New Techniques

We arrived at McCrea Point one sunny Tuesday morning, starting off our week of work, anxious to get on the water. Our excitement only grew when the kayaks came rolling in from Evergreen Outfitters. Paddling along the river there was so many things to see and learn. New plants, animals and so on. The experience itself was an enjoyable and relaxing one. It was tranquil, quiet. On our journey down the river, we spotted blue herons and some painted turtles.

Kayaking the Outlet

Before entering the water, we had to first learn the technique of paddling, how to correctly hold a paddle, and how to sit correctly in the kayak. Learning that, we headed into the water. Along the way, we goofed off and splashed one another, joked around and had fun. Just a normal day in the office for us. Out of this, we got the experience to kayak and very tired arms.

Crew with Kayaks

Even after out excitement with the kayaks, even more was to come. Our viceroy caterpillar had formed a chrysalis in the previous week. When we headed to the institute the next day, we had found that it had come out and formed into a beautiful butterfly that looks something like a monarch, but not quite. After discovering this, we set the butterfly free into the the butterfly garden at RTPI.

Erros with Viceroy

It was nice to take a break for a couple days, but it was time to get back to trapping turtles. Having just acquired a new thirty-five foot net from the DEC, we were confident that we would catch some spiny soft shell turtles. However, we were unaccustomed to such a hefty net. Consequently, there were some struggles, along with trial and error. The best way to use such a large net is to have two or three people holding, while everyone else pushes turtles downstream toward the net. They lift the net simultaneously, and anything in the net is now trapped.

Practicing with the Seine net

Unfortunately, the elusive turtles managed to evade our trap. Nonetheless, we did not come up empty-handed. We were happy to catch a carp, some over-sized shiners, and a peculiar fish called a sucker. Our technique had worked to some point. Yes we managed to catch other critters, but not our spiny softshells. As elusive as these creatures are, we are still in high hopes of catching them before our last week is in the books.

The Ongoing Struggle

When the project first started in June, we took on the task of making two turtle traps with PVC pipes and metal wire-netting. To keep it simple, that has been the easy part. Both of our traps were failures as they sunk to the bottom of the river and we are currently fixing them and making them completely air tight in hopes of finally catching a Spiny Softshell Turtle. In the mean time, we have also been using hoop traps that have caught every turtle besides the ones that we actually want. One thing that we have all learned is how evasive the Spiny Softshell Turtles are. We have tried nearly everything, from trotting through the entire Riverwalk to throwing nets on them, and have had no luck.

One attempt the crew has tried has been using a small seine net and dip nets to scoop up a turtle.

One attempt the crew has tried has been using a small seine net and dip nets to scoop up a turtle.

The turtles will swiftly slide into the water as soon as they notices you, and it seems as if their senses are extremely keen. They have proven themselves very elusive and the sought after turtle have slowly begun frustrating the crew. We have narrowed down the popular basking locations that we have encountered on the Chadakoin River to a handful of specific points along the river. We have chosen these points to set up several ring traps that are partially submerged under water to hopefully snag us some turtles. We have had no luck catching the Spiny Softshell Turtles with these traps, as they have also proven to be very smart and don’t fall for the simple trap. We have even spotted a small male Spiny Softshell Turtle swimming around a ring trap multiple times as it observes it, but doesn’t actually go in it, demonstrating some form of caution when approaching alien objects in the water.

Hoops nets have been deployed.

Baited hoops traps have been deployed as well in attempt to lure these wily turtles in.

 

Even though we haven’t caught one of the turtles yet, we are still very optimistic. One reason for our high hopes is that we just received a 35×4 foot net that we are going to use to block off a part of the Chadakoin, forcing the turtles into either our traps or our nets if all goes as planned. We are excited to go out tomorrow and use our net to hopefully catch our first Spiny Softshell Turtles and we will definitely keep the blog updated on this topic!

Turtle Trapping and Field Trips

It was a foggy morning, and we were going to start our first day of trapping. We prepared our venture by prepping the traps with disinfectant . Having  set the traps, we lie in wait in hopes of catching the elusive, spiny soft-shelled turtle. However, we were only able to nab six painted turtles and two cantankerous snapping turtles. Before we were able to log the discovery, time had to pass to allow the snapping turtles to get all their anger out. They sat there clamping down on one another for a few minutes, damaging the other’s shell. Luckily, Twan, the director of the institute, was there and could show us the proper method for handling these primal creatures. Carefully grabbing the turtle by the back of the shell, we were able to tentatively get a measurement without injury to ourselves. Moving on to the painted turtles, we practiced gathering information on turtles by measuring weight, the length of the carapace and plastron, and counting age using the scutes on the top of the shell. This is the same information that will be recorded when it comes to our focus species.

