Tag Archives: Beaver Island State Park

State Parks Strengthens Niagara River Island Ecosystem

Just upriver in Erie County from Niagara Falls State Park lies New York State’s third largest island. Home to more than 20,000 people and split by Interstate-190, Grand Island is 28 square miles and divides the Niagara River into east and west branches.

Industry and commerce dominated this river and its shoreline for more than a century, leaving a legacy of water pollution, fish unsafe to eat, and loss of wildlife habitat so extreme that in 1987 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the entire 36-mile river an Area of Concern.

That federal listing set the stage for years of remediation efforts by New York State to clean up the river and shoreline. And now, it has led to State Parks, working with several partners, to begin the next chapter in healing the river – the restoration of several wetland areas of habitat along Grand Island critical for many fish and bird species that rely on the river for survival.

Grand Island is in the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

These projects focus on two State Parks on the island – the 895-acre Buckhorn Island State Park on the northern tip, a nature preserve which has some of the island’s best remaining marshland wildlife habitat, and the more-developed, 950-acre Beaver Island State Park on the southern tip.

With funding support from the EPA under a plan finalized in 2018, Parks staff have finished two habitat restoration projects at Grand Island and two more are under way this season.

At Beaver Island in the south, offshore rocky reefs have been added in the river to an area called East River Marsh to protect the shoreline from further erosion caused by boat wakes and wind. Thousands of native plants have been planted by hand to provide important habitat for fish and other wildlife.

In the north, Buckhorn Island has one of the largest remaining cattail marshes on the Niagara River. At a place called Burnt Ship Creek, contractors hired by Parks have created open water channels and “potholes” in the marsh to provide pathways needed for fish such as Northern Pike to feed and spawn. The new open spaces also allow sheltered nesting sites for such secretive marsh birds as the threatened Least Bittern, which prompted the conservation group Ducks Unlimited to partner with State Parks for this restoration project.

Habitat restoration projects on Grand Island by New York State Parks and other entities are shown on this map. Buckhorn Island State Park is at the northern tip of the island, and Beaver Island State Park is at the southern tip.
Completed habitat restoration project at Burnt Ship Creek at the northern tip of Grand island near Buckhorn Island State Park.

This season, parks crews are working at a place called Grass Island, which is not actually an island at all, but rather an area of shallow water filled with cattails and other aquatic plants, both above the water and submerged. Sometimes also called Sunken Island, Grass Island is just east of Buckhorn Island State Park across from the city of Niagara Falls.

In addition to cattails and other plants visible above the water, Grass Island is also made up of many acres of submerged plants, predominantly a species known as water celery or American eel grass. This plant provides food and cover for several types of fish, including the Muskellunge, the state’s largest freshwater sportfish, which spawns among the eel grass each spring. The Upper Niagara River is one of state’s most important habitats for this fish.

Above the water, many species of waterfowl and marsh birds use the island for nesting, feeding and nighttime cover. Pied-billed Grebes, a threatened species in New York, nest and raise chicks there in the summer. During the fall migration of Purple Martins, the birds will roost in the cattails by the thousands.

Grass island, as seen in a drone photograph. On the above map, Grass Island is at the top right of Grand Island.

Together, Grass Island forms a 20-acre ecosystem designated as a protected wetland by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). While Grass Island provides some of the most important habitat in the Niagara River above the falls, this area has been steadily shrinking in recent decades due to wave erosion caused by boat wakes or wind. Between 2007 to 2018, Grass Island shrank by more than a third, losing an estimated 1.5 acres of its above-water vegetation.

Use the slider bar to show the decreasing size of Grass Island. The left image is from September 2018, while the right image was taken in August 2007.

This season at Grass Island, Parks contractors are constructing underwater rock reefs similar to those successfully constructed at East River Marsh. Once the reefs are finished, crews will add submerged tree trunks with the roots still attached (called rootwads) to provide underwater structure needed for good fish habitat. Also, large numbers of native wetland plants will be planted behind the protective rock reefs to expand the area with dense vegetation.

