Tag Archives: The Nature Conservancy

Escape the Urban: Along Our Forgotten Coast

14 Aug

Subconsciously directed by the radial street pattern and daily commutes, when Western New York faces inward it focuses toward the Erie Canal Harbor, City Hall, the Lake Erie shoreline and the mouth of Niagara River. In to work, out to home. In for a Sabres game, out for the Bills. In for dinner and a show, out for a movie and trip to the mall. Such a forward and back mindset is understandable but self-limiting, and can skew our perspective when considering possibilities for exploration. As we work to improve a couple miles of lakefront in downtown Buffalo, we unintentionally turn our collective metaphorical back on a second coast almost as near but far less frequented.

If Niagara Falls is the place you take out-of-town relatives when they visit, then further to the north, the sweep of the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario is…what? Lewiston has succeeded in marketing its art fairs, jazz festival, free concerts at Artpark and shoppy/eaty Center Street, and does a respectable business as a cool hang out. But beyond? For many WNYers, there may as well be dragons there.

Let me offer a few reasons to keep driving north on the Robert Moses Parkway, so seldom trafficked that weeds grow in the cracks between the concrete slabs.  Drive down the Niagara Escarpment and the sweep of the possibilities open, Canada’s Queenston Heights memorial pinnacle dominating the terrain across the river, and (if the weather cooperates) verdant fields and forests stretching to the horizon to the north and east. First comes Youngstown and it’s charming timeless main street. Then Old Fort Niagara, the oldest continuously occupied military site in North America. Its 1726 French chateau makes Buffalo feel new. Then conveniently numbered creeks (4 Mile and up), corn and cabbage fields, farmer’s markets and apple orchards, bluffs and shoreline estates, two wineries, Wilson and the Boathouse restaurant, Olcott and its beach and marina, and finally, our destination, the Singer family farm.

I personally know exactly one Singer, Vivianne, who I met during a volunteer clean-up effort for The Nature Conservancy. More specifically, I and my sons were doing the clean-up. Vivianne, a bright-eyed outgoing woman with a hint of an English accent, was doing the hosting of TNC, though she wielded a mean rake herself. The Singers have owned land along Lake Ontario for several generations, and while much is cultivated for crops, they kept a substantial portion in its natural forested condition. That private nature preserve is now home to some rare old tree specimens – black birch and wild black cherry among them – and plenty of hard-to-spot songbirds. It was for those songbirds that The Nature Conservancy wanted a visit, and my boys and I were happy to help. Viv was equally appreciative of the assistance, and rewarded my sons with dark chocolate covered cherries from her new endeavor, Singer Farm Naturals.

Vivianne and her husband Tom have opened quite a modern outpost along this Lake Ontario farm road. Housed in a restored nineteenth century barn insulated by hay bales, and powered by panels from local Solar Liberty, Singer Farm Naturals is the foodie end of the family farm. Tom specializes in garlic, 22 varieties that he says are as unlike each other as the many strains of apples. Add in dried cherries and cinnamon covered apples, chocolate covered treats, blueberries and peaches and cookies from local bakeries, plus opportunities to U-Pick your own. When I recently visited cherries were out of season (just a short July window this year) and apples aren’t due til the Fall, but U-Dig potatoes were still an option. My kids jumped at the chance to play in the dirt.

Tom grabbed a heavy, four-tined potato fork and led my gaggle out into a nearby plot. Next to the barn and behind the solar array Tom has laid out his garlic and potato fields in the natural sandy soil. I am more than a little jealous – my home garden is so clay bound that I must compost and roto-till constantly just to keep it loose and productive. It’s perfect potato harvesting time; the leafy upper plants are dying off, and the underground tubers are as big as they’ll get. We start with a purple variety, a startlingly royal shade, as Tom easily overturns one section at a time and my children dive in to the Easter egg hunt. My first grab is for the mother potato, the “seed” planted by Tom earlier in the year. It collapses into wet mush in my hand, much to the laughing delight of my children. Tom teaches the kids about how the potatoes grow, which are good to eat and which have gone bad from exposure to the sun, and the differences in each variety. My haul after ten minutes of work was 12 pounds of purple, red and fingerling spuds. That they were a fraction of the supermarket price was hardly the point. Far more valuable was the knowledge of exactly where they had come from and the enjoyment of watching my sons do the harvesting. 

Escape the Urban: Dirty Work on the Ledge

1 May

Laurie and I, already caked with mud from the knee down and damp from the occasional drizzle, scramble up the rock and root incline towards the awaiting limestone wall. I am grateful to be outside and free of biting and stinging insects, but little else. The swamp we crossed twice was at full muck, engorged by record-setting April rain. Likewise, the farmer’s fields were nothing but sodden mud, and only recently did I shake the last of the clods that hung stubbornly on the bottom of my boots. Our data collection, the purpose of our survey, has been spotty and frustrating – we know there are white tail deer here, but the evidence has been lacking. Not the excursion I had in mind.