Hailey holding a snapper

Handling a snapper

For our first field trip, we traveled to Harris Hill State forest with forester, Jeff Brockelbank. He shared with us an in-depth look at an ecosystem. There are a multitude of each part of the system, be it trees, insects, animals, or anything else. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was that logging is as much of a necessary part of a healthy forest as growth. For younger, more preferable trees to grow, it is necessary to chop down the already grown trees that take up all of the sun, nutrients, and water.

Harris Hill with Jeff B

Our second field trip was spent in the fish hatchery and Chautauqua Gorge. At the hatchery, we viewed the many types of fish in Chautauqua lake that some of us did not even know existed. Perhaps the most interesting of these species was the spotted gar, which is a large, armored fish that looks like some kind of prehistoric animal. Also, we learned about the efforts to preserve paddlefish in the Allegheny River and in Chautauqua Lake. These are other really cool animal, which are easily identified by their huge, paddle-like snout. Paddlefish can reach six-foot long when they are fully grown, which is why the largest fish ever caught in Chautauqua Lake was a paddlefish. Getting to see all of the work that the DEC did to support fishing in the state was neat, and all of the different species that can be found in WNY.

Fish Hatchery

Fish Hatchery (1)

Although many of the youth ambassadors have lived in WNY their whole lives, many of us have never been to Chautauqua Gorge. This made it especially interesting to get to see such a beautiful place right here in Chautauqua County. When we first got there, we had to go down a steep, but very scenic path down to the gorge itself. Down in the gorge, we got to experience one of the headwaters of the Allegheny, a stream flowing with cool, clean, water. Besides seeing some really neat waterfalls and rock formations, we were able to find a number of uncommon examples of wildlife. Some of these included a Northern Water Snake, and a Ring-Necked Snake. Overall, the trip to Chautauqua Gorge is a must-see to anyone in the area who enjoys wildlife and the outdoors.

Erros-Ring neck snake

Chautauqua Gorge

The research has begun and our excitement has skyrocketed. Hopefully soon we can catch our focus species and begin banding to gather the information we need. We also look forward to other unique field trips where we can learn about the surrounding area and each part of the ecosystem.

First Day on the Riverwalk

The Chadakoin River empties Chautauqua Lake, lazily meandering through the city of Jamestown before continuing on towards its eventual end in the Gulf of Mexico. This small stretch of river has long been heavily developed, indeed factories were built all along and right over top of it. Wastes were dumped into the river to be washed downstream, with little or no attention heeded to the people downstream let alone the local wildlife that depended upon it. At one point the power plant discharged super-hot water directly into the river, killing all the life within. (This no longer takes place and interestingly some of this hot water is now used to heat the public buildings in Jamestown). Since then the river has made a dramatic comeback, with little aid from people, and has become an important corridor for wildlife in Jamestown, supporting an impressive amount of biodiversity. With the recent focus on revitalizing the waterfront a new light is being cast upon the river and the life it supports. Right in the city it is possible to see such impressive bird species as osprey, and great blue herons, turtles of all sorts, including the spiny softshell turtle which is listed as a species of special concern in New York, and countless other creatures.

That these animals can survive and even thrive in such a developed setting is a testament to the tenacity of nature, and the need to document and learn as much as possible about them so that more informed decisions can be made about the future of this gem in the middle of Jamestown. Recently under the guidance of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute a group of six local high school students along with two college mentors have set out to do just that. I am lucky enough to be one of those mentors and this is my account of our first day on the river.

Day one on the riverwalk began at the parking lot of Friendly’s, with the handing out of nets, and the liberal application of insect repellent. The nets were of little help early that day, as it was cloudy and dragonflies like to fly in the sun, but they would be used before the day was through. As we began walking along the riverwalk heading towards Panzarella Park we were greeted by the aerial acrobatics of rough-winged swallows above the river. Feeding on insects these birds have made their home in the concrete walls that can be found lining the river corrider, finding cracks and holes, or making use of drainage pipes. As we passed under the Washington Street bridge the mud nests of cliff swallows above us were evidence of yet another swallow making use of Jamestown’s infrastructure. In the river itself mallards seemed to be disturbed little by our presence, with males, females, and chicks of various ages watching us walk by. A Merganser was far less tolerant of our presence, and disappeared from sight upon our approach. Birds were not the only creatures in the water, a red eared slider (turtle) could be seen basking on a log while a small (probably male) spiny softshell turtle also tried to clamor up onto it.

