A rare Snowy Owl on Buffalo's Outer Harbor April 21, 2018  Photograph by Jay Burney
A rare Snowy Owl on Buffalo's Outer Harbor April 21, 2018  Photograph by Jay Burney

GreenWatch Tuesday: Extinction

by / Apr. 24, 2018 6pm EST

You may have heard that very unusual, and rare for this area, birds are visiting. In recent weeks tremendous numbers have shown up.  Common Loons, Horned Grebes, and Snowy Owls have been seen in abundance. This week we are on the cusp of the annual neotropical spring migration which brings millions of songbirds into our area includng warblers.  Radar shows that they are nearby. Our region is truly a hotspot for these migrating birds.  If you are a bird watcher you know about the astounding beauty of these birds.  You may know the fact that their migration and often breeding status here connects our region to the Amazon and the Arctic.  Wowo! To coin a phrase!

Spring is arriving finally. Expect to hear more about these birds from GreenWatch in the coming days and weeks.

We wrote about some of the unusual birds that have appeared here in the last two weeks. Last Sunday’s GreenWatch TV included a short story and a fun little video about the vast numbers of Common Loons, Horned Grebes, and Snowy Owls that appeared on our Outer Harbor last week as the icefields were breaking up. Usually we are lucky to see a few of these birds during the winter, and during the spring migration north.  This year we are seeing hundreds of individuals of each of these species.  There are a couple of reasons. Last week brought weather that was quite unusual, again.  Storm fronts passed through the area and it is thought that these occured just as some of these migrating birds were crossing the lake and river along our shorelines. This probably drove them down to the waters to seek shelter. The Snowy Owl is a particualarly interesting story.  During the past few years we have noticed what are called “irruptions” of this species. Because of a number of reasons -including habitat loss by human development, and climate change, their natural breeding grounds in the arctic have failed to provide enough food for them. And so they “irrupt” during the winter and head south looking for food. We have been lucky during the last couple of winters to see a couple dozen of these owls over the course of the winter. Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and the Breakwalls have been a primary area where they are being seen. This past week we have observed nearly 100 of the birds at the Outer Harbor alone.  This includes places such as the Buffalo Harbor State Park at the Small Boat Harbor, Times Beach Nature Preserve, and Tifft Nature Preserve.  At dusk we watched these incredible birds fly over us and inland for brief hunting forays.  I observed two at once fly into the Queen City Landing property still slated to become a 23 story glass condo complex despite current green code rules that prohibit this tall of a structure at this location.  Today there were still 6 Snowy Owls observed along the breakwall. Hundreds of people have flocked to the waterfront and many have posted fascinating photos on social media.

And coincidentally, today a new report State of the Birds 2018  was issued by Birdlife International, one of our founding partners that helped to create the Niagara River Corridor Globally Significant Bird Area.

Tragically this report declares that Snowy Owls are at risk for extinction

This should help to inform our local conservation strategies and conservation responsibilities. As a primary migratory area we are in the Red Zone for extinction. We have to act.

A few years back a 23 story glass condo was proposed for Buffalo’s waterfront. The project called Queen City Landing is just adjacent to the Buffalo Harbor State Park Small Boat Harbor (and the location that I personally witnessed 2 Snowy Owls to enter on Saturday.)  Recently the Buffalo News ran a story about continued legal engagement which has challenged this project for two years. Complete transparency, I am one of those that initiated the lawsuit and remain engaged in the appeal.

Queen City Landing Project Faces New Legal Appeal to Block it by Jonathan Epstein  22 April, 2018.

I do appreciate the news willingness to cover this story.  However, most news stories including those on Channel 2 recently refer to myself and my lawsuit parnters as “environmentalists” and “obstructionists”. This is disparaging, shallow, and thoughtless reporting. The first question out of every reporter’s mouth seems to be “why do you think that you three obstructionists have the right to block this great private project?”  And the interview slides downhill from there.

