Thursday, December 29, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The rough-legged hawk – visits from an arctic raptor

When snowy owls make their periodic irruptions into the northern states, those beautiful birds get all the ornithological press. That often overlooks the other feathered friends that visit us from the far north like redpolls, grosbeaks, and crossbills.

Another northern bird that gets little attention is the magnificent rough-legged hawk, which sits right at the top of the avian food chain with the snowy owl.

The rough-legged hawk spends its summers in the treeless arctic tundra, feeding on what can be vast numbers of lemmings. And, just like the snowies, their population is totally dependent on the cyclical boom and bust of lemming populations.

Their winters are spent in the lower tenth of Canada, and the upper half of the continental US, with most of these flying hunters spending their time in America’s vast grasslands and plains as those landscapes most mirror the look and feel of their breeding grounds.

The hawks can be found in Western New York in far lesser numbers, frequenting large open fields and marshes as they search for mice and voles. Even living out here in farm country they are an uncommon sight for me; I might regularly see 1 or 2 birds a winter who have staked out a temporary home here.

Last weekend while going on one of our adventures, my five year old and I spotted a rough-legged hawk in our pasture, the first one she’s ever seen. And, they always make for excellent viewing whether in appearance or behavior.

They are members of the buteo (large hawk) genus, the same as the common red-tailed hawk who they share the winter hunting grounds with. The rough-legged hawk is 3 inches shorter than a red-tailed hawk and they look considerably less bulky than a red tail.

They get their name from the feathers that extend all the way down their legs and to their toes, which is a must-have for the frigid weathers they frequent. It is unlikely that you will get close enough to see those pantaloons, but you can still easily tell them apart from red tails in other ways.

Rough-legged hawks come in two color phases. The light phase, shown in the photo, is strikingly beautiful. The lower half of the body and the wings are tawny dusted with white, while the breast, neck and head are white sprinkled with small brown streaks. The dark phase is attractive in its own way – those birds are completely chocolate brown with only a hint of white feathers, except in flight when the white/grey underwings can be seen.

They hunt differently than our red tails, too. You’ll see red tails watching their fields from the tops of power poles or from large, high branches of oaks and maples in the adjoining hedgerows and forests. You’ll never see them on skinny limbs on little trees close to the ground. Rough-legged hawks you will, though. And, their methods of hunting in flight are different as well. A red-tailed hawk will soar and ride wind currents and thermals. A rough-legged hawk will do that, but they will also do something that only two of our local birds of prey (kestrels and ospreys) will do – and that is hover. They will powerfully flap their wings and stay in one spot when they catch glimpse of prey below them. From that hovering position they will dive onto the vole that has whet their appetite.

The rough-legged makes for some exciting birdwatching in the winter months. The next time you find yourself taking a Sunday drive through farmlands bring along a pair of binoculars and savor this rather unappreciated winter visitor.

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

From the 29 December 2016 All WNY News

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Make the holiday spirit last all year

The holiday season is far too brief. I don’t say this out of gluttonous desire for more parties, gifts, or days off. I say this because humanity as a whole is so refreshing in December.

Throughout the month most people are jovial, good-natured, and – best of all – giving. This is the one month out of the year when everyone goes out of their way to make life better for other people. Be it gifts, kindly cards, family get-togethers, or donations to community organizations, people give of themselves and find great delight in doing so.

This selflessness shows that there is hope for a society that is routinely blasted for showing signs of decay. Modern culture is constantly reviled for the lessening of family values, the dumbing-down of character, and the decreased emphasis on the well-being of others. Were these to be fully accurate we would never catch this pleasant holiday glimpse that proves that people are or can be essentially good.

But, alas, this can too often be a glimpse nonetheless.

Why should humanity prove the ill-toned stereotypes wrong only during the holidays? Why can’t we be this good during the rest of the year?

As many rediscover at Christmas time, it feels great to give and make people happy. In a perfect world it would be hoped that people would want to replicate this high throughout the year and every day of their lives.

That, in its most basic essence, is the reason for the season. We are celebrating the birth of someone who throughout his life spread teachings of selflessness and love for your fellow man. So intent was his cause that he ultimately gave the most sacred gift of all…his very life.

With a new year coming up people should reinvent themselves and dedicate their lives to a similar path, a path that leads to good deeds not only during the holidays, but also day in and day out.

As Christian as the holidays may be at their core, this path of righteousness that should be the outcome of the celebration is not necessarily the case. Anyone can and should serve their fellow man. Be you a Jew, Muslim, or Atheist, the betterment of those around you – and therefore yourself – should be paramount. Your life is measured not by what you do for yourself but what you do for others.

The act of giving is not done through money or donations as many believe it is. It can be, but it should never be your most pronounced effort. To fully give of one’s self requires your time, your efforts, and, of all things, your heart.

Make it a point to help others at work, at home, on the streets. Set aside time to volunteer. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Help that little old lady across the street. Helping someone with even the most menial of tasks or going out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter is what makes selflessness so personal and so rewarding. There is joy to be had in giving and watching others receive it.

No doubt you have been experiencing such joys in recent weeks.
It feels good, eh?