Also this summer, similar rock reefs, rootwads, woody material, and native plantings will be installed along the shoreline at Buckhorn Island State Park to restore and protect coastal wetlands. And finally, another similar project is in the works for the shoreline along the new West River Shoreline Trail at Buckhorn.

These projects join other ongoing conservation efforts at Grand Island being done by DEC, and the Buffalo-Niagara Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group. Find a FAQ on the projects here.

Buckhorn Island State Park is also a listed Bird Conservation Area, with its marsh providing important nesting habitat for threatened species such as Least Bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren. The marsh serves as a feeding, resting and breeding area for ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. Common Tern find suitable habitat for foraging here. Additional birds of interest include a variety of species of ducks, herons, coots, moorhens, and rails. Spring and fall migrations along the Niagara River corridor can bring large numbers of gulls to this site.

Some of the birds of Grand Island known to be in the Bird Conservation Area.

Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter

The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year. Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, … Continue reading Gorge-ous Gulls of the Niagara in Winter


Together, these wetland restoration projects at Grand Island aim to maintain and strengthen this urban island ecosystem in a river that fuels the spectacular waterfalls only a few miles away that draw millions of visitors each year.

If a visit to Niagara Falls is in the works, consider also making a trip to Buckhorn Island State Park and Beaver Island State Park, both of which have car-top boat launch sites, to see this part of Niagara River and witness some of the efforts to help restore it. Please remember that these are sensitive ecological areas and habitats for secretive wildlife, so be respectful and take care when visiting these special places.

As always, whenever hiking, or in this instance, more likely paddling, consider “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Learn more on how to practice “Leave No Trace” by clicking on this previous post in the NYS Parks Blog.

Beaver Island State Park: This park has a half-mile sandy beach for swimming, adjacent 80-slip marina with both seasonal and transient boat slips, fishing access, car-top boat launch, multiple canoe/kayak launches, about four miles of bike and nature trails, nature center, playgrounds, picnic areas, athletic fields, horseshoe pits, an 18 hole championship disc golf course, an 18-hole championship golf course. In winter, visitors can snowmobile by permit, cross-country ski, snowshoe, sled or ice fish. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in-season by permit.

Also located in the park is the River Lea house and museum, home to the Grand Island Historical Society and built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to Grover Cleveland who visited the family farm on several occasions.

Buckhorn Island State Park: For a wilder experience, try this less visited park, which is a nature preserve of marsh, meadows and woods that mark the last vestige of once vast marshlands and meadows that bordered the Niagara River. There are nearly two miles of nature trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. The preserve includes two launches for kayaks and canoes. There is ongoing restoration to re-establish wetland cover and water levels and increase the diversity of native flora and fauna. This effort aims to increase public access with more non-intrusive trails, overlooks and bird watching blinds.


Cover shot: A work barge involved in habitat restoration at Grass Island. All photos courtesy of NYS Parks.

Post by David Spiering, Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Coordinator, NYS Parks

“Big Day” Birding Adventure in State Parks of Western New York

Planning for a New York State Parks birding “big day” started before the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world and lives. Originally, it called for a team of three to four birders to see how many species could be tallied in one day while visiting only State Parks during the height of spring migration in May.

Besides being a fun adventure, I wanted to highlight the fabulous birding opportunities for visitors to the State Parks in Western New York, and bring attention to habitat restoration projects in several parks that have enhanced the birding in the parks. The third week of May is the best time to see the most bird species in Western New York and it was perfect that my kids and wife were scheduled to be away for a trip to Boston.  

While the school trip and the team approach didn’t work out due to COVID, my original target date of May 20th held up and I embarked on a solo, New York State Parks only, birding big day. Of course, this was done while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance from other Parks visitors as spelled out in these guidelines.

And the day started early…

Sunrise at Golden Hill State Park.

