By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
There they all are, like a class reunion, all gathered in Dunkirk: the Mergansers, the Grebes, the Bitterns, the Brants, the Shovelers, the Harriers, the Phalaropes, the Dowitchers. Have we thrown down the red carpet for these regular visitors to our city? How many residents really know they have arrived, or how long they will stay? What do they like to eat? Are we aware of how they could add to our local economy or more importantly to our personal enrichment and to an understanding of our environment or the movement of living things around the globe?
From left: Joanne Goetz, Mary Shearman, Audrey Schafer, Diane Andrasik, Skeeter Tower, Dr. Terry Mosher, Sylvia Clarke and Carol Hardenborg.
I was traveling in Costa Rica last February with a group of former Peace Corps volunteers, 2,300 miles from here, when I first became aware of the importance of these feathered visitors.
"You have moved to Dunkirk, N.Y.?" they asked, with a sense of awe. "We traveled from South Carolina to see the birds in Dunkirk Harbor last year!"
And that's how I learned, that my newly adopted city, Dunkirk, was a mecca in the winter for water fowl and dedicated birders. Of course, birders are more precise in their bird titles. They are on the trail of the green winged teal, the ring-necked duck, the surf scoter or the white-winged scoter, the greater scoter, the common goldeneye, the bufflehead, the gadwall, the pied-billed grebe, the eared grebe, the great blue, green or black-crown night heron, among many others.
The Buffalo Ornithological Society lists some 300 varieties that could be expected to show up on a checklist locally. If one of the more unusual species arrives during the winter to rest or feed on the open water warmed by the coal powered power plant, word is sent out and birders from near and far come to train their binoculars and telescopes on the bird and add it to their "life list," the once-in-a-lifetime sightings which are so cherished. The Buffalo Ornithological Society sends automated calls to members related to bird sightings.
Attorney Bill Broderick from Youngstown, N.Y., my hometown, in Niagara county is a regular traveler to Dunkirk in the winter. Last winter, when Lake Erie was frozen - a more normal scenario - he reported seeing hundreds of Bonaparte gulls at one time. He also spotted a rare American avocet, a western shore bird, which had apparently been blown off course and separated from its migrating flock. Birders came from long distances to see this celebrity bird. Broderick reports seeing a cooper hawk swoop down, hold a Bonaparte duck underwater before carrying him off on a dinner date. He says this year has been a good year for snowy owls. It certainly is not boring. I couldn't believe my ears!
So, it was with a sense of great anticipation when I saw the announcement in the OBSERVER that the local Lake Erie Bird Club was gathering at Dunkirk Harbor to view "Birds Worth Freezing For - Some Dunkirk Harbor Specialties." I joined them to see what I could learn.
The club welcomes new members and has been serving Northern Chautauqua County since 1963. Objectives of the club include providing information in the identification of birds for the learning and enjoyment of its members. It provides field experiences for interested members, about 80, and instruction of various ecological aspects of birding.
Longtime member Jeanine Smith walks the Dunkirk waterfront every day enjoying the observation points for birds from Wright Beach, Lakefront Boulevard, Main Street Beach, the inner harbor behind the Clarion Hotel, the pier and the western end of the harbor by the power plant, NRG. (Harbor birds and welcoming overtures to winter birders: another consideration related to the impact of the NRG crisis).
Smith says every day is different.
"You never know what you will see," she remarked.
She notes that in addition to the birds, the bonuses of fresh air and exercise (6,300 steps on her pedometer to be exact, and that is 2.73 miles) are benefits of bird-watching. She has 251 species on her Chautauqua County Life List, while her twin sister Joanne Goetz has 272!
Goetz was another part of the birding group. Dressed warmly in many layers of clothing, she also had on her warm stocking cap. Joanne dons many hats for the Lake Erie Bird Club. She is editor of "The Wren's Ramblings," the club's monthly newsletter, as well as secretary, treasurer, meeting and program planner, Christmas bird count compiler, telephone contact person (673-1627) and the many other duties involved with the functioning of a large bird club.
