What I did today on the Adirondack Coast…… Four Brothers Islands

Early this morning my kayak partner and I set off from Port Douglas Beach for a paddle out to the Four Brothers. I had heard of the Four Brothers many times but had never paddled out to see what everyone was talking about. The Four Brothers are a small chain of islands not far from the arm of Willsboro point at the broadest part of Lake Champlain. The Islands are not a place to paddle to and get out for a hike or stop for lunch. They are set up as a designated bird nesting site perfectly suited for birdwatchers.

The sky was sparsely dotted with high clouds and plenty of sun. The Lake conditions in Corlear Bay were calm, but we knew that this wasn’t going to last after listening to the NOAA report stating that we would see one to three-foot waves throughout the day. Prepared for this, we set out for a 12.5 mile round trip paddle out to the Four Brothers Islands.

Four Brothers Islands

I read that the Four Brothers Islands are home to eight species of nesting water birds and five species of ducks, geese and mergansers. in recent years, a pair of Glossy Ibis were the first of its species to nest on the islands. As a result, Lake Champlain’s Four Brothers Islands are now noted as the northern most nesting site for ibis in the world. Among these bird species nesting on the Islands are thousands of Double-Crested Cormorants. The addition of such numbers of Cormorants has heavily damaged the green space on the Islands creating a stark difference between the Four Brothers and every other Lake Champlain Island I had visited. Stands of dead trees sit among low growing shrubs that must be suitable to the poor soil conditions caused by the birds guano. The guano from the birds has Choked the life out of the soil leaving eerie stands of lifeless white pines where the forest canopy once stood.  All four Islands appear to have gone through a transformation from the lush green forests sported by Islands like Crab, and Valcour, to very low shrubs and guano covered rocky shores. This difference makes these islands very unique among the rest. I felt as if I had traveled completely outside of the Adirondack Coast, but was in fact sitting in my own back yard.

The eastern side of one of the Four Brothers.
Cormorants covering the remains of trees on the south side of one of the Brothers.

The number of birds on the islands is hard to describe. I expected to show up and see some birds flying about, but nothing like what I actually witnessed. I kept my camera shooting to capture this outstanding mixed population of birds. I am not an expert on birds and cannot name all that I saw. I did see at least fifteen different species among Islands A-D in the hustle and bustle of this bird city.

The most prevalent of species on the Islands was that of the Double-Crested Cormorant which began nesting on the islands in the 1980’s. The Double-Crested Cormorant is considered an invasive species and have been under going investigation for their negative and positive effects on the native species of Lake Champlain. The large population of Cormorants has brought with it large nesting communities like that of The Four Brothers Islands on various islands around Lake Champlain. Those nesting communities are responsible for the destruction found here from their guano which strips the islands of their nutrients as well as their destructive nature of stripping the trees of their leaves and branches for use in nest-building. The Nature Conservancy is the owner of the Four Brothers Islands and have posted signs to inform visitors of the bird nesting conservancy. I couldn’t get close enough to the sign to read the description, but I am sure it says that we should not tread on the shores of any of the islands. Anyone who does not obey the sign might find themselves unhappy with the results. The young Cormorants have only one defense against predators. They are known to regurgitate their meals on those passing below to discourage them from getting near. I would take regurgitated fish as a fair reason not to venture beyond the safety of my boat. Your chances of being defecated on are high with the birds flying ahead as I was unfortunately found by a seagull with great aim. I count myself lucky that it was seagull and not a Cormorant or goose.

Double-Crested Cormorants standing high on the limbs of a long dead White Pine

The visuals of seeing so may birds in mass all over the islands and in the air can be mesmerizing. From one seated position one can watch many species of birds living together. I highly recommend that anyone with interest in birds take a trip to the Four Brothers to see the spectacle.

How do you get there? From Plattsburgh travel south on Interstate 87 to Keeseville exit 34. Turn right onto State Route 9N. Take a right at the traffic signal onto State Route 22. Turn right over the bridge at the flashing traffic signal onto State Route 9. Left onto Clinton street (just past the grocery store). Clinton street becomes Port Douglas rd. Port Douglas rd. ends at the Port Douglas beach and boat launch. This boat launch has both a concrete launch site as well as a sandy beach to avoid the larger motor boat traffic.

In the water begin by heading south-east toward the visible point of Willsboro point. After you round the point, you will see the four brothers in the distance as a reference point for your destination.

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