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Fall may be the time of year when the Champlain Valley is at its best for birding. Like everywhere else in the North Country, fall migration in the valley begins during the second half of summer when shorebirds of a variety of species move along the spine of the lake and feed in places like Ticonderoga Marsh, Noblewood Park, Westport, and the Chazy Riverlands. And birders can find regionally uncommon or rare species mixed in with the common species on the move. As summer transitions into fall, many of the species will have moved on, but birders will still find Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, with the potential for species like White-rumped Sandpiper, among others.
The marshes of the valley are likewise exciting with American Bittern, Green Heron, Virginia Rail, Sora, and others possible. The marsh edges and lakefront can also attract species like Caspian Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls and the Champlain Valley is a great place to look for migrating Little Gulls – often mingled in the flocks of Bonaparte’s. Early fall cold fronts are also excellent opportunities to scan the lake for uncommon or rare species in the region – like Parasitic Jaeger.
But despite the possibilities which exist along the water for rare species on these cold fronts, birders should not ignore the surrounding forests either. Late summer and early fall offer amazing displays of songbird diversity, and birders can find Scarlet Tanager, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Indigo Bunting, Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Philadelphia, Warbling, Red-eyed, and Blue-headed Vireos. It is amazing to see what the shifting flocks of birds can contain! And then there are the warblers.
Warblers move through the region in droves during the fall with the breeding species mixing with migrants from our north to form large waves of birds which push through the trees and shrubs as they refuel for their long flight. Birders can find better than 20 species of warblers in the valley during the migration – including local breeders like American Redstart, Black-throated Green, and Yellow-rumped as well as species like Cape May, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, and Wilson’s which breed to our north. Many birders may want to take a trip into the interior Adirondacks for migrating warblers – checking out boreal habitats for the likes of Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and Boreal Chickadee while they are at it. They should check out the Saranac Lake website to learn more.
And as fall cold fronts push our warblers south, migrating sparrows arrive in the valley – once again adding their numbers to our breeding birds. These include White-throated, White-crowned, Vesper, Fox, and Savannah Sparrows – and anything which breeds in the northeast can be found in the hedgerows which line so many of the valley’s fields. Later in the fall these same fields attract Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and Lapland Longspurs, and arriving American Tree Sparrows.
But the birds of the hedgerows and fields need to keep their eyes open – their numbers attract a suite of raptors on their way south as well. In fact, the Champlain Valley offers a great place to look for migrating birds of prey and birders can search for any of the following:
Some species like Rough-legged Hawk will stick around all winter while others move through quickly or may linger only as long as they can find enough to eat. Two other predatory species also add themselves to this assemblage – as Northern Shrikes arrive – often spending part or most of the winter, and Short-eared Owls arrive and stay long enough to get tallied on Christmas Bird Counts in the region.
But even with all this action in the fields and forests of the valley, it is the lake itself which may be the biggest draw for birders. For as fall progresses an array of waterfowl and aquatic species migrate through the valley. Their movement starts slowly in mid-fall but despite such gradual beginnings, it is a time of year when many less common species like Red-throated Loon, Brant, and Red-necked Grebe can be found. It then picks up with more and more arriving waterfowl and birders can sort through the flocks to find any of the following ducks:
Goose numbers too peak during the latter half of fall – with the Northern Champlain Valley being the center of the Snow Goose universe. It is then that Ross’s Geese are commonly mixed in with Snows, and when large flocks of Canada Geese contain Greater White-fronted or Cackling Geese. But the geese do not remain forever and begin to push south on cold northern winds by mid-December, leaving us with a diversity of ducks to begin the winter. Fall is, after all, a long time of transition and even as it ends at the darkest and coldest time of the year, it leaves us as another exciting birding season begins.
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.