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The Lake Champlain Region offers some of the best winter birding in the entire North Country. As lakes freeze across the region, aquatic species are forced to dip their toes in the only open water available to them — and Lake Champlain remains open for much of the winter. As winter deepens and begins to freeze Champlain itself, the ducks get condensed into large rafts. This is true in places like AuSable Marsh and around the Lake Champlain Bridge – one of the best locations to camp out and scan the water early in the winter as the ice edge pushes north from narrow portions of the lake further south.
Birders can find any duck species which moves through the valley – including some uncommon species like Redhead, Canvasback, Barrow’s Goldeneye and Tufted Duck. When winter begins to loosen its grip in March and April, the diversity jumps and groups of American Wigeon and other species have included a Eurasian Wigeon the past few winters.
And ducks aren’t the only species of note. Late fall and early winter often brings birds like Common and Red-throated Loons, Horned Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe. And no one will miss the colossal white mass of Snow Geese if they visit the northern Adirondack Coast in the fall or early winter. The exit of the Snow Geese often signifies the beginning of winter as thousands and thousands of them move south along the spine of the lake to winter in locations where life during the cold months is easier. But before the geese leave, birders can search through the throng for Ross’s Goose in a game of birding hide-and-seek. The same is true of large flocks of Canada Geese during the late fall and early winter – they can hide species like Barnacle Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Cackling Goose – all of which have been found near the wastewater treatment plant in Westport.
This sandy spit in Westport is also a good place to check for odd species of gulls such as Glaucous, Iceland, and Lesser Black-backed, and the white-winged species are also often found around Plattsburgh at the mouth of the Saranac River and near the Cumberland Head ferry terminal. And as winter temps drop to freeze the lake further, the ferry terminals are great for any sort of aquatic species since the constant traffic of the ferry keeps the water open.
But ducks, gulls, and other aquatic birds are not the only species which make the Lake Champlain Region so great during the winter. Many raptors which use the lake as a flyway during the fall stick around as long as the weather allows them to remain, and late fall and early winter visits can add species like Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Merlin, or Cooper’s Hawk to a day’s list. And while many of these birds will move south with the advancing cold, others may stick around, joining wintering Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks as they hunt along field edges. The same is also true of Northern Shrikes which sit along hedgerows or near bird feeders in search of songbirds drawn to the food source. And birders should also be watchful for Snowy Owls hunting in the fields during the cold months.
Some of the songbirds in these same habitats of most interest to birders include field species like American Tree Sparrow, Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, and Lapland Longspur, and a day birding in the valley usually turns up some of these birds. Birders will also do well to pay attention in towns and yards where bird feeders may attract a variety of finches. These may include common species like American Goldfinch and Purple Finch, as well as birds of more interest such as Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak, and Common Redpoll. This year will hopefully be a good year for Common Redpolls and any flock should be checked to make sure that they don’t hold a Hoary Redpoll.
In addition, Pine Grosbeaks are being seen in places scattered across the northeast – usually found in fruit trees like ornamental crabapples. Bohemian Waxwings likewise feed in these trees, as do lingering American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds, and Cedar Waxwings, meaning birders should check any fruit tree they find for goodies hidden in its branches.
Finally, winter is a great time of year to look for boreal species in the middle of the Adirondacks and birders should consult the Saranac Lake or Lake Placid websites to learn more about where to search for resident birds like Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray Jay. Their bravery in exploring such coniferous habitats in the cold may also be rewarded with either Red or White-winged Crossbills. After all, while winter may offer fewer species than the warm months, the birding is no less exciting. It is a great time to explore the Lake Champlain Region and the Adirondack Mountains.
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 activities can be done while you're 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.