A Great Day to go Birding in the Valley
While the late fall in our region has been marked by a string of snowy days and wintry weather – which may portend a good ski season – I was happy to have a sunny (if cold) day on the weekend to head out for some birding in the Champlain Valley. I had been in and out of town and I hadn’t been able to make it to some of my favorite spots in the Valley for a while so I was excited to see what birds were moving through the area.
After checking out the lake for ducks at Westport and as far south as Port Henry, I drove north of Westport to the so-called Magic Triangle and the field-lined roads of the Whallonsburg area. My main quarry was the variety of raptors which can be seen along the fields and I was hoping for the chance to snap some photos if the birds weren’t too distant. And so I drove down a series of roads including Angier Hill Road, Christian Road, and Middle Road finding hawks along the way. As often is the case, Red-tailed Hawks were the most common species, but I saw many Rough-legged Hawks – a few of which were hovering into the wind in search of rodents. Rough-legged Hawks often engage in hovering behavior – a useful cue to use for identifying distant birds, and a behavior which can at times appear somewhat ungainly for such a large bird.
Checking out Ducks and other Birds at Noblewood
I eventually wound my way into Willsboro and decided to head into Noblewood Park to look at the lake for ducks and other waterfowl. I parked at the gate and walked in. As I approached the beach area, I slowed and went forward quietly – ducks often spook easily. There was a large raft of ducks which included big numbers of Common Goldeneye, Greater and Lesser Scaup, and Bufflehead. There were also several scattered Horned Grebes and a few Common Loons as well. I scanned through them for anything different, but initially didn’t come up with anything of note. I scanned a few more times as the shifting mass of ducks kept revealing hidden individuals. In this way I did pull out a male White-winged Scoter and I was happy to at least find one odd member of the flock.
I walked out along the sand spit and looked through the gulls assembled across the open mouth of the Boquet River. There were mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but their number included a few Herring and one lingering Bonaparte’s Gull. There were also a few Sanderlings running along the water’s edge and feeding along the river’s strand line. I wanted to stay longer, but I knew I needed to get back to the fields. It was almost time for the main event of my trip. And so I walked back up from the lake listening to Black-capped Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and drove back south towards the Magic Triangle.
Time to Look for Owls
I had a little bit of time so I continued my hawk watching which included Northern Harriers as well as Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks. I looped around Clark and Cross Road and then stopped where I watched three Northern Harriers course low over the grass. The sun began to dip below the purple and black Adirondacks as the few clouds in the sky reflected a myriad of colors. I stood with anticipation in the cold wind and waited.
And then I saw them. First it was one, then two, no three… now four Short-eared Owls. They seemed to materialize almost out of nothing rising from their hidden daytime roosts to change places with the harriers and hunt for rodents under the cover of darkness. The owls swooped low back and forth over the dirt road and one landed on the road surface perhaps 30 meters from me. A few made short forays in my direction and I tried to capture their twisting, bobbing, moth-like flight in the fading light with my camera. I had a very small window of light before the opportunity to take photos would be completely gone.
Owls flew around me offering quizzical looks in my direction as if wondering what I was doing up here on this cold, windy hill. Then one owl came straight toward me and approached within about 8 feet over my head. It angled its wings into the wind to allow it to stay somewhat fixed above me for several seconds and tilted its head the way my dog Wren does when she is being inquisitive. I tried to get a photo of the moment but my camera balked in the low light and struggled to find the focus. I took it away from my face so that I could take in the moment free of the camera’s encumbrance and stood there transfixed. I was face to face with the little owl which held there above my head for a second or two more and then wheeled back to join the others. I blinked almost disbelievingly at the encounter with my mouth agape.
Eventually the owls began to spread out over the fields, would come together and interact often with their hoarse, bark-like calls, and then separate again as they hunted. I was left alone on the road straining my eyes to track their progress before they would lose my following stare. Finally, it was too dark to see them anymore. I could only occasionally hear their calls coming with the wind from across the fields. I stood a short while longer breathing in the crisp air and then headed back to the car. It was time for some celebratory (and warm!) chili - enjoy your own warm treat at one of our awesome restaurants! Where will you head on your next birding adventure?