Downy Woodpecker

Although New York is home to 11 different woodpecker species, the one most commonly encountered is the Downy Woodpecker. Although it also enjoys foraging for foods in open woodlands and meadows, it is unique in that it frequently visits bird feeders as well. It is small compared to most other woodpeckers, so it is able to access food that is difficult for their larger relatives to reach. They also frequently flock with other birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches.

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A fantastic picture of a Downy Woodpecker taken in the “Meet Your Neighbors” style photographed by Twan Leenders.

The Downy Woodpecker’s most distinctive feature is its small size, as the maximum length for any individual is less than 7 inches! Combine this with their light weight (usually under 1 oz) and they are able to feed in unique situations. Often, they will perch on weeds such as goldenrod and consume the larvae that are embedded in galls on the plant. Basically, a gall is an part of the plant that has grown around an egg placed by an insect, which provides food and shelter for the developing larvae. Besides perching on weeds, Downy Woodpeckers are also known to visit suet feeders, black oil sunflower feeders, peanut feeders, and even hummingbird feeders.

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The same Downy Woodpecker looking curious. Photographed by Twan Leenders.

Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, and excavate cavities that with entrance holes only 1-1.15 inches wide. They only nest in dead trees, or parts of living trees that have died. Sometimes, they will choose to excavate a portion of the tree that has already been weakened by a fungal infection. Once the cavity has been created (a process which usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks) the inside is lined with wood chips.

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Here is a Downy Woodpecker foraging for food. Photographed by Scott Kruitbosch.

Having a variety of food sources and nesting sites means that the Downy Woodpecker is fairly adaptable. This means that their populations have remained stable, and they are not facing any serious conservation issues at this point. This is good news, especially to Western New Yorkers who love seeing them visit feeders throughout the year!

Another Great Week with Project Wild America!

Drew: The past few days we have been focusing on microplastics. I’ve heard about them and had a general knowledge on what they are and where they came from, but I was no expert. After hours of learning more and more about the science of microplastics, I’m still not an expert, but I definitely know more.

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The PWA crew spent much of this week testing for microplastic pollution in the Chadakoin.

Today, I was sickened by the amount of garbage I found at Chadakoin Park. I kept an eye out for it. Casually walking through a park, I spot a lot of garbage, but when you really look out for trash, diligently, you get a better idea of the true human impact on this Earth.

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The PWA crew also spent time picking up garbage as part of the “Talking Trash” campaign.

We have to start looking out, not only for the other animals that inhabit this Earth, but also for future generations. Before throwing your cigarette butt out of the window of your car, think about the animals who can be harmed from its hazardous materials. Before you choose a plastic water bottle instead of a reusable mug, think about the microplasticss in the oceans. And most importantly, before you do anything, just think about the environment.

Emma: This past week we have been mainly focusing on the effects of microplastics on the environment, and it’s quite sickening. Because plastic photodegrades, it never really goes away. It continues to breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces that end up in the animals habitats and eventually in their feeding grounds. As well, microplastics are small enough to escape the filters of water treatment plants and end up in our tap water that we drink everyday. Scary. Of course my first thought was to just get a real big net and scoop it all up, easy peasy, right? Wrong.

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The PWA crew had to use microscopes to observe the microplastics collected.

We, as humans, are not the only living beings on this planet. We share much of it with nature and take it for granted. Just go outside and look around, there is a high chance you will see trash lying around. Luckily this week we started the Talkin’ Trash campaign which basically publicizes environmental clean up. We tested it out for the first time on Wednesday and it was crazy how much data we collected in just an hour. This week has been a reality check. The most important thing to take away from this is 1. reduce plastic consumption and 2. even the smallest contribution (i.e. picking up a wrapper and putting it in the garbage) can help.

Tiffany: When most people see a bug, their first thought is to get a shoe. However, when I see a bug, my first thought is to capture it, identify it, and possibly pin it. Insects are fascinating to watch, due to their diversity, and because of their abundance, the can be observed seemingly everywhere you go. While we’ve done a lot this week, one of the things I noticed most were these tiny, alien-like creatures.

Woolly aphids look like a cute tiny white ball of fuzz floating carelessly through the sky. They look almost as if a piece of a cloud feel right out of the sky. And when you catch them, you may mistaken the fuzz on its back for a spiderweb. You may think this insect has a fascinating story of hardship and conflict with an eight-legged beast. However, in reality, this insect was born with this coat of fuzz. Even though its wool tells no tales, it still shows off its pure beauty. 

Wooly Aphid (picture taken from bugguide.net)

Butterflies and moths show off their complex wing patterns and colors, while delicately gliding through the air. Walking down the trails at Chadakoin Park, I watched in awe at a small swarm of copper butterflies. Blurs of orange, brown, and black moved around in a cluster. Hesitantly, I looked up and I was surprised even more so. As I gazed at a spiny thistle plant, I saw a beautifully large black butterfly perched upon it. The thorns has no effect on its fragile body. When it opened up its wings, you could see an outline of yellow and blue. This was unmistakably the black swallowtail butterfly.

