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.”

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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

Walk Through History On the Sackets Harbor Battlefield History Trail

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National Trails Day speakers at the site’s National Recreation Trail dedication included: NYS Parks Statewide Trails Program Planner Chris Morris, District Manager for NYS Assemblymember Addie Russell Kate Wehrle, Village of Sackets Harbor Mayor Vincent Battista, site manager Connie Barone, NYS Parks 1000 Islands Region Director Peyton Taylor, and Deputy District Director for NYS Senator Patti Ritchie Mike Schenk. Also attending were the Town of Hounsfield Supervisor Tim Scee and representatives from the Adirondack Mountain Club Black River Chapter, Ontario Bays Initiative, and Indian River Lakes Conservancy. Guests followed the trail in perfect weather and enjoyed refreshments donated by Walmart and Price-Chopper.

In June 2015, the United States Department of the Interior designated Sackets Harbor Battlefield History Trail at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site (Sackets Harbor) as one of ten new National Recreation Trails. The trail tells the story of Sackets Harbor and the pivotal role it played during the War of 1812 through ten interpretive panels along the three-quarter mile loop trail.  Additional panels highlight other historical aspects of the site including the 1860s Sackets Harbor Navy Yard and the importance of historic preservation.

Sample Panel
Sackets Harbor Battelfield History Trail interpretive panel, photo by Constance Barone

The trail unifies the core of this 70-acre property. The trail is accessible and offers views of the 1860s Navy Yard structures, the 1913 War of 1812 Centennial 100-maple tree grove, the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps decorative stonewall, abundant birdlife, and unsurpassed views of Black River Bay on the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

From mid-May through Labor Day, amenities near the trail include public restrooms, a picnic pavilion, interpretive programs, and living history demonstrations. On the trail visitors walk, jog, or bicycle. Just off the trail guests practice yoga, rest on benches, picnic, fly a kite, or bird watch. The non-motorized trail is open year-round, free of charge. Sackets Harbor staff maintains the trail’s stone dust surface and reproduction mid-19th century wooden boardwalks.

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Bicycles are one of the many ways to explore the Sackets Harbor Battlefield Recreation Trail, photo by Constance Barone

Sackets Harbor Battlefield History Trail connects to the Village of Sackets Harbor’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Recreation Trail. That trail consists of stone dust paths, converted rail line, village roadways, and sidewalks. The six-mile loop through the historic village includes the former Army post Madison Barracks, two historic cemeteries, and farm fields where the 1813 Battle of Sackets Harbor took place. In July 2014, during the War of 1812 Bicentennial celebration, two granite monuments erected in the fields along the trail to honor the American forces who died defending Sackets Harbor and British-Canadian forces who were killed during the 1813 battle.

The National Park Service recognized the grounds at Sackets Harbor as one of the top War of 1812 sites in the nation.  Sackets Harbor is the only deep-water United States port along eastern Lake Ontario.  In June 1812 and again in May 1813 Americans successfully defended the Navy shipyard at Sackets Harbor from invading British and Canadian forces.  WCNY featured Sackets Harbor battlegrounds in the 2014 documentary Losing Ground: The Race to Preserve War of 1812 Battlefields in New York State, funded by the National Park Service Battlefield Protection Program.

Come check out this newly recognized National Recreation Trail at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site!

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The Commodore’s House at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, photo by Constance Barone

State Parks Welcomes a New Nature Center

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Exploring Letchworth State Park geology at the Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Doug Kelly, State Parks

Interpreting might seem like a strange way to describe what the naturalists and historians at Letchworth State Park do.  Instead of interpreting one human language to another, they tell the stories of the people who came before and of the beings with no languages; the rocks, trees and animals that make the park such a special place.

This need to educate the public about the park started even before there was a park. William Letchworth (1823 – 1910) assembled the Council Grounds and a museum to engage the strangers who came to his property on railroad excursion trains. He had trails and carriage paths which visitors could walk and enjoy the clean air and shady trees.  He brought orphans from Buffalo to enjoy the country and learn vocational skills from his farmhands and household servants.

Following Letchworth, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society created the Letchworth Arboretum and built the William Pryor Letchworth Museum.  The society intended there to be a research and educational aspect to the work they did. Most of their efforts were directed to building roads and facilities for visitors and transforming the park into a public space.

New York State took over management of the park in 1930.  In the 1970s there was a statewide effort to mesh parks with schools and use the parks as educational tools for students. Interpreters were hired and nature and history programs started. By 1974, the National Audubon Society joined in a partnership with the Genesee State Park Region Commission to investigate building nature centers at Letchworth and Hamlin Beach State Parks. Although nothing came of this venture, the idea for a nature center at Letchworth never went away.

