We have reached the time of year when birders everywhere span out across the landscape and conduct Christmas Bird Counts. This past weekend’s winter storm was cancelling, postponing, and threatening many counts held on Saturday and Sunday and so a friend and I went up to Plattsburgh on Saturday to scout and look for count week birds should the Plattsburgh count (held on Sunday) be cancelled or compromised due to the weather. It was a frigid day, but it proved to be productive. And it turned out to be a great day for white birds.
We started around Cumberland Head and dropped south a short ways to Wilcox Dock and the mouth of the Saranac River. There were a few hundred gulls on the ice at the mouth of the river and I quickly found a first year Glaucous Gull in their ranks. We shivered and marveled how the gulls could sit on the ice, swim in the open patches of the freezing water, and even bathe in it! As we stood there watching the gulls Snow Geese began to fly overhead – all heading south. It started as a trickle, but we soon were seeing distant lines of geese – thousands of geese – heading overhead. It was something that would mark the rest of the day.
We returned to Cumberland Head, this time heading to the ferry terminal where there were a few ducks. As we were leaving the terminal we spotted a second Glaucous Gull sitting on an ice-covered rock with a Great Black-backed Gull. We continued to skirt the water finding a variety of ducks including Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, Bufflehead, a Lesser Scaup, and a Horned Grebe. And we continued to see and hear Snow Geese overhead.
We cut up Moffit Road to look for raptors and other birds in the farm fields and we soon had yet another white bird. A Snowy Owl was sitting on a small rise in a farm field! We stopped to look at it as it rested. This year has seen an amazing movement of Snowy Owls in the northeast and the bird appeared to be a first year owl. Just up the road from the owl we found our first of 5 Rough-legged Hawks on the day, soon thereafter finding our second Rough-legged. Snow Geese were streaming overhead, so we stopped at the junction of Moffit and Pardy Road to see if we could find a Ross’s Goose in the closest flocks. We didn’t, but most of the geese – thousands and thousands of them – were distant and a Ross’s would have been difficult to pull out. As we were standing there admiring the goose spectacle a flock of perhaps 300 Snow Buntings passed over the field. White birds it seemed were everywhere.
We drove a short ways down a dirt track finding a group of about 80 Brown-headed Cowbirds when an enormous flock of Snow Geese came over a dairy farm hitting us like a wave. It took our breath away. The geese had evidently had enough of the cold and were heading south and to some place warmer. We tried to get an estimate of goose numbers throughout the day and a conservative number put it around 80,000! And there were likely more.
After the wave passed we returned to the warmth of the car and checked out Pardy Road. We soon found a cooperative Northern Shrike and another Rough-legged Hawk – this time a dark morph bird. We headed to Point AuRoche to search more farm fields, finding two more Rough-leggeds on the way. Snow Geese continued overhead and we found one lone goose sitting in a field. We figured it was injured but it soon lifted off and flew away in response to an adult Bald Eagle which was flying across the field. You don’t want to be a sitting duck – or goose. Our time searching the fields of Point AuRoche proved productive for more raptors including adult Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and a beautiful male Northern Harrier. We also found some seasonally uncommon songbirds including Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, all of which were good to add to the count week tallies for the Christmas Bird Counts and none of which were found during the following day’s snow storm.