Monday, May 20, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The pileated woodpecker – the Paul Bunyan of the bird world


Everyone is familiar with the common backyard woodpeckers like the downy woodpecker and its near-twin, the hairy woodpecker. They have what could be called “typical” size for a woodpecker.

They are quite unlike their cousin, the pileated woodpecker. If the other woodpeckers are lumberjacks, then I guess pileateds are the Paul Bunyans of the woodpecker world — giants.

While a downy woodpecker might be six inches long, pileated woodpeckers are 18 inches long – the size of a crow – with a 30 inch wingspan!

Identifying pileateds

Pileated woodpeckers are unique and can’t be confused with any other local bird. They are black like a crow, with white stripes on their neck and face and a large red crest. When they fly, which is done slowly and deliberately, you will see white wing linings.

Their voice, like their body, is big. Their calls are kind of like that of the common flicker (the brown and yellow “ground dwelling” woodpecker you might see in your yard in the summer) but, louder…much louder. The kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk call will echo through the forest and sometimes you can hear them over a half-mile away. Their call is louder or travels better than turkey gobbles or hawk screams.

Another audible giveaway is their Bunyan-like hammering. When wailing away on a tree trunk, pileated woodpeckers are just as loud and paced as a person using an ax to fell a tree. It’s a deep, powerful blow, nothing like the rapid fire, high-pitched pecking you hear from red bellied woodpeckers in the spring when they mark their territories by pecking at hollow limbs.

Where to find them

Pileated woodpeckers need large, dying trees. As our forests age or, sadly, as they are overcome by sickness and invasive species (such as beech bark disease and emerald ash borers) they create perfect food sources for the woodpeckers. Look for them in larger, deeper forests, which there are plenty of Allegany County.

That’s not to say that they won’t frequent backyards on occasion. My lawn in Niagara County has a lot of very large trees and is right next to dairy farm and a county road. Despite that hustle and bustle, and the closest woodlot being a half mile across a hay field, I see pileated woodpeckers in my yard a few times a year. If they know there’s lots of food, they’ll be there.

But, if you hope to see one, the bigger the woods the better. Remember, everything about pileateds is big.

What do pileateds eat? 

Pileated woodpeckers don’t eat wood – they eat what eats wood. They love ants and beetle larvae and will hammer away at an infected tree for hours and days on end, chipping away the bark and trunk to get at the insects.

You can’t miss their handiwork. They will carve a channel into a trunk that might be three to five feet in length, up to six inches wide and just as deep. Below these rectangular carvings you will see large chips at the base of the tree, some larger than a man’s hand.

Some of these holes are so Buyan-esque that the trees will actually fall over.

You are familiar with pileated woodpeckers…sort of 

You’ve seen the pileated woodpecker, but probably never knew it.

The bird is forever immortalized in pop culture. It served as the inspiration for none other than the most famous woodpecker of all – Woody Woodpecker.

The dark body with white markings. The large red crest. The loud maniacal laugh-like call. The size. A unique character, inspired by a unique bird.

But, if you hope to see a real life Woody, know that pileateds aren’t as gregarious as their cartoon interpretations.

They are very shy and wary.

So, when out in the woods, be stealthy. Bring binoculars and a telescopic lens for you camera because you won’t get close.

Hopefully you someday get a chance to see one of these giant lumberjacks. You won’t forget the first time that you do.

From the 17 May 2024 Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Fireflies without the fire

If when you were a kid – or the parent of a kid – you caught a firefly, you are familiar with how they look up close when not glowing.

So, it may come as a surprise — even a frustration as you pine for that remarkable sight of summer nights — in April and May when you see fireflies crawling about during the day but don’t see any glowing at night.

The lack of that nighttime glow amid the presence of countless fireflies is the outcome of specific species’ life cycle and characteristics. The beetles you’re seeing now are known as winter fireflies. They are called that because they overwinter as adults — and very well at that, surviving some intense cold snaps — and they can be seen moving around during warmer days of winter (temps in the forties-plus). They become really active in April when they start searching for mates.

The baby fireflies, which are crawling larvae, hatch in June and are what we know and see as “glowworms”. Typically during the last two weeks of August and right through September, you might catch their very faint glow on the ground if you are walking around your lawn or a forest at night. That faint glow is nowhere near as intense as their flying, glowing cousins, but, the bioluminescence is a sight to see nonetheless….there’s some amazing, even a little disconcerting, about glowing ground. Once these insects go from the pupal stage to adulthood they will glow one last time, just for a few hours, then they are done shining for good.  

