Thursday, May 21, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The glossy ibis – a rare visitor to Niagara County

On Sunday afternoon I took The Little One on one of her expeditions to catch frogs at our ponds. While there, a gangly looking, mid-sized bird flew in from a distance and I assumed it was one of the cormorants which have been pillaging our waters.

I was planning on shooing the bird away, but as it got closer I noticed the different flight pattern and a tell-tale long and curved beak. It was not a cormorant. It was an ibis!

Something I always assumed to be tropical in nature, it’s a bird I certainly never expected to see in Niagara County and one I hope to see again soon.

Where ibises normally live

The glossy ibis is one of the most widespread birds in the world. Nesting populations can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They prefer warmer climes and coastal waters but will also thrive in large marshes and estuaries.

Up until 1900, their US population was found only in Florida and along the Gulf Coast and they were even considered to be quite rare. But, over the course of the twentieth century they moved northward and can now be found breeding in good numbers along the entire Eastern seaboard north to Maine.

It is rare that they make it very far inland in the States north of Florida, although a handful of the birds are spotted in the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge every year.

Visiting smaller ponds in Gasport? That’s almost unheard of.

What they look like

While extremely rare in the area, the occasional glossy ibis can be seen in 
If you’ve ever been to Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen a glossy ibis. They are fair-sized wading birds, approaching 2 feet in length. Their bodies are a dark chestnut color while their wings are a glossy, reflective green (hence its first name – “glossy”). They appear black from a distance.

Their beaks set them apart from other shorebirds and heron-like birds. They are long and curved downward. In flight, they have a 3-foot wingspan, which is fairly impressive (about half that of the common turkey vulture).

Their behavior 

An ibis will use its ridiculously long beak to probe water and shoreline mud in search of its prey. Ibises love their shellfish. Coastal birds will feast on fiddler grabs while inland ibises prefer crayfish and mollusks. In their absence they will consume water insects by the dozens, tadpoles, frogs and even snakes – glossy ibises have even been known to savor the poisonous water moccasin.

The bird unleashes a rather unattractive call – sometimes it grunts, sometimes it growls.

Keep your eyes peeled

The visitor to Gasport was entirely unexpected and is a real attention grabber. Locally, ibises are much harder to view than the snowy owls which make rare winter irruptions here and excite even the most experienced birdwatchers. I was excited when I saw it and still remain so these few days later.

Most local birders who don’t travel much won’t have the bird on their life list, and almost all birders are unlikely have to seen one in this county.

Even while being nomadic, this ibis – and maybe others that joined it -- have plenty of good habitat to choose from locally: in the past 20 years, ponds have become pretty common in the area; some of the local golf courses sport decently sized ponds; local marshes and swamps still have water in them; and the Hartland Swamp is living up to its name. I wouldn’t be surprised if others see this bird in the coming days and maybe even coming weeks. Let’s hope he’s here to stay and brought some friends.

So, my advice to local birdwatchers in Hartland and the northern halves of Royalton and Lockport is this: Keep your eyes peeled -- and your binoculars handy. Don’t assume that every wading or roosting bird near your pond is “just” a heron. It might be the glossy ibis that I was fortunate enough to see. It’s a rare sight on the Niagara Frontier and one that you need to see and appreciate.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he welcomes ibises but not cormorants to his ponds. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 21 May 2015 East Niagara Post

The real meaning of Memorial Day

Americans everywhere are enjoying this long weekend, an extended respite from the daily grind of work or school. To many, it is a joyous occasion, the unofficial start to summer.

That enjoyment of life and the rare chance to relax too often mask the real meaning of the Memorial Day holiday, one that recognizes the men and women who gave their lives so that we – and others around the world – might savor these weekends shared with family and friends. It’s vitally important that each and every one of us take some time today to honor those who fell in battle. You need not partake in a parade or attend a solemn service but you should, in your own way, quietly and genuinely reflect upon and appreciate the accomplishments and lives of our fine militaries of wars past and present.

Since the start of the Revolutionary War, almost 1.4 million Americans have paid the price for our nation’s goals and the American Way. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the population of the entire Western New York region. So, imagine all of the homes and streets being completely devoid of people from Niagara Falls to Jamestown and all points in between and near. That haunting visual should give you a feel for the scale of sacrifice.

It should also give you ample reason to set aside some time to appreciate the meaning of those sacrifices. Those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen saw and experienced horrors that very few of us ever will, and they gave their lives so that others may live, for the creation and preservation of human rights here and abroad, and for the furthering of our national interests.

