The Niagara River is 35 miles long and nurtures an incredible diversity of life along its winding banks. Even in the winter the river is teeming with life, especially waterfowl.
When many other bodies of water are frozen, the Niagara stays open throughout the winter, attracting migrant birds from across the planet. Jajean Rose Burney of the WNY Land Conservancy is also an avid birder.
"The river stays open all winter because it's flowing so fast, so there's always open water. So these birds are coming down here and staying here during the winter."
Tom Kerr, a naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society, adds, "Open water means food. They're able to get the fish or the plants or whatever they need out of the water. It's also safety -- they wouldn't roost on land because they'd be vulnerable to predators."
One thing you'll see on the Niagara this time of year are gulls. They arrive here over great distances and in great numbers. Jay Burney of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve has been studying gulls for years. "We have 19 species of gulls here, which is unlike almost any other spot on the earth. For instance, one of the species of gull we have here is called the Bonapartes Gull. Bonapartes Gull is an unusual gull (in that) it nests in the boreal forests of the western United States and Canada, the Pacific Coast, and it comes through here in numbers that represent as much as 20 to 30 to 40 percent of its worldwide population."
Seemingly migrating along with the birds are tourists. A flock of ecotourists as diverse as the birds travel to Western New York each year, lining the nests of local businesses.
"Tourism is one of the fastest growing economic sectors on the planet," says Burney. "Ecotourism is a big part of that, and bird watching is one of the fastest growing parts within ecotourism."
Kerr agrees: "I do tours regularly on the river … and people from all parts of the Northeast have been here."
Rose-Burney adds, "Promoting it would attract more; providing more spaces for people to go would attract more; and those people come here and spend money on hotels and restaurants, they might spend money on a guide. There's plenty of ways it makes economic sense to promote ecotourism."
But promoting the region's rich natural heritage must be done with a sense of responsibility. The Niagara River has endured much abuse over its history and is still under attack from many sources.
Burney says that everyone must be better stewards if we are to preserve this amazing natural wonder. "We have pollution issues, whether it's water issues, sewer issues, airborne pollution issues. It's our responsibility, I think, to help find ways to make it cleaner."