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Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Elijah Kruger, State Parks

In 2016, the Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park opened on June 20 and was made possible by a joint fundraising effort of the Letchworth Nature Center Campaign Committee, which includes representatives of the Genesee Regional Parks Commission, the Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York State Parks, and the Natural Heritage Trust.  The campaign raised private funds that were matched 2 to 1 by New York State thanks to Governor Cuomo’s economic development initiatives.  The Letchworth Nature Center Campaign Committee was chaired by Peter Humphrey who also, along with his wife, provided an extremely generous donation to kick start the fundraising campaign.  The Humphrey Nature Center at Letchworth State Park was named in his honor, recognizing the great role Peter Humphrey played in making the project a reality.

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State Park educators lead a tour of the Humphrey Nature Center, photo by Doug Kelly

The goal of the Humphrey Nature Center is to deepen the visitor experience of Letchworth State Park, which was voted the #1 state park in the nation in 2015.  The 5,000 square foot, year-round, sustainable facility will help to enhance the exceptional educational and interpretive programming already offered to visitors.  Meeting and classroom space, state-of-the-art, hands-on exhibits, a butterfly garden, bird observation area and trails that leave right from the building enrich the visitor’s understanding of the unique history, geology, and environment found in Letchworth State Park.

The next time you are in Letchworth, be sure to visit the Humphrey Nature Center for a program, to explore the exhibits, or just to talk with one of the knowledgeable naturalists.  Remember, the Humphrey Nature Center is just your launching point into the fascinating natural history of Letchworth State Park!

Post by Elijah Kruger and Steph Spittal, Letchworth State Park educators

Rebirth After Fire

Text and photos by Lindsey Feinberg, Student Conservation Association Intern at Sam’s Point  Please ask permission to use photos.

Located within Minnewaska State Park Preserve is Sam’s Point, an area of unique ecological significance encompassing roughly 5,000 acres in the Shawangunk Mountains of southern New York. Toward the end of April, during a particularly dry and windy week, a fire broke out along the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail and engulfed over 2,000 acres of pitch pine and oak woodlands. While this may seem like a devastating event, one of the factors that make the globally rare dwarf pine ridge ecological community of Sam’s Point so unique is that it is a fire dependent ecosystem.

Since progressing into the deep summer months, Sam’s Point has experienced an explosion of new growth. Toward the end of the fire there was an extended period of cold rainy weather that continued for a week after the fire was out. Soon afterward , bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads began springing forth through the burned earth and painted trilliums (Trillium undulatum) flowered near the Ice Caves trail in an area of low intensity burn. A number of pink lady slippers (Cypripedium acaule)  also popped up along the Loop Road and the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail.

Sam’s Point was fully closed until Memorial Day Weekend, when it was reopened to limited capacity with only the Loop Road and Ice Caves Trail available to the public. Park staff members were positioned at the Verkeerderkill Falls Trail with a table of educational materials in order to encourage park patrons to obey the closures and help them understand the importance of staying out of affected areas. The main concern is the potential for rapid spread of non-native invasive plant species by seeds hitchhiking in the boots and backpacks of visitors. Without competition from established plants and with the increased availability of nutrients that follows fire, invasive species have the potential to quickly establish.

Fortunately, the closures seem to be working and few invasive plants and many native species have been seen in those areas. Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and huckleberries (Gaylussacia baccata) have been quick to return, along with chokeberries (Photinia melanocarpa), serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), wild raisin (Viburnum nudum) and sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), which have repopulated the understory in a carpet of vibrant green. Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), a small, showy rhododendron that is threatened in New York State, has been proliferating in high numbers in some of the wetter areas of Sam’s Point. Even bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a wildflower more typical of cool, moist woodlands and uncommon in southern New York, is coming back near the Indian Rock Trail.

Many of the pitch pine trees that were blackened and scorched, all of which looked ostensibly dead, have exhibited new growth occurring at the base, epicormically (along the trunk), and from the top of the tree. Walking along the loop road, hints of long bristly shoots resembling bright green porcupines are apparent on a number of blackened trees. The majority of pitch pine stumps that were cut for fire control purposes have also begun re-sprouting.