We have answers.

First and foremost, the legal system allows this. We are a country of laws and we believe we have a case both legally and ethically. We will fight this until we are not longer able to do so.

Second, we believe that the environmental impacts of this project have been ignored. Ignored by the develper, ignored by the City, ignored by the City Planning Board, and ignored by others responsible for the issuence of permits.

For instance, we know that this site is soft fill, and we argue that the engineering and remediation proposed are indadquate. It is dangerous to workers, future residents, and anyone exposed to the water. The quicksand like soils at the site were dumped there several decades ago and are full of highly toxic contamnants including petroleum products, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), chromium, and maganese. These are cancer causing killers. Last year and during the demolition of rhe Freezer Queen building on the site, it partially collapsed into the water and QCL was fined $50,000. We warned about this. Three weeks ago a lake seiche accompanied by a huge storm system drove Lake Erie water nto the site and wave after punishing wave washed contaminated soil into the small boat harbor, where this week we find the Snowy Owls, grebes and Loons. Soon we will have fish spawning there including muskelunge. This is one of the remaining spawning areas for them.

Third-The DEC is working to approve clean-up at the site and the QCL are trying to obtain public funding through the publically funded Brownfield Clean up program. we do not know how much this will cost yet, but we know its not being done on the QCL prvate dime. You and I are paying for it, and it could cost millions of dollars.

Finally, I have a special interest in wildlife and especially birds. As one of the Founders of the adjacent Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, one of the founders of the Niagra River Corridor Globally Significant Bird Area designation, and as a founding member of the Our Outer Harbor Coalition, I have worked for much of my life to raise awareness of avian issues and have helped to promote the fact that we live in a tremendously signifincant bird place. We have global connections through our birds, and this means that our conservation priorties transcend a few private developers that want to make money and fight against environmental regulations. We have a conservation need here, and we have a conservation responsiblity here.

Pasted below is the full testimony that I gave to the Buffalo Planning Board in 2016 regarding the avian impacts of the proposed QCL project.  The text reveals the depth of the fight. I can use your help. this is our waterfront, this is our outer harbor, this is our future. At the very least we have a responsiblity to future generations.  Please take every chance to help move this conservation argument forward. Letters to the editor, comments, etc. Anything and everything helps. I will write more about this fight in the coming days and weeks. Thanks for your support.

Jay Burney Remarks before the Buffalo Planning Board

18 April 2016

Re: Queen City Landing

Extemporaneous remarks

I would like to open my comments by responding to (Queen City Landing SEQRA Attorney) Mr. Romanowski’s opening comments at this public hearing about how “people in this room” allege that the lighting of the Connecting Terminal adjacent to Times Beach Nature Preserve, by an ECHDC art project “will cause the deaths of millions of birds”. He then followed this inane statement by saying “that this has proven to be unfounded”. I, representing the Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve, was the person that raised concerns about that Connecting Terminal lighting project and it’s potential impact on migrating birds last fall. At no time was there an allegation that this would “cause the deaths of millions of birds”. We are certainly concerned about the effects of that development on birds, but lets get the record correct here -our concerns reflect our insistence that we need to have real science, including truly transparent, inclusive, and objective environmental assessments. We only ask that an environmental impact statement on the potential impact of this lighting project on birds be conducted. This especially includes the impact on migrating birds that use the Buffalo Outer Harbor waterfront and the property directly adjacent to the Connecting Terminal -Times Beach Nature Preserve. This nature preserve is designed to protect migrating and breeding birds in our increasingly fragmented habitat. We know, scientifically that buildings and lights have a negative impact on birds, especially on migrating birds at night. We know Governor Cuomo has recognized this with his Lights Out New York Program [1] announced last year, which is designed to protect migrating birds at night.