Now it’s time to make it a lifestyle. These are feelings that you should experience daily. So, make it a point to celebrate the meaning of Christmas as it was intended and live this wonderful holiday mood 24/7/365. It’s easy. It’s rewarding. It’s the right thing to do.

From the 26 December 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers  

Friday, December 16, 2016

Stop the killing of Yellowstone’s bison

Living in a country of such incredible beauty as ours, every one of us has a bucket list of things to see and do in these United States.

Ranking high on many people’s lists is one day visiting Yellowstone National Park. Those of us who want to visit the park hope to see the things that make it so special – like Old Faithful and the vast subalpine forests, and the incredible wildlife such as wolves, elk, antelope, grizzlies, and bison. 

It’s that last animal that intrigues me the most.

Seeing Yellowstone’s healthy herds would transport my thoughts to the days of yore and certainly improve my understanding of their former greatness.

In the early-1800s and before, populations of this magnificent animal numbered 30 million or more across North America. It had to be a sight to see and something to feel – the ground actually shook when vast herds, like a sea of brown, traversed the grasslands.

Now, the bison population is only at a half-million, with just 30,000 available for viewing on public land. Of them, 5,500 can be found at Yellowstone. Those buffalo are special, too: they are genetically perfect, the largest remaining band of wild, pure-bred bison.

Even so, they are marked beasts.

For years, state and federal officials have worked together to cull the Yellowstone herd. Since the 1980s, their programs have killed a total of 8,800 Yellowstone buffalo. This year, they plan to undertake the largest killing of the bison since 2008’s massacre of 1,700 animals. Over the winter months, wildlife officials plan on eliminating 900 of them between licensed hunts and government-run capture and slaughter.

They conduct these kills every year to keep Yellowstone’s heard at so-called manageable numbers. It is believed that were the bison numbers to grow too much past the goal of 3,000 animals, they would adversely affect the profits of local ranchers who, by the way, are using adjacent public – not private -- lands on which the buffalo herd migrates to and from.

For starters, it is believed that the wild animals would overgraze, taking away precious grasses from the cattle. Secondly, it is assumed that larger bison herds would roam into that ranchland and stay, in turn afflicting cattle with brucellosis…although no occurrence of a bison-to-cattle transmission has ever been recorded.  

This has to stop. But, it’s difficult to make an impact in a state where the cattle industry has greater lobbying power and influence than its citizens. Various conservation organizations have tried to change public policy to no avail. Lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to those who’d like to see the bison prosper. Lawsuits against the cull have gone nowhere.

Usually this column staunchly defends farmers and ranchers, but I can’t in a case like this where profit ranks higher than wild animals that were supposed to be protected at Yellowstone and the vast tracts of public land that the cattlemen are using. 

This isn’t a practice that’s abnormal to American history, either. In the 1800s, profit was also placed above the natural value of the bison (and the health of Man) when railroad barons and our own federal government ordered the mass execution (even extinction) of the beasts to make good on Manifest Destiny by starving out the Native Americans and/or changing their culture until it was totally unrecognizable.

By 1884, only 25 bison remained in Yellowstone and just 325 in all of what are now the United States. 

Have we not learned from that lesson of government-sponsored population control?

From the 19 December 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: After recent decline, wild turkey populations are on the rebound

Over my 42 years I’ve seen some significant swings in wild turkey populations on the Niagara Frontier.

Over the first half of my life, turkeys were common in the Southern Tier but downright uncommon in Niagara County. I can clearly remember riding the school bus through the town of Hartland and getting excited every time I saw a longbeard out in a field. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad when he got home from work.

But, after I graduated from college, it was like a whole new world for turkeys.

Their population exploded and they became abundant in Niagara County, matching the success of Allegany and Steuben Counties. Large flocks were the norm.

Their numbers peaked in the first decade of this century. You could see that in the turkey harvest numbers for Niagara County: In the spring huts of 2007 and 2008, local hunters bagged 423 and 444 toms, respectively, while the less-popular fall hunt saw a peak harvest of 91 birds in 2006.

But, in less than 10 years, fortunes have changed dramatically. There are fewer flocks and smaller flocks locally. Look at some recent harvest totals: 2014’s spring hunt saw just 149 toms taken in Niagara County, while 2015’s take came in at 148. The fall totals have been abysmal. In 2014, Niagara County hunters took 27 birds. In 2013, they took only 8. Yes, 8 (that’s not a typo).
This is not an issue unique to the Lake Plains. Numbers all across the western half of the state have plummeted. In Allegany County, for example, May 2015’s harvest was just 30% of the 2007 peak. I hunted there every weekend of that May and this past May and encountered just one tom…the hills and hollows from where their gobbles used to echo were eerily silent. It was a little depressing.

This is not a result of overharvest. Two factors have contributed to the decline.

Recent springs were not kind to turkey chicks – as a matter of fact, they were devastating. After warm starts to each of the Mays from 2012 through 2015, the weather changed for the worse. Wet and cold came as the young hatched and there were mass die-offs. The turkeys were unable to replenish their populations for an incredibly long period of time.

