Natural History on the University at Buffalo Campus


(This 999th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 16, 2010.)


Red fox kit

photo by Jim Elliott


The north campus of the University at Buffalo is as densely populated as any urban area. Each day during the academic year some 20,000 students, faculty and staff members, spend their days there when school is in session. If you walk the halls, look into the large lecture rooms, visit campus dining rooms or seek a campus parking spot, you gain the impression that this is a severely crowded campus.


But those 20,000 people populate an area of 1192 acres, almost two square miles. That is still, of course, a very large crowd. A quick calculation indicates, however, that, spread out evenly around the campus, each of those people would have 2500 square feet to him or herself.


Of course, that population is increasing and the number of buildings multiplying. This is, however, a campus with many tranquil areas. One of them, a hardwood section called the Letchworth Woods, was, as the story goes, saved by the intervention of two neighborhood boys from being leveled when the campus was first being built.


And campus groundskeepers have set aside several natural regeneration areas, which botanist Patricia Eckel has annotated. Her web-based account,, describes almost forty plant species now found at these sites.


On a morning in late April I joined Chris Hollister and Charles Anzalone for a walk through another of these natural enclaves. We began our ramble at the St. Rita's Lane bridge over Ellicott Creek. It seemed remarkable that we were essentially alone there except for a few joggers following the Amherst bike path that skirts the campus.


It was too early in the season to expect the numbers of bird species that would arrive in a few weeks, but we found interesting birds nonetheless.


In fact, I added five species to my year list at the bridge. A phoebe "fee-buzzed" from various perches and three different swallows wheeled through the light breeze after insects. Several of them were barn swallows, easily identified by their deeply forked tails. There were also a few tree swallows, with their attractive blue and white coloration, and one rough-winged swallow. Tree swallows are nesting in some of the boxes nearby that were put out for bluebirds. They get here earlier each spring than the bluebirds and thus have first choice, but they are defensive against other tree swallows trying to nest nearby, so the bluebirds still get some of the boxes.


Rough-winged swallows are loners. A pair will nest in a cleft between rocks or in an outlet pipe along the creek. Each summer I see then at this bridge resting on the wires overhead.


Then Hollister pointed out a bonus bird. It flew from a rock along the side of the stream under the bridge to another rock. The flight was distinctive, its wings fluttering instead of flapping like other birds. Then when it lighted on the shore, the bird teetered, its tail bobbing up and down as it walked about. This was our second most common shorebird, the spotted sandpiper. Unlike its relative (and more common) killdeer that says its name, this bird calls an easily-recognized peet or peet-weet.


We followed the creekside west for a few yards, into a lovely glade where chickadees and goldfinches chattered and a cardinal whistled, while downy and red-bellied woodpeckers and a pair of nuthatches gleaned tree trunks for insects. We also heard a single yellow-rumped warbler cheedling in the distance.


It took us only a half hour to compile a list of thirty species, most of them common birds like crow, mourning dove, rock pigeon, ring-billed gull, red-winged blackbird and house sparrow. But then as we were leaving, Hollister called out "Meadowlark" and indeed an Eastern meadowlark flew out toward the broad lawns west of Lake LaSalle.


Hollister has been keeping track of the species he has seen on campus and the meadowlark was new to his list. It made 82 species, a good number for any park. It was a first for me on this campus as well over a 45 year period.


As a bonus, on the way home I stopped along the bike path with Scott Patterson to watch five fox kits at their den in a pile of underbrush. -- <a href=".."><i>Gerry Rising</i></a>