We did ask the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), the State Agency responsible for this lighting project to conduct proper evaluations under SEQRA regarding the Connecting Terminal project next to the Times Beach Nature Preserve. We did not allege that it would cause the deaths of millions of birds but we have enough scientific evidence including radar [2], to be concerned. We were told by ECHDC that they had completed a “full environmental assessment” and that it proved that this project would have no impact on birds. This was stated to, and reported by, the press. We have asked that this Environmental Assessment be made public and to date, it has not been released. This has been stated to, but not reported by, the press. We continue to question the impacts and ask that science be a part of the environmental impact assessment. We are pleased that after our inquiries, ECHDC announced that they would abide by Governor Cuomo’s Light’s Out Policy Initiative.

Mr. Romanowski’s fatuous remark about birds continues his specious attack on environmental review concepts and strategies. It is misleading, spurious, and deceptive. His characterization is false. It undermines the credibility of the Queen city Landing development team. It speaks to the both their values and those of their SEQRA legal counsel presenting at this public hearing. It speaks volumes about the assertions and claims that encompass this proposal. We are all shocked, just shocked.

After Mr. Romanowski finished with his public ridicule of avian conservation issues, he then stated that he has hired a “wildlife biologist” that has already “guaranteed” the development team that his report will find “no impact on birds” with this project. It is always easy to find scientists for hire. Often we find boilerplate answers to what are really complex questions about seasons, species, place, weather, and so forth. We sincerely hope that any reports that are produced by this wildlife biologist will be vetted by those of us in the community that also know a lot about these issues. Some of us have spent nearly a lifetime studying and experiencing the issues at hand. We need to engage in transparent, objective, and inclusive environmental assessments. When this material prepared by the development team and their scientist for hire is released, if it ever is, I ask that the Planning Board allow a thoughtful public review period so that this material can be vetted, prior to the Planning Board making any decisions that would allow this project to continue.

Prepared Remarks:

I have heard a lot of disparaging remarks about avian conservation issues, issues about birds. I would like to provide some information today that might be helpful as The Planning Board decides about this buildings location and design, and its potential for impact on birds and other wildlife and habitat concerns.

Both the location and design of this building are consequential to avian conservation.

Everyone seems to want to know-What is so important about birds? The answer is pretty easy to understand.

Birds are not just nostalgic or ornamental or aesthetic artifices that support human notions of cuteness. The same can be said about all wildlife and all of nature. In 2016 we struggle to appreciate nature. Our collective culture often decides that nature is not our friend. Nature is often treated as an “obstacle to progress.” This fully anthropocentric view has helped characterize human initiatives to conquer nature since at least the industrial revolution. I am here to tell you today, that we have just about fully accomplished this conquest. We are at the cusp of a new age when natural systems that support human life are on the brink.

Birds are important and even critical ingredients in the building blocks of nature that create and support life, all life, including our life. The way nature works, the way nature has evolved, and the reason that humans are alive has a common core, if you will.

This common core is biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is the astounding variety of life forms that populate this very rare place in the universe. Earth.

All life on earth has evolved in concert with places, including geographical locations; other life forms; and the ecological habitats that they and we live in, and depend upon. Complex interactions between life forms helps clean the air, waters, create good soils, food sources, and a stable atmosphere. These are the reasons that we have life on earth. Biodiversity is the glue that holds this all together.

These natural systems provide ecological services that impact our economy. Without them we would not be able to survive on an inhospitable planet. Even the best human technology is extremely expensive, and cannot even hope to imitate the services that nature provides.

Birds are some of the greatest generators and protectors of biodiversity. Their lifecycles, travels, and interactions with other living organisms are fundamental to the balance of all life on the planet including ours. Birds are pollinators, they help spread seeds, and help to recycle waste into organic matter that feeds the ecosystems. This nourishment of our life giving natural systems sustains us and helps to characterize quality of life for humans.

The science behind the value of birds to the living ecosystems of earth are well known. It is high time that we respect their great value. It is not too late to start that today, right here. Our lives depend upon healthy bird populations.

