habitat, edging the native species out of its former range. While loss of habitat and the introduction of the Eastern cottontail are both factors contributing to the decline of New England Cottontail, this study looks at predation in conjunction with other management practices.

Predation accounts for almost all natural mortality in NECs. As such, increases or decreases in the predator community would have serious consequences for the cottontail population. Most management projects have focused on enhancing habitat for NECs, but this study considers whether those projects might have the unintended consequence of altering the predator communities in such a way that cottontail survival is reduced. If that’s the case, then it will be necessary to consider predator management strategies when managing habitat for NEC. Results from this study will help inform habitat managers and recover NEC populations.

The project, led by PhD student Amanda Cheeseman and Dr. Jonathan Cohen, both from SUNY-ESF, together with Scott Silver of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Putnam Highlands Audubon, uses trail cameras targeting mammal predators, in combination with visual and auditory surveys for hawks, owls, and eagles, to examine predator communities in areas where different ways of controlling and managing NEC habitat are already being practiced. The project is taking place across multiple sites in Putnam and Dutchess counties. The pictures above were taken in Fahnstock State ParkThe information from the predator study will be compared to data from radio-collared cottontails in order to get a complete picture of the predator-prey relationships in New England Cottontail habitats.

featured image is of the New England Cottontail, Sylvilagus transitionalis, by Michael Merchand, NYNHP

BioBlitz results!

On May 3, 2014, over a hundred volunteers with scientific backgrounds gathered at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County and Clark Reservation State Park in Onondaga county for two concurrent Bioblitzes, 24-hour inventories of the park’s biodiversity. Our objectives were to search the park for as many rare species and natural communities in the park as we could find. This was a collaborative effort between NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP), State Parks, and Parks & Trails New York. Participants included biologists with various specialties and affiliations including NYS DEC, NatureServe, Syracuse University, SUNY-ESF, Mohonk Preserve, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Student Conservation Association. At least 9 different organizations were represented.

Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), a rare plant documented at Minnewaska. Photo by Alyssa Reid
Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), a rare plant documented at Minnewaska. Photo by Alyssa Reid

The main survey period was between 9am and 5pm on May 3rd, but some intrepid volunteers stayed through the night to look for nocturnal animals, while others arose on May 4th between 5am and 11am to identify spring migratory birds. In both parks, small teams sought out rare species and high biodiversity areas. The weather was overcast and cool on May 3rd, which made some of the surveys particularly difficult.

At Minnewaska State Park, we were able to document approximately 262 plants, animals, and fungi, as well as 7 of the NYNHP significant natural communities. The summary of our findings includes at least 100 plants and 150 animal species: 89 birds, 6 fish, 16 herps (amphibians and reptiles), 16 mammals, and 23 invertebrates. The species included cool mammals like the American mink (Neovison vison), shy amphibians like the northern dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), delicate insects like the spring azure (Celastrina ladon), and steadfast trees like the American chestnut (Castanea dentata).

Painted turtle, by Matt Schlesinger, NYNHP
Painted turtle, by Matt Schlesinger, NYNHP

At Clark Reservation, we documented over 372 different species of plants, animals, and fungi and updated records for the 4 high-quality natural communities known in the park. The tally includes 193 species of plants (including lichens) and 96 species of animals, including 6 mammals, 7 herps, 46 birds, 4 fish, and 116 invertebrates. Of the many invertebrates identified, some of the largest groups were beetles (18), millipedes (10), caddisflies (10), and snails (6). The list of species included some entertaining names, such as bugle sprite (a snail), poverty grass, tortured tortella moss and seductive entodon moss. The Bioblitz proved to be an invaluable opportunity to get experts out in the park cataloging groups of species, like mosses and snails, which are often overlooked in typical biological inventories.

Due to the timing of the Bioblitz to coincide with I Love My Parks Day on May 3rd, our bird surveys included both passing migrants and potential park residents. Whip-poor-wills (Caprimulgus vociferous), a species of special concern, were sighted in several locations at Minnewaska, and based on last year’s NYNHP surveys, they are known to nest in the park. At Clark, the highlights were osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), both of which are species of special concern in New York.

