A New Guide to Regional Bird Migration


(This column was first published in the April 21, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Finally, after a long gestation period, the "Seasonal Checklist of the Birds: Niagara Frontier Region" has been delivered. I recommend it to everyone with any interest in birds.


Credit for this useful publication goes to David F. Suggs and his committee of seven of our finest local birders. A few words from the Forward characterize its contents: "The Seasonal Checklist Committee of the Buffalo Ornithological Society was formed to produce a reference guide for birders describing bird migration in the Niagara Frontier region. Combining 35 years of data from the society's records with personal field experience, the committee has created a guide that illustrates the annual patterns and history of the 398 species, subspecies and named hybrids recorded in western New York and the neighboring portion of the Province of Ontario."


Later the Forward adds: "The resulting timelines show that bird migrations range from predictable to surprising. Some species have tightly established patterns with no exceptions, while other species stretch the limits of their timelines."


For all but the most serious birders this guide will be of more use than the Society's "Verification Date Guide" now in its 7th edition. That guide is of great value to expert birders; however, it doesn't provide the rich detail of the new publication which will serve everyone interested in bird watching, beginners as well as experts.


Consider an example of what we learn about individual species. Wood thrushes are absent (except for one 1967-68 winter record) during the months of November through March. They are rare in mid-April, becoming uncommon late in the month. They are fairly common for the first few days in May and then common through mid-August when they begin to depart. They remain fairly common through early September, however, then uncommon until early October and rare until the end of that month.


Remarkably, all of that detailed information is shown in the Checklist through the use of a single line of varying width and texture. In fact the words I have used rare, uncommon, fairly common don't convey the information as well as the diagrams. Of course, those terms apply to a search of suitable habitat. When they are here, for example, you would expect to find wood thrushes in suburban and rural woodlots and not among the tall buildings of downtown Buffalo.


The occurrence of individual species is not the only use the Checklist provides. For example, I looked to see what birds remain common throughout the year. I found just 14 species: red-tailed hawk, ring-billed and herring gulls, rock and mourning doves, downy woodpecker, blue jay, crow, chickadee, starling, cardinal, house finch, goldfinch and house sparrow.


Obviously the committee had to make decisions and I think that they usually made the right ones. For example, the great blue heron, that silent sentinel of our marshlands, is recorded as uncommon through the winter. In fact, challenged to find one in winter, you need only go to the Niagara River at the foot of Sheridan Drive and train a telescope on Motor Island. There you'll see a number of them along the shore. Despite that, I still think that uncommon is the correct designation.


Another section of the Checklist graphs the cumulative occurrence of all species, confirming our sense that mid-May is when you find the most birds here. At that time 180 species are at least uncommon in this region.


These$3 checklists are currently being distributed to retail stores but they are already available from shops at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Tifft and Beaver Meadow Nature Centers and Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.-- Gerry Rising