Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wild Gardens


Take loads of water, mix in fertile ground and you get the ideal conditions for a flower garden. Oswego County has so much of these ingredients it’s a botanist’s dream. And the best place to see its vivid landscapes is the Three Mile Bay/ Big Bay Wildlife Management Area on the northwestern shore of Oneida Lake.

Granted, my claim these WMAs are the best wild gardens is subjective…at best. But I feel I can get away with it because vast tracts of colorful flora line the roads in and around the place. You can take a color tour without ever stepping out of the car.

Toad Harbor Road (off NY 49, three miles east of Central Square’s I-81 exit 32) runs right down the middle of the WMAs, weaving through a patchwork of farms, forests, private residences, boat liveries and marshes. A squeaky-clean golf course straddles the road when you first get on, then the road dips just beyond the manicured lawns and makes a short jaunt through a painted swamp.

Late April punctuates this stretch of wetland with clusters of yellow flowers clinging to any dry land they can get a toe-hold on. Splashes of red and white trilliums wash the gentle slopes surrounding the lowland.

Climbing out of the swamp, turning left onto McCloud Road, runners of adders-tongues line the shoulders of the road up to the culvert that drains the swamp into the lake at the boat livery.

A few hundred feet beyond the boat livery and campground is the WMA’s golden gate (it’s closed at night in summer to protect the delicate habitat), where the real garden begins.

Off to the right the land dips gently towards Oneida Lake. Etched in a tangled web of rutted access roads, its wild shoreline bears the scars of heavy storms and logger’s axes. The place is littered by huge trunks and windfalls, with monster boulders strewn around like some mythological giant had a tantrum. A variety of ferns and other wetland plants thrive here. Next month, yellow iris will punctuate the mangled landscape, and later still bullhead–lilies will bob in the shallow waves just off shore.

On the high side to the left, the openings are carpeted in a sculptured rug of grape hyacinths, daffodils, adders-tongues and tiny white anemone-like wonders. As the woods gets thicker, the floor yellows in adders-tongues.

The textures and colors of the forest floor constantly change throughout the warm weather months. As summer ages, an incredible explosion of yellow and orange touch-me-nots will cover the entire area and cardinal flowers will peak out of the muddy shoreline.

The nicest thing about an area blessed with such a marvelous mix of marsh, forest, fields and water’s edge habitats is there’s always something coming up. And if you look close enough, over the skunk cabbage and through the violets, you might catch a jack-in-the-pulpit staring back at you or a lady’s-slipper in the shade.

Wood anemones blanketing the forest floor.

Woodland carpeted in Yellow Blossoms

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Derby Hill Bird Observatory -- Ground Control of the Bird Path

Kiosk at Derbt Hill Bird Observatory

Kids are taught early about the law of gravity: what goes up must come down. With that lesson, the smarter children also learn to question authority. After all, the next bird the youngster watches land and take off again, kind’a upsets the cart.

As adults we realize life isn’t simple; up and down…down and up…round and round…full of wonderful mystery, and all you have to do to see it is look.

One of the greatest examples of nature’s common miracles is annual bird migrations. Just about everyone has seen chevrons of geese flying over the neighborhood in the fall and spring. But raptors and scavengers are a different story. Stealthier, ruggedly individualistic, these fowl do their own thing and don’t usually follow the crowd. Indeed, when they’re migrating most lowly humans don’t even know it. However, Oswego County is blessed with one of the best classrooms in the world to see them in action: Derby Hill Bird Observatory.

Located in the southeastern corner of Lake Ontario, a little west of where the shoreline curves sharply north, DHBO is below the bottleneck in the flyway this class of birds takes to avoid flying directly over the 50-mile wide body of water. You see, the group, which includes, hawks, eagles, crows and vultures, are talon-footed, and they don’t tread water very well.

I decided to go up last week and see how this year’s migrations were going.

I ran into Seth Cutright, the professional hawk counter for Onondaga Audubon, the organization that runs DHBO. He pointed out “around 40,000 raptors fly over each year.”