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The black swallowtail butterfly that the PWA crew found.

Like butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies have a long slender, winged body. However, unlike butterflies, dragonflies look as if they are encased in armor. instead of looking frail, they look strong and resilient. Though their wings behold alluring designs, it is their bodies that attracts on lookers. Pond hawks can exhibit a bright green or blue color, depending on their gender. When in flight, their wings are almost invisible, so all you see is smear of color across your vision as they fly by. The ebony jewel-wing is, by far, one of the prettiest damselflies I’ve ever seen. It was hard to miss as it sit on a plain, green leaf. Its black wings and blue, translucent body popped among the boring foliage. While many insects behold the ability of flight, many do not. These insects may be the hardest to spot.

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An example of an ebony jewel-wing, photographed by RTPI affiliate Sean Graesser.

Many times, they may blend in with their environment to avoid predation. These insects also don’t flash across your field of vision like flying insects do. Walking along a grassy, overgrown path, it would be easy to walk right by a praying mantis. Even though their body does not look like a piece of grass, their soft green color allows them to blend in with ease. As they check out their surroundings, they can move their head back and forth; a trait that many insects lack. These insects can look fairly intimidating, because they always look prepared for a fight. Even though they appear to be praying, these insects are no saints.They can easily kill other insects, including other mantids, and some species of spiders.

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The praying mantis that the PWA crew found (they kept it in a terrarium and will care for it for the duration of the summer).

Next time you see a bug, whether it be outdoors, or in your house, why not observe it, rather than ending its life with the flick of your hand. As you look closer, you, too, may begin to see wonder in the simple things around your backyard. 

Morgan: In the Pacific Ocean, there’s a garbage patch said to be nearly the size of Texas. Now, hearing about a “garbage patch,” one probably assumes that it’s simply an area with plastic cups, large styrofoam pieces, and other items people throw away; however, that’s not the case. Recently, the crew took samples of the water in the Chadakoin, and found tiny pieces of plastics, or microplastics, in the water. Plastic so small, that when compared to Twelve point font, one particle is smaller than even a period, and a microscope is almost required to see it.

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That tiny dot in the center of the picture is an example of a microbead.

 

Moral of the story, just because you can’t see the plastic, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Every piece of trash you throw away, doesn’t degrade naturally. So find a trash can, a dumpster or recycling bin, and throw that trash away properly!

Erros: Week four is just coming to an end and it has been a “Shell of a good time!”. So far the project has accomplished much and has collected a significant amount of data. We have also gotten our hands dirty, literally with our new Talkin’ Trash campaign, and have conducted research of our own. We’ve started a campaign focusing on spreading the awareness of trash and plastic pollution of the local environment and have been putting some of our efforts into helping the issue by picking up garbage as we worked all week. In addition we have set up a program through a website created by Nick Gunnar, an RTPI affiliate, to log gps locations of different pieces of trash that we pick up along our journey. This website is called Orbitist.com and it is comprised of different user made interactive maps in which you can explore numerous trails and learn about the local history as you follow the trails. Another aspect that we focused on this week was doing different types of surveys, especially bird surveys. Through these many bird surveys we conducted I feel that I have learned much about the local bird species here and have gained a new interest in these spectacular flying creatures. I love exploring and with a curious eye for birds I feel like I will find myself in places far and wide in search for their beauty in the future. This amazing project has honestly opened my eyes up to how satisfying it may be to know you’re helping the environment and has significantly aided me in gaining this constantly growing appreciation for Earth and it’s nature within.

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The Green Heron that the PWA crew observed while conducting bird surveys.

Griffin: About three quarters of the project is done with and I couldn’t be happier with all that we’ve accomplished in the past four weeks. Bird counts, Macro invertebrate samples, micro plastic samples, dragonfly catching, and turtle trapping have taken up most of our time with some saved in between for blogging. The amount of diversity I’ve seen on the river has been astounding. From turtles basking all around to Blue Herons flapping over the Chadakoin, the sights have been nothing short of amazing. We take countless pictures and film with the GoPro but nothing will allow you to truly see the beauty unless you’re on the river. Being exposed to the biodiversity in and around the river will give you no choice but to have a deeper respect for nature. You’ll naturally start to become more aware of how you impact the environment and become much more careful in everything you do. So if you haven’t yet, I strongly encourage you to spend some time along the River Walk.

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The PWA crew busy at Saturday’s public event on the Riverwalk.

 

Eastern Cottontail

Arguably the cutest animal featured in RTPI’s Meet Your Neighbor project is the Eastern Cottontail. Although very common in our area, it’s always great to see these little guys standing watchfully on the edge of fields. Despite their cute appearance, they actually fill an important role in the ecosystem as a food source for our larger predators. Combine this with a life span that is usually less than three years, and one can realize that these mammals have to struggle to survive and maintain their large population.

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An adorable Eastern Cottentail bunny photographed in the “Meet Your Neighbours” style by Twan Leenders.

