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!

Bluet Damselflies

You’ve likely seen this friendly blue damselfly fluttering around shorelines, resting on grasses, or even on your boat, kayak or fishing rod.

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A Male Slender Bluet Damselfly photographed in the Meet Your Neighbours style by Twan Leenders.

Among the many species of damselflies, there is a category called Bluets that covers many of the species in which the male is at least partially colored blue. All of the members are gorgeous, with bodies colored a variety of shades of blues, greens, and turquoises. They also have some interesting striping patterns, with the location and size of darker stripes being a good way to distinguish different species.

Damselflies can be easily mistaken for dragonflies. One major distinguish difference is that the damselflies hold their wings tucked upright tight against their body, while dragonflies hold their hind-wings straight out from their bodies like airplane wings. Another difference between dragonflies and damselflies is the location of their eyes. Dragonflies have eyes that touch and are located at the top of the head, while damselflies have eyes that are well separated.

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A female Slender Bluet, photographed in the Meet Your Neighbours style by Twan Leenders. Note that the damselfly is holding its wings together while at rest.

Female Damselflies lay their eggs in submerged vegetation and when the eggs hatch the young nymph damselflies are fully formed.   Damselfly nymphs come in varying shades of green or tan and possess finlike gills.   These nymphs spend the winter underwater, where they molt (shed their skin) roughly one dozen times while growing. When nymphs are approximately 1 inch long, they emerge from the water and break out of their skin one last time and become adults.   Adults typically live less than two weeks, spending their final days feeding and breeding.

Here we have a pair of Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) damselflies in a “wheel”, a male and female joined together for mating. They are perched at a pond in this case but they can also fly this way. The male will likely remain with her until she lays the eggs.

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A pair of Familiar Bluet Damselflies mating. Photographed by Twan Leenders.

Bluet damselflies don’t sting or bite humans, but they are formidable predators of other insects. The nymphs hide in underwater vegetation and ambush the larvae of insects such as mosquitoes and mayflies.   The damselflies large eyes and ability to fly in any direction make adult damselflies excellent aerial hunters. Damselflies typically prey on mosquitoes, small moths, flies, and mayflies. What’s more the presence of damselflies at freshwater sites usually indicates clean water, abundant native vegetation, and other aspects of a healthy ecosystem.

It is prime time to spot the bluet damselflies, which are out in great numbers during the months of June and July. So get out there to any local bodies of water to see what you can find!

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.

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.

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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.