Tifft Nature Preserve


(This 1017th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 19, 2010.)


An exclosure protects trees from deer depredation at Tifft Nature Preserve

Protected trees were planted at the same time as those outside the fenced-in area


Tifft Nature Preserve is one of the finest natural history parks of this region. It is the only state-listed Important Bird Area (IBA) in Erie County. The Niagara River Corridor is, however, an international IBA. I am proud to have worked with Robert Andrle to gain that special status for both regions.


Ask any birder where is the best place to go to find birds and Tifft will be near the top of the list. In the spring especially there are often as many bird watchers as birds in the sanctuary. Someone will whisper to you, "Look, there's a...," and you can fill in the rest of that sentence with a species like Eurasian wigeon, white-eyed vireo, least bittern, Northern waterthrush, Virginia rail, Lincoln's sparrow, glossy ibis, woodcock or Canada warbler. Often, as that list suggests, the bird is rare and reported nowhere else on the Niagara Frontier that season.


There are many features that make Tifft a special area. It is a mix of ecological communities. There are vast cattail marshes, now thanks to Herb Darling divided by channels of open water. There are grasslands, areas of shrubbery and a woodlot of tall trees.


Tifft is also what birders call a migrant trap. In spring birds migrating north reach Lake Erie and most of them, rather than venturing across, follow the shoreline to the northeast toward Buffalo. Imagine for a moment that you are one of those migrants. You've flown most of the night and you're tired. As you follow the shoreline, you see that you are going to run out of woodlands. Ahead are only the rectangular gray buildings of downtown Buffalo, not a very appealing prospect. "Hey, pals," you chirp to the thrushes and tanagers and warblers flying nearby, "there's a good stopping place." And down you and your friends go for a stopover of a day or two.


Unfortunately, this great place is threatened today and for once it is not by humans. There are no developers trying to take over the preserve or extractors seeking to deforest it. Instead, the land faces at least three kinds of problems: invasive plants driving out native species, woodlands reaching maximum age and facing rapid die-off, and deer far over the carrying capacity of the area.


This property is very fortunate, however, to have working for it Tifft manager David Spiering, his able assistant Lauren Makeyanko, a team of volunteers and a supportive board, all acting under the oversight of the Buffalo Museum of Science. While much of the Tifft staff time is devoted to educational programming, Spiering in particular has identified the sanctuary's problems and is addressing them.


I spent an hour with Spiering a few weeks ago touring the preserve to see some of his activities. He first pointed out to me the aging cottonwoods, some already fallen, having lived out their normal life span. This woodlot needs replacement trees, but he showed me that there were none. Every prospective tree that peeps out of the duff is immediately cropped by deer.


Then he showed me a perfect demonstration of the damage deer are doing in Tifft (and elsewhere as well). He had established three comparison plots, each planted at the same time with trees: the first surrounded by a high fence, the second with each tree growing in a four- to five-foot tube, and the third planted with no protection. Everyone should find an opportunity to visit this experiment. There are no trees whatsoever left in the unprotected area and all of the trees are cropped at the top of the tubes in the second area. Only in the exclosure are the trees thriving and there every single one is healthy. Estimated deer carrying capacity for Tifft: three; number of deer in Tifft: sixty. Lesson communicated.


With support from the Niagara River Greenway Commission, Spiering has also set out more protected trees and shrubs -- sycamore, various oaks, silver maple, basswood, butternut, shellbark hickory, tulip tree, ninebark, elderberry, bayberry and spirea -- that will serve as replacements for the aging cottonwoods and for invasive European buckthorns now being removed. Several South Buffalo industries have assisted with equipment and manpower: among them Jerdau Ameristeel and General Mills.-- Gerry Rising