In Memory of Bill Watson


This 1276th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 6, 2015.


Recently my friend Bill Watson died and I tried to think of a way of commemorating the loss to the western New York birding community of this fine colleague. Then it occurred to me that one of my earliest columns written 24 years ago could best serve this purpose. I offer that column again here and I dedicate it to Bill.


Peter Matthiessen calls them wind birds.


They are less imaginatively termed shorebirds: plover and sandpiper, snipe and woodcock, yellowlegs and willet, curlew and godwit, whimbrel and phalarope. And they are already making their way south through the Niagara Frontier from their breeding grounds in northern Canada. Some, like the tiny sanderling, will fly on to the remotest fringes of South America.


I am reminded of this name and of Matthiessen's beautiful essays as I stand with Bill Watson and Mike Galas watching a small flock of these birds. For a few moments they move about, each to its own concerns, along the Lake Erie edge. A lesser yellowlegs wades belly deep in the water and occasionally darts a bill at a minnow, semi-palmated and pectoral sandpipers with sanderlings search the rocks and probe the sand for insects, killdeers stand silent, one with its head tucked into its back feathers, and smaller semi-palmated plovers like obstreperous children dash about among the others.


But suddenly a wind gust picks up most of the birds and at first blown like leaves they quickly become a synchronized team. They wheel with the wind along the shoreline, flash in unison dark backs, light bellies. Their sharp falcon wings power delicate bodies in perfect formation out over the lake a few feet above the water, first one way then another until, with hardly a minute passed, they return, veer upwind now on drooping wings to touch down gently a few feet from where they rose.


Where we watch these beautiful birds, we stand on what Bill tells me is the Edgecliff member of the Onondaga limestone. This is the shelf rock northern shoreline that juts out into Lake Erie about 50 miles west of the Peace Bridge at Rock Point Provincial Park. It is clear and sunny with temperature in the mid 70s, another of those days that Niagara Frontier dwellers who have never lived elsewhere too easily forget.


Embedded in the rock are the remaining evidence of rugose and tabulate corals left here when this was an ocean bottom over 350 million years ago. There are also deposits of silica-laden chert, still harder rock that Indians chipped and flaked into arrowheads. On the rocks windrows of the tiny shells of zebra mussels remind us of their aggressive immigration.


Between us and the sand dunes are extensive stands of the handsome purple loosestrife, another dangerous alien, this one choking out native rushes. But near them, seemingly growing out of the solid rock, are the ground-hugging red tentacles of silverweed bearing small green fronds and an occasional tiny yellow blossom.


A few butterflies visit these flowers: a monarch, cabbage butterflies – white with black dots in each wing – and a delicate little blue butterfly, I assume a spring azure.


As I focus my telescope on the shorebirds, I notice that the rough rock face is peppered with thousands of flying insects. As the sandpipers walk among them, the flies retreat, leaving bare a 6-inch radius circle around each bird. Despite this retreat, an occasional thrust picks up a laggard fly.


Bill finally separates a least sandpiper from the more numerous semipalmated sandpipers. I recall color differences between these two species by a mnemonic: the number of letters in SEMI with its GRAY back and DARK legs, the number of letters in LEAST with BROWN back and legs GREEN or, cheating a little, YELLOW with one L.


These sparrow-sized sandpipers of the genus Calidris are more commonly known as "peeps.'' We look for their rarer cousins, western, white-rumped, and Baird's sandpipers, without success.


But now the wind birds rise again. The flock again returns but over the days ahead they may drift east along the beaches to Jaeger Rocks at Fort Erie. From there their powerful instinctual drive will join our northwest gusts to urge them on ever south.-- Gerry Rising