Jay Burney is the founder and executive director of the Learning Sustainability Campaign and is the chair of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve. Both organizations are members of the WNY Environmental Alliance. Burney was also the chair of the Niagara River Important Bird Area Coalition. All photos by Jay Burney.
Promoting Conservation and Appropriate Economic Development
Migration has been getting a lot of attention lately. If you have cable television you may have watched the 7-part “Great Migrations” series, which aired this fall on the National Geographic Channel. This spectacularly photographed and edited series reveals stunning lessons about how migrations and migratory areas are important building blocks within the web of life that makes the earth’s biology work.
Migrations are remarkable natural occurrences that are a part of the life cycles of many species and many individual animals. Migrations help populations of plants and animals to reach out and touch each other across the earth. Migration helps the earth’s ecosystems interconnect. The biodiversity of the earths connected ecosystems naturally sustain life on the planet.
The Great Lakes, diverse and intersecting watersheds, ecosystems, and habitats characterize our water region. The Great Lakes and the ecosystems that maintain them contain nearly 20% of the earth’s fresh surface water. That is jaw-dropping important.
Clean fresh water is a valuable asset that will only grow in value. Some have even suggested that our culture will transition away from an oil economy and into a water economy. That is not impossible to imagine. Our region is at the nexus of a vast water wealth. How we manage that wealth may help to tell the story of humanity and a living planet for the next millennium.
A corridor that helps to connect Lake Erie to Lake Ontario surrounds the Niagara River strait. This connection links the western upper lakes and the interior of North America to the east and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. The water and other natural resources that flow through here including wildlife are abundant and valuable on many levels. It is part of a planetary biosphere that is physically connected to the Niagara region. It is both historically and ecologically important that as a central part of the region the Niagara River Corridor is a world-class migration corridor.
This is part of an ancient and continuous trail of dinosaurs and mastodons, birds and beasts of every description, and fish and other organisms that comprise the living essence of our planet. Migrations through here connect from the highlands, plains, lakelands, and mountains of the west, through lakes and rivers, along the shorelines, wetlands, forests, meadows, across the ridges and hills and out to the lowlands and ocean worlds to the east.
It is also jaw-dropping important that the Great Lakes Basin is a bioregion that supports nearly 10% of the US population and 25% of the population of Canada. People have a long history here. This area is part of the passages and stories of extinct and ancient cultures. The area in a physical and ecological sense has helped to characterize the migrations and the stories of our modern societies. This history and human actions especially during the last 200 years have had a tremendous impact on wildlife, ecology, and biodiversity. This has resulted in changes to the natural environment that staggers the imagination. And yet the water still flows, and many kinds of wildlife endure.
Today migrating animals continue to travel through our yards and gardens, our cities and towns, our vast urbanized environments, our farms and other agricultural lands, our industry, and through our terrifying brownfield empires. They have no choice. These habitats affect their health.
What happens in the coming decades to the water and to the wildlife should be a critical part of our approach to living here. It would be a great mistake to continue to broadly ignore the probable consequences of continued depredation upon the natural world.
There are remarkable natural contexts in our region. The region that holds almost 1/5 of the Earths fresh surface water is biologically and physically connected to the Niagara River corridor. The growing challenge of conserving the quality, abundance, and availability of this water will characterize the well being of future generations.
Our Vanishing Wildness
Nature still has a strong foothold here. The ecosystems and habitats support wildlife, underpin human quality of life, and truly help regulate the global biosphere. We are incredibly benefitted by our location and by the abundance of natural resources and activities. But they are fragile, and vanishing. We have to better understand and identify these systems including wildlife and migration. As part of an inventory of our natural places and activities it is important to recognize watchlists of the threatened and endangered. Many organizations have them, but because of economic needs, even these watchlists are threatened. We do not invest enough in understanding even the most superficial analysis of ecosystems and habitats.
If we continue to lose the natural systems that make up our lakes, rivers, shorelines, wetlands, forests, uplands, and meadows, we are sacrificing future generations.
While many species of birds such as raptors, shorebirds, songbirds, and warblers live and breed here, others are transient, visiting mainly during migrations. Many avian species move through our area in great numbers in the spring and in the fall during migrations.
