New York State is rich in wildlife, particularly our critters. Some are cute. Some others, not so much. But all are important to our ecosystem. It is easy to fall into the trap by thinking that losing a species is not a big deal. It is, which is why environmental protections are so important. As a wise Vanessa Williams once sang: “We are all connected to each other… in a circle, in a hoop that never ends.”
Here are 10 New York critters to appreciate throughout this month of love!
Karner Blue Butterfly
This butterfly is on state and federal endangered lists. Its life depends entirely on the Lupinis flower, a wild blue flowering legume, which has been hard hit by development. Over the decades, these butterflies have been completely wiped out in now urban areas where they once thrived. There are 13 recovery areas nationwide, including the Albany Pine Bush zone which is the only one east of the Great Lakes with naturally occurring population growth. While this butterfly can also be found in places like Michigan and Canada, it was first discovered in New York and is named after Karner, a Capital Region hamlet once a stop on the New York Central Railroad.
Picture it, you’re walking in the woods and reach out to touch a branch… and it touches you back. While that sounds terrifying, it’s really not (see this video for proof!). The chameleon-like walkingstick has long been a favorite of children throughout New York and the region. Considered a “generalist” on the foliage they eat, this bug prefers that of oak and hazelnut trees. Upon hatching they molt several times, making their way up a tree where they live off the tissue between the veins of a leaf. Walkingsticks can grow to about 5” in length.
A fisher is a member of the weasel family that seldom eats fish. In fact, they survive primarily on smaller game such as rabbits, porcupines, and squirrels. An Adirondack hiker caught video of a fisher attacking a fox a few years aback; while the fox escaped, the video may contain disturbing images. Male fishers can grow up to 13 lbs. while female growth is typically up to 7 lbs. The Fisher migrated to North American several million years ago. While there have long been established populations in heavily wooded areas in the Catskills and Adirondacks, migration has occurred in recent years to places like Central New York and Western New York.
Moths in general don’t get much respect. But then there is the luna moth. In fact, the only life stage of the luna that isn’t photogenic is when in cocoon form. It was even featured on a postage stamp! Named for its moon-like spots, the luna has a wingspan up to 5”, making it one of the largest moths in North America. Offspring is determined by climate, and in New York, there are typically two generations annually. There can be up to 500 eggs, laid 7-8 at a time, on the underside of leaves.
As temperatures rise each June, sea turtles arrive in New York where they remain until fall. These reptiles have evolved to live a completely aquatic life. Around Long Island, four popular species – Kemp’s Ridley, Loggerhead, Green Sea, and Leatherback – are known to eat crabs, seaweed, and jellyfish. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has some interesting facts about the turtles, including: 1) The green sea turtle is not called green because of the color of its skin or shell, but its green fat. 2) The leatherback can grow to an astonishing 1,300 lbs. It’s endangered as eggs are collected for food. 3) While protected in the U.S., the loggerhead is hunted throughout much of the world. 4) The Kemp’s Ridley is known for nesting only on a stretch of protected beach in Mexico.
While it’s not clear whether the milk snake got its name from the belief that they suck cow udders, or that became legend after it already had its name – but we do know they are often found in and around the cool, dark environment of barns. And there are no known examples of this snake milking cows. Not venomous or otherwise dangerous to humans, the milk snake can grow up to five feet long. It is a mostly nocturnal species that thrives on slugs, worms, crickets and other insects. Rodents are a favorite for adults.
Sometimes the people who name critters got creative. In the case of the spring peeper, they kept it pretty straightforward. This frog is widely found in parks, ponds, lawns, etc., and sings with the coming of spring (listen here). While you have probably never seen an actual spring peeper, there is a good chance you’ve heard its mating call, and they are surprisingly tolerant to human-altered environments and can thrive anywhere there are small invertebrates to eat. If you live in New York City, there are places in Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens where they can easily be heard. The amphibian also has one heck of a jump, up to 50 times its body length.
We’re pretty deep into the list now, and I know what you’re saying to yourself: put a bird on it!
Though scarlet’s in their name, it only applies to the male, and then only in summer. During winter months, male plumage turns yellowish green similar to the female. These tanager’s love ripe fruit – pictures of them eating sliced oranges abound the internet, and are pretty special. They are very good at staying out of site as they forage in the upper reaches of treetops (they have a special affinity for oak). And your most likely to spot them in spring, upon their return from holiday in South America, when there is a late freeze that brings them out in the open in search of insects.
The red fox has become a bit of an internet and pop music sensation in recent years (look at this snow-dive!). And just to be clear, the fox does not sing ring-ding-ding-dingeringeding. In fact, their howl may be less pleasant than the song. Ridiculously photogenic, the red fox has a year-round coat that ranges from orange to cherry red. They can weight up to 12 lbs., and are known to be found in every county statewide. Born blind and helpless, by 12 weeks they are fully weaned when they learn to hunt for themselves. Some other interesting facts: 1) While there is probably no value added to your life in knowing this, the mean date for conception in New York is January 23. 2) Females are known as “vixens”. 3) Red foxes may travel five miles per night in search of food.
Eastern (Red Spotted) Newt
This native salamander can live an amazing 15 years! Born green, larvae use gills to live in water before shedding them and developing lungs to live on land as juveniles (known as the “eft” stage). It is during this stage only that the critter is brightly colored as you see in the accompanying picture – the color acts as a warning to predators about the toxins it secretes. After 2 to 3 years on land, the salamander returns to aquatic life, where it takes on slimy skin and an olive green coloring. We can all be thankful for this newt as mosquito larvae is a favorite food source. They also eat small molluscs, worms, frog eggs, and more. Check out this video on the salamander’s “triple life” from state Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.