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Birding the Champlain Valley in late autumn and early winter is often marked by a wide diversity of ducks and other waterfowl. After all, the entire valley offers such species a migratory corridor and many of them will stick through the winter – even as the lake begins to freeze over – thanks to regular ferry traffic keeping the ice open. Winter begins with thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese in the northern Champlain Valley migrating south and birders can sift through their ranks for regular Ross’s Geese in their midst. Though less impressive in numbers, Canada Geese too migrate along the valley and uncommon species like Cackling, Barnacle, and Greater White-fronted Goose have all been found with large flocks of Canadas on the move.
If the goose diversity isn’t enough of a draw to the valley, duck diversity and numbers can be tremendous as many species head south along Lake Champlain. Many will stay for much of the winter and birders can find flocks which include species like Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Long-tailed Duck, and White-winged Scoter. Of even more interest to many birders, Barrow’s Goldeneye is a regular find mixed in with flocks of Commons and Tufted Duck has become an almost yearly visitor during the cold months.
Some of the same places which draw feeding waterfowl also attract gulls of various species and birders can sort through the common Great Black-backed, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls for uncommon species like Glaucous, Iceland, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Add to these species Horned Grebes and lingering Red-necked Grebes and Common Loons, and the Champlain Valley can be an excellent winter birding destination.
But aquatic species do not hold exclusive rights to the flyway. The valley is also excellent for migrating raptors cruising south on north winds. Late fall brings with it Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, and Short-eared Owls, among others and some of these will remain all winter. Bald Eagles will also stay for much of the winter, standing on the ice of the lake or sitting above the open patches of water in search of an unwary duck. Winter is also the time to look for Snowy Owls which often arrive during late fall.
And while some raptors are impressively large like Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles, other predatory birds are relatively small – such as Northern Shrikes. These northern visitors are commonly found throughout the valley during the winter - hunting songbirds from hedgerows and at bird feeders. And while many of these songbirds are common yard birds which lingered into the winter, other species are of more interest to birders and the valley is a great spot to search for American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs feeding in the open fields.
Finches too move into the area during the late fall and birders should listen for the flight notes of Pine Siskins and Red and White-winged Crossbills. Birders who wish to seek out these species during the cold months will also do well to check out the coniferous habitats in the middle of the Adirondacks, and birders should visit the Saranac Lake website to learn more. These same boreal habitats are excellent for Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, and Black-backed Woodpecker, and the flocks of wintering finches may also include Common Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks at bird feeders or Pine Grosbeaks (in irruption years) feeding on fruiting trees and shrubs.
These same fruiting plants also draw in Bohemian Waxwings to the banquet throughout the winter, making it the time of year to find this species. They may be found joining lingering American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, and Cedar Waxwings in their taste for fruit, meaning any tree or shrub with fruit should be checked for birds of interest. All this makes the Champlain Valley an incredible winter birding destination. So bundle up and brave the wind – there’s great birding to be had!
Lake Champlain has an array for even the pickest of birds, browse our lodging selection to find the stay that's right for you. Birding is just one of the many things to do in the region, and many can be done while your birding!
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.
with a head-to-tail length of 36-55 inches and wingspan of 66- 79 inches, it's no wonder this bird is the largest North American species.