America, the greatest and freest nation ever conceived, would never have existed had men not fought to the death against British tyranny.

She would never have remained intact, nor would 3.5 million blacks have been freed from slavery, had the North not found it morally necessary to preserve our nation or better the human existence.

The whole modern world would have been torn asunder and many millions more innocent lives taken by evil, had we not entered the two World Wars which cost over a half-million American lives.

Communism would have gained immeasurable might and influence had we not waged a proxy war against its principle powers – China and Russia – in the Koreas.

The Vietnam War may have been the most contentious in American history. 58,000 perished while having the honor, patriotism and allegiance to stick with America, regardless of our nation’s sociopolitical divide.

The War on Terror was waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, with our men and women volunteering to fight for our security, wanting not to see a recurrence of 9/11 on our soil and ensuring those who initiated the attacks experience what their victims had. Nearly 6,900 lost their lives in those theatres.

American history has long been saddled with military conflicts and occupations. Those high profile wars mentioned above are but a few of the dozens that have occurred in and out of our borders. In all of them, many died in – and sometimes later because of - combat. All of those fallen soldiers should be recognized for giving of themselves so that America can be and will be a nation of power, honor and integrity, just as they were in the moments leading up to their ultimate sacrifice. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. So, please, memorialize them today. It’s our patriotic duty and the right thing to do.

From the 25 May 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

NYSERDA’s impact on your power bill

Quite often you see the name of a state agency -- NYSERDA -- appearing in news articles and press releases about energy-efficiency projects, whether they are commercial (windmills, warehouse lights) or residential (appliance swap outs, solar panels) in nature.
Chances are you probably didn’t concern yourself with NYSERDA. But, you should.

First, grab your most recent electrical bill. Scroll down through the delivery services portion of it. You’ll notice something called "SBC". Depending on how big your household may be the SBC line item ranges from $2.50 to $5.00 a month. That’s not chump change. You’re shelling out $30 to $60 annually, money that both you and I know would be best spent by you and not the government.

You see, the SBC is a tax. The acronym means "Systems Benefit Charge". According to National Grid these funds "reflect costs associated with mandated public policy programs - low income assistance, energy efficiency programs, and certain research and development programs including the advancement of renewable energy resources." The recipient of these fees is the aforementioned NYSERDA – New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

If you are an astute student of all things government the first thing that comes to mind is "why are we paying taxes to a public authority?" Authorities are corporate instruments of the State created by the legislature to further public interests. They are basically private enterprises with a public flair that are legally and administratively autonomous from the State, meaning they are accountable to no one but themselves. They are typically funded by user fees and should never be funded by taxes.

Yet, here’s NYSERDA being funded by a tax in your power bill. Combined with the lack of accountability to the taxpayers, that makes the systems benefit charge a classic example of taxation without representation. That’s the same kind of thing that got the colonists all fired up during the American Revolution.

And, it’s the same kind of thing that gets me fired up at the factory.

Long-time readers of this column know how I despise the competitive structure of electricity in New York. My company pays twice what our competitors in Ohio, Indiana and Utah pay for power. That’s pretty significant considering we use as much electricity as two-and-a-half villages the size of Middleport. In my ongoing analysis of what makes my power bill so high I’ve long had the SBC in my sights. Over the past half-dozen years, we’ve paid more than $55,000 per year into the SBC and last year we reached an all-time high -- over $76,000!  

Back in 2007 I was intent on putting it in front of Governor Eliot Spitzer. I was hopeful that the Wall Street Watchdog would have been just as disgusted as I about the unrepresented tax. Spitzer’s director of operations shared my concerns with the Public Service Commission.

In her response PSC Chairwoman Patricia Acampora barely addressed my concerns and instead waxed poetic about what NYSERDA supposedly does, like lowering overall electrical demand and costs for New Yorkers. She also noted that, yes, NYSERDA does collect its fees from electrical users but the State has oversight over what it does with its monies. Considering how ineffective that "oversight" is with the Thruway Authority and 700 other authorities across the state, I could only laugh.

Since then, similar correspondence sharing my concerns with Governor Cuomo has gone unanswered.

That’s what we’re up against, folks: An entity that shouldn’t be taxing us but is, and is allowed to do so at the behest of the State. The State likely allows it to happen because it’s good press for Albany (“look at everything we are doing to make homes and businesses energy efficient”). But, what they fail to tell you is that it’s homes and businesses footing the bill for all the fancy equipment.   

