Nature-themed winter lecture series “Secrets of the Shawangunks” returns

Timber rattlesnake by photographer John Mizel.

Every year at this time, the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership eases the pain of local nature-lovers kept inside on frigid winter nights by offering a free, nature-themed lecture series on conservation topics and biodiversity in the Gunks. “Secrets of the Shawangunks” will be held every Thursday evening this February, with no advance registration necessary. The first three lectures in the series — on February 1, 8 and 15 — will be hosted on the SUNY New Paltz campus, in room 102 of the Lecture Center. The final talk on Thursday, February 22 will be held on the SUNY Ulster Stone Ridge campus, in Vanderlyn Hall, College Lounge, room 203. All lectures begin at 7 p.m.

The lecture series has been presented annually now for nearly 20 years. And despite the spaciousness of the lecture center at SUNY New Paltz, some of the talks draw a standing-room only crowd. “We’re very pleased with the longevity and popularity of the SRBP Lecture Series,” says Gretchen Reed, director of marketing and communications at Mohonk Preserve. “We try to cover new and interesting topics each season and we’ve seen consistent growth in attendance, especially in the last few years. We’re grateful to our core group of attendees who regularly brave the mercurial February weather and welcome the many new participants who discover us each year.”

First up on the schedule this year is “Rattlesnakes on the Ridge” at SUNY New Paltz on Thursday, February 1 at 7 p.m. The guest speaker is Dr. Ed McGowan, director of trailside museums and the zoo at Bear Mountain State Park. McGowan will share his experiences, research and knowledge of the fascinating and rare reptile, and talk about why the timber rattlesnake is a true survivor in the face of ongoing persecution. To many, it is also a symbol of the wildness of the Shawangunk Ridge, worthy of tolerance and protection. The highlight of the lecture is likely to be the appearance of a live (caged) rattlesnake McGowan will bring with him from the Bear Mountain facilities.


The following week, on Thursday, February 8 at 7 p.m. in the SUNY New Paltz Lecture Center, the guest speaker will be Dr. Allison Oakes, post-doctoral research associate in plant science and biotechnology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, on the topic of “Reviving the American Chestnut.” Once one of the most common trees in eastern American forests, the American Chestnut population was decimated by blight in the early 20th century. The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Center conducts research aimed at creating a blight-resistant American Chestnut to re-introduce to American forests.

If this program sounds familiar, that’s because it was originally scheduled for last winter, but had to be cancelled due to extreme weather. “We were fortunate to be able to re-schedule the presenter for this year,” says Reed.

Thursday, February 15 at 7 p.m. at SUNY New Paltz will bring “Citizen Science in the Hudson Valley,” with guest speakers Lindsay Charlop, environmental cooperative post-baccalaureate at Vassar Barns and the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA); Natalie Feldsine, research collection and citizen science coordinator at Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center; and Sarah Mount, science educator with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The Hudson Valley has a thriving community of citizen scientists participating in programs throughout the region, with our local environmental organizations happy to utilize their efforts. The lecture will offer the opportunity to learn about some of the activities people can take part in that contribute to research informing the scientific community locally, regionally and internationally.

“The Shawangunk Ridge has been home to citizen science efforts for many years,” notes Reed. “Led by our conservation science team, the Preserve’s citizen science programs provide hands-on participation in natural history observation, data collection and analysis.” The participants come from all age and experience levels, she says, and often find the experience gives them a deeper understanding of the natural world. Current citizen science initiatives include phenology, weather monitoring, bird programs and StreamWatch, a watershed monitoring program that will be featured in the SRBP session.

One of Mohonk Preserve’s citizen science projects over the years has been the annual Hawk Watch. The final lecture in the series on Thursday, February 22 at 7 p.m. at SUNY Ulster, will highlight “Raptors on the Ridge,” with guest speaker ornithologist Zach Smith. He will lead a discussion of the majestic raptors in and around the Shawangunk Ridge, with a special emphasis on the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) population in Ulster County. The region is classified as an Important Bird Area in recognition of its permanent habitat and role as a migratory resting and breeding spot.

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

The SUNY Lecture Center (for the first three lectures) 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 For information about the location of the final lecture on Feb. 22 at SUNY Ulster, visit For more information about the lecture series and notice of any weather-related cancellations, visit