The Lake Champlain valley presents one of the best opportunities for North Country birdwatchers to see waterfowl as well as a variety of other species not as common in the mountains. After all the valley offers a north-south corridor to migrating birds – particularly waterfowl – and we took a trip there on the final day in March to see what we could find as spring migration was getting started. Waterfowl migrate earlier than most spring songbirds, and it is a good time of year to look for them.
There are many places to go along the lake, and we decided to head north to Rouse's Point, just across the border from Quebec. From there we worked our way south towards Plattsburgh. During a normal winter and spring thaw, the best places to look for waterfowl are the openings in the ice. This year everything has been open, allowing ducks to be anywhere across the vast water body.
We checked out a few parks and marinas in Rouse's Point, as well as the parking area on the bridge to Vermont. At all points we saw large numbers of ducks congregated in the comparatively narrow portion of the lake. And almost all of them were greater scaup, a medium-sized diving duck that generally winters along the coast and breeds in the arctic. There were thousands of scaup spread across a large portion of the lake.
Picking through the masses of scaup, we found several other species of ducks mixed into the throng – often in their own species-specific clusters or pairings. We found lesser scaup – a slightly smaller close relative of the greater. There were good numbers of ring-necked ducks, common mergansers, common goldeneye, bufflehead, hooded mergansers, a lone American wigeon, and of course mallards.
There were also flocks of both Canada and snow geese on the water and on fields throughout our day, and several flocks of snow geese – their white Vs against the blue sky – headed north along the lake. At one stop in Rouse's Point an adult bald eagle sat overlooking the water, and soon after thousands of ducks took wing suggesting that another eagle had flown overhead – although we never saw it.
Although much of our attention was directed toward the lake water, songbirds were likewise in good numbers. Song sparrows, the first sparrows to arrive in spring, were singing everywhere, joined by many white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, and downy woodpeckers. Tree swallows, recently returned from warmer winter climes were in good numbers – particularly near the Rouse's Point bridge. Eastern phoebes were also back from the south, singing in various places during our day.
The highpoint of the day came when we drove along Stony Point Road on the north end of King's Bay Wildlife Management Area. Hearing a pileated woodpecker call, we stopped the car and my friend immediately exclaimed that there was a northern leopard frog chorus in the swampy woods that bordered the right side of the road – a great sound of spring in the North Country. Getting out of the car to listen, we heard a rusty blackbird sing amidst a din of red-winged blackbirds, and we then set to scanning through the ducks on the lake which bordered the road on the left.
And there on the end of the rocky jetty with only the top of its head visible over a rock sat a snowy owl, its head turning from side to side. It's eyes would close occasionally, but it seemed alert to any other bird flying over, and it offered us an odd juxtaposition of sightings; watching a bird that only visits in the colder months while listening to a spring time choir of northern leopard frogs.
Excitedly we drove down the road until we found an angle without a rock blocking our view. Snowy owls came south in record numbers this winter, many in the east spending the winter in coastal marshes, fields, and airports. This bird was likely returning north to the tundra. It looked to be a young male bird – females have more dark markings than males, and older males can be almost pure white.
The prevailing theory about this year's mass movements of snowys is that many of the snowy owls that came south this year were young birds after a very successful breeding season last year. Winter time offers less food than summer, and older owls are more likely than young birds to have established territories, often outcompeting young birds as a result. Young birds must therefore go elsewhere to find food, hence many moved south where food is easier to come by in winter. It's the avian equivalent of "this tundra patch ain't big enough for the two of us."
After watching the owl for a while, we continued south ourselves, finding other birds of prey – a red-tailed hawk and a northern harrier – in the fields near Chazy Landing and Point AuRoche. We ended our day with a walk in Point AuRoche State Park where we stopped at a small wetland near the nature center. There we found a pair of American wigeon and three wood ducks – recently returned from the south. While looking at the ducks, a river otter swam across our view – topping off our day. We returned home happy.