Celebrating Penn Dixie’s Heroes

Celebrating Penn Dixie’s Heroes: Eileen Eich, Liz Gonsiorek, and Sheila Kelly

By Elizabeth Schiavoni, Development & Marketing Officer

I met Eileen Eich on the Penn Dixie site in the Summer of 2017. She spoke excitedly from her wheelchair about climbing over the piles of rocks and collecting fossils on the site in the 1970s, before it was a Fossil Park and Nature Reserve. Accompanied by her daughter, Judy Klump, who shared fond memories of the site and the role her mother played in creating the site’s operating organization, the Hamburg Natural History Society in 1993.

In the single month I spent with HNHS, up to meeting Eileen, I consistently heard the same levels of enthusiasm for the fossil pits and the people who love them from volunteers, members, and visitors. As a lifelong volunteer for community resources, I was curious about the origins of this dedication. Available copies of the Hamburg Sun and Buffalo News from the 1980s and 1990s and Town of Hamburg meeting minutes tell a story of environmental activism and unwavering citizens answering a call to civic duty.

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Standing: Sheila Kelly (left) and Liz Gonsiorek (right). Seated: Eileen Eich.

The next time I saw Eileen, Judy was helping her with the door of the Town of Hamburg Community Center on a warm evening in September. The HNHS staff and President of the Board of Directors waited in the billiard room to hear the story of the founding of the organization from her and two other unwavering citizens invited by Judy.

Liz Gonsiorek regularly wrote about the threat of industrial development on the Penn Dixie site in local papers as developers showed interest from 1989 to 1992. While talking about pleasant walks on the site Liz noted her motivation, “I’m always interested in more green space and preserving that type of activity for people.”

Sheila Kelly also signed on opinion articles for the preservation of the land with Liz and Eileen. She later stayed with the HNHS in different leadership roles until the mid 2000’s. She was honored for her outstanding service to the organization in 2002. Eileen, Liz, and Sheila all attended town meetings arguing against development and for preservation. Liz reflected, “I was really happy that other people were interested in doing something like this.”

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The original HNHS banner hangs in our office above Dr. Holly’s desk.

The circle of community leaders in cushioned chairs by the fireplace represented generations of support for preserving the Penn Dixie site. The conversation was peppered with light and joyous, recollections of time on the site with family. Judy joking, “I never went there,” for partying when her elders brought up the bonfires. Liz sat with a thick file folder on her lap, pulling out articles, records, and pictures throughout the night. The interview moved down the timeline as Sheila described the group of volunteers drawn to preserving the land becoming the HNHS.

The Town Board appointed Eileen, Sheila, and five other volunteers to a committee on the possible development and management of the site on March 9th, 1993. That May they took their case to the Bayview and Big Tree Neighborhoods surrounding the site during informational meetings for homeowners. The Town purchased the land to be deeded to the HNHS on February 27th, 1995. Sheila believes the date of the first HNHS site cleanup on July 11th, 1996 marks the true beginning of the organization. Liz agreed. “It took a long time to get to the point where we could say we’re going to have a cleanup,” Said Sheila. “I don’t know how many dumpsters of tires and construction debris we picked up. I think some cars were buried in the mud,” she added.

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Penn Dixie library display from the 1990s. Picture provided by Liz Gonsiorek.

Discussing the level of safety on the site since the volunteer powered cleanups throughout the 1990s lead to the topic of restrictive covenants. Anything going in on the rest of the land that wasn’t the fossil park, “had to be low industrial,” Sheila explained. The present executive director Phil Stokes asked, “So you got it so that the other developments around there wouldn’t be polluting the air?” Liz put it succinctly, “you’re not going to have this park and then have another chemical plant go in.” She thumbed through her file and revealed the relevant paper dating the restrictive covenants to 1992.

I asked about the group acquisition of the wetlands adjacent to the fossil pits in the following years and Sheila confirmed the restrictive covenants made that easier. She continued, “But we were really busy then. I mean we went everywhere. We had poster boards.” Liz put her finger on a picture of the group’s display and passed it around the circle. The text “A Geological Treasure! Right Here in Hamburg!” surrounds a treasure chest on a board above a case of rocks and fossils. Judy looks at the picture and remarks, “I used to do that with Mom. We went to different libraries.” Judy dates the experience to 1995 and 1996 when her own son was 3 and 4 years old and would help with their educational outreach.

