Lake Watch

(This column first appeared in the January 5, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Dawn was breaking as I walked across the lawn toward Pavilion 4 at Hamlin Beach State Park. The effect was eerie: I could barely make out the building in the half-night on shore, but out over Lake Ontario everything was clear and it was already day. To beat first light I should have come a half hour earlier.

    It was a dreary December morning, heavily overcast with a strong wind. Whitecaps marched in rank after rank only to dissolve in the sand. The temperature hovered near freezing, the wind chill still lower. Despite my many layers of clothing, I shuddered as the cold worked down my back.

    Michael Lanzone was already at work. Only partly sheltered by the building, he turned from his scope to type data into a portable computer. Finishing as I approached, he wheeled and offered his hand: "Welcome to the Hamlin Lake Watch."

    I couldn't help it. My first thought was -- So this is the Pied Piper of Hamlin. His association with our regional waterfowl has been as close as the original piper's was with that village's rodents.

    Lanzone was hired by Braddock Bay Raptor Research* to record the passage of waterfowl at this station midway between Rochester and Niagara Falls. He spent every day from mid-September until late December counting species as well as the direction in which the birds flew. Although this station had been manned the previous four autumns as well, this 1997 inland count was more comprehensive and is considered an ornithological first.

    Lanzone brought to his task experience censusing seabirds along New Jersey shores and his expertise was immediately apparent to me. As a line of heavy sea ducks pumped past he picked out black and surf scoters from the more obvious white-wings. Then he pointed out a lighter colored king eider flying with them. From another skein of ducks he differentiated a few lesser from the many greater scaup, a skill that I have never mastered despite years of trying.

    The map of Lake Ontario looks like an oval, but the shoreline is not as even as it appears at first glance. East of Hamlin it turns slightly southeast and the park serves as a corner that waterfowl bend past. Even so most of them fly well out over the lake and it takes good eyes -- far better than mine -- to identify them even with high powered telescopes. My eyes watering in the wind, I watched several hundred oldsquaws that were so far offshore that they looked like an insect swarm.

    Now the season counts have been tabulated and the totals are remarkable. Almost a third of a million birds. Over 35,000 loons about equally divided among common and red-throated; 230,000 ducks, geese and swans; 33,000 gulls, most of them Bonaparte's; 104 jaegers; 57 phalaropes. And, as might be expected from hundreds of hours of observation, several rare species: a gannett, 2 harlequin ducks, a Ross's gull and a marbled murrelet.

    Most of the birds, Lanzone tells me, fly east to west -- directly into a strong west wind on the day I visited. This is the regular flyway of the delicate Bonaparte's gulls that I watched coast over the waves. They will turn south along the Niagara River and drift on down Lake Erie as the winter turns harsher. Many scoters now winter near Hamilton feeding on the abundant zebra mussels newly established there. Seabirds like the gannett usually migrate down along the Atlantic coast but this bird was probably driven down the St. Lawrence flyway by a Nor'easter.

    Not only science will be well served by this project. Local bird listers will learn from the data when best to seek out rare species.

* Information about Braddock Bay Raptor Research as well as Lake Watch daily counts and summary information may be obtained at their website.