* 4:40 a.m., Golden Hill State Park, Niagara County. While listening in the darkness for any vocalizing nocturnal birds, an Eastern Whip-poor-will sounded off like an emphatic alarm clock– “whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will! whip-poor-will!” This uncommon migrant to this region was the first great addition to my big day list. Two more heard vocalizing shortly thereafter in another part of the park to add to the excitement.

Many bird species started singing as sunrise approached and then after sunrise, I quickly realized that it was going to be a great day because there were warblers and other migrant birds all throughout the park.


Cerulean Warbler at Golden Hill State Park

I departed Golden Hill around 8:45 a.m. with 93 species, including 22 warbler species. I also realized that luck was working in my favor, as evidenced by one notable example. While scanning Lake Ontario with my spotting scope, I heard a Cerulean Warbler sing from some trees behind me. I turned away from the lake to go find this rare migrant and watched a pair of Sandhill Cranes fly by as I walked. Had I not turned when the warbler sang, I would have missed the cranes!

* Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, Four Mile Creek State Park, and Fort Niagara State Park, Niagara County, through 1 p.m.  The lakeshore parks were all filled with migrant birds and it was tough to leave them even though I was well behind schedule at this point. With 109 species already, it was time to head south along the Niagara River for some species I had “staked out” in the weeks beforehand.


Red-tailed Hawk at Fort Niagara State Park
Swainson’s Thrush at Four Mile Creek State Park
Bay-breasted Warbler at Four Mile Creek State Park
Red-eyed Vireo at Fort Niagara State Park

* 1:10 p.m. Joseph Davis State Park, Niagara County. Not only was the Pied-billed Grebe still present as I was hoping, but I found another sitting on a nest. After some quick photos to document the breeding activity of this State-listed threatened species for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas III project, I hiked the trails to find a few other likely breeding species that were present a week earlier. It’s rewarding to see that the vegetative habitat in the eastern part of the park is still in good shape after an invasive species removal and bird habitat restoration project was completed in 2013. I was involved in that project design through my employer Ecology and Environment Inc (E&E)., a WSP company, as part of grant funded project with Buffalo Audubon Society and Audubon New York.


Pied-billed Grebe at Joseph Davis State Park
Baltimore Oriole at Joseph Davis State Park

*2 p.m. Artpark State Park, Niagara County. Even among local birders, not too many people think of Artpark as a birding destination; however, an upland grassland habitat was created on the Lewiston Plateau as part of a 2003 project involving E&E and the Village of Lewiston with funding from the NYS Environmental Protection Fund and Niagara County. This grassland has hosted Grasshopper Sparrows for years, and this year I discovered rare Clay-colored Sparrows there as well.


Grasshopper Sparrow
Orchard Oriole

While I expected to get these two “staked out” species, I also picked up two nice bonus species with Black Vulture and Merlin, both seen flying from the expansive view looking toward the Niagara Gorge. My list was up to 120 species.

* 2:45 to 4 p.m., Reservoir State Park and Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara County. A quick check of the Lewiston Reservoir provided an Osprey but not any hoped-for shorebird species. While Niagara Falls State Park is one of my favorite local places to go birding, I didn’t spend a lot of time there beyond picking up a few expected species in the afternoon on this warm day. Falling more behind schedule, I had to drop one of the planned stops and reluctantly passed by Buckhorn Island State Park, which is a great place to go birding. However, I felt that I had better chances of adding new species at other parks with less hiking time. I likely missed out on a few species there.

* 4:15 p.m. Beaver Island State Park, Erie County. This spring, the local birders have regularly visited the recently restored marsh habitat along the Niagara River in East River Marsh. Marsh birds have really taken to this location and I added a handful of species including Sora and Marsh Wren to my list. It’s been delightful to see such a rapid response from birds to this restored habitat. New York State Parks took on the design and construction project efforts with funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This serves as a great predecessor to some upcoming similar projects at Buckhorn Island State Park.

