Swallow Hollow Trail

(This column was first published in the July 2, 2001 Buffalo News.)

The Swallow Hollow Trail at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge has been closed.

Arguably the finest nature trail in western New York, it was constructed about fifty years ago by a private hunting club, long before the federal government purchased the property to establish the refuge in 1965. Twice since then it received major renovations with nearly all the labor provided by youths from the Iroquois Job Corps Center and the Young Adult Conservation Corps.

But now the trail has fallen on hard times. Many of the wooden planks of the long boardwalk that constitutes the first two-thirds of its 1.3 miles have rotted, metal support structures have corroded and some attachments have been vandalized. A national refuge administrator evaluated the trail and immediately ordered it closed for safety reasons.

Last week I had an opportunity to walk the trail one more time and I jumped at the chance. I joined refuge biologist Steve Kahl, publicist Dorothy Gerhart, and Rick Lagouski, a regional correspondent for Ducks Unlimited, for an hour there. It was blazing hot when we left Knowlesville Road but even the midday heat could not compromise the quality of our outing.

What is best about this trail, I believe, is how it takes you through habitat transitions. When we entered the deciduous woods we found ourselves among green ashes and red maples. Silky dogwood shrubs, some entwined with nightshade vines, reached over the sides of the boardwalk. The dry ground was covered with sensitive ferns. The songs of a red-eyed vireo and several warblers rang from the canopy. A female cerulean warbler, rare elsewhere in this state, carried food for its young.

Soon we found increasing amounts of water, most of it covered with green duckweed. We were now among black willows and buttonbush. Cattails and sedges replaced the forest ferns. Green frogs twanged and bullfrogs called for rum. A swamp sparrow and a northern waterthrush sang. When the rickety boardwalk took us out over the open marsh we found a wood duck family feeding. A Virginia rail called, tree swallows sailed over the water and a crested flycatcher -- normally a bird of tall trees -- chased flying bugs below us at water's edge.

Here the boardwalk ended and we followed the berm back toward the road, its surface pockmarked by holes left by egg-laying snapping turtles and its sides undercut by muskrats. A lovely white penstemon blossomed at trailside. A yellow-throated vireo and a family of gnatcatchers fed in the willows just overhead. Finally we passed through a dark spruce forest, the ground softened with brown needles. There we heard chickadees, an ovenbird, a Canada warbler, a golden-crowned kinglet and a red-bellied woodpecker. Just before we came out at the road a veery posed for us singing.

The loss of this wonderful trail will, I hope, only be temporary. Its popularity is suggested by the count of 2000 visitors on another refuge trail just during May and June this year. But the Swallow Hollow Trail can no longer simply be repaired. Its condition has declined beyond that possibility. It must also quite appropriately provide access to the physically handicapped. And current plans call for the addition of interpretive signs and kiosks to educate the public about the refuge and its plants and animals.

A new organization, the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, has assumed as one of its responsibilities seeking funds to meet the three-quarter million dollar replacement cost for the trail. They have already developed a grant proposal that is supported by many regional groups. Anyone wanting more information about the Friends or interested in joining them should contact Ann Fourtner by e-mail or by surface mail at 1101 Casey Road, Basom, NY 14013.

I wish them well.-- Gerry Rising