Whether you’re a family or a company trying to make ends meet in these tough times you should be frustrated with this tax that is - like a few others – hidden in your power bill where you might just never see it and, in turn, never care. 

From the 18 May 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, May 14, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Jack-in-the-pulpit: A test of manhood

The spring produces the most beautiful and interesting wildflowers of the entire growing season. One of those plants that are especially interesting is now in full bloom in woodlots across Eastern Niagara County. The Jack-in-the-pulpit has a storied history, especially among Native Americans, as it was once a measure of one’s manhood.

What to look for

The Jack-in-the-pulpit is an interesting looking flower with an
equally interesting story. (PHOTOS BY BOB CONFER /
A member of the arum family, the Jack-in-the-pulpit cannot be confused with any other plant in the area. Located beneath a set of three large leaves is the uniquely-shaped flower. The spathe (or “pulpit”) is a curved hood that is greenish to purplish-brown in color. If you lift that hood, you will find inside the pulpit “Jack”, more appropriately known as the spadix (the reproductive organ of the plant).

The spathe protects the spadix from rain, which would wash away all of the pollen. The plant, which can actually alternate between sexes, is pollinated by insect attracted to a rotten smell emitted by the plant (which humans can barely smell). They head into the pulpit where smaller insects can move in and out freely, but larger insects can become trapped and die inside the base of the pulpit.

The flower is in bloom throughout the month of May in Niagara County. Later in the year the flower will be replaced by a tight cluster of shiny red berries that appears to be one solid, bumpy mass.

The Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found in moist woods with rich soils. So, while you might find them in many small woods across the area, they are more likely to be found in forests closer to the escarpment, like Royalton Ravine Park in Gasport or the Gulf Wilderness Area in Lockport.

A test of one’s manhood

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit had its place in Native American tradition. Many tribes used it as one of the capstones for a boy’s coming of age. If the boy could eat the root of the plant, he was considered a man.

The root (corm) was considered hot, hotter than the hottest pepper on Earth, and it took a man to fight the pain and agony.

Now that we know more about the plant we know that it wasn’t hot like a pepper. Whereas peppers get their “heat” from the chemical capsaicin, the pain elicited from Jack-in-the-Pulpit comes from calcium oxalate. It is present as microscopic crystals in raw corms. Those crystals tear flesh and, at the same time, poison the torn flesh.

The crystals can tear the tongue, throat, esophagus and stomach so badly that blisters and open sores develop in the body.

If someone ate multiple corms to prove that he was a real man, there was a very good chance that he would have died as the throat would have closed up and he would have suffocated. If he survived, he would have to contend with a bout of kidney stones from a collection of the calcium oxalate; pain in, pain out.

Oh, the things men will do to show off their machismo.

Eating Jack-in-the-pulpit

Lift up the hood and there's "Jack."
While Jack-in-the-pulpit might have proved unpalatable, even deadly, in the test of manhood, Native Americans did find use for the plant, especially that same noxious corm.

The corms are so nutritious that Native Americans used to harvest them in large numbers. To eliminate the poisonous nature of the plant, they would slice it thinly and then let it dry for a few months in the summer heat. Interestingly, such practices were utilized by other cultures throughout the world to consume other members of the arum family that have similar nasty characteristics.

The indigenous people would use the Jack-in-the-pulpit as a healthy starch, eating it like a small potato or they would pulverize it into flour and make bread, which was the most common use of the plant.

They also made a marinade from it that was used to flavor venison.

If you are out in the woods this weekend, keep your eyes open for this interesting and formerly useful plant. But, whatever you do, don’t test your manhood. If you do, you’ll regret it.

Plus, why kill the plant just to pull off a stunt? Jack-in-the-Pulpits can live to be 100 years old ― let them thrive.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’s not a real man because he’s never tasted Jack-in-the-pulpit, something he doesn’t intend to do, either. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 14 May 2015 East Niagara Post

Monday, May 11, 2015

Stocks are the only game in town

A question that people have asked me quite often over the past few years is this: “If the economy is still weak from the recession, then why is the stock market so high?”

It’s a legitimate thing to ask. In October of 2007 the Dow reached what was then an all-time high of 14,164. During the Great Recession, the market bottomed out in March of 2009 at 6,547. Since then, we’ve more than made up ground and continually set new records; as I write this column, the Dow is at a once unfathomable 18,070.

No one would have expected the Dow to double - let alone almost triple -- in a half-dozen years. It doesn’t match what has really happened in the economy.

