Monday, August 29, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The pitcher plant -- Western New York’s carnivorous plant

Nearly everyone is familiar with the Venus flytrap, the famed carnivorous plant of the southeast that snaps shut on insects that might end up within its mouth-like leaves.

Many folks don’t know that its equally-carnivorous but much less dramatic cousin, the pitcher plant, can be found in Western New York.

It just so happens that now is a great time to find this rare plant. Its large, brick-red nodding flower is in full bloom in August, alerting you to the pitcher below.

Those bladder-like leaves that give the plant its name are a vessel which collects water, and ultimately, insects on which it feeds.

It’s an evolutionary tool made out of necessity; pitcher plants grow in bogs, mossy acidic wetlands of which we have very few on the Niagara Frontier. Two bogs that immediately come to mind are Hanging Bog and Moss Lake, both being located in Allegany County and both being places we will explore in future installments of this column.

In a bog, decay happens at incredibly slow rates. As an example, some happy archeologists have found human bodies that were essentially mummified in European bogs, well-preserved hundreds of years after their death. Because of that slow rot, there is very little nitrogen available for flowering plants, hence bogs being home to mostly mosses. Flowering plants that do remain need to find nitrogen by alternative methods.

This is where the pitcher plant’s strange-looking anatomy comes into play. Whereas the Venus flytrap appears to be a quick eater, the pitcher plant takes its sweet time through an elaborate process.

The leathery, green sometimes burgundy leaves, with deep-red veins, which make it look like a bodily organ, have pools of water within them. The stench of that stagnant water and the death within draws flies and other carrion-eating insects into the bladder. The downward facing hairs within the pitcher do not allow the insects to fly or crawl out. Those hairs are said to issue a narcotic, which stuns the insects that then fall into the water. Bacteria in the water break down the drowned insects and the pitcher plant emits an enzyme that converts the insect mush into nitrogen that the plant consumes through the walls of the leaves.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, that is if the plant is lucky enough to catch some insects. All of that, in conjunction with the rarity of bogs, makes the pitcher plant one of the least common plants on the Niagara Frontier. It has a precarious diet while living in a precarious habitat.

That has led New York State environmental officials to count the pitcher plant as an exploitably vulnerable native plant, a classification teetering on threatened. So, if you see one, do not pick it, even if you count yourself as a skilled terrarium gardener. Not only is their harvest strictly prohibited on public land, but doing so also compromises the long-term population of one of our more interesting plants.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 18 August 2016 All WNY News

Thursday, August 25, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The wood turtle – Western New York’s interesting rarity

Earlier this year, while driving on County Route 38 in Allegany County, I saw a turtle crossing the road. Like any nature lover worth his salt, I got out of the truck and picked him up to put him in a safe spot.

I expected the slow-moving pedestrian to be a painted turtle which is, without a doubt, the most common turtle in Western New York. So, I was startled – and incredibly happy -- when I discovered it was a wood turtle!

After excitedly admiring the turtle for a good 15 minutes, I finally put him in Alma Pond.

It was especially rewarding to have my initial good deed magnified by protecting such a rare specimen.

Yes, rare.

I count myself as a good herpetologist. For years, I traipsed around Allegany and Niagara Counties in an effort to help the state with its reptile and amphibian atlas. I found many an interesting creature but never expected to ever see a wood turtle. They are incredibly uncommon in Western New York and the Department of Environmental Conservation counts them as a species of special concern.

Their numbers are down in most every state and province because of predation (mostly by the overpopulated raccoons), habitat loss, illegal collection (they allegedly make great pets) and vehicular turtleslaughter.

That’s sad, because the wood turtle is one of the more interesting reptiles out there.

It got its name for two reasons: One, it’s deeply grooved shell looks like hardwood and, two, it can be found in the woods.

For a good portion of the year, the wood turtle will venture a considerable distance from water (up to a half mile). In the late-spring and summer they can be found in wet meadows, fields, and forests, foraging on insects, slugs and fungi. While hunting, it even does something one might consider a magical power: It stomps its front feet which mimics the sound of rain; those vibrations bring earthworms to the surface, making a good meal for the turtle.

They are excellent walkers and relative speedsters for the notoriously-slow turtle clan. In one study of wood turtles, it was found they averaged 354 feet of travel a day, pretty darn good for a small reptile no longer than 8 inches in length. When I released our friend to Alma Pond, my family and I were in stitches because he seemed to be in a full run and was actually moving quickly.

That ability to cover territory in a hurry aligns well with the turtle’s unique homing abilities. It was discovered in scientific experiments using mazes that the wood turtles had homing abilities comparable to those of rats, which is pretty extraordinary for a reptile. A follow-up to that had a biologist move specimens a mile and a half from home --- they made it back in less than 5 weeks!

Wood turtles are also attractive little buggers, which might account for their popularity with reptile collectors. Besides the woody shell, they have a bright orange neck and legs and their underbelly is yellow with black blotches. They are active, too; the one we played with kept his head out most of the time, was inquisitive and even roared at us in his own way (it sounded like a whisper).

When not gallivanting in the wild during the warm months, wood turtles can be found underwater in the winter. They will go to the bottom of a river, stream or pond and bury themselves in brush or mud and stay there all season. Sometimes, that can account for their demise as it makes them susceptible to being really buried during flash flooding, a regular occurrence of springtime thaws in Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties where they can be found.  

