(This 1154th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 5, 2013.)


Thunder Rocks


One of the best kept secrets here on the Niagara Frontier is the annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (ANP) sponsored by the Buffalo, Jamestown and Presque Isle Audubon Societies and the Burroughs Audubon Nature Club of Rochester. I lived in Buffalo for more than fifteen years before I knew of this wonderful opportunity.


This secret is unfortunate because I consider this by far the best natural history activity of each year.


ANP is a family event with dozens of activities for children and adults going on every minute from dawn until well after dark over a three day period. This year it will be held from Friday through Sunday, May 31-June 2.


To give some sense of the range of activities, I will take you through my own experiences on a recent pilgrimage. Although the program differs each year, many of its main features remain constant.


I arrive on Friday morning in time to check in and obtain my cabin assignment at the Allegany Park headquarters. Given a choice of hikes, I join entomologist Wayne Gall for one of the longer walks along the Beehunter Trail. Our twenty hikers share experiences along the way and Gall points out dozens of species of wild flowers and trees and ferns as well as insects. At one point we stop to listen to a hooded warbler and suddenly the beautiful little bird flies to a nearby tree to inspect us. For several minutes all I hear are oohs and aahs and cameral clicks.


The evening program in the big tent is about wolves and Paul Schnell has brought his own wolf for each of us to see and even pet briefly. Unlike most dogs this handsome animal displays no response to our touch.


The day is not yet done. I join a car caravan heading out on an owl prowl. At stops along the way we hear screech, great horned and barred owls. Our group leader, Chuck Rosenburg, calls in the barred owls and we are able to observe them in our flashlight beams. It is hard to tell if the noisy owls are hooting at each other or at us.


The next morning before breakfast I help Jay Wopperer lead a bird walk for a number of other early risers. We identify perhaps thirty species including an osprey flying across Red House Lake. Morgan Jones points out a brown creeper nest under the bark of a pine tree.


Having completed my responsibility for the day, after breakfast I first visit Bob McKinney's bird banding station. Youngsters crowd around him, some having an opportunity to hold birds briefly in their hands.


Later I visit Dick Christensen's inexpensive used book sale and then join Tim Baird for another bird hike.


In the afternoon I audit a herpetology class. First, everyone has an opportunity to handle a remarkably docile milk snake. Then the group walks to a stony creek bed and the dozen children are each asked to find, catch and bring in a frog or salamander. I am amazed at the number of different species these youngsters show us, including a rare Wehrle's salamander.


Supper is a chicken dinner and an opportunity to share our day's experiences.


After dining together we all again head for the big tent where we are entertained by a Pennsylvania conservation department officer who visits bear dens to obtain information about their status. His experiences are both exciting and humorous. He tells, for example, about his dad watching him crawl into a cave where a bear was hibernating. After a few minutes instead of his son, a half-awake bear appeared at the cave entrance. The father's first thoughts were, "Has this huge bear eaten my son?"


Another owl prowl ends the day.


Sunday morning starts as a repeat of Saturday. As we are watching birds in a woodlot, one of our participants points out a perfectly camouflaged fawn curled silently on the ground just a few feet from us.


I attend a wildflower identification program and a geology trip to Thunder Rocks in the morning and finally head home at noon.


I urge you not to miss any year's pilgrimage. For information visit www.alleganynaturepilgrimage.com or call Buffalo Audubon at (585)457-3228.-- Gerry Rising