Slayton: Birding Champlain

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(Host) The connection Vermonters have with nature flourishes in winter
as well as warmer times. Journalist and commentator Tom Slayton proved
that point recently when he spent the day birdwatching along the shore
of Lake Champlain.

(Slayton) Winter views in the Champlain
Valley are big, broad, and sweeping. You can see for miles across the
open, snow-covered fields and the wide, windswept expanse of Lake
Champlain itself.

This big valley is a compellingly beautiful
place. And because the valley is a major waterfowl flyway, for some
hardy souls it’s an excellent place to see birds in midwinter.

one recent morning a small group of die-hard enthusiasts, heavily clad
against the January chill, gathered at Shelburne Bay. A common pochard –
a very rare European duck – and an only slightly less unusual tufted
duck had been seen near the Champlain Bridge, about 20 miles south.
Birders on the excursion, sponsored by Montpelier’s North Branch Nature
Center, and led by naturalist Larry Clarfeld, hoped to spot those and
other rarities.

Despite its obvious inconveniences – cold winds,
cold feet, cold spotting scopes and binoculars extracting the warmth
from cold hands – winter birding has its own special allure. Part of the
attraction is the fact – probably obvious – that one sees different
birds in winter than in summer. And another part here in the Champlain
Valley is the stark beauty of this snow-covered landscape.

there on the broad lake, amidst the ice and whitecaps, were ducks –
literally thousands of them – and along the Champlain Valley roads and
in its wide farm fields there were hawks and finches and sparrows – even
a lone, singing bluebird – and other winter-hardy birds – for the
winter-hardy birders to seek out and marvel at.

There was almost
too much to take in: More than a dozen eagles, red tailed hawks and a
huge rough-legged hawk. At Meach Cove, half a mile out in the choppy,
white-capped waters of the broad lake, red-breasted mergansers surfed
through the chilly waves. Even through powerful spotting scopes it was
hard to see them, but they nevertheless looked like they were having a
great time, diving and sporting in Champlain’s freezing waters.

Charlotte Town Beach, the birders watched a horned grebe just offshore
as it swam swim briefly along the surface, then dove underwater where it
stayed for a long time. "You don’t need a scope to see that grebe,"
said Clarfeld. "But scuba equipment might help!" An elegant pintail duck
also swam close to shore with a flock of Mallards.

The climax
of the trip came in the afternoon, near the Champlain Bridge. There, in a
sheltered spot, large rafts of thousands of ducks – mostly scaup and
goldeneyes – swam and courted and dove and fed – as the winds blew and
the ice formed and the massive river of ducks flowed slowly northward up
the wide, windy lake.

There were several rarities seen – the
tufted duck, with its flashy, feathery ponytail, redheads and
canvasbacks and a Barrows goldeneye. The rare pochard was not seen. But
to the little band of birders who had spent a full day taking in the
wild beauty and great open spaces of our state’s largest natural
ecosystem, that hardly mattered at all.

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