VCE's annual Birdathon took on a new form this spring, as the Green Mountain Goatsuckers "birded in place" for Backyard Bird Quest 2020. Sallying forth individually from our home bases—some even outside Vermont—we collectively found 134 species during the day, raising crucial funds for VCE's wildlife conservation work.
Resiliency and adaptation apply as much to birding during these days of COVID-19 disruption as they do to other aspects of existence. Life is simply not the same for any of us, and group birding especially has gone the way of the Bachman’s Warbler, at least for now. So it is that “birding in place” has become VCE’s norm, and gave rise to this spring’s Backyard Bird Quest 2020. Over our 13 years of existence, Birdathon (or in 2019, Biothon) has been a hallowed tradition for VCE staff. Not only is it our single most important annual fundraiser, it has been a source of inspirational team camaraderie, and fun.
In line with our COVID-mandated office closure and working-from-home paradigm, this spring required a different approach to Birdathon. No team piling into vehicles and scouring a variety of birding hotspots. No mid-morning group coffee break to refuel. We took a step back, embraced our individual sheltering in place, and decided to each conduct our own local birding itinerary on May 23. Backyard Bird Quest was born—not only for the Green Mountain Goatsuckers, but for all Vermont-based birders. The statewide response was phenomenal, as 305 birders submitted a single-day record 724 eBird checklists and tallied 178 species across the state, including Vermont’s first-ever King Rail!
For the Goatsuckers, no fewer than 13 of us (10 in VT, two in NH, one in MA) plied their local woods, fields and waterways on May 23. A couple of us logged 12 or more miles on foot, while others stayed literally close to home (modeling their efforts after traditional “Big Sits”); Jason Hill even launched his kayak on the Connecticut River below Wilder Dam. Nathaniel Sharp birded salt marshes and coastal forests on Cape Cod, where he is currently sheltering in place. Within Vermont, Liza sallied forth from her Burlington home, Susan from Weathersfield, Sarah from Ludlow, Kent from Woodstock, Karen from West Fairlee, and Steve from Strafford. Spencer, Kevin and I each birded independently in Norwich.
At day’s end, we had every reason to be pleased, and satisfied, with our efforts. Not only did each of us delight in exploring our local “backyards,” in the process limiting carbon footprints to near zero, but our collective in-state tally of 134 species (and one hybrid Brewster’s Warbler) exceeded expectations. From the first awakening thrush songs at 4 am to the final woodcock ‘peent’ at 9 pm, the Goatsuckers worked hard and did well. Highlights included a Common Loon and Common Nighthawk in Ludlow, Black Vulture and Caspian Tern in Burlington, Common Gallinule and Olive-sided Flycatcher in Norwich, American Bittern and Wilson’s Snipe in West Fairlee, Peregrine Falcon (on nest with young) in Weathersfield, Bald Eagle (by its nest) in Wilder, and Mourning Warbler in Woodstock.
While we greatly missed the camaraderie of our past group outings, Backyard Bird Quest 2020 brought the Green Mountain Goatsuckers together in new ways, as we vicariously shared one another’s discoveries, worked diligently (and joyfully) to compile a diverse master species list, and formed a revised notion of “team.” Some of us never set foot in a vehicle for the entire day, and we all celebrated our low-carbon approach to birding. Importantly, we together raised crucial funds to sustain VCE’s wildlife conservation projects—on birds, herps, pollinators, even lady beetles.
Thanks to all who participated, sponsored us, and wished us well. We’ll see what Birdathon 2021 brings, but Backyard Bird Quest 2020 proved a truly refreshing, uplifting and reflective change of pace. We just may be on to something…
Species Tallies from VCE’s Vermont Staff Team, Out-of-state Staff Team, and Statewide eBirders on Backyard Bird Quest Day
- Green Mountain Goatsuckers Vermont Team List (134 species)
- Green Mountain Goatsuckers Out-of-State Team List (108 species)
- Vermont Backyard Bird Quest 2020 Statewide List (178 species from 724 eBird checklists submitted by 304 birders!)
