Tag Archives: birdwatching

Celebrate a Centennial At Allegany State Park 1921-2021

A century ago this week, thousands of people flocked by car and even horse carriage to remote, wild and forested hills in southwestern New York’s Cattaraugus County, near the border with Pennsylvania, to celebrate the opening of a new State Park.

According to a contemporary account in the local Salamanca Republican-Press newspaper, the visitors to the new Allegany State Park used a roadway that had been quickly built over the bed of a former lumbering railway in the region, which also had been part of the state’s 19th century gas and petroleum industry. With people coming in from as far as Buffalo, parking was quickly filled and some people walked a great distance to reach the dedication site, located near an old lumber camp.

Enjoying a picnic of sandwiches, doughnuts, cookies, coffee, iced tea and “milk in unlimited quantities” as reported by the newspaper, the crowd listened as Albert T. Fancher, a former state senator from the region and chairman of the new park’s commission, vowed that Allegany was poised to quickly grow, with areas nearby suitable for creation of a man-made lake and game preserve.

Another speaker, Franklin Moon, dean of the state college of forestry, said the creation of public parks like Allegany were the best remedy for “national irritability,” as he reflected some of the trepidation in the U.S. over the then-recent rise of Bolshevism in Russia.

Some of the Opening Day crowd at Allegany State Park on July 30, 1921.

Today, Allegany State Park welcomes more than 1,500,000 visitors a year to explore western New York’s premier wilderness playground, created thanks to the vision of Fancher, a petroleum industry executive who was a political force in Cattaraugus County for several decades, as well as Hamilton Ward, a Spanish-American War veteran who later founded the Erie County Park Commission and became New York State Attorney General, and Chauncey Hamlin, president of the American Association of Museums and founder of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Fancher became the park’s first director until his death nine years later in 1930. Fancher’s original cabin, where he stayed at the park with his wife, is still there. Hamlin supported the creation of a science camp at the park.

Starting out in 1921 with about 7,100 acres purchased for $35,800 (equivalent to about a half-million dollars today, or about $70 an acre), Allegany State Park has grown over the years to encompass more than 64,800 acres and includes rare remaining portions of old growth forest with trees more than 100 years old that were left undisturbed during the area’s lumbering and petroleum boom that ran from the early 19th century to the 1920s. Park naturalists have mapped more than 5,200 acres of old growth forests of hemlocks and hardwoods, with the majority of that in the Big Basin area. Some experts believe this is the state’s largest contiguous track of old growth outside the Adirondacks.

Given the uncertainty of planning during the pandemic, the park is not holding a mass gathering like was done in 1921, but is hosting a virtual celebration on July 30th 2021 that will include a library of digital content. The park is also offering a summer series of interpretive programs highlighting the park’s history.

The virtual celebration and other digital content can be viewed HERE starting noon on July 30, 2021.

Additionally, a set of four self-guided interpretive booklets are for sale at the park which guide visitors to 100 points of interest within the park, and includes topics of interest such as early European settlement, the petroleum and lumbering industries, early ski facilities in the state, and the work of Civilian Conservation Corps crews during the Great Depression.

Now New York’s largest State Park, Allegany has a wide variety of recreational resources certain to foster tranquility and soothe any irritability. Due to its size, this sprawling park is divided into two distinct areas – Red House and Quaker Run. Red House has 133 campsites, 130 cabins, 16 full-service cottages, two group camps, five miles of paved bike paths, many miles of hiking and horse trails, and swimming at man-made Red House Lake, with boat rentals. Its historic Tudor-style administration building, completed in 1928, includes a museum of park natural history

A canoeist paddles past the park’s historic Administration Building.

One of the new cabins at Allegany State Park.

The Quaker Run Area has two lakes, 189 campsites, 230 cabins, 37 full-service cottages, two group camps, many miles of hiking trails and horse trails, swimming at Quaker Lake, a boat launch at the Allegheny Reservoir, which has 91 miles of shoreline and is popular for boating, fishing, kayaking and waterskiing. Named for Quaker missionaries and settlers who came to the area in 1798 at the invitation of Seneca Chief Cornplanter to assist with agriculture and education.

The new bathhouse at Quaker Lake.
A fishing pier on Quaker Lake.

Hikers have a wide variety of trails to choose from, with some highlights including:

  • Located on the park’s Quaker Run side, the Blacksnake Mountain Trail is one of the oldest trails in the park with a unique history. Parts of the trail follow the 1888 section of A&K Railroad (Allegheny & Kinzua), which is evident in the gentle slope on the north side of the three-mile loop. In 1933, the professors of the Allegany School of Natural History, also known as “the School in the Forest”, (located near Science Lake) mapped out a hiking trail they officially named the “Nature Hiking Trail” to conduct their field studies with their students.  It was later renamed “Blacksnake Mountain Hiking Trail” in 1980 after Governor Blacksnake, an Iroquois Indian chief for the Seneca Nation of Indians, who allied with the United States in the War of 1812. The trail crosses several streams with new bridges, and a short steep climb leads to mature black cherry trees estimated to be between 100 and 130 years old. Cucumber magnolia, tulip trees and hemlock are other trees of interest along the way. This is a favorite trail for spring wildflower lovers. Trillium, Dutchmen’s breeches, squirrel corn, and spring beauties are just a few of the ephemerals that announce the changing of the seasons. Near the top of the trail, look for a granite milestone marker which represents the border of New York and Pennsylvania, where you can put a foot in each state.
  • Bear Paw Hiking Trail is named after a style of snowshoe used by Native Americans and was originally designed as an interpretive snowshoe trail in 2015 by park naturalists. The 2.4-mile trail starts at the rear of the Summit Area parking lot. Look for brown numbered markers which highlight unique flora such as ground cedar, various hardwoods, and lowbush blueberries. Halfway along Bear Paw, at the end of the loop, hikers will be treated to the masterfully built Stone Tower, an Allegany State Park landmark, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. The tower offers beautiful views of large open valleys, the city of Salamanca and Red House Lake. The second half of the trail traverses the south side of the ridge, through beech and maple forests and into a meadow. Depending on the time of the year, hikers may get to sample low bush blueberries or wintergreen growing in this area. The last section has a short, steep incline that adds a bit of challenge. Bear Paw ends at the Summit Warming hut.
  • The 5.2-mile Robert C. Hoag Bicycle Path is named after the former Seneca Nation President and was dedicated in June 1990. Starting at the Red House entrance of the park, the path passes old apple trees and large stands of spruce and Scotch pine, along with many varieties of hardwoods, shrubs and wildflowers. The most used part of the path is around Red House Lake, where a 3.4-mile trail offers the potential to spot such wildlife as beaver, muskrat, great blue heron, and many species of waterfowl. Spurs off the trail lead to the Red House Wetland Interpretive Complex, Beehunter Cabin Trail and Camp Allegany. Several benches are located along the way to relax and enjoy the surrounding beauty.
  • Work on the new Quaker Multi Use Trail began in the summer of 2020 between the Taft cabin and the Quaker General Store. The second phase is in the final design stages and will continue the trail to Quaker Lake Beach.  Once complete, the trail will offer five miles of accessible paths winding though woodlands and fields along ASP Route 3 and Quaker Lake, including several scenic crossings of Quaker Run.

For birdwatchers, Allegany State Park contains a Bird Conservation Area, which provides breeding and migratory stopover habitat for forest-interior species such as Swainson’s Thrush, Blackburnian Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. Of the 75 neotropical migratory songbird species that breed in New York, 64 have been observed within the park. The park supports a large breeding population of Osprey and one of the largest breeding concentrations of Cerulean Warblers found in New York, both of which are state species of special concern. The BCA also provides habitat for other state-listed species, including Bald Eagle (threatened), Northern Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk (all species of special concern). Find a map of the BCA here.

A birdwatching blind in one of the park’s wetland areas.

During the winter, the Art Roscoe Cross Country Ski Area boasts 26 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. The area is named for an early park forester and ski advocate who later became assistant park manager and worked there from 1928 to 1968, earning the nickname “Father of Skiing” in western New York. For other winter sports enthusiasts, the Quaker Run and Red House areas also have a combined 90 miles of snowmobile trails.

Art Roscoe uses an axe to cut the ribbon to open up the new cross country ski trail network in 1972.
With 90 miles of snowmobile trails, Allegany State Park is popular with sledders.

Allegany also was the site of numerous fire towers, where observers would watch for signs of wildfires in the forests. One of those 60-foot towers, built in 1926 at the 2,365-foot summit of South Mountain, was restored and reopened to the public in 2006, and now offers a spectacular view of Red House Lake and the surrounding area.

The fire tower at the South Mountain summit offers panoramic views of the region.

For another gorgeous view, the Stone Tower, built between 1933-1934 by crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps, stands at 2,250 feet and overlooks the city of Salamanca. On a clear day, the view can stretch for up to 20 miles.

CCC crews also helped establish the park as a regional center for skiing, building a downhill ski center and two ski jumps, which allowed for competitions that would draw thousands of spectators through the 1970s, when the jumps were closed.

Top, one of the Civilian Conservation Corps crews stationed at Allegany State Park. Below, the Stone Tower that was among the projects built by CCC members.

Allegany also has a unique geological and natural history compared to elsewhere in the state. The park is part of a geological region called the Salamanca Re-entrant, which is the only area in New York that was never reached by glaciers during the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago. This gives the region its distinctive soils, topography, surficial geology, and flora and fauna.

The well-known “Thunder Rocks” in the park’s Red House area may appear to casual observers to be some of the massive boulders scattered throughout much of the state by  Ice Age glaciers but this unusual “rock city” is actually bits of ancient inland seabed created some 400 million years ago, and revealed through geological uplift and erosion.

Thunder Rocks are sections of an ancient inland seabed that has been exposed through geological uplift and erosion.