Winter fireflies are long-lived. They will be larvae for as long as 16 months and adults for up to 2 years! They survive our sometimes frigid winter months by congregating in the furrows of tree bark, under loose bark, or in the cracks and crevices of your home’s siding. They can sometimes be a pest when they frequent taps in sugar maple trees to feast on the sap – they often end up in the buckets which is why to some they are known as “bucket beetles”.

These fireflies aren’t glowing now, but be sure to pay attention to their little babies at the end of summer. They are abundant here in Allegany County and some areas of WNY certainly can’t claim the same.  

As the song goes: Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer. Light the path below, above, and lead us on to love!

From the 09 May 2024 Wellsville Sun

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The year of the red admiral

If you’ve been outside in recent weeks you’ve no doubt encountered red admiral butterflies.

In a normal year, I might see a dozen of these beautiful insects from mid-April through May.

This year hasn’t been normal.

I’ve seen dozens of them so far, and the calendar just turned to May. I might be grossly underestimating if I say that I’ve seen 120 of them this year. On one hike the week before last, I saw twenty of them. Just yesterday, along a different trail, I saw two dozen. They’re everywhere – in woods, hedgerows, fields, and backyards.

I’m not alone in experiencing this. Many of my Facebook friends have shared observations and photos of early sightings and plentiful ones. Quite a few are saying they’ve noticed them for the first time in their lives.

Why is this happening? How did 2024 become “the year of the red admiral”?

One reason is the mildness of the past winter locally.

According to the National Weather Service, the Buffalo area’s meteorological winter saw an average temperature of 34.5, which made it the second warmest on record in Buffalo, just behind 1931-1932’s 34.6. Looking at the NWS’s Top Ten list, this past December was the second warmest all-time (39.4 degrees) and February was the warmest (34.8).

That played well to the survivability of red admirals. Some adults of this species attempt to sleepily survive our winters by hiding out under bark, in garages, and other places out of the elements. But, it’s not as easy for butterflies and months to do that than if they were pupae, snug in their silk or leaf cocoons. Only a few species are built to overwinter as adults in our northern climate (the mourning cloak butterfly being a prime example). Almost all adult red admirals die in our cold winters. An occasional one will live to see spring; you’ll see them flying around in early April. This year, many more made it out of winter alive.

Still, that accounts for only a very, very small portion of the numerous red admirals we’ve seen.

So, where have the others come from?

They migrated here.

Monarch butterflies and their migration get so much press that most people think they’re the only butterfly species that migrates and that’s what separates them from the rest and makes them so captivating.

Red admirals can hang with them as master migrators of the butterfly world.

Early every fall, in anticipation of our colder weather, the butterflies fly south, taking several generations of caterpillars, pupae, and adults to get to their wintering grounds in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Central America. Then, across multiple generations, they make their return trip to our neck of the woods in the spring. The northward movement of the red admiral population will cover 2,000 miles.

So, it’s these migrants that are most of the butterflies you’re seeing.

But, why so many this year?

Again, it’s because of the mild winter. We weren’t alone in enjoying that balmy stretch, with most of the eastern US spared any winter weather of note. Every so often, a deep freeze makes its way south – think of the Texas Deep Freeze of 2021 or recurring news stories about orange crops being threatened by frost or southern commuters unable to navigate an inch of snow. When that happens, Jack Frost’s southern vacation kills off many of the adult red admirals there. This past winter they were spared that and it’s not like the south took a beating in the winter of 2022-2023, either. That gave the red admirals two really good years to recuperate.

Adding to that is a recurring cycle of boom and bust for red admiral populations. Every ten years or so their population explodes — for reasons entomologists haven’t yet figured out. It just so happened that the most recent cycle coincided with a very warm winter (and a tame one before it), magnifying the cyclical population boom by a magnitude.

Enjoy the butterfly invasion. It’s truly a sight to behold. You never know when we’ll see the likes of it again.    

From the 01 May 2024 Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Trilliums are under attack in WNY

For generations of rural Western New Yorkers the white trillium was one of the most recognizable wildflowers of the spring woods. The brilliant plants would stand a foot tall and boast three magnificent bridal-white petals atop three large leaves (hence “tri”-llium). It was commonly found throughout forests and woodlots with rich soils.

I write in past tense because those days are long gone.

Younger WNYers – like Millennials – rarely have the chance to see them in any quantity now and there’s a very good chance that the next generation will never get a chance to experience this wonderful plant.

That’s because trilliums are under attack.

And, in this case, it’s not by man.

Nature is killing off the trillium at unprecedented rates.

