Author Archives: Justin Dalaba

About Justin Dalaba

Justin Dalaba is the outreach coordinator for the Service’s New York Field Office. He graduated from St. Lawrence University with a degree in Conservation Biology and has a particular interest in fisheries conservation.

City Green Space Becomes Educational Campground for Youth

A wave of energy rolls off the bus with sleeping bags and tents slung over shoulders. Roughly 30 kids are setting out on a new adventure in an unlikely place. The murmurs of excitement grow louder as the campers approach their campsites.

At the foot of Cayuga Lake in central New York, Ithaca Children’s Garden champions opportunity to connect people to the outdoors in an urban environment. The all-inclusive green space welcomes anyone from anywhere to explore, play, and learn.


Group photo of the campers, counselors, and event organizers.  Photo: Ithaca Children’s Garden

For the first time, Ithaca Children’s Garden partnered with the Service’s New York Field Office (NYFO) to offer an overnight camp out for kids that may have never had the opportunity to sleep outside*. A youth summer camp of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) was the piloting crew for the camp out.

“This is just absolutely beautiful” exclaims one of the counselors, named Derek, as he walks through the Garden. He is 57 and says he is embarrassed he has never been camping before now, but is eager to change that.

It’s a warm July evening and the Garden is full of life – from the plants and wildlife to the energetic kids. After a brief walking tour, everyone breaks into teams to learn how to pitch their tents.

Thanks to Cornell Outdoor Education and Eastern Mountain Sports, the group was well-supplied with tents, sleeping bags, pads, and headlamps. Food was generously provided by local markets including Wegmans, Aldi’s, GreenStar, and Ithaca Bakery.

Once sleeping arrangements were set and everyone was fed, it was time to play and learn. The NYFO organized an interactive “bat echolocation” game, much like “Marco-Polo,” where players had to rely on sound to catch the “prey.” Campers also learned how to identify various nocturnal wildlife sounds.


GIAC counselor, known as “Uncle Ben,” pretends to be the bat searching for prey.  Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

Of course, no camping trip is complete without a campfire and s’mores. Everyone learned how to safely build a fire outdoors before roasting their marshmallows. Later in the evening, sugar highs were expelled through games of spotlight tag. Tired campers enjoyed stories and social time in their tents before finally drifting off to sleep.


Campers enjoy a fire they learned how to build themselves.  Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

Cornell Lab of Ornithology loaned binoculars for an early morning bird walk led by ornithologists Robyn Bailey and Paul Paradine the next day. “The cool thing is that the kids don’t realize we’re tricking them into learning,” says Courtney, a longtime counselor with GIAC.


Searching for birds in the Garden with ornithologists Robyn Bailey and Paul Paradine (far right).  Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

One of the campers later told GIAC counselor, Derek, that it was the best day of his life. Another camper said they “loved camping at the Garden” and “want to do two nights or a week!”

The success of this first camp out speaks to the partnership efforts to pull together resources for the greater benefit of urban youth. For an event like this, the Garden took on a whole new sense of belonging to campers who had never spent a night outdoors.

*Please note that ICG is free and open every day during daylight hours, and camping is not allowed without express city approval for special events.

What a big flood means for a little snail at Chittenango Falls


Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field.


Located at Chittenango Falls, there are slimy, one-footed creatures with a mouth like a cheese grater. That would seem scary, except the creature is the size of a thumbnail and their “cheese grater” mouth, or radula, is for consuming plant matter. These strange critters are snails, more specifically, the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. We like to call them the “Chit” for short.


A Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail, or “Chit,” the size of a thumbnail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

These small native New Yorkers are found exclusively in the mist zones of Chittenango Falls. The entire population is impacted by what goes on in one small area of the falls. The Chits had a close call when near-disaster struck in 2006.  Heavy rainfall caused a section of rock to break off from the cliff directly above the Chits, resulting in a sharp decline in their population. They are still recovering from this event, but the recent storm and accompanied flooding that rolled through at the start of this month resurfaced fears of losing this threatened species.

Flooded vs Normal Falls

(Left) Flooding at the falls on July 1st, Photo: Matthew Sterritt. (Right) the falls on July 6th, Photo: Alyssa Martinez

Five days after the flood, I joined a group of surveyors from NYS Parks, SUNY ESF, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, and the Service, to visit the falls on a routinely scheduled trip. Uncertain of the impact of the flooding, we set out to collect and monitor the snails. The damage was evident within the fenced off habitat. The high water separated several boards from the bridge across the creek and debris had been washed through the fencing that is intended to keep visitors a safe distance from trampling the small snails.

