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100-Plus Things: Birding at Tifft Nature Preserve

Birds, do it, bees do it. Turtles, deer, and black-capped chickadees do it. Let's do it.

Let's go to Tifft.

Tifft Nature Preserve, 1200 Fuhrmann Blvd., is a kind of miracle, a home for wildlife in the heart of what was once industrial Buffalo. There, a tweet is a bird call, not something that pops up on your phone.

Tifft is home to a cattail marsh and all kinds of flora and fauna. Birds are its biggest claim to fame, so much so that the National Audubon Society has declared it an Important Bird Area.

It has 264 acres, with 5 miles of trails through marshes and forest. Best of all, it's close to downtown. By bike, it's a 15-minute ride from Canalside, on a path that swings you down by the Buffalo River, into the Old First Ward, over the Ohio Street Bridge, and then along Route 5.

A Great Blue Heron at Tifft Nature Preserve gets annoyed by the presence of some Canada Geese and takes off. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

When you get to Tifft, you immediately feel peaceful.

There is something special about this place. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler, the Pied-Billed Grebe, and the American Bittern can't all be wrong. Neither can the Yellow Warbler, Cerulean Waxwing, Scarlet Tanager, or Cedar Waxwing -- all species of birds Tifft harbors.

Signs picture some of these birds, to get you started. But it helps to go with an experienced birder. If you don't know any, the odds are good that you will encounter birders at Tifft who will share their expertise. Black-Capped Chickadee, and a Least Bittern, a small heron that hides in the weeds.

We had a fine time watching Canada geese making a racket on the water. A couple of them were hanging around, then two more flew in, and there erupted a great honking and flapping. Were they fighting, or merely greeting each other?

Along with miracles of nature, try to take time to marvel at another miracle. That is the Cinderella story of this preserve.

Once, it was part of a large-scale dairy farm owned by George Washington Tifft. Later, it became a trans-shipment center for coal and iron ore. In the 1950s and '60s, it fell on hard times and became a kind of dumping ground.

A Brown Thrasher sits on one of the signs in Tifft Nature Preserve . (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In the '70s, the turnaround began. Two million cubic feet of waste that had been stored at Tifft was enclosed in clay and covered with soil. Folks with vision enlarged the ponds and planted trees and wildflowers. The nature preserve opened in 1976. In 1982, it became the domain of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Wisely, the museum has left the site as natural as possible. There's a small parking lot, and a modest visitors center open part-time. Docks allow you to walk out over the bog. Bird-observing devices -- walls with observation portholes, allow you to observe the birds without disturbing them.Bat habitats, hanging from trees, welcome the masters of the night.

Were the bats hanging upside down inside them? If so, they slept. All we heard was the buzzing of cicadas, and faint tweets from high treetops.

You have to spend a couple of hours at Tifft, to get into the spirit. Studying plants and birds, you grow alert to every chirp and rustle. You notice the ground beneath your feet -- the moss, the pebbles, the twigs. Signs help you tell Arrowhead, River Bulrush, Giant Bur-Reed, Pickerelweed and Water Smartweed from the aggressive, non-native, insidious Common Reed.

A camaraderie links you with folks you meet. Everyone is there to observe nature.

"Years ago, chickadees would come and eat out of your hand," said Doris Roder of Orchard Park. "You see deer on the ice when it's frozen."

Lisa Newton, of West Seneca, said she had seen deer. "Last time I was here, I saw two baby fawns."

Tifft Nature Preserve, once a dumpsite for city refuse has become a Buffalo gem. With ponds, marshes and woodlands, it is teaming with wildlife and incredible sights. The nature preserve opened in 1976. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A few minutes later, we got a similar treat. We saw two deer, a distance down a path, ears up, observing us.

You may well become part of a group of strangers, everyone hushed, watching a bird someone has pointed out. That happened to two of us from The Buffalo News, as we watched the Canada geese from the water's edge. The whisper went around: "There's a Great Blue Heron."

I held my breath. Where? I had been thrilled to score several sightings that morning -- a yellow finch, a Black-Capped Chickadee, a cormorant. Egrets, I'd had a few. But a Great Blue Heron? Whatever he looked like, he blended in.

And then, suddenly, I saw him.

He sat poised by the water, motionless and patrician. He watched the geese but stayed above the fray. You knew, though, that something was going to happen. And sure enough, a goose got too close. The heron lifted off, flapping his wings and squalling.

I was filled with wonder -- not just at the heron, but at myself.

Who knew I had it in me to sit and watch a bog, patiently and silently, for 15 minutes, 25 minutes, even longer? Like my cat watching the back yard?

Tifft brings out something in you that you didn't know was there. It makes you part of the natural world. So when you see a cormorant, an egret, or a Least Bittern (that's a small heron that hides in the weeds), you may smile at the creature in understanding. This isn't only their refuge.

It's yours.

Here's last week's 100+ Things entry:

100 Plus Things: Visit Ulrich's 1868 Tavern





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