I step over a clump of fallen branches and suddenly slip awkwardly to the side, arms wildly in the air, as my footing gives way on a slick, rotting log.

“Don’t worry,” says Laurie. “I didn’t see that Triple Salchow just now.”

I stop and take a breather, bent over, hands on my knees, and laugh. What else can I do?

“There’s nothing glamorous about working on the Ledge,” Laurie reminds me, not for the last time.

No glory perhaps, but by the end of the day, much was accomplished. We had come to Counterfeiter’s Ledge, a Nature Conservancy preserve east of Akron that I have written about previously, to conduct a deer pellet survey, the first for this parcel. I volunteer with The Nature Conservancy because I respect their dedication to investigative science, understanding, and preservation of not just pretty places, but ecologically important ones. While it is well known that white tail deer live on the preserve, as they do most places in the area, no one had ever done the field work to collect the data to measure the size of the herd. Why should we care how many of such a common animal live in such a place? First, deer eat plants, some locally rare and of a variety that we wish to protect. Deer population information is later correlated to browse survey data, where we examine what the deer choose to eat when given their choice (few deer) and when they have less options (over-population). Secondly, this initial data set will act as a baseline for future research. You never know what PhD or ecologist will look to it in the future.

Laurie, my partner on this chore, grew up on “the Ledge,” as she calls it, and knows nearly every inch of it. Thin and fit, with short salt and pepper hair and glasses, Laurie wore the gear of someone who has been stuck in the mud on a Spring day many times before – knee-high waterproof boots, impenetrable jacket, ironic sense of humor. She still lives near enough to the Ledge to do volunteer work there regularly, in addition to splitting her time at the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society and Herbarium at the Buffalo Science Museum. In short, Laurie is one of the many unknown thousands of people whose donated time and talents keep a place like Western New York running.

For our survey, I was the pace counter, and measured off 100 foot (about 30 of my paces) sections along a particular transect, usually through the heaviest underbrush, using the compass on my watch to keep us in line. Laurie followed as the data collector, scribbling numbers and field notes (“saw two white tails in the tree line” or “no browse seen in some time”). Then, once I stopped my pace-count, the big moment: searching for piles of deer pellets (scat, dung, poop) in a radius at each point. An early Easter egg hunt, we’d nose around for the piles of droppings left from the winter past, and then upon discovery or not, moved on again to the next plot. So on and so forth, for two crossing, the length of the preserve. 

Along the way, Laurie endured my constant questions and pesterings with patience. Here was someone who knew the history of the land, one of the last unpaved outcroppings of the jagged Onondaga Escarpment, and had forgotten more about botany than I’ll ever learn. She taught me the names of many small plants I would normally look past on a regular hike. She showed me the remains of an old gypsum mine, long since overgrown. She spoke little about the counterfeiter that gave the ledge its name, though whether she knew more and wouldn’t say I can only guess. And she showed me the scourge of much upstate natural habitat, the invasive garlic mustard.

Little did I know this immigrant from Europe and Asia, that I previously thought a harmless weed with a pretty leaf that I allowed to grow in my own flower beds at home, is actually taking over habitat across the eastern seaboard, the midwest, and beyond. We uprooted it as we walked, an absent minded reflex for Laurie, obviously, who has spent much time on this task. Naturalists and volunteers can’t endlessly pull invasives – its not a sustainable solution in the long run – but without the maintenance provided by Laurie and others before her, it would be far more common than it already is, crowding out rare and sensitive native plants.

Our climate provides a narrow window for conducting the survey. One needs to count deer pellets between the melting of the last snow, and the blooming and blossoming of spring growth which would obscure the droppings. On our day wild leaks were already carpeting the forest floor, providing a regular swell of onion aroma, a sign to Laurie and I that we had waited to the last possible moment to collect our data. We found little on our first transect, neither on top of the ledge nor below, as we crossed irregular farmer’s fields and the droppings of corn, the crop of the year before. On our second transect, this time through wild grape and raspberry thickets, the soppy swamp muck, and up the ledge’s steeply sloped debris field, we similarly found little excrement evidence of deer.

“Are you done with your notes?” I would ask Laurie before moving on.

“It doesn’t take long to write “zero,”” was her common reply.

I began to worry we were doing this wrong. How hard could it be to find piles of poop on the ground? It was only in the home stretch, after scaling the ledge that had stopped my transit weeks before, covered as it was then in end-of-winter slick ice, that we finally found our deer. The top of the cliff here was drier and more rocky; the stream and marsh left at the base of the escarpment. It was also more open, easier to cross, the ground littered with acorns from the stand of mature oaks surrounding us. The first plot we counted 3 piles of pellets. The next 4. Then 6. We maxed out at 8 piles of pellets in a section thick with cover and food.

We had found our deer. We had completed the first survey data set for this preserve. I learned great deal more about the natural history and current ecology of the land. Not glamorous, perhaps, but satisfying.

