The Niagara River is well-known as an international destination for its tremendous waterfalls, which form spectacular ice formations during the winter. Perhaps a lesser known fact, however, is that the river is also a critical haven for migrating birds during this time of the year.
Gulls, in particular, are a common sight along the Niagara, with as many as 100,000 gulls stopping over the river during the winter and fall.
The river is attractive to gulls because it offers them food and shelter, and serves as a rest stop for long migrations from the arctic to the Atlantic coast. As well as providing plenty of small fish, the area also serves as protection from storms that can affect the Great Lakes during the wintertime.
Created in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of visitors annual drawn by the immense power and beauty of the thundering cataracts. Looking down from the edge of Niagara Gorge in autumn or winter, the air above the turbulent waters is at times white with wheeling and diving gulls.
In recognition of the river’s important habitat for feeding, nesting, wintering, and during migration, it has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.
Just down the river, Fort Niagara State Park on Lake Ontario also is recognized as part of this area.
“The site is particularly noteworthy as a migratory stopover and wintering site for Bonaparte’s Gulls, with one-day counts ranging from 10,000-50,000 individuals (2-10% of the world population). One-day Ring-billed Gull counts vary from 10,000-20,000, and one-day Herring Gull counts vary from 10,000-50,000. The river also hosts a remarkable diversity and abundance of waterfowl.”Audubon Society on Important Bird Area in Niagara River Corridor
These gull populations peak in the winter, so going bird-watching is a great way to get outdoors during the cold season and see yet another wonder that the falls, the river and this region have to offer.
If you choose to go birding along the river this season, here are some gulls you might end up seeing:
Bonaparte’s Gull is a small gull with a white underbelly, grey back, and thin, black beak. The top outer parts of its wings have wedges of white edged in black. Breeding adults have black heads but nonbreeding and young gulls have a white head with a dark smudge behind its eye. These gulls like to winter near people and, in fact, are the only gulls that regularly nest in trees!
Ring-Billed Gulls have yellow beaks with a black band, or ‘ring’, encircling it. The breeding adult has a gray back and black wingtips. In the winter, these birds develop tan streaking across the head. These yellow-legged birds may be found further inland.
Herring Gulls are on the larger side and are much like the quintessential seagull. They have yellow eyes, pale pink legs, and a red spot on the bottom of their yellow beaks. An adult has a grey mantle and black wingtips, much like the Ring-Billed Gull. These birds start of uniformly dark and then get paler and they grow older, their plumages varying over their first four years. Herring Gulls may be found year-round along the Niagara.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-Backed Gull is the world’s largest gull! It has black wings and mantle, a white underside as an adult, and red rings around its eyes. Like the Herring Hull, younger birds’ plumages change as they age; the younger Great Black-Backed Gulls can be differentiated because of higher contrast in their colors than the young Herring Gull. These gulls come to Niagara from the East Coast.
Iceland Gulls are slightly smaller than Herring Gulls. These gulls, when adults, have a pale gray mantle and wingtips that can vary in color, from white in the east to black in the west. The darker winged gulls used to be labeled ‘Thayer’s gulls’ and considered a different species, but the two were combined in 2017. These gulls come to Niagara from the Arctic.
This small gull has a spectacular wing pattern, long pointed wings, a notched tail, and a short black bill with a yellow tip . Generally a prized sighting for birders, because it nests on tundra of the high Arctic and migrates south at sea, often well offshore. Those from eastern Canada and Greenland mostly migrate eastward across North Atlantic and then south.
These are just six of the 19 different species of gulls have been spotted here. So, grab your binoculars and see for yourself!
Cover Photo: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Audubon Society of New York: https://ny.audubon.org/
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/
Important Bird Areas of Canada: https://www.ibacanada.com/