Some of these populations are in steep decline. Others are relatively stable. Habitat plays a critical role. Conserving or recreating habitat is one of the most important things that we can do to ensure healthy populations of birds.
There are world-class migratory events here. Globally significant events.
The tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird, familiar in WNY, is an important example. They breed here. They are important pollinators and nectar sippers. They visit feeders and gardens and are very accessible. They are the only hummingbird that can be found in the Great Lakes and the Northeast. They are vulnerable to pesticides and other lawn and garden chemicals that we use.They annually migrate from WNY to the mountains of Costa Rica, and beyond, and back. In doing this they help to maintain healthy natural hemispheric links between bioregions. These are critical elements for a healthy biosphere and planet. Part of this astounding migration takes them on a non-stop journey across the waters of the Gulf of Mexico! Last years oil catastrophe in the Gulf may have had significant impacts on these migrating birds by damaging habitats. We can do our part by insuring that they find healthy habitat here.
Insects have a variety of migration patterns and impacts. Some cover only a short distance and others many miles. The familiar but seemingly fragile Monarch Butterfly is a great example of world travelers that depend on habitat in our area. They are important wild pollinators. They arrive here in the early summer, breed, and are on their way out of the area in a dramatic and colorful migration in the fall. They travel to a mountainous region in Southern Mexico. Descendants of these former WNY residents, return a year later, up to six generations removed. Monarch butterflies are the only known insect to fly 2,500 miles in a single journey seeking a warmer climate. They are an essential part of our summer landscape.
One of the most spectacular and world-class migrations involves the vast winter populations of migrating waterfowl on the Niagara River. The waters there are often the first and sometimes the only open water that migrating ducks, geese, and swans moving south from northern breeding grounds find. If you look, you will find hundreds of thousands of individuals, representing dozens of species of these spectacular and often colorful birds, feeding, rafting in the river, or socializing along the shorelines.
And then there is the gull migration.
Niagara River Gulls
Every year from mid November to mid January, one of the great planetary migrations is taking place right here in the Niagara River Corridor. This is worthy of National Geographic treatment. This is the annual gull migration.
Right about now you may be saying to yourself, “gulls?” Yes gulls.
If you are like most people, you may not think much of gulls. You may refer to them generically as “seagulls” -a very common if somewhat disparaging epithet. However, all gulls are not the same. There are different species of gulls. There are about 50 species of gulls worldwide, spread throughout the temperate regions. Gulls are not common in many places. For example, only three species are known on the entire continent of Australia. However, here, in the Niagara River Corridor, we have identified 19 species. This is very important.
Birding and nature enthusiasts want you to know that gulls are anything but common. Gulls are remarkable birds, -resourceful, powerful, graceful, and very intelligent. Many kinds of birds including gulls have complicated social interactions that reflect family and flock relationships. Most gull species are very social. Their interactions with the complicated and large communities of other wintering birds along the Niagara are entertaining, educational, and pretty damned interesting. Like most birds they have extraordinarily language and communication skills. And they are highly evolved and adaptive creatures and they survive even in some of the toughest weather conditions imaginable. They also play important ecological roles. For instance they have feeding habits that help to recharge and restore ecosystems such as those in the Niagara River corridor.
The Niagara River Gull migration involves hundreds of thousands of individual gulls each day. Some of these birds are traveling from breeding grounds in the western Arctic and are heading toward the Atlantic and south. Many layover here for weeks at a time. Some roost in large floating rafts in nearby lakes Erie and Ontario and travel the river to feed and socialize. Some of these species of birds are extremely rare. Some come through here in concentrations representing significant portions of the entire global population.
One species, the Bonaparte’s gull, nests in trees in the boreal forests of Alaska and the Yukon. During migration the Niagara River can be filled with tens of thousands of this unusual species. They are on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. They are commonly seen feeding near the Peace Bridge and in the parks and observation areas along the river from Buffalo to Tonawanda. It is incredible but some have estimated that as many as 50-75% of the world’s population of Bonaparte’s gulls, the largest concentration of these gulls anywhere, come through here during migration. This is very jaw-dropping important.
