Bitten by the bird bug

Birds are amazing creatures. Spending time in areas like the Niagara River, globally recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA), you can’t help but wonder about the wide variety of bird species that take to the air, line the shoreline or float on these scenic and iconic waters. And once you have the bird bug, you clamor for more – more knowledge; more bird variety; more areas to seek out species for your bird bucket list (bbl).

Important Bird Area designations are part of Audubon New York’s most important conservation efforts across the Empire State – identifying, monitoring and protecting critical habitats that are essential for birds and other wildlife. There are more than 130 IBAs in New York. In addition, this state has also established Bird Conservation Areas (BCA) and currently there are nearly 60 of these areas across the state. Birds matter.

The bird bug can bite when you least expect it. Drifting down the Niagara River in search of trout is one of the ways that can get you wondering about what wings are waving by. It happened to me. As the waters of the Niagara River slowly improved the last four decades, new bird species previously never seen before started to arrive. Black-crowned night herons, great egrets and great blue herons line the shoreline regularly now, especially in the Niagara gorge where a unique ecosystem exists. 

This year’s winter is not your typical example, but during a normal first quarter of any year when the snow is flying the open waters of the river serve as a congregation point for tens of thousands of gulls, terns and a host of waterfowl species. Numbers are often dominated by Bonaparte’s gulls, where up to 20 percent of the world’s population of this bird variety can be found in the river corridor feeding on baitfish and other food sources available in the system. Identifying the different varieties makes it a bit of a game as you try to pick out species that are much rarer in our waters, like the little gull or the great black-backed gull. Up to 14 different gull species have been observed in the river. 

Drifting down the river leaves you looking up for birds. You can also walk the shoreline in places like Artpark State Park, Devil’s Hole State Park or Whirlpool State Park – excellent vantage points to look to the skies for our feathered friends. One of the best bird-meeting places is around the New York Power Authority Niagara Project, where birds will take advantage of any possible food morsels that might be discharged through the hydro plant’s turbines at the tailrace.

It doesn’t take long for you to get hooked on birds. Sitting in a treestand while deer hunting; driving down the road to work and observing the trees and power lines; even while mowing the lawn. Once you’re hooked, there is no turning back. And then you can take that desire on the road wherever you might go. National wildlife refuges are great locations for watching birds. Bring along the tools of the trade: binoculars and camera for starters. A bird identification book is another excellent tool to invest in.

Being in the right place at the right time is critical for some bird encounters, and a recent trip to southwest Florida couldn’t emphasize that point more. A favorite bird haven is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island and we witnessed some amazing bird life there. Part of the key was arriving as early in the day as possible. The NWR opens at 7 a.m. and we were there at sunrise. Not only is that an excellent time for viewing birds and other wildlife, but it’s also prime for picture taking, affording photographers some of the best light of the day. Keep that in mind next time you seek out birds. Of course, the end of the day is also a good time for bird viewing and picture taking.

Taking advantage of unique weather situations is another way to increase your birding odds. That same trip to Florida was at the tail end of more than a foot of rain, which created flooding conditions throughout the region. With so much standing water in outdoor areas, it offered birds additional food sources in locations that might not normally be available for viewing or picture taking. I’ve included a couple of photos of that trip to give you an idea of what’s possible if you wait for those special moments.

Birding is a great way to get closer to the outdoors and a fun activity that the entire family can enjoy. Yes, nature is for the birds … and for anyone who enjoys being outside hunting, fishing, hiking or biking. Get a “bbl" started today!

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