That’s yet another thing makes them a marked animal – they are rare for a reason (actually, quite a few reasons), and they are creatures better left in the wild and not put in an aquarium.

If you see one in the wild appreciate it and take some pictures; never take it home.

And, if you see a turtle crossing the road, help it out --- you never know just what you might be saving.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 25 August 2016 All WNY News

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New York State legislators do not deserve raises

When working in the private sector, pay raises are contingent on one or a combination of 3 things: The merit and successes of the individual, the current and projected health of the organization, and the health of the overall economy. Because of the final factor (and its contributions to the second), annual raises of any measurable size have become something of a rarity since the start of the Great Recession. Nationally, wages will have risen 2.7% this year.

Despite the working class facing such tumultuous times, the political class thinks they are free of such encumbrances. It has been the buzz in Albany, yet again, that state legislators are looking for a raise this year. They currently make a base salary of $79,500 and want to take it up to $116,900, an increase of more than 47% -- never mind that their real wage is already near mark after taking into consideration committee bonuses and the $172 per diem benefit for when they are in Albany.

When you consider the 3 factors behind raises, our senators and assemblyman aren’t deserving of a $37,400 raise, let alone one of $2,147 (which is what it would be were they to see just 2.7% like their constituents).

Let’s first consider the merits of in the individual. $79,500 is a rather exorbitant sum to be paying a part-timer. These positions were devised to offer regular people a chance to contribute to the development of the Empire State by having sessions for 6 calendar months per year and during those sessions mandating 0 to 4 days per week in the state capital (the legislative calendar typically shows only 55 in-session/budget days for the period of January through June). When the 6 months were up or when the legislature wasn’t in session during the week, the legislators could go back to their “real jobs” on the farm, in their offices and plants, or at home raising their families.

Sadly, the system been mutilated so much that people are led to believe that being a legislator is a full-time, year-round job equipped with regional offices and full-time staffs. Realistically, under such circumstances, one could look at the second half of the year as being nothing more than politics, rather than policy, a means to perpetuate incumbency through alleged necessity and importance. Really, what does attendance at parades and dinners contribute to the overall welfare of our state?

So, we need to look at the seats for what they are and what they should be – part-time, supplementary gigs - and realize that we cannot permit their income growth.

Now, let’s look at the organization through which they are employed.

At $5 billion, last year marked the state’s largest surplus since the 1940s. That was all smoke and mirrors, because it was created by windfalls from a variety of bank settlements.

Recent history shows are more horrifying picture. The state government had a budget gap of $2 billion in 2013, which followed deficits of $10.4 billion in 2012, $8.5 billion in 2011, and $21 billion in 2010.

If the fiscal health of the state is directly attributable to their budgets, the laws that they introduce, and the tough-but-necessary cuts they are afraid to make, then how, just by looking at those years alone, do the legislators deem themselves worthy of reward? If anyone ran a company like they run a state, that individual would be among the ranks of the unemployed, either through termination or the total collapse of their firm.

And, it’s that factor that leads to the last: the overall health of the economy. Every bill among the hundreds passed every year by the legislature (a whopping 718 bills in 2015) either steals rights and freedoms or adds to the cost of living and doing business in New York State. Because of that, existing businesses (not the new ones which are granted special favor and public charity like SolarCity) face incomprehensible government-created financial burdens when compared against their competitors from other states. That has forced businesses to stagnate/downsize/close/leave, which in turn has caused the same to happen to our residents, young and old alike. In the period from 2010 to 2014, 38 of the 50 Upstate counties lost population. Upstate is dying.

It’s that final factor of assessing job performance that is the most damning to our legislators. They are complicit in the destruction of the once accurately-named “Empire State”. They’ve driven our government to ruin, which has done the same to our economy and each and every one of us in it.

Only a politician would think they deserve a bigger paycheck for that.


From the 22 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Monday, August 15, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Fall colors will be muted this year

Battling through one of the most oppressively hot summers in memory, many Western New Yorkers are pining for the more temperate days and cooler nights of the fall. With the natural autumn (not the one based on man’s calendar) less than a month away, there is hope in sight.

But, that sight will be duller than years past.

With this year being one of the driest on record, this fall promises to have some of the worst colors on record. This will prove to a real downer to the leaf peepers who look forward to driving across our wonderful region every fall, and it will put a really effect the Southern Tier’s tourism economy, one that already had a setback earlier this year with dismal skiing and snowmobiling conditions.

At press time, Buffalo was looking at year-to- date precipitation deficit of 8”. This has had a major effect on plant life, even including the largest of trees that have stood the test of time and have seen similar droughts. They just aren’t getting the nutrition they need.

Here’s what we can expect this fall:

The leaves will drop earlier and quicker

Last year was a very healthy year for WNY trees and we got to experience a late and sustained coloring of our forests. Colors started appearing in earnest during the third week of September and many places still could brag of good color well into the last week of October. Portions of Niagara County had good color up to Veteran’s Day.

This year, though, because the leaves haven’t been able to become as robust, they will fall earlier. You can expect to see leaves coming down by September 15 th and I would be surprised if the Southern Tier had colors worth sightseeing later than Columbus Day. This will put a damper on some fall events like Wellsville’s famous Ridgewalk and Run, the success of which is determined by the fall colors.

