It would be accurate to say that Niagara is for the birds.
In December of 1996, the United States and Canada joined forces to designate the Niagara River Corridor – a shared resource between the two countries – as a globally recognized Important Bird Area. A small bird festival was started around that time, but it didn’t catch on.
It could be time to give it another go.
There are plenty of reasons why a birding festival in the middle of a Western New York winter makes sense. At the top of the list is because the birds are here. Lots of them. It’s a time of year when things are traditionally slower, so there is room for additional activities. There’s also a need for and from the birding community.
Bird-watching is big business. Results from the 2016 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-Associated Recreation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 45 million people enjoy watching birds and many even travel to do so. This generates $80 billion to the U.S. economy – and that’s no bird feed. Well, I guess some of it is.
Thanks to a rejuvenated effort from a variety of groups and organizations, the “Birds on the Niagara, a Winter Celebration” festival will return Jan. 25-26 with the focus area from Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo to Fort Niagara in Youngstown.
“Buffalo Audubon wanted to collaborate on an event that makes birding accessible to everyone and brings awareness to the amazing array of bird life that the Niagara River Corridor draws,” said Melissa Fratello, executive director with the Buffalo Audubon Society and a sponsor for the festival. “People are often shocked to find that we have nesting bald eagles directly adjacent to the Black Rock-Riverside community (of Buffalo), snowy owls flocking to the Outer Harbor, and hundreds of tundra swans gathering at Beaver Island. We just don't open our eyes to look if we don't know what's there.”
“Historically, we haven't excelled at engaging a culturally or even generationally diverse population of folks in bird-watching and bird-related community science activities. We're hoping to change that. This free event will have bird-viewing activities stationed all along the corridor from Buffalo to Youngstown, with expert birders and optics on hand at each site to teach and share with folks as they swing by.”
“It's a casual, approachable event that anyone can fit into their weekend and they can attend as much or as little as they'd like. While I'm always careful to not make promises on behalf of the birds, we can safely guarantee new birders a species or two they've never seen or been aware of before. The event will be a first step in engaging a broader population not only in bird-watching, but in understanding why this habitat is so critical. Over time, we hope to create stewards of the Niagara and the species that depend on it as much as we do.”
We are surrounded by water in our region. It makes sense to focus on water birds like gulls and terns, and waterfowl like ducks, geese and swans. But there is so much more to birds and migration patterns in our area, as well as birds who live here year-round.
“The Niagara River Corridor has been designated globally significant by BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society primarily for the sheer number of gulls and species variety that over-winter in its open waters,” Fratello said. “Nineteen species of gulls congregate by the thousands along the corridor and tend to concentrate near Goat Island. Waterfowl, such as canvasbacks, common goldeneye, buffleheads, common mergansers … they all flock here by the thousands to feed in the open water as the lakes freeze.
“While there are other globally significant IBAs in New York, the closest being the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, Niagara is unique in that the corridor passes through a highly populated urban area, one that has experienced a legacy of industrial pollution. It still faces severe threats from agricultural runoff and antiquated water infrastructure, too. The IBA gives us an opportunity to share not only the fascinating migration story of every bird that visits, but to bring awareness to the importance of the health of our Great Lakes.”
Greg Stevens, executive director with the Niagara River Greenway Commission, and one of the sponsors, said he is thrilled to help bring back the festival.
“Enjoying winter on the Niagara Frontier is for brave and determined ecotourists, but for our feathered friends the Niagara offers a migratory orientation beacon, a safe refuge and abundant food source. Hence remarkable birds from across the hemisphere are here in droves and winter is a unique opportunity to enjoy them.
“The Greenway and New York State Parks are working to bring our local community and our visitors to the river’s edge. Birding accomplishes this goal, but it also helps us all appreciate how important the ecological health of our Niagara River is to a vast number of species.”
“In winter, waterfowl often come to the Niagara because it is an open water source that provides habitat and food,” said Jay Burney, one of the organizers of the festival and a representative of sponsors Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve and the Pollinator Conservation Association. “Up to 35 species of waterfowl can be found here in huge concentrations.
“There are many species of birds that depend on this area. Migration by many species and birds that breed here link our area to the Pacific Boreal Coastal areas of North America, the Arctic, the Atlantic, Central America, and the Amazon.”
Activities kick off with bird-watching in Buffalo Harbor at 3 p.m. on Friday. The opening ceremonies will take place at Tifft Nature Preserve at 5 p.m., followed by an Owl Prowl on-site at 7 p.m.
Saturday will feature a variety of bird-viewing options, workshops, vendor displays and demonstrations on the 4th Floor of St. Vincent’s Hall at Niagara University from noon to 5 p.m. The keynote speaker will be Twan Leenders with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute at 4 p.m. For more information, go to www.buffaloaudubon.org or www.niagararivergreenway.com.