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Slayton: Birding Champlain

(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 bird watching 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.

Early 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.

Out 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.

At 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.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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