When I was a youngster traipsing through our Niagara County woods in the 1980s, the trilliums were incredibly abundant and put on quite a show. Every spring during my childhood and early teen years, like clockwork, the forest floor in one area would be blanketed by nearly an acre of the showy flower.

Fast forward to 2023 and you would never know that happened. Now, that section is devoid of trilliums and they are a very uncommon find in the rest of the woods. Where once stood hundreds now stands the periodic lone sentinel.

It’s not coincidental that the whitetail deer population has exploded in that neck of the woods. Going back that same time, 35, 40 years ago, I remember deer being an uncommon sight on the farm. Now, there are so many that you don’t even look twice when they appear out of the brush. It’s not uncommon to see multiple herds of 20 to 40 deer here in the winter months.

Although plentiful farm crops are available seasonally, the deer have to eat for the other seven months out of the year. So, they take to the forests and overgraze the understory, eating every plant in sight. They find the trilliums to be especially attractive as compared to other plants, because the leaves and flowers are equally tender and nutritious.

When they dine on trilliums they kill them. Many plants can survive browsing, coming to bloom the next year thanks to healthy bulbs. The trillium, though, has a weaker, shallower-running rootstalk, which needs the leaves to make as much energy as possible and bring life. If those leaves can’t take advantage of their short window of existence (3 weeks of photosynthesis), the plant dies. And, by eating the succulent flowers, the deer takes away the trillium’s ability to reproduce.

The deer kill trilliums at an amazing pace. A 1998 study that was printed in a 2001 edition of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society found that deer ate 26 percent of the trilliums in a measured lot. Imagine such destruction continuing on an annual basis!

This overbrowsing has wiped vast out stands of trilliums, just like ours at home, all across the northeast. Here in Allegany County, deer have decreased the trillium numbers at a pace similar to that in Niagara County. Now, stands of them, such as those seen roadside along Route 19 near Belmont (where the car traffic probably keeps deer browsing to a minimum) catch the eyes of us older folk, taking us back in time to an era that once was. 

They aren’t the only flower under attack, either.

A major fear of we amateur naturalists and the professionals (the likes of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) is that deer are forever altering the forests, killing not only trilliums, but countless other wildflowers. It is believed that ginseng (another plant beloved by deer) will become extinct in the northeast by time this century closes, solely because of deer and not by ginseng profiteers. The late Gerry Rising – who was a nature columnist with the Buffalo News – thought, as I do, that deer have harmed orchid populations in Allegany County at a scale worse than the deforestation of the 1800s.

The DEC has obsessed a great deal about overgrazing by whitetail deer and officials within the organization believe that were deer to be fully removed from WNY forests most woodlands wouldn’t be able to return to their natural pre-deer- boom state, even after 20 years of regrowth. Many of our wildflowers are never coming back.

So, appreciate trilliums while you can. One day, and maybe soon, you will see the last one that you ever will.

The DEC currently lists the white trillium as “exploitably vulnerable”, meaning it is attractive enough to be picked or transplanted and people will do that and kill it. I’ll bet, though, that within the next 10 to 15 years, the plant’s status will be downgraded to “threatened”, maybe even “endangered”.

It’s that dicey of a situation we are dealing with. We have a deer problem. And, it’s a big one.

From the 24 April 2024 Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Protecting the Black Creek watershed

It was a savvy and accurate PR move when, in 2020, Allegany County adopted the moniker “Western NY Wilds” for branding purposes. It perfectly speaks to the essence of what keeps people here and brings tourists in.

With it, though, comes some responsibility.

How do we not lose our identity?

But more so, how do we keep the Western NY Wilds wild?

That’s where the Western New York Land Conservancy comes in.   

The Land Conservancy ( is a regional non-profit land trust that permanently protects more than 7,500 acres of private land with significant conservation value in Western New York. It has hopes of adding more acreage and has Allegany County in its sights, specifically to protect the Black Creek watershed and keep it wild.

The importance of the Black Creek watershed

Black Creek has its headwaters in Keeney Swamp, a 3,100-acre chunk of state land that’s so special it’s the only place in Allegany County – and one of only a handful of locations in all of Western New York — where balsam fir occurs naturally. That pristine water flows out of the swamp and across multiple tracts of private land, ultimately reaching Angelica Creek, which then feeds the Genesee River.

Black Creek is home to trout (stocked and wild), other species of fish like darters, a plethora of salamanders, and birds like waterthrushes…all of which could be harmed if water quality tanked.

