The Conewango Wetlands Preserve


(This 1019th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 3, 2010.)


The Dedication Boulder


On a lovely mid-September Saturday, I drove to South Dayton to join members of the Nature Sanctuary Society of Western New York (NSSWNY). We were there to dedicate their new 44-acre Conewango Wetlands Preserve.


Conewango is now the fifth of the society's sanctuaries, all located in southern Erie and Cattaragus Counties. These preserves now comprise over a quarter square mile of wildlands.


The Conewango property is on Frog Valley Road in the town of Leon about a mile outside the village of South Dayton. The sanctuary is close to the Cattaraugus and Chautauqua County border and the North Branch of Conewango Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River, forms its western border.


Society president Steve McCabe unveiled the new plaque mounted on a 500-pound granite boulder dedicating the property and talked briefly about the process that brought it to attention of society members. The Department of Environmental Conservation's senior wildlife biologist Ken Roblee had identified the area as a site available for purchase where many interesting amphibians are found. With no state funds at his disposal, Roblee called the attention of Pat McGlew of Nature Conservancy to the property. Because the property is isolated from other conservations areas, McGlew could not interest the Conservancy in its purchase, so he turned to NSSWNY. Having their funds and donors readily available was critical to NSSWNY’s success in negotiating and closing on the purchase quickly this past spring.


Dick Rosche, society vice-president and Conewango custodian, then talked about the three major fiscal sponsors who provided over sixty percent of the purchase price. They are Mildred Baker McVey, the Alvin Amos Wagner Charitable Trust, and Elna Lewin. Rosche mentioned in particular how Mildred McVey had been a supportive sponsor of his own interest in wildlife and conservation. The sponsors' names are identified on the plaque.


Dave Swift then read some appropriate comments by Edward Albee. My favorite: "God bless America; now let's save some of it."


The Ribbon Cutting


Once the ceremony and the ribbon cutting (by society member Jackie Swift) were completed, we walked back into the sanctuary property. When we started out, Rosche turned to me and said, "Doesn't look like much, does it." Ahead of us for perhaps 200 yards was a meadow, part of it recently hayed, the shocks lying akimbo on the ground. Beyond that were a marshy area and the beginning of a woodlot.


I suppose to a city-dweller, Rosche's comment might have been accurate, but to me (and him as well, of course) this is a perfect and much needed sanctuary. Today most of our sanctuaries protect forests and, while those are also important, too few preserves protect grasslands. And grassland birds are among those species in steepest decline. Meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and even field sparrows that were everywhere when I was young are hard to find today. One of the reasons: spring harvesting and planting destroy their nests.


The Conewango meadowlands will continue to be mowed, but only in the fall. That will prevent the progression that would otherwise soon turn them into woodlands as well. We could see that progression happening to the area along the trail we followed. Already shrubs and trees were taking over to form a hedgerow.


The biodiversity of the preserve is already more than living up to the high expectations held for it before it was purchased. Rosche told me about the five pairs of tree swallows and the pair of eastern bluebirds that successfully fledged young in the eight nesting boxes set out this past spring. He also listed a number of uncommon birds that made those hayfields their home this year.


We too were well-served with birds as we walked out across the meadow. We noted seven raptor species including a goshawk, an osprey and a harrier, and a few cedar waxwings hawked flies from the tops of saplings.


Botany was well represented as well. Knowing only a very few wildflowers myself, I pointed out what I thought were the tiny white flowers of a daisy fleabane. "Sorry, Gerry," Joanne Schlegel whispered to me, "those are white asters." And she promptly found a fleabane to show me the differences. Will I ever learn not to speak out when the real pros are in the audience?-- Gerry Rising