Saturday, June 2, 2018

NY Penn Dixie Fossil Park - Trip Log May 20

I'm way behind on posting our adventures in May. Our visit to Penn Dixie Fossil Park in Hamburg was a Christmas present to my daughter and two of her children that became a long weekend of exploring the Buffalo/Hamburg area. It was the highlight, however, and we can't wait to go back. We met local families as well as folks who had flown in from places much farther than Pennsylvania and Delaware. Our dig neighbors were from Japan, Atlanta, and just down the street. The local middle school art teacher, J.D., was a great local guide who gave us some tips for exploring the Hamburg and Lake Erie area when we return.

Fresh shale dug from the banks gave everyone the chance to claim a rock pile for the day.

We arrived at Penn Dixie Fossil Park early and joined a long line of fossil hunters. After a safety talk and introduction to the volunteer experts from the Hamburg Natural History Society and the Buffalo Science Museum, we walked through a light drizzle to an old aggregate quarry to claim a pile of rocks freshly dug for this much-anticipated annual event. Kids, grandparents, siblings, and teams of friends all claimed a spot for the day. We were lucky to have the corner of the site with three rock piles just at the edge of the banks, so the kids had plenty of space to roam and stretch their legs when they needed a break.

Aiden filled his pockets with treasures.

Kenzey listened to her favorite tunes as she reduced great slabs of stone to rubble and fossil finds.

The Devonian treasure at Penn Dixie can be kept by the finders, making this fossil park one of the most popular in the country. It claims the site of an old cement quarry and though rare, the chance of finding a golden fossil drove some kids (and adults) with intense concentration.  There's a lot of pyrite here and it can serve as one of the many minerals that replace the remains of ancient sea creatures. Just the other day a notice went up on the Penn Dixie Facebook page that a fifth grader had found a pyritized trilobite - but on our day to dig we were happy with all the trilobites, corals, clams, and brachiopods we were finding in grey, blue, and black.

Good technique, Aiden!

Em and I made sure to teach the kids proper rock hammer technique. Our love of geology and fossil hunting is a treasured family tradition and we wanted them to carry on safely with respect for the rock, themselves, and everyone around them. Gentle tap-taps with hammers and thinking about rock cleavage and fracture planes when using a small chisel kept them focused and controlled. Emily was on her game for hours, expertly popping out trilobites and other Devonian creatures.

Emily and Aiden in their Zen space - focused on each tap and pry. 
Rock saw crew helped diggers shape a larger fossil find. 

So is a fossil park really a "thing?" Well, happily for us paleo-geeks - YES! Penn Dixie was part of a national fossil park survey back in 2003 and it has since been on the forefront of defining this new kind of park for experiential learning and biogeological education. Though this rich Devonian digging site is over 380 million years old, Penn Dixie was one of the first parks to open specifically for the excitement of the dig and - best part -  being able to consult with a scientist on-site about your discovery and  keeping what you find.

Chris and his clam! At long last!

Our consulting expert was Chris, a Penn Dixie staff person and doctoral student, who was very excited about checking our keeper's bags for species of clams he was trying to document in this formation. He explained - very enthusiastically - that he had identified over a dozen bivalves here and was on the look out for one species in particular. This species, he assured us, would be a great find - one that he would add to his conference poster. It was a biogeomarker species of water temperature and oxygen level. He came by several times asking "Any clams? Got any clams?" When I showed him my two clams he used their Latin names and excitedly described their environment. "Oh! These would have been found in sub-tropical waters full of coral reefs and giant armored fish!" It was later on a stretch walk with my grandson Aiden that we found Chris down in the banks pulling up some undisturbed layers of shale. Suddenly, as we watched, he dropped his hammer and reached for a slab of stone. "MY CLAM!" he shouted. We cheered and congratulated him!

On a stretch break, Kenzey and Aiden sit atop a shale heap. "This is better than school!"

Most of Penn Dixie's visitation is composed of school groups who engage with a staff of educators and well-designed curriculum for non-formal, experiential learning. At the gathering pavilion where we received our safety talk and introductions, students assemble for sessions on Western New York's rich paleo-geological past and get to experience for themselves the excitement of fossil hunting. Besides fossil hunting, the park offers classes in ornithology and astronomy. Our dig neighbor J.D., who teaches nearby, praised the park programs and encouraged Emily to bring the kids up one summer for a week-long camp. "There's great camping nearby and so much for the rest of the family to do while they are at camp."

Emily finds a "flat" trilobite, Phacops rana.
Spoil piles are like candy for Aiden. 

I was impressed by the vast span of knowledge assembled for this big annual event. We had attended a members lecture the night before, called "Dinosaur CSI," and had met several well-known paleontologists and their families who travel in for this event. The Hamburg Natural History Society really does a great job putting this whole weekend together, but the stars of the show at the lecture were the junior rock hunters, the kids, who the scientists fawned over and encouraged for the following day's big dig. Aiden and Kenzey were pretty pumped up! (So were Emily and I!)

The thrill of looking into the past.

Our dig day took a break when the food truck arrived. People with aching backs and a few dirty dollars wandered up out of the spoils area to happily return with huge pickles, fresh-made grilled cheese, enormous Philly cheese steaks. What would the Devonian world thought of us? Would a nautilus wanted a bite of my grilled cheese? Would an armored fish steal Kenzey's cheese steak sandwich? We giggled through our lunch in the pavilion and watched many weary diggers return to their sites. Emily was eager to return. "I'm in my zone!"

Sun and drizzle teased each other throughout the day - which was perfect!

On our return,  energized by food and drink, we chatted with staff and volunteers. The fossil park, everyone said, has brought so much to the Southtowns area. Transforming the landscape from heavy industry to an economy that features natural history and conservation seems to be working in Hamburg. They were very excited for a new rails-to-trails path in development this summer. I shared how invaluable the rail-to-trails concept has been to Pennsylvania, injecting local economies with natural and historical tourism. Our visit to the Tifft Nature Preserve the day before, and exploring the  redeveloped parks of the Lake Erie waterfront the day after our dig,  all indicate that hopes are up for a greener future in the Southtowns.

A small sample of our keeper pile. Trilobites of three species in this group.
Old cement quarry-turned-best fossil park in the U.S.!

Fossil parks are the new kid on the block in the field of conservation education and while Penn Dixie is certainly one of the best, there are a few others worth mentioning here (and yes, they are on my list to visit). I had a chance to walk through the Fossil Park at Sylvania, Ohio, while on a doctoral research road trip in 2010 and at the time the quarry had not yet opened for the year. So at risk of being fined for trespass, I kept mum about my excursion into the pits at the time, but made several pages of notes about this Devonian wonderland. Just like Penn Dixie, an old quarry is given new life as a keep-what-you-find rock hound's hotspot. The Devonian seas extended farther west to Iowa and the Fossil and Prairie Park in Rockford, Iowa, makes as great an excuse to see the great savanna state as any. As with Penn Dixie, visitors come from around the world to this site. Both Sylvania and Rockford parks have excellent science-based education programs for kids and adults. More recently, new fossil parks have opened in Ohio, Oregon, North Carolina, and Washington. More information can be found in Clarey and Wandersee (2011) who conducted a survey of this new field of biogeological education parks and at the links in Notes.

Lake Erie is just ten minutes from Penn Dixie Fossil Park! 


Penn Dixie, Hamburg, New York

Clarey, R. and J. Wandersee (2011) "Geobiological opportunities to learn at U.S. fossil parks." Geological Society of American. Special paper # 474.

Fossil Park, Sylvania, Ohio

Fossil and Prairie Park at Rockford, Iowa

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