Goose, goose, duck, duck, duck
The beginning of winter is often marked by the movement of thousands of Canada and Snow Geese along the spine of Lake Champlain, just in time for the local Christmas Bird Counts. The geese arrive and begin to migrate south during the fall, but their numbers often build until consistent winter weather begins to force them south. It is then that the Snow Goose spectacle in the northern Champlain Valley glitters with white wings in the sky, and their numbers can approach 100,000 birds. The large flocks of Canadas and Snows also often hold uncommon species like Ross’s, Cackling, Greater White-fronted, and Barnacle Goose, and this year a Pink-footed Goose showed up in Plattsburgh in November.
Duck numbers and diversity also build during the fall, and late fall and early winter days can be great up and down the lakeshore. Once winter begins to freeze the lake, places like Ausable Marsh and the Champlain Bridge can become great for ducks as the ice pushes the birds on the lake into higher concentrations. And birders can stand there in the cold picking through the rafts of both species of scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Mallard, and American Black Duck.
In this way birders can find any species of duck that moves through the North Country, including species like Redhead, Canvasback, Tufted Duck, and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Eurasian Wigeon may also be found in flocks of American Wigeon – most often in late winter as the lake softens. Many of these ducks will remain in the valley all winter long as long as there is open water available to them. If the lake freezes, they become packed into the lanes of water kept open by the ferry traffic at Essex and Cumberland Head.
Grebes, loons, and gulls
Ducks aren’t the only aquatic species of note. Horned and Red-necked Grebes move along the lake in the fall, some staying into winter. The same is true of Red-throated and Common Loons. And no birder should skip over the gulls, which begin to congregate in places like the sand spit at the Westport Wastewater Treatment Facility, Noblewood Park, and the mouth of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh. Glaucous, Iceland, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are all found somewhat regularly, and less common species may also make a cameo. It means that birders must constantly sift through flocks of common gulls, geese, and ducks to find the odd species which are certainly there. And it makes for a fantastic time to bird the valley.
Winter finches and raptors
But there is another entire set of species to search for away from the water. After all, the fields and hedgerows of the Champlain Valley attract flocks of Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, American Tree Sparrows, and Lapland Longspurs, not to mention the flocks of finches – like Purple Finch, American Goldfinch, and Pine Siskin – at local bird feeders. Of more interest, Evening Grosbeaks sometimes descend upon feeders in the region to pound seed, and in some years Common Redpolls arrive from the north in numbers, hiding Hoary Redpolls in the flocks. Fruit trees in towns are also worth watching as Bohemian Waxwings annually arrive to pick them clean, and we are occasionally graced by Pine Grosbeaks.
The activity of so many birds may draw in hunting Northern Shrikes, Cooper’s Hawks, or a lingering Merlin, meaning that birders are not the only ones who need to be vigilant. And while Bald Eagles may prefer the ice edge on the lake, the farm fields also attract raptors – with Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, and Rough-legged Hawks in search of rodents in the fields along the lake – including places like the Magic Triangle near Essex, Crown Point, and Point Au Roche.
Early winter is also marked by hunting Short-eared Owls working the fields at dusk, and this winter is already shaping up to be incredible for Snowy Owls after a successful summer of nesting in the arctic. Snowy Owls are being seen at the start of winter all along Lake Champlain – a trend which promises to continue. Not only that, but early December has already been marked by a visit by a white phase Gyrfalcon in the Northern Champlain Valley!
Crossbills and Adirondack boreal birds
While that should be enough to keep people from being bored by convincing them to poke around the valley in search of birds all winter, birders may want to take a winter trip into the Adirondacks as well. While birders can find both Red and White-winged Crossbills on the move along the lake, both species are more easily found in the center of the park where they dine on the seeds of conifers. This year’s cone crop was excellent and both species nested in the Adirondacks this year – and this winter is forecast to be good for both species. Interested birders should check out the websites for Hamilton County and Saranac Lake to learn more.
And, if they are searching for crossbills, birders will likely end up in the boreal habitats of the Adirondacks. There they can find resident boreal species — Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee — more evidence that no matter how snowy and cold it remains outside, the birding can be hot. But just for comfort’s sake, maybe you should pack along some extra hot cocoa to celebrate a great day of birding.
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Winter birding in the Lake Champlain Region is amazing!
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This aptly named Lake Champlain Birding Trail brochure will provide you with details of what species can be found in the region and includes a handy map guide. Click on the image to view and print the brochure.