The season felt “alternative” all winter long. The winter was one of the warmest on record and already by March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, the signs of spring were well developed. We visited the Maple Tree Inn near Birdsall, New York, an annual family visit to the rural pancake house that’s open for two months out of each year. You get to chow down as many pancakes as your stomach can churn (all at one price) and they’re smothered with maple syrup produced on the grounds surrounding you.
The nearby Keeney Swamp Wildlife Management Area features a number of beaver ponds plus a small lake formed by an earth embankment. Family and friends, fueled by an overdose of sweetened flapjacks and other wonderfully non-essential food items, took an Irish holiday stroll through a section of Keeney Swamp. Only two hooded mergansers could be seen on the open water, though the Canadas honked beyond our view, and a grebe of some sort drifted on one of the smaller ponds. The spring peepers vocalized shrilly even when we passed them at close range. Keeney Swamp had been chosen as an IBA, an “Important Bird Area” by New York State Audubon Society about 15 years ago, and I still felt pride in having helped to establish that scientific designation by submitting data collected from the observations of birdwatchers over a 30-year period of time.
The water released from the earthen dam is essentially the start of Black Creek, a tributary of the northward flowing Genesee. I’ve never fished the Black before because it’s a marginal brown trout stream and it’s at least an hour drive from home. The Swamp is good fishing for bullheads, bass and bream, but my inspection of the narrow spillway suggested that brown trout may have been in the swamp as well. If so, these stocked fish, having survived the winter, would’ve traveled to this spillway where the oxygen levels help them to survive for a while. It was hard to imagine this expansive marsh, an area with forested hills totalling about 2000 acres of state property, as the headwaters of a trout stream but, according to a western NY fishing guidebook, that’s a possibility.
I was experiencing a sudden change of life the day of our visit. The change isn’t something I need to discuss, but ordinarily middle March is the time when I’m thinking of steelhead fishing. Steelhead, however, pull me farther from home than an hour’s worth of driving time. For now I needed to be closer to home. An alternative to my usual fishing patterns might be useful now, at least until the regular trout season opens in April. Fly-fishing at the Swamp seemed like an odd idea, but what the hell, it would be easy enough, and if no trout were available, I’m sure the bass and sunfish would be kind to me.
Balsam fir, a species of tree commonly found in more northerly latitudes and in boreal environments, can be found in Keeney Swamp, one of only a few balsam communities in western New York. These remnants of the last glacial age are like a floral gateway to the far North.
My main attraction to the Swamp, however, was the birds. Years ago, when I collected data to have the wildlife management area considered as an IBA, I spent days out here calling for birds and watching them. With friends and family with me on St. Pats, I didn’t see many birds. The mass of migrating waterfowl had already passed northward and the mass of songbirds had yet to arrive. But I knew that the American woodcock had arrived, a peculiar looking species of the uplands that is fun to watch in spring evenings when the males perform their territorial flights high above the open ground. If you watch a woodcock’s “sky dance” and allow your imagination to fly with it, you can get an alternate view of the land and waters. Maybe I should feature this bird in a short post coming soon.