Times Beach Nature Preserve

by Mary Clista Dahl

On a hot August day under a clear blue sky with no hint of the polar vortex of the past or yet to come, friends gathered together on a boardwalk to celebrate the nature at Times Beach Nature Preserve in Buffalo, New York.  Before the group was fully assembled, the Goldfinches stole feathery silk from nearby thistle; they are late nesters our guide, Jon, explained.  As we waited, we watched them and the scattering white cabbage butterflies, swooping swallows and flitting orioles sharing their songs in the trees above.  We hadn’t even taken a step off of the boardwalk and we were already delighted.

When the group was complete, we began our trek down the path and Jon narrated.  “It will be another great day of history and ecology,” he promised.  Times Beach was a dredged area in the 1930’s until the 1970’s when work stopped and the land was free to be reclaimed by nature.  It has since become home to a myriad of wildlife and a migration stopping point on a flyway for over 230 species of birds.

Milkweed was our first lesson on the trail, a rich and popular find. Our initial interest is its function as a host to the many monarchs we notice floating above.  Although none lighted on the Milkweed in our presence, there were many surprises to be found. Colorful tiny caterpillars, snails, beetles and aphids dotted their leaves and stems.

Moving on, we spotted many Common Mullein plants (also known as Lamb’s Ear because of their soft, fuzzy leaves) that remind me of exotic dessert blossoms on a stalk.  We learn that Native Americans used to combine this with another plant called Colt’s Feet and dry and smoke it for bronchial relief.   Further on the boardwalk we reach a lookout by a magnificent cattail marsh.  A blue heron is fetching his lunch below the luscious green reeds.  Workers have painstakingly removed invasive phragmites to allow the cattails to thrive, and we are grateful for their efforts.  A grey Catbird is spotted playing in a nearby shrub.  The silt for this marsh is essential for migrating seabirds, and not so bad for us nature-gazers either.

Heading back to the trail we are entertained by two small fawns in the nearby brush.  With all of their predators gone, the deer population has exploded on the preserve.  I knew that one of the fawn’s defenses was camouflage, but Jon tells us of another that I wasn’t familiar with…they are born without scent.  The twins are obviously safe for the moment, and happy to check us out.

Next up we find a man-made break wall where we hope to view (from afar) some water snakes or spiders.  There are none today, but plenty of waterfowl to identify.  Cormorants (noticeable by their constant flapping and close proximity to the water), female mallards, Bonaparte’s and Ring-Billed Gulls take to the skies.  Bordering our path is the attractive Red Osier Dogwood Shrub. We also are excited to learn about the salicylic properties of the Black Willow that also line our path and how much to chomp on for relief if we develop a headache in the wild.

As we head back to a forested part of the trail, we are introduced to Jerusalem Artichoke and Catnip, which smells strongly enticing even to this human.  Tree trunks are decorated to the top by snails with beautiful patterns on their shells.  Their journey must be arduous, yet worthwhile as they feast on the plentiful lichen on the bark.

Beyond the forest we pass the Coast Guard Station and find the historical gem of the hike, the Buffalo Lighthouse, constructed in 1833.  Situated on a pedestal overlooking the Buffalo waterfront on grounds featuring massive salvaged equipment from shipwrecks (most foreign to my untrained eye), it is an impressive sight.  Informational signs describe courageous sailors and the notorious storms that brought majestic ships to the bottom of the lake.  These are the same artifacts I’ve seen dozens of times from boat rides in the harbor, yet this first close-up glimpse offers a new perspective and look into the long line of shipping endeavors that were important in the development of the now thriving waterfront.  Jon gathers us here for a quick overview and warm goodbye, and we thank him with grateful smiles and applause, knowing we are more enriched and knowledgeable thanks to his good company and time.  Yes, another great day out in nature.