Botanical Notes on Squaw Island, Niagara River
P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden
April 25, 2003


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Botanical Notes on Squaw Island, Niagara River


Notes on the flora of Squaw Island, New York State, Erie County, City of Buffalo, in the Niagara River: Field notes for August 5, 2001, and a visit to the pier on March 29, 2003.


by P. M. Eckel


Squaw Island is one of the numerous islands that tend to occur on the eastern shore or eastern channel of the Niagara River. The shoreline islands generally lie at the mouths of streams or creeks that flow in an east‑west direction to the River. Scajaquada Creek is the stream associated with Squaw Island. This creek flows westward into a channel parallel to the Niagara River, there oriented in a north‑south direction, which is considered to be part of the Niagara River itself: the Black Rock channel, also called Black Rock Harbor. Presently the northern tip of the island supports a shiplock/dam complex. The southern tip of Squaw Island is connected to a long, narrow stone pier that extends south or upstream from the Island, under the Peace Bridge and into the mouth of the Niagara River, or the northeastern corner of Lake Erie (across from Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada). This pier (presently called the Bird Island Pier), although rebuilt and extended southward in the Twentieth Century, was in existence in 1860. "Vessels driven by storms and failing to gain an entrance to the [Buffalo] harbor find a capacious and sheltered retreat in the harbor of Black Rock, ‑ formed by a mole from Bird Island to Squaw Island, a distance of 2915 yards. This, with the islands, forms a harbor 4,565 yards long and from 88 to 220 yards wide, with an area of 136 acres. Besides affording an exceedingly convenient harbor, with an average depth of 15 feet, this work secures a water‑power of about 4 1/2 ft. A ship lock is constructed at its foot; and it is on the line of the Erie Canal." (French, 1860 p. 284).


Exploring for Nineteenth‑century Plants considered rare today in New York State, a field trip was conducted by the author on August 5, 2001, for two hours under a sunny, glaring sky, initiated on the southern extremity of the island where the lift bridge at the end of Ferry Street is located, and continued to the northern island tip and a small stone pier or mole extending downstream a short way parallel to the River. The observations of the floral character listed below form an composite by which floristic elements noted in Nineteenth Century archival manuscripts and herbarium specimens at the Clinton Herbarium (BUF) of the Buffalo Museum of Science may be compared.


The present day overall aspect of Squaw Island is one of extreme disturbance where no surfaces of a natural character are exposed. Two small exceptions observed include a small backwater of essentially stagnant water at the southern side of the International Railroad Bridge and a wet trough parallel to the lock complex and on its western edge at the north end of the Island. These wet to moist habitats display examples and evidence of natural recovery of native species at this locality mainly due to the lack of routine and catastrophic disturbance evident in all other areas on the island. The oldest plant community, and the one most likely to represent some aspects of a native flora, is that of the wet trough at the Island's north end.


The south end of the Island is covered with pavement for car‑parking in a park settling enhanced with horticultural plantings. The weedy embankment forest on the east side sported Staghorn Sumach (Rhus typhina), Box Elder (Acer negundo), Tree‑of‑heaven (Ailanthus altissima) and small sprouts of Hedge Maple (Acer campestre) escaped here as in the borders of Goat Island (at Niagara Falls) where the tree is planted on Luna Island.


Dominating the south‑center of the island is the sewer works of the City of Buffalo, with a large settling pond associated with it. A large elevated spoil or dumping area to the north of the sewer works themselves was once more extensive, but a large portion of this dump was transported upstream and recreated on what is now Tifft Farm Nature Preserve near the shore of Lake Erie.


North of the mound on Squaw Island the island is bisected east‑west by the International Railroad Bridge, built in 1873 by the then Grand Trunk Railway and designed by E. P. Hannaford (Greenhill 1984). The railroad embankment was covered with a lush weedy growth in 2001, with Thistle (Cirsium arvense and C. vulgare) and Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), on its south side with Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Hungarian Bromegrass (Bromus inermis), Staghorn Sumach and Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), but by early 2003, this growth had been completely cut over, as well as grown up areas along the river bank adjacent to the railway. The presence of a Border Patrol car parked beside the rail bed seems to indicate the vegetation was removed as a result of heightened security to better detect illegal entry into the United States from Canada along this venue. It should be noted that only a few weeks after this survey was made the tragedy in New York City occurred with consequences for field survey work of the present nature and plant community change throughout the following years (2002‑2003) in areas along the US‑Canadian border.


