Niagara’s winter festival shows birds some love

Hen And Drake Goldeneye

Winter in Western New York has a national reputation for cold, snowy conditions. It is also known for great trout fishing in the lower Niagara River, from boats no less. Even with the frigid temperatures that we experienced in January and February this year, the Niagara River continues to flow north unrestricted and wide open into Lake Ontario thanks to its tremendous current. The Niagara River Corridor is also known for its vast array of bird life that take up residency in winter, thanks to the open water and the teeming populations of baitfish.

On Feb. 10-12, the Birds on the Niagara Festival (www.birdsontheniagara.org) will be celebrating its fourth anniversary, helping to create an awareness for the bird explosion that occurs every year when winter blows in. Food and open water are the main attraction, but it is also the perfect time for courtship, too. Love is in the air, in addition to the thousands upon thousands of water birds. Many of the waterfowl are in breeding plumage and are conducting courtship rituals before they head back north to their nesting areas.

“The courtship is a spectacular thing to witness,” says Jay Burney of Buffalo, one of the original organizers of the festival. “Each species has slightly different rituals, but they are dramatic. We hold our festival around the Valentine’s Day weekend because we think that there is a good match between winter birdwatching and romance.”

“We think that besides being the Honeymoon Capital of the World, Niagara Falls can become the Valentine’s Day Capital of the World, too,” continued Burney. “We would love to bring more people into the region during the winter months to invest ecotourism dollars into our local economy. The festival is designed to promote conservation in concert with local economic development. We know we can do that.” The region certainly has the birds for it.

“The Niagara River Corridor is a Globally Significant Bird Area because of the incredible range of bird species that use it,” insists Burney, “and because many, if not most, of these birds have declining populations.”

You wouldn’t think so by looking at the huge numbers of gulls, terns, and waterfowl like ducks and geese that can be seen here. With Lake Erie on the verge of freezing over, it will make the Niagara River even that much more special. It will jam more birds into a smaller area, and it will be a visual spectacle.

“If you like gulls, we have 18 species that have been found here, both wintering and migrating through,” says Burney. “These species include Bonaparte’s gulls, Great and Lesser Black-backed gulls, Iceland gulls, Little gulls, Glaucus gulls, Ring-billed gulls, Herring gulls, and occasional Slaty-backed gulls.”

“Other birds include ducks like Common Goldeneyes, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Greater and Lesser Scaup; Red Breasted, Common and Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, and the occasional Harlequin duck, just above the falls at Three Sisters Island,” says Burney. We are just scratching the surface here.

The festival is a learning experience, but you can come anytime throughout the winter to experience the birds in all their splendor. “We will host a series of in-person walks and workshops,” says Burney. “Registration for all events is required. Our wonderful virtual presentations will be free with registration, and some of the walks and workshops require a small fee.” Space is limited and you should not hesitate to sign up through the festival website at www.birdsontheniagara.org.

It’s also important to note that this is the only International Bird Festival on the continent and that there are tours and other events going on in Canada if you wanted to venture across the border. They are listed on the website.

Yes, birding is a big deal in Western New York. “The designation of a Globally Significant IBA is a designation that the Niagara River Corridor shares with places like Yellowstone National Park, the Galapagos, and the Florida Everglades,” emphasizes Burney. In addition, in 2019 the Niagara River Corridor received an official Ramsar designation as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

“We need to use the IBA designation and the Ramsar designation as a tool to help us guide our development, and our protection and stewardship strategies,” says Burney.

You could say that Niagara is, well, for the birds.

Categories: New York – Bill Hilts Jr

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