It’s winter on the Niagara River. While most of us are looking forward to spring, migratory birds from the high Arctic are frolicking here as if the river were a tropical resort.
The tundra swan foreshadows the arrival of winter on the Niagara frontier. During the waning days of autumn, large flocks of these elegant birds congregate along riverbanks and small islands wherever there is shallow water where they remain for several months feeding mostly on the roots of submerged aquatic plants. Sometimes they are joined by lesser numbers of mute swans and trumpeter swans.
As our tundra swans settle into their winter environs they often behave in a stealthy manner, choosing to lead a low-key existence until the annual waterfowl hunting season ends. However, it’s easy to locate these birds from their unique calls which are reminiscent of those of a baying dog but with a bit of a musical lilt. By the end of January, large flocks of hundreds of birds emerge where they can be observed feeding, preening their feathers or engaging in mating rituals. One of the best areas to observe the tundra swan is at Beaver Island State Park located at the south end of Grand Island where the Niagara River is widest.
It’s easy to identify the tundra swan. Adult birds are pure white with black legs and have a black bill with a distinctive yellow spot just below the eye. This area of the bill is known as the lore. Immature tundra swans are also white but their head and neck is streaked with gray. They often travel with the adults. Contrast that with the features of the mute swan, a non-native species brought over from Europe, which has an orange bill with a black base and short legs. The neck is slender and is always held in a graceful shape resembling the letter “S”. A trumpeter swan on the other hand, has a heavy all white body with a long neck that is held straight whether on the water or in flight. The bill and the legs are black.
The tundra swans will remain here until early spring. As the weather warms they will depart on the long journey to their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle.
The ecological significance of the Niagara River has long been recognized. In 1996 it was the first to be designated a Globally Significant Important Bird Area. Then in 2005 New York State added further support officially establishing the Niagara River Greenway. Since that time millions of dollars have been invested in habitat restoration and enhancement projects significantly enhancing the biodiversity of the Niagara River corridor.
Post and photos by Paul Leuchner