A Morning at the Lakeshore


(This 994th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 11, 2010.)


There is a kind of psychological magnet that draws me at least once each year in late March or early April to the Lake Ontario shore at dawn. And so this year once again I drove to Golden Hills State Park and parked just east of the lighthouse to look out over the lake as the day first lightened.


The sky was already bright from the sun still below the horizon to the east, but the water appeared dark and empty. There was, however, already activity. Canada geese were flying inland in several large flocks and many isolated pairs. Their off-key, mournful but somehow attractive honking filled the otherwise still air.


Then, just as the sun peeped out and filled the air with light, a dozen red-winged blackbirds flew in, stopped briefly in a bare tree and then went on to the east. Now I could see the lake surface and what had appeared simply a uniform expanse of water running to the horizon turned out not to be empty after all. I could pick out small flocks of ducks and a few grebes with my binoculars but I had to use my telescope to identify them.


As I was setting up the scope a single bird flew past and I stopped to get it in my binoculars. It was a red-throated loon. This would be the only one I would see this morning, but this is the time of year to see both common and red-throated loons. They pass through this area on their way to the northern forests where their strange calls will entertain campers. Unfortunately, many of them are killed in passage by the botulism that now infects our waters, their dead bodies washing up on beaches, especially those of Lake Erie.


Now I could see many red-breasted mergansers on the water, handsome males preening, showing off and chasing each other as the females watched seemingly unimpressed, the show reminding me of schoolyard kids during recess. Not only were there many of these birds on the water but flights of fifty or more flew past every few minutes, most but not all heading west.


A still all-gray horned grebe came close to shore: within weeks this species will molt into its beautiful chestnut, black and gold breeding plumage.


Scoping the waterfowl farther out I found small groups of long-tailed ducks and white-winged scoters. I wish the long-tailed ducks were closer so that I could hear the strangely musical gabbling and cooing that gave them their former, less politically correct name, old-squaws. These are very attractive gray and white ducks, the waterfowl equivalent of snow buntings.


On the water all three scoter species appear all black, but closer examination shows some white markings on the head and on their strange out-sized bills. These are sea ducks that always stay far out at the limits of identification even with a scope. I will see only white-wings this morning, but their less common cousins, surf and black scoters are regular here.


I wasn't giving them much attention but there were land birds too. A silent cardinal worked the hedgerow behind me and a half-dozen grackles flew overhead.


My time running short, I drove over to the boat launch pond before heading home. There a handsome male bufflehead posed briefly before it flew out to the lake. At the far end of the pond a kingfisher sat silent on a twig, a red-winged blackbird behind it. When I checked the lake I found a single golden-eye swimming with another flock of geese.


There had been no dabbling ducks on the lake, but on the way home I was treated to a male wigeon among gulls evidently finding some sustenance in a flooded field. Along Lake Road I also came across a single horned lark picking at roadside gravel. Among the penalties I am paying with age is my inability to hear the lovely tinkling springtime calls of these larks.


Not many hawks this morning: just two red-tails and a single sharp-shin. Last minute treats: a bluebird posing on a telephone wire and a pair of rusty blackbirds feeding in a tree overlooking a hundred cowbirds and starlings on the ground below.-- Gerry Rising