Threats and StewardshipWe are very fortunate to be able to have a front seat to these important natural areas and events. Sadly, as we move into the year 2011, human development continues to present significant threats to both the quality of the Great Lakes and the health of the life that depend on these ecosystems.
We are in an important place at an important time. Having a seat is only part of the solution. What we do with that seat in terms of conservation has planetary level implications. We must become better stewards. The conservation of the precious sweetwater seas that are the Great Lakes ecosystems and the global biosphere and life that they help support must be stepped up on our watch.
The Buffalo and Niagara Rivers are internationally recognized as “Areas of Concern” due to our legacy of industrial and urban pollution. Restoring ecological integrity to these AOC’s and the associated brownfields that characterize much of our landscape are tricky, expensive, and long term issues that we are only beginning to seriously address. And yet if we do not address the clean-ups appropriately future generations may not have a workable future. Local and regional human health and well-being has been compromised and continues to be threatened by the lack of ecological integrity of the natural resources that we have here. It is really not a stretch to suggest that our stewardship is an essential link to the health and well-being of planet earth. This makes what we do very important, not only to within local communities, but on a global level. For generations to come.
Many argue that it is difficult or impossible to balance the needs of a healthy environment with the needs of a growing society that is dependent on an expanding economy and the need for more jobs. Environment traditionally takes the fall. Over the past two decades, legal authorities such as the NYDEC, trusted watchdogs, are being downsized and made irrelevant.
But we must. We need to re-envision the role of a healthy DEC and other regulatory actions that will help protect our environment. And we can. If we don’t we will continue to build a legacy that festers with new and un-remediated Areas of Concern, brownfields, a toothless State Environmental Quality Review Act, and clusters of legalized pollution and ecological depredation. It is still important to understand that a sustainable planet has at its true bottom line, the environment. To argue otherwise is at best specious and at worst catastrophic.
We need to start with a stewardship plan. A plan that identifies the biodiversity of our natural resources, identifies the character of our current ecological integrity, identifies the threats to our natural resources, and outlines an action strategy for conservation, restoration, and sustainable development. We can do that.
Our Environmental Tool-Kit
We already have some pretty important resources and tools. Our sweet water location and our legacy of biodiversity has caught the attention of the world.
The Niagara River Corridor “globally significant” Important Bird Area (NRCIBA)
The Great Lakes, the river, and the gull migration are truly globally important assets that have garnered worldwide attention. In 1996 a coalition of government, community, local, national, and international organizations designated the Niagara River corridor not only as one of the worlds “Important Bird Areas” (IBA), but due in large part to the gull migration, a “globally significant” IBA. This designation puts our area in the same league as Yellowstone, the Everglades, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks. These, including the Niagara, were some of the first IBA sites in North America. The NRCIBA was the first “bi-national” globally significant IBA designated.
The Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve
In 1990, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated part of our region and part of the Niagara River corridor around the Niagara Escarpment, a Biosphere Reserve. This designation was largely awarded because of an abundance of biodiversity, unique character, and threats.
This Reserve stretches along the Escarpment for 725 km. in Canada from the tip of the Bruce Peninsula to the Niagara River. It does not include any territory on the American side.
We also have a wide variety of local individuals and organizations that are beginning to breathe life into local and regional conservation strategies. Significantly the WNY Environmental Alliance, which is being organized by leadership from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo has begun to bring together groups and ideas that may help to chart a proactive course for our region well into the coming decades.
Promoting Conservation and Economic Development
The Great Lakes Basin is a region that supports 10% of the US population and 25% of the population of Canada.
In the coming decades nature, habitats, and clean water will continue to become vanishing resources for these populations. Our local nature, habitats, and water resources play a significant role in regional well-being. The impacts of local our actions on planetary ecology that sustains life on earth and human health and well-being is not insignificant.
If we act to develop and use our tools to protect, conserve, and restore these resources we can become a place that is far ahead of other regions in both the Great Lakes and around the globe. Our area can become one of the most important conservation, ecological, and sustainable economic development areas on the planet.
If we spring into action we become a unique place.