We chatted about the town officials, science teachers, dedicated volunteers, and first staff members that aided the group’s growth in those first few years. Eileen conveyed her delight that people came, “from Las Vegas and California, just to visit us.” Eileen also commented on Sheila’s long term commitment to the organization. I asked Sheila if there was anything that she ever wanted to see happen when she worked with the group that didn’t happen. She couldn’t think of anything. “I think they really exceeded expectations. I never thought in my imagination that it would ever be this big.”

Special Statement on Hamburg Tornado

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A heavy downpour at Penn Dixie shortly before the tornado touched down nearby. Photo courtesy Jay Wollin.

Special Statement on Hamburg Tornado
By Dr. Phil Stokes, Executive Director

Since we’ve had several inquiries regarding yesterday’s tornado, I decided to make a brief update to share with our members, supporters, and friends in the community.

Penn Dixie was very fortunate to avoid damage from yesterday’s (7/20/17) tornado that touched down in Hamburg, NY. As you can see below, the tornado touched down roughly one mile southwest of our park. That’s a little bit too close for comfort! Please note that there is an inconsistency in the graphic: the tornado had max winds of 105 mph and meets criteria for EF 1. According to the Enhanced Fujita classification system, EF 1 tornadoes typically result in:

“Moderate damage. Roofs severely stripped; mobile homes overturned or badly damaged; loss of exterior doors; windows and other glass broken.”

EF 2 tornadoes typically cause:

“Considerable damage. Roofs torn off well-constructed houses; foundations of frame homes shifted; mobile homes completely destroyed; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated; cars lifted off ground.”

As you can read about in many reports, there was light to moderate damage in Hamburg, including both property and auto damage. Fortunately, there was no loss of human life.

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Path of the 7/20 tornado through Hamburg. Penn Dixie is located approximately near the ‘S’ in Athol Springs on the left side of the map. There is an inconsistency in the graphic — a tornado with 105 mph winds is generally classified EF 1. Image from Todd Santos/Channel 4.

At Penn Dixie, our staff acted immediately when they recognized the threat of the approaching storm. Following protocol, the park was closed and visitors were ushered to their vehicles. Our summer day camp was suspended and our camp staff transported the campers to the safety of Big Tree Volunteer Fire Co. The park remained closed — and the campers remained in safe quarters — until the storm had safely passed over the area. See below for post-storm video clips from Jay Wollin.

 

I thank our diligent staff — Jeffrey Dietz, Jonathan Hoag, Rhiannon Starks, and Jason Wollin — for making informed decisions and taking swift action. They made visitor safety the top priority. I also thank the volunteers from the Town of Hamburg and Big Tree Volunteer Fire Co. who gave our campers a special tour of the fire hall during the storm. I’m sure they won’t forget the experience!

 

Bellacartwrightia: A Singular Specimen

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Bellacartwrightia sp. trilobite uncovered by Alasdair Gilfillin at Penn Dixie in 2016.

Every so often, one of our visitors uncovers a truly spectacular fossil. The preservation might be perfect, the assemblage of different fossils might be unique, or the type of fossil might be very uncommon. In this case, we present a beautifully preserved and uncommon trilobite called Bellacartwrightia.

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Sideview of Bellacartwrightia. Trilobite is approximately 1.5 inches long.

Penn Dixie member Alasdair Gilfillan discovered this trilobite at our park on October 3, 2016. Our dig season was coming to a close and Alasdair decided to spend a weekend visiting us from New Jersey. Alasdair dug into the infamous Smoke Creek trilobite bed of the Windom Shale and unearthed what he thought was a Greenops — an uncommon trilobite that seems to represent one or two of every 100 or so trilobites that are found. Instead, Alasdair found something much rarer. He writes:

You may remember that I found a nice (though at the time partially covered) trilobite which I thought was a Greenops that day. I managed to get it prepped and it turns out that it was a Bellacartwrightia, a much rarer form. The prep guy did a really nice job and it turned out to be a really fantastic specimen. Please find enclosed the photographs. The trilobite is ~ 1.5 inches long.