Also, many conservation professionals believe that Lymphoproliferative Disease Virus (LPDV) struck many flocks. LPDV is a disease that foreign trade recently brought from Europe. The sickened birds get lesions on their skin and even on their internal organs. These pox-like lesions cover their eyelids (making it hard to find food or see predators) or fill their throats (making it impossible to swallow). So they either starve to death or are easily taken by coyotes.

These weather and disease conditions led to some really dicey times for turkeys and the outdoorsman who have enjoyed their exciting hunts and tasty table fare. The Department of Conservation became so concerned that the fall turkey hunt, which was a month long in the Southern Tier, was cut in half, to just two weeks in an effort to limit the take and allow the birds to flourish.

It proved to be a wise decision and one of absolutely perfect timing.

This past spring was warm (we actually saw 90 degree days in May) and dry (it marked the beginning of a sustained drought). Hen turkeys had healthy, large clutches -- sometimes, Mother Nature overcompensates when populations wane and she did it this year. Poults were incredibly abundant and they took advantage of a great summer to grow into large flocks of young adult birds. In the summer survey, the DEC and its volunteer observers saw more flocks of turkeys than they have since 2002.

I’ve seen and heard of the rebound myself. Last week, I saw a flock of 18 turkeys in a woodlot in Niagara County that typically held no or few birds. A month earlier I saw a flock of 12 in the Allegany County territory that had been devoid of them this spring. And, I’ve been told of large flocks frequenting the valleys of Steuben County and the woodlands of Newfane.

In just this one year alone, local turkey populations made a quantum leap to get closer to previous numbers. They’ve got a long ways to go, but this year certainly gives wildlife officials, turkey hunters and bird watchers hope for the future.

From the 15 December 2016 All WNY News

Friday, December 9, 2016

Niagara Falls Memorial will save taxpayers millions

Cost containment is something that’s nearly unheard of in Medicaid circles. Medicaid recipients receive very little if any guidance or education on holistic health nor are they really encouraged to make smart shopping decisions when it comes to healthcare.

It shows. Total federal, state and local expenditures on the healthcare program grew from $329 billion in 2015 to what is an estimated $344 billion for this budget year, a jump of 5% in just one year alone. At the turn of the century, Medicaid’s total outlays were “only” $206 billion. 

Compare that to private insurance plans purchased on the marketplace or provided by an employer. In those scenarios, the insured are strongly encouraged and in some cases forced to overhaul their diets and behaviors. Examples of the countless programs and practices that both cut costs and improve overall health are workplace wellness programs, mandatory annual physicals, smoking cessation and penalization, high deductible plans, utilization of urgent care facilities, and procurement of a primary physician.

It would be good to see those same principles applied to Medicaid before costs further spiral out of control and the health of its recipients do the same, especially when every single one of us has a vested interested in the outcomes: 1 full percentage point of our sales taxes and more than half of our county property taxes are earmarked for Medicaid.

A local health organization is uniquely leading that charge.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center (NFMMC) is the only hospital in Western New York undertaking such an endeavor. Through their Health Home program, director Vicki Landes leads a crew of 40 staff members – and growing – who become fully involved in the nuances of health care management (at the micro and macro levels) for nearly 2,000 families who receive Medicaid.

Under this truly unique program, Medicaid enrollees are assigned case managers who can meet with them at the hospital or their workplace and home (how’s that for service!). Those case managers coordinate all facets the patient's care and encourages them to do the aforementioned things that we do under private insurance plans – they promote patient wellness and encourage wise choices in dietary behaviors and healthcare decisions.

The Health Home team also understands the impacts of environment and socioeconomic factors on their clients and connects individuals to social services and community support partners – more than 60 such local organizations have aligned themselves with NFMMCs goals. By doing so, they can help improve the enrollees’ standing by finding them the resources, education, and jobs they need…which makes them healthier physically, mentally, emotionally and economically. This, in turn, leads them down a path that takes them off of Medicaid.

Feeding off the success of this program, NFMMC officially launched their Children’s Health Home program this month. Similar to the more adult-oriented Health Home, this one does virtually the same for at-risk kids, while providing them the tender loving care and special attention that’s required for their demographic. They become so involved with the kids’ well-being that they can even direct them to paths of education and trades that will lead to good careers and healthy lives. In just its first two years alone, the Children’s Health Home program is expected to serve 2,000 children.       

NFMMC’s efforts seem counterintuitive to the standard business plan and economic ideals of any hospital – they are using a cost center to temper health issues at the root cause, which significantly cuts down their potential long term revenues that could be gleaned from future surgeries and treatments.

That’s what makes NFMMC unique. CEO Joe Ruffolo, his board and management team clearly understand that a healthy economy creates healthy people and vice versa. God knows Niagara Falls needs such an understanding and commitment more than most urban areas do.

US healthcare spending, across all public and private provisions, will surpass $3.2 trillion this year. It’s up to all of us – consumers of healthcare and providers of healthcare – to mitigate costs. It’s good to see an organization like Niagara Falls Memorial holding up their end of the bargain far better than most. Because of the hospital’s efforts, Niagara County residents will be saved millions of dollars over the coming years and, at the same time, many of our friends and neighbors will be enjoying far better health. 

From the 12 December 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers