Most years birders can glimpse one or two bald eagles on the Upper Niagara River. These days, Grand Islanders are spending lunch hours trying to spot five.
"I'm told there are more in Lewiston, too," Bill Burch said as we unloaded his spotting scope.
Burch, 81, modestly denies his stature in local birding, saying: "If I'd done more birding, I'd know a lot more today."
A longtime member of the Buffalo Ornithological Society (and a birding optics expert) the retired metallurgical engineer has been studying birds for 56 years with ever-sharpening interest.
"When I say I'd know more (about birds) if I went out more, I mean it. We have 19- and 20-year-old guys who bird three days a week year-round when they aren't in class."
The hobby can be as active as one chooses -- serious hiking is often involved -- yet it is not environmentally harmful unless 30,000 people descend on a marsh and churn its banks to mud.
"All birding requires is eyesight, hearing and the ability to remember, faculties all of us have in various measure," Burch said. "You need to recall what you saw or heard so you can check with reference books later. For instance, immature eagles can be either 2- or 3-year-old birds. We have to check the images we recall of their wings: which bird has more or less white on the wing, and where that white is located, to make a positive identification.
"Birding is also pretty competitive," Burch added. "You go on a birding trip and some want to be the first to spot a bird, or identify the most birds or have the largest life list. With 800 species of birds in North America, you can see this could be a life-long hobby."
Burch is pleased that he lives minutes from this eagle watching spot, and on a sunny day last week we parked at the Niagara County water intake on West River Road adjacent to Buckhorn Island State Park. Just across the river on Navy Island, where the Canadian authorities have erected a nesting platform, five bald eagles are wintering. At least one is a mature bird able to mate and rear young and three are surely immature eagles. The jury is out on the fifth bird, which could be either adult or immature.
And they can be seen, though it is not easy (even for experts) if the immature eagles are perched on a branch, because immature eagles have protective coloration of buffy breasts and wings rather than black, so they blend into the tree bark.
"The trick is to look for them flying right above the tree tops, and then watch where they land, then use a spotting scope to observe them closely, " Burch said.
This is not always easy. Crows are large, black birds and unless you realize they flap more vigorously than eagles, it's easy to get "buck fever" and imagine a crow is an eagle at a distance just as the deer hunter starts believing tree branches are antlers. Great black-backed gulls are another snare for the birder. Big, with black wings and back, they also can appear to be eagles until you see them land in the water or note their white bodies, which are not always visible.
But eagles or no, there are waterfowl aplenty to view in the Niagara: Goldeneyes swing past in bunches, their wings whistling as they grab for lift; scaup and canvasbacks wheel in, wings set, to land in the river and mosey awhile in the current; and mergansers, this time of year, are doing some serious courting, prior to pairing off.
The recent annual waterfowl survey found record numbers for this region, Burch said. He coordinates the 14 surveying teams that found a "truly remarkable 65 percent increase over last year's record number of birds, including all-time records of canvasback (22,000, up three fold over last year) 20,000-plus scaup, double last year's record; 5,692 long-tailed (or old squaw) duck, another record high for the Lower Niagara and 4,202 redbreasted merganser, far greater than the 1988 record of 1,250."
Better yet, 144 tundra swans were counted, "a remarkable turnaround from recent years," Burch reported.
As he read out the report he submitted to the DEC, I caught a glimpse of a huge, dark bird coming in low and hard to land in the thick of a bare willow. I told Burch to train his scope there and he saw the bird's body "You're right, that is an eagle," he said. "It's immature, maybe two or three years old, we'll have to wait to see more of it."
Soon the bird shifted to another branch, in full view, where we watched it preen while we talked about the eagle's comeback.
"Eagles are a big deal," Burch said, "but I am more fascinated by peregrine falcons which always were harder to spot. And, when DDT was affecting all bird life, you almost never saw a peregrine. Now we have that pair in Buffalo, and people can actually watch its nesting box, and that's very, very exciting."
That pair, which has been around all winter, nests in a round window atop the Statler. The DEC has a TV camera mounted so nest activity can be viewed from a monitor placed at the US Airways ticket office on street level.
"The camera will be turned on soon, and passers-by might start seeing some activity in the nest in March. In years the pair produce eggs, they lay late March through April," said DEC biologist Mark Kandel, whose project this is. "Incubation takes four weeks, so hatchlings should be seen on camera some time in May if they produce eggs this year."
Peregrines and eagles are really icing on the local birding cake: We live in an area of migration routes, have vast and varied winter gull populations, a lot of waterfowl and almost every kind of Eastern songbird.
And, after one has learned to name what he sees, one begins to watch bird behavior, which, on this day of eagles, was wonderful, for they gave us the Full Monty.