The 2009 State Waterfowl Count
A canvasback drake: thousands overwinter in the Niagara River
photo by Thomas LeBlanc
In 1954 I was editor of the New York State ornithological journal, The Kingbird. A major role of that quarterly publication was, as it continues to be, summarizing observations by birders around the state. New York is divided into ten regions and regional editors compile the records for their area in separate reports. Our western New York Region 1 is comprised of Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties as well as the western halves of Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming Counties.
At the time when I was editor we had no organized state-wide field birding projects and I came up with the idea of an annual waterfowl count. I contacted the regional editors who generously agreed to collect and forward the necessary field records and we were off and running.
Beginning in 1955 and continuing until now, each year in mid-January birders across the state monitor lakes and streams as well as the ocean along Long Island counting geese, swans, ducks, loons, grebes, cormorants and coots. Those records are providing comparative information about the populations of 51 waterfowl species. Early in its history the count won a state-wide conservation award.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation formerly took its own January survey by airplane, but those flights were limited to the shorelines of our major lakes and the ocean around Long Island. For many years we shared the information provided by the two counts and we were able to identify some differences. The DEC count included some birds beyond the visibility of observers watching from shore and the land-based counters found more waterfowl in smaller streams and ponds. These differences were, however, remarkably minor and it was finally decided that the land-based count provided the information the state waterfowl managers needed. The air flights were discontinued about ten years ago, the efforts of hundreds of volunteers thus saving taxpayers a few thousand dollars each year. (I had hoped to participate in that final airplane count but unfortunately missed that great opportunity.)
This January's count was the 55th. On Sunday, January 18, our team included Dave Friedrich, Mike Galas, Chris Hollister and me together with three Canisius College students, Nick Glabicky, Melissa Graham and Kyle Horton. Our section, one of 19 just in Region 1, was the east shore of the Niagara River from Sheridan Drive north to Goat Island.
It was not a pleasant day. The temperature hovered around 20°, snow fell off and on and the 20 mile per hour wind gusts coming directly at us from across the river were punishing, but we persevered. Our individual count didn't add many birds to the overall numbers, as we contributed only 841 birds of 14 species, mostly Canada geese and mallards, but we did have our usual handsome hooded mergansers around the Little River boat docks on Tonawanda Island.
That was slim pickings when you consider the overall totals gathered by 50 observers and compiled by Region 1 coordinator Jim Landau: 63,314 birds of 28 species. The total of individuals was second highest of all the annual counts in this region, the only higher count 71,801 in 2001. Not bad, especially considering the weather.
The most abundant species were greater scaup 17,478, canvasback 12,692 and (appropriately named for its population this time of year) common merganser 10,171. You might have expected Canada geese to be among those heavy hitters, but their total was only 3362.
Those canvasback and common merganser totals it turns out represent a significant fraction of those species' North American populations. Unfortunately, canvasbacks were down 44% from the high count in 2001, not an encouraging sign.
The statewide totals, compiled now by Bryan Swift of the DEC in Albany, are not yet in for 2009. In recent years, however, they have averaged about 400,000 birds, thus our Niagara Frontier contribution is significant.
Statewide scaup numbers are declining but tundra swans and hooded mergansers are increasing. One species in particular intrigues me. We rarely observe snow geese here but the Finger Lakes region has reported thousands in recent years with a 2007 total of 78,895.