This watershed is being targeted not only to afford protection to the Genesee River and its natural inhabitants, but also to the people within the Black Creek watershed that rely on its water — Black Creek, Angelica Creek, and their various feeders, springs, and wells supply drinking water to the village of Angelica and numerous other homes in the area.

Sales vs. easements

To ensure the utmost water quality for the consumer of that water — plant, animal, and Man alike – the Land Conservancy wants to enter into protective agreements with landowners within the watershed, specifically those whose land borders the creeks or whose land has smaller tributaries and other runoffs (such as intermittent streams) that fill Black Creek year-round or seasonally. They are especially interested in larger parcels (50 acres or more) in the towns of Allen, Angelica, Birdsall, Grove, and West Almond.

This can be achieved one of two ways: Transfer of property or a conservation easement.

In the first case, the property owner would sell or donate land to the Conservancy (as a non-profit, the Land Conservancy can buy the land only at market value). They would then permanently protect the land as a nature preserve.

Perhaps the preferred means for all parties is to protect the wilds with an easement. Through a donation or sale of the easement the current landowner retains ownership of the land but forgoes development rights of that parcel (as does the next owner). That land, in perpetuity, is intended to stay as is, or close to it.

There is some flexibility afforded in easements for working forests (as long as they are sustainably logged, provide riparian protection, and have a plan developed by a certified forester). But, changing the landscape for things like housing developments, fossil fuel extraction, commercial enterprises, and industrial-scale solar energy are all frowned upon.

It should be noted that with the Black Creek project the Land Conservancy sees farmland as being equally attractive to forests when it comes to easements because it serves the ultimate goal of maintaining or improving the quality of the water. Farmers can still farm. They’ll just have to comply with some minor protections such as riparian buffers for 300 feet around the creek.

If selling development rights, they are generally purchased by the Land Conservancy for the difference in market value of the land with development rights and without.  

Engaging the Conservancy

If your property fits the bill for the Black Creek project, make it a point to reach out the Western New York Land Conservancy very soon. You want your foot in the door before the funds are used up.

The Land Conservancy has $2,000,000 set aside for this specific endeavor in hopes of covering as much land as possible. These funds came to be from a Watershed Quality Improvement Program grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation whose focus in on sourced water — the Black Creek watershed is just that for Angelica.

Your contact at the Land Conservancy is Marcus Rosten at 716.687.1225 ext. 118. His email address is

If you enter into deeper conversations with the Land Conservancy, be sure to consult with your tax planner or lawyer, something Marcus will also encourage you to do. 

This is just the beginning for the Land Conservancy

The Western New York Land Conservancy has been doing their thing throughout WNY for years, but this is their most high-profile endeavor to date in Allegany County.

It won’t be their last.

I recently had a long chat at the coffee shop with Marcus whom you might recognize for his infectious joy for nature when he appeared on Nature when the primetime PBS mainstay shined the spotlight on Niagara Falls last year.

We spoke at length about the Western New York Wildway, an ambitious and vital vision the Land Conservancy has. It’s a landscape-scale conservation initiative to protect and connect the largest tracts of wildlife habitat in the 8 counties of Western New York, many acres of the prime forestland can be found in Allegany County. The WNY Wildway will allow plants and animals to roam across the land as they once did, expand their ranges, and ensure their survival.     

The WNY Wildway will protect the Western NY Wilds forever

I will note that the Western New York Wildway and the Western NY Wilds, though sounding similar, are two entirely different, yet complimentary things. The WNY Wildway is the Land Conservancy’s plan which will protect many areas in the region…among them the Western NY Wilds which is what Allegany County’s tourism office brands as the county and everything within it. They are unrelated entities, unrelated ideas, but one does protect the other.

I’m excited about what the future holds for the Western NY Wilds as the Land Conservancy gets more involved with the various nuances of nature in this county. It’s Black Creek today. It could be our “high peaks” region tomorrow.

For landowners who, like me, see themselves as stewards of the natural world, this may be the thing we’ve been waiting for.

I’ve often pondered the future of my forestland in Alma.

When I pass, will my kids see their role in preserving the forest in the same way that my father and I are? I would hope so, but you never know. By signing an easement, I’d be able to define land usage from the grave. 

Or, what if property taxes become so exorbitant that I one day have to sell? A buyer might talk a good game, but how would I know they wouldn’t clear cut the forest or sell it off as numerous camps? That wouldn’t happen with a conservation easement in place.

Luckily, the Western New York Land Conservancy has various ways – that will outlive all of us — to ensure the sanctity of forests, farms, and other greenspaces, keeping the Western NY Wilds wild for future generations and for the living things we share this world with.

