Friday, March 26, 2010

Open House

Bluebirds have returned!  The Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) is the state bird of NY and a partial migrant in this area of the state.  Partial migrants only move as far as they need to in order to find food resources during the winter months.  Despite many folks seeing bluebirds during the winter, it is likely that these are birds with home ranges farther to the north.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

Regardless of how far bluebirds migrate, the important thing is they are back.  And they are looking for potential nesting sites in our area's fields, meadows, and backyards.  Many of these grass-dominated habitats offer enough food and water resources to raise a family, but the general lack of suitable nesting locations has plagued this and other cavity-nesting birds over the last 5 decades.  Bluebirds populations have been hit particularly hard by the lack of nesting locations and were in severe decline over many areas of the eastern US. 

Where did their tree-cavities go?  Well, cavities tend to form in dead trees or damaged/dead limbs of live trees.  When these types of trees occur in our modern neighborhoods, they are promptly removed from the landscape.  Often it is done with the best interest of our homes, electric lines, etc, but a valuable wildlife resource is being removed as well.  Remaining locations with suitable nesting sites (either natural or man-made) are in high demand, and competition for these sites is fierce since a number of common bird species need cavities for nesting.

A common and practical solution for creating more nesting locations for bluebirds and other common cavity-nesters is to make nesting boxes, commonly referred to as bird houses.  Making and erecting a nesting box is a wonderful family project at this time of year.  There are many different nest box designs online for anyone who has the tools and time to make one from scratch.  Another option for building your own is to purchase a kit and assemble the pieces with nails or screws (usually provided).  Last but not least, there are a number of retailers (like our program sponsors at Wild Birds Unlimited) that offer assembled nesting boxes that are ready to be placed in your yard.

For anyone who already has a nesting box, now is the time to make sure it is cleaned out and empty.  Most species of birds will not use a nesting box that still has an old nest in it from the previous year.  Cleaning out the box ensures a higher probability that another pair of birds will use the box again this year.

Tree Swallows

Whether you have a box or plan to put up a box, be sure to clean them out and set them out in your lawns soon.  Many of our local, year-round residents like Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse are already establishing breeding territories based on suitable nesting sites.  Bluebirds have returned and will be seeking nesting locations soon in addition to Tree Swallows and House Wrens later in the spring.  The sooner your nesting boxes are cleaned (or erected), the more likely you are of getting a pair of birds to take up residence this spring.

For more resources about nesting boxes, please check out the following websites:
North American Bluebird Society
National Wildlife Federation
Cornell's All About Birds

If you would like a little guidance to make a nesting box for this spring, join us on March 31 at 1pm for a Bluebird House Construction program.  Make your reservation by Monday, March 29 by calling the office or sending an email.  You can find our contact info on our website.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, March 22, 2010

Woodland Pool - early spring

Our first significant rain of the spring occurred during the weekend of March 13-14.  During that period of time, many Spring peepers, Wood frogs, and  various species of salamanders emerged from their terrestrial hibernacula and migrated to ponds, wetlands, and woodland pools.  It is in these aquatic habitats where most adult amphibians lay their eggs and their offspring begin the first half of their lives.

Here at the sanctuary, our 3-acre pond (Bechtel Lake) is a great place to hear the peeping chorus of Spring peepers.  Along the north end of the pond, hidden amoung the phragmites, these thumbnail-sized tree frogs fill the air with their incredibly loud voices.  Listening closely through the din, you may hear the low, stuttering croaks of male Pickerel frogs hoping to attract a female.  Later this spring, toads, Green frogs, and Bullfrogs will be making their voices heard.

On top of a hill, east of Bechtel Lake, is a large woodland pool.  This vernal, or temporary, pool is home to a whole host of other organisms not usually found in the other bodies of water.  The temporary nature of this aquatic habitat excludes the presence of fish and creates an unusual refuge for a number of frogs, salamanders, and a whole host of invertebrates.

During the past week, we finally got a chance to hike up the hill and explore the pool for early spring residents.  The photos below illustrate a few of the highlights of our evening.