This drought is a color killer

2015’s colors were exceptional, a picture-perfect collage of really intense reds, yellows, and oranges. I thought it was one of the top two or three autumns this century. This year’s will be the worst, hands down.

A wet spring and dry fall always produce the best hues. But this year, we’ve been dry through the entirety of the growing season.

Many of those unhealthy leaves will fall even before changing color while others, especially the yellows and orange will be show more of a brown hue. If it’s any consolation, some of the reds might be bright this year.

Farmlands will produce better views

Many leaf peepers migrate to the Southern Tier to see the Allegheny Plateau and foothills sporting color, depth and a greater, wider view. This might be the year to not do that.

Those old growth forests tend to be less diverse than those of northern Western New York where the forests, woodlots and hedgerows are much younger. As Mother Nature tries to reclaim an environment, there is a far greater number of species trying to stake a claim. So, you will have a greater variety of trees and colors, and those variations will be able to, in some cases, overcome the dullness of the trees that have typically afforded us the best views. That means that the best views this year could be in the flatlands of the lake plains in Niagara and Orleans Counties.

While the leaf forecast might seem dismal, you should always get out and see them when you can. If we have a decent weekend weather-wise in late-September and colors have changed, go out on the road with a camera and some friends. If you don’t take advantage of that good weekend, it might be too late when next you have time available. The window for fall colors will be that brief this year.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 11 August 2016 All WNY News

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Perseids meteor shower to put on a show this year

Western New York sky watchers have had a relatively eventless 2016 – no eclipses, a brief and disappointing look at Comet Catalina, and almost no northern lights.

Many of us are hopeful that next week’s annual Perseids meteor shower will more than make up for all of that.

That shower, which peaks this year on Aug. 12, is usually the most prolific of such shows every year, producing 60 shooting stars per hour.

This year’s looks to be a multiple of that, an “outburst year” or “peak year," because of how the debris field, which is remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, is positioned by the gravitational pull of the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists think that will increase the rate to as many as 200 meteors per hour!

The last time an outburst occurred was 2009 and astronomers were entertained with 140 per hour when watched from the darkest skies.

Dark skies are critical to enjoy this show at its best. You have to get away from the lights of the cities and villages. The best places to watch in the north of our reading area would be from the Lake Ontario shore, while those in the south are encouraged to get as close to the Pennsylvania border as they can, where some of the darkest skies in the entire northeast can be found. For city folk, it would be an excellent time to book a getaway to Allegany State Park.

The shower peaks on Aug. 12 (which is really the night of Aug. 11), but you will see a high volume of meteors from now until then. After that, we’ve passed the debris field and numbers drop off dramatically, so much so that next Friday night could be a dud.

If you look for them prior to midnight on a given night, you will be disappointed and wonder what the hype is all about. You have to go outdoors after midnight and hang there until dawn to really appreciate it. That’s because it is those hours that have our viewing area positioned towards the incoming dust (and, yes, most of these brilliant streakers and fireballs are nothing more than dust).

Because of the way we are tilted into the incoming particles, all of these meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, hence the name, which after midnight you will be able to find at due northeast about halfway up the sky.

This year, the moon won’t dampen the display because it will be only at a quarter of full, so its light will be low and it will have set by 1 a.m.

Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the show – maybe an hour or two, because the shooting stars can come in waves. Also, to get the best effect, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness (sometimes as much as 20 minutes), so don’t fiddle with your flashlight and don’t go onto your smartphone tweeting about every fireball you see. Keep it dark!

The overnights of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be the best next week (with Thursday being a must-see) so if you don’t mind screwing up your sleep cycle and being a little groggy at work, get up (or stay up) and see these Perseids shower. It will be worth the torture and grogginess this year. You can count on that.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 04 August 2016 All WNY News

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Finding that work-life balance

Wireless technology has been a boon to businesses in the twenty-first century as it gives them unprecedented access to their clients while considerably speeding-up various functions of their operations. That same technology has also been a bane to workers. The ubiquitous smart phone has become a  ball-and-chain, weighing them down and making them accessible to their bosses, customers and the grind of work at all hours of the day and night.

In my personal and professional dealings I have witnessed far too many people frustrated, even burned out, over the unfretted access that their employers have to them. I’ve had many a meeting interrupted by someone’s phone going off. I’ve watched as my friends have had to take calls or answer emails long after they’ve left the office. This 24/7 routine can sap the enjoyment out of work and life in general.

Surveys have shown that after the close of a typical workday 40% of white-collar workers remain connected right till the next day. Other studies have also shown that people just can’t get away, even when they are away. More than 80% stay connected to the office while on vacation, checking in at least once a day. 40% check in multiple times a day.

It’s an epidemic and it’s not just Corporate America that is to blame. I’ve seen small businesses and non-profits exert the same amount of unnecessary pressure on their workers.

No one can rest. If they do, they are blasted by supervisors or ripped by their customers. Many workers are willing participants in this mess, feeling guilty if they haven’t checked their emails or messages in the evening or on the weekend.  

Why is this expected of everyone? Just because the technology exists, it doesn’t mean we should abuse it.
I have a policy at the plant -- shared with my customers and suppliers -- that says my coworkers are off-limits after hours, on the weekends and while on vacations. Much to the frustration of some of my clients, we don’t even give out my coworker’s cell phone numbers. 

