AuSABLE POINT — Rare visitors from the Arctic tundra have drawn area bird-watching enthusiasts to the open water on Lake Champlain near Ausable Point State Park.
Three tundra swans, two adults and a juvenile, have established a temporary presence just offshore from the access road to the campgrounds. They have been observed there for a few weeks now.
"They breed way up on the very top of the world," said Department of Environmental Conservation Wildlife Biologist John O'Connor of the visitors. "They migrate through New York and winter down in South Carolina and other areas. But they are a pretty rare sight in New York state and really rare for Lake Champlain."
The trio has probably chosen to stay on Lake Champlain for the time being because of the mild winter and open lake.
"That portion of Lake Champlain is usually frozen," O'Connor said. "Temperatures have been so mild that the lake water is pretty warm for this time of year."
Although there is no way of knowing for sure, the three swans may be a family, with the two adults and their young offspring. Tundra swans — like many species of waterfowl — will typically mate for life. If one swan dies, the other may not pair with another bird for its remaining life.
Tundra swans are a bit smaller than the more common mute swan. An adult tundra swan will weigh in around 20 pounds, while an adult mute swan can weigh 30 pounds and more.
"It's still a very impressive bird with a 6-foot wingspan," O'Connor said.
Tundra swans are much less accustomed to humans than other species, such as mute and trumpeter swans, and tend to shy away from a crowd.
"They've been hanging around the campground road just in front of the cattail marsh, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation," O'Connor said. "When cars pile up, they do start to move farther out into the lake."
He suggests parking at the small parking lot just before the campground entrance and walking back to view the swans. A line of trees along the road provides some cover for potential viewers, he said. Binoculars will help zoom in on the birds, he added.
MORE SNOWY OWLS
The warm weather has also impacted the area's duck species. Thousands of golden eye, mergansers, mallards and other species typically congregate along open water off Port Kent at this time of year, but with little ice on Lake Champlain, the waterfowl are spread out more than usual, O'Connor noted.
There is also at least one bald eagle at Ausable Point this winter, but O'Connor said the predator should not be a threat to the swans.
"Bald eagles don't take birds as easily as other raptors do," he said. "They will try to take a duck from time to time, but a swan is much larger than a duck."
Another arctic species, the snowy owl, has been spotted with regularity south of the Canadian border. DEC has received reports of two sightings in the Plattsburgh area.
Claudia Caveney spotted a snowy owl on her property on Willsboro Point late last week, perched near a beach chair not far from Lake Champlain.
"After a good prey year, (snowy owls) will have a lot of offspring, and the offspring have to go somewhere for food," O'Connor said, explaining one reason why snowy-owl sightings have increased. Winter has also been much harsher in the tundra this year, and snowy owls may have migrated south because of the weather, he added.
The best way to identify possible locations for exotic bird sightings is to access bird-watching websites with chat forums, O'Connor noted. Birdwatchers will often post unusual sightings, he said.
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