This weekend found me in the Champlain Valley birding with some friends, taking advantage of the nice weather. We found 46 species of birds – not a bad tally for a December day. We started our day at Westport where the boat launch had a small collection of ducks and large numbers of Canada Geese. We searched through the geese for something different in their midst, but found nothing out of the ordinary. We moved up the road to the wastewater treatment plant where we looked over a much larger flotilla of Canada Geese and a collection of gulls on the sandy spit.
We didn’t find any uncommon gulls, but as I scanned the geese a Barnacle Goose stuck out to me – showing me its silvery sides, dark black neck, and white cheeks. Barnacles are European birds that do occasionally come to our side of the Atlantic where they associate with Canada Geese – other sightings of this bird are also likely escapees from captivity. We watched the goose for a short while, calling some friends of ours who were also birding in the area so they could come to the treatment plant to see it. The bird had been reported a week previously, but no one had noted it since so we had thought it might have left the area. We were happy that it hadn’t.
We walked in on the grassy lawn to get closer looks at the goose which had moved further off shore through the trees, when my friend noted a warbler hopping around low in the trees. No species of warbler should be in Westport on a cold December day, and we tried to make the bird into either a Yellow-rumped Warbler or Orange-crowned Warbler (perhaps the two most likely species for the time of year), but our fleeting looks at its field marks didn’t fit those species. The warbler flew to the outlet of Hoisington Brook where it was difficult to see in the tall vegetation by the water. Eventually we began to collectively get a picture of the bird and determined that it was a first year female Cape May Warbler – quite a rare find for this time of year. Cape Mays should be catching insects in the tropics right now. The bird finally gave us the slip and we were happy with our rare find.
We dropped south to the fields along Dudley and Napper Roads where we found a variety of woodland birds including Dark-eyed Juncos and a White-throated Sparrow along the hedgerows. Cole Bay along Dudley Road also had a few ducks and Horned Grebes. Our friends had seen a couple Rough-legged Hawks hunting in the fields earlier that morning, but we didn’t turn up any. We did see several Red-tailed Hawks – including one which pounced for a rodent directly in front of us. Unfortunately the bird came up empty. We also spotted a Northern Harrier cruising over the fields in search of food.
We moved north of Westport to the fields of what some birders call the Magic Triangle. There we discovered a few more hunting Red-tailed Hawks and we had a great look at a Rough-legged Hawk along the edge of a field. Songbird activity was also quite high with American Tree Sparrows, more Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebird as well as Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.
We headed north to the Essex ferry terminal where we found Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Horned Grebes, and to our surprise a lingering Pied-billed Grebe. We also stopped in at Noblewood Park in Willsboro where we found a Brown Creeper in the woods and large rafts of Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye on the water. There was also a collection of gulls on the sand spit.
We finished our day by retracing our steps to the Magic Triangle where we found another hunting Northern Harrier. We were searching for Short-eared Owls which came out to hunt as evening shadows fell. We found two – possibly three – owls coursing over the fields as they made their barking calls. Eventually it was too dark to see them and we headed home.