The Potential of Fall Birding
Fall birding brings with it both the usual migrants as well as odd and interesting finds. It not only makes for an exciting time of year, it also means that birders have to be prepared for what might come their way. And so with the hope of both usual migrants and unusual species, Wren and I headed to the northern Lake Champlain Region last week. I had to take care of some business in Plattsburgh, so I decided to take advantage of the trip with some afternoon birding.
Ducks, Grebes, Shorebirds, and More
We began at Ausable Marsh where we were met by a bit of disappointment. While there were plenty of birds at Ausable, the road was closed for paving – something which they’ve needed to do – and we could only reach the first pull-off along it. That said, I found a flock of Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, Horned Grebes (which are everywhere in the valley right now), and three Greater Yellowlegs.
I drove to a pull-off along Rt. 9 just north of the marsh where a large flock of Canada Geese had taken up residence, but I didn’t find any odd species of geese with them. After all, this is the best time of year to find uncommon species of geese. But there were small groups of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, a few Pied-billed Grebes, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and a flock of shorebirds which included both Sanderlings and Dunlin. Clearly there was a lot of action at Ausable – I wish we could have explored it a bit more!
But, such is life in birding and the time I saved at Ausable proved to be beneficial as I drove further north. As I did, I continued to add species like Red-breasted Merganser, Brant, Bald Eagle, and another Sanderling as well as a Ruffed Grouse at Point AuRoche State Park. I also found my first Snow Geese of the day in the neighboring fields. Gilbert Brook Marina added four Black-bellied Plovers and more Bonaparte’s Gulls, as the Snow Geese which had spent the middle of the day on Trombley Bay headed to the fields to feed.
The unfortunate thing about my timing was that there were almost no Snow Geese on the water – where they are often easier to scan through for a Ross’s Goose. Given how far out most of them were in the fields, I chose to skip the flocks for closer birds which offered a chance for photos.
That said, the cloudy day was continuing to grow darker so that photos were also becoming difficult. And so Wren and I continued to the boat launch for the Great Chazy River, where ducks are often congregated near the river mouth. On this day they included Bufflehead, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Common Mergansers. There were also a few Pied-billed Grebes and a Northern Harrier.
Given that I had been unable to explore Ausable Marsh earlier that afternoon, I was much further north than I had anticipated when I left home for the day, so I decided to try my luck for more late shorebirds (I already had found four species) at the Chazy Riverlands. As I walked to the pool, I found a small group of Mallards and one lone Greater Yellowlegs. The Mallards flew, taking the yellowlegs with them, and I waited a few minutes beneath the gray sky and in the strong south wind to see what might turn up.
I was about to leave when two low-flying birds caught my eye – breaking the horizon to reveal their shape as swallows – which are usually long gone from the North Country by now. Juggling my bag I excitedly followed them and saw that they were Cave Swallows – the first ever noted along the New York State side of Lake Champlain. Cave Swallows are found in places like the Caribbean and Texas, and the birds that show up in the northeast come from the Texas population.
It is a fairly recent phenomenon, but Cave Swallows get pushed to the northeast on strong southwest and south winds seemingly annually in mid-late fall – the exact climactic conditions we’ve been having. Once I got home I saw that there were also reports of Cave Swallows along the east coast in places like North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and that one had been seen in Montreal on the previous day.
The swallows quickly raced from view and I stood and waited for a while to see if they would return. After they failed to do so I headed back to see if they were working the mouth of the Great Chazy River. But they were not. So I returned briefly to the Chazy Riverlands to check there again. I knew that my efforts were not likely to be rewarded in the misty rain this late in the day, but I had to try. I finally gave up on re-finding the birds and decided it was time to call it a day — especially considering how my scuttled plans to investigate Ausable Marsh had me exploring as far north as Chazy.
I contacted other birders about the swallows and the following day a few folks found – and photographed – the birds. But the day after that they were not re-found, and the ensuing cool front likely flushed them south from the region. The window to see such birds is often quite small – one reason why it is important to get out as much as possible to find such rarities when you can. And so with the Cave Swallows more than likely back where they theoretically belong —or at least a whole lot closer than when they were here, that’s what I (and Wren by default) intend to do.