Waterfowl Count


(This 1040th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 27, 2011.)


Buffalo Ornithological Society members participate in five annual counts: regional April, May and October Counts, the Buffalo Christmas Count and the state-wide January Waterfowl Count. Of those, most of us consider the January count the toughest. Staring out into a bitter midwinter wind and trying to make out waterfowl species a few hundred yards away is a not an altogether pleasant task.


Our team of nine - Mike Galas, Chris Hollister, Kyle Horton, Karen Lewis, Noelle Ronan, Cindy and Frank Voelker, Nathaniel Young and I - covered the east side of the Niagara River from Sheridan Drive to Goat Island. Our census numbers were down from previous years and with good reason. There was more ice in the river than I have seen in recent years and a west wind was driving it against our shore.


We had an at least acceptable overall total, largely made up of a raft of scaup together with many goldeneyes and common mergansers in mid-river, but counts of other species were low. For example, we found only two dozen Canada geese and less than four dozen canvasbacks that day, far below our usual totals. We did, however, find the usual flocks of mallards with a few black ducks gathered in the creeks that remained open.


The most enjoyable part of this count is always observing the hooded mergansers around the piers of Tonawanda Island. This year we found 33 of these beautiful birds. Why so many of them gather in this particular spot escapes me. If you want to see good numbers of one of the most attractive of our local waterfowl species, look for them from River Road or visit the island itself.


Jim Landau has just published the summary of the January count for all of Western New York and it suggests our low numbers were compensated for by good counts elsewhere. The overall count of over 71,000 was second highest for our region of the 57 years this census has been scheduled.


In fact, record high counts were established for four species: tundra swan, scaup, bufflehead and common merganser. I often receive messages from readers about their seeing a swan or two. I consider those readers very fortunate, because these wild swans are not common here. This year, however, an amazing 748 of these lovely birds were recorded, mostly along the Canadian side of the Niagara River and near Beaver Island State Park.


My birding friends will note that I have indicated scaup instead of greater scaup or lesser scaup ducks, the two species we have here during migrations and in winter. Those two species are difficult to separate in the field. There is a slight difference in head shape and in their wing pattern when flying, but I find it impossible to make those specific identifications. A reader wrote recently to argue that the usual winter report of mostly greater scaup is wrong and I have no basis for arguing with him. In fact, the recently issued Crossley guide associates greater scaup with "deepwater coastal bays, estuaries and on the ocean" and lesser scaup "with fresh water."


Perhaps the most important feature of the waterfowl count in this region is the number of canvasbacks found. This year over 13,400 were found, that number dwarfing our team's contribution of 46. (Quite unlike this year, on our 2010 count a thick morning fog lifted briefly and our group was treated to a view of over a thousand of these big divers.) What makes this particular count important is the fact that the canvasbacks in the Niagara River constitute a significant proportion of their entire population, some suggesting 40%. Our regional count has varied somewhat over recent years, but this year's numbers suggest a population being well maintained.


One feature of this count has been added in recent years. Observers are asked to tabulate bald eagles as well as waterfowl. Although our team looked carefully at Navy Island, where they have been found other years, we found none there or elsewhere. (Later a single eagle was observed there.) On the overall western New York count, 32 eagles were reported, 22 of them along the Lake Erie shore. This represents an amazing rebound from the almost complete extirpation of this species just thirty years ago.