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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

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 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.

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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

 

Excellent U.S. nature books by Bernd Heinrich

I’m delighted to now have three of Prof. Heinrich’s books and I will certainly continue to collect and absorb them.

Book_Heinrich_Year-in-Maine-WoodsPerhaps his best known book is  ‘A Year in the Maine Woods‘ and it was the first one I bought.  In it, Bernd Heinrich effectively took a full year to study the wildlife of the area in which he grew up, and the result is fascinating.

The Washington Post wrote of this book: “[It] is quirky, unassuming, humorous, enlightening, and just a little bizarre.  If you’re a stranger to Heinrich, it’s an ideal time to make his acquaintance.”

I also have what I think of as a ‘matching pair’ of Heinrich’s books, namely:

Book_Heinrich_Summer-World‘Summer World – a season of bounty‘, and ‘Winter World – the ingenuity of animal survival‘, the latter of which I just finished reading yesterday.

This is a duet to fascinate any naturalist and gives insights of the natural world that I, for one, had never even thought of before, let alone understood.

So what will be the next book in this series that I’ll get?  Hmmm, I’m not too sure just yet because there are several that I want.  High on the list are:

  • The Trees in My Forest
  • Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death
  • In a Patch of Fireweed: A Biologist’s Life in the Field
  • The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insect Survival
  • The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration
  • The Nesting Season: Cuckoos, Cuckolds, and the Invention of Monogamy

….and there are several more titles that I haven’t even listed.

Eddie Wren

 

[Bernd Heinrich, Ph.D, is a professor emeritus in the biology department at the University of Vermont and is the author of a number of books about nature writing, behavior, biology, ecology, and evolution.  Heinrich has made major contributions to the study of insect physiology and behavior, as well as bird behavior. In addition to other publications, Heinrich has written eighteen books, mostly related to his research examining the physiological and behavioral adaptations of other animals to their physical environments. However, he has also written books that include more of his personal reflections on natureWikipedia]

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See also ‘The Forest Unseen’, by David George Haskell

 

Book: ‘The Forest Unseen’ by David George Haskell

This book is extraordinary… outstanding… superb!                                       (I think you might have got the drift of my opinion by now!)

The Forest Unseen
The Forest Unseen

David Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South, but just in case that makes people think his writing may be stiff & starchy, or perhaps overly-technical, this is what James Gorman of the New York Times wrote about the Forest Unseen: “[Haskell] thinks like a biologist, writes like a poet, and gives the natural world the kind of open-minded attention one expects from a Zen monk rather than a hypothesis-driven scientist.” …. And I couldn’t agree more, even though I’ve never actually met any Zen monks!

On page 238, Prof. Haskell himself writes:

        ” Scientific models and metaphors of machines are helpful but limited.  They cannot tell us all that we need to know.  What lies beyond the theories we impose on nature?  This year, I have tried to put down the scientific tools and to listen:  to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, without a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes.  I have glimpsed how rich science is but simultaneously how limited in scope and in spirit.  It is unfortunate that the practice of listening generally has no place in the formal training of scientists.  In this absence science needlessly fails.  We are poorer for this, and possibly more hurtful.  What Christmas Eve gifts might a listening culture give its forests?

         “What was the insight that brushed past me as squirrels basked?  It was not to turn away from science.  My experience of animals is richer for knowing their stories, and science is a powerful way to deepen this understanding.  Rather, I realized that all stories are partly wrapped in fiction — the fiction of simplifying assumptions, of cultural myopia and of storytellers’ pride.  I learned to revel in the stories but not to mistake them for the bright, ineffable nature of the world.”

And the price of this immensely enjoyable work of genius — a book that any nature lover can easily read — is $16; not bad for a masterpiece!  I kid you not when I say that now that I know what’s in Forest Unseen, I would happily have paid $100 for it.

 Eddie Wren

See also the excellent books by Bernd Heinrich

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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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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 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,