From the 05 April 2024 Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Tundra swans – the ultimate sign of spring

Keep your eyes to the skies. Recently, one of my favorite signs of spring – and certainly one of the most beautiful – have been migrating through the region. Tundra swans are making their journey to the far north and are gracing us with their angelic appearance and interesting calls.

For the most part, tundra swans spend their winters along the mid-Atlantic and mid-Pacific coasts of the United States. During tame el Nino winters, like the one we had, quite a few stragglers will spend the cold months WNY — especially at the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge — where they take advantage of the open waters.

These swans are leaving their wintering grounds and just now beginning their northward treks. I’ve always found that their migration through Western New York hits its peak between March 12th and March 15th of every year, while smaller flocks can be seen as late as the first week of April.

Their numbers are nothing like those of the Canada geese or various ducks that pass through the area. Overall, their northern breeding populations is estimated at 280,000 birds. I would consider tundra swans to be uncommon migrants around here – I might be lucky to see maybe a half dozen each pass overhead every March. That’s what makes seeing them so special.

You can’t mistake them when you see them. They have large white bodies and very long necks (which allows you to tell them apart from snow geese, which are also white). They have a mammoth wingspan of 5 to 7 feet and they’re big…a healthy adult bird can weigh more than 20 pounds.

You can also tell them apart from other migrating waterfowl by their high flight. You will notice they fly much higher than Canada geese. Migrating geese fly at altitudes of 2,000 to 9,000 feet. Swans fly at heights of 9,000 to 26,000 feet!

They have an interesting call that travels a very long distance – and which will alert you to an incoming flock. It’s best compared to a clarinet-like hoot or maybe even a dog bark. I absolutely love their sound as it means spring is here. Whenever I hear them, I stop what I’m doing and soak it all in.

Tundra swans were once commonly known as whistling swans because of the whistling sound created by their wings in flight, a sound so pronounced you can hear it even if they are 100 feet above your head.

Swans will stop to feed in open fields while here and they spend their evenings and nights sleeping on ponds and lakes.

Tundra swans are with us for only a few weeks. Savor their brief visits and their stark beauty – they’re telling us spring is here.

From the 05 March 2024 Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: The case of the skull-eating squirrels

In what might appear to be an homage to settlements of the Old West, about 10 years ago I began the habit of putting cow skulls or deer skulls near my back porch, the main entrance to my home. That has no doubt caught the attention of visitors, especially those who don’t know me well.

But, there is a method to my madness.

Regular visitors will notice that every one of those skulls has “shrunk” down to nothing.

They weren’t destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. They weren’t eaten by carrion beetles. Nor were they worn away by sidewalk salt.

Instead, each of those skulls was consumed by grey squirrels.

Most people think of squirrels as cute, docile little animals that eat nothing but seeds and nuts. That stereotype can quickly change when they see the bug-eyed creatures gnawing away on bone. There’s something strange about it.

Adding to that sight is the unforgettable sound. I’m sure you’ve heard squirrels chewing on walnut shells in the fall. That sound, loud in itself, is nothing like tooth on bone, especially on a hollow, resonant skull. That fingernails-on-chalkboard sound can be heard from almost one hundred feet away.

They aren’t doing it for kicks. They are doing it for survival, which is why I keep skulls laying around.

There is twofold benefit for squirrels consuming skulls.

First off, they must do this to stave off metabolic bone disease. MBD is a common ailment for squirrels in captivity and squirrels that live in yards away from forests (such as those in a village or in farm country, where I live). What happens is they consume birdseed, walnuts, butternuts, hickory, and even corn from adjacent farm fields – foods high in phosphorous and low in calcium. That creates a chemical imbalance whereby the squirrel is overcome with lethargy and develops fractured bones.

Prior to putting skulls out, I would occasionally see squirrels suffering from strange seizures or losing use of their back legs. Those are both telltale signs of deep MBD. I haven’t seen one sickly squirrels since the skulls were made available for them. They get the calcium they need from eating the skull, so the sickness that previously affected squirrels in my yard is a thing of the past.

Bone disease doesn’t normally happen to forest-dwelling squirrels as they get calcium from carcasses, bones, and shed deer antlers found throughout the forest (things you normally don’t have laying on your lawn). It happens a lot to pet squirrels, which is why experienced squirrel owners feed their pets calcium powder or bones that would normally be given to dogs.

Another reason that squirrels chew on bone is to keep their teeth in check. I’m sure you’ve heard that if beavers don’t keep gnawing wood, their teeth will grow too long, piercing their lower lips or extending beyond their lower jaw, making it impossible to eat, thus starving from their lack of good dental care.

