An Opportunity to Bird the Valley
Any chance to do some birding along Lake Champlain is a good one, so I took advantage of a trip I was making to Plattsburgh by birding with a friend. We began at Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area, and the morning rain was slowing down as we explored beneath a drippy, overcast sky. We parked at the boardwalk and checked out the edge habitat along the road.
Ausable Marsh Songbirds
Late summer and early fall birding are often characterized by slow spells punctuated with flocks of songbirds, and our time at Ausable fit this blueprint fairly well. Things along the road were initially quiet, but that was broken up by large groups of Hooded and Common Mergansers on the lake. We found our first collection of songbirds shortly thereafter, and the small group included Magnolia, Nashville, and a late Yellow Warbler. I went back to my car for my camera since they came quite close to us in the dogwoods and willows that line the road.
By the time I came back the birds had moved on – fall flocks always seem to drift off through the branches in this way – but we soon found a much larger flock. This group was being led through the trees and bushes by lots of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-eyed Vireos, and it included warblers like Black-throated Green, Yellow-rumped, Nashville, Magnolia, American Redstart, Northern Parula, and Common Yellowthroat, with multiple individuals of most species in the mix.
A first year Canada Warbler hopping low in the shrubs was another highlight, but warblers were not the only birds composing the flock. It also included Warbling Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Brown Creeper, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Least Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, and a Swainson’s Thrush. We took our time working through the constantly shifting flock of birds, and they eventually moved off the road and out of view. My friend spotted a Solitary Sandpiper below us from our vantage point on the bridge along the road, and we watched its full-body bobs until it flew a short distance away.
We walked back down the road, as far as the sandy beach along Ausable Point, and only found a few additional songbird species, and a Green Heron and Great Egret in the marsh. We eventually returned to the car and headed to Plattsburgh for our errand. From there we continued north, first making a brief stop at Point Au Roche State Park, where our visit was highlighted by four Common Nighthawks hunting overhead on the gray day.
Gulls, Terns, Shorebirds, and Marsh Birds
We continued up Lake Shore Road to check out a few of the local marinas, which often harbor good numbers of gulls and terns this time of year. That held true on this day and we found quite a few Common Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls, along with the Ring-billed and Herring gulls. During the fall, such groupings of terns and gulls often hide unusual species such as Little Gull, but not finding any other birds of note we made our way to the Chazy Riverlands, where another friend of mine had found a nice assortment of shorebirds earlier in the day.
Unfortunately for us, our timing at Chazy found most of the shorebirds in flight – looping in a choreographed aerial dance as if something had recently flushed them from feeding on the mudflat. I could hear Least Sandpipers and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as see a couple of Stilt Sandpipers (my friend saw eight of them a few hours earlier). We paused at the edge of the pool and waited for them to settle back down with the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, which I could see standing at alert in the water. But our presence proved too much for a handful of Mallards, and they suddenly exploded from the water and raced off, frightening everything else with them. Shaking my head, we walked to our post on the edge of the pool and waited for things to return.
A few minutes later, two Semipalmated Plovers landed on the pool’s edge, but that was it. No other shorebirds came back – they must have found a different mudflat they deemed safer. Such is life with birding. As frustrating as that was, we slowly began to tally a list of species, which started with Song, Swamp, and Savannah sparrows, Marsh Wrens, and a flight of swallows that passed back and forth over our heads. The swallow flock was composed mostly of Barn Swallows, but it also held Cliff, Bank, and Tree. A gathering of Bobolinks also called "Bink!" as they landed in the tall grasses and out of sight. A Merlin cruised overhead and I mused whether it was the culprit that agitated the shorebirds before we arrived – there has also been a Peregrine Falcon hanging around Chazy as of late, and it also could have been to blame.
Marsh birds began to appear, particularly as evening approached, and we watched a young Pied-billed Grebe, a Common Gallinule, Great Blue Herons, and two flyby American Bitterns. Duck numbers also waxed with the gloomy onset of dusk, but they didn’t like the idea of settling down on the pool – probably because we were standing there. But they finally did, and the evening air was characterized by the whirring wings of flocks of Mallards, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, a few American Black Ducks, and a lone American Wigeon.
I love standing in one place like that and seeing what arrives in the evening shadows. Eventually it became too difficult to see, and we headed back to the car and drove off, in search of a place to find dinner on the way home.