*5:50 p.m. Amherst State Park, Erie County. This is the park where the warmest day of the spring caught up with me through more than fatigue. I’m a regular visitor to the park in spring and fall for birding and family hikes but I’m always there in the early morning. I had never seen so many people in the park as on this visit and I knew right away that birding would be a challenge, as well as trying to maintain social distancing even though most in the park did not share that concern. I picked up two staked out species plus an obliging White-breasted Nuthatch, a common species that I was in danger of missing out on for the day.

*6:50 p.m. Woodlawn Beach State Park, Erie County. A walk on the beach on a beautiful evening with the sun starting to set over Lake Erie was picturesque but without any new shorebird or gull species that I was hoping to add. A Cooper’s Hawk seen from the parking lot kept up the streak of adding at least one new species at each park on the day.

*8 p.m. Knox Farm State Park, Erie County. The last stop was good to get Eastern Meadowlark and American Kestrel in the extensive grasslands and then the last addition for the day was a Wood Duck that I saw fly into the woods. With sunset nearly on hand, I called it a day and headed home.

And what a birding adventure it was. The final count was 138 species, which was much better than I was expecting. Other notable numbers were 185 miles by car, over 30,000 steps on foot, and 11 State Parks visited.

While I have known of the tremendous birding in these parks for many years, it was great to get out and experience so many of them in one big day. It only reinforced to me how important these parks are for providing bird habitat, and how habitat restoration projects I’ve been involved with professionally have improved bird habitat even more at several of the parks.

Birding has been one of the best ways for me and many others to get outside during these pandemic times. A big day is at the more extreme end of the birding hobby, and not the way for someone to start into birding. Visiting your local State Park is a great place to go and start out.  For the more experienced birders, the bar has been set at 138 species for a New York State Parks (only!) big day. I’ll be interested to read about the efforts of others who try a similar adventure.


Cover Photo- Baltimore Oriole at Joseph Davis State Park. All photos by Mike Morgante.

By Mike Morgante, Senior Group Leader, Ecology and Environment Inc.


Resources

  1. The New York Breeding Bird Atlas III has something for everyone from beginner birders to the most experienced.
  2. Find background information and recordings of bird calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  3. Review the 23 separate Bird Conservation Areas to be found in New York State Parks across the state.

Tundra Swans at Beaver Island State Park

It’s winter on the Niagara River.  While most of us are looking forward to spring, migratory birds from the high Arctic are frolicking here as if the river were a tropical resort.

The tundra swan foreshadows the arrival of winter on the Niagara frontier.  During the waning days of autumn, large flocks of these elegant birds congregate along riverbanks and small islands wherever there is shallow water where they remain for several months feeding mostly on the roots of submerged aquatic plants.  Sometimes they are joined by lesser numbers of mute swans  and trumpeter swans.

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Adult tundra swans along the Niagara River.

As our tundra swans settle into their winter environs they often behave in a stealthy manner, choosing to lead a low-key existence until the annual waterfowl hunting season ends. However, it’s easy to locate these birds from their unique calls which are reminiscent of those of a baying dog but with a bit of a musical lilt.  By the end of January, large flocks of hundreds of birds emerge where they can be observed feeding, preening their feathers or engaging in mating rituals.  One of the best areas to observe the tundra swan is at Beaver Island State Park located at the south end of Grand Island where the Niagara River is widest.

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Adult tundra swan preening it’s feathers.  During preening, or straightening and smoothing the feathers, swans distribute uropygial oil, a special oil that helps keep their feathers dry.  Swans and other water birds produce uropygial oil in their uropygial gland.

It’s easy to identify the tundra swan.  Adult birds are pure white with black legs and have a black bill with a distinctive yellow spot just below the eye. This area of the bill is known as the lore.  Immature tundra swans are also white but their head and neck is streaked with gray.  They often travel with the adults.  Contrast that with the features of the mute swan, a non-native species brought over from Europe, which has an orange bill with a black base and short legs.  The neck is slender and is always held in a graceful shape resembling the letter “S”.   A trumpeter swan on the other hand, has a heavy all white body with a long neck that is held straight whether on the water or in flight. The bill and the legs are black.