As the name suggests, the Eastern Cottontail is present across the Eastern United States. The fur is mostly brown and grey, with a reddish patch around the shoulders. Both the fur around the nose and on the underside of the body is a lighter color. Of course, the underside of the tail is distinctly puffy and white. During the winter, the fur becomes more gray than brown, but otherwise remains similar to the summer coat.

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An Eastern Cottentail in some brush that would be a common habitat for this species. Photographed by Scott Kruitbosch.

The preferred habitat of the Eastern Cottontail are the borders between fields and woodlands. Here, they have access to a good food source, as well as cover from potential predation. Besides fields and woodlands, these rabbits also can make their homes in wetlands, thickets, and meadows. Eastern Cottontails eat a variety of plants, including grasses, clovers, fruits, vegetables, bark, and twigs.

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It’s a rough life being a rabbit. Eastern Cottentail and Red Fox photographed by Scott Kruitbosch.

The way that Eastern Cottontail populations are able to survive despite their high mortality rate is by having a high reproductive rate. Female Cottontails can have up to four litters of young each year, and each litter may have as many as nine babies! The babies leave the nest within seven weeks, and are able to mate within three months. This extremely high reproductive rate makes up for the fact that only about 15% of the young actually survive their first year.

White Trillium

One of New York’s most distinctive and beautiful wildflowers is the White Trillium. Also known as the Large-Flowered Trillium, these beautiful flowers are a delight to see when walking along a streambank on a warm spring day. Along with other trilliums, the White Trillium can be identified by having three large leaves, three flower petals, and three sepals. However, this gorgeous flower also has a number of characteristics that make it an unique member of the woodlands of Western New York.

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A beautiful example of White Trillium photographed in the “Meet Your Neighbours” style by Twan Leenders.

As mentioned above, size is usually the trait that is first noticed when observing a specimen of White Trillium. The petals are bright white early after blossoming, but may turn pink-ish as the flower ages. Like all trilliums, there are three petals on each flower, and only one flower per plant. There are also three large sepals, each of which sits between the petals. The stigmas and stamens also follow this pattern of triplets, with six stamens and three stigmas being present.

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Although the White Trillium is not featured, this is a panel drawn by Roger Tory Peterson showcasing the variety among Trilliums and other wildflowers.

The leaves of the White Trillium are large, being up to six inches long and five inches across. Each plant has three leaves, arranged in a whorl around the stem. These broad leaves sometimes may be the only identifiable part of the plant, as it takes several years for the plant to develop enough to devote energy to grow a flower. Before the plant is mature enough for a flower, the leaves will still be present, producing enough sugars to store for future use. This is one of the reasons why White Trillium should not be disturbed in its habitat, as its reproductive cycle takes a significant amount of time.

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Another gorgeous White Trillium, photographed by Elyse Henshaw.

These flowers are found in deciduous forests with rich soil, as well as in swamps and along shaded riverbanks. My first encounter with this species was in an exemplary habitat for White Trillium, on a streambank in a rich woodland with the ideal amount of sunlight. With all of the conditions being suitable for this flower, there were actually around a dozen specimens of this species in a small area. This is a good example of how native plants like the White Trillium can actually succeed when the environmental conditions allow them to compete with invasive species.

Success on the Chadakoin!

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Griffin: There’s only a little more than three weeks left in the project and it feels like it just started yesterday. From mapping invasives to swimming in the Chadakoin we’ve always been working hard to better understand our local environment. Not only have we worked to learn but we also try to focus on teaching the community about what we do; the 3rd Street location that we now work out of is perfect because we can take advantage of the amount of people downtown every day that ask questions and stop by. I was very surprised by the amount of people that seem genuinely interested in what we’re doing because that’s a good sign for the future of our local ecosystem. If people care about something they will ensure its well-being. I can’t count all of the conversations I’ve had with community members about the turtles they’ve seen and ideas on how to trap them more efficiently. Also, after coming up dry last year, we caught our first Spiny Softshell by the Warner Dam. We were all very shocked to have finally caught one but it was definitely overdue. I can tell that we’re off to a strong start this year and certainly have a busy yet exciting three weeks coming up.

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Morgan: Red winged black birds, salamanders, teasel, unicorn clubtail dragonflies, woodchucks, and Wooly aphids are just a few of the things I have encountered in my three weeks as part of Project Wild America. I’ve taken shelter under a tree in the middle of a downpour and volunteered to swim in water over my head at Warner Dam just to cool off (and of course hopefully catch a Spiny) on an +85℉ day. I have even unknowingly ventured through a thick jungle like area that just happened to consist of skunk cabbage and poison ivy. The crew and I have identified, tagged and tracked more invasive species than socks we go through each day, and that’s really saying something. Each day I gain knowledge of things I never knew existed here in New York State, and put what I know about other topics to the test. At the end of the day, it is a guarantee that I will have walked 4+ miles and be far past exhaustion, ready to jump into the AC, head home and sleep for possibly years. Yet, I wouldn’t trade this opportunity and experience with people who share just as much passion I do, for anything, because even the hot and rainy, long and Spiny “turtleless” days are well worth it.

