Friday, February 27, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Robins are NOT a sign of spring

A few Saturdays back I returned home following another one of those miserable, sloppy and incredibly slow commutes that have become the norm this winter. As I got out of the truck I was immediately greeted by the calls of robins. Not one. Not two. But two dozen!

Yes, two dozen of these so-called “signs of spring” were looking down upon me and no doubt laughing.

Robins are around in the winter, despite what people may believe. (PHOTO
Touche, Mother Nature.

I could only let out a “darn you” or something along those lines under my breath. The weather really wasn’t conducive to spring — and everyone from this neck of the woods knows we haven’t seen hide or hair of spring since that sighting.

But, I knew better. Despite the widely-held belief that these birds are the harbingers of all things vernal, they really aren’t.

Robins, which are abundant around the Niagara Frontier in the spring, summer, and fall, can still be found here in the winter months. We’re just at the northern edge of the year-round range. From December through February they aren’t around in any measurable number and in some winters they are downright rare, but, they’re here ... if you know where to look.

While you might find a robin in your yard in the warmer months, you aren’t likely to do so in the winter.

You’ll have to venture out into the woods. Don’t go into the deep, larger forests, though. Stick to younger, brushier forest edges and small woodlots. That’s because the redbreasts are after the bounty of berries that hang on smaller trees and shrubs well into the colder months – mountain ashes, currants, and viburnums to name a few.

Berries make up a surprising amount of a robin’s diet. We might be more familiar with seeing robins pulling nightcrawlers from our lawn or yanking tent caterpillars from their messy nests in the spring and early summer, but their diets switch as berries, like blackcaps and mulberries, start ripening in July.

Studies have shown that from July through February more than 60% of a robin’s diet will be fruits and that number could surpass 85% in a bad winter without the periodic thaws that release insects.

To attract robins to your yard in the winter, you might want to plant some shrubs that stubbornly retain their berries, like pyrcanthas, roses or the aforementioned viburnums.

Unless they become starved and desperate, which can happen to the robins that stay here in a winter like this, they won’t come to feeding stations. On these frigid days you might find they are interested in raisins, apple bits, blueberries, raspberries and even bread crumbs. They are best served if you have a yard adjacent to a woodlot; you really won’t find robins frequenting cities and villages as you would in the summer.

Do not place the fruits on a bird feeder or platform, they won’t take them. They are naturally conditioned to expect berries to be growing on trees or lying on the ground next to them. Create a separate feeding area for them away from the cardinals and chickadees. Put some fruits on the ground next to a shrub and hope that they find them before the squirrels do.

If you don’t mind getting the heebie-jeebies, you can even feed them mealworms. In the winter robins will go berserk over them and if they find them in your yard they’ll be back every day. So, if you’re getting into handing out mealworms, know that you have to be all in.

You’ll find that winter robins are a more communal sort. In the spring and summer they are pretty territorial and you have no doubt heard nasty yelling calls come from male robins, especially on spring nights when they like to chase other males from their turf. In the winter they are less concerned with the fairer sex and more concerned with survival, so they flock up in larger groups in search of berries (many sets of food-finding eyes is better than two). Whereas you might see robins as couples or families in the summer, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see them in larger groups like I did.

One peculiar thing to take note of with winter robins: If they look drunk, they are. The berries that make it the seven or eight months into February tend to be a little fermented. The alcohol content, albeit slight, is enough to make robins tipsy and they will fly weirdly and often into objects (and sadly among them, moving cars).

This is one of those columns when I hate to burst most everyone’s bubbles: While many might think robins are a sign of spring, they really aren’t. It’s a myth. They are here among us all year. They’re just a little more secretive and nomadic in the winter.

But, myth or not, I still got a head-shaking chuckle out of my recent robin sighting.

Hey, we have to find humor somewhere, anywhere, in a winter like this, right?

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where drunken robins taunt him in the winter months. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 26 February 2015 East Niagara Post

Friday, February 20, 2015

DEC shouldn’t expand the fisher harvest

Back in 2000 while hiking the hills at our Allegany County camp I was fortunate to experience a close encounter with a fisher. I marveled at the beast for a good 10 minutes while he climbed fallen trees in search of his prey.  It was the first one I had ever seen and a completely unexpected sight – back then, state wildlife officials didn’t count them as Western New York residents and their appearances were chalked up as rare transient visits.

