Wild in WNY / Buffalo’s natural history guides
It takes a special talent to lead a wildlife walk
Joe Allen leads excursions to places like Yellowstone, where he educates participants about wolves and habitat.
Among my friends in the natural history community, the ones I admire most are the trip leaders. Much of that admiration derives from my own abject failure as a guide on such outings. On the rare occasions when I have agreed to lead bird hikes, for example, I am convinced that the birds get together to plan my embarrassment. Seemingly by agreement, they retreat into the underbrush, stop singing, or fly away to the next county, while I’m left telling my followers about the birds I saw “right here” the last time I visited.
Here are three of my local favorites who lead natural history excursions. Their activities are very different, as are the formats in which they offer their services, but I commend each of them to you.
No, this isn’t the mythical man/beast; it’s Joe Allen, who has been leading outdoor expeditions for thirty-five years. Retired from teaching science at Kenmore East High School, Allen, until recently, offered trips as an adjunct instructor through the University at Buffalo’s Environmental Studies Department. Now, he is excursion director for Sandy Geffner’s and Scott Lembitz’s Earth Spirit Educational Services in Orchard Park. (For more about Earth Spirit and its excellent natural history programs, see earthspiritedu.org.)
The many trips Allen has supervised include outings to Wyoming and Alaska; this past August, he spent several weeks leading two groups backpacking in the Wind River region of west-central Wyoming. But Allen’s most interesting trips may be the ones to Yellowstone, where he and his attendees observe the activities of several of the park’s ten wolf packs.
Remarkably, I have neither seen nor heard a wolf in the wild. I expect that is true of most of you reading this essay, but, in my case, this is despite having taken over fifty canoe trips through Ontario’s Algonquin Park and the Minnesota Boundary Waters. Wolves are an important part of the ecosystem of both those areas, and, although they are rarely seen in forested areas, they are commonly heard. Hundreds of people are entertained by park rangers in both areas who attract the wolves by imitating their howls. Not me: I’ve heard lots of nighttime loon calls but no wolves.
In Yellowstone, on the other hand, wolves live in largely open country and are more easily seen—when you know where to look for them, as Allen does. A recent survey indicates that there are approximately 100 wolves in the park, but the park is large—three times the size of Erie County—with thirty-four square miles of parkland for each wolf. Allen keeps informed on the packs’ locations.
Allen leads his trips not so much as a guide, but as an educator, and this is especially true at Yellowstone. The reintroduction of the wolves—thirty-one were released in the park between 1995 and 1997—has led to significant changes in the park vegetation. Aspens and willows have returned to many areas, particularly along streams. These areas were once over-browsed by elk, but now the elk have less opportunity to linger. By hunting them, the wolves keep the elk moving, enough to allow the trees to flourish once again. This creates what is termed a trophic cascade with significant effects, not only on the populations of fox, beaver, otter, and even songbirds, but perhaps on the rivers themselves, although the relationship is much more complicated.
The unsung field guides
Two local science educators—who choose not to identify themselves beyond “Bill” and “Steve”—have come up with unique ways to offer information about natural history topics. They go out on half-hour parkland walks and record their conversations and observations, which are then collected on a website: thefieldguidespodcast.com. Each of these conversations has a focus on a particular topic. Most of their walks are local—Reinstein Woods, Tifft Nature Preserve, Beaver Meadow, Hunter’s Creek, and Kenneglen—but others take them farther away: Allegany State Park, Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, and Algonquin Park in Canada. The range of topics they cover (thirty so far) has included: Acorns and Corvids, The Spotted Salamander, Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases, The Eastern Screech Owl, Restoring Grassland Habitat, Sap: Nature’s Junk Food, The Christmas Bird Count, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, The Eastern Hemlock, and The Flying Squirrel. These conversations provide a delightful way to participate vicariously in their activities. I find it relaxing to access one of the recordings and listen, usually with my eyes closed. These recordings must be especially rewarding for housebound naturalists.
The two are well known in WNY for their many contributions to nature and conservation. Bill was director-naturalist of one of the region’s major nature centers and is now teaching at both ends of the academic spectrum: second grade and university. Steve is a university graduate student who has done field work in Utah and Illinois.
Each of the podcast’s episodes begins with this simple introduction: “We research a natural history topic and pick a related natural place to share what we have learned.” I know some of the resources they use regularly and regard them highly. In particular, they often refer to John Eastman’s writing in The Book of Forest and Thicket, and The Book of Swamp and Bog. (Eastman serves as only one of their resources.)
A few months ago, I joined Bill and Steve on one of their hikes. We met in the Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve in Cheektowaga one evening and set out to talk about and hopefully find some witch hazel trees. I was pleased that they had chosen a topic about which I felt informed, but I soon learned that my knowledge had significant gaps. I learned about the source of the names witch and hazel, how the tree branches are used as divining rods for dowsing, and how the flowers are pollinated well after other plants have closed down for the season and few insects remain active.
I am pleased to see that this blog is receiving national attention and recognition. Kudos to Bill and Steve—and Joe Allen.