We don’t want them to take their work home with them because quality of life is contingent on a good job and it’s also contingent on a life outside of that job. Plus, a rested employee, one who can maintain a decent personal life, is a better employee overall.

The rule at the office is that our people must follow the same rules when dealing with our customers and suppliers. 

It may seem old-fashioned or outdated to some business managers since we live in a 24-hour world. But, everyone needs to realize that constant connectedness with cell phones, smart phones, and the like is maybe a dozen years old. The business world did just fine before that and it will be just fine when today’s technology goes the way of the telegraph.

If we can do it with a 24/6 facility and products that are sold to and competing against companies from all over the world, other employers can do it, too. If they keenly focus on what matters most during business hours --- high levels of effective customer service and the very best product quality – there is no need to harass employees after they’ve punched out for the day and subject them to a constant barrage of information and requests. Let them be people – and not just assets to your company – and you’ll find they’ll be more productive and they might even stay with you for a while.

Likewise, workers need to disconnect when not at the office. How many of you glance at your aggravating smart phones and pine for simpler times? That bygone era is just one power button away. Use it. Turn off the phone at night when you are trying to relax or spend time with your children. Be you on the weekends. Make a vacation an actual vacation.

The company will still be there the next day and so will the work -- get it done then.

From the 08 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Political speeches are performances, not reality

If you ever saw the 1957 film “a Face in the Crowd,” it was probably the only time in your life that you remember hating Andy Griffith (or at least the character he played).

In that classic piece of cinema Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a hateful, lecherous drifter who somehow manages to manipulate television and mass media to bring himself fame as sort of likeable everyman. He uses those tools and skills to help a senator rise in the presidential polls. Rhodes’ world falls apart once everyone realizes just who he is after his words about the ignorance of his fans (basically, all of America) inadvertently leak out during a live broadcast.

The film was groundbreaking for its time because the television medium was still relatively new yet somehow the film’s writers knew that mass media would be abused by those who could deliver messages with charisma and panache that would make the populace believe that the untrue was reality.

The message of “a Face in the Crowd” remains relevant to this day. Here it is, almost 60 years later, and we are still living in a world of lies foretold by that movie.

There are countless Larry Rhodeses out there, holding office and trying to run our country, projecting an image that is anything but who they actually are.  People see the lovable version of Rhodes, not the angry, drunken, disgusting Rhodes that was behind the cameras. 

One needs only to have caught a few of the key speeches at the Republican and Democratic conventions to see that in practice.

Depending on what side of the aisle you are on, you likely walked away from those thinking that “your guy” or “your gal” ruled the day.

But think about it, just who really is “your guy” or “your gal?”

It’s definitely not who you saw at the podium.

Donald Trump’s words about the decline of America weren’t his. Bill Clinton didn’t write the loving words about his wife. Michelle Obama didn’t create the speech that some say is an all-time great.

All of those speeches were written -- and rewritten -- by other people.

It’s obvious. For starters, a man who has made billions from a nation can’t claim it’s economically impoverished while another who cheated on a woman countless times can’t say that she’s his only love.

What they had said was disingenuous. It wasn’t real.

Just who is the real person? Only the speaker and his or her closest family and friends know that, which is unfortunate given the enormity of the offices we elect people for.

What you watched was performance art. Every single speaker, whether it was a senator, a governor, a presidential candidate or a First-Partner-to-be was an actor or actress delivering lines prepared for them by professional writers.

I pine for the good old days when real leaders wrote their own speeches.

Some make the claim that they don’t have time in this busy day and age.


Two of our greatest presidents -- Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- wrote all of their own speeches. They were far busier than any President of recent memory – Lincoln was trying to keep the country from being torn apart while Roosevelt was fighting corruption and reforming how we see and do things.

They succeeded in saving America and making it better by speaking from the heart, by sharing their thoughts, and living every word they said.

People followed them and believed in their causes because they knew who those men were. They knew they could believe in them.

The best way to know a man or woman is to get to the heart of their writings, as its shows them at their most introspective, most emotional, and most intellectual.

But, we’ve been robbed of that connection since the days of Warren Harding, the first president to employ a speechwriter.

What has Obama really stood for? What are Trump and Clinton about?

We don’t know, because the polished -- or in the case of Trump, “interesting” -- image we’ve been fed is there to sell a party or an idea, not to lead. Their meaningless words come from the hearts and minds of others, not from themselves. 

But, these politicians, as so many others, are so effective at brainwashing the masses that nearly all voters are incapable of discerning fact from fiction, the person from the myth when it comes to political speeches and the projection of the (alleged) persona. We are led to believe that that which we hear and see is reality, when in truth, it’s a fa├žade; it’s Hollywood at its finest….there’s little bit of Lonesome Rhodes in every face in the crowd.  



From the 01 August 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Friday, July 22, 2016

Allow minors to serve on non-profit boards

It often seems like volunteerism and civic engagement are at all-time lows. Maybe they are -- and especially here. A study by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows that only 19.2% of New York residents volunteer over the course of the year, placing the Empire State dead list in the Union.

Think about that: Less than one of every five New Yorkers gives of themselves.

It smacks of hypocrisy – New Yorkers take pride in their state being a leader, but our ranks are chock full of anything but leaders.

To improve those numbers and, more importantly, the human condition and the quality of life of those served by volunteers, we need to change our culture of participation.

To do that, we have to start young.

Goodness knows we try – most Participation in Government classes at high schools require some sort of mandatory volunteerism (which is oxymoronic). It shows in the participation rates. 20.2% of New Yorkers aged 16 to 19 volunteer. Compare that to those who came before them: Only 14.1% of college-aged adults volunteer and 15.7% of those in the 25 to 34 age bracket do.     

So, we force kids into volunteerism, some of them dig it and stick with it, but many just fade away and stay away. We need to reverse that trend and find a way to keep these people – our future - engaged in their communities when they’ve got their foot in the door.

To do that, we need to treat them like adults and allow them to understand and participate in the high-level operations of the organizations that they are working with. If we could have them sit on the board of directors, we would afford them the chance to know the operational, financial, marketing and recruiting aspects of their chosen non-profit. By doing so, that board could capitalize on the bright and new ideas and youthful energy of the minor, which could help bring in more new blood to achieve the charity’s stated goals.

But, unfortunately, New York State law doesn’t give most of those minors and boards the chance to do that.

While 7 states outright exclude youth from being directors, New York is one of 3 that has laws providing for some youth leadership (the other 40 states remain mum on the subject, which does not necessarily give a stamp of approval to the matter).

Our laws are a start, but they are far too limiting and do not encourage service to others. In New York, board participation for youth is extended to minors down to the age of 16, but only for those organizations that educate youth or provide them recreation. A quick roll call would show non-profits like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, charter schools or your local little league.

While that could be a fair number of organizations, it impacts only those non-profits that provide direct services to that youth and her peers. It does not allow minors to sit on the boards of groups through which the minors would provide services to others such as the United Way, Meals on Wheels, fire departments, churches, or any number of foundations and charities.

That approach to board participation does not promote volunteerism at all. Instead of having the teen approach his directorial duties with “what can I and this organization do for the community?” he’s encouraged to be a selfish board member who sees his role as “what can this organization do for me and my friends?”

We need to change that way of thinking by changing New York’s laws. We need to allow minors to be a part of the boards of all non-profits in our borders. While we’re at it, we need to drop the age, too, from 16 to 14.

In my decades of volunteering for the Boy Scouts, I’ve encountered many young teens who are wise beyond their years and brighter and more caring than most adults I know. We as a society (and as adults who run non-profits) need to capitalize on that – a simple fix to state law could really change the business model of our institutions and promote a lifetime of service in an era when its’ truly needed.



From the 25 July 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Monday, July 18, 2016

Don’t allow moose hunting in the Adirondacks

The Adirondacks afford New York State residents – and tourists from all over the world for that matter – the chance to appreciate Mother Nature in a unique setting, a partnership between public and private interests that has allowed wilderness to exist rather than wane. People go there to get away from modernity and civilization and to experience the High Peaks, the pristine lakes, the old growth forests, and the choruses provided by loons.

Another thing that many hope to see, but few do, is the moose.

The largest member of the deer family (coming in at nearly 1,000 pounds in weight while standing nearly six feet tall) is perfectly suited for the wilds of the Adirondacks, which feature forested wetlands that the creatures prefer.

Despite those conditions, moose could not be considered even remotely common.

Having only arrived in the Empire State in the 1980s after having been killed off by overhunting in the 1860s, their population is estimated to be between 500 and 800 animals. That’s a pittance for a massive area of 6 million acres that is greater in size than the Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks combined.

Moose sightings are rare across the Park. Whenever they do occur the photos grace the pages of the local papers there. To understand just how driven visitors and locals alike are to see their first moose, consider the number of people who drive ten miles of slow-going, very bumpy dirt roads into the heart of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest to see the resident moose swimming in Helldiver Pond.

Even this writer has yet to see a moose in the Adirondacks. I’ve seen quite a few in Canada and consider myself a good outdoorsman, but I have yet to see one of them during one of my twice-a-year forays into the Adirondacks.

I just hope that my first time is not seeing one hanging, waiting to be butchered.

If some lawmakers had their way, moose hunting would be allowed in the Park.

A bill introduced by Senator Patrick Gallivan was passed by his house that would do just that. The Assembly’s sister bill, introduced by David DiPietro, is still in committee.

Interestingly, both of those lawmakers are from Erie County, almost as far away as you can get from the Adirondacks in this state – hundreds of miles from the moose and their habitat and the understanding of the moose’s role in our ecosystem.

It would be unconscionable if this were to be passed by both houses and one would hope that Governor Cuomo, an ardent supporter of the Forever Wild aspects of the Park, would veto the bills in an effort to protect the small – and very fragile -- population of moose. There aren’t a lot of the beasts in our borders and a population that small could be easily ravaged by diseases like brainworm or killed off by the growing number of black bears (which have a hunger for moose calves).

If you love nature, frequent the Adirondacks and hope to one day see a moose – something you will never forget -- write your assemblyperson and the Governor and let them know that this bill shouldn’t be passed in this session or in future sessions.

I’m a hunter. But, I’m first and foremost a conservationist, and I have a good understanding of when we should or shouldn’t harvest wildlife. We aren’t even close to hunting levels with moose. Let’s put the idea of a moose hunt to bed and revisit it in the future….like twenty years from now.


