What! Have I come here to mimic nature in her grandest enterprise — to add my caricature of one of the wonders of the world to those which I see here? No — I give up the idea as a vain attempt. I will look on these mighty cataracts and imprint them on my mind — there alone can they be represented!
– Naturalist John James Audubon, on painting the Niagara Falls.
During the course of a severe winter, when its paths are stopped with snow and its cliffs and stones stand white with hoar, the Niagara Gorge has an Arctic mien. Leafless trees reveal its vistas on a grander scale and familiar cliffs, suddenly rooted in screes instead of leaves, rise to greater heights. Its dangers become more apparent, for now at the bare edge the eye hesitates, and instead of peering downwards into cushions of green, it discovers vertigo and a sheer fall. Far below, beyond the talus and the bare trees, the river roars like a live thing. Grown remote and hazardous and no longer inviting to the casual tourist, it becomes the lonely domain of the inveterate fisherman and ardent naturalist.
However, the river displays a vitality that belies the rigours of the season, and, despite its reputation for being chemically poisoned, remains enormously fertile. Providing nourishment in the form of insect larvae, crustaceans, molluscs and fish, it sustains a winter population of tens of thousands of birds. From its mouth at Niagara-on-the-Lake to the ice-boom across Lake Erie 33 miles to the south, ducks, geese, swans and gulls congregate in numbers not found elsewhere in the North American interior during winter.
Above the falls, amongst ice and snow and swift, green water, no man sports or plays. This frontier territory, lying between two sovereign states, is an area of rapids, shingle bars, boulder fields and rock ledges that is in dangerous proximity to the falls. This area is often the wintering ground of a little tribe of Purple sandpipers. In the very worst of Arctic days, a patient telescope may find them; tiny dots across a quarter mile of rough water, scurrying at the edge of some midstream boulder, heads dipping under as they glean crustaceans from the trailing weeds. Sometimes a handful of five or six, sometimes only one, will be the full complement on the river.
When the whirlpool is seen for the first time, one wonders why it should be of such consequence. If examined, it is seen to be energised by an increase in the velocity of the river caused by its compression through a narrow chute into a pool below. The whirlpool's seemingly slow rotation gives an impression of harmless lassitude, the full power of its circling not registering because of the birds-eye view. Given more notice and a little thought, it is soon recognised that a fisherman on the far side is so small that only the splash of colour that is his coat gives an idea of scale. As one grapples with perspective, straining perhaps to focus on the circling gulls, one finds the tin can bobbing along in the strings of debris is really a 45-gallon drum. A 16-foot log popping into the air like an ordinary fence stake gives some idea of the current seething beneath.
I recall a day in winter when the whirlpool was grinding out ice like a slow-moving mill. Downstream was jammed with it and the great eddy at the whirlpool's tail was continually spinning more into the flow. Within its coils I picked out a goose. It was a Canada with an injured wing. For 20 minutes I watched it try to get out of its predicament but from my vantage, I could see plainly how it was trapped. Unwittingly it stemmed the currents, paddling across leads and heaving up and across the floes when they threatened to hem it in. No matter what direction it took, there was no way out and it became obvious its fate was to be swept downstream and under the ice sheet1.
Large flocks of canvasbacks, scaup and redheads raft in the lee of the intake walls and breakwaters above the falls while the three species of scoter may be seen at almost any place along the gorge. Small numbers of migrant ducks - mallard, gadwall, blackduck, American wigeon and pintail - also stay through the winter, frequenting any of the more sheltered spots but gathering mostly about the lower, rocky corners of the cascade. Other ducks, such as bufflehead, goldeneye and long-tailed ducks are a common sight and can be seen diving for crayfish and mussels. Among the rarer visitors are the Harlequin duck, Barrow's goldeneye, common eider, and the one that stirs the most insouciant birder to words of praise - the king eider. The male in full winter plumage is marked in fine pastel colours of a quality similar to those found on porcelain or unglazed china; but his queen, poor duck, is just a drab shadow of him.