Most Americans are just as pained and worried as they were during the Recession. Such is to be expected when full employment has languished --- millions have taken part-time jobs while millions more have dropped out of the workforce due to a lack of opportunity. Taking into consideration those individuals through the U6 unemployment rate, true unemployment is really at 11 percent.

The US economy can’t keep those folks employed because it is just limping along – it has yet to surpass 2.5 percent annual growth in any of the past five years.

You can see why people are confused by the inverse relationship between economic indicators and the Dow.
So, what does account for the stock market’s ascension?

The answer is simple. It’s the only game in town.

It used to be that the working man could plan for his future by dabbling in one or more of the following: investing in the stock market, buying real estate, acquiring government debt, or buying certificates of deposit. Now, only the first one is a legitimate endeavor because the other 3 are just shadows of their former selves.

Consider real estate. The primary cause of the Great Recession was the bursting of the housing bubble. People bought expensive homes that they shouldn’t have (while lending institutions and the government enabled them) in hopes of continued growth in the market, believing they could turn around and sell the home a few years later for many dollars more. It wasn’t long before it was realized that they couldn’t support their investments: Rising energy and food prices socked the economy in 2007. That caused job cuts and cutbacks which in turn affected those who had taken on the exorbitant home payments. Housing prices plummeted and homeowners who were underwater abandoned ship. Because of that sting, people are hesitant to buy first and second homes again, banks won’t allow them to, and, above all, many people are incapable of doing so in today’s world because of high un- and under-employment and lower wages.

Government bonds and notes used to be solid investments, too. Someone could buy the debt from the government and, years down the line, reap the rewards from a solid yield in the 5 to 9 percent range in the 1990s and a middling 3 to 6 percent during the 2000s. Now, a 10-year Treasury note has a yield around 2.1 percent. To buy them at such low rates, you’d have to be either a fool, ungodly conservative, retired or worried about an all-out economic collapse. What has contributed to this destruction of the bond market is the willingness of the Federal Reserve to often buy-up debt in an effort to keep the federal government afloat.

The Fed has also been complicit in the loss of gains on Certificates of Deposit (CDs). Borrowing from the Fed and other banks is too easy for financial entities thanks to historically low rates, so banks no longer have a reason to lean on consumers for borrowing. Back in the 1980s your average investor could make a killing on CDs – 6-month returns were as high as 17 percent and 5-year CDs were at 12 percent. Now, the average yield on CDs is less than 1 percent (0.27 for 1-year CDs, 0.88 for 5-year).

So, that leaves the stock market as the only legit outlet for retirement and investment, especially for those in their 30s and 40s. The markets rose like a phoenix because of an ongoing influx of cash -- to the tune of hundreds of billions annually -- by private investors, 401(k)s, public sector pension plans who saw it as the only viable outlet. Any system receiving such an influx of cash is certain to prosper, even unreasonably, no matter the conditions. 

From the 11 May 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Don’t ignore the awesome fishing in the Erie Canal

More often than not, the lack of accessibility to fishable water is cited as the key reason why many people don’t fish on a regular basis. But, there exists a body of water in Niagara County which can readily smash this misconception. It traverses the state for some 350 miles, is connected to over 170 more miles of networked waterways, supports hundreds of miles of adjoining trails, and is within 25 miles of 80% of the upstate population. This accessible, marvelous water way is none other than the Erie Canal.

The most famed portion of the 524-mile New York State Canal System, the Erie Canal was opened in 1825, serving as that century’s key trade route, opening up the West to settlement and economic development. It sped the flow of resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic and within 15 years of its opening made New York City the busiest port in the America’s, moving more goods than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined.

With its economic boom long since gone thanks to rail, roads, and air, the Canal has made a comfortable transformation to a recreational destination. Boats of all types and sizes frequent the Canal. Hikers, bikers, and joggers have made the adjoining trail system a very popular stop. The Canal is now managed by the New York State Thruway Authority, an organization that has made a concerted effort to market the waterway both nationally and internationally.

The Canal is a fishable waterway 

Despite the Canal’s recreational uses being well-known and well-advertised, one of the greatest recreational pursuits of all-time – fishing – has become an afterthought. The Canal is perceived by many anglers to be a dirty waterway, devoid of all but rough fish (carp, catfish, etc). It is also looked upon as a poor angling choice due to its artificial and uniform channel-like appearance.

Adding further to this stigma is the fact the Canal is drawn down or dewatered every winter, which tends to make one believe a healthy fishery could not be sustained.

