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.

 

Great Times on the Riverwalk

When I arrived at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute on the first day of the project and learned about the game-plan for the next six weeks, I felt a few different ways. I felt curious about what we would find, excited to be working on the river for a large portion of our time together, and ready to get going. During the first day, we got rolling pretty quickly as we hopped right into making two turtle traps and minnow traps out of bottles. And ever since then, it has been a major learning experience but has been very fun nonetheless.

We built bottle traps to trap small fish and macroinvertebrates.

We built bottle traps to trap small fish and macroinvertebrates.

 

There is just so much to learn being on the Riverwalk even for a day. We noticed many different species of birds that I am still working on learning, countless macro-invertebrates, a few turtle species, some fish, and seemingly endless amounts of plant-life. I still can’t say I know all of the species, or even most for that matter, but I have certainly improved in that area from when the project began. One specific thing that surprised me the most was learning and identifying invasive species when we were at the Riverwalk. They were almost everywhere; at times you could see Japanese Knotweed wherever you looked. The invasives usually take a large toll on the environment that they live in, for example, Multiflora rose will take over the area that it grows in so almost nothing else is able to grow in the same area.

Multiflora rose

Multiflora Rose bush

 

The fun on the Riverwalk doesn’t end at just identifying species, people enjoy their time on the river by kayaking, fishing, boating, and even swimming. We have trekked up and down the river, that forces us to swim at some points, in hopes of finding turtles. That was an experience to remember even though we didn’t catch any Spiny Softshell Turtles. Throughout the entire time, there were many citizens of Jamestown who were more than eager to share their wisdom with us about the turtles, and whether they were actually correct or not, it was still a good feeling to know that they were interested in the river flowing right through the city, seemingly undisturbed by the cars that pass all day and the tall buildings near it. As many people told us what they thought as there were people who asked us “What are y’all doing?,” “You can actually get in this water!?” and questions like that. We would go on to tell them that we’re from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and we were working on the Riverwalk and collecting information on it, especially the Spiny Softshell Turtles. It was fun to talk to people about what we were doing because they all seemed so interested in it. My advice to anyone that hasn’t walked along the Riverwalk is to simply visit if it for a few hours on a sunny day. You’ll be amazed with everything you see, dragonflies buzzing around you and turtles paddling in the water are just a couple of the jaw-dropping reasons to adore the riverwalk.

Male Spiny Softshell Turtle swimming near Warner Dam.

Male Spiny Softshell Turtle swimming near Warner Dam.

The Learning Experience

Walking your dog down the road, or taking a walk along the river, you may not notice the extraordinary creatures that dwell where you are waking. Those who walk along the Riverwalk, or on the sidewalk in Jamestown are attuned to the sound of cars on the road or the sound of construction. Maybe you’re in a hurry to get somewhere and you can’t take the time to stop and look around to learn. Not many people are able to come across the opportunity to be involved in a job as exhilarating as mine is. Joining Project Wild America on this wild turtle hunt this summer has not only been a fun, exciting, and new experience, but also a learning experience. I, as well as those I work with, have been learning so much this summer. Many people overlook the wildlife that surrounds them. One may not even know what species of trees, plants, and animals subside in their yard and make a home out of it.

Spiny at Warner Dam

We’ve been seeing Spiny softshell turtles right at the base of Warner Dam in downtown Jamestown.

One of the harder things to grasp this summer has been the plants and trees. There’s just so many of them, but it certainly is not impossible to learn what is what. For example, there’s invasive species and native species. The invasives choke out the natives and make homes for themselves where they don’t belong, they essentially take over the area that they begin growing in. One plant that seems to be all over is Honeysuckle. Poisonous to humans, but not to many of the animal species that may see it as a tasty treat. Sure some of the plants are easy to tell apart from others, such as Queen Anne’s Lace. A significant fun fact about this plant is that when it is in its most mature state, it has a small, dark purple flower right in the middle. Each plant has its own symbolic feature.

Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) TL

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Just as plants have their own features to tell them apart, birds do as well. My favorite thing that we’ve been learning this summer is the bird species. Before this project, I had never heard of a Bobolink. This is most likely because they nest and breed on Airport Hill and not many would spend their time up there just sitting around listening and watching for birds. They have a call that sounds something like R2-D2. Another interesting bird species is the Cedar Waxwing. They look something like a Cardinal, but are smaller and look different. There’s so many more species just on the riverwalk. There’s Catbirds mimicking other birds, Osprey overhead, Cardinals, Blue Herons, Green Herons and such a diversity of other species.

