Thursday, September 1, 2016


A few weeks back in this column we looked at the Onondaga trail, the most underappreciated trail system of the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge. This week, we’ll look at the other end of the spectrum, the refuge’s most utilized trail – Swallow Hollow.

Although somewhat off the beaten trail, Swallow Hollow has always been a real favorite of families, joggers, and schools due to its flat, dry trails and its totally unique boardwalk.
Those characteristics make nature accessible – and there’s plenty of it there. The 1.3 mile trail traverses through a mixed bag of habitats, all of which offer some fine viewing of plants and wildlife and arguably one of the better warbler migration stops and breeding grounds in all of Western New York.

As you start your hike at the parking lot and head to your left, you will walk on a third of a mile of boardwalk that is raised 3 to 5 feet above the swampy forest floor. It is a real engineering marvel, an outcome of an excellent partnership of government workers and volunteers. You won’t find any rickety planks, the walkway is mostly flat and it is high-quality -- protected on the sides by chain-link fencing and wooden rails. It’s this boardwalk which has delighted thousands of local students through the years as many elementary schools will send field trips there.

The forest underneath the boardwalk typically holds water well into summer, but this year, it was dry as a result of the once-in-a-generation drought that has wreaked havoc on the area. The drought has been so mighty that the creek near the end of the boardwalk was totally dry on my recent visit, something I had never seen in all my years.

That creek parallels the next section of path, which is finely-crushed gravel that heads a third of a mile due west. When that creek is flowing you will be delighted by numerous frogs of various species. It is also home to plenty of snapping turtles which will lay their eggs in that path in the early summer.

The trail then makes a 90-degree turn and allows you to view a large marsh of approximately 80 acres in size. In the spring it affords viewing of -- and listening to – a wide variety of ducks, coots and rails. This summer, though, the marsh was bone dry and it allowed vast tracts of reeds and loosestrife to take root, something that really caught me off guard.

The remaining half-mile of trail skirts this marsh. You will have excellent forests of your left, some of them deciduous featuring large oaks of excellent size, and in other places you will have mixed forests with some nice stands of spruce trees before coming to a few hundred yards of boardwalk that will lead you back to the parking lot.

It’s that variety of habitats – old growth forests mingling with vernal wetlands – that makes for excellent birdwatching, especially in the spring. Thousands of warblers will descend on this site and on any given hike from late-April to early-June you could count a dozen species of the “butterflies of the bird world.” The treetops are also home to pileated woodpeckers (which are the size of crows), hawks, grosbeaks and orioles. It’s really a bird lovers’ paradise in season.

The soil is also rich along Swallow Hollow, meaning wildflower enthusiasts can see a wide range of flowers, from trilliums to lilies to ginseng. May is an especially delightful month.
The good folks at the refuge do well in making sure nature lovers get the most out of that experience. They have eight interpretive signs located throughout the trail, telling stories about the plants and animals. And, there’s a pretty neat audio tour available – bring your cell phone; at various points along the trail you call a special number and be educated about your surroundings.

The trail is truly family friendly – everyone can go: The boardwalk is handicap-accessible; this is one of the few mile-long nature trails in WNY that can be totally navigated by a stroller; and, it’s a trail that’s incredibly popular with dog walkers, too (all dogs have to be on leashes for fear of upsetting nesting birds).

To get there: At the Route 63 and Route 77 junction in Alabama, head north on Route 63. Just over a mile from there on your right will be Roberts Road. Take Roberts all the way to the end and turn left onto East Shelby Road. When you go over Oak Orchard Creek, you will find the Swallow Hollow parking lot a quarter of a mile away on your left. The driveway is somewhat hidden, as forest growth obscures the primary sign, but there will be a small blue sign on your right pointing to Swallow Hollow.

While this summer’s drought might have taken away some of the luster of this hike, it’s only temporary. The awesome fall colors will make for a great photo op before the late-winter thaws and spring rains rejuvenate the wetlands at this awesome little trail.  


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

From the 01 September 2016 All WNY News

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