Begin the day at Painesville Township Park as close to first light as possible. If the weather is uncooperative, park just to the left of the stairs for a good view of Lake Erie from inside your vehicle. Depending on the day and the wind, you could see all sorts of waterfowl streaming by including some rare treats. Check flocks of mergansers for an eider among them, have your camera ready for a flight shot of a jaeger, and be on the lookout for Brant. Morning flights of passerines can also be observed at this lakeside location with flocks of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Evening Grosbeaks and other winter finches flying along the lakeshore. The lucky lake watcher might even see a Cave Swallow! As you drive through the park to leave, pay close attention to the geese in the baseball fields in case there are other species with them.
Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, and Cackling Goose (Sarah Preston) at Painesville Township Park
Drive into downtown Fairport Harbor via Fairport Nursery Road. There are several pull-offs along the roadway. Small flocks of Horned Lark, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspur congregate in the gravel on the side of the road. Flushed by cars, they’ll fly into the grass or perch on the green chain-link fence. Snowy Owls are known to perch on the telephone poles here but also appear on the grassy hillsides. A pair of Common Ravens recently made Lake County their home and the unkindness, now totaling five, often flies around above this grassland area.
Snowy Owl (Caitlin Ambrose) and Common Raven (Sarah Preston) along Fairport Nursery Road
Warm up with a coffee and a bite of breakfast. Saturday brunch at Fairport Harbor Creamery starts at 9am offering made-from-scratch pastries like cinnamon rolls and maple sausage and cheddar brioches at the walk-up window or you can order ahead online. If it’s Sunday, go to Glazed Fairport as early as 8am for whimsically named donuts or a breakfast sammy served on a donut or biscuit.
Head toward Lake Erie on East Street to Sunset Harbor, scanning the small marina for grebes as you drive by. Park between the large blue HTP building and the harbor, another location where you can bird from within a vehicle. Inspect the Bonaparte’s Gulls for the sought-after Sabine’s, Little, and Black-headed Gulls. The small cove to the east is known to locals as Mew Gull Cove because one was found there in 1998. Survey the open area to the east for Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Rough-legged Hawks.
Merlin and Red-throated Loon (Sarah Preston) fly by Sunset Harbor
Go back up the hill for lunch at the Fairport Family Restaurant serving homemade soups and sandwiches such as clam chowder and beer battered fish sandwich plus a variety of specials. If it’s warm, there’s dining available on the front porch.
Take High Street down the hill to Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park. In the off-season, there is no fee to park in the main parking lot for the beach. Drive to the far eastern end to scope for ducks and grebes in the harbor.
Surf Scoters and Glaucous Gull (Sarah Preston) in Fairport Harbor
Drive back to west end of the parking lot where you will find a picnic shelter that is the perfect place from which to scope if it’s raining or snowing. The main restrooms are closed except during summer, but a porta-potty is available in the parking lot. Check the beach for shorebirds and Snow Buntings.
Beach and Boardwalk / Fishing Pier and Lighthouse
Drive back uphill toward town and take the first two rights to return to the harbor, arriving at the Fairport Harbor Pier and Boat Ramp. If the stop sign is out, park along the left side of road before it so you don’t have to pay to park in the boat ramp parking lot. The rocky shore along the walkway to the pier is where Purple Sandpiper have been found. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls hide among the myriad Ring-Billed and Herring Gulls. Scope the break walls for Snowy Owls, looking for an open spot with no gulls. Don’t leave without looking up-river for Long-tailed or Harlequin Ducks. Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and Horned Larks can be camouflaged in the flat, gravel area behind the large block wall.
Purple Sandpiper (Gustino Lanese) and Harlequin Duck (Sarah Preston) near the Fairport Harbor Pier
Iceland Gull (Jim Smallwood) and Snow Buntings (Sarah Preston) at Fairport Harbor Pier
Before dusk drive back over to Fairport Nursery Road. Birders have permission to bird from the deck of the trailer on the south side of the road during non-business hours as long as they don’t enter the actual property. Search both the north and south sides of 535 for hunting Short-eared Owls that begin to appear just before sunset. It is not unusual to see multiple owls at once.
Short-eared Owls and Lapland Longspur (Sarah Preston) Fairport Nursery Road
Celebrate the day by splurging on dinner at The Pompadour, a local gem known for its bar and tapas. The space is cozy, so reservations are highly recommended for dine-in. They also accept a limited number of nightly call-in carry-out orders. Commemorate the lifers of the day with a specialty cocktail such as The Big Bad Apple or sip on a pour from their sizable selection of bourbon and other whiskeys. If you enjoy more than just seeing waterfowl, order the Duck Pastrami Sliders or if vegetarian is more your style, try the Chanterelle Mushroom Pappardelle.