The 1998 Nature Pilgrimage

(This column first appeared in the March 9, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    I have written before about the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage, but always in mid-June and always in retrospect. This year I write in early March in hope that many of you who are uninformed about this region's outstanding annual natural history event can make plans to participate. This is an excellent family opportunity, but it is important, especially if you wish to stay in a park cabin, to make plans now to attend this year's May 29-31 weekend program.

    In 1955 Gilbert Burgeson, a retired Jamestown paper distributor and amateur naturalist, visited the already popular Smoky Mountains Wildflower Pilgrimage. Until 1960 he mulled over the pleasure of his experience there until finally he asked himself, "Why can't we do that here in western New York?" He answered his own question by organizing that year the first Allegany Nature Pilgrimage. Eighty people attended.

    In some recent years the number of participants has risen to over a thousand and sponsors of this year's 39th pilgrimage have also grown to include not only the Jamestown Audubon Society, but the Audubon Societies of Buffalo and Presque Isle (Pa.), the Burroughs Nature Club of Rochester and the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation, Allegany Region.

    I have attended five recent pilgrimages and have enjoyed each of them. There is a wide choice of activities from dawn until late night. Early risers can start with bird walks that often turn up Allegany specialties like pileated woodpeckers, yellow-throated, pine and parula warblers, and olive-sided flycatchers. During the day there are field trips to find and identify butterflies, mushrooms, ferns, insects, pond life, mammal tracks, reptiles and amphibians, trees, wildflowers, wild edibles and more birds. Other daytime opportunities include longer hikes, a bird banding exhibition, canoeing, biking and seminars on park history, geology, creating wildlife habitat, and even relaxing with nature. Evening programs offer an illustrated talk about bats, moths (sometimes including delicate, soft green lunas) attracted by special lights, owl-calling and star gazing with telescopes. Between programs you can visit the many exhibits of wildflowers, ferns, and natural history books.

    The volunteer group leaders are outstanding and there are many of them. It is easy to have your particular observations explained and your specific questions answered. Each session I have attended has been enjoyable and I have learned much.

    But every session is different. I recall, for example, one tree identification class I joined. While our leader, forester Dennis Wilson, discussed the characteristics of a witch hazel we had come upon, his twelve year old daughter -- less focused on her father's talk -- noticed and called our attention to a fawn curled at its base, its white spots on soft brown fur serving as perfect camouflage.

    Kids have an especially good time. On a "herp hike" I stood next to the leader to whom youngsters brought what they had found among the stones along the edge of a nearby creek. It was amazing: they showed us frogs, toads, salamanders, even a tiny snake. Several species were rare, but rare or common, the wide grins on the children's faces told a wonderful story.

    Although there is plenty to do, there are opportunities to relax as well. Old friends renew acquaintances; children and adults make new friends. An indication of the staying power of pilgrimage popularity is the number of couples who have brought their children year after year and now bring their grandchildren.

    Fees are minimal even if you do not belong to one of the sponsoring organizations. To obtain further information and a registration package, contact  Sandy Burton at Beaver Meadow Nature Center, 457-3228.