Alasdair adds that the prep work was done by Bob Miles — a former Penn Dixie board member who also took the photographs. We thank Alasdair for sharing his images and for his donation of many fossil specimens that were used in our school programs.

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The Bellacartwrightia cephalon (head) resembles that of Greenops, but the two genera are not closely related.

Bellacartwrightia is uniquely found in the Devonian rocks of the Hamilton Group in New York State. This fossil was first described by Lieberman and Kloc in 1997; the original paper can be downloaded here. Bellacartwrightia was named after the wife of paleontologist Bruce Lieberman, who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Lieberman is now at the University of Kansas. The paper explains how Bellacartwrightia is different from Greenops, another trilobite with a somewhat similar appearance. From page 29:

In addition, the members of this genus are phylogenetically distant from species assigned to true Greenops…These two Middle Devonian genera have not shared acommon ancestor since, at latest, the Siegenian [approx 411 million years ago], based on an analysis of ghost lineages. To treat these species as members of a genus Greenops would necessitate placing all of the asteropyginines within the genus Greenops.

There you have it — a new genus of trilobites first documented in 1997 and one of our members finds an excellent specimen 20 years after the discovery!

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Bellacartwrightia in the host rock — Windom Shale.

Alasdair was kind enough to share additional photos of the Bellacartwrightia as well as some of his other treasures from Penn Dixie. Our visitors are welcome to keep any fossils that they find, but we do appreciate photos of particularly cool fossils for use on our website.

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A plate of Phacops rana trilobites found in 2015.
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A single Phacops from 2016.
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Phacops trilobite. Prep work by Bob Miles.

For further reading, here are some links:

Evolutionary and biogeographic patterns in the Asteropyginae (Trilobita, Devonian) Delo, 1935 on AMNH

Bellacartwrightia whiteleyi on AMNH

Textbook Bellacartwrightia on Trilobites.com

Bellacartwrightia on fossilmuseum.net

Earth Science Day 2016

While Penn Dixie may be covered in ice and snow, we can always think ahead to the coming spring and summer months when the site will be visited by fossil collectors of all ages and experience levels. This spring, we’ve got Earth Day on April 22 and Dig with the Experts scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, plus many school field trips. In the summer we’ll host a full array of science and nature programs, but fall will be a really special time when we host our 20th Annual WNY Earth Science Day on Saturday October 7. To get in the sprit, take a look back at Earth Science Day 2016 — Saturday October 8 — with some photos courtesy of superstar volunteer Jake Burkett and his family.

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Despite the chilly and wet morning, exhibitors and visitors who chatted under the big tent stayed mostly warm and dry.
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The drill rig demonstration got a bit muddier than usual.
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UB Geology might have brought the messiest activity: goupy glaciers that flowed through 3D models.
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By late morning the skies cleared and our fossil collecting was in full swing.
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These folks came down from Ontario and were very eager to find the perfect trilobite.
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At just the right time, LLoyd Taco Truck arrived and satisfied the hungry lunch crowd — even T-rex.

For the full gallery visit the Google Drive gallery — thanks Burketts! We are grateful for the following organizations that made Earth Science Day possible:

  • 3rd Rock LLC
  • Aquarium of Niagara
  • Animal Advocates of WNY
  • Buffalo Association of Professional Geologists
  • Buffalo Geological Society
  • Buffalo Museum of Science
  • Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
  • Canisius College Seismographic Station
  • Cradle Beach
  • Earth Dimensions, Inc.
  • Ecology & Environment, Inc.
  • Erie County Department of Environment and Planning
  • Evangola State Park
  • Lloyd Taco Trucks
  • Past & Present Rock Shop
  • Penn Dixie Site
  • Reinstein Woods/NYS DEC
  • SJB/Empire Geo Services, Inc.
  • StratResources Geologic Consulting, LLC
  • SUNY Brockport Earth Science and Meteorology Club
  • SUNY Buffalo Undergraduate & Graduate Geology Clubs
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — Buffalo

Annual dig has $32k impact

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Fossil hunters at the 2016 Dig with the Experts program in May.