 From the 18 July 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers



Thursday, July 14, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The Onondaga Nature Trail – the hidden gem of the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge

The Iroquois Wildlife Refuge is not lacking in things to do for the nature lover, whether it’s observing migrating birds from the lookouts, paddling Oak Orchard Creek, or hiking on the Refuge’s trails.

When it comes to those hikes, Swallow Hollow – and its famous boardwalk -- is far and away the most popular trail, with the Kanyoo and Feeder trails coming in next due to their accessibility to Route 77.

The least popular trail of the trails is Onondaga. That is by no means a reflection of the quality of the experience to be had there. Instead, it comes down to the trail being off the beaten path, which makes it a real hidden gem.

Getting there

The Onondaga Trail is located on Sour Springs Road, which is parallel to and just to the east of Route 63. To get there, you have to take 63 to Roberts Road to Sour Springs, heading north on Sour Springs Road.

You cannot access the trailhead if you traveled south on Sour Springs after visiting the two popular overlooks at Ringneck Marsh because the Sour Springs bridge that crosses Oak Orchard Creek has been out for almost 20 years now.

Sour Springs is a stone and gravel road which is immaculately maintained. On my recent trip to the trail, the road was smooth with nary a pothole, so you don’t have to worry about harming your car.

The parking lot for the trail is located across the street from the lone – and apparently abandoned – house on Sour Springs Road, and right next to the sign telling motorists that the bridge is out 1,000 feet ahead.

The stone lot allows parking for approximately 12 cars. I have never seen more than 3 cars in the lot (my vehicle included). If there ever is overflow (which would occur on one of the Refuge’s guided hikes), you could certainly park roadside.

Hiking through the swamp

The trail is 1.2 miles one-way. It’s not a loop, so you will come to the end and turn around, hiking back from where you came.

The first quarter mile of the hike is quite interesting. You walk upon a gravel dike that cuts through the Onondaga Swamp, which is approximately 60 acres in size. It is not a marsh – which is typically water with cattails, reeds, and sedges. Instead, it is swamp – wood vegetation like maples occasionally pop up through the water which is dominated by small, brushy plants.

While this won’t afford you the chance to see vast areas of open water to watch flocks of geese and ducks like you would elsewhere on the refuge, it gives you the ability to see a wider variety of wildlife.

On a July hike, from that dike I observed and heard swamp sparrows and numerous species of warblers in the swamp.

It was the herpetological creatures, though, that really caught my attention and that of my four-year- old hiking buddy. We encountered green, leopard, pickerel and bull frogs in great numbers (in the early spring the swamp is a deafening cacophony of spring peepers).

We also observed at least two dozen painted turtles popping their heads out of the water. It was their cousin, the snapping turtle, that turned our heads. Along that dike we found nearly 20 snapper nests that recently saw their eggs hatch and their babies head off into the water. 20! If each underground nest had a good clutch of eggs (and this happens every year), just imagine how many snappers are in that swamp!

We also encountered two northern water snakes – one was well over two-feet long and exceptionally fat and it surprised us by disappearing into a small burrow in the ground. If you encounter one of these reptiles on the trail, don’t touch it – water snakes are mean and will bite (they are not poisonous).

Hiking through the woods

The longest portion of the hike takes you through lowland forests. It has a flat, wide trail with no incline which makes for a nice, family-friendly stroll in a quiet, secluded forest of great variety.

The first portion – nearest the swamp – is young-growth woods, with a few larger willows and yellow birches. As head further into the woods, the trees get older, larger and more diverse (maples become plentiful) and the soil gets richer, showing a wider variety of plant life.

The forest on the north side of that trail features many low pockets that would typically hold a little water well into summer, but in this drought they were bone dry. This did not force my hand to applying bug spray to my daughter as the mosquitos were a non-issue – but in any other year, they would be a problem, so be prepared! While mosquitos weren’t a problem, deer flies were and they are every summer, so be sure to wear a hat.

Bring a pair of binoculars with you, as the forest is chock-full of songbirds such as thrashers, veeries, wood thrushes, vireos, and warblers. On our hike last week we heard and saw nearly two dozen species of forest birds.

Also, be as quiet as possible, as you might encounter turkeys, foxes, and coyotes in this stretch. For years, I’ve thought that if you were going to see secretive bobcats and bears in the region, the Onondaga swamp and the adjoining forests would be the place to see them. You’re really off the beaten path here.

A nice little side trail

About half-way through the hike, you will encounter a sign that directs you to the Atotarho Trail to your right. Take that short little jaunt. It’s a loop of less than a quarter mile in length that will lead you back to the Onondaga trail.

I really like this section because there is a dramatic change in plant life. The soil is much richer and you will find a few unexpected hemlock trees and a plethora of wild flowers (especially in the spring). In that stretch I’ve found partridgeberries, trilliums, Canada mayflowers, mayapple, Solomon’s seal, and parnassus to name a few – it’s a bevy of flowers that prefer high-quality woodlands!

The Onondaga Trail is a wonderful place to visit, one made for all seasons. The spring and summer feature reptiles, amphibians, wildflowers, and songbirds in great numbers while the fall shows off many striking colors from the mixed hardwoods. And, as long as Sour Springs is accessible in the winter months, it’s a great place to snowshoe or do some cross country skiing.