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Emma: These past couple weeks have flown by and we’ve accomplished a multitude of things, all while dodging bugs and less than favorable weather. We’ve continued to map the surplus of invasive species all along the Chadakoin River, while taking the GPS coordinates and putting them into the statewide databases. The most common ones we have come across include multiflora rose, honeysuckle, tree of heaven and Japanese knotweed. As part of New York Invasive Species Awareness Week, we had the chance to taste some invasives, which included knotweed and garlic mustard. Chef James Salamone cooked us up some recipes at the RTPI 3rd Street location . They were pretty tasty and quite interesting to try!  Also, the PWA crew went around the city and placed purple flagging tape on the ash trees to symbolize the threat of the emerald ash borer. Many people came up to us and asked us what we were doing, so it was a good way to gain public knowledge of the issue. We’ve had a couple of bird watching sessions, seeing unique birds such as the cedar waxwing and, most importantly, we’ve finally caught a spiny soft-shell turtle. This little guy came at the right time though because, at least for me, continuously picking up turtleless nets was becoming quite discouraging. Needless to say these past three weeks have been filled to the brim with experience, excitement, exploring, and lots of wet socks. I am so excited for what the next three weeks bring but I really hope they slow down a bit, I’m not ready to stop searching for turtles yet.

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Tiffany:

The ability of flight allows for unrestricted freedom. It’s quite fascinating. This may be why I love spotting new birds during Project Wild America. In the small town of Jamestown, you’d never expect to see so many species of birds flying right over your head. No one fathoms the idea that that senseless bird chatter is not coming from one species. Rather it is coming from perhaps 4 of 5 different species. I never realized that there is well over 20 different species of birds around Chautauqua County. Usually, I would only notice some common robins or crows or some plain brown sparrows. Now, I’m discovering species I did not even know existed, let alone live right in my own town. For instance, during this project is the first time I ever saw a mockingbird. I mean, sure. I knew what a mockingbird was. I’ve heard the term constantly throughout my life. Heck, it’s even in that nursery rhyme. However, I never gave this bird any thought. However, when I saw it at first, I had no clue what kind of bird it was. At first I thought it may be a type of  tiny raptor due to its call and its unmistakable wing pattern. In flight, its wings are all grey with one big white splotch towards the middle, almost as if it quickly flew through side by side waterfalls of white paint. When one of the leaders told me what the bird actually was, I was thoroughly shocked, but pleasantly surprised. While walking along during this project, everyone’s head may be looking down to keep their eyes out of the sun, or perhaps to spot some turtles. But if you’re looking for me, look for the girl with binoculars covering her eyes and her neck craned up, hoping to catch a glimpse of nature’s greatest wonder.

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Tony:

Up until yesterday, July 13th, I had lost all hope in capturing the illusory Spiny Softshell turtle. While trying to capture them, I managed to slice my finger wide open and blood began to stream down my fingers into the foamy waters of the Chadakoin. At that moment, as the first drop of blood made contact with the current, I began to hope that the day, and the puncture wound in my finger, wouldn’t have been for nothing. We pulled the net out and no one noticed that we had a Spiny in the net. It wasn’t until we had packed it up and put it away that one of us realized we had a turtle! This was the first turtle in Project Wild America history. Besides the Spiny, we have done countless other activities to further acquaint ourselves with the environment. From mapping invasive species to capturing dragonflies to then pin, I have learned a lot these past two weeks. I can’t wait for more to come and to expand my knowledge in the natural studies field.

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Drew:

Have you ever looked a spiny in the eye? That was a sight I had only dreamed about, up until yesterday. After another day of swimming in the Chadakoin, getting sliced and diced by rocks, and getting seemingly embarrassed by the spinies, we all walked back to put the seine net away, forever. It was a demoralizing defeat. The spinies had humiliated us again. But, as I was taking off my wet shoes, I heard cries of victory. That was an unfamiliar noise. At least to us. To the spinies, they were living in a state of perpetual triumph.

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I walked over to the seine net, skeptic about what my colleagues claimed they found. Sure enough he was there. A small, male spiny soft shell turtle. He was aggressive. He was fierce. But, in the end, he was conquered.
Catching the spiny has been a highlight over our past few weeks, but we have done a lot more. From marking ash trees to mapping invasive species to conducting bird surveys, we have been very busy. At the end of every day, even if I’m soaked and dirty, I’m happy with what we have accomplished. I look forward for the second half of this program to see what else we are able to achieve.

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Mike:

Over the last couple of weeks we have had pretty good luck catching and surveying the local wildlife. Whether it was dragonflies, frogs, fish, and even turtles, our nets would almost always come up with something. The only creature that would successfully evade our nets would be the spiny softshell turtle.  During the last couple of weeks we had tried and failed to catch spiny softshell turtles using hoop traps and a very bulky, smelly, and awkward seine net.  We didn’t catch any spiny softshells but we found out a whole new meaning of getting wet.  Through trial and error we perfected our turtle trapping skills and finally caught a spiny softshell turtle at Warner Dam yesterday.  All the wrong moves and strategies from before were improved to ultimately create a success. Also, by fine tuning our strategy we learned more about the art of catching, not just in turtles but in other wild life as well. We now have caught more dragon flies, frogs and fish than ever before all thanks to experience. In the words of Colin Powell “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence.”

