Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge

(This column was first published in the September 30, 1996 Buffalo News.)

National Wildlife Refuge Week will be observed October 5 to 11 at the nearby Iroquois Refuge in the Towns of Alabama and Shelby. There will be programs and exhibits at refuge headquarters on Casey Road this Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark completion of renovations to the Kanyoo Nature Trail on Lewiston Road (Route 77) Saturday at 11 a.m., and guided walks along that trail from 1 to 4 p.m. on both days. The Kanyoo trail will now be accessible to persons with disabilities.

Evening programs at the Refuge Headquarters October 7 to 11 will feature talks: Monday on wildlife management, Wednesday updating the state Osprey hacking project, and Friday on control of purple loosestrife. Each free program will begin at 7:30 p.m.

Regular readers of this column know that I spend much time on the 17 square miles of this refuge and the additional 14 square miles encompassed by the adjacent Tonawanda and Oak Orchard state management areas. For over 50 years I have joined Eastertime pilgrimages to the area to observe the vast flocks of Canada Geese and lesser numbers of whistling swans, teal, pintails, wigeon, and ring-necked ducks, and for almost as long I have participated in Buffalo Ornithological Society bird surveys there each April, May, and October. I finish each year on Gail Seamans' annual Christmas Count, last December joining Refuge Manager Don Tiller's party.

But those are all formal activities. Whenever possible, I simply drive to what old timers call "the Alabama Swamps" to canoe Oak Orchard Creek or to hike, bike, ski, or snowshoe the Kanyoo, Swallow Hollow, or Onondaga Trails, the Feeder Road, or the dikes that crisscross the marshlands. (Helpful maps to these areas are available at refuge headquarters.)

Iroquois is best known for its migrating and nesting waterfowl and upland game birds – turkey, pheasant, woodcock, and snipe – but its woodlands also abound with landbirds, including such rarities as prothonotary warblers and Acadian flycatchers. Over the years I have also encountered on the refuge: deer, rabbit, fox, coyote, squirrel, opossum, chipmunk, raccoon, skunk, muskrat, and woodchuck as well as several species of mice and voles. Although I haven't seen them, beaver and mink are there as well. Pike, perch, and bass inhabit the ponds as does, unfortunately, the ubiquitous carp. Frog and toad calls resound through the marshes each spring and summer evening. Through those months and fall as well wildflowers paint the meadows and woodlands with their lovely palettes. It is simply a wonderful place to visit in any season.

The first federal wildlife refuge was established in 1905 in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and today 508 of them encompass an area equal to that of Montana. Oak Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1957 and renamed Iroquois in 1964 to differentiate it from the neighboring state reserve. The state's Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area had been acquired between 1941 and 1947, and its Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area was added in the early 1960s.

Some of my friends are concerned because they feel that the word "reserve" is compromised by hunting and fishing at Iroquois, even though those sports are carefully controlled. I do not share that concern, especially since hunting and fishing licenses and duck stamps supplied funds to purchase these lands and continue to contribute substantially to the support of refuge activities. Hikers, bird watchers, boaters, photographers, and those who simply visit the overlooks to observe the vast marshes should appreciate sharing these lands with those who hunt and fish.