Special to OBSERVER
One of the best-kept secrets here in the Niagara Region is the annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimage sponsored by the Buffalo, Jamestown and Presque Isle Audubon Societies and the Burroughs Audubon Nature Club of Rochester. I lived in Buffalo for more than 15 years before I knew of this wonderful opportunity.
Campers climb on one of the massive boulders in the area known as Thunder Rocks in Allegany State Park. The unusual rock city is an excellent place to study the geologic history of New York State.
Pilgrimage participant has a close encounter with a docile milk snake.
This secret is unfortunate because I consider this by far the best natural history activity of each year. The pilgrimage is a family event with dozens of activities for children and adults going on every minute from dawn until well after dark over a three-day period. This year it will be held from May 31 to June 2.
To give some sense of the range of activities, I will take you through my own experiences on a recent pilgrimage. Although the program differs each year, many of its main features remain constant.
I arrive on Friday morning in time to check in and obtain my cabin assignment at the Allegany Park headquarters. Given a choice of hikes, I join entomologist Wayne Gall for one of the longer walks along the Beehunter Trail. Our 20 hikers share experiences along the way, and Gall points out dozens of species of wildflowers, trees, ferns and insects. At one point, we stop to listen to a hooded warbler and suddenly the beautiful little bird flies to a nearby tree to inspect us. For several minutes, all I hear are oohs and aahs and camera clicks.
The evening program in the big tent is about wolves, and Paul Schnell has brought his own wolf for each of us to see and even pet briefly. Unlike most dogs, this handsome animal displays no response to our touch.
The day is not yet done. I join a car caravan heading out on an owl prowl. At stops along the way, we hear screech, great horned and barred owls. Our group leader, Chuck Rosenburg, calls in the barred owls and we are able to observe them in our flashlight beams. It is hard to tell if the noisy owls are hooting at each other or at us.
The next morning before breakfast, I help Jay Wopperer lead a bird walk for a number of other early risers. We identify perhaps 30 species, including an osprey flying across Red House Lake. Morgan Jones points out a brown creeper nest under the bark of a pine tree.
Having completed my responsibility for the day, after breakfast I first visit Bob McKinney's bird banding station. Youngsters crowd around him, some having an opportunity to hold birds briefly in their hands.
Later I visit Dick Christensen's inexpensive used book sale and then join Tim Baird for another bird hike.
In the afternoon, I audit a herpetology class. First, everyone has an opportunity to handle a remarkably docile milk snake. Then the group walks to a stony creek bed and the dozen children are asked to find, catch and bring in a frog or salamander. I am amazed at the number of different species these youngsters show us, including a rare Wehrle's salamander.
Supper is a chicken dinner and an opportunity to share our day's experiences. Afterward, we all again head for the big tent where we are entertained by a Pennsylvania conservation department officer who visits bear dens to obtain information about their status. His experiences are both exciting and humorous. He tells, for example, about his dad watching him crawl into a cave where a bear was hibernating. After a few minutes, a half-awake bear appeared at the cave entrance. The father's first thoughts were, "Has this huge bear eaten my son?"
Another owl prowl ends the day.
Sunday morning starts as a repeat of Saturday. As we are watching birds in a woodlot, one of our participants points out a perfectly camouflaged fawn curled silently on the ground just a few feet from us.
I attend a wildflower identification program and a geology trip to Thunder Rocks in the morning and finally head home at noon.
I urge you not to miss this year's pilgrimage. For information visit www.alleganynaturepilgrimage.com. The online registration deadline has past, but fear not! You can register and pay with cash or check at the Pilgrimage registration table.
This article is reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in The Buffalo News on May 5, 2013. Gerry Rising is Professor Emeritus at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education. He has been the Nature Watch columnist at The Buffalo News since 1991.