The same holds true for squirrels. This is called malocclusion and, as with the beaver, it could cause the slow death of a squirrel. By gnawing on bone material, they can keep their teeth short and useful. This is why you might also see them chewing on the stone foundation of your home.

Having access to bones is crucial for the health, even life, of squirrels. So, if you have a family of them in your yard and you appreciate their cuteness, companionship, and silly antics, do them a big favor and put some bones out for them. You don’t have to go overboard in a frightening manner like I do with animal skulls, but if you can get access to some leg bones or soup bones it would go a long ways in ensuring their well-being.  

From the 14 February 2024 Wellsville Sun

Monday, February 5, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Defaulting to climate change – science’s cardinal sin


As you would imagine, not only do I spend a lot of time in nature, I spend a lot of time reading about it, too.


I have a decent-sized library that I’ve accumulated over a whole lifetime of studying the outdoors, I subscribe to a few birding journals, and I make sure to read every article in the newspaper that discusses nature and the environment.


Over the past decade or so I’ve developed something of a pet peeve when reading some of the articles in those periodicals and papers. I cringe every time studies or opinions associated with them cite climate change as the sole reason for any change in the behaviors, ranges, or populations of wildlife. Many times, I will even stop reading such an article just out of frustration over its single-mindedness.


I love science, but not sloppy science.


It has gotten to the point that many scientists default to climate change as all their theories endgames. It’s especially pronounced in younger biologists (by young, I mean in their 20s and 30s) because global warming has been the rallying cry for all the world’s change at every level of their education, from elementary school through their masters or doctoral studies. It’s inescapable from both their studies and society -- it’s in the news, it’s in the marketing, it’s in the messaging. I also can’t help but think there’s some sort of peer pressure involved, too – if they don’t go all in with this it, do they feel they’ll be deemed a heretic or not receive the support, resources, or funding they need?


It’s frustrating to me because while weaker winters may be one part of the reason for changes in how species act, it may not be a reason at all or it could be a piece of a more elaborate puzzle that gives short shrift to other things we should be more cognizant of from invasive species forever transforming habitats, to man’s continued alteration of the landscape, to the chemicals disrupting poisoning the water, to the insecticides totally disrupting certain regional -- if not global -- food chains.     


To me, one of the bellwethers of this over-focus on the weather is the northern cardinal.


Northern cardinals weren’t always northern in their presence. They were once considered a bird of the south.


Ornithologists of the 1800s and early 1900s like James DeKay and Elon Howard Eaton noted only a few cardinals in their studies of the birds of New York, with some in the state’s coastal lowlands and the Hudson Valley.


Over the course of the 1900s, the fortunes changed for cardinals and they spread across the state like a sort of wildfire that matches their brilliant hue. They are now common throughout New York, except for the higher elevations of the Adirondacks and Catskills. They’ve even moved into southern Ontario in good numbers.  


If you give the subject of this bird’s northward movements a cursory Google search you’ll see many recent articles attributing this to climate change. Mind you, this is only a new belief with cardinals, a thought that’s been kind of mainstreamed over the past 10 years.


Prior to that, ornithologists, birders, and amateur naturalists like myself had a bevy of reasons that, together, are far more reasonable assertions for the expansion of the bird’s range over the 20th century. Those reasons are:


·         The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 allowed cardinals to flourish after being on the brink. Prior to that important law, many hundreds of thousands of these birds were killed by hunters every year so their brilliant red feathers could adorn women’s hats 

·         Over the course of that century, countless family farms disappeared. That former open space has been replaced with woodlands. Especially in the lower elevations of New York, many of these burgeoning woodlots spend decades as brush, chock full of undergrowth of small trees, shrubs, and grasses, all grown tightly together. That’s prime cardinal habitat

·         The beautification and manicuring of backyards in suburban and rural locations alike -- with their hedges, bushes, and vines – has created millions of small pockets of cardinal habitat where, being in the presence of people, it has led to fewer encounters with predators

·         Cardinals are beloved by all who see them, and the male’s brilliant red color lends so much to the sometime dreary landscapes of our winter. It’s no wonder that the bird feeding industry markets itself around these beautiful birds, with an emphasis on feeders and feeds perfect for the seed-cracking cardinals. 50 million Americans now feed birds. Quite literally, the explosive growth in the popularity of birdfeeding was custom made for cardinals and the presence of endless supplies of food sustains them through the winter months


As you can see, all of those are far more significant and likely than “it got warmer”.


