(This column was first published in the January 21, 2002 Buffalo News.)
It is reasonable to believe that unusual birds occasionally occur on the Niagara Frontier during migration seasons, but unexpected species often appear here in winter as well. Here are three rare birds that may be found in this region now -- but in each case after a diligent search.
The rarest of the three is the Townsend's solitaire that has taken up temporary residence in the mixed woodlands of Bond Lake County Park in the Town of Lewiston. The solitaire is an attractive pearl-gray thrush, slightly smaller than a robin. It is easily separated from other gray birds like the catbird and the mockingbird by its readily observed, white eye-ring.
This is a species that summers in the high Rocky Mountain coniferous forests of the western United States, Canada and Mexico. In winter it normally descends to wooded valleys and canyons of the same region. But some individuals wander far and solitaires have appeared along the north shore of Lake Ontario during several recent years. A group of us found one in Presque Isle Provincial Park several years ago.
This Townsend's solitaire is, however, the first that has ever been recorded on the Niagara Frontier. The bird is most often seen feeding on rose hips and highbush cranberries along the path between East and West Myers Ponds, but its appearance even there is sporadic. It took three long searches of the park before Mike Galas and I finally found the bird. The solitaire's favorite food is juniper berries, so any nearby homeowner with juniper shrubbery should keep a lookout for it.
Quite unlike the well-named solitaire, a dozen sandhill cranes are being seen regularly feeding in cornfields along Farel Road just west of Fredonia. The big cranes are so evident that the only problem locating them is finding the right field.
These too are western birds although a few summer as far east as Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. Small numbers are seen locally each year during migration periods, but I am aware of none recorded here in winter before this.
Sandhill cranes are often confused with great blue herons. Seen through binoculars, however, the adult birds are easily distinguished by their bright red crown. Also cranes in flight hold their necks extended while herons usually crook their necks to hold their heads just before their wings.
The last unusual visitor is a third western species, the California gull. Its name to the contrary, this is a bird of the interior plains west of the Rockies. It only spends its winters along the Pacific coast.
There is a statue of California gulls erected by the Mormons in Salt Lake City. It honors these birds for coming to the rescue of the early settlers by attacking a crop-destroying plague of locusts.
For several years a single bird of this species has wintered in the Niagara Gorge between the Robert Moses and Sir Adam Beck power projects. It provides still another problem for those who wish to observe it.
The difficulty this time is picking this bird out from hundreds of other gulls in the gorge that differ from it very little. In size this adult California gull is midway between ring-billed and herring gulls. Its mantle (back and wing covers) is darker than those species. It also has yellow legs like the ring-billed gull but red rather than black on the bill like the herring gull.
Our local Chambers of Commerce should be delighted to have birds like these visiting this region for they attract hundreds of birders to the Niagara Frontier from all across the eastern United States and Canada.-- Gerry Rising
Note: No sooner was this column submitted when another rare visitor arrived. A handsome male Harlequin Duck was found in the Niagara River by Mike Morgante near the Buffalo Yacht Club. It has been seen almost daily since January 19 by, it seems, every local birder but me. The best place to see it seems to be along the Bird Island Pier as it trades back and forth over this breakwall.