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 know...it was and is for mine.  



From the 23 January 2024 Wellsville Sun 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Some thoughts on feeding the birds


This birdfeeding season has left many bird lovers lonely and heartbroken.

Their feeders have been lightly used and, on many a day, totally unvisited.

That’s an outcome of the gentle el Nino winter we’ve had. Snowfall, which would normally cover natural food sources, has been minimal and it seems to thaw within a day or two of falling. That combined with recurring temperatures in the 40s — which activate insects as food while also keeping birds metabolisms at a more normal rate – has really lessened birds’ needs to visit your feeders. 

But, that’s about to change.

Coming up is a good stretch of days with highs in the 20s (and even the teens) with some overnight lows in the single digits. That will make the birds ravenous little creatures who need more calories than usual to stay warm and stay alive.

Finally, you will be able to once again enjoy the backyard birdwatching that you expect out of our winters.

Here come the questions:

How do you do it?

How do I do it?

Like politics or sports, everyone has their own opinions when it comes to this hobby. We each have our favorite foods and our favorite feeders. There’s an entire industry built around that – Americans spend $12 billion a year on feeding birds. Twelve billion! Whoa!

Do what you do for how it fits your yard and what you want from birdwatching.

Here are some reflections on my experiences and preferences about feeding the birds…

Mixed seed

Mixed seed is the most common type of birdfeed out there. You can find various mixed seeds for sale almost anywhere, from grocery stores to hardware stores.

I used to have a traditional feeder in my yard that was used to deliver this stuff, but ten years ago I completely ditched the use of mixed seeds. I am much richer for it – both in terms of my finances and my bird watching experiences.

I had found that mixed seeds, especially out where I live in farm country, had attracted too many undesirable birds that didn’t have the ability or desire to crack larger seeds but were well-fitted to consume small seeds.  My yard would be besieged by house sparrows, starlings and cowbirds. You don’t really want to feed those birds – the first two are invasive species that have accounted for a decline in native birds while the cowbird survives only by forcing its eggs and young upon other birds, to the detriment of the adoptive parents’ population.

Because of those avian fiends visiting my yard by the dozens, I would go through a whole feeder and a half of mixed seed every day. Over the course of a winter, that could put you in the poor house.

Sunflower seeds

Now, I use that traditional feeder and a tube feeder with large openings to administer sunflower seeds. This keeps the undesirables away, and instead attracts birds I want to see: chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals, and finches of various sorts. The finches have bills built for cracking seeds and eating their contents right at the feeder, while the chickadees and nuthatches have to do a little work to crack them open elsewhere, often using trunks and branches as levers and braces.

There are two types of sunflower seeds on the market – striped and black oil. I prefer black oil seeds because they are much easier for birds to open. Striped seeds are tough and you will find that fewer species and fewer numbers of birds have interest in them.

I also make it a point to buy sunflower with the shells intact. There are sunflower hearts and chips available on the market, but they can spoil easily in the feeder (even in just a day or two if they get rained on) and that will make birds sick.

One drawback to sunflowers is the shell casings that will be left on the ground below your feeders. You will have to rake and shovel them up at least once a week to prevent rot and disease.

Nyjer or thistle 

Nyjer seeds, also called thistle seeds by some suppliers, are small and expensive…you might find them to cost $2 to $3 per pound depending on where and when you shop (while sunflower seeds typically cost 50 cents to 75 cents per pound).  But, despite the cost, a 10-pound bag of nyjer will last a very long time. I can make that last most of the winter, even if my yard is frequented by a dozen or so finches on a daily basis.

Nyjer is one of my favorite seeds as the feeders attract some interesting birds – they will bring in goldfinches and winter irruptives from the Far North like very tame pine siskin and the occasional redpoll.

There are two ways to offer these seeds. One is a tube feeder made of metal or plastic mesh that the finches will hang from and pull seeds from. I used to use mesh feeders but stopped some years because they can be a pain to clean. It doesn’t take much for cracked nyjer seeds to spoil, so any seeds or casings left in the lower basin of a tube feeder will rot and make birds sick unless you clean it regularly (at least once a week).

A cleaner alternative to the tube feeder is the sock feeder. They typically feature a dome under which a sock or two hangs. In that sock you will put nyjer seed and the birds will do as they did with the mesh – hang from it and pull the seeds through the little holes.  The socks can be cleaned easily and not that they need much of it — they harbor very little disease — and most feeder kits come with multiple replacement socks.

It takes quite a while for flocks of birds to consume nyjer, so never fill the socks all the way up — even a third of the way might be pushing it. You will have to watch how the birds pace themselves over the first few weeks of their visits before you go wild filling the socks.