Such stereotypes are unfounded. Although at first glance the Canal does not appear overly fishy it does provide excellent fishing opportunities. Smallmouth bass, rock bass, and sheepshead are quite common and you will also find a smattering of largemouth bass, walleye, northern pike and crappies throughout the Canal. Furthermore, being that it is book-ended by the Upper Niagara River and the Hudson River, and fed by numerous waters in between, the Canal has become home to any number of fish that frequent those waters. So, the occasional hook-up with other fish is not uncommon: I once landed an impressive brown trout under the Gasport lift bridge and I have heard reports of anglers catching muskellunge near Lockport’s locks.

More than just quantity, the Canal produces quality as well. For proof, one need look no further than the leader board in 2014’s Erie Canal Derby, a family-style event that has been going on since 1991. Last year, anglers in Niagara and Orleans county caught a 4.9-pound bass, a 6.3-pound pike, and a 5.9-pound walleye; all decent fish no matter the water!

The Canal is accessible 

Not only do you have an endless supply of fish to chase, you have a nearly endless means by which to do so. Totally unlike the situation with most bodies of water within the area, the land-based angler has an incredible amount of access. The entire canal system supports over 240 miles of trails, over 15 of which can be found on this end of the county.

Entrance to the towpath can be had at any number of bridges that cross the Canal. A good portion of the shoreline along the trail is tree-free, affording the chance to cast to your heart’s content.

Such ease of accessibility coupled with a rather refined environment – the towpath is well-maintained soft gravel – is what makes a trip to the Canal a great place to get youngsters into fishing. The Erie Canal is what turned me into a fisherman: The first fish I ever caught was a pike in the Canal, back when I was maybe 6 years old.

The Canal’s ability to get kids hooked on fishing is proved by the aforementioned Erie Canal Fishing Derby. Founder Steve Harrington has often noted that the Canal’s accessibility allows the derby to bring families together by getting them to do something exciting outside, a rarity in this day and age of electronics, computers and TV. The Derby has led to a tradition of fishing in many a family.

Much more than just a shoreline fishing destination, boating can be another peaceful means by which to fish the Erie Canal. It is navigable May through October and you could launch at Widewaters in Lockport or the boat launch on Telegraph Road in Gasport. As a matter of fact, you could throw in a kayak almost anywhere.

A pass is required by all motorized boats and there are certain periods when the Canal is open for business, giving larger boats the chance to navigate through the locks and under lift bridges. So, before hitting the water make sure to do some research via the Thruway Authority’s website,

How to catch fish in the Canal

Getting to the fish is easy. Catching the fish is just as easy. Much of the canal’s fairly uniform shoreline is supported by large rocks that were deposited by those who toiled in the Canal’s construction and reconstruction. These rocks provide shelter to very healthy populations of crayfish and minnows that ultimately end up supporting the upper end of the aquatic food chain.

Therefore, to catch the Canal’s gamefish bounty it is imperative that you offer an attractive presentation in such rocks, and there are no better lures for this task than soft plastic twisters and crankbaits.

The old stand-by of many a tacklebox - 3" white twister tails (the venerable Mr. Twister) - work wonders in the Canal. They can be slowly bounced among the rocks, getting into the cracks and crevices where the crayfish hide and the bass and walleyes hunt. Hang-ups will be numerous, as is always the case when jigging in rocks, but break–offs will be minimal. By walking upstream or downstream it is very easy to dislodge your jig.

Small, crayfish-hued crankbaits work equally as well in the Canal. The best method is to walk the shoreline and cast downstream - parallel to the shore - retrieving the crankbait rapidly and bouncing it off the rocks in five feet of water or less. This method will produce smallmouths all day and walleyes at dawn and dusk.

Other methods work quite well, too. In the dog days of Summer, small surface lures cast in the shallows prove quite effective on bass in the evening. Live worms and minnows jigged amongst the rocks or besides structural walls under bridges, docks and guard gates has produced many a decent fish. Spinners cast along the shoreline are great at catching bass, but, beware, they are more apt to snag as compared to the more buoyant crankbaits.

The Erie Canal is truly an asset to New York State. It helped make the USA what we are, one of the most powerful economies in the world. It now offers unlimited recreational potential and historical value. And, it is home to a very diverse, very exciting, and very accessible fishery, one that will please everyone, from the youngest of anglers to the most-experienced of outdoorsmen.

So, get out and enjoy what the Erie Canal has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

+Bob Confer  lives in rural Gasport where the Canal has afforded him many hours of pleasant fishing through the years. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 07 May 2015 East Niagara Post