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WNY's 55th waterfowl count makes a significant splash

I was editor of the New York State ornithological journal, "The Kingbird," in 1954. A major role of that quarterly publication was, as it continues to be, summarizing observations by birders around the state. New York is divided into ten regions and regional editors compile the records for their area in separate reports. Our Western New York Region 1 is comprised of Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties as well as the western halves of Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming Counties.

At the time I was editor, we had no organized state-wide field birding projects and I came up with the idea of an annual waterfowl count. I contacted the regional editors, who generously agreed to collect and forward the necessary field records, and we were off and running.

Beginning in mid-January of 1955 and continuing until now, birders across the state monitor lakes and streams as well as the ocean along Long Island, counting geese, swans, ducks, loons, grebes, cormorants and coots. Those records provide comparative information about the populations of 51 waterfowl species. Early in its history, the count won a state-wide conservation award.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation formerly took its own January survey by airplane, but those flights were limited to the shorelines of our major lakes and the ocean around Long Island. For many years, we shared the information provided by the two counts and we were able to identify some differences. The DEC count included some birds beyond the visibility of observers watching from shore and the land-based counters found more waterfowl in smaller streams and ponds.

These differences, however, were remarkably minor and it was finally decided that the land-based count provided the information the state waterfowl managers needed. The air flights were discontinued about 10 years ago and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers saved taxpayers a few thousand dollars each year.

During the 55th count on Jan. 18, our team included Dave Friedrich, Mike Galas and Chris Hollister, together with three Canisius College students, Nick Glabicky, Melissa Graham and Kyle Horton. Our section, one of 19 just in Region 1, was the east shore of the Niagara River from Sheridan Drive north to Goat Island.

The snowy, 20-degree day was not pleasant with a punishing, 20-mile-per-hour wind coming across the river, but we persevered. Our individual count didn't add many birds to the overall numbers. We contributed only 841 birds of 14 species, mostly Canada geese and mallards, but we did have our usual handsome hooded mergansers around the Little River boat docks on Tonawanda Island. That was slim pickings when you consider the overall totals gathered by 50 observers and compiled by Region 1 coordinator Jim Landau: 63,314 birds of 28 species. The total of individuals was second highest of all the annual counts in this region, the only higher count was 71,801 in 2001. Not bad, especially considering the weather.

The most abundant species were greater scaup, 17,478; canvasback, 12,692, and (appropriately named for this time of year) common merganser, 10,171. You might have expected Canada geese to be among those heavy hitters, but their total was only 3,362.

Those canvasback and common merganser totals represent a significant fraction of the North American populations of those species. Unfortunately, canvasbacks were down 44 percent from the high count in 2001, not an encouraging sign.

The statewide totals, compiled now by Bryan Swift of the DEC in Albany, are not yet in for 2009. In recent years, however, they have averaged about 400,000 birds, thus our Niagara Frontier contribution is significant.

Statewide scaup numbers are declining, but tundra swans and hooded mergansers are increasing. One species in particular intrigues me. We rarely observe snow geese here but the Finger Lakes region has reported thousands in recent years with a total of 78,895 in 2007.

Readers interested in subscribing to "The Kingbird" should contact me. More information about the waterfowl counts is on the Web at www.nybirds.org/ProjWaterfowl.htm.

e-mail: insrisg@buffalo.edu1

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