Birders live for the rare and unexpected. Earth Day 2016 provided just that for several of us in Windsor County. Driving along Marton Road at ~10:00 am towards the Southeast State Correctional Facility — better known as the Windsor Prison Farm — I had Rufous-sided Towhee and Northern Harrier on my mind, maybe Red-shouldered Hawk. Best known as Windsor County’s premier site for Blue- and Golden-winged warblers, the Prison Farm supports a diverse cast of nesting birds that favor its extensive open fields and early successional shrubby habitats.
With my car windows open on this warm morning, I heard a tom turkey gobble. As I slowed to scan the open hillside, 3 brownish objects caught my attention. Deer? Stumps? I stopped and hoisted my binocs. Sandhill Cranes!! No way — a species I’d held only dim hopes of ever finding in Windsor County. I quickly set up my 30X spotting scope and snapped a few digiscoped images through my iPhone, knowing this record needed documentation. Then a quick e-mail to the Upper Valley Birders listserv, alerting others to this potentially once-in-a lifetime spectacle. Then… a chance to observe the two adults and yearling (presumably their offspring from last summer) as they foraged industriously in the short, damp grass, seemingly unconcerned about my presence. I had to shake my head in disbelief a few times.
After 15 minutes of unadulterated crane watching, I moved on to the Prison Farm itself, walking the gravel road that leads from Marton Road to the prison proper. I could still see the cranes 1/4 mile above me, and a small throng of birders assembling on the roadside. As the birds moved slowly east, several rolling bugles rang out from the hillside — a distinctive and most surprising sound to hear! Another 20 minutes later, the trio lifted off, formed a graceful straight line, and flew directly over my head, trumpeting as they disappeared to the north. The pull of their boreal Canadian breeding grounds apparently dictated only a brief stopover in east-central Vermont.
Birders who weren’t lucky enough to glimpse the Windsor Sandhill Cranes on April 22 needn’t trek all the way to James Bay or the Northwest Territories to encounter the species. As part of a recent colonization of the Northeast, a pair of Sandhill Cranes took up residence in Bristol, VT in 2005 and has nested there annually ever since. In 2013, a second pair was seen consistently in Fairfield and confirmed to have bred last summer. With pairs now also nesting in NH (Monroe), ME, NY and western MA, it is unclear whether this recent influx of Sandhill Cranes in the Northeast represents a range expansion or recolonization of the species’ historic range. Whichever, we can all hope that the Earth Day sighting in Windsor represents a trend towards increased encounters with this stately species, in the Upper Valley and beyond.