A newly released report from the Hamburg Natural History Society (HNHS) finds that the Penn Dixie Paleontological & Outdoor Education Center’s annual fossil dig — Dig with the Experts — contributed greater than $32,000 in total economic impact to the Hamburg area in 2016.

You can download the Penn Dixie Dig with the Experts report in PDF format.

The report examined the economic benefits generated from the one-day fossil collecting program in which visitors were invited to collect fossils in a freshly excavated portion of the site’s 54-acre quarry. Paleontologists from the Cincinnati area supervised the dig, where participants could unearth 380 million-year-old rocks in search of marine fossils such as trilobites and brachiopods.

Visitors stayed in local lodgings, dined at local restaurants, and visited area attractions while they were in town. About 40 percent of the dig 165 attendees traveled from outside the Buffalo area; a similar number were first-time visitors to Penn Dixie.

HNHS Director David Hanewinckel, who authored the study, stated “We knew Penn Dixie had an economic effect on the area, but before this study, we didn’t know how much we contributed. Now, we have a good number and look forward to continuing success.” The study was conducted by Hanewinckel, HNHS Executive Director Phil Stokes, and Dr. Roger Levine, an independent consultant formerly of the American Institutes for Research.

Penn Dixie typically welcomes 12,000 visitors each year; visitors from 31 states and four countries have visited to date in 2016. Penn Dixie was recognized as the top fossil park in the U.S. following a 2011 study published by the Geological Society of America.

Serpents of Penn Dixie

Text and photos by Amanda K. Martin, M.S. Biological Sciences


Imagine trying to fit a whole watermelon into your mouth without chewing it or cutting it into smaller pieces. Sounds impossible, right? Well snakes have to do something similar to this each time they eat their prey, however they have adapted their skull structure in order to accomplish such an impossible feat.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws closed).

Unlike a human jawbone (mandible), a snake’s jawbone is connected together with elastic ligaments that allow for stretching, however, the jawbones never detach! The two bones are moving independently.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws opened).

That means the bones can move apart as a snake eats a large prey item. As the jaws unhinge, the curved teeth hook the prey item and they wiggle it down their body.

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Model skull of a snake (jaws fully opened).

Even though snakes have amazing adaptations, such as their feeding method and ability to travel without legs, many people are afraid of them. These creatures like other wildlife are harmless to humans unless provoked. Even if they are provoked, they try to escape first and bites occur from people harassing the snake.

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Dekay’s brown snake in a defensive position.

Snakes are incredibly important organisms in the ecosystem, acting as both predators (rodents, invertebrates, birds) and prey (hawks, turtles, large mammals). Snakes are ectotherms; they behaviorally regulate their body temperature by moving in and out of areas with heat. This ties them closely to their environment and they can be used to monitor ecosystem health. If local snake populations begin to decline, then their habitat may be degrading, which affects humans as well.

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Forest habitat around Penn Dixie nature trail.

In the state of New York, there are 17 snake species, of which three are venomous. At Penn Dixie, we have four snake species: Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), Eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum), and Dekay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi).


Northern Water Snake

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Water snake.

This is a large-bodied snake that primarily lives in the water. It ranges from 24 to 55 inches in size. They may be brown, tan or grayish in coloration with a white belly and have square blotches on their back. They spend most of their time in lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers, and streams, but will bask on river banks or on overhanging branches. They are carnivorous and eat amphibians, fish, crayfish, large insects, other reptiles, birds and small mammals. They do not constrict their prey, but consume them alive.

Water snakes have to avoid getting eaten themselves by other large snakes, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. They escape predation by swimming across a body of water or diving underneath the surface and anchoring their bodies to vegetation or logs. They typically remain submerged for five minutes, but can stay below for an hour and a half. They are quite beneficial to humans because they will eat diseased or dying fish and help control overpopulated areas. Many water snakes are often misidentified as venomous cottonmouths or water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorous), and are killed, but cottonmouths have bands instead of blotches and have a northern limit of southern Virginia.