Continuing north from the train bridge is an open area whose surface was completely bulldozed with not even grass present (in 2003 the area was improved with plantings of landscape evergreens, no doubt with the intent to provide asphalt surfaces, a lawnscape and picnic tables in the years to come).


The northern tip of the Island is composed of armed or ballasted areas, enclosing water in some places and extending northward along the river into a small stone pier. There is a small, wet channel parallel to and on the western side of the shiplock complex where an interesting weedy flora had become established.


The eastern island shore abuts the Niagara River current and is completely riprapped. The western shore facing the Black Rock channel of the Niagara River is a soil embankment that in 2001 was covered with a lush weedy growth, which has been cut down in 2002.


Starting at the southern extremity of Squaw Island on the western shore, there is a bare wall against the river current from which fishing is enjoyed and large masses of water weeds, particularly Eel‑grass (Vallisneria americana) and Potamogeton spp. (P. pectinatus), were pulled up with fishing lines and heaped on the concrete. There is an asphalt biking lane parallel to the shore, on the eastern margin of which occurs a chain‑link fence delimiting the sewer plant and enclosing a mown lawn and numerous landscaped trees (Robinia pseudoacacia; Gleditsia triacanthos, Salix fragilis). A high diversity of weedy plants occurs along the fence: Cirsium sp., Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Bird's‑foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus).


The ballasted area has a sparser flora of similar species: Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Quack‑grass (Agropyron repens), Great Burdock (Arctium lappa), Hedge Bindweed (Convolvulus or Calystegia sepium), Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), Bastard Toad‑flax (Linaria vulgaris), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium, cf. album or glaucum), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), English plantain (Plantago lanceolata), Plantain (Plantago major), Biennial Wormwood (Artemisia biennis),  Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Common Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis or S. altissima), Day Lily (Hemerocallis probably the fulva or the orange flowered species), Multi‑flowered Rose (Rosa multiflora) by the fence. Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum japonicum) is escaping here; scrambling over the ballast occur Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea), Common Pepper‑grass (Lepidium virginicum), a species of Dogbane (Apocynum sp.), Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) occur. Sprouting trees include Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and White Ash (Fraxinus americana).


On the stone ballast and gravelly path margins to the north where the breakwall ends occurs a somewhat different weedy flora, including many sprouts of Tree‑of‑Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), White Mulberry (Morus alba), young Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), Burdock (Arctium lappa), Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Cockle‑bur (Xanthium strumarium), Black Mustard, Common Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Horseweed (Conyza


canadensis), Catnip, Hungarian Brome‑grass (Bromus inermis) and a species of Love grass (Eragrostis), a Brome‑grass (Bromus cf. secalinus, with bent awns), Scentless Chamomile (Matricaria maritima although this should be checked whether it is rather a species of Anthemis (Corn Chamolile or Mayweed, A. arvensis or A. cotula), Canada Blue‑grass (Poa compressa). Just at the International Railroad Bridge to the north of the mound there is numerous young Staghorn Sumach (Rhus typhina) establishing itself with a thicket of Bebb Willow (Salix bebbii) and Cottonwood (Populus deltoides).


Note that the rocks here appear to be sprayed with herbicide because much of the vegetation appears blackened. Note also here, as to fauna, was a dead Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis).


At the end of the sewer plant area and the settling ponds occurs the dumping mound supporting a hard, dry, gravelly soil which is covered with grass species with interspersed forbs. Species include: Red Top (Agrostis cf. gigantea), Quackgrass (Agropyron repens), Timothy (Phleum pratense), Hungarian Bromegrass (Bromus inermis), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), Lolium cf. perenne, English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata),  Knapweed (Centaurea spp.), Chicory, Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), Common Mugwort, Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus var. pilosus), Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum, Millefoil (Achillea millefolium, White Sweet Clover (Melilotus alba),


Where the ballasted shore meets the International Railroad Bridge there is a backwater area of essentially stagnant water with numerous pioneer native taxa: Hornwort (Ceratophyllum demersum) in the water. Although Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has established itself, it grows side by side with a species of Iris, possibly the locally rare, as so far understood, Iris virginica var. shrevei. Broad‑leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia) was established with Jewelweed (Impatiens cf. capensis) and the lovely alien Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus). Ambient shrubs were Bebb Willow (Salix bebbii), Red‑osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) with Cottonwood (Populus deltoides). Moist soil on the shore of this pool supported an abundance of the Mild Water Smartweed (Polygonum hydropiperoides) and beside the path a patch of Lolium (probably perenne, English Rye Grass).


