A New Year’s Day Trip
People celebrate the New Year in different ways, but for most birdwatchers, the year begins with a birding trip. And so, after taking my time to get going with the cold temps outside (it was about -25 that morning!), my four-legged companion Wren and I loaded up for the Lake Champlain Region.
We planned to start our day at Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Given how cold it has been, Ausable was a good choice because the lake is still open there – the northern and southern ends of the lake are frozen and with the temps in our current forecast will certainly freeze more.
Birds At Ausable Marsh And Ausable Point
Even at Ausable, ice covered the lake in the bays and coves, forcing the waterfowl further from shore. I stood and scoped them in the zero-degree sun, and found species like Common Goldeneye, Mallard, American Black Duck, Greater Scaup, Hooded Merganser, and lots of Common Mergansers. I also spotted a Lesser Black-backed Gull which was a bit hazy to observe in the strong distortion caused by the cold air meeting the relatively warm waters of the lake.
As a result of this contorted view, I gave up on distant scoping and Wren and I set out to walk around Ausable Point where our path was met by thin spots where the snow had been blown off, and their accompanying drifts. But I found few birds – they seemed happier to tuck in along the ice in the bay than to expose themselves along the point. I felt the same way, and after we had walked a loop along the point and through the campground I was glad to return to the car.
The cold breeze — which easily dipped the windchill below zero — had been getting to me. Despite this, I still managed to find a flock of songbirds in the pines which included Black-capped Chickadee, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Downy Woodpecker. More interesting to me were the flyover Snow Buntings and Red Crossbills – I’ve been seeing both regularly of late. An adult Bald Eagle was also nice to see.
Several Cold Stops
The short drive from the campground to the pull-off along Route 9 was not nearly long enough to warm me up, but it was nice to be out of the air briefly. I found a similar mix of waterfowl from Route 9, but I also found an interesting dark (relatively) mantled Herring Gull.
We turned south for Port Kent, where the ferry landing was surrounded by open water, but few ducks. It did however support four adult Bald Eagles which flew back and forth while I sat in the car with my foot on the warm defroster vent to help restore circulation to my toes.
We turned north for Plattsburgh, first stopping at the marina and town park where a Snowy Owl has been frequenting the breakwater. We didn’t see the owl on our visit, and although I could see many distant shapes of ducks and gulls on the open water to the south, they were once again greatly distorted, so we moved on.
The Saranac River mouth was almost completely frozen, and while the water was open near the Cumberland Head Ferry Terminal, it only held the attention of one Common Merganser. It almost seemed unfair to find nothing on the open lake after looking at so much ice after leaving Ausable, but even open patches of water aren’t always filled by birds. That’s just the luck of birding, and cold weather birding seems to accentuate that reality.
Owls And Other Raptors To End The Day
But my cold hands, toes, and face were happy to do some car birding for a spell, and I had planned on covering the fields around Cumberland Head and Point Au Roche since the Gyrfalcon had been found there a few weeks previously.
The sun was already sinking low, but late afternoon and evening are often good times to search for raptors. I started out on Moffit Road and immediately found a Rough-legged Hawk and a Red-tailed Hawk, checking out the flocks of Rock Pigeons and European Starlings which might draw in a falcon.
I also spotted a few Snow Buntings along Pardy Road, but it was the rising supermoon at sunset which got me to stop and brave the cold with my camera. I was fortunate that it had that effect on me. As I admired the moon, a Snowy Owl flew in — silhouetted by the pink sky — and landed on a nearby telephone pole. I went to the car to change my camera lens, and the owl — not interested in sitting in one place — took off and cruised low over a neighboring field hoping to catch an unwary Snow Bunting or Lapland Longspur which populated the field. But the birds were alert and the owl simply scattered them before returning to a different pole.
It didn’t remain long on its new perch either and it was soon off, much to my dismay as I was still trying to adjust the settings on my camera as it flew almost directly over me and headed south over the fields while American Crows voiced their displeasure. Disappointed as I was with my photographic inefficiency, I was glad to have seen the owl and I decided to continue north to see if it had been the same owl which had been hanging out at the farm which sits at the intersection of Moffit and Spellman Roads.
On arriving there I saw that it was not — an owl sat sentinel upon one of the barns, clearly different than the previous owl. But it wasn’t interested in sitting for long either and was soon off. I found it down the road near Point Au Roche — this time on top of a large silo. It took off from there too and I continued on to Point Au Roche, the gray light of evening was growing but I still had time to spot Snowy #3 or some other owl.
I did not come across a third Snowy Owl on my short route up and back Lake Shore Road, but I did note perhaps a 1000 Mallards and American Black Ducks streaming overhead. There must be some open water in the middle of Champlain and such a concentration of ducks would offer good fodder to the Gyrfalcon if it is still around – it hasn’t been seen since Christmas, but it could still be in the neighborhood.
As the orange, pink, and purple drained from the face of the sky, I turned to end the day at Point Au Roche State Park. Wren had been wanting another walk and so we took a short spin in the park, while I whistled for Eastern Screech Owl. The soft tremulous response from an answering owl was an excellent way to end the day and my cue that we needed to get warm in the car and head home for a hot meal.
Winter might be cold, but the birding can be hot. Plan your outdoor adventure trip today by checking out our lodging and dining pages. And, make sure you let us know what species you spot on your trip to the Lake Champlain Region!
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