I’ll admit there are some cases where that actually seems to be the only answer possible. For example, I can’t explain the northern progression of Carolina wrens that now stay all year long, in good numbers, other than the fact that winters aren’t so deeply cold, long, and buried under snow as they once were.


But, that’s not the norm. Most species have a litany of reasons for what they do and why they do it.


Consider this a call to nature hobbyists, newspaper reporters, science teachers, and scientists: Defaulting to climate change is one of the cardinal sins of modern biology. The natural world is impacted by so many more things than it. Be careful how you perceive the “why” and “how” behind nature and reason about its nuances. Think beyond one causal event, ponder the possibilities, and look past what’s popular. Science was never meant to be easy. 


From the 05 February 2024 Wellsville Sun

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Vandermark State Forest, an inspiration for this columnist


One might say Allegany County has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to public outdoor spaces.  We have miles of rail trails, public fishing rights along the Genesee River and numerous streams, lakes like Rushford Lake and Alma Pond, and, the icing on the cake – more than 55,000 acres of public land in the form of wildlife management areas and state forests.

In the coming months and years of this column I will provide you the lowdown on each of those state forests, from Allen Lake to Turnpike.

The first of these explorations will discuss the one that holds a very dear place in my heart – Vandermark State Forest.

My origin story


Everyone has an origin story.

In the comics, Superman came to be after an infant was rocketed to Earth from a dying planet and the Hulk came from a scientist being hit with a mighty dose of gamma radiation.

When it comes to this columnist, many readers might wonder why a guy from Niagara County loves Allegany County so much.

It all started at Vandermark State Forest.

When I was growing up, the family farm and the factory that my dad and grandfather started a year before my birth both needed attention and time, so we didn’t go away on big trips. Our vacations were weekends in the state lands near Alfred.


We ended up there because my dad is an alumnus of Alfred University. He loved the territory near the campus for what it offered with turkey hunting, trout fishing, and camping. Vandermark, with its rustic campsites, became our home away from home most often. With a truck camper or tents, this is where we spent those mini-vacations.


As I look back at my childhood and teen years, those weekends at Vandermark were far more valuable and memorable to me than any getaway to a destination like an ocean beach or Disney could have been. I enjoyed the trips to Allegany County immensely -- the time spent with family which became tradition, and the ability to explore seemingly endless tracts of forest and streams. I grew up on farmland -- open space and small woodlots – that created my love for nature. The massive forests of Allegany County exposed me to a whole new world of plants and animals that I didn’t have back home, magnifying my hunger to understand and connect to the natural world around us. I am who I am, I see the natural world the way I do, because of Vandermark, because of Allegany County.

But, enough of this reflection, let’s get to what you’re actually reading this column for!

Where Vandermark is located


Vandermark State Forest is located in the town of Ward, just minutes from the village of Alfred. To get there from Alfred, take State Road 244 west out of the village, then turn left at the blinking light at 244’s intersection with County Route10 (Vandermark Road)/McHenry Valley Road. Not far from that turn you will encounter DEC signage mentioning the forest.

Allegany County Route 10 passes through the forest and the roads that cut through it are Duke, Brody Slide, and Baker. There are 2 other roads in the woodlands that are designated as forest roads – the DEC will close the access gates to vehicular traffic in inclement weather and bad road conditions. Those roads, which you will see on the map, are Allen and Bird. There is another forest road, Gas Well, that is totally closed to car and truck traffic but is open in winter as part of Allegany County’s vast snowmobile trail system.  


You can park roadside at almost any location in the state forest. There is a small gravel parking lot (without signage) roadside on Route 10 and you can also park at any of the designated campsites shown on the map.    


The history of the forest


Vandermark State Forest comprises 2,384 and is one of the best local examples of the impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps.


FDR’s program to employ young men and change the environment found a perfect worksite here. Heading into the Great Depression, the Vandermark forest did not exist -- it was vast open space, made so by forestry and/or farming. Dozens of young men toiled on this land, putting in the roads and planting many acres of pines and spruces to complement the deciduous trees that would come naturally.


Those vast coniferous stands planted by the CCC are nearly gone as we come up on 90 years since their planting. As part of the state’s forestry management strategies, the DEC has had many of those trees removed, both for revenue and to restore the forest to a more natural state since those pines and spruces weren’t native to the area. Over the past decade, a prime stand along Route 10 was removed, as was one on Baker Road very near Route 10. The latter’s aftermath can be seen in this picture with my wife – it looks like a logging photo you’d expect to see from the 1800s.