A male and female Wood frog in amplexus

Wood frogs were in full breeding behavior that evening.  Upon approaching the pool, we could hear the distinctive "quacking" call of the males.  Most of the males were busy calling and attempting to find a female to mate with, but we did find a few pairs that had already "paired up".  Basically, the male seeks out a female and latches onto her back and holds tightly to her with his muscular forelegs.  He rides around on her back defending her from other competing males and stays with her until she finally lays her eggs.  His job is to fertilize the eggs simultaneously as she lays them.

Two Wood frog egg masses attached to Catbriar

Spotted salamander - approx. 6" long

While searching through the pool we managed to find 4 Spotted salamanders.  The two we were able to scoop up in the net were males.  The two others were likely males as well.  Males migrate to these woodland pools first to deposit spermatophores (sperm packets) on the bottom of the pools.  The females migrate to the pools later to seek out the spermatophores and lay their large masses of eggs.  There were no egg masses in the pool that evening, so its likely there were no females in the pool just yet.

Marbled salamander larva and Fingernail clam

Another species of salamander had layed its eggs last fall, and now the young larvae were already swimming about the pool.  This Marbled salamander larva is quite small, but it will have a big advantage over the currently unhatched (and unlayed) Spotted salamanders living in the same pool.  It will be larger and capable of eating other salamander larvae and tadpoles that will hatch in the pool.  For purposes of scale, the Fingernail clam in the photo is about the size of a #2 pencil eraser.

Fairy shrimp

Fairy shrimp are one of the most incredible creatures of these woodland pools.  These small invertebrates (0.5 - 1.5" long) slowly swim upside-down in woodland pools filtering and eating tiny particles from the water.  They are excellent indicators of true woodland (vernal) pools because they will only be present in pools that have dried up during the previous year.  Their eggs are only viable and capable of hatching after being subjected to a period of drying out.  If the pool doesn't dry up during the previous year, the shrimp are not likely to be present.  This indicator species is indicative of the pool's overall heath as well.  Many folks miss the Fairy shrimp because they come and go rather quickly in the early spring.

Diving beetle

One final creature of interest was this diving beetle we found swimming through the pool.  The water temperature was very cold, which may have contributed to the lack of insect diversity at this time of the year.  Perhaps in another week we will be greeted by the usual abundance of various species of diving beetles, caddisfly larvae, backswimmers, waterboatmen, etc.

If you would like an opportunity to explore the pond and vernal pool with us this spring, please consider signing up to attend our Amphibian Night Hike during the evening of April 9th.  Please visit the Westmoreland Sanctuary website for more information about the event and how to register.

Finally, if you know of a woodland pool nearby, take some time to investigate who or what may be living or breeding there at this time of year.  And keep your eye out for migrating amphibians during spring rains over the next few weeks.  Often times they cross roads, so be aware and try not to smoosh them if at all possible.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Citizen Science Opportunity

A few weeks back (Jan 23, 2010) we presented a program on owls here at the sanctuary. At the conclusion of the program we played a recording and listened for responses from Eastern Screech Owls outside the museum. Despite no owl responses that evening, everyone in attendance got a quick tutorial of the "Who's Whoo-ing in Your Backyard?" citizen science project.

A citizen scientist is anyone who volunteers a few minutes of their time to collect valuable data for any number of wildlife science projects. Citizen scientists are becoming increasingly valuable for their ability to carryout the functions of a large-scale project that a group of researchers could never accomplish on their own.

In the "Who's Whoo-ing" project, Chris Nagy from the Mianus River Gorge is enlisting and leading any willing participants (aka citizen scientists) from Westchester (NY), Putnam (NY), and Fairfield (CT) Counties to collect data on owls in their backyard using 10-minute long "call playback surveys" of Eastern Screech Owls, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls. 

The data will be used to find out where these owls live, if they co-occur in the same areas, and what habitats and areas they tend to live in or avoid. Everyone in urban, suburban, and rural settings is encouraged to participate as this will provide the greatest coverage and most effective data set.

