Quietly, methodically, patiently, persistently, and always enthusiastically, Fred (Pat) Pratt has scoured the State of Vermont on a remarkable birding odyssey for eight years. This past weekend, he made Vermont birding history with his discovery of a pair of Northern Shovelers at Lake Paran in North Bennington. That sighting—unremarkable in itself, perhaps—signaled the end of a legendary quest and Pat’s achievement of a formidable goal, one which any birder will be challenged to match ever again. Those shovelers marked species #150 for Pat in Bennington County during 2019, and the final capstone in his mission to document 150 species in all of Vermont’s 14 counties, each within a calendar year!
Pat’s quest began in 2011, when he and beloved late wife Eleanor (Chris)—a skilled, passionate and intrepid birder herself—set out as Team Pipit, intending to find 100 species of birds in every Vermont county during a single calendar year. Starting in Bennington County, they tallied 107 species. However, soon after, learning of the Vermont eBird County Quest 150 Club, Pat and Chris welcomed this new challenge and raised their bar to 150 (meaning that some counties needed to be done again). They worked diligently, almost incessantly, from 2012 to 2016, reaching their goal in 10 of Vermont’s 14 counties. They boldly (and literally) ventured where no birders had dared venture before. With Chris (and her “good eyes and ears”) as pilot, and Pat as captain, navigator, and mentor, both knew that finding “good habitat” would lead to finding good birds. Pat meticulously designed routes and loops while Chris diligently drove PIPIT. Their son John joined them from Massachusetts whenever he could. Just four counties shy of achieving its goal, Team Pipit suffered a huge loss when Chris passed away in March of 2017, but the Vermont birding community quickly stepped up to help. Honoring Chris’s legacy and her own dedication to the quest, Team Pipit now had added incentive to complete its mission. Honorary Team Pipit members—Ali Wagner, Andrew Knafel and Anne Hunter, Liz Lackey, Michele Patenaude, Pat Folsom, Craig Provost, Tom Berriman, and Don Clark, to name a few—joined Pat in some of Vermont’s most challenging counties (Caledonia, for example), buoying his spirits and aiding his discoveries. Doubts occasionally surfaced, discouragement sometimes seeped in, but commitment never wavered. Team Pipit’s tenacity paid off on November 25, as Northern Shoveler crowned a truly epic quest.
Avian highlights of Pat’s eight-year quest are far too many to enumerate. Finding Common Eiders—a species few seasoned birders have ever recorded in Vermont—with Chris in not one, but two counties (Rutland in 2014, Orleans in 2016) was special. However, it’s hard to imagine a greater thrill, or a more nostalgic moment, than Pat’s encounter with an American Pipit that marked species #150 in Caledonia County in 2018. In Pat’s own words from his eBird checklist, “Extended looks at our favorite little bird! To be honest, seeing this bird brought tears to my eyes. Not only was it number 150 for the year in Caledonia County, but it was a reminder of all the birds Team Pipit had enjoyed finding over so many years of birding together. Special thanks to son John for spotting this bird and also for the accompanying photographs.”
Several of Pat’s birding cronies and Team Pipit allies also offered recollections of special moments together. Ali Wagner was with Pat on the momentous occasion of #150 in Bennington County. In her words: “Needing just one more species to reach 150 in Bennington County, Fred and I started our day at Lake Paran. We found a slim lead of open water and quickly abandoned hopes of seeing ducks emerge from the reeds, so headed to breakfast. Luckily for us, the cafe wasn’t yet open, and Fred recalculated. ‘Let’s go down Route 67 and check the outflow of Lake Paran.’ We soon saw Mallards and so pulled over (so many times we have hoped to find a ‘good bird’ feeding with these commoners). This time we struck gold. I asked, “Do you need shovelers?” Fred looked stunned—what a silly question. This species wasn’t even on his ‘list of possibilities.’ Bolting from the car, he replied, ‘Of course I do!’ and scrambled to the water’s edge. Giggling and grinning like a schoolboy, Fred could hardly believe his eyes. His sense of urgency had been on the mark, for after a congratulatory high five, we turned back to enjoy the ducks again when they took flight…heading south. We pursued, pulling into a parking lot a half mile downstream, where we found them again. The shovelers had joined more Mallards and a sleek male American Wigeon, #151. All tensions melted away. Fred had done it, and happily exclaimed, “Now we can enjoy the rest of the day,” And what a great day of birding we had. Fred shared his joy recounting the final two weeks of his amazing quest, culminating with some fantastic unexpected finds (Pectoral Sandpiper, Rough-legged Hawk). He repeatedly expressed his appreciation of the many birders who had joined Team Pipit these past few years and said frankly, ‘I couldn’t have done it without them.’ Well, Fred, you did it, and then some!”
Andrew Knafel of Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, and a perennially leading Bennington County birder, also spent memorable time with Pat during 2019. “My wife Anne and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to play a small part in Pat’s Bennington County birding quest. We came to anticipate Pat driving up our driveway on early mornings to bird our secluded yard, where Anne had set up a special chair—“Fred’s chair”—for eating and viewing. Acting as a “human tripod” while Pat (who benefitted from some added stability while scanning high in the treetops) saw his first Tennessee Warbler of the year, was a highlight of my birding life. But, perhaps what endeared Pat to us more than birding was that our connection as birders made for a quick and genuine friendship, to the point that we came to consider Pat like one of the family—coming in to use “the facilities”, check our feeder, have a snack… even when we were not home! We are so happy that Bennington is the county where Pat completed his epic VT 150 birding challenge.”
Pat’s Feat, County-by-County
Washington: 162 (again, for good measure)
Grand Isle: 162
Bennington: 151 (and counting)
Pat Pratt’s unassuming manner belies his astounding feat at finding 150 species in every one of Vermont’s 14 counties during a single calendar year. In fact, we’ve created a new category of recognition to honor this accomplishment—The 14th Star Award. It is difficult to put Team Pipit’s extraordinary achievement in perspective, but it may well never be matched. Of course, records are made to be broken, and Pat is hardly one to rest on his laurels. His and Chris’s exploit was born of adventure, challenge, passion, love of the natural world, and utter devotion to one another, and to Team Pipit. They inspire us all.