Grassland

 

(This 1010th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 1, 2010.)

 

Moth Mullein

Persistence pays.

 

That has been the mantra of David Cooper and Bob Baxter as they have overcome all kinds of obstacles in establishing the Lewiston Grasslands Restoration Project. Both have fine environmental credentials: Cooper founded and chairs the Niagara Frontier Entomological Society and is past-president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society. Baxter chairs the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council.

 

I joined them to tour this conservation area at the end of South 8th Street in Lewiston just a stone's throw from Portage Road and the Robert Moses Parkway.

 

Stone's throw indeed. In the mid-1990s this area was a rock-strewn landfill. When those roads and the local power plant were being built, trucks simply backed up to the side of the escarpment and dumped tons of rock down the slope. A dozen years ago this attractive area was a boulder-covered moonscape.

 

Now you have to search out evidence of that sad history. Instead, on my visit I found a meadow resplendent with wildflowers in full bloom: the striking golden buttons of common tansy; white umbels of Queen Anne's lace; black-eyed Susans ready to have their petals counted; aster-like light blue knapweeds; dark brown spires of curled dock; five-foot tall common mullein with its dozens of five-petal yellow flowers and nearby its relative, the delicate moth mullein with only a few yellow flowers remaining, the rest already replaced by tiny berries at the ends of thin inch-long stems; disorderly blue flowers of the underappreciated chicory, still a favorite of mine; milkweeds, some already with pods; several varieties of butterfly-weed, one with bright orange blossoms; teasels still bedecked with lovely lavender florets; flocks of tiny daisy fleabanes; two kinds of vetch; and in wet areas a few cattails. Most of those I could identify were common and many of them aliens but they are certainly attractive.

 

So much for one of the early responses to a Cooper-Baxter proposal: "It wouldn't be esthetically pleasing." The "pleasing" alternative offered: soccer fields.

 

Why this particular project? One of our national problems is our loss of grasslands. This loss has taken two forms: (1) grasslands have been plowed for agricultural purposes, and (2) untended grasslands through a process of succession have turned rapidly into woodlands. You might think that farm fields are still good bird nesting areas, but plowing and harvesting those monocultures a significant toll on grassland species. The Lewiston grassland also has to be closely monitored, with shrubbery like the ubiquitous staghorn sumac removed in order to prevent succession and invasive species controlled.

 

This restoration area seeks, in particular, the return of five grassland bird species: savannah, grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, Eastern meadowlark and bobolink. Already in the brief time the meadow has been available to them, four of those five species have been recording nesting there. Only the rare Henslow's sparrow is still missing.

 

Those are not the only birds found there, of course. On the morning I visited we saw over a dozen species including indigo buntings, goldfinches, chipping sparrows, killdeer and even a family of spotted sandpipers.

 

The area is also home to butterflies, dragonflies and other insects as well as wildflowers and small mammals. A silvery blue butterfly was found there by David Muller and confirmed by Ichiro Nakamura, a first record for the region. On our morning walk we came across a lovely little hairstreak butterfly.

 

How did this project come about? It is the usual story of obstructions overcome by a series of local underappreciated heroes. David Whitt of Pheasants Forever had his organization help fund early work, another example of an organization of hunters stepping forward when hunting is not the motivation. The Lewiston maintenance department has been a major contributor of services, Brian Meigs playing an important role. Ed Sullivan, Niagara County Brownfields coordinator, provided important support. Organizations helped as well: in particular Tim Henderson and his colleagues at ROLE, Residents Organized for the Lewiston Environment.

 

But eventually the current status of this fine project derives from these two leaders who refused to give up. Theirs is a record of pleading, prodding, pushing and compromising with local officials until the administrators were either won over or gave ground as the easiest out. Their task isn't complete: they still have only 24 acres of the 40-acre site, but their efforts continue.-- Gerry Rising