Duck, Duck, Great Gray Owl!

Birding my way around the lake

While our recent late-season storms have made the North Country look like winter again – as it should look at this time of year, in this climate – spring continues to press upon the landscape and the birds know it. With that in mind, Wren and I took the chance to bird our way back from Vermont the other day. Birding has been great in the Lake Champlain Region all winter, but I was curious to see what else was showing up as waterfowl begin to migrate north along the lake.

Since we were starting in Vermont, we began by exploring a number of places on that side of the lake, adding ducks like Gadwall, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, White-winged Scoter, and Long-tailed Duck, as well as many more common species. And waterfowl weren’t the only birds of interest – that list included Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, and Northern Shrike. And while they were in Vermont, any of these species could be found in New York state waters as well.

Northern Pintail

Birds in Crown Point and Port Henry

As I approached the Champlain Bridge, I confirmed my suspicion that our recent cold weather had frozen the lake and forced the large flock of ducks north which had been gathered around Bulwagga Bay and Crown Point. I’m sure they weren’t gone from the valley, but it did mean that I had to search a bit to find some of them. I suspected that some of the ducks I found in Vermont may have been part of that flock. With the ice frozen so far out, Wren and skipped walking at Crown Point State Historic Site – it will be great once again as the ice layer recedes. I did take a spin through the fields of Crown Point, finding a beautiful Rough-legged Hawk along Trimble Road which proved to be camera shy - refusing to allow me to take a photo of it.

Rough-legged Hawk

As I drove up Route 22 heading north along the lake, I could see there was a small group of waterfowl tightly packed on Bulwagga Bay, and I stopped into the town beach (Sandy Beach) to see what I could find with my scope. To say the birds were snug in the sliver of water they had kept open is an understatement, and I scanned back and forth as I identified individuals from the compact flock. But the flock was diverse as well as cramped, and it was exciting as I pulled species from the flock which I hadn’t noticed on my initial sweep through them. Soon I had found Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Common Merganser, Lesser Scaup, and Gadwall.

Ducks - Essex

I then made a short stop at the Port Henry Pier where a small puddle of open water had attracted Common Goldeneye and Hooded Mergansers, who, like the Rough-legged Hawk before, did not like their pictures taken. So I drove north, eventually seeing the edge of the ice north of Port Henry, but there was no way to access it. That’s okay – as the March sun warms it, the ice will retreat back south and bring the ducks it swept up to easier places to view them.

A Barrow’s Goldeneye

But the ice made Cole Bay along Dudley Road near Westport a great stop as the water was packed with waterfowl – many of which were likely part of the large Crown Point flock from earlier this winter. I found another long list of species there, adding a drake Barrow’s Goldeneye associating with a large flock of Commons. I was admiring the crescent shape on its face when suddenly it and most of the other ducks took to the air. I looked up to see a Bald Eagle cruise overhead, searching to see if it could catch any of them unawares. It did not, and while the ducks began to settle back down fairly quickly, I took their flight further out onto the lake as my cue to move on.

Barrow's Goldeneye - Larry

I found another nice flock of waterfowl at Westport Boat Launch which included a couple more Northern Pintail on their way north, and after checking through the several hundred gulls at the outlet for Hoisington Brook at the water treatment plant (I found nothing of note, but the flock will be worth checking in the coming weeks), I headed toward Keene, fearing I was running late for a date with the famous Great Gray Owl which has been frequenting the fields near the Barkeater Inn.

Better yet, a Great Gray Owl!

But my concerns of being late turned out to be unverified, as the owl had not come near the road before I arrived – much to the dismay of the gathered photographers bundled against the cold. I stood and waited with them and on this occasion the owl did not seek to test my patience.

Perhaps 15 minutes after I showed up, it began to incrementally move closer to the road, alighting on a few of its favorite perches on its route – and building a sense of anticipation among those gathered there to watch it. Then it glided on its giant, silent wings to land on a wooden post right along the road!

The onlookers held their breath in collective excitement, and the quiet elation felt by all was punctuated by the constant click of cameras. The owl was soon off again, hunting over the field not far from the road. My camera battery soon died anyway, and rather than retrieve a spare from my car, I simply enjoyed watching the owl hunt, as evening shadows fell across the landscape. It was an ideal ending to the day.

Great Gray Owl - Keene

Ducks are on the move and the Great Gray Owl in Keene will not stay there forever. Don’t wait to come for some early-spring birding along the Adirondack Coast and beyond. Check out our lodging and dining sites to help plan your trip!


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