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Diane Evans: Niagara River is a jewel we all should treasure

I love March on the Niagara River. I usually walk the shoreline in late afternoon as the sun casts long shadows across the snowy banks. On a sunny day recently, the water was a magnificent blue, the kind of blue I used to see on Chautauqua Lake, as a kid. Back then, every April, after long months of white vistas, the lake would open up to a dazzling blue. It always took my breath away.

Every November, before Chautauqua Lake would freeze, a few hundred tundra swans would stop on their way to the Chesapeake. My mother and I made a pilgrimage to find them on Thanksgiving Day each year. We’d watch them in some quiet bay: tipping upsidedown to feed, preening those pure-white feathers and attending to their smoky-gray cygnets. We’d get close enough to hear their soft coos and murmurings, but it was their loud, distinctive “whoops” that would thrill me.

Fast forward to the current day. I live on Grand Island. Imagine my surprise, my first winter here, when I heard the calls of swans from a distance. My heart quickened and I rushed to the shore to see my “old friends.” On the Niagara, I can observe them for a few months each winter, much to my delight.

I admit, I am enchanted by swans. But I’ve come to know many other species of waterfowl. There are thousands, yes, thousands of ducks, gulls and even some sea ducks that make the river their winter refuge. They feed and store up fat before flying north to their breeding grounds. Most of them have striking black-and-white plumage, contrasting with the blue water and the ice-strewn shore. They seem dressed in formal wear.

Here are some of my favorites:

Canvasbacks are large ducks with long-sloping foreheads. The head is red. They look regal to me. They dive elegantly, leaving barely a blip on the water’s surface. They raft up by the hundreds and stretch up and down the river for miles.

Buffleheads are quite small with a large white patch covering the whole back of the head. After a dive, they bob up to the water’s surface like a rubber ducky. I think they are cute, but I know the males can get pretty aggressive, sparring with rivals for a mate.

That’s the other great thing about March. Increasing daylight triggers the release of hormones. Courtship displays shift into high gear. The male hooded mergansers do some crazy head-bobbing and neck stretching to impress females. I don’t know about those gals, but the males get my attention.

The Niagara River is a jewel. To keep it that way, we need to be better stewards. We need to take decisive action to ensure its ecological integrity. Species have been lost. Fossil fuel emissions threaten the lowest of the food chain right up to us, at the top. Extreme weather plays havoc with the shoreline. Tributaries are silting up. Man-made barriers are preventing fish from spawning. We mow lawns and golf courses right down to the water’s edge preventing shoreline vegetation from doing its job of cleansing water and slowing drainage.

Yes, it’s March on the river. It’s a great time to get close to the water’s edge. Check out some of these winter guests before they depart. Enjoy the water’s many colors and moods. Get involved in its preservation. The Niagara is our river and it’s full of wonders.