Our very animated and superbly well-informed guide for the harbor field trip was Dr. Terry Mosher. He was like a kid in a candy shop with ongoing narrative about the birds we were seeing, where they nest and how they feed. Do you know that some gulls have pink legs and some yellow? Some have a flattened head or a swollen beak or a yellow ring around their eyes. I learned that the coots, which may look like a duck, actually are not and in fact do not have webbed feet but lobed toes so they can walk on the marshes where they eat vegetarian fare. Each species merited admiration and praise. "That one is snazzy!" or "There's our lady," as the elusive duck emerged from behind one of the piers.
Dr. Mosher explained how the wide open lake and the prevailing south winds have made this winter's birding a far cry from last winter. Fewer birds come into the harbor when there is open water on the lake. There was the red breasted female merganser, the handsome dark crowned pair of buffalo head ducks. Other highlights included five adult bald eagles and a blue heron seen along the outer break wall. There were seven pied-billed grebes, three ruddy ducks, one surf scoter, 35 canvasbacks, a lone Bonaparte gull, many great black-backed and ring-billed and herring gulls, American coots and some double-crested cormorants. It was the ruddy ducks that the Englishman from New Castle had in his sights when we encountered him along Lakefront Boulevard. Bird fanciers from around the world!
Google Dunkirk Harbor and more than 14 species of gulls and 40 species of ducks, geese and loons are touted. Rarities such as the Harlequin duck and the eared grebe are mentioned. "Thermal currents and flyways along Lake Erie, heavily forested areas and open fields provide ideal conditions for birders," it is written on TourChautauqua.com, the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau website. "In the spring Point Gratiot is known for significant sightings such as the orchard oriole, whippoorwill and over 30 species of warblers. Red headed woodpeckers nest there."
Of course, here in Chautauqua County we are also lucky to be within a short driving distance to the Jamestown Audubon and the Roger Tory Peterson Centers.
How do we make the most of this exceptional winter haven for birds in the harbor? Isn't it worth crowing about? There is a brand new Seaway Trail storyteller instructive panel for the harbor which, once in place, will alert residents and newcomers alike that there is something special occurring here. Watch for it the next time you walk around the harbor.
Why not make a trip to our area a very special treat for these traveling birders? Perhaps amenities could be added to make it a little less challenging than "birds worth freezing for." The Harbor Commission or the Lake Erie Bird Club could post rare bird sightings and counts daily. We could provide heated wind shelter observation posts. Mounted and rotating coin operated binoculars could be placed at strategic spots along the harbor for novices who are not carrying their own set of binoculars.
Dr. Catherine McAllister, a frequent harbor visitor from Fredonia, wonders how we might capture the underwater drama on camera when the birds disappear under the water in search of a good catch. Easier is the notion that a webcam could be bringing the bird surface activity right onto our TV screens at home.
Local eateries and pubs could feature bird-themed menus. The Clarion Hotel could offer birder weekend specials. Demetri's could cater to the birders with early birder breakfast specials, indoor viewing decks, logs to record bird sightings and even a bird guide for references. This restaurant has an excellent vantage point on the harbor, as does the Conservation Club over by the power plant. Tim Horton's could name some of their specialties after significant birds. They certainly attract chilly bird people in the winter looking for a warm cup of something. The boutiques on the harbor might even stay open during the winter. Banners or signage could identify the various beach names to help other birders identify more exactly where a sighting occurred. Local media could alert locals and tourists that certain migrations are occurring and when the smelt are in which attracts thousands of birds. Think of what the kids could learn about nature in this rich, open air laboratory!
All told, we can be grateful that we have a unique offering and a safe winter shelter for our feathered friends and bountiful opportunities for spring sightings at Point Gratiot. It's a wonderful way to balance out the summer beach crowd off-season. How much luckier could we be?
Skeeter Tower is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org