Upon reaching Panzarella Park a cacophony of bird calls filled the air, mostly catbirds and robins. Phoebes were also calling, and after a little searching among the branches we sighted fledglings, and actually got to watch a parent bringing back and feeding insects to them. Warblers were flitting in the upper branches of the trees, but never showed themselves long enough to let us identify them. Numerous freshwater mussel shells along the shore indicated the presence of raccoons, probably visiting after dark and taking advantage of the large numbers of mollusks to be found in the river.
Heading in the other direction we stopped for lunch at picnic tables in the welcome shade of the trees behind a local restaurant. Swallows continued patrolling for insects above the river, and sparrows climbed on the concrete walls that serve as the banks of the river here. After lunch we discovered a welcome surprise, ripe berries littered the sidewalk and hung from the branches of a mulberry tree. The birds had found them first, but left some for us to enjoy. I can’t say the same for us, when we left few ripe berries could be found on the lower branches of the tree.

Moving on we came to a stretch where it was possible to forget we were in an urban setting, the natural streamside vegetation had been allowed to grow, and served as a buffer between us and the sights and sounds of the surrounding city. Ever present mallard ducks swam in the currents, and birds called from the branches above us. It was notably cooler, and overall seemed serene and relaxing.

Upon reaching the Gateway Center we were all excited about seeing the nesting sites of one of the more unusual creatures that makes up the cast of characters found in the Chadakoin, the spiny soft shell turtle. Unfortunately as is often the case with turtle nests many of them had suffered from predation with dug up nests and broken eggs littering the ground. One nest was observed with viable eggs, and as we took turns observing and photographing it we were approached by two local individuals who were enjoying a barbecue at Gateway Center, which all of us had been smelling for some time. They wanted to know what we were looking at, and were amazed when we told them about the spiny soft shell turtles, and showed them the nests. They had seen the turtles before but did not know what they were, and were eager to learn what we could tell them.

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As we were observing the turtles, we counted at least seven, we were surprised to see a muskrat swim up. He spent some time feeding among the branches of a fallen tree that was lodged in the river. Not to be left out mallards were abundant, and grackles and other birds flitted through the branches.

After a great deal of time spent here observing the turtles, we made our way back in the direction we had come. This time we saw a number of goldfinches, cedar wax wings, a cardinal, and heard the distinctive rattle of a kingfisher. We also passed by the mulberry tree, which we further stripped of berries and made our way back to the picnic table where earlier we had eaten lunch. Seeing all of us with our nets a father and his two children were eager to show us a caterpillar they had found which we were able to identify as a Tussock moth caterpillar.

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Identifying Tussock Moth Caterpillar

From there we made our way over to the other side of the river, following the riverwalk on its course below the soon to be National Comedy Center. The sun had come out and dragonflies had started flying so we were trying to collect some for identification. One of the students caught a glimpse of a turtle among the rip-rap on the shoreline, which we were able to coax into a net. It turned out to be a painted turtle, and appeared to be an old female at that. Definitely a survivor she was missing one eye, and had some scarring on her face, but otherwise seemed no worse for the wear. Everyone took turns holding and photographing it, and with her fifteen minutes of fame over we returned her to her rightful home in the river. We did manage to collect some dragonflies, notably a prince baskettail, and eastern amberwing among others, as well as several damselflies.

Checking out the turtle

Checking out the turtle

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Crossing back over to the other side we decided to walk up to Panzarella Park one more time (in the hopes of catching more odanates (a fancy word for dragonflies and damselflies) and we were surprised to come upon a turtle nest in the gravel. It was not covered over, and we believe it was probably left by a snapping turtle bringing our total turtle species count up to four for the day.

Our first day on the riverwalk was a fun one and I believe successful as well. I saw some things I never had before, and learned a bit as well, and I believe the rest of our group did as well. On top of that we were able to meet some of the people along the riverwalk, sharing our mutual enthusiasm for the creatures along it and hopefully doing some educating as well. At the end of our first day I was left looking forward to our next.