Good Birding along Lake Champlain in the ice and snow

Searching for Open Water

This past weekend I took advantage of some warmer weather to head to the Champlain Valley for some birding. I’m leading a birdwatching trip in a week and a half and I wanted to scope things out ahead of time. Chief among my concerns was the lack of water, or more correctly, the dominance of ice on the water’s surface. The Essex-Charlotte Ferry recently shut down temporarily due to the ice conditions and that means there is less available water in which ducks and other birds can feed and swim.

I cut towards Essex Ferry via the Magic Triangle and found the triangle to be largely quiet when I was there. A set of bird feeders had a collection of common yard birds, but I didn’t note any hawks – a rare occurrence for the Triangle. I stopped in at Essex Ferry and was happy to find that a few bubblers were still running in the area, meaning that the open water they created was crammed with ducks. Conditions like this can sometimes help in finding less common species since they are forced to swim in the only available water making them easier to spot. On this day I only found 5 species, but it was nice to see them after a slow start. There was also a large flock of Common Redpolls twittering to and fro from a nearby bird feeder.

Ducks - Essex Ferry

Field Birding

I continued looping some of the neighboring field-lined roads near Essex and the Magic Triangle. In this way I found a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk, a Red-tailed Hawk, a lone Snow Bunting, and a flock of Wild Turkeys which decided to cross the road in front of me. Many of the turkeys started running across the road before lumbering into the air once they spotted me, their big bulky shapes racing the blowing snow across the fields. Most of them then began to feed again, but a few hunkered down to endure the pelting snow as they landed. After all, the temperature was relatively warm, but a fierce wind made it feel much colder than it was. I eventually made my way to Noblewood Park in Willsboro.

Birding at Noblewood

Noblewood is a nice spot for a winter snowshoe or cross-country skiing outing, but the main roads were plowed making neither necessary on this day. I poked around the conifers on the off chance of finding a roosting owl, succeeding in finding Black-capped Chickadees, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. Suddenly a Merlin dashed from the far side of the Boquet River, zipping into the trees to surprise the songbirds. I never saw if its attempt was successful, but never heard any squawking or scolding either. The birds simply vanished and went silent. I re-found a few of them on my way out and later heard a calling Pileated Woodpecker as it flew through the forest.

Merlin

With my planned route complete in the southern valley, I decided to check out the Cumberland Head Ferry for anything that might be hanging out in the open water there. It is the only ferry running at this point, anyway. So I drove north to Plattsburgh checking out some of the local fields as I went. In this way I found a few more Red-tailed Hawks and an enormous flock of ducks, starlings, pigeons, and other birds feeding on silage at a local farm. Most of the ducks were Mallards with a few American Black Ducks mixed in, but I couldn’t see most of the birds from the road thanks to an obstructed view and a busy volume of traffic.

A Glaucous Gull at Cumberland Head

The wind was blowing strongly at the ferry landing with Mallards, American Black Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Greater Scaup present; the same five species I had found at Essex. Of more interest was a first year Glaucous Gull, its enormous white wings flapping low over the ice and dwarfing the Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls with which it was flying. Happy with this, I began to wind my way home via a bunch of field line roads and first heading towards Point AuRoche. In this manner, a small group of Horned Larks and five Brown-headed Cowbirds rounded out my trip. The cowbirds are rare in the area this time of year - particularly considering how tough a winter it has been – but they sat in a tree with a few starlings, braving the snow showers which were beginning to grow in intensity. With more snow coming I made my way home so I could get to the Olympic Center in Lake Placid and see the Miracle on Ice celebration that evening.

Glaucous Gull

Despite the current ice, snow and cold, spring is coming and the valley can be a highway for ducks, other waterfowl, and raptors in late winter and early spring. Interested birders should check out the birding pages, and information on lodging and dining for more details on planning their trip. 

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