On May 21 the VCE staff watched birds with even greater purpose and determination than usual: Birdathon.The Green Mountain Goatsuckers opted for our customary low-carbon Birdathon this spring, again launching an armada of kayaks and canoes on the Connecticut River after pre-breakfast terrestrial birding. In our annual 24-hour birding blitz, we raise funds to support VCE’s wildlife and habitat conservation projects. And, it’s not too late. You can still join hundreds of supporters who sponsor our Birdathon team each year with a donation.
Terrestrial Birding at Dawn
The team convened at Jude Scarl’s house in downtown Fairlee at 5:00 am, with several expected species already under our belt, via the dawn chorus. A cold front had settled in, and temperatures in the mid-40s F lent a decided chill to the air. Several of us sported hats and gloves, and all were multi-layered.
We began by working our way up the west shore of Lake Morey, where we spotted a distant Common Loon and notched several species that eluded us the rest of the day, including Yellow-throated and Blue-headed vireos, Blackburnian Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush. We then beelined up to Bradford’s well-known birding spot called ‘Hooker Siding’ at the end of Depot Street, finding a few key species en route: Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula and White-throated Sparrow. Walking the RR tracks netted us two dozen or more new species, including Green Heron, a distant Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Solitary Sandpiper, all three Empidonax flycatchers (Least, Willow and Alder), a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Waterthrush, a stunning Canada Warbler, two White-crowned Sparrows foraging in a willow, and scads of exuberant Northern Orioles (but no Orchards this year). Mist was lying heavy along the floodplain, and we humans were struggling to stay warm. Chilled but in fine spirits, we headed from the Depot to the North Woods Diner for a restorative breakfast. As usual, Rimmer downed too much coffee, but his excess jitters paid off when he roamed outside before everyone else and found the day’s only Yellow-rumped Warbler singing in a Norway spruce. Caravaning southward back to Fairlee, we stopped at a pull-off below Sawyer Mountain and scrambled a few hundred yards up steep slopes, finding Black-and-white and Black-throated Blue warblers. Next stop was the Fairlee Diner, where we were treated almost immediately to an adult female Peregrine Falcon performing a series of scorching dives against the sheer cliff face on her co-resident Common Ravens.
Launching the Armada
Crossing the Connecticut River to Orford, we launched our flotilla of 5 kayaks and 2 canoes, hitting the water at 10:00 am. River levels were high, so we knew shorebirds would be a scarce commodity, but the rising sun finally warmed air temperatures. We picked up a lustily singing Purple Finch at the boat launch and a distant unidentified Accipiter (the day’s only one). A Pine Warbler sang from tall white pines on the Vermont bank, but the Merlins nesting there last spring were nowhere to be seen or heard. Although the day had a September feel, with low humidity and bright skies, we faced a moderate southerly wind that, combined with the lack of current due to high water levels, created a surprising challenge to paddling. Undeterred, we meandered downriver, jumping out at several spots, paddling into oxbows and backwaters, listening carefully as we passed through a variety of habitats. New species piled up slowly, and included Double-crested Cormorant, Common Merganser, soaring Red-tailed and Broad-winged hawks, a sizeable Bank Swallow colony, and a handful of Northern Rough-winged Swallows.
Rumblings of hunger stopped us at the Beddel Bridge boat launch in North Thetford at ~1:30 pm. Our list stood at 88 species, and we knew 100 might be a stretch. Lunch rejuvenated us, and the goal seemed within reach.
New birds proved much more challenging to come by during our post-lunch paddling, as bright sun and breeze put a damper on most bird song. We strained to hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker or Red-breasted Nuthatch, but to no avail. A single American Black Duck joined a small band of male Mallards, a Belted Kingfisher made an overdue appearance, Steve glimpsed a Merlin streak by, and a Brown Thrasher finally sang from dry riverbank thickets. We pulled into our take-out spot at the Ompompanoosuc River access ~5:30 pm, with river levels still too high to expose any shorebird flats. Chris managed to call in the otherwise-quiet Carolina Wren that has inhabited this neighborhood all year long, bringing our total to 95. Retrieving vehicles from Orford, we all strapped our vessels on roof racks and scattered to the winds, each promising to bird en route back to our homes. We needed 5 species just to hit our minimum goal of 100!
Back on Land
True to form, the Goatsuckers prevailed, adding 9 new birds in the day’s waning hours to bump our final tally to 106. Chris raced around northern Norwich to find Pileated Woodpecker, Cliff Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, two singing Eastern Meadowlarks, and, finally, a peenting American Woodcock at 10 pm. Melis scored the day’s only Rose-breasted Grosbeak at her feeder, while Susan notched two lingering female Common Goldeneyes on Lake Runnemede and a Wilson’s Snipe in Windsor. Sarah Carline put the icing on our Birdathon cake with a calling Eastern Whip-poor-will in distant Brandon! As always, some glaring misses occurred – among them Hooded Merganser, Red-bellied Woodpecker (they’re everywhere this spring), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper – but none of us felt deprived in the least.
We spent a glorious day outdoors, enjoyed laughs and camaraderie, saw some great birds, paddled 15 miles on one of New England’s signature rivers, and best of all – we raised vital funds for VCE’s wildlife conservation projects.
See the full list of species found by the Green Mountain Goatsuckers during Birdathon 2015.