Searching for Rare Birds and Raptors in the Champlain Valley

A Rare and Exciting Find

It was exciting news, although frustratingly so since I couldn’t do anything about it at the time: my friend had texted me that he had found a white-phase Gyrfalcon on the frozen waters of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh. However, I was out of town and had become quite sick, I needed to wait to heal up before I could go looking for the bird. Other birders did search over the ensuing days, yet none of them came up with it. Predatory species like that often travel widely and no one knows whether its stop along the lake was a one-day showing or if it remains some place in the valley.

I finally felt better and got a chance to search for the arctic falcon. With beautiful weather and clear skies it was a great chance to go and potentially snap some photos if I got lucky. And while I was not lucky with re-finding the Gyrfalcon, I had an excellent day with a few other rare birds, the first of which came at my first stop.

A Tufted Duck!

As I often do, I began my day at the Westport Boat Launch where I bumped into a fellow birder who was also just arriving there. We scanned through the variety of ducks on the open lanes of water between the growing sheets of ice and found Ring-necked Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, and Common Mergansers. There were also hundreds and hundreds of Mallards spread across the area and as my friend scanned through a distant group, he found something odd. “I think I might have a Tufted Duck here,” he said. I looked through his scope and then found where he was looking with mine. I agreed – there was a duck tucked up on an ice floe with bright white flanks, a black back, and a black head and butt which looked to be a drake Tufted Duck.

Tufted Duck - Essex Ferry
Tufted Duck - Essex Ferry

We studied the bird for a bit hoping it would un-tuck its head and show us its tuft, but we were never able to see the tuft. Some males have small tufts anyway and from that distance it may have been difficult to see. Soon the larger Mallards surrounding it walked in front and blocked it completely. We waited and found it again a few minutes later – still tucked into a small ball. Another birder arrived to join my friend to go birding for the day. Then the Mallards blocked our view a second time and I drove up the road to see if I could find it from the view above the wastewater treatment plant. I couldn’t relocate it as I tried to figure out in which of the many groups of Mallards visible from my new angle the bird was hiding. I found a few Greater Scaup and a Northern Pintail, but that was it. I returned to the boat launch and my friends hadn’t been able to relocate the bird either. I was sure it was a Tufted Duck, but because of the distant look I couldn’t necessarily completely rule out that it could be a hybrid between a Tufted Duck and something else – perhaps a scaup. When you find a rare species from Europe you want to be 100% sure of what you have. But the bird remains out there and we’ll be searching for it again.

Finding Raptors in the Fields

We finally moved on and went different directions planning to stay in touch in case we found anything of note. I initially traveled south of Westport through a few fields where I had a number of Red-tailed Hawks as well as a flyover flock of Common Redpolls – just now starting to show up in the area. Hopefully their numbers will build during the winter. I drove north of Westport and checked out the Magic Triangle. There I found more Red-tailed Hawks as well as a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a light phase Rough-legged Hawk hunting from the fence posts.

Rough-legged hawk - triangle
Rough-legged hawk - triangle

More Ducks and an Eastern Screech Owl

The lake water was still open from Whallon’s Bay to the Essex Ferry Terminal and there was a nice collection of ducks spaced throughout the area with most of them at the ferry itself. These included all three species of merganser, Ring-necked Duck, American Black Duck, Common Goldeneye, and Lesser Scaup, all sitting under the watchful gaze of two adult Bald Eagles. There were also a couple Common Loons and Horned Grebes in the area as well. I also found an immature Bald Eagle watching the water from along the road just south of the ferry, and was able to snap a few photos of it.

I made my way to Noblewood Park in Willsboro and bumped into my friends again who had a good diversity of ducks at Noblewood as well – similar to what we had found previously. They also had a large number of Horned Grebes. I walked into the park and listened to a few Black-capped Chickadees and a Red-breasted Nuthatch calling in the trees. I whistled like an Eastern Screech Owl to agitate the birds and after a few minutes I heard a Screech Owl call back to me! Screech Owls aren’t common in many places in the North Country but they are present in the valley and this was a nice late afternoon find. I stopped calling and listened to its soft whinny.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

Elated by this find I then worked my way back south towards the Magic Triangle where I scanned the fields and edge of the woods for hawks or owls as the sun began to drop behind the Adirondacks in the west. I did not find the Gyrfalcon on this day, but hadn’t expected to do so either. I will be out searching for it and the Tufted Duck again. As it was I had seen some other great birds, and the sunset alone was worth the trip.

Of course, when you're out all day birding the Adirondack Coast, you'll be sure to work up an appetite. Check out all of our local eateries and warm up with a hot meal while you review the day's sightings. And, when you're ready to ditch the car and hit the trails, why not check out these great snowshoe hikes?

Get out your traction! What's the one thing you need to hike on icy terrain?
Saying "I Do" Along the Adirondack Coast