Sadly, much of life on earth as we know it, is in great jeopardy. You undoubtedly have heard of climate change and no matter what you think of it, I can guarantee you that we are facing great changes [3], including right here in the Great Lakes, and in Buffalo. And right here on the waterfronts of the Buffalo Outer Harbor.

What you may not know much about is the current extinction episode that science has revealed in the past few decades. You may have heard of the Elizabeth Kolbert
book The Sixth Extinction [4], which was on the New York Times Best Seller List last year and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.

The book chronicles how earth is now losing species to extinction at a rate that may surpass any extinction in history. It reports that we may lose 20-50% of all living species on earth within this century. It talks about great earthly contemporary calamities including the loss of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the rainforests of central and South America, and new predictions that the oceans of the earth will experience salt- water fish extinction by 2048. That is 32 years from today.

The cause- inappropriate human development, and the resultant habitat loss and rapidly escalating climate change.

The Great Lakes are not immune. If you have a pulse you have heard of the terrible and declining conditions of Lake Erie [5] due to unmitigated contamination from heritage contamination, plastics pollution, and agricultural and urban runoff, including raw sewerage and combined sewer overflows.

Erie County has become an international leader fighting plastics pollution in our waterways with game changing microbeads legislation and new proposals to limit the use of plastic grocery bags.

You may have heard about how communities to the west of us, Toledo for example, have experienced loss of drinking water access in Lake Erie for extended periods due to contamination conditions that have lead to huge algal growths. Here in Western New York, along our Great Lakes shores, we have completely lost our beaches for swimming. Perhaps forever. This is all our own fault. We treat nature as our enemy, and treat the Great Lakes ecosystem like toilets.

The book also talks about how difficult it is for humans to adjust to the knowledge and reality of extinctions. Many people still do not believe in evolution. Many people cannot imagine that we have lost species in the past to extinctions. Lost species forever. Many people believe that it is impossible for humans to have the power or responsibility for the tragic loss and life calamitous changes that the planet is undergoing. Many people do not even believe that climate change is real, never mind that humans have created the conditions leading to climate change. For many, this is a psychological barrier that prevents action.

Lets get back to birds.

Last year National Audubon issued a report “A Storm Gathers for North American Birds” [6] in which it declared that 314 species of the 588 species that they studied are going to find themselves in dire straits by 2080. Of those 126 are going to experience at least a 50% increase of loss of an incredibly fragmented remainder habitat. That will probably lead to catastrophic collapse of those species, including probable extinction.

Many of these birds are familiar to us in Western New York, Buffalo, and along our shorelines. These include Baltimore Orioles, Osprey, Wood Thrush, Ruffed Grouse, Loons, and a wide array of shorebirds that are or have been relatively common along our Outer Harbor shoreline. Many species of birds that depend on our local habitats are at great risk.

Over 300 species of birds are found here. Our region, our coastlines, and our Outer Harbor are profoundly important, if fragmented, bird habitat. Some birds live here year round, some migrate through here, and some migrate to here.

In the winter we see great numbers and species of far northern birds such as waterfowl including ducks, geese, and swans that come to the Niagara River and our Outer Harbor for the winter. Many years and through time, these waters are often the first open waters that border the cold north. The birds that nest and breed in the arctic, winter right here.

Many of us have often wondered why we don’t use the slogan, “We are the Miami of the North”, because for hundreds of thousands of individual birds, maybe millions, we are.

For the last couple of winters we have seen Snowy owls here, especially along our outer harbor open lands. Habitat issues are forcing more of these birds to come here. These rare and fragile visitors deserve our protection. In the spring and early summer we see incredible migrations of hawks and raptors including Bald Eagles, and songbirds including the brilliant hemisphere traveling warblers. We have some of the most amazing warbler migration of anywhere on earth. Some of these birds winter in the Amazon, and breed here or in the northern woodlands. In the fall we have a world-class migration of gulls. We have observed 19 species of gulls here, which is rare and unusual. Some places like the continent of Australia have recorded around 6 species total.