Erros, Griffin, and Adolf with our first Spiny

Erros, Griffin, and Adolf with our first Spiny

Erros: Finally redemption! We’ve come very far since first learning the back trails at RTPI, as Griffin, Adolf, and I officially became young turtle trappers, to finally getting our first measurements of the ever elusive Spiny Soft-Shelled Turtle. Aside from the recent major success with catching Myrtle the turtle (the name we gave it) we also have accomplished much more since our First Thoughts group blog post. We have done several bird surveys and we not only logged many bird sightings, but I personally have learned much from the surveys. I have become quite familiar with many of the common local birds such as cowbirds, starlings, killdeer, crows, cedar waxwings, robins, and grackles; I have even learned a few of their bird calls. Another major goal of ours that we are finally starting to fulfill is to collect data, and map all of the local variety of invasive plants, shrubs, and trees. We have undoubted logged over a hundred different sightings of invasive plants all along the river and around the city. I certainly have added to my knowledge of plants, but now have a keen eye for the local invasive plant species such as Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, Tree of Heaven, Japanese Knotweed, and Norway Maple. We even went out and marked over seventy Ash trees all over the city, with purple tape, to show how many important trees we could be losing due to the spread of the invasive emerald ash-borer. Also we invested in plywood that we placed down in a few different spots on the back fields of Chadakoin park. This is in hopes of attracting snakes to take shelter there and record the different species we find. As part of Invasive Species Awareness Week we also had a local chef use some of the local invasive plant species here and cook platters for the public to taste test outside of our 3rd street location. We had some insightful encounters with the people of the community and many of them enjoyed the Blackberry Japanese Knotweed Cobbler and the Garlic Mustard Fried Rice. Project Wild America has been busy educating and serving the local community and we will continue full steam ahead. From leaving empty handed after each turtle catchin’ attempt last summer to catchin’ a Spiny just a few weeks into the project, I would say we have made a serious come up!

 

 

First Thoughts

Griffin: After last year I was content with what we accomplished as a group, but there’s always room for improvement. This year we are only one week in and it seems as if we are on track to expand on last year’s successes. No matter what we are doing, whether it be mapping invasive species or swimming neck-deep in the Chadakoin, the group consistently tackles every task with teamwork and positivity. As I look at the other crew members along with myself, it is clear that we all genuinely enjoy working with the river and everything nature has to offer. Lastly, I know that we will do great things this year and finally catch ourselves a Spiny Softshell Turtle.

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Griffin and Tony in action de-contaminating the seine net.

Tony: At first glance the Chadakoin River is a vile body of water but upon careful investigation, it is thriving. Most people in the area are completely opposed to the idea of ever swimming in the river. I, like many others, would’ve never imagined swimming in the Chadakoin River. This first week of Project Wild America, I have been in the river 3 days. I saw my very first spiny softshell turtle on my second day of work by the Riverwalk. It was quite the sight since it was preparing to lay its eggs in the mulch around a tree. I can’t wait to be able to capture a spiny softshell and accomplish what last year’s group could not.

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First day on the Riverwalk, we observed this Spiny Soft-Shelled Turtle digging a nest in the mulch.

Drew P: The last question I was asked in my interview was “You’re not going to have any problem getting into the water and getting dirty, right?” I didn’t know that I was going to be getting dirty so soon, though, as I was swimming in the Chadakoin with a net in my right hand looking for turtles on my second day. Crazy. Most people in Jamestown would probably think I would have many fatal diseases if I told them that I did that. We saw a Spiny Softshell Turtle early that day, digging in the mulch, prompting my colleague, Griffin Noon, to write an extraordinary piece, “Spiny on the Mulch.” (which will be posted as a blog soon).

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Tony and Drew mapping out some invasive varieties of cat-tails.

Tiffany: Prior to the start of this project, I was not aware of the thriving ecosystem that was right here in Jamestown. I’ve only been a member for about a week, but I have already seen a plethora of species that I did not know lived here. For instance, I never knew the spiny soft shell turtle lived right next to Jamestown’s River Walk. My first sighting of this creature was only a few days ago. I wouldn’t even consider this job “work”. Everything we do, I seem to enjoy. The 7 or so hours we spend out on the field go by so fast. I remember in different settings (such as school) the same amount of time would seem to drag on. This is how I know where my passion lies, and I cannot wait to see what else Project Wild America has in store for me!

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We used these hoop traps to catch several painted turtles in the Chautauqua Lake outlet.