While I fully understand the DEC’s reasoning behind the removal of the conifers, it doesn’t make it easier on my heart or the wildlife. It’s the forest I grew up with and now it looks so different. And, as a young birder, I accumulated so many warblers and other birds on my life list that nested here and didn’t elsewhere in WNY where pines and spruces are fewer.


Many of the CCC trees remain standing on Duke Road, which as you will see in the accompanying photo make that road such an attractive gateway to Vandermark. It’s a stunning sight. If any DEC forestry people are reading this column I hope you will leave these trees standing. They are a connection to American history that carries aesthetic and natural value to this day.


Hiking and wildlife watching


Despite all the acreage, there are limited hiking trails in Vandermark. If you plan to go into the woods, you will have to navigate them bushwhacking style – just memory, a compass, or a good sense of direction. That is a great way to experience the natural world, because you see it at its rawest and by traveling places that humans rarely tread you’ll see more wildflowers, birds, and other creatures.

If you need trails, hike the roads (just not Route 10, which is a busy road…at least by country standards). Duke Road and any of the true forest roads are absolutely awesome hiking trails. You can rack up the miles and see all sorts of wildlife. Vehicles are rare sights on those roads, so you need not worry about any motorists disturbing the tranquility.


Even with the loss of the pines and spruces, the birdwatching at Vandermark is top-notch. It may be one of the best woods in Allegany County for watching migrating and nesting warblers in the spring. The woods are alive with these butterflies of the bird world. Also, wood thrushes can be heard in good numbers throughout. This sound is vanishing across the state, across the country, which many blame on the loss on wintering grounds in Central and South America, but Vandermark remains a stronghold for them in the spring and summer.

Exploring the streams


Vandermark Creek is the major waterway in the forest. Besides it, various small feeder streams, some permanent, some intermittent, flow through Vandermark State Forest. One of those can be found next to the campsites on Duke Road and another is located right behind the campsite at the start of the Allen Forest Road. 


I mention this because they are great places to take kids. Think back to your youth – your parents could place you next to a stream and you could spend hours searching for fossils, salamanders, fish, and insects. The same can happen with your kids and grandkids in the rocky streams of Vandermark. Never overlook the simple things in life. It’s relaxing for kids and adults alike.


A word of advice – never take a salamander home with you. One of the streams here is home to the red salamander, an incredibly rare amphibian in WNY. When I helped the state with the NY Herp Atlas Project in the 1990s I found some here, as I did in the 1980s. Only one other location in all of WNY shows in that atlas! Don’t harm that fragile population. 

Fishing Vandermark Creek


You might see anglers fishing Vandermark Creek, albeit rarely, as it passes through the forest. This is miles away from where brown trout have been stocked in this creek. This stretch is devoid of them but the cold, clear water here is home to native brook trout. If you fish for them here, put everyone back. This population is sustained by breeding, not by stocking, and over the 2000s the numbers have declined dramatically because beavers have altered the fishes’ movements to breeding sites while warming the waters to uncomfortable levels when ponds are made. I would consider this specific population of brook trout as being in trouble.  


Camping at Vandermark


Looking at the map, various campsites can be found throughout the state forest. All of them can be considered rustic – really basic with just a campfire ring. Everything you bring in you should bring out. All of the sites can accept a car, truck camper, tent or small pop-up trailer. Don’t plan on taking an RV or camper trailer to any of them except the parking spot alongside Route 10.


I wouldn’t consider the water potable in any of the streams due to the presence of beavers and nearby farmland, so bring your own.


There are two camping sites on Duke Road, right across from each other. These are where we camped when I was young. It’s a very quiet location where you can be serenaded by barred owls and screech owls, and the 3 acres of open space next to them afford great strargazing at night.


If you are coming from out of the county for a weekend and want access to retail and a place to grab a meal, Alfred, just minutes away, has a Dollar General, hardware store, and a few eateries like the Collegiate Restaurant and the Terra Cotta Coffee House.


Make your own memories at Vandermark

During my freshman year of college, my parents bought our forest in Alma, permanently attaching us to the County. So, I haven’t camped at Vandermark in 31 years.


But, that doesn’t mean it has stopped me from being there. Quite often we drive our kids out there to play in the streams and hike the trails. When there, I see my young self in my children, I see my parents in my current self. I am forever thankful for my parents taking me there. I hope adventures in Vandermark are having the same impact on my kids that it had on me.

I encourage you to do the same. Get away from the computer screens. Get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Spend some time exploring Vandermark State Forest. It’s good for the soul. I was and is for mine.  



From the 23 January 2024 Wellsville Sun