Escape the Urban: Unexpected Discoveries

27 Mar

I have a bias towards novelty. Given the chance to forge a new trail or return to an old friend, I chose the unknown. And while this makes me not unlike most Americans (humans?), it does mean I miss some delightful surprises when an old dog shows new tricks, as Counterfeiter’s Ledge reminded me earlier this month.

As a review, Counterfeiter’s Ledge is a Nature Conservancy property east of Akron where I volunteer at preserve steward. That fancy title means I keep an eye on the place and stick my nose into as much ecology and restoration work as I am allowed, being an enthusiastic amateur naturalist (really, the only kind). On a recent weekend Ethan (Community Beer Works mogul) and I did an end-of-winter visit, dodging half-frozen puddles instead of snow drifts to see how the landscaped fared over the long dark cold. We noted freshly downed trees brought low by ice and wind, evidence of hungry bear ravaging a dead tree stump to eat the termites inside, and piles and piles of deer pellets, signs of a significant herd. We also found a sheer cliff that stopped us dead in our tracks. I literally had no idea it was there.

Now I was well aware that a ledge existed, the name “Counterfeiter’s Ledge” referring to the craggy limestone exposed during the last Ice Age. When Lake Ontario (not to be confused with Ontario Lacus) was known as Lake Iroquois, and drained out the Mohawk and Hudson rather than the ice-dammed St. Lawrence, the shoreline extended much further to the south. As the ice shelf retreated and the lake drained, it created a series of shorelines, digging out the loose material through wave action at each successive point. Each of these shorelines became a different escarpment, the most famous of which produces Niagara Falls. But there are a series of smaller escarpments south of the main ridge, one of which produces Counterfeiter’s Ledge and Akron Falls.

So while the ledge was not unexpected, the size and impassability were. In other locations the ridge is an annoyance but not a transit deal breaker. This was not scrabbling and bouldering terrain – slick with ice and a vertical wall, Ethan and I walked to the edge of the dark precipice slightly dumbfounded, our scouting of the east perimeter suddenly cut short. We weren’t going any further that way that day. As we were forced to retrace our steps I was reminded that even well-worn and oft-trodden lands have new secrets to share.

Escape the Urban: The Nature Conservancy – Counterfeiter’s Ledge

17 Oct

This past Monday, on a foggy and drizzly Columbus Day, I took several of my sons on a working hike to tend a little patch of Western New York wilderness. It is not a large place. It is not particularly beautiful, nor equipped with a spectacular view. In truth, it is no more special than many other tucked away places in the Great Lakes basin. But if we’re going to environmentally turn the tide, if habitat retention and restoration is to take hold, if rare species are to be protected, and if native ecology is to be maintained, then it will happen in these normal, non-special places like Counterfeiter’s Ledge.

Just east of Akron, along the dwindling Niagara Escarpment, Counterfeiter’s Ledge lies unknown and nondescript. A sanctuary of The Nature Conservancy, there is no special entrance or welcome sign other than the orange markers nailed to trees, demarking the outer boundary. A mix of wooded uplands, grasslands, and limestone cliffs (thus the “ledge” in the name – the source of the criminality of the natural feature remains unknown), Counterfeiter’s Ledge is a perfectly ordinary example of the temperate forest that once stretched nearly unbroken from Illinois to Maine. Which is why it is protected. It turns out that ordinary forest can contain extraordinary species, and in this case, the exposed limestone shelters several plants native but rare in this area.

Protecting places like this small corner of ridge, tree and grass is important, though unheralded. It turns out environmentalists can be a sucker for a nice view as much as anyone else. Blame it on John Muir or Ansel Adams, but dramatic mountains, valleys and canyons are often well protected and conserved, for visual, not ecological, reasons. Meanwhile, unremarkable forests and (even more so) monotonous grasslands are forgotten.

The Nature Conservancy is one of several groups trying to change that. I volunteered to assist their local efforts (they own a significant piece of Zoar Valley, which is open to the public – more on that in a future article) not just because I have enjoyed their wilderness before, though I have very fond memories of a kayak trip I undertook in Lake Superior along a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Keweenaw Peninsula. No, what drew me to the Nature Conservancy is their commitment to science-based stewardship, conducting research on the parcels they own, choosing land to purchase that has genuine ecological value, and pragmatic partnerships with private landowners. After all, this is the organization that is working with the US Army at Fort Carson, Colorado, to protect threatened short grass prairie, hardly the sexiest of ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy takes realistic actual victories over the ideological moral kind.  

As a Volunteer Preserve Steward with The Nature Conservancy, I don’t do groundbreaking earth saving work every trip. This summer we checked on the health of several trees planted a couple years ago as part of a grant. In the fall, as the ground covers opens and travel is easier cross country, I walk the perimeter and make sure those orange “nature sanctuary” signs are in place. Come winter, I’ll strap on my snow shoes and gaiters and gather deer scat, to count and gauge how big the herd is wintering on the site, and what they are eating. And in the spring its time to pull invasive weeds. All little things that hopefully add up to a big thing eventually.

If you would like to volunteer with The Nature Conservancy, go to their Central/Western New York webpage, or shoot me an email (see my profile in the upper right).