Sunday, February 5, 2012

Niagara Waterfowl

January 22

Jean and I joined our fellow Peninsula Field Naturalists and the Niagara Falls Nature Club for a day of looking for waterfowl along the upper Niagara. We met at Dufferin Islands near the Falls and drove along the Niagara Parkway towards Fort Erie to start the trip south of the Peace Bridge.

During the cold winter months, many rafts of ducks and flocks of Tundra Swans can be found between Chippawa and Fort Erie. On this mild and sunny Sunday, it soon became apparent while driving to the border town that there were not many ducks on the river. The 100-200 Tundra Swans normally seen on a cold January day simply were not there. There were a few swans and I do mean a few, but as we approached that bend in the river at Miller's marina (a preferred spot if you're a Tundra Swan), the large white blobs that dot the river were absent. Are they still in the fields? Were they on the other side of Grand Island?

At our first stop, Fort George at our backs, we looked out on to the spot where the waters of Lake Erie start their trip north to fill Lake Ontario. An adult Bald Eagle (FOY) roosting in a tree on the Canadian side of the river caught the attention of all and if there were any Tufted Ducks swimming by at that moment, they were most likely missed. Ducks on the river included, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. There were not many, but I added 2 American Black Ducks to my list before a few of us pointed our scopes at the large structure sitting in the lake. A Snowy Owl had been seen in the area and it was thought that it might be sitting at the top of the Buffalo Intake Crib lighthouse. Someone mentioned they saw movement, but each time Jean or I looked through our scope, no matter what power of imagination, we could not see any living thing at the top of the structure that has interested me ever since I was a kid. After the group determined there really was nothing sitting on the lighthouse, we started our journey back to the Falls. 

At the marina in Fort Erie, waterfowl were sparse and the reported Black-headed Gull was not spotted flying with the hundred or so Bonaparte's Gulls above the river. Less than a kilometre away is a spot I always like to stop at when birding along the Niagara River. A parking area south of the International Railway Bridge has an excellent view of the river and the remains of concrete structure that juts out into the river. Waterfowl tend to congregate here and there are usually many gulls, including Great Black-backed standing on the structure. The best bird at this spot, a female Ruddy Duck (FOY). A species I highly favoured as the pick of the day for my Bird-a-Day Challenge.

I'm glad someone had the foresight to create a parkway along the entire length of the river. Unlike the shoreline of Lake Erie or Ontario, there are many public accesses on the river and if one spot is not productive, the next one just might have something of interest.  We viewed an area that included the southern tip of Grand Island and the much smaller Strawberry Island at the next pull-off. Common Mergansers, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye were plentiful and I spotted a few Greater Scaup. On the shoreline of Strawberry Island, Paula spotted  2 Great Blue Herons. This would be a FOY for Jean and I so I took a look through our scope and found the herons in the area Paula described. Using a higher magnification revealed a staggering 50 Great Blue Herons! I did mention it was January right?

Our last stop before returning to the Falls was near a small wooded area. When here, I always check the tree tops for Bald Eagle. None on this day. On the far side of the river, near the dock of a Grand Island residence, we spotted one lone Canvasback (FOY). I was still thinking Ruddy Duck for the Bird-a-Day challenge. Though this was the only Canvasback to be observed during the trip, I thought the odds of seeing Canvasback again were quite high. Ruddy Duck, slim to none.

In the afternoon, we checked the river above the Falls from the forebay to the Engineerium. Within the calm waters of the forebay we found Common Goldeneye, Gadwall (FOY) and another surprise for the day, no Hooded Mergansers. If the water is open, a Hoodie tick is pretty well guaranteed at this time of year.

More Gadwall near the Old Gatehouse and at the Engineerium, a male Lesser Scaup (FOY). 

The exposed rocks in the rapids have yet to produce a lifer Purple Sandpiper (aka nemesis) for Jean and I.

The trip concluded with a walk through Dufferin Islands. In the pond, we found an American Coot with the dabbling Mallards. Our friend Carol mentioned that she had never seen a coot in this nature area. I thought about it myself and could not recall a time when Jean and I observed an American Coot in this pond either. Reviewing my lists of this Niagara Hot Spot showed that this was the first time we had observed this species here.

The day ended with 6 species added to the year list and Ruddy Duck used for the Bird-a-Day challenge.

January 28

Jean and I returned to the Niagara River the following weekend. I was looking for a worthwhile tick for my Bird-a-Day challenge. With a wet snow falling, it was finally beginning to look like an actual winter. There was nothing of note to prompt a quick look through the scope while wind-blown snow pelted my face. The water levels were higher than usual and the rocks that every other birder seems to find Purple Sandpiper upon,were concealed.

Walking up river, we found Hooded Merganser in the forebay. Perhaps things were back as they should be and the rafts of Canvasback would be spotted between Chippawa and Fort Erie. As we were leaving Dufferin Islands, we observed not 1, but 2, American Coots at the pond. It has been a mild winter. Last year there was no open water so the mallards, as well as one lonely Northern Pintail, had to plow through the snow for food.

American Coot and Hooded Merganser could possibly be held off from being used for the Bird-a-Day challenge if we found something of interest further up river. At Miller's Marina, Jean and I did just that. Amongst the Common Mergansers in the boat ramp channel, we found 3 Redhead (FOY).

If we had continued further rather than head back to St. Kitts, Jean and I just might have added Fish Crow to the provincial list. This member of the Corvidae family is very similar to the American Crow. Without listening to their calls, distinguishing the two is difficult to unreliable. Fish Crows have been reported regularly in the Fort Erie and Buffalo area (including the day we ticked the Redhead) and this species just might end up being on a number of lists that I currently have on the go, including the Bird-a-Day challenge. I just needed to get through another work week.


  1. Ditto for here re: sparse waterfowl!
    Nice photos of the ducks!

  2. Thanks Blake. My posts would be pretty bare without the digiscoped images my wife captures.