Fantastic year-round birding
The Champlain Valley offers excellent year-round birding, beginning with the cold and ice of winter. The New Year celebration is often marked by an ice edge advancing from the south, scooping the ducks and other aquatic species up and plunking them down near the Champlain Bridge and Crown Point. Thousands of waterfowl can be present in the Crown Point and Port Henry area at once, and birders can sift through the more common species for specialties like Barrow’s Goldeneye and Tufted Duck. As the lake freezes, the birds become more and more condensed in the remaining open water, and birders should visit wide places in the lake like Ausable Point and Noblewood Park as well as the Essex and Cumberland Head ferry terminals to find open water.
At the northern end of the valley, the beginning of winter is marked by the southbound exodus of thousands of Snow Geese in the area around Point Au Roche, the enormous white flocks glittering in the sun when they take to flight. The geese often leave as the Christmas Bird Count season begins, leaving the fields to raptors like Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks for the winter.
These fields can also be excellent throughout the winter for Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs, and birders in search of raptors or wintering field species should check out places like Point Au Roche, the Magic Triangle, the fields south of Westport, and Crown Point. If you go you should also be on the lookout for a Northern Shrike perched on top of the hedgerows and small trees. And no winter in the valley would be complete without at least a few Snowy Owls making an appearance.
While the lake itself and the fields attract most of the attention from birds and birders, we should all be on the lookout in towns for visiting Bohemian Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks gulping down fruit from ornamentals. Other northern visitors may include Common Redpolls eating seed at bird feeders, or gleaning them from snow-laden forbs in the fields. Birders in search of winter specialties may also want to plan a day trip into the Adirondacks to look for White-winged and Red Crossbills, as well as the year-round boreal residents like Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and Boreal Chickadee.
And while these boreal habitats in the center of the Adirondacks hold onto winter for a long time, the valley warms to the longer days and warmer temperatures of spring much more quickly, welcoming back early migrants like Eastern Bluebirds, Common Grackles, Song Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Early spring also marks an uptick in the numbers and diversity of waterfowl which cram into any opening in the lake ice, making for diverse birding stops of picking through the birds.
Goose numbers also swell, and flocks of Canada and Snow Geese may hide Greater White-fronted, Ross’s, Cackling, or perhaps a rarer species. Raptors are also on the move during spring as wintering Rough-legged Hawks are replaced by American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, Osprey, and eventually, Broad-winged Hawks.
Their arrival coincides with the springtime advent of many other species like Caspian Terns on the lake, Eastern Meadowlarks in the fields, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the woodlands. And while these woodlands of the valley are sometimes overlooked in winter thanks to the productivity of the fields and the lake, they come to life during spring.
It starts when wintering Brown Creepers begin to sing, and they soon add Blue-headed Vireos and early warblers like Pine and Yellow-rumped. Nights in these woodlands may be headlined by the horse-like calls of Eastern Screech Owls or by the hoots and quacks of Barred Owls. Nighttime trips may also star the comical courtship ritual of American Woodcocks on local fields, as the sounds of the valley’s marshes, like Webb Royce Swamp and Ticonderoga Marsh, explode with winnowing Wilson’s Snipe, pumping American Bitterns, the guttural calls of Virginia Rails, and the whinny of Soras.
May and early summer
By May, the woods are growing full of birds as migrants of all sorts, shapes, and sizes move along the spine of the lake, many of them passing through Crown Point State Historic Site and the songbird banding station there. Many of these birds continue north on their migration while others may be found nesting for the next couple months. Some of these include regionally uncommon species like Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, and Orchard Oriole which prefer edge or young forest habitats, or Louisiana Waterthrush which can be found along a few of the valley’s streams, including the La Chute River in Ticonderoga.
Even without such hard-to-find species, the valley’s edge communities harbor nesting Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Eastern Towhees, while the fields – once windswept with snow – are the nesting habitat for Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Savannah Sparrows.
Late summer diversity
But these summer days of nesting birds are short-lived – even in the valley. Soon the birds become quieter, their hormone-driven songs finished with the end of breeding. Instead they begin to feed voraciously in preparation for migration, flocking up in diverse (about twenty-five species of warblers alone can be found!) mixed-species groups through which birders can frenetically sift in the hopes of finding something rare.
Such flocks make for excellent birding during the latter half of summer, but they are matched by the movement of other species along the lakeshore. After all, some of the first southbound migrants we find are shorebirds, and a wide array of shorebird species can be found along the mudflats and sandbars of the lake in places like Ticonderoga Marsh, the Chazy Riverlands, and the Westport Wastewater Treatment Plant – anywhere the water level is good for them to forage. Bonaparte’s Gulls also return south along the lake in numbers, and they annually hide Little Gulls, and sometimes less common species like Black-headed Gulls, within their ranks.
Late summer also features impressive assemblages of six species of swallows, swooping and diving above as they gobble up insects. As they settle down for the night, they give way on late summer evenings to Common Nighthawks winging their way south, scooping up insects as they go. It all makes August one of the best times of year to bird the Champlain Valley.
The phenomenon of fall migration
But these birds eventually depart, and we work through fall flocks of warblers, nuthatches, and chickadees, continuing to find goodies. As fall advances, birders can sort through a miscellany of sparrows in the valley’s hedgerows, listen for American Pipits overhead, and keep an eye open for rarities. After all, fall is the best time of year to find rarities in the region. These include species like Parasitic Jaeger moving south over the lake on September cold fronts, or uncommon species of waterfowl like Eurasian Wigeon during October.
Once again such aquatic species begin to dominate the birding headlines as fall continues, and the numbers of ducks and other species of waterfowl grow as our day length decreases. It is in the latter half of fall that our first Barrow’s Goldeneye appear, and there is always a chance for a Tufted Duck in large rafts of scaup and Ring-necked Ducks.
Goose numbers also build to impressive heights, with a marvelous spectacle of Snow Geese in the northern Champlain Valley near Point Au Roche, the multitude covering the fields and lake. The latter half of fall is therefore a great time of year to find oddities like Ross’s Goose, Cackling Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Barnacle Goose, and Pink-footed Goose, the latter of which has been found on several occassions.
And, like spring, fall is also marked by migrating raptors of all sorts, starting with migrating Broad-winged Hawks in September and ending with our first Rough-legged Hawks, which will remain with us all winter long. It is then that we also find our first American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and Northern Shrikes as the snow falls and autumn transitions to the holidays, winter, and the start of a new birding year.
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This aptly named Lake Champlain Birding Trail brochure will provide you with details of what species can be found in the region and includes a handy map guide. Click on the image to view and print the brochure.