Tundra Swans_P Leuchner1
Adult and juvenile tundra swans.

The tundra swans will remain here until early spring.  As the weather warms they will depart on the long journey to their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle.

Greenway Corridor
Aerial view of the Niagara River Greenway

The ecological significance of the Niagara River has long been recognized.  In 1996 it was the first to be designated a Globally Significant Important Bird Area.  Then in 2005 New York State added further support officially establishing the Niagara River Greenway.  Since that time millions of dollars have been invested in habitat restoration and enhancement projects significantly enhancing the biodiversity of the Niagara River corridor.

Post and photos by Paul Leuchner

The Return of the Eagle

Between 1950 and 1972, chemical contaminations such as DDT almost eliminated bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The chemicals lead to soft, very breakable eggs resulting in no baby bald eagles and a drastic decline in the population, at which time the species was put on the NYS endangered species list as well as the federal list. By 1960, only one active eagle nest was known in New York State. So, in the late 1970’s, an intensive restoration program began to rebuild the population in the state, to hopefully remove them from the list. The program involved bringing in and raising wild bald eagles from the Great Lakes region and Alaska in hopes that the birds would reestablish the population here in New York. The project, known as “hacking”, was a big success! In 2014, a statewide survey found approximately 330 nests in New York, 250 of which were occupied by breeding pairs, causing the species to be moved from  endangered status to threatened within the state. In addition, the birds’ successful recovery across the U.S. led to the removal of bald eagles from the federal Endangered Species list.

immature-bald-eagles-often-hang-out-near-the-nest-during-the-summer-notice-that-these-birds-are-all-brown-indicating-they-were-born-this-year-photo-by-state-parks-july-2014
Immature bald eagles often hang out near the nest during the summer. Notice that these birds are all brown, indicating they were born this year. Photo by State Parks.

Bald eagles mate for life and will usually return to the same nesting site year after year, somewhere near their birth nest area. Bald eagle pairs perform various activities together before mating, such as sharing food, building the breeding nest, and sometimes even courtship flights. The nesting season in New York ranges from the beginning of January to the end of August. Between September and December some birds may stay if there is open water and ample food, while others may migrate to a wintering location. During the nesting season, the eagles are extremely sensitive to human disturbances, such as loud noises, fast movement, or being too close to the nest. If too many disturbances happen during the nesting season, the eagles may leave or even abandon their nest. This past summer, State Parks and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enacted a plan to help protect the bald eagles nesting in Beaver Island State Park from these human disturbances. Similar protections are in place for eagles nesting in other State Parks such as on the Hudson River, Thousand Islands, and other regions.

one-of-many-no-motorized-vessel-buoys-located-around-the-nesting-area-photo-by-josh-wulf-july-2016
One of many “no motorized vessel” buoys located around the nesting area. Photo by Josh Wulf,2016.

One protective measure is to keep motorized vessels away from the nesting bald eagles. The “no motorized vessel” buoys extend 330 feet all around the nesting area in all directions. Non-motorized vessels such as kayaks or canoes are permitted. In all cases, there are still federal navigation laws around the islands to help protect the habitat, such as maintaining a 5 mph speed limit while within 100 feet of the shoreline. There are also signs on the land that note the edge of the prohibited area for anyone walking on foot. You can help by paying attention to signs to keep your distance from nesting eagles and also avoid disturbing groups of eagles you may see in the winter.

immature-bald-eagle-in-late-winter-notice-the-white-feathers-are-starting-to-come-in-but-the-bird-still-lacks-the-white-head-of-the-adults-photo-by-gary-mcdannel-2014
Immature bald eagle in late winter. Notice the white feathers are starting to come in, but the bird still lacks the white head of the adults. Photo by Gary McDannel, 2014.

