Winter's End?

(This column first appeared in the March 6, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Barring one of those March -- in like a lamb, out like a lion -- storms that occur occasionally here on the Niagara Frontier, we have reached the end of a winter that must surely set records for mildness. I am not at all certain, for example, that our snow accumulation ever caught up with that of Roanoke, North Carolina.

    To take advantage of one of those warm days in late February, I joined Bill Watson and Mike Galas for a morning birding along the Niagara River.

    It was a lovely day with light cloud cover and little wind. However, the lower Niagara Gorge held billows of fog early in the morning. For that reason we went first to check the woods at Fort Niagara. We occasionally find red-headed woodpeckers there.

    No luck with the red-heads but we did turn up a red-bellied woodpecker, one of those southern species that has become almost as plentiful here as the flicker. Some of you will have had this species visit your suet feeders. The red-belly is easily distinguished from the brown-backed flicker by its black-and-white horizontally striped back and the rose-red helmet that extends over its head from its bill to its neck leaving a white region around its cheek and eye.

    In the bushes along the riverbank we also found several cardinals and a mockingbird, additional species that have spread their range north as our winters have moderated.

    With the fog dissipating, we backtracked to Lewiston to check for a reported black-headed gull, another of those rare species that visit this area every few years. We stood at the park fence above the boat launch to check the birds flying upriver. We couldn't find the black-headed gull, but we did count over forty little gulls, a quite remarkable number.

    The little gull is my favorite among the larids. It is, as its name implies, the smallest of our gulls. In flight it flashes mostly coal black underwings, a feature unique to this species. It is another immigrant to this region, this one from Eurasia, that has now established a breeding population along the western Great Lakes.

    Unexpectedly a much larger bird appeared among the gulls. It was a bald eagle. It sailed majestically across the river to join a partner in the trees.

    Later near Lake Ontario we watched large flocks of red-winged blackbirds and grackles, most moving west. With them were smaller groups of robins and two bluebirds.

    Although it was warm, the lack of a southwest breeze made it a poor day for migrating hawks. Still, my companions did spot a single dark-phase rough-legged hawk, the largest of the buteos and a regular winter visitor to the area from the far north. (Buteos are hawks that show broad, rounded wings and fanned tails in flight. Our commonest buteo is the red-tailed hawk.)

    In a bushy tangle just west of Four Mile Creek State Park I finally made a contribution to our day. I flushed a hermit thrush from the undergrowth. This species is always the earliest migrant among the woodland thrushes, but this bird may have spent the winter in this woodlot. This drab individual hardly showed the reddish brown tail and rump characteristic of the species. In fact it retained only one or two tail feathers, possibly because of a narrow escape from a hawk or cat. I hope that, despite its condition, this songster will make it to its normal nesting area in the Adirondack or Canadian forest where its lovely organ notes will not only attract a mate but also reward human listeners.

    A pleasant and rewarding morning indeed.-- Gerry Rising