Wild turkeys, now widespread throughout New York, owe that comeback to Allegany State Park, the Regional Park Commission, and the Conservation Department. These birds were largely absent from the state by the beginning of the 20th century, due to overhunting and habitat loss, but in the 1940s, a small population of birds had come into the park, likely from Pennsylvania to the south. From the 1950s to the mid-70s, wild turkeys in the park were live trapped by wildlife officials, who used net-firing cannons to safely capture the birds, which were then taken to the Catskills, Adirondacks and elsewhere in New York state to reestablish the birds in the wild. Some turkeys were even sent to other states in the Northeast and to Canada as part of wildlife restoration efforts there.

All this only begins to scratch the surface of the park’s fascinating history and what it has to offer. So, in honor of the venerable park’s centennial and its next century to come, plan a visit to explore. Interactive maps of  Allegany State Park can be found here and here.

Above, wildlife managers fire a net from a cannon to trap wild turkeys as part of restoration efforts in New York and throughout the Northeast. A plaque now marks the location of the first efforts.

Cover Shot – A colorized historic postcard of Thunder Rocks in Allegany State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks

Early morning mist rises from Quaker Lake.

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

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, with as many as 100,000 gulls stopping over the river during the winter and fall.

The river is attractive to gulls because it offers them food and shelter, and serves as a rest stop for long migrations from the arctic to the Atlantic coast. As well as providing plenty of small fish, the area also serves as protection from storms that can affect the Great Lakes during the wintertime.

Created in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of visitors annual drawn by the immense power and beauty of the thundering cataracts. Looking down from the edge of Niagara Gorge in autumn or winter, the air above the turbulent waters is at times white with wheeling and diving gulls.

In recognition of the river’s important habitat for feeding, nesting, wintering, and during migration, it has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.

Just down the river, Fort Niagara State Park on Lake Ontario also is recognized as part of this area.


“The site is particularly noteworthy as a migratory stopover and wintering site for Bonaparte’s Gulls, with one-day counts ranging from 10,000-50,000 individuals (2-10% of the world population). One-day Ring-billed Gull counts vary from 10,000-20,000, and one-day Herring Gull counts vary from 10,000-50,000. The river also hosts a remarkable diversity and abundance of waterfowl.”

Audubon Society on Important Bird Area in Niagara River Corridor

These gull populations peak in the winter, so going bird-watching is a great way to get outdoors during the cold season and see yet another wonder that the falls, the river and this region have to offer.

If you choose to go birding along the river this season, here are some gulls you might end up seeing:

Bonaparte’s Gull

A nonbreeding Bonaparte’s Gull in flight. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)
A breeding adult Bonaparte Gull, with its distinctive black head. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Bonaparte’s Gull is a small gull with a white underbelly, grey back, and thin, black beak. The top outer parts of its wings have wedges of white edged in black. Breeding adults have black heads but nonbreeding and young gulls have a white head with a dark smudge behind its eye. These gulls like to winter near people and, in fact, are the only gulls that regularly nest in trees!

Ring-Billed Gull

A Ring-Bill Gull stands on a rock. (Credit-State Parks)

Ring-Billed Gulls have yellow beaks with a black band, or ‘ring’, encircling it. The breeding adult has a gray back and black wingtips. In the winter, these birds develop tan streaking across the head. These yellow-legged birds may be found further inland.

Herring Gull

An adult Herring Gull. (Credit-State Parks)

Herring Gulls are on the larger side and are much like the quintessential seagull. They have yellow eyes, pale pink legs, and a red spot on the bottom of their yellow beaks. An adult has a grey mantle and black wingtips, much like the Ring-Billed Gull. These birds start of uniformly dark and then get paler and they grow older, their plumages varying over their first four years. Herring Gulls may be found year-round along the Niagara.

Great Black-Backed Gull

A Great Blacked-Back Gull in flght. (Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

The Great Black-Backed Gull is the world’s largest gull! It has black wings and mantle, a white underside as an adult, and red rings around its eyes. Like the Herring Hull, younger birds’ plumages change as they age; the younger Great Black-Backed Gulls can be differentiated because of higher contrast in their colors than the young Herring Gull. These gulls come to Niagara from the East Coast.

Iceland Gull

An iceland Gull in flight. (Credit-Audubon Society)

Iceland Gulls are slightly smaller than Herring Gulls. These gulls, when adults, have a pale gray mantle and wingtips that can vary in color, from white in the east to black in the west. The darker winged gulls used to be labeled ‘Thayer’s gulls’ and considered a different species, but the two were combined in 2017. These gulls come to Niagara from the Arctic.

Sabine’s Gull

A Sabine’s Gull in flight (Credit-Audubon Society)

This small gull has a spectacular wing pattern, long pointed wings, a notched tail, and a short black bill with a yellow tip . Generally a prized sighting for birders, because it nests on tundra of the high Arctic and migrates south at sea, often well offshore. Those from eastern Canada and Greenland mostly migrate eastward across North Atlantic and then south.

These are just six of the 19 different species of gulls have been spotted here. So, grab your binoculars and see for yourself!


Sources:

Cover Photo: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Audubon Society of New York: https://ny.audubon.org/

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Important Bird Areas of Canada: https://www.ibacanada.com/