When Elizabeth Long first came to the New Paltz region, it was for the Shawangunks. “My husband and I first came here in 2007 on a climbing trip and just loved it,” she says. “We said to each other then, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great place to live? But there’s no chance we’d ever get jobs here.'”
Fast forward to last October, when Long became the new director of conservation science at Mohonk Preserve. Her husband, Zach Smith, also a biologist, works independently on birding matters and raptor conservation with a few different organizations in the region. Most of the Preserve staff work out of offices at the Visitor’s Center in Gardiner, but Long’s office is inside the Daniel Smiley Research Center, located up at Mohonk Mountain House in what was once Daniel Smiley’s home.
It still feels much like a home inside The Elms, built in 1903 and expanded in 1910. The research center on the right side of the building was added in 1980. “Mr. Dan,” as he was known, lived there from 1945 until his death in 1989. Inside the building now are more than a century of scientific and cultural history archives and natural history records and collections. Daniel Smiley, one of the descendents of the founders of the Mountain House, was a lifelong ecologist and observer of nature who eventually left the running of the Mohonk resort to his brother, Keith, in order to focus on science. The two men founded the Mohonk Trust in 1963 to protect the lands from development.
The Mohonk Preserve is focused on stewardship of the land there. “It’s a wonderful place to work,” Long says. “I feel like I’m really continuing the legacy that Daniel Smiley started, observing the natural world and then using what we’re seeing to help inform how the Preserve as a whole manages the land.”
This involves things like determining where trails are put in, or which cliffs are suitable for climbing as opposed to which ones need to be protected for rare plant communities or nesting Peregrine falcons, like the three pair currently ensconced on the cliffs. Some of the research is done by an active program of research associates who come from all over the region. “They might be affiliated with universities or they might be just interested, qualified people on their own who want to come and carry out research here,” Long explains.
Most of the research done at the Preserve is observational in nature. “We watch what’s going on and compare that to what’s going on in other places, or what’s been going on in previous years or how things are changing.” They do water sampling from Mohonk Lake twice a day and once every two weeks from Lake Minnewaska and Awosting Lake, a practice that has been going on since the ’70s. They also sample water from several of the streams and springs on the land.
Long oversees a small staff that includes a newly hired research ecologist as well as Citizen Science and education coordinator Christy Belardo, who oversees and coordinates the many phenological trail volunteers who track the timing of things like when birds return from migration or when flowers bloom, and serve on the falcon watch team. And then there is Paul Huth, director of research emeritus who has been with the Preserve for 42 years now and currently comes in at least a few times each week. “He’s really indispensable to helping us keep that continuity going,” Long says.
A native of the Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia, Long says the landscape here in the Hudson Valley “feels a lot like home to me.” Always “an outdoors kid,” she remembers that by the fourth grade she began to realize that science could actually be what she did when she grew up. Her early interest in hiking and wildflowers evolved over the years, and when she did her master’s thesis at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, it was on Peregrine falcons.
“I started breeding Peregrine falcons in Virginia, which was wonderful,” she says. “I’m a rock climber, so I thought, ‘This is a great fit; I can go climbing and study Peregrines at the same time!’ Then when I went to UC Davis in northern California for my Ph.D., I switched over to butterflies.” Her doctoral dissertation was on the ecology, evolution and genetics of the phenomenon of mimicry in chapterspot butterflies (like Monarchs), which, as Long explains, has to do with butterflies that defend themselves from predators by mimicing the ones that are poisonous.
She worked in northern Arizona after graduation, followed by her most recent appointment working in Los Angeles for a year as both research fellow at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and at UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, spending her time there studying the butterflies of urban Los Angeles as well as the ones in the Santa Monica Mountains, examining how changes in the landscape over time affects butterfly communities.
That proficiency in the butterfly world will be brought to a new initiative at Mohonk Preserve this spring. Modeled after the birding world’s “Big Sit” events in which birding enthusiasts catalog counts of bird species within a predetermined geographical radius and specific length of time, Long is beginning a “Big” year for butterflies, enlisting the public’s help in identifying and counting the butterflies that make their way to the Mohonk Preserve. “It’s something that will be really fun, and I’m looking forward to going out on the land and doing programs and talks, and butterfly walks, but it will also give us a list of what species of butterfly are here. We have a good idea of what’s here, but we haven’t done a really thorough, comprehensive catalog of what the butterflies are on the different parts of the Preserve.”
Programs will be offered that will teach people how to identify butterflies, and afterward they can utilize the eButterfly.org web portal to report their findings. The website is modeled after the eBird.org portal maintained by Cornell University for birders to report their sightings. Long anticipates that there will probably be some 50-75 different butterfly species reported at the Preserve.
Long’s earlier work with Peregrine falcons also comes into play in her new position with the Preserve, with three pair of nesting falcons currently in the process of laying or incubating eggs on the cliffsides. “They started their breeding activities a little earlier this year,” she says, “probably because we had such a warm, mild winter. They’re a bit ahead of schedule, which is okay as long as we don’t have a long cold snap now.”
The falcons are being monitored at Millbrook, the Trapps and Bonticou Crag. “They’ll be incubating for about a month, at which point hopefully the chicks will hatch out and then it’ll be another month or so before the chicks are really able to start trying to fly. We’re looking at a few months down the road before we start to really see evidence of young chicks moving about and doing anything.”
In the meantime, the nesting Peregrines are highly sensitive to disturbances on the cliff. “Not just people climbing near them, but also people just walking above them or being really loud or lingering in the vicinity of them,” Long explains. “So we’re really trying to encourage people to not only refrain from climbing in those areas, but also to limit their activities just as they’re walking past, to try to do so quickly and quietly to not disturb them.”
Disturbing the nesting birds at the wrong time can literally be deadly for the chicks, she says, exposing them to predators when the parents have to get off and defend the nest; all it takes is one predator swooping in for that to happen. And while the Peregrines are no longer on the federal list of endangered wildlife, they are still on the state list for nearly every eastern state.
The local climbing community has been very respectful of the cliff closure, Long says, with local climbing groups and guide services willing to cooperate and help get the message out. “They understand the reasons behind it, and it’s wonderful that we don’t have to get aggressive about enforcing it.”
When asked about the “eagle-cams” currently monitoring the nests of Bald Eagles around the country and whether the Preserve could do something similar with the Peregrines, Long says that as much as they’d love to do that, it’s not practical at Mohonk because they don’t know from year to year where the falcons will choose to set up a nest. Unlike other locations where there are limited options for birds to nest, “we’re blessed with miles of wonderful cliffline that is great for climbing and for Peregrine habitat. We can’t put a camera in place preemptively, since we don’t know where they’re going to go, and by the time they pick their nest, it would be too disturbing to them to put a camera in at that point.”
The Preserve is also looking to expand the Citizen Science initiatives in place. “We really want to reach out to the community — especially those who have not been involved in projects at the Preserve before — to get them engaged in the process of science and really seeing what we do, and to participate and work with us.” Training is provided and ongoing throughout the year. Details are on the website at www.mohonkpreserve.org.