Thunder Rocks is a popular spot in Allegany State Park, although most people are mistaken as to their origin. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Most everyone enjoys spending time outdoors this time of year. Between festivals, family parties, camping trips and home improvement projects, many folks have hardly a weekend to spare between now and September. Just ask around. While we enjoy a summer hike in the woods or trip to the beach, how much do we know about the natural world that surrounds us?

Ash trees have been in the news lately due to the emerald ash borer infestation, but can you identify the tree by its compound leaves and opposite branching? Over 200 species of birds can be seen in Western New York. How many can you recognize? Honeybees are starting to get the credit they deserve for their role in pollination, but what do we know about other native insect species?

Signs remind campers that that some activities are best avoided. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The volunteers at the annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimage have been answering these questions and more since 1959. Sponsored by the Audubon Societies of Buffalo, Rochester, Jamestown, and Erie Pa., the event attracts hundreds of nature enthusiasts to Allegany State Park each year. Over 90 walks, talks and programs cover a wide variety of subjects of interest to serious nature nerds and curious newcomers.

Lon Myers currently serves on the event organizing committee and is a second generation hike leader. He leads a popular “Splash Hike” in Red House Creek that introduces kids and families to some of the park’s 14 species of salamanders, as well as crayfish and beaver colonies. His memories of the event from the'60s to today are typical of the many attendees who make the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage a family tradition.

“We always strive to be welcoming to newcomers and are proud of the fact that our mission has remained constant over the years,” Myers said.

On June 2 and 3, experts are scheduled to deliver presentations on timber rattlesnakes and the French Creek watershed in Pennsylvania. Other program highlights include bird banding, owl prowls, bugs by nightlight, an old growth forest hike, wild edibles, history of the state park tour, pond study and wetland ecology.

Allegany State Park covers 65,000 acres in Cattaraugus County and borders Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1921, the park features hundreds of cabins and campsites, three lakes, five miles of bike paths and 18 hiking trails. Twenty miles of the North Country National Scenic trail crosses a remote section of the park on its 4,000-mile route from North Dakota to Vermont.

An osprey nest high off the ground near the Quaker Beach. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Opportunities to view wildlife abound. Bear sightings are common, as are bald eagles. At night one can hear the distinctive “who cooks for you?” call of the barred owl. The Allegany Bird Conservation Area encompasses most of the park. Of the 75 migratory songbird species that breed in New York State, 64 have been observed in Allegany. Several species of hawks can be found, as well as a large breeding population of osprey.

On the Geology of Allegany hike at the Pilgrimage, participants learn that the popular Thunder Rocks area in the park was not formed by glaciers as many believe. While Buffalo was under a mile of the Laurentide Ice Sheet 20,000 years ago, what is now Allegany State Park was just beyond the farthest advance. In fact, Thunder Rocks and similar rock formations in the area would likely have been ground down by the retreating glacier if it had advanced that far south.

The 400-acre Big Basin area of Allegany is home to one of the largest old growth forests in the northeastern United States. Old growth forests have been continually forested since before European settlement. Many large black cherry, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, sugar maple and northern red oak trees can be found ranging from 200 to 350 years old. A rugged off-trail hike, first instituted by the late old growth forest researcher and advocate Bruce Kershner, continues to be offered at the Pilgrimage .

Taking time to learn about our natural surroundings can be a challenge for today’s families. Earlier generations had more opportunities to interact with the outdoors. Today, many youth experience most of their outdoor play time as part of structured sports or other activities. In the 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods," author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of our separation from the natural world. Fortunately, Western New York is home to many outdoor clubs, environmental organizations and events like the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage to help us find a way to reconnect with nature.

The 2017 Allegany Nature Pilgrimage will be held on June 2-4 at the Camp Allegany group camp in the state park. For more information, visit www.alleganynaturepilgrimage.com.

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