Fall Birding Along Lake Champlain

Heading North to South

I had a few stops to make in the Plattsburgh area this weekend, and after I was finished I took advantage of the trip by birding my way south along Lake Champlain. I started at AuSable Marsh Wildlife Management Area and the marsh was quiet, so I walked out to the beach where I could scan the lapping waves. Common loons were scattered here and there across the lake, joined by about the same number of horned grebes. There have been recent reports of red-throated and Pacific loons from the Vermont side of the lake, but I didn’t get lucky on either front on my trip. Duck numbers at AuSable were low, but there were a few hooded mergansers as well as a large flock of Canada geese in the distance, which I checked out later from state Route 9.

I walked along the beach hoping for flyover snow buntings or American pipits. Coming up empty on them I scoped south to find more loons and grebes. This time I found a Red-necked Grebe as well – a good bird to top off my visit.Hooded Mergansers - larry

I drove south, where I made a quick stop at Wickham Marsh Wildlife Management Area. There were a dozen lesser scaup in the marsh and little else, so I quickly moved to the Port Kent ferry terminal. Like AuSable Point earlier, the terminal had a few common loons and horned grebes. I also managed to fulfill my earlier hopes by finding a lone snow bunting on the beach. From there I drove to Willsboro Point, where a few bufflehead and common goldeneye sat near the boat launch — many more of both species are heading our way as the cold arrives.Snow Bunting

An Excitable Eastern Screech Owl

My quick stops done, I continued to Noblewood Park to spend some time on the sand spit. As I walked through the woods in the late afternoon, I began whistling for eastern screech owl thinking I might induce an owl to answer, or at least rile up the local songbirds. Almost immediately after I started whistling a screech owl answered from along the marshy wet area which borders the trail to the sand spit! We called back and forth and the bird kept on going again and again after I stopped trying to lure it to me. I walked to the spit with it still calling.Eastern Screech Owl

North of the spit there was a similar mix of aquatic species as elsewhere with common loons and horned grebes dotting the water’s surface. The southern side of the spit was much more active with groups of common goldeneye and bufflehead flying from my approach while others dived offshore. I scanned through them for a Barrow’s goldeneye, but didn’t have any luck. Instead I found a female red-breasted merganser as a consolation. As I stood quietly, letting the flock reshuffle, I could hear the eastern screech owl still calling in the distance! I must have made quite an impression on him, but I won’t embarrass him by telling his friends he was duped. An immature bald eagle flew low over the water as if testing to see if the ducks and gulls were on their toes before it flew off into the low sun in the western sky, signaling that it was time for me to move if I was to find my final quarry of the day.

Searching for Short-eared Owls

After a quick stop to look at the ducks at the Essex Ferry terminal, I drove up to the Magic Triangle. The woods and fields were mostly quiet in the early evening, but my timing was perfect. I was hunting for short-eared owls.Short-eared owl - sunset

I started by scanning from the top of the lookout along Clark Road but found nothing. I moved down the road to Webb Royce Swamp, where short-eareds have recently been spotted, and walked along the road scanning. Still nothing. I repeated the process back and forth, up and down Clark Road. No dice. By this time the light was really starting to wane and I only had enough time to check one final location. I drove back to the lookout along Clark Road where I usually find short-eareds each year. I stood scouring the landscape — wondering if this was the best place to make my final attempt — and right on cue a short-eared owl flew from the shadows across the fields directly toward me. It came in close to check me out and was gone on an evening of hunting. I stood smiling, watching it float into the gloom. I never like it when a bird holds out that long to be found, but considering how easy the eastern screech owl had been I suppose it balanced out my personal birding universe. Besides, the effort it takes to locate a challenging bird can make the success in finding it all the more gratifying.

Fall and winter are great times to explore the Champlain Valley. Check out our outdoor recreation, lodging, and dining sites here!

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