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Groundhog Buffalo Bert gets a warm welcome despite frosty forecast

Watch out, Punxsutawney Phil. There’s a new groundhog on the winter weather beat.

Buffalo Bert, the heart and soul of Groundhog Day Buffalo, awoke from hibernation Saturday in front of hundreds of hearty fans who gave the young woodchuck a warm welcome — even though it predicted six more weeks of winter.

As part of a relatively new tradition, Groundhog Day in Buffalo is observed on the last Saturday in January, while most other cities mark the day on Feb. 2.

About 800 revelers attended the event Saturday at Flying Bison Brewing Company on Seneca Street, co-founder Adam Hernandez said.

The idea was hatched in 2013, after Hernandez and his friends traveled to Punxsutawney, Pa., to celebrate Groundhog Day.

“I thought it was going to be a giant party,” Hernandez said. “It was really a bunch of people standing on a hill, and you had to take a shuttle to get there and back. It was like going to see the biggest ball of yarn. I thought Buffalo could do this so much better.”

Last year — Bert’s first on stage — nearly 700 people attended Buffalo’s party, Hernandez said. By contrast, the inaugural celebration in 2014 attracted 35 people to Colter Bay.

On Saturday, groundhog fans crowded around the stage in a heated tent outside the brewery to watch as Buffalo Bert was lifted from hay-lined barrel by Tanya Lowe, director of wildlife education at Hawk Creek Wildlife Center. The furry rodent appeared to squint as some fans made comparisons between it and Punxsutawney Phil.

"I don't believe Punxsutawney Phil is any better that Bert," said Sue Szczepaniec, 71, of Kenmore who attended the party with her husband, Richard.

Karen Higgins of Kaisertown, meanwhile, inched her way closer to the stage to get a better look. "Now that we have Buffalo Bert, who needs Punxsutawney Phil?" Higgins asked.

Bert, a rescue groundhog, lives at Hawk Creek in East Aurora. He was less than one month old when he was discovered on a Rochester farm in late in 2017 and brought to the center, Lowe said.

“Bert is a survivor, and was rescued for a reason,” said Lowe. “Now he’s a Buffalo ambassador.”

Jarod Miller, an animal expert and advocate who appears regularly on television, and a member of the board at Hawk Creek, attended the event to help with the Siberian lynx, arctic gyrfalcon and skunk that were part of an educational demonstration.

Buffalo Bert impressed him.

“Bert is interesting,” Miller said. “He doesn’t necessarily hate winter. He embraces it as a celebration of Buffalo’s weather. People forget that a groundhog is a type of squirrel. They’re a little more lumbering, and they love burrowing and eating. But they’re still a wild animal.”

Not all groundhogs are as good-natured as Bert, judging from past Groundhog Day gatherings throughout the country.

The mayor of Sun Prairie, Wisc., was bitten in the ear by Jimmy the Groundhog in 2015. And then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also felt the sting of a grumpy groundhog when he was bitten on the hand by Staten Island Chuck in 2009.

Proceeds from the event each year benefit animal-friendly organizations including the Buffalo Zoo, Hawk Creek and Buffalo C.A.R.E.S. Animal Shelter. To date, Hernandez said, $10,000 has been donated, including funding for the adoptions of several zoo animals.

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