Counting Birds in the Champlain Valley

It’s that time of year again

Like everything else during the holiday season, Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) sneak up on me before I am ready. There are emails a few months before the date, followed by more emails, and then the day arrives and I’m somehow mystified as to how that happened. Chalk it up to busyness and far too much to do.

A great start to the winter season

In the weeks preceding the counts, many folks head out to prep for the count day itself and some good stuff was being turned up in the Southern Champlain Valley as a result, including both Barrow’s Goldeneye and Tufted Duck near Port Henry and in Bulwagga Bay. That area around the Champlain Bridge will continue to be excellent (a Canvasback was found in Port Henry just yesterday) as we move toward and beyond the New Year. There have also been lots of Bohemian Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, and Common Redpolls in the valley – the latter two part of the big movement of winter finches this year across the region. With other birds like Northern Shrikes and Rough-legged Hawks showing up, it promises to be a good winter of birding.

Pine Grosbeaks have been getting found in the Champlain Valley so far this winter.

There are many different counts from which to choose in the region too, so folks can help with more than one if their schedules allow. The CBC period began locally with both Elizabethtown and the Ferrisburgh, VT (which overlaps into the Southern Champlain Valley on the New York State side of the lake) counts which ran the first Saturday of the count period. Both counts seemed to go smoothly, and the following day was the date for both the Plattsburgh CBC and the Champlain Islands Count which is based in Vermont but includes the Point Au Roche area north of Plattsburgh. I helped with the latter.

While I didn't find any during my count, there are a few Barrow's Goldeneye in the valley right now. Image courtesy of

Birding Point Au Roche

And so Wren, my dog, and I began our day at Point Au Roche State Park where the miles of trails took us through a variety of habitats in search of birds. As a result our day began with the usual species, including birds like Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, and American Robin, as well as one of those Common Redpolls – this bird a flyover. We also scoped the lake from the park’s beach and the overlook of Treadwell Bay. The relatively warm temperatures and flat water (there was only a light breeze) made for great viewing conditions, but many of the birds were still far out on the lake, perhaps because the pleasant day had attracted lots of hunters who were out working the shoreline. Despite that we still managed nice numbers of Common Goldeneye, Mallards, and American Black Ducks as well as a flock of Snow Geese on the fields across from the entrance to the park.

As the morning lengthened, Wren and I met up with the folks who were helping with the Cumberland Head portion of the Plattsburgh count (adjacent to my count area) for some holidays treats. As we enjoyed some goodies we also swapped sightings. My friends had found a Peregrine Falcon as well as a Snowy Owl. There had been a Snowy Owl hanging out near the Plattsburgh marina for the past week or so, but this owl (which was more strongly marked) was a different bird.

My friends found a Snowy Owl near the Plattsburgh marina.

I was tempted to drop south to see the Snowy immediately after our gathering, but I still had a lot of ground to cover for my count so Wren and I were soon back on the trails in Point Au Roche – this time on the other side of the park. In doing so we found a similar mix of birds, but added our first Red-tailed Hawk of the day as well as a Green-winged Teal which was mixed in with some Mallards.

There were still more trails we could have covered, but the songbirds had been fairly quiet and I knew we had to check out the route along the lake north of Point Au Roche, so we began to wind our way up, first taking our time on the roads which loop Point Roche itself.

An afternoon along the lakeshore and an evening of owls

In doing so we quickly began to add more raptors, first a few more Red-tailed Hawks and then a Peregrine Falcon, perhaps the same bird which my friends had seen earlier that day in Cumberland Head. The falcon was a large adult – I’m sure a female – and while it sat quite contentedly posing, I did not have my camera handy for any photos it. Chalk that up to poor planning. So I tried to sneak out of the car to fetch my camera from the back, but the falcon took off and raced away on fast-flapping wings.

A Peregrine Falcon was a nice find on the count. Image courtesy of

Wren and I continued north along Lake Shore Road were we counted waterfowl on Monty Bay, adding Canada Goose, and both Common and Hooded Mergansers, all under the watchful gaze of a couple Bald Eagles. There was also a couple thousand Snow Geese on the lake, but they were too far out for me to see if there was a Ross’s Goose in their midst. As I continued working the edge of the lake, some of the Snow Geese began lifting off to fly to the farm fields to feed for the evening, and so I was soon racing a short distance south in an attempt to intercept them as they flew overhead. The effort was kindled by a renewed hope that I could spot a Ross’s. But, I ended up mostly getting good looks of tail feathers as the geese flew off into the distance, and the lines of Snows I saw well didn’t hold any Ross’s.

I tried to intercept the lines of Snow Geese leaving the lake, but I didn't succeed in finding a Ross's Goose in the mix.

I waited for several minutes hoping for more geese to pass overhead and a few did but after a while I knew it was time to go. The days are short at this time of year and I was hoping to find the Snow Goose flocks feeding in the fields.

And so Wren and I wound our way back south through the count area, but we struck out on finding where the geese had decided to feed. Eventually we found a much smaller flock near Point Au Roche State Park and I picked through them between the corn stalks in a vain attempt to find a Ross’s.

I was excited to hear the whinny call of an Eastern Screech Owl in the evening.

With the light waning I gave up on the geese and I faced one final choice: I had hoped to end my day with the Snowy Owl found by my friends, but that would mean I’d be finished with my count. And so I decided to remain in Point Au Roche longer into the evening in the hopes of finding owls of my own. I was glad that I did. I topped off the day with both a Barred Owl and an Eastern Screech Owl to add to the count, as well as a wildly vocal Red Fox which, although not an additional bird for the count, was cool all the same.

Happy with these additions to our day, Wren and I headed home for a well-earned dinner of clam chowder and turkey burgers (one of her favorites!).

Winter birding has started off great in the Champlain Valley this year, and it promises to remain excellent throughout the season. Plan your trip today by checking out our lodging and dining pages. And with more counts across the region in the coming weeks, there are still more opportunities to get involved.




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