My friend and I spent some time birding in the Champlain Valley on Saturday. It was chilly and overcast early and we did have to tuck into the car during some cold showers and wind later in the day, but we still had a successful time out. We started at Westport, and while there weren’t many birds at the boat launch besides a few Bufflehead, we found quite a few gulls and Canada Geese at the wastewater treatment plant. There were also a few Bufflehead and Horned Grebes there – showing up for the winter. Our best find there was three White-winged Scoters – a duck more commonly found along the coast or on Lake Ontario – so we were happy to spot them.
Checking the fields south of Westport, we didn’t find much initially. This time of year can be good for finding species such as Horned Larks and American Pipits, but we didn’t note any. We did, however, find a few Common Loons, Black Ducks, and Horned Grebes along Dudley Road where it meets Cole Bay. The big surprises there were two Red-throated Loons – another species which is generally easier to find along the coast. The loons fed actively before moving out of view behind an island.
Happy with these couple finds we worked south to Crown Point where a large collection of Common Loons and Double-crested Cormorants fished. We scoped through the loons in hopes of something odd, but didn’t find anything different. But, on the Vermont side of the bridge, I noted the distinct shape of a Red-necked Grebe out with some cormorants on the south side of the bridge. Red-necked Grebes are another uncommon species along Champlain, but they do migrate through around this time of year.
As we were scoping the loons and grebe, cold rains began to sting and pelt us so we moved up to look at the Snow Geese at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Vermont. The overhang there was helpful with the rain, but the geese were far off so we drove back over to New York State. As we cut through the fields of Crown Point we found hunting Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers before heading back to a few points on the lake.
We didn’t turn up anything new while scanning the lake, but we headed north of Westport as evening fell to see if there were any field birds in the so called “Magic Triangle”. There at the junction of Clark and Cross Roads we stopped to search for hunting Short-eared Owls. My friend sought shelter in the car while I braved the wind and mist, scanning the darkening horizon. And then, just as we were thinking we could try further down the road, I spotted a Short-eared Owl (which looked to be a female) wheeling in the air.
My friend came out of the car and the bird cruised directly towards us, passing about 20 feet overhead. It realized its mistake and soon shot straight up, turned and raced across the field. The field along those roads is crowned so it disappeared from view from time to time, only to reappear and eventually made another pass almost flying directly over us again. Then we spotted a second owl, this one looking like a male, and the two briefly buzzed each other, perhaps to ward off competition for food. Their aerial acrobatics looked effortless as they hunted in the field and we were cold, but very happy with our success in finding them. Eventually it became too dark for us to see any more and we drove home, having tallied 47 species on our day.