Bird Watching - Niagara's lure as a natural wonder does not end with the Falls. Just ask the growing number of people who visit the Niagara River each year to see one of the world's greatest gatherings of gulls and other migrating birds.
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In 1996, the entire Niagara River corridor - stretching 56 kilometres (35 miles) from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario - became the first site in North America to receive international recognition as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area by major conservation groups in both Canada and the United States.
The Niagara River has the largest and most diverse concentration of gulls in the world, said Canadian Nature Federation director Julie Gelfand during the December 11, 1996 ceremony in which the Federation joined Bird Studies Canada and the U.S.-based National Audubon Society to bestow the recognition.
Starting mid-November, the river comes alive with the aerobatics of more than 100,000 gulls on migratory flights from as far north as Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to as far south as Florida.
The Niagara River becomes a critical winter feeding area for these birds and many others. The river's swift current keeps it free of ice, assuring the birds access to water when many other waterways along their migratory path freeze over. The fast-moving waters also carry downstream a steady supply of alewives, shiners and other small fish that make up an important part of the birds' diet.
The Niagara Falls Nature Club that has co-ordinated Christmas bird counts along the Niagara River for many years, says 19 individual species of gulls have been identified on the river (there are 43 species worldwide).
Among their ranks are an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Bonaparte's Gulls - as much as 10 per cent of the world's population.
Bird watchers may catch a glimpse of other harder-to-find species like the Franklin's and Sabine's Gull, and rare species like the California Gull, a native of the west coast, and the Slaty-backed and Ross's Gulls, which nest as far away as Siberia.
The Niagara River is also a major wintering area for numerous species of ducks, geese and swans. Along the Canadian shore near Old Fort Erie, people gather with binoculars to watch American Widgeon, Redhead, Canvasback and numerous other species of ducks.
The ducks can be seen diving and bobbing for fish downstream from a floating boom Canada and the United States installs across the head of the Niagara River each winter to hold back massive fields of lake ice. As the ducks feed, they let the current carry them downstream toward the Peace Bridge (crossing the Niagara River to Buffalo, New York) before beating their wings back to the boom to begin the cycle again.
You can enjoy bird watching as you drive north from Fort Erie, along the picturesque Niagara River Parkway, several swans, can be seen gliding through the waters and a large flock of Canada Geese hold court in a small park along the river's shore. Some Common Mergansers, their long, slender bill working back to a crest of reddish-brown feathers, sun themselves on a slab of bedrock.
Approaching the mist of the Horseshoe Falls, the dazzling array of waterfowl give way to hordes of gulls, swarming over the white caps and perching on almost every rock above the Falls. Bird watching from observation areas overlooking the Niagara River Gorge and Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations, thousands can be seen engaging in a feeding frenzy as the generating stations' turbines slice up fish before serving them back to the river.
The Niagara River received international attention in the spring and summer of 1998, when a pair of peregrine falcons successfully hatched and fledged three chicks on a narrow ledge of rock along the Niagara River Gorge, a mere 200 metres from the Horseshoe Falls. This was the first documented case of peregrine falcons choosing a natural area to nest in southern Ontario, and it was spectacular for countless bird watching visitors who caught a glimpse of these powerful birds of prey soaring through the mist near the Horseshoe Falls.
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