Early Spring Birding


(This column was first published in the March 14, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)


As a junior high school youngster in Rochester already excited about birds, I found March and April to be difficult months. The weather was breaking but I saw few new species. Bill Edson's weekly bird lists in the local newspaper clearly indicated that migrants were appearing in good numbers but they certainly didn't pass through my yard.


Robins, grackles and a few red-winged blackbirds showed up but little else. The one exciting bird for me was the snipe that flew back and forth over the field behind my home, its seemingly never-ending "who-who-who-who..." not a song or call but noise made by its wings. It flew so high that I was only rarely able to see it and then only as a tiny speck, but it still provided a thrill.


Only when I joined the Genesee Ornithological Society did I learn that especially at this time of year the birds wouldn't come to me; I had to go to them.


The same is true here on the Niagara Frontier. Many inland birding spots that will be exciting in mid-May sport few birds now. Through March and April knowledgeable birders head for locations along the shores of the Niagara River and Lakes Erie, Ontario and -- farther afield -- Chautauqua.


A few days ago Mike Galas and I spent a morning checking that Lake Ontario shore east from Fort Niagara. We found flocks of passerines -- mostly robins, jays, starlings and blackbirds -- moving overhead, resting in trees or feeding in fields. Occasionally a hawk would dash in and make a pass at one of them. Along hedgerows we also found chickadees, tree and white-throated sparrows. We missed other early migrants like phoebes, sapsuckers, bluebirds, kinglets, brown creepers and hermit thrushes. They'll be along soon.


Out on the lake were interesting waterfowl. Goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers were most common and males of both species were already displaying to attract or maintain attention of their accompanying females. The goldeneyes were especially active, the handsome black and white males tipping their heads back until they were almost against their backs and pointing their bills toward the sky.


Farther offshore a few white-winged scoters drifted slowly and occasionally dove. Scoters are big, mostly black sea ducks that I rarely see closer than extreme telescope range. Males of the less common black and surf scoters have strange-looking yellow bills but I still find these birds attractive.


Although it is away from the lakeshore, the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge is another good birding spot at this time of year and there you will find on Saturdays from now until early May many of the region's finest birders ready to assist you with identification.


Now in its third year, the Buffalo Audubon Society's Iroquois Observations team, again supervised by Garner Light, Paula Losito and Tony Wagner, will lead car caravans of birders through the Tonawanda, Iroquois and Oak Orchard refuges from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Then from noon until 5:00 p.m. a number of telescopes will be stationed at Cayuga Pond on Route 77 to give observers an opportunity to see "up close" geese, ducks, swans, herons, terns, swallows and occasionally even eagles.


This year the activities are being supplemented with owl prowls, hikes, nature talks and an astronomy session. Then on May 15th expert teams will compete from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for the best species lists in the first annual Alabama Bird Rally.


To learn more about these mostly family-oriented programs and to obtain a schedule, visit Iroquois Observations, or contact Garner Light at 772-5110 or Paula Losito at 433-6624.-- Gerry Rising