Emma: The second day working with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for Project Wild America, the elusive spiny soft-shell turtle made an appearance. Of course, before starting with RTPI, I heard many disgruntled stories of missed opportunities of catching such a species. Therefore it was quite shocking when we saw one the first day in the field. Speaking for myself, this slight glimpse into the secrets of the Chadakoin River and the life of the spinys excited me even more for the opportunities this summer holds. Though turtle catching is not the main goal of Project Wild America, it is a big one and I cannot wait to see what other opportunities the Chadakoin and surrounding wildlife have to offer.

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Emma holding one of the many sucker fish we caught on the Chadakoin.

Morgan: At the end of my first week as a part of the Project Wild America Youth Ambassador Program, it was evident to me that humans and our communities have had and continue to have a major impact on the world around us. Garbage is dumped along tree lines, plastic bags are found in caught on rocks in the Chadakoin River, where factories once were dominant. Never once would I have thought that in the middle of a bustling city, that there would be such plentiful life. Nevertheless, hundreds of species of trees grow without bounds, insects fly continuously through the air, and spiny soft shelled turtles, although not always seen, are thriving in this little part of New York State.

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The PWA crew setting up the seine net in an effort to catch the elusive spiny soft-shelled turtles

Mike: Our first couple days at the Chadakoin started out wet, which is a good indication of how the rest of the summer will go. Not only did we walk the river but we attempted to catch turtles the second day as well. Whether it was setting up traps at McCrea point or holding a seine net within the city to, we have already gained an abundance of knowledge and experience about the river.

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Here, we have set up the seine net and are waiting for the other half of the crew to drive the turtles into the net.

Erros: Although we have much to improve upon this upcoming season, I believe last year was very successful. This year though, we will be focusing more on keeping the project more organized and producing more presentable results. Getting around to the different spots that we frequently visited last year definitely brings back great memories and has built much excitement in me. This year we have decided to jump right in with our plans, literally, by getting our feet wet and hands dirty and getting our first feel for the season of our local environment. I have always been curious of nature and can’t wait to not only become more educated on it and do my own research, but also help educate our local community. There’s nothing like spending the hot day in the water turtle trappin’ and I am very grateful to the people of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for the chance to learn from them, work for them, and help the community through them.

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Elyse and Erros examining a red-spotted newt found in the JCC Woodlot

Shadow Darner

When considering the different predatory species of Western New York, most people would first think of our larger animals, such as coyotes or Red-Tailed Hawks. However, New York is also home to the most efficient predator in the world: the dragonfly. Our native dragonflies, including species such as the Shadow Darner, represent a group of insects that have a success rate greater than 95% when hunting. In comparison, Great White sharks have a 50% chance of consuming prey that they attack. Despite being considered apex predators, African Lions have an even worse success rate, only being successful 25% of the time after initiating a chase. The Shadow Darner (and other dragonflies) would absolutely be considered the most effective hunter in the world, and by a fairly large margin too.

Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) male-9218

Meet the most lethal predator in the world, the Shadow Darner. Photographed by Twan Leenders.

The Shadow Darner is one of our largest dragonflies, often reaching over three inches in length. The body is mainly colored a dark brown color, with a series of brightly colored spots running down the length of the insect. The spots are different combinations of greens, blues, and yellow. These dragonflies can also be identified by their powerful flight, which is visibly stronger than smaller dragonflies and damselflies.

Like all dragonflies, the Shadow Darner goes through an incomplete metamorphosis, in which a larval stage is present but has many of the same features as the adult stage. The larval stage is called a naiad, and spends several years developing in an aquatic environment. During this time, it is an effective underwater hunter. By squirting water out of the end of its abdomen, it uses jet propulsion to move rapidly through the water. Eventually, the naiad will leave the water (during night to evade predators) and changes into the more familiar adult form.

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Another fantastic image of a Shadow Darner taken by Twan Leenders.

This species of dragonfly is fairly common along both ponds and slow-moving streams. This is the kind of habitat that is ideal for the Shadow Darner to survive and reproduce. Their population has remained stable, which is good news for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. Not only are the dragonflies a welcome sight, but they help keep the populations of other insects under control. If it wasn’t for the Shadow Darners, there would be many more mosquitos, flies, mayflies, moths, butterflies, and stoneflies present in these habitats.

Northern Brown Snake

This time of year, the lawns and gardens of Jamestown are buzzing with activity as people scramble to get their homes looking great for the summer season. At nighttime, after even the most die-hard gardeners have called it a day, something else takes over the job of protecting our gardens: the Northern Brown snake.

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A fine example of a Northern Brown snake, photographed by Twan Leenders

As the name suggests, the Northern Brown snake is a small brown snake that can be found in a variety of habitats across New York State. Although the majority of the snake is a shade of brown/grey, there is a lighter colored stripe that runs down the length of the snake’s back. On either side of the stripe are a series of black spots that also run the entire length of the body. The belly of the snake is lighter colored, usually a shade of white/pink.

The Northern Brown snake eats a variety of small animals, such as snails, slugs, earthworms, and beetles. Its jaws and mouth are even specialized to pull snails out of their shells so that they can be eaten. This makes these snakes a valuable addition to a garden ecosystem.

