One of the best kept secrets of Western New York.
A Bit of History
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, located in the rural towns of Alabama and Shelby mid-way between Rochester and Buffalo, NY has been described as one of the best kept secrets of Western New York. The refuge is one of over 540 National Wildlife Refuges in the United States managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Going back in history, this 10,000+ acre refuge was once entirely covered by Lake Tonawanda. Due to draining and filling of the lake since the last glacial period, the area now consists of swamps, marshlands, and wet meadows. This lake they called Tonawanda covered much of Western New York. Through the slow passage of time the lake drained and filled until only a few swampy areas remained. Here, wildlife flourished.
According to the INRW,
centuries later, the Seneca Indians began to drain the swamp and clear some of the forests for farming. To the first European settlers in the early 19th century the remaining clusters of oak trees were reminiscent of an orchard and so they named the area “Oak Orchard Swamp.” Settlers expanded artificial drainage of the swamp to improve logging and farming operations, but, plagued by high costs, and a cycle of muck fires and floods, the outcome was marginal at best. By the 1950s, landowners were looking to further develop and convert the lands to other uses. This development would have resulted in the loss of these vital wetlands forever.
On May 19, 1958 the federal government established the Oak Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, using funds from the sale of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, or “Duck Stamps”. To avoid confusion with the neighboring Oak Orchard State Wildlife Management Area, the refuge was renamed Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in 1964.
- The refuge is a key link, serving the western portion of the Atlantic Flyway.
- The refuge encompasses 10,828 acres which includes part of the ancient Oak Orchard Swamp.
- Designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Attracts 268 species of birds.
- Four distinct habitats, forests, grasslands, emergent marsh and hardwood swamp, found within the Refuge also support 42 species of mammals, plus amphibians, reptiles and insects.
- Numerous wildflowers can be seen throughout the refuge during spring, summer and fall along all the refuge nature trails and roadsides.
While researching online I found this recording created by William Ruscher at the Onondaga Trail.
Today, the refuge serves primarily as a nesting, feeding, resting and staging areas for migratory waterfowl. The varied habitats support approximately 266 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, plus reptiles, fish, amphibians and insects. Bald eagles have maintained an active nest on the refuge since 1986. Management goals also address the needs of species of special concern including black tern, black ducks, osprey, American woodcock, and peregrine falcons which use the refuge during some time of the year.
Wildlife to Watch
- Kestrels, bald eagles, osprey, Great blue heron
- Ducks, geese, shorebirds, songbirds
- Black crappie, bullhead, yellow perch, freshwater clams and mussels
- American toad, numerous species of snakes (non-poisonous)
On the INWR website, it is explained how grassland nesting birds have suffered decades of population decline, primarily due to a loss of critical habitat. The refuge maintains several large grassland areas, providing nesting and foraging habitat to these birds, which often require large unbroken grasslands for their survival. Smaller grasslands, which generally do not provide good habitat, are slowly being converted to more appropriate and useful habitat types.
They also explain how emergent marsh is important to waterfowl as well as wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and others. Species such black tern, bald eagle, Virginial rail, muskrat, mink and green frog all need emergent marsh for their survival. This habitat is characterized by shallow water, approximately 1-2” feet deep, with waterloving plants emerging through the surface of the water. Much of the emergent marsh in the area was long ago drained and converted to other uses. The refuge tries to restore and manage this habitat for the many species that depend on it.
If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose-the emblem of the National Wildlife Refuges.
You may meet it by the side of a road crossing miles of flat prairie in the middle West, or in the hot deserts of the Southwest. You may meet it by some mountain lake, or as you push your boat through the winding salty creeks of a coastal marsh.
Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.
Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live.
One of my favorite sections on the INWR website describes the seasonal habitats within the refuge.
Spring waterfowl migration may peak from the last two weeks in March to the first two weeks in April. It is impossible to determine ahead of time when the actual peak will be since the migration is dependant on number of factors including weather and timing of the spring thaw. Geese typically leave the marshes at sunrise to feed in fields within a 15 mile radius and then return to roost at sunset. The best times see large numbers of geese is during dawn or dusk as they are leaving or returning to the marshes. Goslings make their first appearance in May.
Shorebirds and warblers generally peak in May. There is a shorebird observation area on Feeder Road just north of Route 77, which when flooded often holds shorebirds in the spring. If any marshes or impoundments are drawn down in the late summer or fall, shorebirds can often be found using the mud flats from August to October fattening up on their southward migration. During both spring and fall migrations, Swallow Hollow and Kanyoo Trails are some of the better areas to observe migrant warblers and other songbirds due to the variety of habitats present. Mammals such as red and gray fox may occasionally be seen hunting in fields.
The summer months on the refuge are often quieter than spring and fall, although several waterbirds do stay and breed on the Refuge, including Rails, Moorhens, and Coots. The state endangered Black Tern and American and Least Bitterns can also be found breeding in the marshes. A large rookery of great blue herons is located along Route 63 just south of Oak Orchard Ridge Rd. Many songbirds also breed on the refuge such as cerulean warbler, northern waterthrush, and yellow-throated Vireo all of which can be found along Swallow Hollow trail. grassland birds such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, and savannah sparrows breed in the fields and are sometimes seen along Casey Rd., Oak Orchard Ridge Rd. and Sour Springs Rd. (near Roberts Rd.).
Fall migration is much more extended than spring and typically peaks in October. Due to vegetation growth during the summer months, migratory waterfowl are less visible from the overlooks during the fall, although numbers do occur, with Mallard Overlook offering the best viewing.
In recent years, great egrets have used the marshes around the refuge as a staging area during the fall months with large numbers often seen during this time.
Red-tailed hawk,white-breasted nuthatch, northern cardinal, American tree sparrow, and American goldfinch are the most common winter birds. Uncommon species include American kestrel, morning dove, pileated woodpecker, dark-eyed junco and house finch.
During the winter months, overlooks and parking areas are not plowed on weekends. Trails are not cleared of snow.
I must confess that I have never seen a bald eagle in the wild. The one Bald Eagle that I have seen in a zoo looked frail and defeated. Apparently, this park is a natural habitat of these spectacular birds. Over the years, two pairs of bald eagles have established nest sites on the refuge. I understand that eagles start nesting behavior in January and continue until eaglets fledge in July. Thankfully for those who take pleasure in watching them, eagles stay on or near the refuge for most of the year, leaving only to find open water in winter or in times of drought. Always charitable with specific information that enhances the wildlife viewing experience, the INWR office encourages eagle viewing from Cayuga Overlook, where they can be observed flying above.
Contact the Refuge
From the New York State Thruway (I-90) take exit 48-A (Pembroke/Medina). Go north on Route 77 for approximately 8 miles. At the 4-way stop light in Alabama Center continue straight for one more mile to Casey Road. Turn left on Casey Road. The Headquarters Building is one mile west.
1101 Casey Road
Basom, NY 14013
Phone: (585) 948-5445