Fast forward 15 years. Fishers have staked a claim to WNY and breeding populations exist throughout our counties that border Pennsylvania. Fishers can now be found far to the north on occasion, too. You might remember the large specimen that a motorist found dead roadside just outside of Brockport in 2011; it was the first fisher sighting in Monroe County in over a century.

Because of the expansion of the animal’s range, the Department of Environmental Conservation has changed its tune about fishers on this end of the state and last week issued the draft of a state-wide fisher management plan that covers the years 2015-2025. It can be downloaded as a 51-page PDF at

In their accompanying press release, the DEC said there were two goals to the plan: One, to maintain or enhance fisher populations in all areas of the state where suitable habitat exists and, two, provide for the sustainable use and enjoyment of fishers by the public.

I’m sorry, but you can’t have the first goal in WNY while simultaneously pursuing the second. But, that is exactly what the DEC is trying to do. 

Starting this year, the DEC would like to bring the trapping of fishers to the region. Trappers in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegany Counties would be given a 9-day season during which they could harvest one fisher. In 2018, the DEC would further evaluate the expansion of the creature’s range and possibly expand the harvest to more northern wildlife management units.

Trapping of the animals is counterintuitive to the DEC’s first goal of enhancing fisher populations. Although there has been a significant increase in their numbers, fishers are still truly uncommon in WNY. Despite all my time in the woods of the Southern Tier I still have yet to see another. The DEC even states in their plan that they have gleaned only 631 confirmed fisher observations in Central and Western New York since 2005. In a special survey of bowhunters (outdoorsmen who spend a lot of time in the woods), there were 505 confirmed and unconfirmed sightings of the critters from that same territory over the past 7 years. Those numbers don’t scream abundance.

It would be unfortunate were fishers to be harvested in any number. They are one of the more interesting animals you’ll encounter in the woods. They are a large member of the weasel family, and their size and habits put them somewhere between the short-tailed weasel and the wolverine. They are long-bodied and long-tailed just as you would imagine a weasel to be. They have a luxurious brown, almost black, coat. Counting the tail, a female fisher can be 3 feet long and weigh around 6 pounds. Males are considerably larger and can be almost 4 feet long and over 12 pounds in weight.

They are voracious omnivores and are one of the few predators capable of killing porcupines. It was once believed that fishers flipped the thorny animals over and ripped apart their underbelly. Instead, they repeatedly bite porkies’ faces and necks – staying clear of the quills -- and kill them that way. Because of that, fishers have been a Godsend at our camp as the porcupine populations have tanked over the past decade. Not only can porcupines be bothersome by destroying property (gnawing on trailers and cabins), but they can be dangerous: They will often chew the undercarriage of vehicles to get at salt residue. That can result in destroyed brake lines. Now we have something that can keep them in check.

We don’t need Man to keep fishers in check, too. They are too few in WNY and we should allow them to really flourish before harvests are even considered.

The DEC is accepting public comment on their plan until March 30th.  You can send your thoughts to
NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Fisher Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or by e-mail to (type "Fisher Plan" in the subject line). 

From the 23 February 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Monday, February 16, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The story behind dead starlings

In the winter months, poisoned starlings can appear by the cartload. 
In what seems to have become a rite of winter throughout the Niagara Frontier, it’s almost certain that rural residents living within a couple of miles of large dairy farms will, in the next few weeks, be subjected to an odd, even frightening, sight – starlings literally falling out of the sky and dying before them. When the carnage concludes, homeowners will find dozens of the birds dead in their lawns.

In recent years, this columnist has picked up as many as 120 at a time from his yard.

At first blush, some might think that a deadly contagious illness overtook the avian community. Others might believe it’s another sign from an angry god. Their deaths were caused by none of the above.

Instead, the birds will have expired due to an application of a chemical agent known as “Starlicide.”

This compound is produced by Purina (which some may find strangely hypocritical given the company’s basis in animal health) and it is the most effective tool -- maybe the only effective tool -- in controlling this most onerous of birds. Upon consuming feed tainted with Starlicide, starlings slowly expire over a 24 to 36 period as their organs congest.