For more information and how to participate in the "Who's Whoo-ing" project, please visit Alternatively, you may send Chris an email at to sign up or request more information. The project's second annual season begins April 1, 2010. Visit the website and sign up today!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, March 15, 2010

Power is back

We had another loss of electricity this past weekend.  Saturated soil, additional precipitation, and heavy wind gusts are a recipe for disaster around here.

This detached power line (just south of the sanctuary entrance) lying in the middle of Chestnut Ridge Road was the source of our weekend-long blackout.  Limbs weakened by the previous storm were falling in great quantity, and one of them happened to snag the powerline on its way to the ground.

In addition to tree-related damage, the torrent of water rushing around a bend in Chestnut Ridge Road contributed a partial collapse of the roadway.  If you are making your way to the sanctuary at any time in the near future, be cautious of the barricade of barrels, cones, and sawhorses alerting drivers of the road hazard.  This is most important for visitors accessing Chestnut Ridge Road off of NY Route 172.

We have yet to assess the trail system for damage from the latest storm, though its safe to say the trails will be very muddy for the forseeable future.  On the bright side...there will soon be a flurry of amphibian activity thanks to all the precipitation.  I'll document some of that activity later this month.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March Showers

March showers encourage April's flowers...and the emergence of hibernating amphibians.  Last spring we documented some of the interesting amphibian life that emerges each spring here and here.

Well its that time of the year again.  Actually its probably a little early, but what are we gonna do?  If its raining, the amphians are likely to emerge!

The following text was forwarded to me on 3/12/2010 by Bedford Audubon Director Jim Nordgren:
For CITIZEN SCIENTISTS interested in documenting this spring's pool-breeding amphibian migrations:

Current weather forecasts for tonight and over the weekend still are indicating conditions that may be adequate for amphibian movements, although now temperatures are expected to be a little cooler. Migrations are difficult to predict, but generally, forest-dwelling amphibians begin to move from upland habitat to spring breeding pools after the ground has thawed, on the first rainy evenings when temperatures are above 40F.
Depending on where you live in the Hudson Valley, it's possible that migrations may start tonight or over the weekend. Check your local weather forecast to help plan your evening. Curiosity, a little flexibility, and some adventurous spirit are definitely necessary for those hearty volunteers who head out despite the uncertainty and unfavorable weather conditions. Thanks to all for your help!
I’d love photographs of citizen scientists out looking for pool-breeding salamanders and wood frogs during their migrations. If you take any photos this spring that I can use in presentations and other educational materials, please email them with photo credit information, date, and brief caption information.
Some answers to recent questions:

“What if there’s still snow on the ground?”

According to “Vernal Pools: Natural History and Conservation” by Elizabeth Colburn (2004), wood frogs will breed as soon as the ice in vernal pools begins to melt, usually when there is still considerable snow on the ground. Many years ago, I saw them hopping and sliding across the ice to get to an opening in a pool in the Town of Yorktown in Westchester County.
“What time should I start looking?”

Generally, pool-breeding amphibians begin moving when it’s dark, but you may not see larger numbers until later in the evening. Most observations submitted to us last year were recorded between 9pm and 12am.
“Have there been any observations of pool-breeding amphibian movement yet?”

I’ve heard no reports from the Hudson Valley, but in south-central Connecticut, wood frogs were observed in pools and vocalizing in the shallows of a beaver pond earlier this week.
Remember, more information and data forms are available at:
Good luck and be safe! I look forward to receiving your data and hearing about your experiences in the field.

Laura T. Heady

Biodiversity Outreach Coordinator
Hudson River Estuary Program
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation / Cornell University

21 South Putt Corners Road
New Paltz, NY 12561-1620
845.256.3061 phone / 845.255.3649 fax
If you are definately interested in learning more about amphibian emergence in spring and their mass migration to vernal pools, ponds, and other water bodies follow this link to the NY DEC's website to learn how you can get involved.  Better yet, you can attend a lecture on 3/16/2010 at Bedford Audubon's Bylane Farm at 7:00pm.  Here's a little more information about that program:

Why Did the Salamander Cross the Road? With Laura Heady

Tuesday, March 16, 7:00 p.m.
BAS Headquarters, Bylane Farm, 35 Todd Road, Katonah