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Showing off the powerful jaw needed to pull snails out of their shells! Another moment photographed by Elyse Henshaw.

The prey of the Northern Brown snake generally live underground, and come out at night to feed. This means that the Northern Brown snake must also be active at night, and be able to find its prey below ground. To solve this problem, these reptiles have evolved to have a very powerful sense of smell, which is actually used more heavily than their sense of sight! Their eyesight is decent for daytime movement, but the use of a special organ in the roof of the snake’s mouth enhances their smell and allows them to pursue their prey even in low-light conditions. 

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Although its looking at the camera, this snake has already processed a lot of information about the environment through its sense of smell. Photograph by Elyse Henshaw

Although the majority of snakes lay eggs, the Northern Brown snake gives birth to live young. The eggs are still present, but they continue to develop inside the body of the mother until they are ready to hatch. In New York, both water snakes and garter snakes also give birth to live young. The Northern Brown snake is also similar to its relatives in that it is non venomous, and is an excellent swimmer.

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Remember to thank the Northern Brown snake for keeping your garden pest-free! Photograph by Elyse Henshaw.

Returning to the Chadakoin

Passing through the center of Jamestown, the Chadakoin river has always been the focal point of the city. No matter how much the city continues to change and develop around it, the steady flow of water from Chautauqua Lake has remained constant. To help conserve this valuable natural resource, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute will soon select eight of the brightest high school students in the area to become Project Wild America Youth Ambassadors. Along with their two crew leaders (myself and Heather Zimba) they will spend the summer studying the Chadakoin River Corridor, and encouraging the people of Jamestown to enjoy and preserve the wildlife that lives here.

To help guide the Youth Ambassadors, I was selected as one of the crew leaders. I’m Adolf Zollinger, and I am a sophomore at Jamestown Community College. I am a part of the Environmental Science program, and plan on transferring to SUNY ESF to continue learning about the natural world. Besides working with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in 2015, I also worked as a field biologist for Western Ecosystems Technology, Inc.

Adolf with Net

Last summer I assisted in turtle trapping and learned how to properly set and bait traps.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to be one of the crew members of Project Wild America. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the publication of Roger Tory Peterson’s Wild America, our intention was to continue the work of Mr. Peterson by preserving and documenting the fantastic array of wildlife that is here in Jamestown. Despite suffering from the effects of heavy industrial activity in the 1900’s, the Chadakoin River and the surrounding ecosystem have rebounded in an astonishing way. Now, the entire Chadakoin River Corridor is home to a huge variety of wildlife, including some extremely rare species that have carved out a niche for themselves within even the most urban parts of the city.

PWA Crew & Leaders

2015 Project Wild America Youth Ambassadors

Between the Warner Dam and Buffalo Street impoundment, a population of Eastern Spiny Soft-Shelled turtles has managed to survive, despite having to live in a part of the river characterized by the concrete and rubble that was left over from the factories built along the banks of the river. It really is amazing to be able to walk along the Riverwalk and to be able to see a truly unique animal thriving, despite making their homes right in the heart of the city. Many questions remain about how exactly this reptile is able to accomplish this feat, which is why one of the main goals of the PWA program is to observe and collect data about the Eastern Spiny Soft-Shelled turtles.

Excavating Female

Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)

To determine the overall health of the Chadakoin River ecosystem, we plan on conducting a series of surveys that will help show what wildlife is present in and around the river. One technique that specifically addresses water quality is a macroinvertabrate survey. Macroinvertebrates are the tiny animals that exist on the rocks and sediments on the riverbed. By collecting a sample of a particular part of the river, the different species that are present are identified and recorded. Some species can only survive in very clean waters, while others tolerate pollution well and can live practically anywhere. This means that having certain species in the river can indicate whether the water quality needs to be further tested for environmental contaminants.

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WAVE sampling entails capturing and identifying macroinvertebrate species. Certain invertebrates are more sensitive to pollutants that others and their presence is indicative of the surrounding environment’s health.

The Youth Ambassadors will also complete a series of bird surveys throughout Jamestown, to try and determine whether the existing habitat is enough to support healthy bird populations. As we noted last year, there are some really unique birds that have made their homes around the city. Some of these include Black-Crowned Night Herons, Bobolinks, Chimney Swifts, and even Ospreys that enjoy the rich food sources upstream of McCrea Point.

Osprey

Osprey

It is also worth noting that we intend to survey the plants that exist in the city, including any invasive species that are present. After completing training at Letchworth State Park, my fellow crew leader (and myself) will be able to show the PWA members how to enter any data regarding invasive species into a database monitored by the state.

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Yellow Iris is an emerging invasive plant in local wetlands.

The most important goal of Project Wild America is to communicate what we find to the community, and to showcase the amazing natural resources that are here in the city. To accomplish this, our Youth Ambassadors will be working with a number of local organizations to complete a series of educational outreach events throughout the summer. Whether it is organizing an invasive species pull, or helping elementary students plant trees, the PWA Youth Ambassadors will have a busy summer getting involved in their communities.