Garter Snake

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Eastern garter snake.

This is a common medium-sized snake that can be found throughout the United States. It ranges from 18 to 26 inches in size. They have three yellow longitudinal stripes running down their dark body; two on the sides and one down the middle. However, some have checkered patterns in between the stripes.  They have a white or light yellow belly. They live in a variety of habitats such as meadows, marshes, woodlands, and hillsides. They can commonly be found in moist, grassy areas and enjoy basking on or under rocks or debris. If you are ever in an area with a lot of small rocks, please do not step on the rocks, which could crush a hidden snake. They eat a variety of invertebrates (earthworms, crayfish, leeches, snails, slugs, insects), fish, baby birds, small mammals, amphibians, and other snakes. They appear to be immune to toxins released by toads and the consumption of this toxin may make their saliva slightly toxic which helps subdue prey. They immobilize their prey by biting down with their sharp teeth and swallow it whole.

Garter snakes are preyed upon by hawks and herons, large fish, bullfrogs, other reptiles, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and shrews. They primarily avoid predators with their camouflage or they will flee into the water to avoid terrestrial predators. If you have ever tried to pick one up, they have a defensive mechanism where they release a foul odor called musk which usually deters the predator or you from handling them further. Like the Northern water snake, garter snakes are important low-level predators which act as both predator and prey within the ecosystem. They also are one of the few animals that can eat amphibians with toxic defensive mechanisms like toads and newts. Garter snakes also have a look-alike, the ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus). Ribbon snakes tend to be more slender, have a longer tail, and do not have a scale between the eye and nose, which is white in appearance, however they have not been found at Penn Dixie.


Eastern Milk Snake

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Eastern milk snake by Stan Martin.

Like many snakes, this species has a slender, smooth scaled body with reddish or brown blotches on top of their gray or tan scales. The belly tends to have a black checkerboard pattern and adults can grow 19 to 40 inches in length. A Y- or V- shaped mark can be found on their neck, just under their head. They can be found in the woods, fields, marshes, farmlands, and suburbs. Many can be found living under logs, rocks, or old boards. They will eat small mammals, small birds, and smaller snakes. They constrict their prey by squeezing tightly until the animal suffocates and then proceed to eat their prey whole. Milk snakes have to avoid larger mammals such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and skunks. They will try to flee first, but they will sometimes vibrate their tail against the ground which mimics the sound of a rattlesnake.

Milk snakes get their name from a myth that they drink milk from nearby cows. Farmers kept finding this snake near their barns and fields, which they mistakenly thought the snakes were there for the cows instead of the rodents living in the barns. Milk snakes are actually quite beneficial especially to farmers because they eat pest species such as rodents. Although this is a common species, problems such as habitat loss and fragmentation, persecution (often mistaken for venomous snakes), predation by invasive species, and road mortality may lead to the disappearance of this beautiful species.


Dekay’s brown snake

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Dekay’s brown snake.

This is a highly secretive, but a small dark brown or tan colored snake. There are two rows of dark spots running down its back, with a mid-back light colored band. The belly has a gray to pinkish coloration and sometimes has small black spots. In length, they usually range from nine to 15 inches. This is one of the few species that survives well in disturbed habitats such as urban areas. They prefer to stay under covered areas such as rocks or boards. Sometimes they will venture out during the day, but they will come out during the night when the weather is really warm. They will explore the area looking for prey such as insects, slugs, earthworms, and small tree frogs. They can also eat snails with their specialized teeth and jaws which helps them to pull the snails out of their shells.

When threatened, they will flatten their body to appear larger and may even release a foul smell called musk. Some predators are large frogs and toads, larger snakes, crows, hawks, blue jays, and weasels. These snakes are perfect friends for your garden since they prefer to eat a pest species such as snails. They control slug and earthworm populations, while serving as a valuable food source for their predators. During the winter, brown snakes will go into brumation (similar to hibernation in mammals) with other snakes in holes in the ground, old walls, and cracked foundations.