As unsettling of a sight as hundreds of dying and dead birds may be to the average person, it’s a welcome sight to farmers, aviators and nature lovers. They are all affected by this invasive species, brought to our shores in the 1890s when fans of William Shakespeare made the ill-advised decision to release every bird mentioned in his plays to the Americas (the very same reason we are inundated with English/house sparrows). The starlings multiplied and took over the skies, being just as much at home in the Big City as they are in farm country. It is estimated that there are over 200 million of them in the US. You can’t find an American who is unfamiliar with these black birds that have green and purple iridescent tips on their feathers.

Farmers are certainly familiar with them. The birds congregate in feedlots by the thousands, stealing feed and defecating in animal food which spreads disease, including transmissible gastroenteritis virus which can be deadly to young swine. It is estimated that starlings are responsible for $800 million in agricultural losses every single year. So, with no other options left to contain the birds and prevent the damages, farmers and the USDA regularly poison the birds every winter when they gather in the greatest concentrations (thus making a mass kill easier).

Similar campaigns occur around airports. There, the colonizing birds can prove to be deadly when traveling in large flocks and into the paths of aircraft, getting stuck in their jets or gumming up their propellers. Starlings were the known culprits in the infamous 1960 Boston crash of Flight 375 that killed over 60 people and remains to this day as the single worst bird strike in history. Many more starling events have followed over the years, including a late-1990s crash that killed 34 people in the Netherlands.

Even bird lovers like myself savor the demise of this feathered fiend. Starlings are a scourge upon native species, especially fellow cavity-dwellers. Take our beloved state bird, the bluebird, for example. That beautiful creature was nearly wiped out in New York because of starlings. If not for the efforts of birders and volunteers throughout the Empire State, they would have been; naturalists and outdoorsmen countered the overpopulation of the aggressive starlings by erecting bluebird-specific birdhouses throughout the state. Because of that, the bluebird has become common once again over the course of my life. Eradicate the starlings and we might see similar success stories with other birds like the rarely-seen redheaded woodpecker (of which I’ve only seen 2 in my life because of the starling invasion).

Taking all of that into consideration, and knowing that the poisoned birds are no threat to you, your pets, or predators, you should accept the mass deaths of starlings with open arms; that is, after you’ve taken the time to pick up their corpses. We would be better served by more mass poisonings of them each winter for this simple reason: the only good starling is a dead starling.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he knows the sky will soon rain starlings. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 15 February 2015 East Niagara Post

Friday, February 13, 2015

Crowdfunding for public projects

If you are on social media you are no doubt familiar with crowdfunding, whereby individuals use websites to champion causes that are then funded through donations from the community at large. You might see such crusades on a weekly -- even daily -- basis on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Whether it’s for a sick family member or the start-up of a new business, crowdfunding efforts are plentiful.

They are extremely effective, too.

In 2013, the still-young crowdfunding industry (it unofficially began in 2006) collected over $5 billion worldwide and industry experts figure that annual collections will surpass $90 billion by 2025.

Once thought to be only the domain of charitable causes and entrepreneurial dreams, crowdfunding has in the past couple of years caught the attention of the public sector. Governing bodies that were strained by the Great Recession and an increasing disdain for tax growth from their residents have taken to the net to collect money for niceties they might not otherwise have.

A crowdfunding effort in Memphis, Tennessee easily collected $75,000 to fill a public funding gap in the development of a bike lane in a growing commercial district. Philadelphia donors helped secure $10,000 to keep a skate park alive. New Haven, Connecticut’s Ignite! New Haven plan has funded a public kitchen, a youth lacrosse league and bike racks throughout the city. The online craze also brought in $100,000 for an underground park in Manhattan.

A 2014 study by MIT looked at four years of civic crowdfunding around the world and found some 1,200 such projects. Most were modest in size, with goals of $8,000 (far below those listed above). It’s those types of smaller campaigns that merit serious consideration. Local governments and schools could put crowdfunding websites to use (there are now numerous sites specific to civic projects) to bring to life any number of one-shot or long-term projects.

A perfect example of where it could be used locally is the City of Lockport. A lot of local residents were frustrated that there wasn’t a New Year’s Eve ball drop and by the lack of family-friendly things to do in the Lock City that night. You really can’t blame City officials for not hosting such an event. A ball drop is a nice thing to have, but it’s not something you need. For a City on the brink of bankruptcy (let alone one that’s financially healthy) you have to make such decisions.