 

Final Thoughts

When we first started trying to catch the Spiny Softshell turtles, we didn’t really know what to expect. It seemed like it would be easy enough, but we soon learned just how elusive these animals are. Despite our best efforts, we have yet to catch one specimen of this interesting reptile. However, we can honestly say we’ve learned a lot since our first few days in the river, and have developed a technique that seems promising. In fact, this whole experience has been an eye-opener for us, and we have come away from it with a new viewpoint on the Chadakoin and nature in general.

Final  Thoughts:

Griffin: One thing that I knew from the beginning of the project was that I would enjoy it, and I really have. We have only spent six weeks on the river but I have definitely learned a ton about the river in our backyards and the species that live in and around it. I’m excited to hopefully inspire people to take a closer look at the nature right in the middle of the city. Also, even though we were short of catching a Spiny Softshell Turtle, we have learned about them from simply observing them and trying to catch them. They’re very fast and seem to always be on alert, like they knew we were coming for them. It would have been exciting to catch one, but we did everything we could. Overall, this summer was a huge learning experience for me and I had a lot of fun as well.Spiny Male Swimming

Matt: Growing up, I always had an interest in nature, and I loved to observe wildlife. This project has helped me to develop my interest and stewardship of the environment. In order to utilize our natural resources, it is also necessary to protect them. The Chadakoin River is no exception, as it is a hidden treasure right in the middle of Jamestown. Previously, I never would have considered it to be treasure; I was under the misconception that it was highly polluted and that it only had carp in it. However, I learned that this is not true, as the river is teeming with a plethora of species. Therefore, it is important to teach people to respect it and to be good stewards, too. I am glad that I was able to be a part of this project, and I am confident that it will continue to be successful in the future.

Chadakoin Habitat

Adolf: When two of my high school teachers first showed me the application for this project, I was immediately interested. Now that there is only a few days left, I can honestly say I learned even more than I expected. Despite living in WNY for my entire life, there are some species of plants and animals present here that I had no idea existed. Even more important than learning about the huge variety of species in the area, was getting to see how unique of an environment the Chadakoin provides. At first glance, it looks like a small river that just so happens to run through Jamestown. However, once you have the opportunity to explore it, you will soon realize how much habitat it provides. Besides the rocky, faster moving part that passes by many of the residential areas in Jamestown, water from the Chadakoin allows healthy wetlands to exist near McCrea Point. It really has been fantastic to be able to learn more about the wildlife and natural beauty that can flourish so close to highly developed parts of the city.

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Hailey: This summer has been full of new and exciting experiences. In the beginning everything started out slow, getting used to the area and building the traps. After becoming acquainted with the Riverwalk area, and eventually the water itself, we began to really get into our main goals for the summer. Unfortunately, catching the turtles that we were expecting to catch did not happen. Overall, having this experience and being able to join RTPI on this turtle hunt has been amazing. It has opened up my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities in the science field. I now can identify plants and animals that I couldn’t before, I am also able to teach friends and family a little more about the environment the next time that we go on a hike, go camping or go on an adventure outside.

Hailey holding a snapper

Jeremy: The past six weeks have contained some of the most interesting days of my life. The natural world has always been an interest of mine. As a young lad I looked forward to our family nature walks. Discovering new trails, plants and sights instilled within me a lust for adventure. Finally, through this program, I have been provided the opportunity to be on the other side of the adventure. I, along with the other youth ambassadors and our supervisors, have been the individuals tasked with preserving this adventure. Although we might not remember many, if any at all, we learned of the many different species of plant, tree, bird and animal. We studied the health of a forest with the help of forester Jeff Brockelbank and examined the importance of repopulating different fish species in the lake. We found and studied all the varying species within the presumed unlivable Chadakoin river and learned that it is not nearly as dirty as people believe. It is difficult to express how the information and experience gained through the past few weeks is invaluable as it can be applied at any moment when out in the wild and I hope to never stop learning about the natural world around us.

Jermey & Matt with Musk Turtle

Erros: I have seen the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History’s logo before and I have faint memories of coming to the institute as child on multiple different field trips, through my school and other programs.  I think the association I made between the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History and animals, insects, birds, and nature in general is what made me spark the interest in the logo on the application and eventually deciding to pick one up. That decision in that split moment is what enabled me to get to where I am now, studying nature with all my curiosity and being paid to do something I love. I’m proud to be a part of this wild project and participate in all of the adventures we have been in. I like to be able to find myself identifying damselflies one day and then get a notification telling me to go to this spot on the river to hunt down these smart and slippery ancient dinosaurs the next day. Even though we have had little luck with getting our hands on the Spiny Softshell Turtle I am still very optimistic. I believe that we can out smart these almost fossils and do what humans have been doing for millions of years, use our immense brains to checkmate these turtles and equip ourselves with our resourceful tools to do so. We have done a lot this summer and I feel accomplished with our project, but these turtles will be our final test to see who has really learned something, and I believe will pass with flying colors.