Imagine our outer harbor becoming a year round center of urban wilderness, ecology, and recreation instead of a reindustrialized wasteland littered with failed technologies and abandoned brownfields.
We can do it. It starts with a clear vision. The goal is to promote ecological integrity and an economy based on eco-development and tourism. Our region is wealthy with culture and heritage.
Thanks to decades of community activism, our region has a blossoming heritage tourism program. We could add to that an ecotourism campaign that is every bit as world class as our architecture and culture. Part of the promise of the Niagara Greenway plan is a focus on the environment. The jury is still out on where that will go. But now, we have renewed opportunity on the Buffalo Waterfront. Thanks to advocates such as Congressman Brian Higgins and his predecessors we have an anchor in such areas as Times Beach Nature Preserve, Gallagher Beach and potential new recreational areas that surround the outer harbor. The recent Canalside Community Alliance approach led by Mark Goldman has brought community attention to the development planning process by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation.
- According to the Economy Watch, ecotourism is one of the flourishing industries of the world. The eco-tourism market makes up 6% of the global GDP. The yearly growth rate in this industry is 5% which makes it one of the fastest growing economic sectors.
- According to the International Ecotourism Society, Ecotourism is responsible for 230 million jobs worldwide.
Bird watching alone is a significant contributor. According to a US Fish and Wildlife Service report issued in July of 2009, one in every five Americans identifies themselves as a “birdwatcher”. That is an astonishing 50 million-person market from US birdwatchers alone. They contribute $36 billion to the U.S economy in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
Buffalo Niagara is bi-national and draws from tourists from around the world. Niagara falls is one of the premier tourist destinations in the world with over 5 million visitors annually on the American side alone. World class recreation including fishing, hiking, boating and canoeing, and all of the other outdoor adventures that you can imagine can bring jobs, investments and population growth to our area. This kind of economic development will also focus our strategies on ecological integrity. As we develop this approach to economy, we will find ways to invest in conservation, restoration, and ecological integrity. If we build a place that celebrates biodiversity, natural resources, clean water, and quality of life, we will build a place that is important. We will build a place that attracts attention. We will build a place that people want to be a part of.
We can smartly position ourselves to develop an ecotourism economy that will greatly benefit future generations. We have the fundamentals. Location, resources, and tools that put us on a par with some of the great places on earth. As the world undergoes changes and challenges in the coming decades we can become a vital place that future generations will cherish. Taking this approach now may be the best possibility that will allow future generations to flourish. Message to the planners- Couple culture and heritage with conservation and recreation. Go local. If we build it they will come. Let us seize this day.
Where to See the Birds
There are numerous places to observe gulls and gull behavior in the Niagara River Corridor. Virtually where ever there is access to the water you can see the gulls and other waterfowl. From Times Beach in Buffalo, the waterfront parks including LaSalle and the foot of Ferry Street, Austin Street near Rich Marina and all along the water all the way to Lewiston and Fort Niagara offer great spots. Some of the best places are above and below the falls. The Niagara Parks offer parking and observation opportunities. One of the best is at the Niagara Power Plant overlook, where you can actually drive down into the gorge to a fishing access point. The Canadian side of the River also offers great view opportunities from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. As always be very mindful of weather conditions. Do not risk your life by traveling into the gorge unless you know the conditions are safe. If you have good binoculars, and good bird books, your expedition will be well rewarded.
For more information on bird sightings: Dial-a Bird, sponsored by the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Buffalo Museum of Science is updated frequently with local sightings and observations at (716) 896-1271.
Checklist of Niagara Gulls:
- Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)
- Black-legged Kittewake (Rissa tridactyla)
- Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philadelphia)
- California Gull (Larus californicus)
- Franklin’s Gull (Larus pipixcan)
- Great Black-backed gull (Larus marinus)
- Glaucus Gull (Laurus hyperboeus)
- Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
- Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)
- Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnean)
- Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla)
- Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)
- Little Gull (Larus minutus)
- Mew Gull (Larus canus)
- Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)
- Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea)
- Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)
- Slaty-backed Gull (Larus schistisagus)
- Thayer’s gull (Larus thayeri)