Marcie Jacklin has been an avian photography enthusiast from the first day she attended a birdwatching club meeting in Ottawa 34 years ago, and experienced a kind of epiphany.
“I realized that there were many people who enjoyed the simple pleasure of birdwatching and communing with nature, and how cool is this?” said Jacklin.
Her passion for all-things feathered led her to a leadership role in the outreach effort to attract more people to the hobby. For years, she has been the co-chair of the Birds On The Niagara International Winter Festival (BON23), which brings birdwatchers to the Niagara River gorge from both sides of the Falls.
During the pandemic, the festival was conducted online only, so 2023 is the first time in three years that the event involves in-person activities.
“Covid times were actually good for birdwatching, and surveys have reported an increase in the hobby of about 30 percent since the first lockdowns,” said Jacklin.
BON23 is a free, family-friendly four days (February 17-20) created to celebrate the winter presence of birds in Niagara, and the nature that sustains them. The weekend involves a collaboration of organizations from the U.S. and Canada which all focus on birds and conservation efforts. The Niagara Parks Commission and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority are Canadian partners in the festival, said Jacklin.
The weekend kicks off on Friday, February 17, with a 6 PM “Birds and Beer” gathering at Blackburn Brew House in Niagara Falls. Justin Peter from Quest Tourism, who Jacklin said is an authority on gulls and ducks, will give a presentation. Guided hikes commence on Saturday, with Jacklin herself leading participants on a tour of the spectacular scenery and natural beauty of Balls Falls.
Other bird observation groups will be active in Queenston, at the Adam Beck Generating Station outlook, and along the Niagara on the Lake shoreline. Dufferin Island in the Niagara River will be the site of family-oriented hikes on the Monday, allowing an opportunity to see local birds like chickadees and tufted titmice.
Throughout the weekend, a Scavenger Hunt Bingo will be held, with prizes awarded on the final day. Games and educational activities will be available for the kids, along with spotting scopes to provide close-up views of the various species found along the river.
The Monday afternoon of February 20 will include displays from local nature clubs, and several guest speakers at the School of Horticulture, 2565 Niagara Parkway in Niagara Falls. Well-known naturalist and ThoroldToday columnist Owen Bjorgan, whose work has included documenting the biodiversity of the Niagara Peninsula, will address those in attendance, along with Jocelyn Baker, who will discuss the RAMSAR designation process for the Niagara Corridor and its funding implications. Noted wildlife photographer Ankur Khurana will also be presenting, describing basic camera techniques useful in a natural setting.
Birds along the Niagara River are roosting, but not yet nesting, said Jacklin, who herself is considered to be one of Niagara’s top authorities on regional birds. She stressed that habitat loss is the major concern for bird populations continent-wide. She said that the Niagara River Gorge is a tourist attraction and magnet for serious birdwatchers because it has so many species in one place.
“You can see more species of gulls here during the winter than anywhere else in the world,” she said. “Many species of waterfowl, including tundra swans, buffleheads and canvasbacks, and many types of gulls can be spotted along the corridor.”
Birdwatching is not an expensive hobby, once you have procured some basic gear like binoculars, a camera, a bird identification guide, and perhaps a spotting scope, she said.
The festival’s new website, located at www.birdniagara.org, provides a program guide of all activities over the February 17-20 weekend. Some of the Canada-side activities require advance registration, available at www.birdniagara.org/canada-program-guide.html