The Quest for Birds in the Southern Champlain Valley

Winter Birding in the Valley

While winter offers us fewer species of birds than does the summer, winter birding is no less interesting as a variety of species from the north come into our area to enjoy our relatively balmy temperatures (when compared to the arctic). I guided a few recent birding trips into the Champlain Valley and while each was a success, the composition of the species we found varied from day to day. For instance, there was a Northern Pintail at the Westport boat launch that was replaced by an American Coot a week later. A few days after that trip I relocated the Pintail in Westport and the Coot was in Port Henry where there were also a lingering Double-crested Cormorant and a Common Loon. As the friend I was guiding that day put it, “A Cormorant, a Coot, and a Loon. Sounds like a wild bunch.”

Duck numbers are beginning to grow in the valley and as the ice advances with each cold night, they are getting pushed together by a slowly shrinking body of water. There are currently large numbers of scaup and Common Goldeneye in Bulwagga Bay south of Port Henry, but each time I’ve checked it over the past week we haven’t found any Barrow’s Goldeneye or anything unusual. But such species could arrive any day.


Lots of Raptors and other Field Species

Even with the ducks on the lake, the targets of some of my recent trips to the valley have been field species. We’ve had a great deal of success in this endeavor with good numbers of Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks in the Magic Triangle near Essex, on the fields south of Westport, and along the fields of Crown Point. The fields on the Vermont side of the Champlain Bridge have been even more productive with Northern Harrier, Merlin, and American Kestrel hunting along the farm fields and hedgerows which characterize the east side of the valley. We were also fortunate to find a Snowy Owl twice on the Vermont side of the bridge. There had also been two Snowies noted on the New York side of the lake a few weeks ago, but while we didn’t find either of them, a recent trip to the Magic Triangle did yield two Short-eared Owls. As I said, the species-mix on each trip varies.

Not to be overshadowed by the raptors, wintering songbirds have also been in large numbers. American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos have been everywhere and I’ve found a few lingering Song Sparrows with them in places. The other day my friend and I bumped into a fellow birder in Westport who had just seen a Lapland Longspur along Stevenson Road on the south end of town.


Searching for Longspurs and a Harris’s Sparrow

Since my friend had never seen a Longspur, we headed in that direction to look for the bird which had been hanging out with a couple of Horned Larks. We found the larks as they fed in the narrow, exposed grass strip along the side of the road, but there was no Longspur with them. We stopped the car and got out in the breeze and began to slowly hunt along the edge of the road. There was a large group of American Tree Sparrows and Juncos further up the road, but there didn’t seem to be anything different with them either. Then I noticed a Savannah Sparrow, and after a little searching, we soon counted about 10 more. This was an unusually high tally for the time of year – one would be a good find. But we still had no Longspur. There was also a large flock of Snow Geese producing a cacophony of noise in the field and as I scanned through them I noticed a few Horned Larks flying across the field in the distance as well. The Longspur could have moved away from the road to join them.

We moved a short distance and stopped along Napper Road for a small group of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks hunkered in a snowy field. A few days before I was watching a flock of Snow Buntings run through the powder and jump to grab seeds from the grasses over their heads, but these birds seemed content to fluff up and stay low in the wind. Perhaps they had fed well already that morning. Alas for my friend, there was no Longspur there either. But persistence pays off and shortly after crossing the bridge into Vermont we found not one, but better than 10 Lapland Longspurs with a group of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings.

Harris's Sparrow - Larry
Harris's Sparrow - Larry

Searching for such uncommon species often requires patience and time since the birds can be so scattered. And the winds of fate may or may not choose to blow success in finding them in your favor. We were reminded of this fact shortly after seeing all of those Longspurs. A short distance down the road we couldn’t find the vagrant Harris’s Sparrow which seemed to have forgotten it should be in Texas or Arkansas at this time of year. Just a few days earlier the bird had landed perhaps 7 feet from me and I and the three folks I was guiding enjoyed long looks at it. But such is the way of birds and birding. You can be in the right place and do everything correctly, but it doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in finding your quarry. As such, it’s difficult to know if the Harris’s Sparrow is still there – it hasn’t been seen in a few days.

But that is the beauty of pursuing birds. If success was guaranteed it would cease to be much fun – or at least cease to be a challenge. Birders pursue birds not simply because they are beautiful and fascinating creatures, but also because they represent a challenge and an opportunity not to be conquered, but to be experienced. And that makes the quest for finding birds to be a driving force behind much of what we as birders do. In birding, as in life, it is often the journey and effort which are more valuable than a string of easy successes. As another client of mine recently put it, “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.” And so the success of my recent trips to find birds will likely just spur me on to find still more. And had the trips been less successful in finding birds they would have likely driven me to do the same. After all, whether the diversity of birds is lower in winter or not, there are still a lot of interesting birds out there, and winter is only just beginning.

Want to learn more about birding in the Champlain Valley? Looking for a guide to help you along the way? Want to hit the Adirondack Coast for some great outdoor activities but don't know where to start - check out our Outdoor Recreation section, we have great opportunities for all seasons. Plan now, and we'll see you soon!

Skating on Thin Ice
Reflecting on 2014