Category Archives: Birds


Some Winning Images from International Photo Competitions

These are three, 6-minute slideshows from international photo competitions hosted by the BBC.  The final one has nothing to do with wildlife photography, so it is not quite in context with this blog, but either way I hope you enjoy them and gain inspiration:

Wildlife wonders – creatures up close:

Glorious greenery – winning garden [and wildflower] images:

Top travel photos from around the world:

Snowy Owls in Western New York, January 2014

On 26 January, 2014, Gerry Rising had an article published in the Buffalo News in which he wrote that, remarkably, he has received over 100 reports of snowy owls in the Western New York region, this winter.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke

As one might expect, this hasn’t been a result of all the snowy owls in the arctic agreeing that they wanted to come and see Niagara Falls during their winter vacation, it’s just that far more owls than usual have come south this year and it would appear that everywhere is getting higher numbers of these beautiful visitors than is usually the case.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande

The increased number of owls, this winter, is the result of a periodic surge that happens every few years in the numbers of lemmings in the arctic, and this took place last summer.  It is a simple equation: more lemmings means more young owls getting enough to eat and therefore surviving.  This results in an ‘irruption’ in which the species is seen across a much larger winter migration area than is usually the case.  The downside of such surges in numbers is that in the coming few months, when the owls get back to the arctic, there inevitably will be fewer lemmings and the breeding success of the owls will fall once more, in line with that situation.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke

In the book Owls of America, by Frances Backhouse, there is a very interesting map showing the typical winter distribution of snowies.  Only two regions in the USA are marked as getting some of the owls every winter.  One of these areas, as keen birders in this area know, is New England and New York.  The second is the Dakotas and Montana region.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande

By comparison, the breeding distribution – which is also shown on the map – is much more limited than I had anticipated.  For example, only the areas near the north west and north east coasts of Alaska is marked. I had wrongly assumed for example that most, if not all of Alaska would be part of their breeding range, but that is not the case.  Similarly, only the far-northern coastal area of Canada supports breeding, not the entire tundra zone.  Even in Greenland, according to the map – and just like Alaska – only the areas near the north west and north east coasts are in the breeding range.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande.
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2014, Jennifer Grande.

Excerpt from ‘Owls of America’:     “Snowy owl numbers fluctuate dramatically.  Reproductive highs and lows [as stated above] are closely tied to lemming population peaks and crashes.  Long-term population trends in North America are not known.  Recent research showing some movement of snowy owls between Alaska and Russia suggests that conservation efforts should be co-ordinated internationally.”

One other interesting thing about snowies is that unlike most other species of owl in the world, males and females have different plumage and can be told apart.  Old males can be almost pure white, whereas females are moderately to heavily barred with black, and juveniles have the darkest markings.

Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke
Snowy Owl. Copyright 2013, Andrea Burke

Personally speaking, I have had back problems throughout this winter, and although the precise cause is now known and a cure is in sight, this has meant that I have been immobile and have not been able to go and see the owls.  I believe the appropriate, exasperated expression is: “Grrrrr!”

The reason I have posted this article is to accompany photographs taken during the past few weeks by members of our Wildlife Watchers and Photographers (WNY) group.  I hope you all enjoy the pictures as much as I have.  (And any members who have not yet submitted photos of “their” snowies, please do so and I will add them to a gallery on this page.)

Eddie Wren


 Anyone in the Western New York region who is interested in joining the Wildlife Watchers and Photographers (WNY) group, please e-mail the owner of this blog and introduce yourself.



Keywords: snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus, Andrea Burke, Jennifer Grande, Eddie Wren, Western New York, WNY, birds, Buffalo News, Gerry Rising, Frances Backhouse, Owls of America, migration, plumage, range, winter, arctic, lemmings, birding, wildlife, nature, USA


U.S. ‘Great Backyard Bird Count’ [GBBC] – February 14-17, 2014

This international event engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Participants tally the number of individual birds of each species they see during their count period. You can count for as long as you like each day of the event, then enter your count numbers on the GBBC website. To learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count and how you can participate, see their website at

In addition, at 7:00pm on Thursday, February 13, 2014, there will be a training session (either by conference call or an online webinar) for people to learn how to participate in the GBBC and how to record the bird  data.  There will also be some discussion about bird identification. Please sign in early for the online  webinar as you will have to download some software on your computer in order to participate.

To listen to the Conference Call dial Toll Number:  213-416-1560  — Attendee Access Code: 923 4565

To join the webinar online, copy and paste the following URL into your browser:


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



Anyone in Western New York State who is interested in joining

Wildlife Watchers

please just e-mail the owner of this blog and introduce yourself


[i] Source: Niagara Parks, at

[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.


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,


US experiences largest influx of snowy owls in decades (video)

Feb. 04, 2014 – 2:11 – Huge number of birds fly south from the Arctic

Winter on Cape Cod is a solitary time. The beaches are empty and the summer tourists a memory, but this year visitors from the far north are drawing quite a crowd.

Snowy owls have flown down from the arctic tundra, spotted as far south as Florida and many more are being seen in the Northeast. Experts say it’s the largest migration of snowy owls to the United States in decades….

Read the full article and view a two-minute video from Cape Cod, at:


See also:  Snowy Owls in Western New York, January 2014


Five years after conservation groups launched a large-scale, coordinated effort to recover the imperiled American Oystercatcher, the species’ population has stabilized and begun to increase, according to an aerial survey conducted in 2013.

ARLINGTON, VA | January 28, 2014

Ten years ago, the charismatic, orange-billed shorebird was threatened by habitat loss and human encroachment. A comprehensive survey that year showed about 10,900 total birds and a rapidly declining population. The numbers kept dropping until 2009, when a coalition of 35 groups from Canada to Texas mobilized to protect the species. A survey completed in 2013 found about 11,200 birds. The coalition includes The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the College of William and Mary.”This kind of conservation success is extraordinary, especially in the shorebird world,” said Shiloh Schulte, a scientist at the Manomet Center and coordinator of the American Oystercatcher Working Group. “This was a targeted and coordinated approach to conservation involving 35 organizations, federal, state and private. We were hoping to see some signs of recovery with this survey, but the results show the population has already exceeded the 2003 mark.” The aerial survey covered more than 9,000 miles of barrier islands and salt marshes from Long Island to the Mexico border and the results were officially announced last month at the annual American Oystercatcher Working Group meeting in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. “In Virginia we have seen a 9 percent increase in the number of breeding pairs on the state’s barrier islands since 2009 as the result of increased oystercatcher conservation efforts,” said Alexandra Wilke, a shorebird biologist with The Nature Conservancy in Virginia. “Thanks to the support, guidance and leverage of the Working Group and partnership with both the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we have successfully acquired two National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants over the past five years. These grants have helped support these efforts in coastal Virginia, such as increased stewardship activities and habitat management for oystercatchers and other beach nesting shorebirds.”The coalition includes Audubon Connecticut, Audubon Louisiana, Audubon North Carolina, BiodiversityWorks, Canadian Wildlife Service, City University of New York, Clemson University, College of William and Mary, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Massachusetts Audubon, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, National Audubon Society, National Park Service, New Jersey Audubon, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, New York City Audubon, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Rutgers University, South Carolina DNR, Texas A&M University, The Nature Conservancy, Trent University, University of Georgia, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.