By Alice Gerard
A wind blew across the water at Beaver Island State Park at 7 a.m., July 30. I stepped into a kayak for the first ecotour of the 2022 Paddles Up event at the park’s beach and was pushed off. The water was slightly choppy as the group of kayakers, led by retired government biologist Paul Leuchner, started to travel in the river, heading around the island.
We were there, in the river, to explore nature in places that had been restored, including the East River Marsh and Motor Island.
Leuchner described the birds that we saw on our journey: “Motor Island is the only heron rookery on the Niagara River. So, a rookery is a place where all these species of shore birds, like the great blue herons and the common egrets, black crowned night herons, and little green herons, live. All these birds are pretty much loners. They live in the environment, except when it comes time for reproduction. Then they get together in colonies. They may not still like each other, and they don’t form any lasting mating relationships. Herons don’t have any love for one another. They will take off from their nest and leave when the young are ready to fledge, to fly, and pretty much be on their own. Then they’re done, and the whole colony breaks up. While they’re together, they’re very protective of one another, even though they occupy different stratas on the island.”
The birds occupy different places on Motor Island, which people can visit only by boat. Currently, tourists are not permitted to walk on the island.
“The colony is stratified,” Leuchner said, “So, at the top, you have the great blue herons. In the middle part, on top of the shrub layer, you have common egrets. Under the common egrets, which you couldn’t probably see today… I couldn’t see them… there are black crowned night herons. The night herons sit under there, and I don’t know if they’re opportunistic birds to take advantage of the feeding that’s going on above them or if they just need that special cover. They are generally night feeding birds.
“On the ground level, you’ll have little green herons. We also heard a swamp sparrow, and someone was asking me about it. The swamp sparrow is a little sparrow with a really big mouth. It can sing, and it puts out song patterns to define its territory. You can hear it, but, often, you can’t see it. They are very common here in the wetland areas. There were some of those out there as well.”
Paddlers enjoy the fun paddle at Paddles Up.
A view of geese on Motor Island
Even though the birds don’t like each other, they will fight to defend their rookery from invaders. One day, Leuchner said, a young bald eagle flew into the rookery, looking for something to eat. That young bird was not aware of what he was getting himself into.
“They (the birds in the rookery) all have their own zones, which they occupy. They don’t really interact with each other until there’s an emergency. When you have an immature bald eagle flying into the colony, looking for a fast snack, that mobilizes the entire colony. They go out and do whatever they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. I remember the day that I saw that, where they attacked this adolescent bald eagle, and I’m sure that he learned a lesson to never go into a rookery again.”
Leuchner said that the young bald eagle would not return, even with a companion.
“We’re talking about those two going against hundreds of birds coming at you from all directions,” Leuchner said.
He also pointed out that herons can be dangerous for humans, as well. “Herons are nasty. If there’s an injured heron on the side of the road, you never want to go near him. The first thing they will do when they’re in trouble is to go for your eyes. Call and get assistance. Don’t deal with a wounded heron or a wounded egret. They’re not the kind of bird you want to be messing with.”
Wetlands were once considered to be useless, disease-ridden places that were best avoided, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Now wetlands are known to be among the most productive ecosystems in the world, with a great diversity of plant and animal species, Leuchner said.
The Niagara River Corridor’s great diversity of species has resulted in it receiving a great deal of recognition.
“The Niagara River Corridor is home to 22 different seagulls, compared to the entire continent of Australia, which is home to only four species,” said Joe Menter, supervisor of the Grand Island Recreation Department.
According to Menter, the ecological importance of the Niagara River corridor has been acknowledged by the National Audubon Society, when it declared the corridor to be an Important Bird Area. In 2019, the Niagara River Corridor was declared to be a wetland of international importance, under the Ramsar Convention, a global treaty supporting the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and related waters. It was the 40th site in the U.S. to receive such a designation.
Leuchner talked about the tour after we left Motor Island.
“We went through the marshes and looked at the pond lilies,” he said. “I told (the group) that the pond lilies are a mix of native lilies, which are called spatterdock or Nuphar advena. The other is just called pond lily, and that one comes from the water garden that existed there in the 1890s, on the shoreline. What happened is that, when Claude Monet put out all his artwork, one in particular called the ‘Pond Lilies,’ at the end of the 1890s.
“People who were from very wealthy families not only had gardens, they had water gardens, as well. They grew the pond lilies in the water gardens. The Depression hit, and they all left. The houses were closed and abandoned. The pond lilies were dragged by wildlife over into the marsh, and they have been there ever since. The pond lilies are not invasives. They are a non-native species, which is different. A non-native species actually fits into the ecology, whereas an invasive takes advantage of it. Those are essential there to provide the shaded habitat that’s needed for the native species to grow up and survive.
“So, that whole marsh was created in 2003. It’s grown quite a bit, and it’s gotten very productive. We’re hoping that the other piece of it, downstream toward River Lea, will be able to go the same way. Right now, it’s not. When they built it, they left out some components in there. The current is faster in there, so it’s going to take longer to establish.”
After the ecotours were over, Leuchner said the experience was a success.
“We had a fair number of people there, and they were not people that looked like they had never seen the environment before,” he said. “They had a little bit of background. They were very interested in hearing an explanation of all the different things that they were seeing. I think that they got a lot out of it. The only disappointment that we had with the ecotours was that 15 people were limited to go to each ecotour, and it turns out that one-third of them didn’t have the respect to notify us that they weren’t going to come.”
Greg Stevens, executive director of the Niagara River Greenway Commission, in talking about the future of Paddles Up, said, “We might have the capacity to go bigger. As you can see from all the displays that are here, the message is very much about the ecology of the Niagara River and what a special place Grand Island is.”
The Majewski family, with former Deputy Town Supervisor Jim Sharpe, biologist Paul Leuchner, and Roger Cook, stand with three water craft built by Greg Majewski.