One of our gulls, the Bonaparte’s gull, migrates from the boreal forests on Alaska’s Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of these gulls, representing as much as 40% of the global population of these gulls come through here in November and December. Many other migrating birds travel much further. Some birds winter in the Amazon. Others travel to the tip of South America. Others winter in the oceans. One bird that we find on the Outer Harbor, the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird migrates to Mexico on a non-stop flight that crosses the Gulf of Mexico.

Birds depend upon our area. Birds that help stabilize the Amazon rain forest, and the tropical highlands of Central and South America, and the boreal forests of the northwest Pacific coast, and the arctic tundra, and the potholes and breeding areas in the Midwest lakes, migrate through here or breed here, along our waterfront. On their long migration there are some places that are incredibly important habitat for migratory species. Here, in Buffalo and on the Outer Harbor, they stop, rest, feed, socialize, reenergize, and many move on. We have several hundred species of birds that depend upon this area to reproduce. Our waterfront, just from the scientific perspective of birds, is a world-class, global ecosystems saving place.

Our area is considered a part of both the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. These are vast corridors that birds use during migration. The Atlantic Flyway is primarily coastal, and the Mississippi Flyway more or less follows the central valley from the north to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, in Buffalo, and right on our Outer Harbor, at the confluence of Lake Erie, and the Niagara River, these flyways combine. Birds use our outer harbor, and our shorelines. They depend upon it.

This area is internationally recognized by a program that identifies Important Bird Areas around the globe. These are areas that represent significant habitat for a variety of birds including threatened and endangered birds, and that is under threat by inappropriate development.

The Niagara River Corridor Globally Significant Important Bird Area starts at the Outer Harbor and goes all the way to Lewiston. It was one of the first internationally developed IBA’s, in that the US organizations and agencies teamed up with Canadian counterparts.

The IBA program is recognized by international bird conservation organizations, and governments at many levels including, Federal, State and Local. It is recognized by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the DEC, Erie County, and the city of Buffalo. You should recognize it.

This means that we need to consider the impact of development, all development, and especially all development on our Outer Harbor on birds. Birds of many kinds depend on this area. It is a globally recognized designation that puts us on par with places like the Everglades, Yellowstone, and the Galapagos. It is that important and valuable.

There are two specific issues that I want to emphasize regards negative impacts on birds by this building proposal. These have to do with characterizing inappropriate development.

The first is location The Outer Harbor is a bad location to build structures that interfere with birds.

We cannot afford any more habitat loss. We have lost a great deal. Birds and other migratory animals use all of the land, all of the waterfront. We have only fragmented remnant habits left and this is a primary cause of bird decline, and global climate change. We continue to lose habitat. We cannot engineer habitat enough to protect us from these consequential losses. We can do better, but we are not doing better. This project represents habitat loss. Period.

Fragmentation of existing habitat, and have no doubt that the outer harbor is habitat, is a context that resembles death by a million cuts. Every square inch that turns into development is a cut. The cuts are getting increasingly deep. Given the incredible value and fragility of the location, losing the Outer Harbor of Buffalo to inappropriate development may start a wound that will bleed out. We need to protect the Outer Harbor as open space and habitat. The planning community has to find some way to understand that.

The second is design One of the biggest threats to birds happens to be buildings. Glass surfaces in particular, have a major impact on bird/building collisions. Birds see not an aesthetic pleasing window into the soul of the building, but a vast sky or reflected forest, and they barrel headlong into the structures. This design problem results in the collisions and deaths of up to one billion birds each year. Many occur in the great lakes and along shorelines and migratory routes. Including here.

Lights are another major factor in bird building collision. Lights confuse migrating birds, including the millions of warblers that migrate though our area and along our coastlines at night. The spring warbler migration for 2016 is just starting now.