Beyond the bridge with its great Salix cf. fragilis willow tree occur more weeds, denser but apparently not more diverse.


North of the bridge occurs a very large, open area whose surface is completely stripped with isolated mature trees of Crack Willow (Salix fragilis), Weeping Willow (S. babylonica) and Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides). Subsequently (in early 2003) evergreens had been planted. There was no asphalted surface.


Along the western shore of the island on the Niagara river, there is a more developed forest above the riprap with more mature trees and shrubs of Staghorn Sumach, Cottonwood, White Ash, Crack Willow, much Box Elder (Acer negundo), some Catalpa (Catalpa cf. speciosa). Shrubby thickets were composed of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and some River Grape (Vitis riparia). Summer‑cypress (Kochia scoparia), a foreign weed spreading throughout the streets of Buffalo, was also present here.


At the narrowed northern tip of the island occurred a sterile lagoon on the west side and a channel on the eastern. Extensive Trees‑of‑Heaven grew around the lagoon with Canada Thistle and Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis).


The northern end of Squaw Island is connected to the stone pier or mole to the north of it by a walkway: contained water empondment due to this causeway occurred on the west side of the Black Rock Canal building complex. This empondment tapers to a low, moist ditch to the south with muddy to moist shores starting exposed and ending in a shaded weedy woods. Lawn and bulldozed areas extended quite to the muddy edge of this area.


Quieter water here supported a mix of native and introduced species: some Narrow‑leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia), Scentless Chamomile (Matricaria maritima, but see note above), Clovers (Trifolium pratense, T. hybridum, T. repens), probably from lawn seed, Bird's‑foot Trefoil, a field of White Sweet Clover, a tiny plant of what appeared to be a Lobelia, Polygonum cf. persicaria, Chenopodium album/glaucum, the native marsh Bluejoint Grass (Calamagrostis canadensis) grew with alien Lolium grass and Timothy, Black Mustard, Biennial Wormwood, Lettuce (Lactuca cf. serriola), Canada and Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), abundant Goldenrod (Solidago cf. gigantea‑canadensis), Purple Loosestrife, Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Evening‑primrose (Oenothera cf. biennis), Curly Dock, Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), New England Aster (Aster novae‑angliae), possibly Hairy Hedge‑nettle (Stachys hispida), Jewelweed (Impatiens cf. capensis), Pensylvania Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum), a large‑flowered Willow‑herb (Epilobium cf. angustifolium), Joe Pye‑weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens); Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). An interesting grass Poa nemoralis, occurring throughout the shaded Niagara river woodlands and conspicuous in late summer growing in shade where no other grass likes to grow. Red‑osier Dogwood thickets developed at the edge of shaded trees, with abundant River Grape (Vitis riparia), Bebb Willow. Mature trees of Cottonwood developed here, with Honey Locust and Black Locust in the more disturbed northern parts. Japanese Knotweed is developing at the edge as well.


On flat concrete surface of the stone pier occurred dense carpets of Mossy Stonecrop (Sedum acre), which was also present, although not as extensive, on the mole extending southward of the southern tip of Squaw Island. This species also forms mats on the artificial berm or mole on the northwestern extremity of Buckhorn Island State Park on Grand Island above the Niagara river cataracts, as well as alvar areas in the caprock shelves or tables of the Niagara River gorge.


Amid the Sedum grew more Bouncing Bet. Along the pier and lagoon areas occurred a forest of Box Elder, Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Crack Willow, Mugword, but also Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica), Panicled Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), White Ash, Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). A coarse Elm (Ulmus spp.) appearing at the end of the pier did not appear to be either of our native species. The pier was armed with fresh ballast.