It real is a gem – and an underutilized one at that. Chance are, when you visit you will have the forest all to yourself – and your animals friends.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 14 July 2016 All WNY News

Friday, July 8, 2016

Policemen are not our enemies

The attack on Dallas police officers shows that some degenerates think that it’s open season on law enforcement, making innocent officers – and their families – pay for the transgressions of a few dirty cops who did their misdeeds thousands of miles away.

In this era of 24/7 news and social media, you are guaranteed that copycat -- and even deadlier -- crimes will pop out throughout these United States; it always seems like depraved motivated souls like to take part in one-upsmanship or cement a sort of sick legacy based in notoriety.

It’s not a good time to be a police officer.

But, then again, has it ever been?

Policemen have been marked men, purposely or not, for the entire history of this nation, whether it was in the wild west of the 1800s or on the mean streets of America’s most violent cities, like today’s Chicago.

They fight for our security, lives, and property while theirs are in the crosshairs, every minute of every day of every year for their entire working careers. I often think that there’s no way that we can compensate them enough for such efforts and risks. But, most aren’t in it for the money. They are patrolling our streets and trying to make a difference for the reward of knowing that our kids can sleep safely at night or enjoy the freedom of play during the day.

Whenever law enforcement is in the news, I can’t help but reflect on my grandfather Ronnie Wrobel who was an officer in Niagara Falls. Even back when I was just a little kid, I knew the risks that came with the job and I often worried about whether he’d come back home at night. There were many times when his absence could have become a horrible reality, whether it was when he was thrown through a window or the time he talked a gunman out of a deadly situation, all the while having a shotgun pointed at him. There were even occasions that his personal property was harmed by those who wanted to “pay him back”.

Despite the dangers, he toughed-it out, working to retirement and making the cross county commute every day to support his wife and 5 children…all the while ensuring that other fathers could return home to their kids.

That’s what policemen do. That’s what heroes do.

The rosters of police departments across this country are filled with good, high quality men like my grandfather. We are blessed to have these departments led by the likes of honorable men like Middleport’s chief John Swick and Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour, who employ selfless souls like Deputy Joe Tortorella who was recently honored by Barack Obama for taking and returning fire to protect a school full of kids.

On the other hand, the violent officers who have given policing a black eye in recent years are a very small minority. They are few and far between, wretches who need to be eliminated from the ranks.

We as a nation are wrong to take on a mob mentality that places their guilt on the shoulders of the hundreds of thousands of innocent officers. Your “average” cop is a good cop, a clean cop – and anything but “average”: he or she lives to ensure that we do. That’s not a career…that’s a calling of the highest order.

So, stop the hate. It’s love that the police are giving us, and love that they deserve in return.

From the 11 July 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: WNY ponds are being set-up for significant summer fish kills

The winter of 2010-2011 was not a kind one for local landowners who have bass ponds on their property. Most ponds in Western New York froze over on Thanksgiving and didn’t thaw again until Easter. We weren’t blessed with the periodic thaws and rains that keep smaller local waters ice-free or a little open on occasion in the winter months.

That ice cap resulted in significant winterkill and many disappointed anglers that spring as carcasses of fish, large and small, washed up on the shores of those ponds. The ponds on our farm were especially hard hit – our walleye population was completely decimated and trophy-sized bass in excess of 5 pounds littered the shore.

The winter of 2014-2015 was colder and more brutal, but the ice-over wasn’t as sustained. Still, it led to some die-offs of larger bass in many local ponds.

Ice-out following both of those winters was really heartbreaking ... you do everything you can to manage a decent recreational fishery for your family and then Mother Nature has her own plans.

Those ponds faced with that adversity are recovering. But, it still takes a while to grow trophy bass in this area.

But, just as landowners thought they were getting closer to remaking their fisheries, this summer happened.

Due to the oppressive heat and that official drought conditions that have overtaken Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee Counties, the conditions are ripe for summer fish kills.

What is summer kill?

Fish, like all animals, need oxygen. The oxygen that they breathe in from the water comes from two sources: the oxygen that enters the water from the air and the byproduct of photosynthesis of algae and weeds growing in that body of water.

This year, we’ve been mostly rain-free, which in, turn, has limited outside oxygen from entering ponds, because they are not getting churned by the droplets. You need consistent and recurring rain to keep the oxygen flowing and mingling. When that doesn’t happen, such as during prolonged hot and dry spells like this, even small ponds can stratify and oxygen levels can vary through the depths.

A big storm won’t help the situation, either. It will make matters worse. Now, when it might rain, any downpour from a bad thunderstorm could immediately sully the waters by upsetting and displacing dissolved oxygen that is present in the water and pushing the low quality water into the areas that the fish are frequenting.

Then, in summers like this, full of sun and warmth, algae growth becomes prolific. Check out any local farm pond and you’ll see them absolutely covered with surface weeds. You would think this would help the fish by creating more oxygen. It does, to a point, but then things change when you get too much algae: those plants produce oxygen, but they also need it at night when there is no photosynthesis taking place -- in blooms like those we’ve been seeing, the algae can sap the oxygen from the water at night.

Summer kill is not pretty: The fish suffer and die a miserably slow death. Basically, they suffocate. Their carcasses will become buoyant and they will wash up on shore less than a week after their deaths. Their bodies will be white, maybe even fuzzy, which is a fungus created by their rotting. It’s disheartening for any angler or animal lover to see this.