Needs always trump wants. But, if someone wants something badly enough (like a New Year’s Eve festivity), they can get it with crowdfunding.

There are so many more potential local projects facing similar obstacles that could go this route. Booster clubs could use crowdfunding websites to prevent school sports from going on the chopping block. Local towns could add new equipment or skate pads to their playgrounds. County officials could improve the trails and outbuildings at any one of our parks. Splash pads could be built in any one of the County’s three cities.  

Civic crowdfunding works because charity is different than taxes. If you are being forced to give up more of your money (which is what taxes do), you’re not interested in doing so, especially when you know waste abounds in any given bureaucracy. But, if people are given the chance of to give away their money under their own free will for an appropriately earmarked event or item, especially one that is attractive to them, they will give; the Manhattan and Memphis projects show that.

In its first nine years of existence crowdfunding has shown its value and effectiveness to private endeavors. Heading to its second decade it has shown its potential for public endeavors. It’s time for local governments to capitalize on that and invest in new projects not by force, but instead by goodwill. The list of possibilities is endless and limited only by creativity and the interest of donors.

From the 16 February 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Thursday, February 5, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Golden Hill’s ice volcanoes

Brutally cold and snowy winters like this tend to make people question why they live so far north. Those who stay know that, despite their nastiness, all winters are interesting in their own right and that beauty can found in such harsh conditions.

Golden Hill State Park’s shoreline features numerous 
volcanoes like this one. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)
One of the neatest sights of the winter months is out in full force for the second year in a row after quite a few warmer winters that weren’t conducive to their development: The Niagara County shoreline is now home to countless ice volcanoes.

An ice volcano is not a true volcano since it’s not a geological phenomenon (some meteorologists wrongly call them cryovolcanoes, which is still a geological term). But, they are called volcanoes by laymen and scientists alike because there is no better way to describe what happens when the conditions are right and they are in their full fury.

When the waves come roaring in with heights in excess of 5 feet, they will go under ice sheets that have formed along the shore. The power of the waves will plow through a weak point in the ice – a hole or a crack – and spew through that spot.

Done repeatedly, that hole will grow in size and it is not uncommon to find blow holes up to 4 feet in diameter. Most become much smaller over time (and after subsequent freezes), but the waves still must seek the point of least resistance, so the water continues to break through the ice sheet in that spot in varying amounts of pressure and spray distance. It is not uncommon in a good wind to see eruptions reach 10 to 15 feet in height!

In a sustained storm, small conical mounds (over 5 feet in height) can appear over a day’s time because of this ... the spewing water creates its own mountains. Over days of good wave action, working ice volcanoes can make mountains up to 20 feet in height and they will continue to shoot water until the waves come to an end and the volcano becomes capped due to the lack of water exploding out in volume and consistency.

Ice volcanoes can be found anywhere along the Lake Ontario shore, but the best ones in Niagara County are to be found at Golden Hill State Park. That is because the shoreline there is somewhat protected by Thirty Mile Point which inhibits a great deal of the west wind and allows for a certain calmness which in turn allows substantial ice sheets to form. When the wind shifts to the north or northeast, that’s when the volcanoes will appear.

To see them in all of their glory, you will want to be there on the windiest, nastiest day possible, so prepare for the occasion — dress warmly and bring a face mask. You do not want to go on a calm day or one with a west or southwest wind as you will not see any eruptions (although you will still get to marvel at the size and shape of the volcanoes).

The best spot to see them is in the area near the boat launch, which is the entrance a quarter mile east of the main entrance to the park (where the campsites and lighthouse are) on Lower Lake Road in Somerset. There is a spacious parking lot at the boat launch (and there is no admission fee charged even in-season). If you look to the right of Golden Hill Creek you will see a mile-long ice sheet absolutely loaded with volcanoes of all shapes and sizes.

You can enjoy them while watching from the shore and or hiking a trail on the embankment that parallels the shore for a half mile.

Word of advice: DO NOT venture out onto the ice sheet to look at or climb the volcanoes or mountains. The areas around the volcanoes can be incredibly strong from the build-up of ice or they can be very weak (there’s a reason water is blowing through that area) and they can easily cave in and often do, just from their own weight.