Have you ever witnessed large numbers of salamanders and frogs crossing the road on rainy spring nights? Ever wonder where they came from and where they’re going? Each spring, frogs and salamanders travel significant distances from their forest habitats to breed in woodland pools. Unfortunately, migration pathways often cross roads and long driveways, leading to mortality of slow-moving wildlife, even in low traffic areas.
The NYSDEC Hudson River Estuary Program and Cornell University are working together to conserve forests, woodland pools, and the wildlife that depend on these critical habitats. Join Laura Heady, Biodiversity Outreach Coordinator, for a slide presentation on woodland pool ecology and a new citizen science program, the “Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings” project. Learn how you can get involved by witnessing these incredible spring migrations, documenting “Big Night” road crossings, and helping amphibians survive their overland travel. For more information on the Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings see
Woodland pools and the amphibian life they sustain are of great conservation concern in the Hudson Valley.  Monitoring of these water bodies and their amazing amphibian life is a fun, educational, and critical endeavor.  I hope that you may be able to join the effort this spring!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, March 8, 2010

A little too much help

As a result of the recent heavy snowfall, a number of trees and limbs have created obstructions on many of the trails all across the sanctuary. A number of these obstructions have been identified and/or cleared on the Easy Loop, Catbird, Chickadee, Lost Pond, and Wood Thrush trails. If, during your visit, you discover trees, limbs, or other obstructions across a trail, please notify the sanctuary staff via phone, email, or making a note on the Visitor Sign-in sheet in the Kiosk. Please indicate the trail and approximate location of the obstruction so that we may be able to more efficiently clear the trail. We can't walk/monitor all the trails as frequently as we'd like to check for these occurrences and often rely on our visitors to alert us of any situation that needs to be attended to.

Until we are able to clear all obstructions from the trails, please carefully make your way around fallen trees, blow downs, etc to continue down the trail. We respectfully request that all visitors refrain from clearing any obstructions using hand shears, loppers, saws, or any other tools. At no time is anyone permitted to cut or remove vegetation from the sanctuary for any reason whatsoever. The sanctuary staff reserves the right and sole discretion to determine what, if anything, needs to be cut from dead, fallen, or live timber that may be obstructing or leaning into the trail. One exception is for any individuals out on the trail that may choose to move any detached branches or limbs to the side of the trail.

This announcement is due to a recent incident in which an overzealous, though well intentioned, individual completely cut large specimens of Spicebush and Witchhazel along a portion of the trails. Both of these species are highly valuable understory trees which are becoming increasingly rare throughout the sanctuary. These and other native shrubs (Blueberry, Pinkster Azalea, Viburums, etc) growing under the canopy of the forest provide vital food resources and nesting structures for a variety of bird species which themselves are declining due to loss of understory vegetation in the forests in our area. Though the cut specimens may have been leaning into or covering a portion of the trail due to stress from the heavy snowfall, this was no reason to cut any part or the entire tree. If warranted, we will carefully prune the tree or shrub in question or potentially reroute the trail in order to create a balance between safe trail access and the wildlife habitat we are managing and protecting throughout the entire sanctuary.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.
-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Snow...Beauty and Beast

We have our power and telecommunications back online after last week's snow storm.  The 12 inches of wet, heavy snow took a large toll on the trees all along Chestnut Ridge Road and across many portions of the sanctuary.  There will be a lot of cleaning up to do in the coming weeks as we get a chance to cut broken limbs and remove fallen trees from the lawn, parking lot, and the trails.

Despite the destruction (and back pain from all the shoveling) there was an undeniable beauty to the landscape as it was completely draped in snow.  Below are some of the pictures taken Friday afternoon and Saturday morning after the snow had stopped falling.  Click on the images for larger views.

A thick layer of snow coating every branch and twig

A spruce tree folded up like a closed umbrella

Home tweet home covered in snow

Snow-covered scene in front of the Naturalist's cottage

The Sugarhouse blanketed in snow

Spruce tree branches bending from the weight of the snow

A bench upholstered in a thick cushion of snow

A quiet (and powerless) museum

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist