“Secrets of the Shawangunks” lecture series returns every Thursday in February

Secrets of the Shawangunks, the 2015 Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership lecture series, kicks off on February 5 at 7 p.m. with a lecture about bears by Matthew Merchant, senior wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (photo by John Hayes)

Secrets of the Shawangunks, the 2015 Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership lecture series, kicks off on February 5 at 7 p.m. with a lecture about bears by Matthew Merchant, senior wildlife biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (photo by John Hayes)

For the past 15 or so years, the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership has offered a winter lecture series, “Secrets of the Shawangunks.” Held every Thursday evening in February from 7-8:30 p.m. in the SUNY New Paltz Lecture Center, room 102, the events are free of charge to attend and no advance registration is necessary.

“We find that there’s a tremendous amount of interest from people who want to learn more about natural history and science in this region,” says Cara Lee, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Shawangunk Ridge Program. “And it’s a good time of the year to do this, because while people can’t get out to hike as much, on a cold winter night it’s great to get out and be thinking about our natural world.”


Topics covered in the lectures change every year and consider a broad spectrum of biodiversity on the Ridge. “We’ve had lectures on all kinds of wildlife, forest dynamics, land use planning… We’ve covered the block on a lot of different topics,” Lee says. “And every year we do surveys of the audience to find out what they’re interested in and what they want to learn more about so we can tailor the lectures to people’s interests.”

The theme for this year’s lectures will be the relationship between people, the Ridge and resident plants and wildlife.

First up in the series this Thursday, February 5 will be “Bears,” with Matthew Merchant, senior wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He’ll speak about basic bear behavior and populations and why it seems like we’re seeing more bears these days.

Week two, on Thursday, February 12, the topic will be “Ecological Functions of Fungi” presented by mycology expert Bill Bakaitus. “We have a really big variety of fungi that grow in this area,” says Lee, “and they’re very important to the health of the forest in terms of their role in soil ecology.”

The following week, on Thursday, February 19, Lee will host a discussion on “Mapping the Ridgeline,” with John Thompson, Mohonk Preserve’s director of conservation science, and Tim Howard, director of science for the New York Natural Heritage Program. Thompson will provide an historical perspective on the mapping techniques that are used to support the ecological management of the Ridge. “The Gunks were one of the first places in New York where we did very extensive mapping based on aerial photography,” says Lee. “It’s now such a common practice, but was not then; it was kind of groundbreaking and it’s been the foundation of the work we’ve done in terms of being able to characterize the forest and manage it.” Tim Howard will speak about his use of spatial data to do modeling that helps predict what may happen in the future. “He’s done mapping that shows us areas that are particularly resilient to climate change and areas that are vulnerable to climate change. I think people will be really interested in that.”

The final lecture on Thursday, February 26 will be “Secrets of the Sky Lakes,” with Dr. David Richardson, assistant professor in the biology department at SUNY New Paltz and former research associate at the Mohonk Preserve. “The Sky Lakes are completely rain-fed,” explains Lee. “They’re not fed by streams that come from somewhere else, so the water quality is good but has been influenced in the past by acid rain. There have been, historically, very few fish in the last 30 or 40 years in the Sky Lakes. But the chemistry of the Lakes is changing now and there are a number of scientists who are focusing on those changes; what is causing them and what the effects are in terms of fish coming in and other biota. It’s a very interesting story.”

Richardson may draw some parallels, too, with the changing water chemistry at Lake Minnewaska, a condition which Lee says has resulted in more fish and algae being present there in recent years and also caused the outbreak of leeches last summer.

The lectures are co-sponsored by the SUNY New Paltz biology department. The Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, a coordinated effort since 1996, is comprised of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy, the Mohonk Preserve, the Open Space Institute, the New York Natural Heritage Program, the New York State Museum, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the Cragsmoor Association, Friends of the Shawangunks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference.

“It’s a pretty wide variety of organizations, and reflects a lot of different interests,” notes Lee, adding that while each group manages their property a little differently, the Partnership has developed a conservation plan for the Gunks that provides each organization with a consistent set of principles for ecological management. The organizations work together across the boundaries of their properties to manage the landscape as a unified whole, Lee says. “A couple of examples of that would be our prescribed fire program, where we’re actually doing some burning on the Ridge to restore the forest, and we do invasives work collaboratively and deer management. These are all things that improve the ecological health of the forest on the Ridge and are things that we want the public to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The lecture series is part of that.”

The SUNY Lecture Center is located between the library and the humanities building on the west side of the campus. No parking permit is required after 6:30 p.m. For directions or a campus map, visit www.NewPaltz.edu. For more information about the lecture series and notice of any weather-related cancellations, visit www.MohonkPreserve.org.