Suet, a collection of animal fat and seeds in a brick form, is a critical food source in the winter. The calories it provides are a lifesaver for insect eaters like nuthatches and woodpeckers that might have difficulty finding prey during the coldest days.

I have mine in a small hanging basket and keep two bricks going at once. 

Year round feeding

Some birdwatchers might be interested to know that I keep my seed feeding station going all year. It’s especially enjoyable in May and June when the goldfinches are in full color and in full song. It can make for a very colorful and musical lawn. I also enjoy watching a nesting pair of nuthatches in my yard – mom and dad will come to the feeder, each grab one seed, and fly it to their nest hundreds of feet away…all day long.

Where I live in Niagara County I can get away with this. But, I would never do it where I hang out in Allegany County…it’s bear country. You don’t want to tempt bruins with feed in the warm months when they are out of their winter slumber. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear…don’t get them used to getting easy meals in the presence of humans. 

Also, it should be noted that you should never put out suet from April to early August. It can get soft, which puts the greasy fat on birds’ feathers which can be taken back to the nest. That grease will cover an egg and suffocate the embryo.  

Enjoy the bird feeding and bird watching coming your way!

From the 12 January 2023 Wellsville Sun

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Keeping an annual list of birds

 Most birdwatchers are, in some way, listers.

Most keep life lists, counting all the species of birds that they’ve ever seen.

Then you have birders who tabulate both species and numbers for various special annual events like the Christmas Bird Count, Feederwatch, and the Great Backyard Bird Count.

And, there are those who take on a competitive Big Year, trying to accumulate as many birds as possible in a calendar year. The North American record is held Tiffany Kersten who saw 748 species in 48 states.

Last year, I started something I call the Little Year. By doing so, I kept count of all the species I saw in New York State.  

I wasn’t driven to accumulate as many species as possible, so I didn’t go out of my way to gather gull species in the wintry Niagara Gorge, nor did I spy upon wetlands at wildlife refuges in May to get shorebird species, and I didn’t chase down rare species whose locations were shared among birders online.

My only goal was to check off the birds I saw in my regular travels, as they happen, not as I make them happen.

Places that I frequent near home include our farm in eastern Niagara County, my workplace in the city of North Tonawanda, and the Erie Canalway Trail, all joined by a handful of hikes at the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge. Here in Allegany County, my home away from home, my birdwatching take place in our forest in Alma, the WAG Trail, Vandermark State Forest, and the Alfred University campus.

By keeping to the places I love, the places that see me often, in my quest to make this list, it brings a special sort of appreciation, wonder, and theorizing to the every day. It allowed me to see trends, consider species new to a place, and ponder what happened to birds I didn’t see.

For example, it was concerning that I didn’t see a northern harrier (marsh hawk) until October 30th, especially since I live among prime habitat of open hay and alfalfa fields.

I also went all of 2023 without a ruffed grouse sighting in Allegany County, despite seeing two mothers with babies the year before and forests around ours having lumber harvests which should, allegedly, increase numbers. Where did they go?  

The real head-scratcher to me was not seeing a single cuckoo, of either species. I had thought that the gypsy moth infestations of a few years ago would have allowed the caterpillar-eating birds to flourish and have healthy populations. It didn’t work out that way.  

On the positive side, I was able to see pairs of trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes in the summer, both species of which had only in recent years begun nesting at the Iroquois refuge. I also saw a pheasant near my home, a sighting not had in four years (a stark change from the old days when they were common). I also saw a least bittern, a bird I hadn’t seen in maybe 30 years.

Like every year that I get to spend time in the outdoors it was a good year. Over the course of 2023 I accumulated 124 species.

Many experienced birders might scoff at that number – especially from a nature columnist — as many hardcore bird chasers think 200+ is a worthy goal.  

But, my goal isn’t to get a number. It’s to get a better understanding for the birds I share my communities with. Those 124 provided enjoyment. They provided insight. They showed me how many birds are around me, birds adored and birds that maybe I took for granted.

I’m doing this list again in 2024 (and again, I’ll use this checklist from the New York State Ornithological Association: https://nybirds.org/Publications/NYSOA-FieldChecklist.pdf)

I encourage you to do the same, whether your birdwatching takes place in your backyard, in the vast state forests here in Allegany County, or the public trails of the Genesee valley. If you get 124 birds, 200, or 50, it’s something. Like it did for me, it will open your mind and heart — you’ll maximize your understanding and love for our feathered friends, no matter the final total.

Good luck.

From the 07 January 2024 Wellsville Sun