New Shoots on Pitch Pine
Pitch pine is not the only tree sending out new shoots—scrub oaks, birches, red maples, and aspens are also exhibiting basal sprouting on burned trees. Quaking aspen seedlings have shot up in areas along the loop road, exhibiting strange early growth patterns of large, red tinted leaves. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg

Equally important for the ecology and continuance of the globally rare dwarf pine ridge community  is the successful germination of pine seeds. As pitch pines get older, they lose their ability to re-sprout. Many older pitch pines will experience a wave of mortality even after new shoots appear. Possible reasons for this subsequent mortality of pitch pines is that a burned tree tends to be more stressed, and may not as resilient to any new factors that can further increase stress, such as insect predation and extreme weather events. Additionally, new shoots probably won’t distribute evenly on each tree, and this added weight on a weakened tree can cause branches to break or the entire tree to topple over. But there is still hope. The closed, charred pine cones opened soon after the fire ended, their russet innards contrasting brightly against the blackened landscape. The seeds were dispersed and fell to the ground. In order to germinate, pitch pine seeds need to be exposed to mineral soil. This is usually achieved when a fire burns through the upper duff (dead leaves and other plant material) and organic soil layers, which are more likely to burn when the fire is allowed to continue for long enough and reach a hot enough temperature. Until recently, the park staff at Sam’s Point had been unable to find any seedlings despite nearly half of the acreage on Sam’s Point being burned.

Pitch Pine Cones
Newly opened pitch pine cones along the Indian Rock Trail. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg

But how do you monitor 2000 acres for seedlings? You don’t. Instead, you look at a sample. One of the first post-fire initiatives by Parks’ Sam’s Point research staff was to establish 20 randomly placed research plots in order to document forest regeneration and the recovery of this natural area over time. Returning to the plots and recording information on the plants and soil helps us to understand and learn more about this ecosystem. In addition, we established photopoints in four of the research plots. Since May 7th, we have been photographing four plots from the same location on a biweekly basis. Photopoints are a great supplement to research documenting change over time, as it provides a way to visually understand what changes are taking place.

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Sampling is scheduled to begin sometime in August, but one of the most exciting aspects of establishing randomly placed plots is discovering unique areas that might otherwise go unnoticed. During our fieldwork we found several areas of pitch pines averaging only 4 feet tall. Upon further examination, we discovered that the soil was extremely shallow in those spots, as little as 2 inches over solid bedrock. In July, none of Sam’s Point staff had seen any new seedlings during their regular duties around the park, but after checking in on the sections with low soil depth we were able to find a good number of seedlings. And soon after, seedlings were found in some of the wetland pockets as well. All good news for the recovery.

Pitch Pine Seedling
A pitch pine (PInus rigida) seedling finally appears, several months after the fire. Photo by Lindsey Feinberg

Sam’s Point has a number of unique, highly acidic wetlands too. While the larger pockets were relatively untouched by the fire, the smaller outflows were more vulnerable, especially in areas of extremely shallow soil. However, the wet areas that were burned along High Point Carriage Road and some other narrow strips of wetland have begun exhibiting their wetland qualities once again. Sphagnum moss, a characteristic moss genus found in bogs, has returned in some of these areas, while tiny sundews (Drosera spp.) can be seen on both the newly grown moss and the saturated but still blackened soil.

Animal activity was apparent almost immediately. The prairie warblers’ ascending trill could be heard throughout the spring in all areas of the preserve. Insect and pollinator activity has been high, especially with the return and subsequent blooms of milkweeds and meadowsweet. Park staff also noticed a number of ruffed grouse, which like forest openings. The remains of chewed up pine cones littering the forest floor are evidence of red squirrels. Eastern towhee activity was also high in the period immediately after the fire. Towhees are a species of bird that feed on pitch pine seeds as they are released from their cones. Amphibians could be spotted burrowing into the moist ground in order to keep cool.

During a fire and the initial period afterward, it is easy to focus on the destruction and negative impacts. However, it’s important to remember that fire is a vital ecological process in many environments, especially for the health and longevity of pine barren communities. The Sam’s Point Fire offers great opportunities for discovery. Researchers from the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, Mohonk Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and nearby colleges like SUNY New Paltz met to discuss research needs and interests to inform management and increase our knowledge about this exceptional place and ecosystem. It’s exciting to see what the future holds for Sam’s Point.

 

All About the Brook Trout: New York’s State Fish

Brook trout (Salvenlinus fontinalis) also known as “speckled trout,” “specks,” and “brookies,” aren’t actually trout. They are really a type of char, more closely related to the Arctic char than to true trout. However, the brook trout, true trout, char, and salmon are all in the family Salmonidae, making them all closely related. The gorgeous brook trout is New York’s state fish and is greatly prized amongst naturalists and anglers. The native brook trout can be recognized and differentiated from other types of trout by its unique colors. Brook trout have a dark green and yellow “wormlike” pattern on their backs, which fades into green sides with yellow spots and red spots surrounded by blue halos. Their stomachs range in color from white to bright orange, depending on food sources and the time of year. One of the most easily recognizable parts of the brook trout are its fins, which are a deep red with a black stripe and a white stripe underneath along the edge of each fin. In the fall, one can see why New York chose the brook trout as its state fish when spawning occurs and the fish’s colors intensify.

