The Niagara River draws a large number of birds during the winter months, mainly waterfowl like swans, ducks and geese. In addition the occasional hawk, blue jay and crow can also be observed. Prime viewing months are from December through mid-March or so, depending on the weather. After this period many of the birds, like tundra swans, begin their migration northward.
NOTE: click on images to enlarge them
Some of the best birding can be done just west of the town of Fort Erie. As noted in my earlier article Photographing Tundra Swans with Tamron 150-600 the easiest way to reach this area of the Niagara River is to take the QEW Niagara to the Netherby Road cut-off, then head east towards the Niagara Parkway. Once you reach the T-intersection at the river, the best birding opportunities are usually found if you turn right and drive towards the town of Fort Erie. During my three visits I found the highest concentration of birds was between Service Roads 4 and 9.
While ice breakers do keep the centre of the river clear, the shorelines of the river can get a fair amount of ice on them. This makes capturing images of birds challenging from a physical distance standpoint. Even when using my Nikon D800/Tamron 150-600 VC and Nikon 1 V2 with my Nikon 1 CX 70-300 VR combinations I still found that subjects were often quite small in my viewfinder as I was often shooting from distances of approximately 150 m (491 feet).
As a result I often needed to crop files quite aggressively, sometimes at over 90% so I apologize in advance for image quality in this article. The majority of images should be viewed more from a general interest or species identification perspective.
When visiting this area when the river banks are snow covered I would strongly advise readers to stay in the designated parking areas or to not venture too far from the paved road. The river banks are quite steep in areas and the river has a strong current. Venturing too close to the edge could result in you slipping into the river with deadly consequences.
For the best lighting I would recommend doing most of your shooting from noon onward as the sun will be at your back. Arriving in the morning will allow you to scout the river and plan your shots. There are a few creeks that drain into the Niagara River and they have small, stone bridges. These can be ideal places from which to take photographs. These waist-high stone structures also can help hide you from the birds.
You will find large flocks of ducks reasonably close to shore but these birds can be very skittish and will often take flight as you approach on foot. A good strategy is to get your camera ready, pre-focus on that portion of the river, and anticipate that the flock will take flight as you draw closer. It will then be possible to get some nice group shots of the ducks in flight. The most common ducks appear to be canvasbacks.
You will also find a good number of Canada geese and on occasion you can get images of them approaching you in-flight. Most of the waterfowl tend to fly and land parallel to the river, so even though you may not get many images suitable for enlargement purposes because of the distance from the birds, you can have a lot of fun practicing your panning technique.
While I was able to get images with both my D800/Tamron 150-600 and Nikon 2 V2/CX 70-300 combinations, shooting with a DSLR was much easier as focusing was faster and more accurate. In general, I found I needed more panning time to get birds properly framed with my Nikon 1 V2 since the viewfinder is much darker and not nearly as detailed as with my D800. This made locating the birds more difficult.
If you shoot with a Nikon 1 V-series camera you are already aware that there is some lag time as the image transfers from the rear screen to the viewfinder. This can cause missed shots if you are not careful. If you are shooting with a Nikon 1 V-series camera I would recommend keeping your thumb over the viewfinder sensor so the image stays in the viewfinder. This will not only eliminate image-transfer time, but also extend your battery life when shooting.
There are sufficiently wide clear areas at most of the designated parking areas to allow for burst shooting. The stone bridge areas mentioned earlier are well suited to this technique.
For best results you will need a long focal length lens as something like a 70-300 mm will often be too short for many of the image opportunities that are typically present. There is one designated parking area where a shorter length lens (i.e. 70-300 mm) can be effectively used.
You’ll notice a river front grove of tall trees that are accessed by quite a long driveway sloping down from the Niagara Parkway (this is the only long driveway access so it is easy to spot). Birds often congregate in this area and if you are quiet and patient they will often come close enough for some good shots. This is the area where I captured the tundra swan images contained in my previous article. It is also an area where you may spot the odd hawk.
When shooting with my D800 I used AF-C with 9-point AF, and took single frames only. I used Aperture priority and shot my D800 at f/8. This also helped to sharpen up the Tamron 150-600 at the long end where the lens tends to be a bit soft.
Given the limited dynamic range of my Nikon 1 V2, I played around with settings quite a bit and shot in both AF-S and AF-C, and used single point AF. Matrix metering tended to yield better results than centre-weighted or spot. I shot in Aperture priority at f/5.6 to avoid the effects of diffraction on the Nikon 1 V2’s small CX sensor.
As noted earlier, the birds tend to fly and land parallel to the river so you can adjust your focus point accordingly in order to use more of your camera’s sensor. This can be helpful when photographing a group of birds where you’ll want to focus on the lead bird.
This area of the Niagara River has a healthy congregation of birds during the winter months, but at other times of the year the populations of birds is sporadic at best.
Technical Note: All images were shot hand held with either a Nikon D800 with Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 or Nikon 1 V2 with Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6. RAW files were processed using DxO OpticsPro 10, with a DNG file exported into CS6 and Nik Suite for additional adjustments as required.
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Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaption allowed without written consent.