The east side of Squaw Island is armed with walls on the north, and from the International Bridge south there was, but since removed, a dense weed forest on the embankment of Cottonwood, Crackwillow, Staghorn Sumach, fields of Mugword, Japanese Knotweed, Purple Loosestrife, Black Mustard, River Grape. There is here a little muddy beach more or less exposed at times of low water.


No access is available to the shoreline from the entrance to the Buffalo Sewer Authority Road and entrance to the north, south to the park area on the south extremity of the island, but there seems little doubt that the embankment flora just described north of this area describes this area as well.


Two moist areas of native regenerating habitat were indicated and with some well‑informed weeding, could conceivably develop into a community of native taxa typical of the present shoreline Niagara river plant habitats. Since many of the native species here of trees, shrubs and herbs are opportunistic and pioneer taxa and hence quite tough and aggressive, management of the enthusiastic weed flora and a curtailment of noxious horticultural species such as Buckthorn, Box Elder, and species such as Mugwort and Purple Loosestrife, both of which appear generally manageable here, could generate a well‑developed riparian habitat with associated avian, mammalian and other fauna.


Maintenance and other disturbance regimes, the planting of inappropriate and invasive species of trees (Robinia forms cloned colonies difficult to subsequently eradicate; Gleditsia escapes), mowing, lawn implementation, use of herbicides on ballast promotes a deteriorated landscape at odds with a naturally regenerating riparian shoreline community.


Although the southern pier or mole was not examined on this day, a brief field trip for photographic purposes was made later on March 29, 2003. The author took a walk down this stone pier between the ice‑dotted Niagara River on the west (the Lake Erie ice pack kept at bay by the ice boom out in the lake above the mouth of the river) and the Black Rock harbor on the east. There was plenty of substrate available for botanical establishment and the plants noted, although blighted by winter conditions, were somewhat recognizable. There were several unnamed and dwarf tree species, at least two willow species, just exposing their fuzzy buds, one species of the two quite frequent, one bush of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), a large mint (four angled stem with verticles of dried flowers, Leonurus?) and a smaller (Lycopus?), Cockle‑bur (Xanthium strumarium), a large Chenopodium, several stems of Summer‑cypress (Kochia scoparia), one Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), a clump of Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), a clump of Evening‑primrose (Oenothera cf. biennis), Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), stems of Solidago and Artemisia. Mossy Stonecrop (Sedum acre) forms mats here in one area just as it does in the stony structures at the northern extremity of Squaw Island.


It should be noted that the vegetation favored the Black Rock Harbor or eastern side of the pier perhaps avoiding the strong and harsh winds of the prevailing westerlies coming off Lake Erie. Note many of the species named are the same as those mentioned elsewhere on Squaw Island.


No rare species were observed, although Iris virginica var. shrevei needs looking for earlier in the year. A record for Cirsium altissimum was misidentified in the collections as BUF. No Equisetum species were noted anywhere on the island. A possible rare species of Oenothera noted from the late 1800's should also be looked for.


French, J. H. 1860. Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State. R. P. Smith Publisher, Syracuse. Reprinted by Heart of the Lakes Publishing, Interlaken, NY. 1980.


Greenhill, Ralph. 1984. Spanning Niagara, the International Bridges 1848‑1962. University of Washington Press. Seattle.


Introductory map: U.S.G.S. Buffalo NW Quadrangle, New York-Ontario, 7.5 minute series (topographic), 1965.



(If you have a modem connection, the pictures will take a while to download.)


Looking north (downstream in the Niagara River) from the north end of the Bird Island Pier at the southern end of Squaw Island. In view is the parking lot, park area and the east-west International Railroad Bridge in the background. Bridge in the foreground is the Ferry Street (lift) Bridge over the Black Rock canal. The Niagara River is on the left (west).

Looking north on the Bird Island Pier toward the southern end of Squaw Island showing established vegetation that tends to favor the Black Rock channel side of the pier (winter view). Plants include Evening Primrose, Purple Loosestrife, Mugwort (see text).


Another winter view from the Bird Island Pier looking toward the southern end of Squaw Island, the Niagara River on the left (west), the Black Rock canal on the right (east). The bridge is the Ferry Street (lift) Bridge.