Christmas Bird Counts in the Champlain Valley and Beyond!

A Holiday Tradition

Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) have now started across the country and on Sunday I was out with a friend helping count birds in the area surrounding Point Au Roche north of Plattsburgh. This one is actually part of a count of the islands of northern Lake Champlain in Vermont, but the count circle overlaps the state boundary. After a week filled with snowy, windy, and overcast weather, we had lucked out with a good day. Cloudy skies and occasional light snow showers are nothing to complain about at this time of year.

We began our day at Point Au Roche State Park – its white landscape primed for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The road into the beach was not completely plowed which made it a great place to take part in either activity and we had taken along our snowshoes to help us trek through the snow. Being careful not to ruin the kicked in ski tracks, we walked in along the road where other hikers had gone before us. Eventually we had to set our own path as we walked down to the water to scope for ducks. There were a variety of species present including Mallards, Common Goldeneye, and American Black Ducks, and there were also a few hundred Snow Geese sitting on the water offshore. As we stood there watching, a Northern Pintail flew by with a small group of Mallards. Pintails are quite uncommon in our area and it was a nice find for the day. We then set to wandering our way through the woods checking the conifers for roosting owls and tallying common woodland songbirds. I whistled in a few places for Eastern Screech Owl, but I didn’t get a response. It was mid-morning, after all.

Northern Pintail
Northern Pintail

Finding Owls and Christmas Cheer

Eventually we wound our way back out and then began to start birding along the roads in the park. We stopped by the park boat launch where a few more ducks were sitting on the gray water, and I again attempted to draw a response from a Screech Owl. This time it worked! An owl began trilling back to me from up a slope and deep in the snow-laden conifer boughs. Screech Owls can be tough to find in much of the North Country and this was a good addition to our day’s count. Rather than to keep disturbing its rest, I stopped calling and it eventually hushed up too.

We drove south to Plattsburgh where a group of friends helping with the Plattsburgh CBC were gathering for a late morning round of Christmas goodies. Such get togethers are one of the best things about Christmas Bird Counts, after all. We loaded up on calories in the form of Christmas cookies, apricot bars, salsa and chips, fruit cup, and hot chocolate while letting our feet warm up from trudging around in the snow for much of the morning. The topic of conversation was, of course, birds and we compared notes of our sightings so far. Their most exciting bird that morning had been a female Barrow’s Goldeneye and we were able to share that we had seen a Northern Shrike while driving through their count territory. They added it to their list. Full of Christmas cheer and calories to help ward off the chill, we set out again, this time to bird the roads around much of Point Au Roche and places north along the lake. Soon after restarting our count we saw a flock of 11 Northern Pintails heading north along the lake! Happy with this find, we began to check out neighborhoods and wooded roads for songbirds.

E Screech Owl
E Screech Owl

Finding More Songbirds and Searching for Raptors

Christmas Bird Counts often involve counting a lot of common species like American Crows and Black-capped Chickadees and for a while after turning from the lake they were about the only birds we found. But thanks to the thoroughness with which these counts are conducted we began to amass a fairly long list of species in the small area as we added species like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Tufted Titmouse, American Tree Sparrow, and Hairy, Downy, and Pileated Woodpeckers. For the most part we checked out bird feeders where things were most active, and we found that we weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the feeders. In one place I spotted a beautiful adult Cooper’s Hawk sitting watch over the field and nearby houses for songbirds. It was the first of several hawks on that day.

When we left the wooded roads for the open fields, we began seeing Red-tailed and then Rough-legged Hawks sitting on patrol along the field edges as well. Light snow was beginning to fall and a short time later I noticed a male Merlin sitting sentinel in a tree. Like the Cooper’s Hawk, he was looking for birds. Further north we reached the lake again and saw our second Bald Eagle of the day – this one sitting on the ice near a bunch of ducks.

Cooper's Hawk - Larry
Cooper's Hawk - Larry

Food, Friends, Flying 

Among the ducks sat yet another Northern Pintail (it was a good day for them) and two Gadwall, both of which needed to be written in as extra species on the standard species list form which the count organizers sent us. Birders love to write in such additional, less common birds since they are an unexpected surprise. By then we had reached the edge of our count area and with the late day clouds crowding out the light we began to tally our day on our way home. We had found 41 species – with over 2500 individual birds – in our small area, showing that there are plenty of birds present even in the coldest, darkest time of year. You just have to take the time to go out and look for them. Birders who may be interested in joining another count in the region can consider the annual counts such as Westport (part of the Ferrisburgh, VT count), Elizabethtown and Saranac Lake (1/4). 

We had a memorable experience at this year's count. We met many like-minded friends, and grabbed a good bite. Want to read a bit more about autumn birding in the Champlain Valley? 

A day in the life of a Bushwhacker
Skating on Thin Ice