How to prevent summer kill

It’s too late now to make a difference, but future summer kills can be prevented with small commercially-available windmills or one of those sprinkler fountains.

Good pond management can also cut down on summer kill rates by ensuring there is not too much plant life in your pond. To do that, you would have to use a weed rake in the summer and/or introduce grass carp to the pond; we haven’t found the latter to be very successful – we have nearly 10 grass carp over 10 pounds in weight in one of our ponds and it’s still choked.

But, remember this: you can’t remove all plant life, because you still need those oxygen producers to do their thing, especially in the winter.

What to expect this year

Don’t be shocked if the piscatorial body counts start mounting soon. Smaller, shallower ponds without deep holes and a high density of plants and bass and panfish will be especially hard-hit. It will affect countless ponds across the area, which are already being hard hit by incredibly-low water levels.

If you are a fisherman it will be yet another depressing event following those of recent winters.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 07 July 2016 All WNY News

Friday, July 1, 2016


"Give me liberty or give me death"

These glorious words, uttered in 1775 by Patrick Henry, are considered to be among the most powerful in our nation’s history, having incited many liberty-hungry colonials to join the Revolutionary War.

The deeper meaning of these words came to their ultimate fruition a year later when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Everything Henry and his compatriots wanted became a reality as the New World was able to sever its ties from the rule of England. Liberty was achieved.

Henry’s words and everything they begat resonate just as strongly now as they did back then, if not more so. The independence we achieved 240 years ago to this day has over time taken on a different and higher meaning. Not only did we gain an independence from England, but we also gained an independence from the shackles of oppressive rule right here in our homeland.

Many, like this columnist, rail against various forms of federal heavy-handedness, but true oppression has been a complete unknown to Americans since July 4, 1776, because the United States is unique in the fact that in its truest essence our government does not control us, we control it. Through what has been granted by a republic style of rule we are given the powers of voting and participative politics whereby we our voices can be heard through all levels of government. In our nation, every voice matters and is deserved of being heard.
This political independence has manifested itself in nearly limitless personal independence. The laws we have created and the rights we have codified have granted us the liberty to do virtually what we want, when we want, and where we want. We have the liberty to pursue our own economic endeavors. We have the liberty to speak our minds. We have the liberty to do with our lives what we so desire. Each and every one of us here in America ultimately controls our own destiny and we are held back only by our own personal limitations and wants. This amazing brand of liberty makes America a veritable Heaven on Earth.

It’s a great gift, this declaration of inalienable rights, because the citizens of most other nations are not so lucky. In their countries their destiny may be controlled by despots or rigid systems that stifle the power of the singular voice. These unfortunate souls end up being sheep, going through the motions and living under regimented rule where their roles in society are defined and their independence is stifled. They find their lives lacking in personal freedom. To them, liberty is something they’ve never tasted, something they desire, and something they may never achieve.

So, please reflect upon the wonders of our liberty as you go about enjoying today’s activities and celebrating the freedom we gained on this very day. Revel in what the United States of America represents. It is the most amazing nation in the world. Our citizenship in this great country rewards all of us with the treasures of personal independence.

This truly is the sweet land of liberty.

From the 04 July 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers 


Ginseng is one of the more common herbal supplements on the market. The global demand for the magical root (it can allegedly increase memory, concentration, immunity and libido while decreasing blood sugar) exceeds $2.2 billion annually.

That has caused some exploitation of wild populations of the plant, with the large American ginseng especially taking a beating. Only 19 states now allow its harvest and it is tightly controlled in most jurisdictions.

It can be found in the hills of Western New York’s southern tier, as can its cousin, the dwarf ginseng, which is the plant we’ll look at today.

The Chinese and South Koreans, who really drive the ginseng market, don’t have much need or want for dwarf ginseng. It produces a ball-like tuber, not a multi-rooted one that has the man-like shape that adds to the mythology – and value -- of ginsengs. Also, its medicinal powers are very limited as compared to those of the much larger American ginseng. Despite that, it’s still an incredibly uncommon plant – some folks still harvest it and pass it off as the more-preferred ginsengs and, even if they didn’t, it’s not a plant prone to large populations.

Dwarf ginseng can be found in the cool soils of forests in our hills and their valleys of Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties, especially those with brooks and springs running through them. They appear above ground in late-April and will linger into late June.

It’s a dainty wildflower. The plant will have 3 primary leaves with many having 2 smaller leaflets at the stem. These leaves are not very long, never exceeding 3 inches in length. Nor is the plant tall – a dwarf ginseng might reach a total height of 6 inches, counting the cluster of delicate white flowers that rise above the main plant. Those flowers will become small yellow berries and by the Fourth of July, you typically will find no more evidence of the ginseng above ground.

While Asian consumers might not be impressed by the dwarf ginseng, Native Americans were. They made tea from the leaves, which was used to treat indigestion, gout, hepatitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis. They chewed on the root to combat headaches, shortness of breath, and fainting.

The root was also a foodstuff for them. The plant is also known as “ground nut”, because the very small tuber (typically no bigger than a grape) has a rich, nutty flavor and could be eaten cold or cooked.

If you encounter one in the wild, let it be. Admire it. Don’t pick it or eat it. Denting the weakened population of this precious plant to taste one or get just a few bucks from its sale is not worth it. They are few and far between in the high country of Western New York and they must be preserved.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 30 June 2016 All WNY News