“March was slow,” he continued, “but the first three days of April were great.”

Indeed, Bill Purcell, an amateur ornithologist who would rather be counting birds than just about anything else this time of year, added “On April 2, the birds came over in squadrons. Counting them was exhausting.”

The day after April Fool’s saw eight golden eagles, 18 ospreys, 2,238 turkey vultures, 188 sharp-skinned hawks, 42 red-shouldered hawks, 712 red-tailed hawks and smaller quantities of other raptors.

As of April 6, the bird count was 13,359. That means 26,641 still need to fly over to make the average. Most of them will make the flight this month.

“What I admire most about being a hawk counter is I never know what I’m going to see,” claims Mr. Cutright. He’s already counted two black vultures, a rare sight this far north.

Who knows, if you go up within the next couple of weeks, you might see one, too, or at least a bald eagle. But be warned “the first time I came up here in 1984, I thought identifications were close to magic,” says Purcell, hinting that it takes years of practice to identify birds whipping by so high in the sky.

But hey, nothing worthwhile is ever easy; and raptor counting sure is fun.

DHBO is located off Sage Creek Drive. Get there from the hamlet of Texas by heading east on NY 104B for about a mile. DHBO offers three observation posts, two right off Sage Creek Drive, and one atop a bluff overlooking the lake. Get to the bluff site by turning east at the end of Sage Creek Drive and climbing the hill to the pull-off on the right.

For more info, go to

This year's tally as of April 6.

Seth Cutright (red) & Bill Purcell counting birds.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ox Creek Sunnies

Trinidad Martinez's turn on Ox Creek

Driving back from Derby Hill last Thursday, I decided to take the long way and took NY 48 out of Oswego. Just south of Fulton, I saw a few guys fishing in Ox Creek right at the bridge. I’m always interested in panfish bites so I turned around, pulled into the parking lot of the bar on the east side of the road (the locals tell me it’s OK to park at the north end of the lot if you’re going fishing) and went to see what was biting.

The men had one five-gallon bucket half full of seven-inch bluegills. Now that might not sound very big but a sunny that size pours out of the sides of a big man’s palm, they’re easy to fillet and it only takes two to feed ya.

They were using worms suspended a couple feet below tiny bobbers. The school of sunnies was a big one because anywhere they cast, so long as it was close to shore, produced a bite almost immediately, but always within a couple minutes.

The spots that were especially productive had some cover: sunken timber, low lying branches, boat dock, stuff like that.

Dave Karalunas, one of the three, said “the sunfish, and a few perch have been hitting good all day,” and claimed the spot was also a local favorite for crappie. They hadn’t caught any calicoes but were hoping to get some before dark.

I watched them for about 10 minutes. Each landed a couple of bruisers. Granted, sunfish aren’t as glamorous as game fish, but pound for pound they fight harder than fish twice their size. Their feistiness on the end of a line, mixed in with their delicious flavor makes them America’s most popular panfish.

But there’s more to them than that. One of the nicest things about fishing is it never ends. It’s an activity you enjoy while planning, actually fishing, and recalling the memories afterwards.

Think about it, who amongst us doesn’t have a sunfish story. In fact, the lowly, colorful, spiny sunny is usually the first fish a youngster pulls out of the water, and it’s often the last fish, too, before hanging up the rods for good.

As I was leaving, three other dudes showed up, and another carload pulled into the parking lot.

They’ll be biting good well into May, but as their numbers diminish and they get smarter, they’ll be a little tougher to catch. So if you’re looking for a fresh fish dinner, now’s the time to do it.

By the way, just about any creek-size Oswego River tributary’s mouth has fish in it right now. If tributaries are few near you, fish the eddies and pools in the rapids at Phoenix, Fulton, Minetto or Oswego.

For up-to-date fishing conditions go to

Dave Karalunas showing Kahlue a bluegill.

Dick Edwards with a nice perch.

Ox Creek fishing scene.