Christmas Bird Count Birding in the Champlain Valley

It’s that time of year again

Hard as it is to believe, we have once again cycled through the birding year to the time when Christmas Bird Counts fill our calendars. A few local CBCs were held on Sunday, 12/18/16, including Elizabethtown, Plattsburgh, and also the Vermont Islands count which overlaps across the lake to include the area surrounding Point Au Roche. I was planning to help with this latter count, but I was unable to do it on the count day, so a few days later I drove up to cover the area in the hope of adding a few count week birds.

Starting in Plattsburgh

As usual Wren was with me but she had to wait in the car for the first couple stops I made in Plattsburgh. Although these initial stops were well outside the area for my count, I started at the overlook of the Saranac River where both an Iceland Gull and a Glaucous Gull had been seen recently. I found neither of them and moved up the road to Wilcox Docks. Apart from the turmoil caused by a growing wind, the water at the docks was quiet, but I was surprised to find a lingering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker feeding in the large pines along the parking area. They are usually long gone from the region by now, and I notified one of the organizers of the Plattsburgh since it was likely a count week bird for them.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Larry

After a quick spin through Cumberland Head – when I found nothing of particular note – I drove north on Moffit Road to check out the farm fields on my way to Point Au Roche. I quickly spotted a Rough-legged Hawk, followed by another and was soon out of the car to watch them cruising overhead. Wren watched me patiently from the car – wishing she could come join me – and I assured her she’d be hiking soon. I also noted a couple Red-tailed Hawks as well as another Rough-legged Hawk further north along the road.

Hiking in Point Au Roche State Park

I made my way to Point Au Roche where I finally reached the count boundary for the Vermont Islands Count. We headed directly to Point Au Roche State Park and Wren jumped from the car excitedly smelling her way along as we explored the beach area in the blasting wind. White-capped waves rolled through the black water and I stood on the overlook of Treadwell Bay trying in vain to steady myself as I scanned the water. Not surprisingly the rough water was largely empty of birds with a few Common Mergansers and several strings of Common Goldeneye. The wind did prove good for raptors, and I spotted Rough-legged, Red-tailed, and Sharp-shinned Hawks as well as an immature Bald Eagle overhead.

Bald Eagle

If the weather was rough for finding waterfowl, it was even worse for songbirds which often give away their presence with soft chips – completely inaudible in the gale that was howling through my ears. The wind also kept many birds hunkered down in sheltered places and we didn’t tally our usual list of them as a result. Wren, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind the wind at all – stopping to smell the air and whatever news it brought her sensitive nose.

I tried my best to avoid the tempest – not simply for the sake of my own comfort - I was hoping to find an owl roosting in the conifers, but had no such luck. We explored some more protected nooks in the woods where the wind wasn’t as strong and found large numbers of American Robins feeding on berries and on bare patches of ground, and we spooked two Ruffed Grouse – a species which proved to be an additional bird for the count. We then drove to the boat launch area and then to the trailhead for the Long Point trails, repeating our efforts with similar results.

Ruffed Grouse - Larry

After walking for about an hour and a half, we headed out of the park to explore the roads around the peninsula which are often productive for raptors. But after the success at the state park, I only noted Red-tailed Hawks as we drove. We did, however, add several Mallards, American Black Ducks, and a few Red-breasted Mergansers near the boat launch on Lake Champlain before we headed north on Lake Shore Road.

Driving north along the lake

The water along Lake Shore Road was mostly quiet, save the turbulence created by the wind, but we began to find gulls and ducks – mostly notably an enormous raft of Common Mergansers on Monty Bay. As I approached the northern boundary of the count area along Trombley Bay, I spotted a Glaucous Gull – the large white bird was feeding with some Herring Gulls. I turned to follow the bird for photographs, but it moved south and away from shore quickly and I gave up the pursuit. A few Eastern Bluebirds at the geographic limit of the count area rounded out my count sightings.

Glaucous Gull

Despite being finished with the count area, I still had a little daylight, so I headed north toward Chazy as the soft light of evening began to creep across the landscape. In Chazy I found still more feeding American Robins, but I also found a few Horned Larks as well as two remaining Savannah Sparrows – another species not commonly found during this cold time of year.

Happy with the seasonally odd find, Wren and I continued north to King’s Bay Wildlife Management Area as a blazing sunset set the rippling clouds on fire, reflecting color across the white and wind-blown landscape. I paused to enjoy the spectacle before turning my attention to the marsh at just the right moment. There on silent wings haunted the moth-like form of a Short-eared Owl to top off our day. I watched its silhouette disappear and Wren and I headed home for dinner.

Short-eared Owl

Winter birding is great in the Lake  Champlain Region! Plan your trip today by checking out our lodging and dining pages. 

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