Tag Archives: Niagara region

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

Niagara Rocks!

photo by Michael Drahms

Extending over 7 miles from Lewiston, NY to Niagara Falls, NY, the Niagara Gorge offers many recreational opportunities to explore nature. You can experience the gorge at Earl W. Brydges  Artpark State Park, Devil’s Hole State Park, Whirlpool State Park, and Niagara Falls State Park. While there, stop to see the amazing rocks that make Niagara the wonder that it is today!

Visible downstream at the lowest level of the gorge, is the oldest visible rock layer within the gorge wall. This layer was deposited along a coastal area of a warm shallow sea in the late Ordovician Period, alternating between below and above sea level. The periodic exposure of the iron rich sediments resulted in the coloration visible in the sedimentary rock of the Queenston Shale. As you travel upstream the tilt of this layer causes it to disappear below visible levels.

Niagara Escarpment

The rocks seen in the walls of the Niagara Gorge are sedimentary; they are made from sediments deposited in a shallow sea that covered much of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada around 440 to 410 million years ago (middle part of the Silurian Period). Rocks, such as limestone, shale, sandstone and dolostone, are seen as distinct layers. Some of these layers, for instance the soft, easily eroded Rochester Shale below the caprock of Niagara Falls, contain a great diversity of marine fossils, such as brachiopods, trilobites, corals and crinoids.

These rocks are layered, from oldest at the bottom to youngest at the top along a long ridge known as the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is a prominent cliff-forming cuesta that extends from western New York into southern Ontario, northward to the upper peninsula of Michigan, and then bends downward into eastern Wisconsin and Illinois. The escarpment is capped by relatively hard, resistant rocks of the Silurian-age Lockport Group (chiefly dolostones and limestones), which are underlain by less resistant rocks (shales and sandstones, such as the Rochester Shale).

Layered Rocks

Near the end of the last ice age, around 12,300 years ago, the Niagara River began to flow over the Niagara Escarpment, located at what is now Lewiston, New York. Through the process of erosion the falls have receded to their present location.  In the past, the falls receded on average 3-6 feet per year. However, the rate has been greatly reduced due to flow control and diversion for hydropower generation, to a mere 3-6 inches per year. 50,000 years from now, at the present rate of erosion, the remaining 20 miles south to Lake Erie will have been undermined. There won’t be a falls anymore, but rather a series of steep rapids!

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While visiting Niagara Falls, or hiking in the Niagara Gorge, take some time to marvel in the events and processes that took place over time. From continental collisions to ice-age glaciers and the present day Great Lakes drainage basin, we are fortunate enough to witness the interactions of nature.

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Links to additional information about the formation and geology of the Niagara gorge and the Niagara Falls geological area.

Post and Niagara Gorge photos by Mike Drahm, State Parks, Niagara Region

A Squirrel In Every Color

Most everyone has seen a gray, and glimpsed or at least heard of a red, but have you ever seen a black squirrel?!

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An eye-catching squirrel at Whirlpool State Park with all black fur; Photo by M. Drahms OPRHP

Chances are if you have ever visited Niagara Falls State Park or any of the neighboring parks in the region you’ve seen what at first glance appears to be the shadow of a gray squirrel. That is, until it moves and starts chattering. Of the many types of squirrels in New York State, the black squirrel is not mentioned in most field guides but it most closely resembles the size and shape of the gray squirrel. It also eats the same diet of seeds and nuts with some fruits, fungi, and the occasional insect mixed in.

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A bounty of nuts and acorns are found by squirrels at State Parks along the Niagara Gorge. Photo by M. Drahms OPRHP

There is a good reason for the similarities in appearance and habits as they are, in fact, the same species. The black squirrel is a color phase of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), also known as a melanistic variant. Unlike species that change color seasonally, like the long-tailed weasel, these rodents retain the dark coloration their entire lives. The black fur is caused by a genetic mutation that is passed from generation to generation.

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Both colors of Gray Squirrel can be seen throughout the year in parks along the Niagara Gorge. Photos by A. Weibel & M. Drahms OPRHP

During winters in Western New York the ground is normally covered in a layer of snow and ice that would make the darker black squirrel easier prey for predators such as coyote, owl and domestic cats. However, a darker coat means more absorption of heat energy from the sun and so less energy used by the animal itself. In the end, the two seem to cancel each other out and gray and black squirrels hold equal dominance around the Falls.

These adorable acorn gatherers garner much attention from the visitors who come to see the beauty of Niagara Falls, hike the Gorge Trail at Whirlpool and Devils Hole State Parks, or ice skate at DeVeaux Woods State Park.

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A lithograph created by Charles Parsons of Charles Ellet’s footbridge (completed 1848) commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Parson_-_Niagara_Falls_Suspension_Bridge.jpg

As to when the variation first appeared in the area around the falls, it is largely unknown. Though there are historic records of black squirrels in the new world, there are none specifically referencing our area. And so, we are left with the urban legends. So the story goes, as the locals tell it, there were no black squirrels in Niagara Falls USA in the early 1800s, but there were across the river in Canada. When the first suspension bridge was built across the Niagara River, with the help of a young boy and his kite, the avenue was open and the black squirrels crossed the river to the USA. Whether the story is true, or whether it was simply over time that the genetic variation showed up in Niagara Falls too, we may never know. But when next you visit, make sure to keep an eye out for this not so common creature.

Post by Angelina Weibel, OPRHP, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region

Ice Volcanoes

Ice volcanoes erupt at Evangola State Park, by Dave McQuay
Ice volcanoes erupt at Evangola State Park, by Dave McQuay

Trekking towards Lake Erie at Evangola State Park, by Dave McQuay
Trekking towards Lake Erie at Evangola State Park, by Dave McQuay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The turn to chillier temperatures reminds us all that there’s so much to look forward to in the wintertime at New York State Parks. One of our favorite winter phenomena are the ice volcanoes that form along the eastern end of Lake Erie shoreline. During cold weather, waves splash against the shore where the spray and slush form cone-shaped ice sculptures. In the middle of the cone is an open vent. As long as Lake Erie has open water, the waves roll under the ice volcanoes and are channeled through the vents. Water explodes into the sky as much as 30 feet high, increasing the height of the ice cone. When Lake Erie freezes over the ice volcano vents freeze shut and they become “inactive ice volcanoes.” At Evangola State Park, naturalists lead school and public groups to see the amazing ice volcanoes and ice sculptures that are a rare phenomenon found only on a few of the Great Lakes.

featured image is of park patrons in an ice cave, another unusual ice formation along the Lake Erie shoreline at Evangola State Park, photos and post by Dave McQuay.