Artist Brook Trout
An artist’s representation of a brook trout. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brook_trout.jpg

Brook trout live in streams with cold, clean water. They require high amounts of oxygen in the water, dissolved oxygen in order to breathe, as do many of the aquatic insects that the trout feed upon. Trout eat a variety of foods, including mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, scuds, smaller fish, and snails. Larger brook trout will also eat terrestrial insects such as ants or grasshoppers and have even been known to eat mice that accidentally fall into streams! Because brook trout need very clean water to survive and are highly sensitive to pollution, their presence is a good indicator of a healthy stream.

Several conservation efforts by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and organizations like Trout Unlimited have focused on protection of the native brook trout in New York. The brook trout is native to the eastern part of the United States from Maine to Georgia, including New York. Populations of brook trout can be found in, Allegany State Park, Bowman Lake State Park, Connetquot River State Park Preserve, Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, Chittenango Falls State Park, Harriman State Park, and many other state parks with small tributaries. Restoration work to increase brook trout habitat has been done in Allegany State Park, which boasts many wild trout streams that are readily enjoyed by anglers.

Brookie in water
A brook trout. Photo taken and owned by James St. John on flickr.com, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/21714855433. No changes were made.

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and introduction of non-native species, the brook trout has less suitable places to live than it did 200 years ago. Brook trout cannot tolerate water temperatures that are too high; as the water temperature increases, the dissolved oxygen decreases. The cutting of trees along stream banks and the loss of trees due to invasive insect species can contribute to temperatures rising and can affect native brook trout populations. Trees provide needed shade over streams and keep water temperatures low, even on hot summer days. When these trees are removed or die, sunlight is able to reach streams and causes water temperatures to rise. One important tree along some stream banks is the hemlock. Hemlock trees provide more shade than hardwood trees and do an excellent job of keeping streams cool. Unfortunately, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), an insect that invades and kills hemlocks, is affecting hemlocks all over the east. HWA is causing thousands of these trees to die. As hemlocks die, hardwood trees will take their places. While this will still provide shade to the streams, the temperatures will still rise because hardwoods provide less shade than hemlocks.

Pollution also affects brook trout by decreasing oxygen levels and poisoning the fish. A form of pollution called “agricultural runoff,” which includes manure and fertilizers, can cause an increase of aquatic plants to grow in streams. These plants eventually die and consume dissolved oxygen when they decompose. If there are too many decomposing plants in a stream, dissolved oxygen levels can be greatly decreased and affect brook trout severely. Pollution also decreases pH in water, making it more acidic, which allows more metals to be dissolved into the water. These metals can interfere with the brook trout’s body functions and cause developing eggs and fry to die.

Another major cause of habitat loss for the native brook trout is the past introduction of the brown trout (Salmo trutta) as a sport fish, which is native to Europe. Brown trout were brought to the United States due to their popularity with anglers. This is because they are aggressive fighters and can grow quite large. Brown trout can withstand higher water temperatures than the brook trout and are less sensitive to changing conditions. Because the brown trout is more aggressive, it can find food and shelter more easily than the brook trout. Brown trout will sometimes prey on the brook trout’s young. Streams in which brown trout have been introduced almost always have a noted decrease in native brook trout populations.

The introduction of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) has also contributed to decreased brook trout populations, but to a lesser extent.  Both the introduction of brown and rainbow trout create competition for resources that the brook trout did not have to contend with before.

Fortunately, New York no longer stocks browns or rainbows in waters where populations of native brook trout are found in order to preserve the species. Many of these populations prevail in high mountain elevations in the Adirondack Park, as the brook trout is particularly talented at jumping up waterfalls. In fact, a brook trout can jump up to four times its body length if the pool they jump from is deep enough! This unique ability has allowed native populations to thrive in areas with many small waterfalls and pools. Today, dam removal and the installation of fish ladders also help to conserve brook trout habitat. Fish ladders provide a series of pools on an incline that allow fish to jump up over barriers. These installations allow waters to remain passable, even in dammed waters. Populations of brook trout exist in several places throughout New York, and the determined angler or observer can find many of these beautiful fish. Hopefully, with continued efforts of conservationists across New York state the brook trout population will continue to thrive and one day, increase.

Young Brookies
Young brook trout, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brook_trout_in_cool_water_(7725114898).jpg.

Post by Mikey Bard, avid fly fisher and SCA/Americorps Member serving as Assistant Environmental Educator at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.

The New York State Parks Blog

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