Also, if you see some guys with guns do not be startled or call the police. Small game hunting is allowed at Golden Hill State Park in the winter months, so on any given weekend there may be rabbit hunters out there. They stick to the woods and brushy areas, so you are fine in you stay at the boat launch area.

So, the next time Mother Nature turns on us and you don’t mind taking the ride out to Somerset (which if any place could be considered “remote” in Niagara County it’s that beautiful town) and facing the elements head on, get out and enjoy the ice volcanoes. If you are there at the right time and under the right conditions, they can be pretty awesome ... and in the future you’ll be hoping for more nasty winters.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where there are gas volcanoes on the Erie Canal in the winter. But, that’s a column for another day. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 05 February 2015 East Niagara Post

How New York schools should handle snow days

This hasn’t been a good winter for school districts across Western New York. Due to “Snovember” and a seemingly endless number of smaller but still significant snowstorms and biting arctic temperatures, cancellations have been the theme of the season. Many districts have used up their snow days…and it’s only the first week of February.

The hand-wringing that goes into deciding whether or not to close school weighs heavily on superintendents when hearing forecasts or waking up to an impressive snowfall: Do you shortchange kids on the full education that they deserve? Do you risk their safety on sloppy roads? Do you roll the dice when it comes to state funding?

Unfortunately, too often the third question carries more weight than the first two because antiquated and inflexible state laws can tie the purse strings for school districts. 

New York requires that schools have 180 days of session, which can include Regents exams and up to 4 days of Superintendent’s Conferences. The state allows for some extraordinary circumstances (like winter’s fury) and permits 5 days off. But, if a district ends up having 175 days or less, for every day missed the State Education Department will cut back on funding to that district at a 1/180th of its total aid allotment.

1/180th doesn’t seem like some great amount until you put it into perspective. My district, Roy-Hart, received $10.6 million in state aid last year. Just one day of lost aid is $58,980. The much larger Lockport schools received $38.8 million. One day there is $215,680.

How do you make that up? You can’t. And, that’s just one day. What would happen if a real honest-to-goodness blizzard on the scale of ‘77’s socked everyone in? You can see why administrators fret about snow days and why, later in the winter, they end up playing Russian roulette with students’ safety.

It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, and it’s compounded by state law that doesn’t allow Saturday instruction or classes on holidays (does anybody really need President’s Day or Columbus Day off?) to count towards the 180 days.

Why not change that and give districts the power to make up snow days so our kids get the education coming to them (the school year is already too short as it is if you want to compete in the global economy) while satisfying the state’s 180 day requirement?

New York lawmakers need only look south for inspiration. Two weeks ago, while feeling the same winter blues we are and battling similarly-arcane laws, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee unanimously passed legislation that would allow school districts to have classes on Saturdays. Bill 158 is now up before Pennsylvania’s full House.

It’s that simple. Change the rules. Allow for Saturday classes. Children will learn what they would have missed from the snow day and property owners won’t feel a pinch when the next tax bill comes around.

It will be a good lesson learned for the kids, too: Out in the Real World, you have to occasionally – if not regularly – work Saturdays. Give them a taste of that.

It could be wishful thinking, though. New York State United Teachers is the most powerful special interest group in the state. Would they see Saturdays in the same way? I doubt it.

But, then again, we might be surprised. Unlike his predecessors, Governor Cuomo isn’t afraid to make a stand against NYSUT. This might be another game of hardball for him. 

It’s kind of odd to find the Commonwealth as a voice of reason and ingenuity when it comes to education, especially with the lofty expectations placed upon New York’s educational system. But, this Saturday idea isn’t the only way that they’ve looked to squash norms and ensure their customers get what’s coming to them.

This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is experimenting with a pilot program at its 500 districts that’s definitely something out of this century. For up to 5 days a year, districts can use "non-traditional educational delivery methods" like distance learning or cyber-school to teach students. So, on the days that the campus is closed to students due to snow, their teachers would deliver their lessons to their students as if it were a normal day.

There are a lot of infrastructure issues to handle with this: not all families have internet access (although they do have smartphones), many counties (like Orleans) are nearly devoid of the broadband that would be necessary, and most schools aren’t equipped for this.

But it is something to consider for the future and develop in baby steps. 

From the 09 February 2015 Lockport Union-Sun and Journal