First Day on the Riverwalk

The Chadakoin River empties Chautauqua Lake, lazily meandering through the city of Jamestown before continuing on towards its eventual end in the Gulf of Mexico. This small stretch of river has long been heavily developed, indeed factories were built all along and right over top of it. Wastes were dumped into the river to be washed downstream, with little or no attention heeded to the people downstream let alone the local wildlife that depended upon it. At one point the power plant discharged super-hot water directly into the river, killing all the life within. (This no longer takes place and interestingly some of this hot water is now used to heat the public buildings in Jamestown). Since then the river has made a dramatic comeback, with little aid from people, and has become an important corridor for wildlife in Jamestown, supporting an impressive amount of biodiversity. With the recent focus on revitalizing the waterfront a new light is being cast upon the river and the life it supports. Right in the city it is possible to see such impressive bird species as osprey, and great blue herons, turtles of all sorts, including the spiny softshell turtle which is listed as a species of special concern in New York, and countless other creatures.

That these animals can survive and even thrive in such a developed setting is a testament to the tenacity of nature, and the need to document and learn as much as possible about them so that more informed decisions can be made about the future of this gem in the middle of Jamestown. Recently under the guidance of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute a group of six local high school students along with two college mentors have set out to do just that. I am lucky enough to be one of those mentors and this is my account of our first day on the river.

Day one on the riverwalk began at the parking lot of Friendly’s, with the handing out of nets, and the liberal application of insect repellent. The nets were of little help early that day, as it was cloudy and dragonflies like to fly in the sun, but they would be used before the day was through. As we began walking along the riverwalk heading towards Panzarella Park we were greeted by the aerial acrobatics of rough-winged swallows above the river. Feeding on insects these birds have made their home in the concrete walls that can be found lining the river corrider, finding cracks and holes, or making use of drainage pipes. As we passed under the Washington Street bridge the mud nests of cliff swallows above us were evidence of yet another swallow making use of Jamestown’s infrastructure. In the river itself mallards seemed to be disturbed little by our presence, with males, females, and chicks of various ages watching us walk by. A Merganser was far less tolerant of our presence, and disappeared from sight upon our approach. Birds were not the only creatures in the water, a red eared slider (turtle) could be seen basking on a log while a small (probably male) spiny softshell turtle also tried to clamor up onto it.

Upon reaching Panzarella Park a cacophony of bird calls filled the air, mostly catbirds and robins. Phoebes were also calling, and after a little searching among the branches we sighted fledglings, and actually got to watch a parent bringing back and feeding insects to them. Warblers were flitting in the upper branches of the trees, but never showed themselves long enough to let us identify them. Numerous freshwater mussel shells along the shore indicated the presence of raccoons, probably visiting after dark and taking advantage of the large numbers of mollusks to be found in the river.
Heading in the other direction we stopped for lunch at picnic tables in the welcome shade of the trees behind a local restaurant. Swallows continued patrolling for insects above the river, and sparrows climbed on the concrete walls that serve as the banks of the river here. After lunch we discovered a welcome surprise, ripe berries littered the sidewalk and hung from the branches of a mulberry tree. The birds had found them first, but left some for us to enjoy. I can’t say the same for us, when we left few ripe berries could be found on the lower branches of the tree.

Moving on we came to a stretch where it was possible to forget we were in an urban setting, the natural streamside vegetation had been allowed to grow, and served as a buffer between us and the sights and sounds of the surrounding city. Ever present mallard ducks swam in the currents, and birds called from the branches above us. It was notably cooler, and overall seemed serene and relaxing.

Upon reaching the Gateway Center we were all excited about seeing the nesting sites of one of the more unusual creatures that makes up the cast of characters found in the Chadakoin, the spiny soft shell turtle. Unfortunately as is often the case with turtle nests many of them had suffered from predation with dug up nests and broken eggs littering the ground. One nest was observed with viable eggs, and as we took turns observing and photographing it we were approached by two local individuals who were enjoying a barbecue at Gateway Center, which all of us had been smelling for some time. They wanted to know what we were looking at, and were amazed when we told them about the spiny soft shell turtles, and showed them the nests. They had seen the turtles before but did not know what they were, and were eager to learn what we could tell them.

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As we were observing the turtles, we counted at least seven, we were surprised to see a muskrat swim up. He spent some time feeding among the branches of a fallen tree that was lodged in the river. Not to be left out mallards were abundant, and grackles and other birds flitted through the branches.

After a great deal of time spent here observing the turtles, we made our way back in the direction we had come. This time we saw a number of goldfinches, cedar wax wings, a cardinal, and heard the distinctive rattle of a kingfisher. We also passed by the mulberry tree, which we further stripped of berries and made our way back to the picnic table where earlier we had eaten lunch. Seeing all of us with our nets a father and his two children were eager to show us a caterpillar they had found which we were able to identify as a Tussock moth caterpillar.

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Identifying Tussock Moth Caterpillar

From there we made our way over to the other side of the river, following the riverwalk on its course below the soon to be National Comedy Center. The sun had come out and dragonflies had started flying so we were trying to collect some for identification. One of the students caught a glimpse of a turtle among the rip-rap on the shoreline, which we were able to coax into a net. It turned out to be a painted turtle, and appeared to be an old female at that. Definitely a survivor she was missing one eye, and had some scarring on her face, but otherwise seemed no worse for the wear. Everyone took turns holding and photographing it, and with her fifteen minutes of fame over we returned her to her rightful home in the river. We did manage to collect some dragonflies, notably a prince baskettail, and eastern amberwing among others, as well as several damselflies.

Checking out the turtle

Checking out the turtle

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Crossing back over to the other side we decided to walk up to Panzarella Park one more time (in the hopes of catching more odanates (a fancy word for dragonflies and damselflies) and we were surprised to come upon a turtle nest in the gravel. It was not covered over, and we believe it was probably left by a snapping turtle bringing our total turtle species count up to four for the day.

Our first day on the riverwalk was a fun one and I believe successful as well. I saw some things I never had before, and learned a bit as well, and I believe the rest of our group did as well. On top of that we were able to meet some of the people along the riverwalk, sharing our mutual enthusiasm for the creatures along it and hopefully doing some educating as well. At the end of our first day I was left looking forward to our next.

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