Free “Secrets of the Shawangunks” lecture series in New Paltz

Black rat snake resting in tree near Bonticou Crag (photo by Frances Marion Platt)

Black rat snake resting in tree near Bonticou Crag (photo by Frances Marion Platt)

Midwinter can be a glorious time for outdoorspeople, given enough of a snow base to support skis, sleds or snowshoes – or a frustrating one, when conditions keep changing and the ground gets too icy or slushy or muddy for a nice brisk trek. Luckily, the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership (SRBP) comes to the rescue of victims of cabin fever during the month of February, with its annual free public lecture series at SUNY-New Paltz.

The theme of this year’s series of four Thursday-evening lectures is “Secrets of the Shawangunks.” It kicks off this week, February 6, with a 7 p.m. screening of Green Fire, an award-winning documentary film about legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold. Best-known for his highly influential book of essays A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold fundamentally changed the way America approaches wilderness conservation: from an orientation of keeping public lands well-stocked with wildlife for the enjoyment of sport hunters to one of “ecocentrism,” in which wild lands, wild creatures and the web of nature are recognized as having their own intrinsic value, independent of human use.

By the 1930s, Leopold was the nation’s foremost expert on wildlife management. He developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon; wrote the US Forest Service’s first game and fish handbook; proposed the first national wilderness area in the Forest Service system, the Gila Wilderness Area; and instigated the return of bears, wolves and mountain lions to public lands. He’s also remembered as co-founder, in 1935, of the Wilderness Society.

Following the film, John Thompson, the Mohonk Preserve’s director of Conservation Science, will discuss Leopold’s influence on longtime Preserve naturalist Dan Smiley and the Mohonk land ethic. He will share notes from Smiley’s personal copy of Sand County Almanac.

The series continues on Thursday, February 13, when John Thompson returns, joined by Mohonk Preserve research associate and climber Joe Bridges, PhD, to present “Climbing and Conservation in the Gunks.” It’s no big news that the Shawangunk Ridge is a world-class rock-climbing Mecca, offering some of the best climbing in the US on over 1,000 routes. Here you can learn about the colorful history of the “vertical hikers” of the Shawangunk cliffs, including the evolution of the “clean climbing” movement.

Whereas in the first half of the 20th century it was considered normal and acceptable for climbers to hammer bits of hardware into cracks in the rock and leave them there permanently, it was largely here in the Gunks that a new, less invasive climbing ethic took hold, in the spirit of the “leave no trace” approach to camping and mountaineering pioneered by National Outdoor Leadership School founder Paul Petzoldt. The speakers will bring their history lesson up to the present with news of the successful partnership between climbers and conservation scientists to help protect peregrine falcons on the Ridge.

If you’re enraptured with raptors, you’ll definitely want to follow up this falcon talk with the lecture on “Northern Saw-whet Owls – Eastern Migration.” This February 20 program will feature Dr. Glenn A. Proudfoot, visiting scholar at Vassar College and Mohonk Preserve research associate, who has been studying birds of prey for nearly 40 years. He will discuss current research into migratory pathways of the Northern saw-whet owl, and the efficacy and limitations of bird-banding as a tool for studying migration patterns.

Less familiar in these parts than the common great horned owl, and the barred owl with its unmistakable “Who cooks for you?” cry, the tiny, nocturnal saw-whet is easily overlooked as it hides amongst the dense branches of evergreens. But a determined male saw-whet owl can keep up its shrill, piercing, one-note “tooting” call for hours upon end. With its disproportionately huge, flat face, catlike yellow eyes and fluffy body that’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the saw-whet just about defines owlish cuteness – so long as you’re not a deer mouse, its primary prey.

The Secrets of the Shawangunks series ends with a lecture on Thursday, February 27 by Ed McGowan, PhD, director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission’s Science and Trailside Museums and Zoo, on a subject that won’t seem quite so secret to anyone who spends a considerable amount of time hiking on the Ridge: “Snakes in the Shawangunks.” From the familiar Eastern garter snake to the iconic timber rattlesnake – a threatened species more often heard than seen – the Gunks are home to many slithery species. You’ve probably seen Northern water snakes swimming in the “sky lakes,” and one or more of the ubiquitous black rat snakes nesting in a hollow tree at a trail junction en route to the top of Bonticou Crag. Except for the rattlers and the occasional Northern copperhead, all are quite harmless to humans.

Field naturalists have begun to unravel the surprisingly complex social lives of snakes. In this lecture you’ll learn about our local species and their secret lives, garnered from long-term observational studies along the Ridge. Though they can move quite fast when startled, the Gunks’ black rat snakes in particular are surprisingly tolerant of human company, and will sometimes reward the still and quiet watcher with a long spell of close observation.

The SRBP’s public lectures are co-sponsored by the SUNY-New Paltz Biology Department, and are presented in Lecture Center 102 on the SUNY campus beginning at 7 p.m. Admission is free and no reservations are necessary. For directions and a campus map, see No parking permit is required if you park in a campus lot after 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit

Secrets of the Shawangunks biodiversity lecture series, Thursdays, February 6, 13, 27 & 27, 7-8:30 p.m., free, Lecture Center Room 102, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz;

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