Research Report #38 — Wildlife of the Shawangunk Cliffs

A note from Director of Conservation Science Dr. Elizabeth Long: For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Turkey Vulture © Glenn Koehler

Read the report: Wildlife of the Shawangunk Cliffs. November, 1958. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus:
In 1958, in response to an increasing use of the Shawangunk cliffs for recreational climbing, Dan wrote this article documenting and presenting his observations of seven different “forms” of wildlife inhabiting the Shawangunk cliffs, for the Intercollegiate Outing Club Association (IOCA) Bulletin. It was mainly compiled with younger, visiting climbers in mind, and was as Dan said, for “those who spend time on the cliffs (and who) could well add to their own enjoyment by learning….about what they may see and hear and smell.” For species, Dan included three plants, Rock Tripe, Trailing Arbutus, and Scrub Oak, one reptile, the Copperhead, one bird, the Turkey Vulture, one insect, the Bald-faced Hornet, and one mammal, the Cave Rat.

Copperhead © Jamie Deppen

Dan’s presentation and discussion of the seven individual species above and their cliff-related populations 60 years ago, clearly demonstrates his desire to communicate with the visiting public the basics of what he had learned on the land over the years. Since that time, the importance of long-term records that Dan kept, and which are being continued by the Mohonk Preserve’s Conservation Science staff, volunteers, and research associates, allow us to reveal important changes over time. Of the seven different species that Dan profiled, three have shown major change over time.

Dislodged Rock Tripe © Christy Belardo
Smooth Rock Tripe © David Johnson
Blistered Rock Tripe © David Johnson

With Rock Tripe, of which there are some four of these lichen species, Dan noted a variable distribution on cliff faces. Archival photographs from the 1870s showed that many cliffs were completely covered with foliose lichens at that time. These tripes, over the next 90 years showed a major decline in cliff cover, and by the 1950s grew mostly in the areas of natural drainage of water down the vertical exposures. Since the growth form of these lichens is foliose, with only a small holdfast attaching them to the rock and the leafy portion sometimes reaching the “size of one’s hand” or larger, individuals “may be 75 years old” or older. Dan felt since they were also vulnerable to human disturbance, climbers should “accord them the respect due age.” Continued observations by Dan and the Preserve research staff revealed that major dislodging could result from heavy winter weather, as directly observed in the winters of 1977 and 1984 from “hail, wind, and wet snow.” With the right winter conditions, this seasonal dislodging still occurs. In a published paper that Dan and Ecologist Carl J. George (Union College) authored in 1974, documenting the decline of lichens in the Shawangunk Mountains as evidenced in historic photographs, they proposed the possible link to air pollution.

Turkey Vulture © Carl Mueller

Another species that has changed over time is the Turkey Vulture. At the time that Dan assembled this article in 1958, the Turkey Vulture was the only large soaring bird, seen both singly and in groups of 5 to 10 gliding on rising warm air thermals over the Shawangunk cliffs. At times they can be seen perched on top of escarpments and in exposed summit trees. Research has demonstrated that Turkey Vultures, in fact, can smell carrion, in addition to having keen eyesight, as Dan indicated. Shawangunk nesting records have been sporadic but have been documented since the 1930s, mostly in talus caves. It was considered a migrating bird here for decades, the last seasonal stragglers leaving the Shawangunks in December, and returning back up the ridge in February and early March. In the last few decades, with a changing climate and winter food availability, Turkey Vultures are now seen here year round.

Black Vulture © Jane Vecchione

An additional change is that since 1 November 1981, it’s close relative, the Black Vulture, has become a new bird species to the Shawangunks. We were not surprised, as “Black Vultures and other southern species such as Mockingbirds (had) been expanding their territories north for some years.” By the late 1980s, the Black Vulture became regular, and on 27 April 1997, near the base of a Shawangunk cliff, a nest was discovered by climber and Mohonk Preserve Research Associate Joe Bridges. This nesting observation was of considerable importance, in that it was the first Black Vulture nesting documented in New York State. Now, both vulture species are seen in the Shawangunks year round.

Black Vulture © Michael Neil O’Donnell

The third species that has undergone major change since 1958 is the native “Cave Rat,” or Allegheny Woodrat, that Dan had encouraged climbers to take time and observe close up. These small furry former climbing companions are now extirpated in the Shawangunks. One would find it almost implausible in the 1950s that a common small mammal could be totally lost from it’s haunts in a matter of a decade or so, but it was Dan who first raised the alarm in 1977. Something major had happened quickly to the species as he found that they were totally absent from their normal cliff and talus den sites where he and his brother Keith had long known them. Concerned biologists conducted a state wide-field survey of woodrat localities, prompted by Dan’s Shawangunk discovery and his subsequent letter to them, and they found a major decline had in fact occurred. As a result, the Allegheny Woodrat was added to the New York State Endangered Species list. They are still absent from the Shawangunks.

Allegheny Woodrat nursing young © ARKive

Further cooperative field research starting in the fall of 1992 between the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Endangered Species Unit and the Mohonk Preserve, resulted in the discovery of a direct relationship between the population of the native Raccoon and it’s common parasitic Bayliscaris roundworm and the woodrat’s habit of gathering and storing food items, including undigested seeds found in Raccoon droppings.

Trailing Arbutus © Fred Gerty

As stewards of our portion of the Shawangunks, Mohonk Preserve’s responsibility to “safeguard the natural communities” while offering high quality recreational and educational opportunities, is an increasingly challenging goal. Preserve management has always been guided by science, as demonstrated by Dan Smiley’s commitment that “stewardship requires knowledge, (and) knowledge requires research.” Looking at our escarpments as natural communities that harbor a rich diversity of plants and animals, including rare plants, amphibians and reptiles, and nesting ledges used by the NYS Endangered Peregrine Falcon, in 1994, the Conservation Science Department began a comprehensive cliff and talus survey of Mohonk Preserve lands. Completed in 1999, this major research project covered some 13 linear miles of escarpment and documented nearly 150 plant and animal species and culturally significant sites. This landmark study is but one of the resources that help us make educated decisions regarding stewardship.

© Tom Weiner

In 2006, with a grant from the Access Fund, the Mohonk Preserve issued a brochure entitled Sharing the Cliff: Peregrine Falcons and the Mohonk Preserve Rock Climber. This, as a modern educational extension of Dan’s efforts back in the 1958 IOCA Bulletin article, to encourage all of us, to be responsible “stewards of the land.”

Read the report: Wildlife of the Shawangunk Cliffs. November, 1958. Daniel Smiley.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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