It’s that time of year
With winter upon us, we have reached the time of year when Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) mark the days on the calendars of birders around the country and the world.
A few local counts were held during the first weekend of the count period, which straddles the New Year. These included Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, the latter of which I’ve helped with in the past. This year, as I’ve done the past couple years, I helped with the Champlain Islands Count out of Vermont – a count which overlaps the Point Au Roche area of the Champlain Valley just north of Plattsburgh.
Lots of Raptors!
It was clear and cold as my four-legged companion Wren and I set off, driving north as the sun rose to burn off the frost which had coated everything a sparkling white. Once in the valley we started by checking out Moffit Road which heads north from Cumberland Head. A white phase Gyrfalcon had been seen there the previous day (and had been seen in my count area a few days earlier), and I – like everyone else – was hoping to find it.
Moffit actually sits within the Plattsburgh count circle and I saw a group of birders who I know covering their count turf. They hadn’t seen the Gyrfalcon yet but they pointed to a nice Cooper’s Hawk in a tree and a distant Red-tailed Hawk. I had just seen another Red-tailed as well as a Rough-legged Hawk – Moffit is a good place for raptors. There was also a sizeable flock of Snow Geese near the large farm along the road.
Since I had to cover my area for the Islands' count, I kept moving along, knowing I would link up with that crew of birders for holiday goodies later. We did, however, spot another Red-tailed as we got going.
Wren and I started our count at Point Au Roche State Park where we walked a few miles in the cold, starting at the beach. While the field birding along Moffit Road had been good for raptors, the woods of the park were quiet, and we had to work for our birds, snooping through the conifers and cedars in the hope of finding an owl. We found none, but we did end up counting a good number of Common Goldeneye on the lake – peering through the mist covered waters and the distortion resulting from cold air meeting the relatively warm waters of the lake.
A Snowy Owl and other Holiday Goodies
With a growing north wind, I returned to the car a bit chilled, and I realized that it was getting close to our holiday treat late-morning brunch time. So I drove back to Cumberland Head where we were meeting, taking Moffit Road for another shot at the Gyrfalcon and other raptors. On this pass I added a Snowy Owl at the junction of Moffit and Spellman Roads – the bird sitting on a small red shed-like structure used on the local farm.
The holiday treats and warm-up break is always a good time to chat and compare notes between the counts, and I learned that the local landowner who had seen the Gyrfalcon along Moffit Road on the previous day had seen it again while we were all off elsewhere counting, so it was at least included on Plattsburgh’s count. Ironically none of the birders who were searching for it that day ever found it – Gyrfalcons move around a lot and are easily missed as a result. But we added a number of waterfowl – including a Red-breasted Merganser – while we snacked, and we eventually donned our boots and warm layers and headed back into the cold.
Continuing the Count
I started the next portion of my count again in the state park, this time taking a shorter hike on a different portion of trails near Deep Bay. I then cut a driving loop through the fields on Point Au Roche and worked the shoreline of the lake near the state park boat launch, adding species like American Black Duck, Snow Goose, Tufted Titmouse, Dark-eyed Junco, and Common Merganser in the process.
But overall the count was fairly quiet – as I would later find out was true for the entire Islands count. Perhaps the cold weather earlier in the week had forced some birds south. Despite this, Wren and I kept adding species here and there – including Horned Larks and Snow Buntings as we drove north on Lake Shore Road to complete the count area coverage. Monty Bay also held a contingent of ducks and a few gulls – mostly Great Black-backed.
I briefly left the confines of the count circle and drove as far as Chazy, finding the lake completely frozen that far north. There was plenty of ice in the bays and along the shoreline further south, but most of the water had been open. But the snow-covered fields near Chazy have been hiding another Snowy Owl, and I took a quick spin to see if it was close to the road, finding a flock of Horned Larks instead.
An Evening Screech Owl
Choosing not to take the necessary time to scan for the Snowy Owl which was likely sitting out in a white field, I drove my route back south, back into my territory, hoping to perhaps add a late-day raptor or evening owl for the count. With the fields empty of raptors, I returned to Point Au Roche State Park where I stopped in a few places to whistle for Eastern Screech Owl in the growing gloom of evening. To my delight I got an answer at the first place I tried and the owl came in quite close to me, although I couldn’t pull it out of the shadows of the cedars. It was nevertheless a great way to end the day – any birding trip with two species of owls is a good one.
Christmas Bird Counts mark the beginning of winter along the Lake Champlain Region. Months of great cold weather birding await and this year promises to be excellent for Snowy Owls. Plan your trip today by checking out our lodging and dining pages.
(You can find out more about upcoming CBCs in the North Country or near your home by checking out the Audobon Christmas Bird Count.)
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