Trails were closed and areas were still partially flooded so we had to reroute around waterlogged vegetation using our best rock-hopping skills to get to the surveying area. When we finally arrived to start surveying, it appeared the flood may have washed away a portion of the snail’s habitat. In some areas, bare rock was exposed where there used to be lush vegetation growing. Despite the flooding impact, we still found Chits gliding around after taking shelter from the storm.

Falls with Endangered Spec signs

Debris pushed through fencing from flooding. Photo: Alyssa Martinez

The resilient population has survived a rockslide in 2006, so another flood is not going to stop them now. Cody Gilbertson, who spearheads the snail surveys and cares for a captive colony of Chits at SUNY-ESF, estimates there are only about 300 individuals persisting in the wild. We will not know if the flood has left any major impacts on the population until enough population surveys have been completed.

Living exclusively in this small habitat leaves little room for misfortune for the threatened Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. The ongoing captive breeding efforts at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo and ESF will help biologists better understand the Chit’s life history and inform future management of their habitat. Captive Chits have previously been released to supplement the wild population and perhaps increase their overall population numbers.


Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS

Despite their vulnerability, the Chittenango ovate amber snails continue to slide along on their one foot, chewing up vegetation with their cheese-grater mouth with hope for the future knowing people give a “Chit” about them.

A “Shell” of a Good Time in the Field


Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field (here she is with a bog turtle)!



With one foot in the muck and both eyes focused ahead, I lunge forward…. SLURP! My boot comes out of the unsympathetic wetland soil beneath my feet. This may not be a typical day on the job for an outreach intern, but for me it was an opportunity to find North America’s smallest turtle in a rare, yet diverse habitat. I trailed behind a team of biologists, hoping to find and record important scientific information about these tiny critters.

Bog turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Populations have declined primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation. During my first full week as the outreach intern, I was lucky enough to get out in the field and spend some time helping with bog turtle surveys. Having just started working with the New York Field Office (NYFO), I was excited for this new experience.

Equipped with hip-waders and a stick, I was ready to find some turtles. The stick is used to probe the mud and vegetation in search of turtles, but it also has the added benefit of saving your fall when the mud starts claiming your foot.


Probing the muck for turtles (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

I was told by some veterans on the team that a distinctive sound can be heard when your stick hits a turtle shell. The sound was described as hollow and woody; easier said than done.  For a rookie, other things sound hollow and woody when you hit them. Many times I probed into the mud with my stick, hit something that sounded like a turtle shell, felt a rush of excitement, and reached into the mud only to come up with a reed, log, or other non-turtle matter.

After many unsuccessful attempts, I was so hungry to find a turtle and desperate to contribute to the efforts, that my mind started tricking me and I would see turtles everywhere: dead leaves started to look like shells, twigs sticking out of the mud became turtle heads; you name it. In the end, all I found were dead leaves, mud, and the occasional frog. I guess beginner’s luck wasn’t on my side.

Although I didn’t personally find a turtle, the team ended up finding several turtles throughout the day. At first we found spotted turtles, and then finally I heard a member of the team yell “bog turtle!”


This female bog turtle’s shell is reddish due to natural iron deposits in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

Now I could finally see the small size of this species. I was used to handling juvenile turtles of this size, but these were mature adults and only the size of my palm! I am familiar with eastern box turtles that have yellow markings on their shell, and painted turtles which have bright red plastrons (“belly” side of a turtle’s shell), but bog turtles are more subtle in their markings. You can see the distinct orange-yellow spots on either side of their heads and the tree-ring-like patterns on their shell. Much like a tree, these rings are counted to determine the age of the turtle.


The team of surveyors in the wetland (Photo: Alyssa Martinez).

In the past, I have helped out with Blanding’s turtle surveys and I worked at a turtle rehabilitation facility at my college, so turtles are dear to my heart. Getting a chance to see this small, rare species out in the wild was an opportunity of a lifetime. While I didn’t have the bragging rights of finding a turtle of my own, I truly enjoyed the experience. As a newbie in the field, I was constantly learning from a team of very knowledgeable people. Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, an Endangered Species Biologist at the NYFO, helped me identify what birds were providing the soundtrack of our exploration, as well as the different types of plants in the wetlands that indicate the health of the habitat.

I came away from the experience exhausted and full of new information. I knew if I was given another chance to go out and get my boots stuck in the mud in pursuit of finding bog turtles, I would without a doubt.