Northern Cardinal TL

Northern Cardinal

 

Learning how to successfully trap a Spiny Softshell turtle is something that we are still working on all together. These magnificent creatures that meander along with the river’s current are harder than expected to catch. So far we’ve caught a variety of other turtle species, just not our target species. At first, my fellow ambassador friends and I were pretty against getting a little wet and dirty to set a turtle trap. Now that we are all accustomed to the water, we are more eager than ever to trap one of these turtles. Everyone gets pretty audacious in their ideas to net and catch these turtles. It gets pretty lively some days. Trying to be sneaky turns into talking until the last few seconds, then “plop!” gone.

Using a seine net, on loan from DEC, to try to capture our target turtle species.

Using a seine net, on loan from DEC, to try to capture our target turtle species.

Even though there’s so much already learned, there’s so much more to learn.

Youth Ambassadors First Impressions

The group met at Friendly’s Restaurant one sunny morning eager to explore the Riverwalk. It wasn’t long until we spotted the first Spiny Soft Shelled Turtle perched upon a log. It was then that we knew, this project was meant for us. Each of our eyes lit up in excitement and disbelief that these turtles lived right in the middle of our home town. As we continued along the Riverwalk we discovered more and more each turn. Finally, we discovered their main breeding ground and a nest full of eggs. It was at this point that our interests peaked. Trapping, researching, and recording data about these turtles was what we were made to do.

First Impressions:

Matt: It was very interesting to see the diversity of living organisms here in western New York. I never knew that so many different species are present here, many of which are invasive. As a result, I now have a greater appreciation for efforts to preserve the environment.

Jeremy: The first week was really enjoyable getting to know about the group and the nature in the surrounding area. Discovering the turtles for the first time, learning about the different species, and playing with our wolf spider were all both fascinating and fun. Each day I learn more and more about the trees, birds, and insects surrounding my hometown and hope to someday become proficient in that knowledge in order to share it with others.

Wolf Spider

Adolf: After just a couple of days on the Chadakoin, I was amazed that there was such a variety of wildlife, especially in such an urban environment. What surprised me the most though was the difference between the areas that have already been developed and the areas that are still mostly natural. Wherever there has been irresponsible use of the river, there is way less wildlife, as well as much more erosion of the bank. Areas that have been responsibly managed have many interesting species present, and are much more enjoyable to experience.

Heron in the Outlet

Griffin: The first week of the project has been an eye-opening experience for me. I have lived in Jamestown my entire life and until now, I wasn’t aware of the number of species in the Riverwalk area. In just a few days, we observed several turtle species, birds, dragonflies, damselflies, and various insects that I have never seen before. Most of my excitement so far comes from the female Wolf Spider we caught at McCrea point and have observed at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. I am very excited to work on this project throughout the rest of the summer.

Katydid

Erros: Joining “Project Wild America” as an ambassador has, just in the first week, given me a wealth of knowledge, valuable experience, and a  fun and exciting atmosphere for me to develop in. We have started exploring the nearby parts of the Chadakoin corridor and the Riverwalk that has been implemented so far. We have spotted and caught several different species of local wildlife, primarily at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the Chadakoin River. Some include different species such as birds, turtles, dragonflies, damselflies, frogs, vegetation and plants. Some of our activities have included building small bottle traps, turtle traps, identifying insect species and watching the Chadakoin River and it’s turtle nests. The beginning of this project has been very interesting and I believe we will achieve our goals this summer.

Hailey: The first week on the Chadakoin  corridor was quite an experience for me. I have always lived out and away from urban areas, or well populated areas, such as Jamestown. I was never aware that a place so populated like Jamestown is was capable of housing such an environment. I never even knew that wildlife, like spiny softshell turtles wandered around, let alone nested in Jamestown. Aside from the river, meeting and getting to know the group has been an experience as well. Gaining all of this information and knowledge has intrigued my interests in wildlife and I’m excited to see what this summer has yet to come.

Observations

After our first week on the Riverwalk, we each were each given a chance to explore and research the wildlife on the Chadakoin River. From what we saw, we were able to get a pretty good idea of the overall health of the ecosystem, and how all of the different species play a part. It was definitely surprising that there was such a variety of wildlife right in the middle of the city, and that some of these species are difficult to find anywhere else. As the summer goes on, it will be interesting to learn more about the wildlife, and improve the habitat quality of the area.