December 17-23, 2018 (Week 51 of 52): Niagara Falls is the Gull Capital of the World

Many ardent birdwatchers consider Niagara Falls, and sections of the Niagara River upstream and downstream of the Falls, to be the “Gull Capital of the World” in recognition of the abundance and diversity of gulls found there during winter months. The Falls area annually supports one of the world’s most spectacular concentrations of gulls, with one-day counts of over 100,000 individuals and 19 species recorded, according to the National Audubon Society. Birders flock to this hotspot at this time of year in hopes of observing some of the dozen or so rare species that have been documented there.

Even to those not seeking rarities, the sheer magnitude of gulls along the Niagara River can be an awesome sight. Flocks of thousands or tens-of-thousands can be seen above and below Niagara Falls and elsewhere along the Lower Niagara River. In particular, the section of river in Lewiston near the outlets of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant (on the New York side) and Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Station (on the Ontario side) supports huge, boiling flocks of gulls that soar above the turbulent water and sporadically dive for fish.

Gull numbers and diversity along the Niagara River typically peak between mid-November and mid-January. This timing coincides with the annual buildup of fall migrant Bonaparte’s gulls and the arrival of wintering herring and great black-backed gulls. Among those common species are about a dozen uncommon to rare winter visitants that arrive about the same time. Gulls are attracted to the Niagara River during winter months by extensive areas of open water (i.e., unfrozen) and abundant food resources, especially emerald shiners. Some of the shiners and other small fish may be stunned from turbulence near the Falls and the outlets of the hydropower plants, thus making for easy prey. The critical resources that the Niagara River provides for gulls, waterfowl, and other waterbirds is a significant reason why the River is listed as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

Gulls are renowned travelers. Most of the species found in the Buffalo-Niagara Region during winter months breed elsewhere, in some cases >1,000 miles away. Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s, and Sabine’s gulls breed primarily in the Arctic and drift south only during winter months. Bonaparte’s gulls nest near lakes and other waterbodies across the boreal forest zone of Canada. They build stick nests in trees, in contrast to almost all other gulls. Most great black-backed gulls and laughing gulls breed along the Atlantic coast. Black-legged kittiwakes are pelagic species seldom found far from salt water, but occasionally observed along the Niagara River. Franklin’s and California gulls travel here from the Prairie Potholes Region and Pacific coast. While rare in our Region, some European breeders have been recorded here in winter on a fairly regular basis over the past few decades, including lesser black-backed, black-headed, and little gulls.

Gull-watching can be both invigorating and frustrating. It can be an invigorating experience to witness huge and raucous masses of gulls, with some flocks consisting of thousands or even tens-of-thousands of birds. That feeling can be augmented by the knowledge that many of the gulls traveled here from far-distant breeding grounds. It can simultaneously be a frustrating experience because of the challenge of trying to pick out rare species within huge flocks, keep track of any rare gull once spotted (like following an individual snowflake in a squall), confirm with confidence which species it is, and simultaneously relay your findings to other birders. Adding to the challenge is the frustration that most gull species have different plumage patterns as they mature from year to year.

A good approach for finding rare gulls in our Region is to first learn to readily recognize the most common species (especially in flight): Bonaparte’s, ring-billed, herring, and great black-backed gulls. Once comfortable with the common species, scan large flocks of gulls to look for birds with slight anomalies, especially different wing color patterns. Here are a few examples. Bonaparte’s gulls are small tern-like gulls with a distinct white wedge at the tip of each wing. They often occur in medium to large flocks. Scan those flocks to spot dark underwings or primary feathers that are typical of little and black-headed gulls. Ring-billed and herring gulls are medium and large-sized gulls (respectively) with gray mantles and black-tipped wings. Scan flocks of ring-billed and/or herring gulls for “white-winged” gulls (those lacking dark wing tips) such Iceland, glaucous, and Thayer’s gulls. As one might expect, the great black-backed gull is a big gull with a black back. Watch for lesser black-backed gulls which are about 30% smaller, noticeably more slender, and have yellow legs (compared to pink legs of the great black-backed gull).

Some of the best birding for winter gulls can be experienced around the turbulent waters above and below Niagara Falls. Productive public viewing areas on the U.S. side of the Falls include Niagara Falls State Park, including Goat Island (above the Falls) and Niagara Gorge Discovery Center (below the Falls). On the Canadian side, the International Control Gates and Dufferin Island Nature Area (both above the Falls) can be excellent.

The Lower Niagara River typically supports huge flocks (thousands or tens-of-thousands) of gulls, especially near the outlets of Robert Moses and Sir Adam Beck generating stations. Valuable public viewing areas include the Niagara Power Vista visitor center, Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park, Joseph Davis State Park boat launch, and Fort Niagara State Park. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Glen Nature Area and overlooks at the north and south ends of the Sir Adam Beck hydro station have been excellent gull locations for decades.

Large numbers of gulls can sometimes be found on the Upper Niagara River during winter months. Good public viewing areas include Beaver Island State Park, LaSalle Waterfront Park in Niagara Falls, and waterfowl overlooks along the Robert Moses Parkway upstream of the Falls. On the Canadian side, pull-offs along the Niagara Parkway between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls offer good gull viewing opportunities. At times, the Buffalo Waterfront supports good numbers of gulls, especially Bonaparte’s and associated rarities. Public viewing areas include Gallagher Beach State Park, Buffalo Harbor State Park, Erie Basin Marina, LaSalle Park, and parkland on Unity Island.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:43 AM/4:44 PM EST (9 Hours, 1 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 20 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice
  • The first day of winter this year falls on December 21, when daylength is the shortest for the year and the sun traces its lowest and shortest arc through the sky (AKA winter solstice).

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 34.6° F  Normal Low Temperature: 22.7° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo cooled to 40°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 39°F as of December 21, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are approaching seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in many ponds are now close to seasonal highs.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Several native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will remain relatively high in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species typically reaches its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, have entered carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

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