A Selection of VCE Staff Reflections on Backyard Bird Quest
Sarah Carline (Ludlow, Vermont)
Having recently moved to a town with few birders, the Backyard Bird Quest was a perfect opportunity to report new birds near me. The first half of the day was spent exploring two underbirded eBird hotspots a few miles away from my house. I walked over seven miles on a quiet dirt road, tallying 64 species from dawn until early afternoon. I documented six new species at Echo Lake and 11 new species at Amherst Lake. I enjoyed observing a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker leaning in to feed her nestlings and chuckled at a Common Loon, who was seemingly curious about the Greater Yellowlegs foraging on a water-logged sandbar. The afternoon walk (with hubby in tow) was in town. We walked to a sandy area, where we observed dozens of tiger beetles preying around ant holes, along with a pair of Brown Thrashers and a brilliant male Indigo Bunting. As we were finishing BBQ-ing dinner (and BBQ 2020), five foraging Common Nighthawks flew right over the house, which allowed me to point out these mystical birds with the neighbors, who watched with fascination. It was an exciting end to a peaceful day of birding with 72 species found!
Emily Anderson (Plainfield, New Hampshire)
Although I am a novice birder, I was eager to take part in the 2020 Backyard Bird Quest. I completed two checklists: one first thing in the morning in my backyard in Plainfield, NH and the second in the Cornish Town Forest in Cornish, NH. I was on my own for the morning checklist and quickly realized that I was a bit out of my comfort zone. The birdsongs were dazzling, and I noted all that I could identify. Those that remained a mystery, I recorded and shared with a birder friend. I spent a long time following a small warbler, frustrated that it would not remain still long enough to get a good look. Later, I found out this was a Chestnut-sided Warbler and know that I will now forever recognize its song. The afternoon’s checklist had several highlights and was completed with the company of my birder friend. The first was the four adult Canada Geese and 11 goslings that we came across as we left a pond. We had to wait for the adults to get all the goslings safely into the water before we could pass and watched as they clumsily waddled up over a small beaver dam. The second highlight was discovering a Blue-winged Warbler—a life bird for both myself and my friend! And finally, one of my favorite moments from the day was pausing to watch a pair of Baltimore Orioles working on their nest. Although a longtime naturalist, this event has raised my awareness of the birds around me even more and made me excited to continue learning about the birds in my backyard.
Spencer Hardy (Norwich, Vermont)
As VCE’s Vermont Wild Bee Project coordinator, I’ve been fully absorbed with bees this spring, so it was really nice to spend a day looking for birds locally. Birding with my father Doug, we found several completely unexpected species very close to the house. The first surprise was a family of five Red Crossbills not more than 100 yards from the driveway. This is only the third time I’ve found that species in the area, and the first two were high flyovers in late winter. The next biggest surprise was a species on the northern edge of its range—the Blue-winged Warbler. Walking along a section of road I’ve walked hundreds of times, I heard the distinctive bee-buzz coming from a recently thinned, swampy forest. We tracked it down to make sure it wasn’t a Golden-winged Warbler hybrid, and in the process found four American Woodcock, a Field Sparrow, a Brown Thrasher, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher, all species we weren’t expecting. By the end of the day we had found 79 species, though we missed several common species that I know were in the area, including Baltimore Oriole, Blue-headed Vireo, and Blackburnian Warbler. Finally, though I spent very little time looking at insects, I did find one “lifer” —my 20th species of deer fly!
Nathaniel Sharp (Cape Cod, Massachusetts)
My Backyard Bird Quest birding day began shrouded in fog in the middle of a saltmarsh. I had woken up at 4:30am, and biked about two miles up the Shining Sea Bikepath to the Great Sippewisset Marsh, one of my favorite local birding spots on Cape Cod. While I did not see or hear the rails and other marsh birds I was hoping to find at this early hour, I did come across an active Osprey nest, and was able to hear the harsh “keeer” calls of Common Terns from the nearby beach that was rendered invisible by the morning’s dense fog. After leaving the marsh with a total of 20 species on my eBird checklist, I headed back down the bike path, stopping to bird along the way. Eventually I reached the Falmouth Town Forest, and began walking the five-mile loop around Long Pond that had become my morning routine over the last few weeks of spring migration. Several species had already begun to nest, and I watched as a Warbling Vireo brought materials back and forth to her nest, and listened to the calls of baby Eastern Phoebes from under the eaves of a pump house building. Throughout my walk I heard dozens of Ovenbirds, Eastern Towhees, and Common Yellowthroats, and a few less common species including a young male Orchard Oriole and a Blue-winged Warbler. The main highlight of the Falmouth Town Forest though was a species that I had been keeping my eye on for the past few weeks. The town forest is one of the few spots on Cape Cod where Worm-eating Warblers are known to nest. These brown and buffy warblers with bold head stripes and a piercing song are secretive and skulky, so I was ecstatic to have found several pairs singing on territories over the last few weeks. About halfway through my walk, some rain picked up that eventually turned into a downpour, prematurely ending my backyard bird quest. On my soggy walk back home however, I stopped at a spot I had heard and seen Worm-eating Warblers before, and was just able to make out the male’s insect-like trill over the sound of the raindrops. Even though my birding day was over before 10am, I was able to pick up 66 species, 56 of those on my four-hour walk around the town forest!