Fog and low cloud cover are especially dangerous for birds as they try to navigate around buildings at night, which is when most birds migrate. Last April and May alone, I witnessed at least 9 over-night fog events. This is common during this season when the lake and air temperatures combine to create hazardous fog. And we have a number of big storms that impact this area. Lake seiches, lake effect blizzards, and other storms featuring hail, sleet, wind and long swirling waterspouts are not infrequent at this location. A building at this location with the lights on all night will prove fatal to many birds. We cannot afford to do this.

There are of course solutions. I am sure that the architects and designers of this building have heard of the American Bird Conservancy’s [7] building and design programs for buildings and glass.

It would be highly negligent if they have not considered design strategies that focus on reducing threats. There are lots of design concepts that are helpful.

And then there is the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) [8], the internationally recognized avian conservation program based in Toronto. This program has an enormously positive approach to bird conservation and the construction and siting of “dangerous to birds” structures. FLAP policies have been adopted by a number of major cities in North America including Toronto, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Not in Buffalo, yet.

Then there is the USFW services Bird and Building collision program that has developed a Best Practices guidebook [9] that was just updated.

We urge the Planning Board and the applicant to reach out to the USFWS and the Division of Migratory Bird Management in Falls Church, Virginia for consultation from an agency that surely is a stakeholder on this project.

Finally there is Governor Cuomo’s “Lights Out New York Program” in which he, in conjunction with New York Audubon, created a statewide policy on state owned facilities that mandate the turning out of non-essential lights during periods of bird migration in the spring and fall. It is also an energy conservation matter. You can Google it, if you don’t know about it.

We have an especially important responsibility along our Outer Harbor. And you should know that our edge of the wilderness, along the Great Lakes is not just about birds. We have many species of flora and fauna that represent great biodiversity here. World-class biodiversity unlike many places on earth. Fish, butterflies, dragonflies, toads, reptiles, salamanders, and so many native plant species that have evolved with the area, and with humans, to support life.

There are currently efforts underway to characterize the Niagara River corridor as a Ramsar site, indicating that it is an international wetlands of distinction. And there is in process a proposed NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Sanctuary that would encompass parts of Lake Erie, including the outer harbor, the entire Niagara river strait, and parts of Lake Ontario. This would help to link us to soon to be proposed Marine Sanctuaries near Oswego, and Presque Isle. We could be the lynchpin of a new system of conservation initiatives that will help bring the attention of the world to very valuable assets. Clean Water and economic development focused on tourism, recreation, and conservation.

It is fundamental, critical, and ethical, that we find ways to conduct more thorough, inclusive, transparent, independent, and publically engaging SEQRA procedures including any and all environmental assessments and studies. We demand that the applicant and the Planning Board continue to engage the public, and make the public a full partner in these proceedings including the creation of environmental assessments and studies. When and if the applicants come up with a final set of environmental characterizations and reports, please let the public review and comment on them in a way that allows timely and considerate evaluations. This must remain a public process and the Planning Board should consider that this project effects the future for not only the applicants and their potential tenants, but for literally everyone. It is time to set a precedent that changes the way we do business. Insisting on real and transparent SEQRA science is the best step that we can take today.

Ultimately of course nature will endure. It is constantly adjusting. Nature bats last. It probably won’t rise in support of human civilization but it is worth considering that humans should rise in support of nature.

I just wanted to let you know. I treat this as if our lives were at stake. Jay Burney


[1] Governor Cuomo’s Lights Out New York Program

[2] The Public May 5, 2015 Radar: Buffalo’s Dark Sky Begins

[3] An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts

[4] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction “Without a Trace” NY Times Feb 10, 2014

[5] A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie, IJC

[6] Audubon, “A Storm Gathers for North American Birds’

[7] American Bird Conservancy Building and Design 

[8] Fatal Light Awareness Program  (FLAP)

[9] USFWS Best Practices Bird and Building Collision Program