The invertebrate team working hard at Clark Reservation. Photo by Julie Lundgren
The invertebrate team working hard at Clark Reservation. Photo by Julie Lundgren

The bioblitz was an extension of the long-standing partnership between NYNHP and State Parks to document rare species and natural communities in New York State Parks. Scientists found a wealth of biodiversity and enjoyed collaborating across organizations and areas of expertise in a beautiful natural setting. We hope to continue these valuable efforts to bring experts together to share knowledge, contribute to our understanding of the biota in New York State Parks, and to encourage further opportunities for park staff and the public to learn more about the special features in parks.

featured image is a spring azure butterfly by Mike Adamovic, post by Paris Harper, Erin White and Julie Lundgren

Salamander Migrations

Salamander migrations are annual events that happen within a very short time frame every year. Salamanders are cued to specific temperature, humidity, air pressure and light conditions which signal to them that it is safe to travel. This typically occurs on the first rainy night above 45°F in the late winter or early spring. Although the salamander migration often occurs on one big night, this year’s inconsistent weather led to a series of smaller salamander movements that were staggered across a few weeks.

Salamanders belong to the group of animals called amphibians, which all share the ability to breathe through their skin. For this reason their skin must remain damp at all times, which is why rainy conditions are necessary for any long-range movement across land.

When salamanders migrate, they are moving away from their overwintering spots in wooded upland areas to vernal pools in lowland areas and depressions. Vernal pools are temporary pools created by spring rain and snow melt that dry up by mid-summer. Predators like fish and turtles cannot live in vernal pools, and so they are a strategic habitat for salamanders to breed and lay their eggs.

Once they have arrived at the vernal pool, male salamanders perform courtship dances to attract mates. Once they have paired off, the males deposit sperm packets on the twigs and leaf litter in the pond, which the females pick up and use to fertilize their eggs, which are laid underwater in groups of 100-300. On the next warm, wet night the adults will relocate to their summer habitats – usually a cozy spot underneath a rock or log.

Salamanders are extremely vulnerable during migration events, especially when their routes require them to cross roads. Many State Parks organize volunteer groups to meet on these special nights to act as amphibian crossing-guards. A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a slow night drive on the county roads near Thacher State Park in Albany County to see if we could help any salamanders on their journey. We saw plenty of salamanders, and frogs, too!

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featured image is a spotted salamander. Photos and post by Paris Harper

Hailes Cave Bat Gate Project – Protecting Bats’ Winter Home

Bats in Hailes Cave at J.B. Thacher State Park have been kept safe all winter long thanks to a bat gate installed by State Parks staff along with volunteers from the Northeastern Cave Conservancy and staff from the DEC. Hailes Cave serves as the winter hibernation site, or hibernaculum, for at least two species of bats. However, since the 1980s the population of bats in Hailes Cave, as well as other hibernacula throughout New York, has been in decline. Most recently, bat species in the North America have been afflicted with the outbreak of a rapidly spreading fungal infection which produces white nose syndrome, a condition which has decimated bat populations as threatens multiple bat species with extinction.

Besides white nose syndrome, recreational overuse of the cave area has been identified as one threat to the bats which can be easily mitigated. Frequent visitation to the cave, particularly between October and April, can disturb the bats during a time when they need to conserve their energy into order to survive until it is time for their spring emergence in April. The bat gate at Hailes Cave will protect the bats home during the winter while setting the stage for allowing patrons summer access to the cave through a permit system in the future, as was recommended in the park’s recent Master Plan.

Hailes bat gate

While the bat gate will keep curious visitors out of the bats’ winter home, the horizontal position and spacing of the main bars allow the bats to pass in and out easily. Each of the horizontal bars weighs more than 190 pounds and, over the course of three days, workers and volunteers moved over 3,000 pounds of steel from the top of the escarpment to the gate location 75 feet back into the cave at the base of the cliff! A huge thank you to the NCC and the DEC for their help protecting our State Parks’ natural resources!