Jason Hill (White River Junction, Vermont)
The sun in my face, a flash of fast wings beating low across the water immediately caught my attention. I parked my kayak on a gravel bar, and scanned the vegetation upriver from me to locate the likely shorebirds. A few minutes later I was rewarded with a group of 5 Spotted Sandpipers working their way down the shore towards me over 10 minutes–oblivious of me. They foraged to within 20 meters of me before taking flight. I also found and photographed a Bald Eagle next to its nest below the Wilder Dam. I couldn’t see any signs of activity in the nest, but the adult stayed next to the nest for at least an hour.
Liza Morse (Burlington, Vermont)
As apartment dwellers in the greater Burlington area, Brendan and I chose to “backyard bird” in our local parks and natural areas. We started the day at off at Geprags Community Park—one of the prime locations Gold-Winged and Blue-Winged Warblers and their associated hybrids here in Vermont. After successfully tracking down a Brewster’s Warbler—a life bird for Brendan—in the brushy areas of the Park, we hiked up into the woodland area and located a Yellow-throated Vireo—another lifer for Brendan—and a Scarlet Tanager, among other forest gems. Following Geprags, we headed to Delta Park to track down some water birds. We were delighted by a large, mixed group of Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpipers, later joined by a Solitary Sandpiper. On our way home for lunch, we stopped at Shelburne Bay Park where I got a lifer with a Black Vulture—a relatively new species to Vermont. After lunch and some rest time during the heat of the day, we headed back out to Woodside Natural Area in Essex. At Woodside we found a Swamp Sparrow and witnessed the song-flight display of the male Common Yellowthroat. Our 75th and last bird of the day was another life bird for me—a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher!
Karen Bourque (West Fairlee)
When the alarm rang at 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, I jumped out of bed, fired up eBird on my phone and stepped outside. Within my first pajama-clad 15 minutes of BBQ2020 I recorded 22 species, ranging from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Phoebes near the house to a flock of Canada Geese and a Wild Turkey assertively “gobbling” in the distance. After coffee, I began the first round of the two-mile walking route around my home, which encompassed forested woodlands at 1,000 ft elevation to low-elevation cow pastures, wetlands, and a pond. Relatively new to birding, I was able to confidently identify 44 species over the course of the day, notably American Bittern and Common Snipe, a handful of warblers, and more Ovenbirds and Red-eyed Vireos than I could shake a stick at. The highlight of my day occurred at dusk, while tallying my final BBQ2020 checklist. Earlier in the day I had walked to Middlebrook Pond and its adjacent wetlands hoping to pick up a couple of duck species. There wasn’t a single duck to be found (however, I was rewarded with good looks at the biggest Great Blue Heron I have ever seen, a Kingfisher, geese, Killdeer, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Warbling Vireo). Fast forward to 8:00 p.m.—standing on my porch, recording the last birds before darkness set in, I noticed a sizable bird teetering on a slender branch approximately 50 feet up a skinny maple on the other side of the driveway. Fully expecting my binoculars to reveal a small bird of prey, I was stunned to see… a duck! A female Wood Duck was perched haphazardly on a branch, apparently surveying the lawn. I watched her lift a foot to scratch her head before flying deeper into the woods, perhaps to a tree cavity nest. Needless to say, Backyard Bird Quest 2020 was an enriching and eye-opening experience for this evolving birder.