Preserving and maintaining good habitat in State Parks has played an important role to the return of this majestic species. With the cooperation of everyone, we can continue to enjoy the wonder of seeing bald eagles on New York’s lakes and rivers, thanks to the remarkable recovery effort that brought the eagles back.

For more information on bald eagles and the protection, please visit the NYSDEC website:

Viewing Tips

Life History

Protection

Post by Jillian Harris, State Parks

 

Kayak Adventures in the Niagara Region

Is kayaking on your bucket list?  Have you ever wanted to try it?  Paddle sports are on the rise according to paddle sport statistics and kayaking is the most popular form of paddling.  Kayaking allows you to experience new things and have your own unique experience with nature. Being only a few inches off the water and a few feet away from wildlife, you gain a new connection and understanding of the natural world around you. Kayaking is a recreational activity that is fun for all ages.

Here at the Niagara Region Interpretative Programs Office, we share our love of this paddle sport and pass our knowledge on to park patrons through free Smartstart paddling orientation kayak programs during the summer season. Our adventures lead us to paddle in the following waterways within New York State Parks:

The Lagoon at Beaver Island State Park

Calm waters of the lagoon make this a perfect location for first time kayakers, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Calm waters of the lagoon make this a perfect location for first time kayakers, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

Gallagher Beach on Lake Erie at Buffalo Harbor State Park, the newest state park

Winds and other traffic add an element of difficulty, making this a great option for non-first timers! photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Winds and other traffic add an element of difficulty, making this a great option for non-first timers! photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

Woods Creek at Buckhorn Island State Park 

A prime example of managed Niagara River Wetlands, and a great opportunity for wildlife viewing, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
A prime example of Niagara River wetlands, part of ongoing restoration efforts and a great opportunity for wildlife viewing, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

East branch of Twelve Mile Creek at Wilson Tuscarora State Park

Paddle from Tuscarora Bay past cattails into the marsh area, great for bird watching, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Paddle from Tuscarora Bay past cattails into the marsh, great for bird watching, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

And the west branch of Twelve Mile Creek at Wilson Tuscarora State Park

Share this waterway with local boat traffic as the creek will take you into Lake Ontario, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Share this waterway with local boat traffic as the creek leads into Lake Ontario, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

Beaver Island State Park Kayak Experience

Escape the daily grind, leave the phones and tablets behind and join us for a kayak lesson.  Learn about kayaks, paddles, apparel and how to be safe on the water.

We’ll start our journey by launching off the EZ Dock Launcher, where you just put your kayak (which we supply) down on the rollers and roll off into the water.

Dock Launcher at Beaver Island State Park, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Dock Launcher at Beaver Island State Park, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

As soon as you’re floating on the water, chances are you will float right into a patch of fragrant water lilies, which are scattered all throughout the lagoon.

Along with the aquatic plants, there is an abundance of wildlife.  You can witness Great Blue Herons wading in the shallow waters or flying overhead, while common terns are diving next to you trying to catch their next meal!

In the lagoon, we have an Osprey nesting platform.  From our kayaks below we have had the pleasure of seeing the parent birds keeping watch over their chicks.

Swimming right below our kayaks is a diverse group of aquatic life such as fish and turtles, while flying around us are dragonflies and damselflies.

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Our evening kayak classes are often accompanied by the ever telling song of the bull frog, singing along with the cicadas which are heard all throughout the park on any given summer day.

Getting out on the water with us can give you a chance to see all of this; but also give you a new understanding of kayaking as a sport, learn more efficient ways of paddling, and a few tricks of the trade. So what are you waiting for? Find a kayak class near you and see where your next adventure will take you.  We are here. Where are you?

Sunset on the Niagara River, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks
Sunset on the Niagara River, photo by Tina Spencer, State Parks

Post by Tina Spencer and Kelly Sieman, OPRHP, Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office, Park Naturalists