This latter description also fits the female common eider which, despite its name, is a rarer bird on the river. Through three successive winters a female could be watched fishing one of the great chutes near the head of the falls. Notable for her choice of venue, she could often be seen from the vantage point of a windswept parking lot upstream from Dufferin Island. The assurance of a good supply of food in the shape of a bed of mussels was the probable attraction, for though she was obviously at ease in that fearful current, there was little resemblance between it and the tides of her familiar seas.
Powerfully made like the rest of her race2, she played submarine in the rapids, going under in the strongest currents to feed. Sometimes, when she failed to surface where I had guessed, I would think she had misjudged the power of the undertow and gone over as birds occasionally do, but she would always reappear, bobbing down-stream, incredibly near the brink. For two or three succeeding winters she stationed herself above the falls, at the head of one of its stronger-flowing currents. Her dives were within three minutes of each other and upon surfacing she would fly upstream to her station, which was a whorl of water in the lee of a large stone. There was not a birder for miles around who had not seen her, and I often spied upon her from considerable distance, magnifying her to extreme3.
The gossiping of long-tailed ducks is winter's litany; their low, cooing cackle, a hymn for all weathers and an endless recitation of winter's several names. It is a song unlike all others, and once heard is not to be forgotten. A favourite feeding ground for long-tailed ducks is where the river pools below Queenston. There the tremendous currents from the upstream dams dissipate their energies, and the long-tailed ducks gather in their hundreds, diving for mussels in the deep water. Perhaps similar in winter to the summer conditions of their northern ocean, the Great Lakes are the traditional wintering grounds for these sea ducks from the high Arctic. A distinguishing feature of long-tailed ducks is that when coming in to land they do not skid on their feet, but splash down on their bellies, often skipping like pebbles before coming to rest. Occasionally, one will be seen to tumble in a flurry of feathers. The females are dowdy compared to the long-tailed, handsome drakes, but both, no sooner landed, join in the endless confabulations of their race.
Variously known as the Horseshoe Rapids or the Green Cascade, this area is also a prime wintering-ground for gulls. During low periods, when immense volumes of water are drawn from the river to drive turbines set deep underground, gulls gather about these rapids in great concentrations. They clothe bare ledges and drifts of shingle to such an extent that if a bald eagle happens by, a myriad of gulls fountaining upwards form a cloud that, from a distance, looks like a plume of spray risen from the falls. Witness this and you can be assured that there is an eagle about.
A trick played by birdwatchers, who have trouble identifying individual birds among the large numbers that roost upon the powerhouse roof or that congregate upon the steep-sided grassy slopes across the river, is to scare them into flight by slowly flapping their arms in imitation of an eagle's wings.
Apart from the thousands of herring and ring-billed gulls, the sight of thousands of Boneparte gulls at their fishing is one of the river's great delights. Unusual among gulls, they are tree-nesters from the northern limits of the coniferous forest and, as evidence of their perching ability, are often seen strung like pearls on wires that overhang the water. Their main food sources are the larva of the caddis-fly and the tiny emerald shiner, one of the river's most prolific fishes.
Beginning in November, the gulls arrive from their northern quarters in successive waves, until, by December, their numbers range in the tens of thousands. Viewed in direct sunlight, their white wings have an unusually high reflective quality, and after a long day spent birding on the river, many a patient birder retires with the after-images of gulls' wings flickering behind his eyes.
During November and the early part of December, the gull population increases to such an extent, that as many as a dozen species may be counted in the course of a day. From the Arctic Ocean, and few in numbers, come the Iceland and glaucous gulls, both notable for their white plumage, especially the smaller Iceland gull. The much contested Thayer's gull is likely to be sighted and also Franklin's gull from the western prairies. It usually shows up in first-winter plumage, but can still be distinguished from the multitude by its small size and prominent, split, eye-ring. An immature Sabine's gull, showing vivid wing patterns, is hard to miss, but it takes an experienced eye to tell a little, lesser black-backed or black-headed gull. Surprisingly, these last three are all originally of European ancestry.
