Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Iroquois NWR is the namesake refuge of the Iroquois Indians, a confederacy of six nations that grew in the 1600s from its New York State origins to a territory that spread westward to the Illinois River and southward to the Tennessee River. The 11,000-acre refuge is located midway between Buffalo and Rochester in western New York State.
Eagle watching is likely the most popular activity in the NWR. In a cooperative project with the state, the sounds and motions of eagles are transmitted by microwave to the refuge office from either one of the two nests the birds may usethe first nest having been constructed in 1986. The office is usually open only on weekdays, but it is also open on weekends from March 15 through May, which coincides with the eagle-nest activity and spring migration.
Spring is the busiest time at Iroquois in terms of bird migration. Geese and duck numbers build beginning in early March and peak in mid-April. Fall migration occurs from mid-September through November. At one time, a peak of as many as 88,000 Canada geese migrants were counted at Iroquois, but migrant population declines have reduced current peaks to around 20,000 individuals. Mid-May is the best time to see migrating warblers.
A total of 266 bird species have been recorded at the refuge. Birds that nest there include 10 species of ducks, great blue heron, American and least bittern, pied bill grebe, common moorhen, American coot, green-backed heron, Virginia and sora rail, belted kingfisher, American woodcock, killdeer, and spotted sandpiper. Recent landbird surveys indicate that red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, and tree swallows are the most abundant species at the refuge. The writer observed a peregrine falcon perched on the headquarters radio tower, an endangered species seen at the refuge in both spring and fall.
The refuge is also a nesting place for the black tern, a species classified as endangered by the state of New York. Research at the refuge has revealed as many as 26 successful fledglings in one season.
White-tailed deer and an increasing number of beaver and muskrat are among the thirty-three mammal species found on the refuge. For naturalists interested in winter tracking, the huge impoundments, streams and marshes of the refuge, though frozen most of the winter, still attract foxes, raccoons and mink; the runs, latrines and feeding stations of muskrats can be found near open water.
Hunting is permitted on the refuge during regulated seasons and in selected areas for small game animals, white-tailed deer, turkey, waterfowl, woodcock, snipe, and rail. Visitors to observe wildlife need to be aware that Onondaga Nature Trail, one of the refuge walking trails, is limited for a time in the fall to just deer hunters. Details on the hunting program regulations are available from the refuge office.
The most popular consumptive activity on the refuge, however, is bank fishing, permitted in areas and during seasons that do not conflict with nesting and migrating birds. Boats without motors are allowed on Oak Orchard Creek.
The refuge encourages fishing among young persons with free learning clinics and an annual fishing derby in June during National Fishing Week. The derby draws around 100 youths between 3 and 17 years of age, who each receive free gifts, instant pictures of their catches, and a chance to win door prizes. Awards are presented to the winners in three age categories. The event is also sponsored by a number of local organizations and businesses."Four nice lady bowlers from California" even made a donation to the event while visiting the refuge on derby day one year, according to refuge public use specialist Dorothy Gearhart.
But the majority of 120,000 annual refuge visitors go to observe wildlife. There are four overlooks for viewing water birds, the most popular adjacent to Cayuga Pool with easy access from NY-77 that borders the southern edge of the refuge.
For the more adventuresome, the refuge maintains three nature trails. Hiking and observation are also permitted on the 3-mile Feeder Road on the dike that separates the four main impoundments of refuge water. The entire refuge is open to foot travel except between March 1 and July 14 when only designated trails are open to avoid wildlife disturbances.
Canoes and motorless boats are allowed on the eastern portion of Oak Orchard Creek. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are permitted winter-time activities.
Whether for wildlife dependent recreation, serious wildlife viewing, or a seat at the nest-side of eagles, Iroquois NWR is a place that you should consider visiting. But whether or not a visit is convenient, all wildlife supporters should be gratified that Iroquois NWR is a part of the national system of lands that is making wildlife conservation possible.
Intervening for Wildlife
Were it not for the water control system operated at Iroquois NWR, the Oak Orchard Creek watershed would be dry from April through November.
Historically, the refuge was very wet, covered by glacial Lake Tonawanda that slowly drained, leaving Alabama Swamp and Oak Orchard Creek behind. Oak Orchard was the name that European settlers gave to Alabama Swamp when they saw the groves of oak trees left by the earlier Seneca Indian settlers (one of the six nations in the Iroquois Confederacy) who had opened plots in the forest for their gardens.
Farmers in the 1800s hoped to improve their lot by draining Oak Orchard Swamp, but the outcropping rock barrier that restricted flows and caused spring flooding made the project too difficult and expensive. Now the refuge is putting in dikes and dams to improve the area for wildlife by catching and holding runoff water at year-round controlled depths. Otherwise, Oak Orchard Creek would take the runoff to Lake Ontario to the north.
The refuge was called Oak Orchard NWR when it was established in 1958, but it, too, was renamed to avoid confusion with the Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area, one of two adjacent state-owned areas. The refuge and the two state areas create a 20,000-acre complex of publicly-owned wetlands.
Eagle Watching Made Easy
Easy eagle watching for visitors to Iroquois NWR was made possible by the perseverance of dedicated refuge workers. Visitors can experience the live sights and sounds of eagles tending their nest, thanks to several years of video setup in a continuing project jointly sponsored by the refuge and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
When word got around about the live video coverage of a bald eagle nest, visitor numbers at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge shot upward. Visitors to the refuge can see close-up eagle nest activity from the time the nest is refurbished in February to the time the eaglets fledge in early summer.
A pair of eagles from the group of 42 eaglets released near the refuge in 1981-82 built a nest on the refuge in 1986 and a second in 1987. Two or more nests are a typical territorial behavior of this species although they use the first or primary nest about 80 percent of the time.
A black and white video camera powered by solar panels was installed and aimed by tree climbers at nest 1, with assistance by radio from inside the headquarters building where the video monitor was located.
But, alas, for the first time the eagles used nest 2, making the video setup useless. Undaunted, however, the crew moved the camera to nest 2 in the following year, thrilling refuge visitors, including 3000 open house attendees, with live close-ups of the nest.
In the third year, the system was upgraded with color camera and microphone, but the eagles moved back to nest 1. Not to worry, the system was expanded in 1997 to include color cameras and microphones at both nests, made possible through donations and additional sponsorships.
The headquarters/visitor center building is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 am to 4:00 pm except holidays and on weekends from March 15 through May, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Nest activity begins in February and lasts though early summer.
For those who visit outside the nesting season, an edited tape of the most active moments on the nest will be shown upon request. The tape was prepared by a refuge volunteer.
From exit 48A (Pembroke) on New York State Thruway (I-90), NY-77 north to Alabama, NY-63 north to left turn on Casey Road at refuge direction sign. Refuge headquarters/visitor center is one mile on right.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication