Wintering gulls and other birds of the Niagara River

29 December 2013

Of the 43 species of gulls worldwide, 19 have been identified on the Niagara River.  Among their ranks are an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Bonaparte’s Gulls – as much as 10 per cent of the world’s population of this one species alone.[i]

With the culinary excesses of Christmas fading quickly from memory, if not necessarily from the waistline, today’s outing of the Buffalo Audubon Society was a breath of fresh air – albeit very chilly, breezy air. Seven members of our “Wildlife Watchers and Photographers (WNY)” group were there.

Erie Basin Marina, Buffalo NY

Erie Basin Marina, Buffalo NY

The observation tower at the city’s Erie Basin Marina was our starting point and an adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)[i] flew directly overhead as we arrived.  However, several duck hunters blasting away on the breakwaters a few hundred yards offshore had contributed to the vast majority of waterfowl being a long distance away. Visible through binoculars only as vaguely-dotted, darker areas, several thousand greater scaup (Aythya marila) and, in a separate raft, a similarly huge number of common mergansers (Mergus  merganser) were revealed by spotting scopes.  Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria) and – rather inevitably – mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) were also present, but so were a few less-common American  Black Ducks (Anas rubripes).

Recent sightings of up to 3 snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) on the breakwaters now being used by the duck shooters understandably were not happening during our visit. If owls are as ‘wise’ as they are said to be they would be hiding as far away from any hunters as possible, just in case there were any trigger-happy individuals out there who might shoot at anything that moved.  Such mindless killings are sadly not unheard of.

One little gull (dark under-wings) among Bonaparte’s gulls

One little gull (dark underwings) among Bonaparte’s gulls

So, leaving the pounding of shotguns behind, we soon moved on and headed for the very northern tip of Squaw Island,[i] on the east/U.S. side of the northbound river.  Here a swirling patch of water, emerging from beneath lock gates, was bringing tiny fish and presumably other food items to the surface where scores of Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) were waiting.  Among the Bonepartes, a solitary little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus or debatably Larus minutus)[ii] was feeding just as avidly – its dark underwings the only obvious give-away that it was indeed a separate species from its light-winged cousins.

Common Loon in winter plumage

Common Loon in winter plumage

Nearby, at the end of the narrow jetty, an adult common loon (Gavia immer) in winter plumage was swimming and diving.  A little further out, a raft  of floating birds included many ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis), several American herring gulls (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) and some American coot (Fulica americana).  Many of us were pleasantly surprised to see a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) fly overhead, a long way north of its normal winter range, but our guide for the day – Buffalo Audubon’s Tom Kerr (below) – pointed out that as migration is tied to food availability and as the powerful Niagara River almost never freezes-over completely, birds  such as “belteds” are commonly able to stay, year-round. Our next stop was Goat Island, one of the two islands that split the river into three sections immediately above the world-famous Niagara Falls.  Just as at Squaw Island, one can drive across a bridge onto goat Island, but a glance down at the water thrashing and

Tom Kerr, professional naturalist for Buffalo Audubon Society, and an excellent birder

Tom Kerr, professional naturalist for Buffalo Audubon Society, and an excellent birder

battering its way past underneath as it heads for an imminent, spectacular plunge over the edge, does tend to make one hope the bridge is particularly well-built! On rocks at the upstream (i.e. eastern) end of the island, many gulls were resting, including many ring-billed but also a glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus), lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) and a great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) that flew by.  One harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) was seen, sitting on rocks.  Another bird at Goat Island that initially seemed as unlikely as had the belted kingfisher at Squaw Island was a spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius or debatably Actitis macularia).

The Canadian hydro-electric power station outflow on the left, and the American one on the right, from the 'Power Vista'

The Canadian hydro-electric power station outflow, high left, and the American one lower right, from the ‘Power Vista’

A few miles north of the city of Niagara Falls, the river passes between two huge
hydro-electric power stations – one (on the left/ west bank) Canadian and the other, of course, American – but where the water escapes back into the river the turmoil and currents are extraordinary, once again bringing a lot of food to the surface and attracting gulls.  This time, though, it is the larger species and in among them we had the pleasure of seeing more glaucous gulls plus an Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides) and at least one Thayer’s gull (Larus thayeri).  The last viewpoint of the eight-hour birding trip along the entire, 35-mile length of the Niagara River was on the south shore of Lake Ontario, adjacent to Old Fort Niagara and near the river mouth.  This is a location that can produce spectacular birding days but on this occasion gave us ‘just’ black scoter (Melanitta nigra or, more recently, Melanitta americana to separate it from the very similar ‘common scoter’ in Europe), white-winged scoter (Melanitta fusca deglandi), oldsquaw – a.k.a. long-tailed duck – (Clangula hyemalis) and another common loon. More than one-fifth – nine in total – of all the world’s species of gulls were identified on this trip, with plenty other birds to watch, as well.  It was a highly enjoyable and rewarding day out, for which our thanks go to the Buffalo Audubon Society, Tom Kerr, and several other very knowledgeable birders who were all keen to help visitors identify and understand what they were seeing.

Eddie Wren

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[i] Source: Niagara Parks, at http://www.niagaraparks.com/niagara-falls-attractions/nature-activities.html

[i] Scientific names – less-accurately known as ‘Latin names’ despite many being of Greek origin – are included to clarify species identification for any readers from countries such as my native Britain where the common names for the same species are frequently different.

[i] Squaw Island Park provides support for part of the international railroad bridge that crosses to Canada and may be reached via a side road that is located on Niagara Street, about 200 yards northwest of its intersection with Tonawanda Street, all of which is just north of the intersection between I-190 and the Scajaquada Expressway (Route 198).

[ii] Experts sometimes debate over the precise naming of species and the result is that, until such disputes are resolved, some creatures get landed with two alternate scientific names. There are two of these in this summary.

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Keywords: Niagara River, Buffalo Audubon Society, Tom Kerr, Eddie Wren, Wildlife Watchers and Photographers, Goat Island, Squaw Island Park, Niagara Falls, Western New York, WNY, USA, winter, birding, birds, bird watching, December, gulls, Thayer’s gull, glaucous gull, Iceland gull, Bonaparte’s gull, little gull, spotted sandpiper, common merganser, goosander, canvasback, belted kingfisher, common loon, great northern diver, black scoter, white-winged scoter, Power Vista,

 

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