Late in the year, the river above Queenston to the top of the falls, which is about seven miles, is alive with gulls. They move like the current, eddies circling within eddies, wings moving without surcease, except in the momentary plunge when a fish is taken. Each gull, in competition with the others, works the water directly below, all the while flying downstream to an invisible point where suddenly, as though losing the thread of its purpose, it rises and swiftly returns to the head of its beat. There, without pausing, it seeks the lower levels and resumes its pursuit.
These thousands of white wings make an interstice that seems impossible to follow, but there are two opposing streams, and by a common trick of vision the eye can follow the one of its choice by somehow blocking out the other. Once fixed upon an individual, another faculty comes into play; the eye of the hunter meets with its quarry, and follows, no matter how it feints and flees.
A great challenge is to find a black-headed gull in this mix. In winter plumage, neither the Boneparte nor black-headed gull sports a black head, and with both at a distance seeming of the same colouration and size, they are difficult to separate. The black-headed gull signals its presence with the semaphore of its black underwing, and being relatively rare, perhaps only one will show among the tens of thousands of other gulls. Once its presence is known however, it is almost guaranteed to be seen, for as a creature of habit it will frequent the same stretch of river, and even the same roost, for weeks on end.
An unusual sight of great black-backed gulls wheeling almost beneath one's feet is glimpsed by looking down from the parapet above the plunge pool. They scavenge at the sewer mouths and pick scraps from a tail race that issues from under the cliff. Their black wings edged with white, seen angling across the dark surface of deep water, give an illusion of a bird melting from one element into another. They fly with a slow shallow beat, like the stroking of a tired oarsman who must persist with his effort if he is to reach shore. It is easy to waste an hour there, watching them weaving their slow patterns amongst the other gulls.
Probably the most rewarding place on the river for observing gulls is the parapet of the Adam Beck Dam. If the sun is too bright, it becomes impossible to fine tune the eye so as to see the subtler differences between species. However, on overcast days, the practised eye can pick out the rarer ones such as Thayer's or Kumlien's from a mix of hundreds of herring and ring-billed gulls. It is also a good lookout for spotting lesser black-backed gulls. Often they are very dark-backed and, at a distance, closely resemble great black-backed gulls. Even then, they can still be recognised in flight by their faster wing-beat.
The area below the falls is also a good place for black-legged kittiwakes where the surrounding cliffs are reminiscent of those of the Atlantic coast which is their home ground. Some are seen each winter in the Great Lakes region and are usually immature birds identifiable by a black nape-band. Seeing one soar up and across the great cirque of the falls and watching it return close enough to allow positive identification, is a thrilling moment for the avid bird watcher.
The late-afternoon fly-past when gulls and long-tailed ducks exit the gorge, some flying south into Lake Erie and some north into Lake Ontario, is not understood. Perhaps an instinctual fear of being caught in the dark within the confines of the gorge during a severe weather change is the root cause of this phenomenon.
Niagara-on-the-Lake offers the best lookout for observing the fly-past and conditions are most favourable when a stiff north wind is blowing. This forces the retreating birds to fly low over the water making it easy to pick out any of the rarer species. However, they will not be the only creatures in retreat, for the accompanying chill factor quickly thins the ranks of those who have come to watch, and it is more comfortable, though not easier, to observe this event from a car.
It is an ancient rite, this exiting of the gorge at end of day, and the long-tailed ducks and Boneparte gulls buckle to it, flying forcibly in the face of the wind, out to their roosts on the wave-tossed lake.
One day, I had the thrill of being caught there during the first snowfall. A tide of cold air pouring down from the clifftop presaged its coming, then a smother of flakes obliterated the sky, engulfing cliffs and trees and covering the red clay path. I stood cowled against it, my view across the river diminishing swiftly until the faint-crying gulls were lost in the murk. As the roof fell in and the view was completely blanked, a great thrill of loneliness pressed in upon me4.