Long a hot destination for lovebirds of the honeymooning variety, Niagara Falls is also a hot spot for gulls. During the winter migration season, it’s not unusual that in a single day over 40,000 gulls descend upon the roaring waters, seduced by the fish teeming in the whirlpools and eddies formed by all that impressive tumult. Over 24 gull species have been spotted along Niagara Falls and the Niagara River over the years, and in fact, the Niagara area boasts the largest concentration of gulls and gull species in the world. It is, without a doubt, an ideal vacation spot for lovers of bird-watching. With gulls that fly in from as far away as Siberia, Niagara Falls will keep your binoculars in place and your bird-loving heart filled with delight.
A smaller gull that rarely gets above 15 inches in length, Bonaparte’s gull was named after a nephew of Napoleon who happened to be a zoologist instead of an aspiring world conqueror. When mature, these gulls have a black hood that turns to white in the winter. Their underwings are pale with dark wing tips, and they have light pink legs. Found all year long in Canada, they often nest in coniferous trees or along the ground. Unlike most gulls, Bonaparte gulls are not scavengers. They subsist mostly on insects, crustaceans and smaller fish, and when they are in flight, their grace can cause them to be mistaken for terns. While you can spy them perennially at Niagara, they congregate in larger numbers in early winter.
A small, dove-like and pinkish gull, Ross’s gull is not often spied too far away from the Arctic. The only gull in its genus, it breeds in the high arctic of North America and of northern Siberia. It tends to migrate short distances to the south come autumn, though it has been spotted as far south as southern California. Your best chances to spy it along the Niagara River are certainly in the autumn and early winter months when it will start losing the black neck ring and pink flush on its breast that are highly noticeable during the summer. Younger Ross’s gulls resemble winter adults in their plumage but also have a darker “W” pattern on their wings when they are in flight. It takes two years for the gulls to fully mature, after which they mate and lay two to three eggs at a time in their chilly northern homes. Named after the British explorer, James Clark Ross, who first described the bird in his writings back in 1823, the Ross’s Gull is a true treat to spy at Niagara.
A more common gull, the California gull reaches almost two feet in length and can have a wingspan of up to six feet. Migratory, like most gulls, it is most easily spotted in the Niagara region in fall and early winter. It was named Utah’s state bird in 1955, a choice that was over a hundred years in the making. Back in 1848, settlers’ crops were nearly wiped out by a plague of crickets until flocks of the California gull swooped in and gorged until not one cricket remained, and the crops — and settlers — were saved.
This arctic gull breeds at higher latitudes but tends to migrate toward the tropics during the winter. It has long, pointed tern-like wings, a notched tail and a shorter black bill that has a bit of yellow at the tip. Its wing patterns are beautiful with three, brazen triangles easily seen when it is in flight and a gray-brown and almost scale-like appearance when at rest. They sport a dark hood and can be most easily spotted along the Niagara River in October and November.
A large, white gull that breeds along the western coast of Alaska, the Slaty-backed Gull is highly migratory for most of the year. A forager and a scavenger, this large, stout gull has been spotted as far away from its breeding grounds as Finland and parts of Asia. It is the fourth largest gull in the world with yellow eyes and a “string of pearls” pattern that is visible on the underside of its wings when in flight. It is most commonly seen in the Niagara region in early winter.
Bird-watching in the Niagara Falls region is particularly fruitful as its forests and fish beckon to all varieties of species. Though, when it comes to gull-watching, it’s impossible to beat.
About the Author: Nadine Hendrick is a contributing writer, avid birdwatcher and travel agent.