Photo credit Alan Wells
Protecting and restoring imperiled habitat is a critical component of combatting the decline of wildlife populations. With this notable importance in mind, research staff have been hard at work to protect native species that are suffering from habitat loss. In Harriman and Sterling Forest State Parks, the focal species for this effort include the wood turtle, Eastern box turtle, and Golden-winged Warbler, species of Special Concern in New York. Through long-term data collection and restoration efforts, we are gaining a better understanding of the factors contributing to their decline. This research has greatly contributed to the reestablishment of native habitat and replenishment of these essential members to our local ecosystem.
Harriman and Sterling Forest State Parks serve as a sanctuary for the abundance of wildlife that utilize its collective 70,000 acres of protected land. These areas support a diverse array of wildlife and vegetation, with an added level of uniqueness for the rare and uncommon species interspersed throughout.
These unique species dictated a need for a program that would restore habitat while supporting the growth of these populations. As of 2020, two projects are being pursued to accomplish this goal, a head-starting program for native turtles as well as an invasive species control and monitoring effort to improve habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler.
Habitat loss is a familiar topic in this age of sprawling development. Assessing environmental impact prior to breaking ground is routine and expected. Habitat is not disposable, but rather should be left to persist in the face of human encroachment. These efforts merely mitigate unfavorable outcomes. Wildlife that reside in these affected locations must endure the difficulties brought on by the loss of their critical habitat.
The probability of a native turtle surviving past the hatchling stage has become increasingly unlikely. In our case, we are focusing on the streamside nesting, woodland traversing Wood Turtle and Eastern Box Turtle. These populations are threatened by road crossings and collection for the pet trade, but perhaps more significantly, they suffer from the loss of adequate nesting areas. Without the required habitat to nest, it is unlikely that hatchlings will escape the grips of predation and the populations will be unable to recover.
Migratory birds face an array of challenges during their travels. Even a successful migration from wintering to breeding territory can end with defeat. Small populations of Golden-winged Warblers fly to the Appalachian region where they spend the summer foraging and nesting. In the portion of their range that overlaps with New York, there are few significant populations. In the lower Hudson Valley, we infrequently observe this bird utilizing our natural areas. Its primary nesting habitat has been overtaken by an invasive species of water reed, Phragmites australis. This is a fast-growing, intrusive plant that quickly outcompetes native vegetation and envelops what was once thriving and diverse wetlands. This loss of native plants includes species like Tussock Sedge, a highly preferred nesting location for these warblers. Without these sedges, the chances of offspring survival are dismally low.
To combat these unfortunate circumstances, research staff have begun the initiative to restore native habitat as well as monitor the dynamics of these populations.
A head-starting program was initiated at Trailside Museums and Zoo. Wild, female wood turtles and Eastern box turtles were caught, outfitted with a small radio-transmitter, and released back into the forest. These individuals were tracked to gain a better understanding of how they use their habitat as well as help lead researchers directly to their nest sites. If we gain a clearer understanding of how they utilize their space, then we can more effectively apply restoration measures to their habitat. When the nests are located, hatchlings are brought back to the zoo to become part of the head-starting program. Here they are protected during their most vulnerable life stage. This ensures that when released as older and larger individuals they will have a much better chance of surviving to a reproductive age. In 2010 the first cohort of turtles was released.
Removal and management of the invasive, Phragmites australis, is the primary component to restoring wetland habitat for Golden-winged Warblers. For (NUMBER OF YEARS), the plant has been chemically treated and removed from potentially viable nesting locations throughout the parks. In its place, native vegetation has successfully begun reestablishing, creating much-needed habitat for the warblers as well as for a variety of other wetland-dependent species. Coinciding with the invasive management is avian monitoring that occurs every spring into early summer. These surveys are conducted to determine if Golden-winged Warblers are returning to use the restored habitat.
Restoring habitat requires constant monitoring and assessment. To establish the strong, self-sustaining populations we desire, progress must be assessed annually, and management adapted accordingly. Every effort made to improve the habitat and survival of these vulnerable species contributes to the enhancement of the entire ecosystem.