Birds & Blooms
And other joys of springtime
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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.