Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge: One of the best kept secrets of Western New York

Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge: One of the best kept secrets of Western New York

map newYou’ve heard from George Payne on numerous occasions, most recently in Warner Castle & the Sunken Garden: Two Public Gems in Highland Park.

Today George shares an account of his visit to the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, located in the rural towns of Alabama and Shelby mid-way between Rochester and Buffalo.

In the essay, George reflects upon the care people must take when wandering into natural sanctuaries.

George’s piece reminded me of the recently opened Brickyard Trail in the Sandra Frankel Nature Park in Brighton. (see The ground breaking of the Brickyard Trail in Brighton and “Memories of the Crab Apple battles”, Ghosts MIGHT walk the beautiful Brickyard Trail in Brighton. and More on how the Sandra L. Frankel Nature Park came to be)

The Brickyard Trail was built to be as environmentally sensitive as possible. So far the Trail has been kept trash and debris free. Humans, birds, wild turkeys, frogs and deer have amicably coexisted. But the Trail will inevitably take some toll — even if limited — on the wetland ecosystem. (see “Brickyard Trail attendance increases daily”, Brighton-Pittsford Post )

But a wildlife refuge in rural Orleans County and a well traveled trail in suburban Rochester are really not so different. Both require human care and respect.

Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge: One of the best kept secrets of Western New York


Photo by George Payne (My wife Amy’s boot. The frogs at INWR are omnipresent.)

The Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge has an uncanny reverence to it. I have been there twice and it has charmed me and my wife in ways that we can not really put into words. There is a quietness there that feels easy and wild all at once. I love the sound of the crickets in the tall grass and the muddied trails with a million frogs. There are so many frogs that it is sometimes impossible to take a few steps without stepping over, by, or on one of them. It becomes a feat just to make it to the water’s edge without causing the deaths of at least one of these magnificent creatures. This abundance is both shocking, beautiful, and precious.

There are spaces in the INWR which invite you to sit on a random pile of leaves underneath powerful oak trees and just fall asleep. But rest would be hard to come by in this soundscape. The water is teeming with the activity of living and dying. Cardinals beeping and blue jays squawking — everywhere the noises of nature taking her course.


Photo by George Payne

I knew someone who would have thought this blog was a form of exploitation. One time I told her that I wanted to find a way to capitalize on the phenomenon of white deer at the Seneca army depot in Sampson Park. Not to make money off the deer, but to help people visit them and become part of their conservation. She took it the wrong way and lost a lot of respect for me.

A few years after our last conversation, I know what she is talking about. As with the habitat of the Seneca White Deer, this space — and these beings — are too perfect to be seen by humans. She’s right. What good will we do by coming in there and trampling all around? All I can do is sigh in frustration. She’s right. It is too good for me. It’s too beautiful for my eyes. It’s too happy without me. When I write about this space, as was the case when I planned to raise money for the deer before, I do so at great risk to these animals. After all, they do not need people, blogs, tourism, or money. I get it. She was right.

But what happens when we stop visiting? What happens when our children stop seeing what wild feels like? What happens when these preserved areas are reserved for trees and animals but not human beings? Where will we go to learn about our selves? How will we know what it means to be fully human without Nature which made us? My friend was right. We do not deserve the INRW. But if we can go there with this in mind, I think we can have an experience which will not only respect the space itself but also inspire people to want to go out and respect other spaces in equal measure. The more spaces that humans respect, the less we will need to call areas sanctuaries and refuges in the first place. The very name is an example of our inability to respect every landscape as a scared expression of God’s love for the planet.


Photo by George Payne

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.


      Photo by George Payne

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.


Check them out! They seem really cool!!

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.


Photo by George Payne

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.IMG_20151101_133431570_HDR

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.

IMG_20151101_133859408Wild 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.

-Rachel Carson

One of my favorite sections on the INWR website describes the seasonal habitats within the refuge.


Photo by George Payne

  • Spring

    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.

    Trail Guide-by-Cell

    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.

  • Summer

    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

    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.

  • Winter

    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.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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