Birds & Blooms

And other joys of spring­time

Our Canada - - Front Page - by Brian C. Mer­ritt, Grimsby, Ont.

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When my wife El­iz­a­beth and I moved here to Grimsby some 30 years ago, we were im­me­di­ately struck by the beauty of the town’s set­ting. Nestled on the south­ern shore of Lake On­tario, set against the back­ground of soar­ing crags of the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment, the com­mu­nity has the ap­pear­ance of an alpine vil­lage.

Once set­tled into our new home, we en­joyed ex­plor­ing the area. We found many places of in­ter­est in­clud­ing the Beamer Memo­rial Con­ser­va­tion Area; set atop the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment, it is an ideal spot for walks and pic­nics. Sev­eral look­outs pro­vide spec­tac­u­lar views of Ni­a­gara Falls and across Lake On­tario.

On one spring visit to Beamer, we no­ticed a num­ber of hawks fly­ing over­head. We are not avid birdwatchers and couldn’t iden­tify any of the birds specif­i­cally. They var­ied in size from those with very large wing­spans to small hawks with pointed wings. They would glide on the up­drafts caused by winds com­ing off the lake and hit­ting the al­most ver­ti­cal faces of the es­carp­ment. The hawks’ flight pat­terns ap­peared to be head­ing west along the es­carp­ment.

We came upon a clear­ing where a group of peo­ple armed with binoc­u­lars were gath­ered. They ap­peared to be fo­cused on the pass­ing birds. Upon in­quiry, we dis­cov­ered that the an­nual spring hawk watch was in progress. The group were mem­bers of the Ni­a­gara Penin­sula Hawk­watch (NPH).

“Hawk” is some­what of a gen­eral term for di­ur­nal birds of prey such as bu­teos, ac­cip­iters, fal­cons, ea­gles, vul­tures, kites, north­ern har­rier and os­prey. Up to 22 species of hawks can be found mi­grat­ing through Beamer. Since 1975, when the an­nual hawk mi­gra­tion at Beamer be­gan be­ing mon­i­tored, the spring hawk count has recorded over 577,000 birds.

The NPH was formed in March 1990. Its main pur­poses are to pro­mote the en­joy­ment of hawk­watch­ing, ed­u­cate the pub­lic about hawks and their mi­gra­tion, con­duct sys­tem­atic counts of hawks mi­grat­ing along the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment, and work for the con­ser­va­tion of hawks

in On­tario. NPH mem­bers ob­serve, iden­tify and record the num­bers of mi­grat­ing hawks fly­ing over Beamer Point. The count be­gins on March 1 and ends on May 15. The data is sub­mit­ted to the Hawk Mi­gra­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica, which tab­u­lates data from more than 200 hawk watches across the con­ti­nent.

Hawks mi­grate around the Great Lakes to take ad­van­tage of ris­ing air cur­rents or favourable winds. Ris­ing air cur­rents caused by the sun warm­ing the ground are called ther­mals. When hawks fly into a ther­mal, they will rise with the air as if on an el­e­va­tor, just like glider pi­lots do. As the ther­mal starts to weaken at higher alti­tudes, the hawks glide away in search of an­other ther­mal. Glid­ing on these ris­ing masses of air al­lows the rap­tors to save sig­nif­i­cant amounts of en­ergy on their mi­gra­tion. This is im­por­tant, as some of the hawks are com­ing from as far as South Amer­ica and with some head­ing as far as the Arc­tic.

In Grimsby, we see the hawks that have cho­sen to fly around the west end of Lake On­tario on their north­ward flight. They will fol­low the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment or the south shore of Lake On­tario on this west­erly flight. At Grimsby, the es­carp­ment has the steep­est face and is closer to Lake On­tario than any­where else along the south shore. The con­cen­tra­tion of birds at Grimsby pro­vides the coun­ters with a won­der­ful van­tage point to count—on av­er­age—14,000 mi­grat­ing hawks each spring.

Once the hawks pass Grimsby and get around the lake at Hamil­ton, the flight path widens and the birds con­tinue to look for ther­mals as they head to their north­ern breed­ing grounds. Some nest in south­ern On­tario and some, such as the rough­legged hawk, con­tinue on to the Arc­tic.

Over­look­ing the town of Grimsby, the Beamer Memo­rial Con­ser­va­tion Area is easily ac­ces­si­ble by car. While a visit at any time is well worth the trip, vis­it­ing dur­ing the hawk-watch sea­son is es­pe­cially worth­while. Vis­i­tors are al­ways wel­come to share this spec­tac­u­lar view of na­ture, learn about the hawk mi­gra­tion and dis­cover what makes hawk­watch­ing a life­time pas­sion for many. If you would like more in­for­ma­tion, hop on­line and visit www.ni­a­gara­penin­su­la­hawk­watch.org.

Far left: an adult turkey vul­ture, photo cour­tesy of Don­ald Met­zner. Left: an os­prey, photo cour­tesy of Rod­ney Camp­bell.

This photo of an adult red-shoul­dered hawk is cour­tesy of Andy Morf­few.

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