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'Living shoreline' aims to return wildlife to Ellicott Creek Park

If you’re looking for more wildlife at Ellicott Creek Park, a restored shoreline will soon be the spot to head for.

Turtles, mink, frogs, ducks, birds and fish are finding their way to a 442-foot stretch of Ellicott Creek where Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s latest shoreline project has started to come together.

“Life thrives where the water meets the land,” said Jill Jedlicka, Waterkeeper’s executive director.

Contractors already installed a turtle nesting beach, excavated a vernal pond, carved out five shoreline coves and started building an upland meadow.

Ellicott Creek begins near Darien Lake and flows from agricultural areas through more densely populated communities like Lancaster and Cheektowaga and under a runway at Buffalo Niagara International Airport as it makes it way through Williamsville, Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda.

Like many local waterways, it's challenged by altered hydrology that's channelized the shoreline, along with sanitary sewer overflows, reduced areas of habitat and mowed grass that extends right up to the water. Scouring from seasonal ice floes and heavy rainfall exacerbate erosion along the creek banks. This stretch of Ellicott Creek is classified as impaired by the state.

The shoreline project is designed to give Ellicott Creek a shot-in-the-arm toward even more restoration down the line. The restoration relies on using natural, organic materials like plants, submerged vegetation, logs, sand and stone to stabilize the integrity of the shoreline.

Waterkeeper officials call Ellicott Creek Park the right place to start.

“We thought this was a really perfect spot,” said Emily Sadowski, a natural resource planner at Waterkeeper.

It follows others at the Sandy Beach Park Club on Grand Island and at Hyde Park in Niagara Falls and precedes a fourth at the Tifft Nature Preserve. Three more are in the pipeline but those locations have not been announced.

'Living shorelines' bringing life back to Niagara River on Grand Island

Construction, which includes planting and grading along Ellicott Creek's shoreline, is being done by Ecological Restoration Inc. of Apollo, Pa.

Marker notes area of shoreline being restored near planned cricket field at Ellicott Creek Park. (Google image)

It is located near the new cricket field on a site under an acre in size. Work is expected to finish up later this year.

What makes Ellicott Creek's project unique is that everything about it – except for the construction equipment – will stay at Ellicott Creek Park.

Invasive plants like phragmites that were removed from the shoreline were buried in carefully constructed clay mounds near the cricket field.

Those mounds will direct the path of run-off snowmelt and stormwater from the cricket field toward areas of native plantings along the shoreline, filtering the runoff before it reaches the creek.

A willow tree that fell into the creek will stay there. It’s providing cover and habitat for turtles and mink.

Dead ash trees felled by Erie County will be chipped up and reused to build a natural pedestrian pathway through the site.

A massive silver maple tree that blew down during a storm last winter is being re-purposed to provide in-water and shoreline habitat.

“The life cycle of a tree does not end when it dies,” said Erica Grohol, a senior landscape designer and planner at Waterkeeper. “It still has value.”

As an added bonus, Waterkeeper officials learned that tree was struck by lightning years ago. The lightning strike petrified portions of the wood.

That will prolong the tree’s presence at the site as the living shoreline develops.

Although it’s still early in the construction process, Grohol noticed what seems to be eager anticipation among the wildlife she sees.

Those include eight to 10 red-eared slider turtles that often visit a nearby basking log. They're appearing to watch work crews build their silty sand nesting area.

Dave Hails, owner of Ecological Restoration Inc., plants aquatic plants to restore a shoreline along 442 feet of Ellicott Creek at Ellicott Creek Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“It’s been kind of funny, because it’s like they’re just waiting to come in,” Grohol said.

Jedlicka said there's hope the habitat restoration could also help attract other turtle species like the spiny softshell turtle, a species of "special concern" in New York, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Green herons, great blue herons, a kingfisher and a wood duck also have been seen making regular visits in the park near the work area.

Native aquatic vegetation has been planted and is protected by a burlap wrap along the shoreline.

Some of the emergent vegetation includes Blue Flag Iris, various rushes, pickerel weed and duck potato.

Crews have removed and buried invasive vegetation and let what belongs there stay behind like the shoreline’s young walnut and elm trees.

Contractors are even harvesting local native species like goldenrod, asters and Canadian anemone and strategically replanting them.

If it all works right, the native plants will get a strong foothold in the area and prevent invasive plants from coming back.

At the vernal pond, which is connected to a swale adjoining the shoreline, a seasonal habitat for frogs and other amphibians is envisioned.

A small upland meadow nearby will have plants to attract pollinators, bird boxes for the blue bird and wood duck and stands of dead trees to provide a vital habitat for bats.

“It’s a small site with a bigger impact,” Jedlicka said.

Waterkeeper's shoreline work comes as the county makes other improvements at Ellicott Creek Park, including the new cricket field.

The county also expects to construct a pedestrian path of chipped wood to provide a natural separation between the cricket field from the shoreline improvement area.

Baseball diamond will be transformed into cricket field at Ellicott Creek Park

Educational signs also will be erected that detail the aims of the shoreline habitat project and the importance of letting nature manage itself.

"Humans are part of the ecology here, too. We have to include that," said Dave Hails, owner of Ecological Restoration Inc.

Jedlicka said the second phase of the shoreline project will include an upland reforestation in the park with about 700 native trees expected to be planted. The trees also will help stabilize soils at Ellicott Creek and help absorb storm water run-off in the park.

Waterkeeper recently obtained a U.S. Forest Service grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for the next phase.

Officials said they still need to decide which species of trees will be planted and where. The public is expected to be included in that discussion.

“It’s starting to become this holistic project with multiple projects overlaying each other,” Grohol said.

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