A birdwatcher’s challenge: find 100 species of birds in one day in the Northeast Kingdom

A Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Bob Stymeist

by Martha Steele

copyright the Chronicle July 18, 2012

Ruth Gjessing, my mother, has lived in Westmore for over 30 years.  Although she and I both grew up in Burlington, neither of us knew much about the Northeast Kingdom before she married Erland Gjessing in 1969.  I vividly recall my first trip to his property in Westmore.  We were driving from the north on Route 5A, when Lake Willoughby, framed by the cliffs of Pisgah and Hor, came into view.  It literally took my breath away; I had never realized Vermont had such a stunning and majestic lake.

These days, my husband, Bob Stymeist, and I spend a lot of time year-round peregrinating throughout the Northeast Kingdom, particularly Orleans County, in search of birds.  By far, the best time for birding in the Kingdom is May and June, the time when migratory birds return to breed and are in full song, establishing their territories and finding their mates.

Arguably, the Northeast Kingdom is one of the better areas to bird in the lower 48 states during those two months.  Its combination of a northern latitude, boreal forest habitat, mountain peaks, and numerous small ponds, marshes, and lakes gives plenty of habitat for many breeding songbirds.  On our property alone in Westmore, over the past several years, we have recorded a total of 84 species of birds.

During our vacation this past June, we decided to do a Big Day for Orleans County to see if we could tally at least 100 species of birds in the county in one 24-hour period.  A birding “Big Day” requires some prior scouting to find birds that are relatively uncommon or restricted to certain habitats or areas.  They also require planning a route to maximize the chances of seeing as many bird species as possible.  We listened to weather reports and decided that our Big Day would be June 14.

A Hairy Woodpecker, spotted at Barr Hill Nature Preserve in Greensboro.

At 2:15 a.m. on that Thursday morning, we got up to get the coffee going and get ready to leave.  The first birds we heard in the darkness were an Ovenbird along our forest edge and a distant common loon from Lake Willoughby.  We left the house at about 3 a.m., headed for East Charleston near the NorthWoods Stewardship Center, where we heard Eastern Whip-poor-wills calling.  As the sky began to brighten, the dawn chorus along the fog-enshrouded Clyde River was nearly deafening:  Wilson’s Snipe, Alder Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Winter Wren, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Veery, Gray Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-throated Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart, White-throated Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldfinch, and more.  An Osprey was on its platform nest, and by 5:30 a.m., we had tallied 40 species.

We went on to the Newport area, headed for the Barton River and Coventry marshes.  These locations added such birds as Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, Marsh Wren, House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, and Bobolink.  We then opted for a quick detour to the Coventry quarries where we picked up bank swallow and then headed back to Barton by way of Burton Hill Road, where we added cliff swallow and barn swallow in Irasburg.  In Barton, we stopped at the Randalls’ feeders on Breezy Hill Road to get what would be our only White-breasted Nuthatch of the day.  Earle Randall came out to greet us, but we were already heading out to the next stop (“Got our nuthatch, gotta go, see you later!”)

It was now time to return to the feeders and woods of our property in Westmore for a quick lunch and a few more species:  Ruffed Grouse, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, and Purple Finch.  Our next stop was the Westmore Town Forest, where we added Canada Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Nashville Warbler.  It was now almost 2 p.m., and we were up to 92 species.

The problem, of course, is that as you get more species, there are fewer new ones to get.  We headed to the Barr Hill Nature Preserve in Greensboro, where we saw a few species that we still needed during our pre-Big Day scouting.  This small boreal jewel produced what we hoped for:  Golden-crowned Kinglet, Mourning Warbler, and Dark-eyed Junco.  An added bonus was finding a Northern Rough-winged Swallow cruising over Caspian Lake.

It was now about 6 p.m. and we had 96 species, just four short of our goal to reach 100.  We were missing some we thought surely we would get:  Wild Turkey, American Bittern, Broad-winged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Pileated Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Scarlet Tanager.  We headed back to our property in Westmore, but had no luck along the way or back at the house.  As nightfall descended, we hoped our barred owl would call — not this night — or that there might still be calling American Woodcock in the field below us.  But after calling and displaying nightly since sometime in March, they too had quieted down.  So, the curtain came down at 96 species, and an exhausted pair hit the sack.

It was our first Big Day for Orleans County, and the experience has us already planning for next year.  In the 48 hours before and after our Big Day, we saw several species in Orleans County that we had not recorded on the Big Day, including Peregrine Falcon, at Jobs Pond and our property; Bicknell’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, at Bald Mountain in Westmore; Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, and Scarlet Tanager, on our property; Wild Turkey in Brownington; Swainson’s Thrush at Long Pond Road and Bald Mountain; and Hairy Woodpecker at Barr Hill Nature Preserve in Greensboro.  We also now know of other spots that we have yet to fully explore, such as the Bill Sladyk Wildlife Management Area in Holland or even the top of Jay Peak.

We may be crazy birders searching for any species we can find for no reason other than “it’s there to be done.”  But in the process, we are filled with joy in the pursuit and in the din of the familiar songs that greet us each spring for only some weeks before the songs are quieted as parents grow busy feeding their young.  The next time we go to Westmore this summer, we will hear far fewer birds, but we know they are there.  We know they will leave in the late summer and early fall, and we know they will return again next spring.  And this time, we’ll be ready.

A Chestnut-sided Warbler, spotted in East Charleston. Photo by Bob Stymeist




Museum of Everyday Life opens with match stick exhibit

by Tena Starr
copyright June 1, 2011
GLOVER — There’s a theory, at least, that the first matches were invented by women in China while their city was under siege.  Since they couldn’t gather tinder and start fires in the usual way, they used what was at hand, which happened to be white phosphorous.
Thus, the match, which they called a “light-bearing slave.”
There were problems, however, with white phosphorous matches.  For instance, the people who made them were prone to coming down with “phossy jaw,” an infection of the jaw caused by exposure to phosphorous.  The disease started with toothaches and swollen gums and progressed to abcessed jawbones that had to be removed.  The affected bones would glow greenish-white in the dark.  Brain damage was also a symptom.  Victims were either grossly disfigured, or died.
Eventually, matchmakers (the literal type) moved to using red phosphorous, which doesn’t cause the disease.
Matches are one of those everyday items that most of us don’t give much thought to.
Clare Dolan, however, has thought about matches quite a lot.  She also thinks about safety pins, zippers, paper clips, and all kinds of other objects that
most of us consider so innocuous that their existence, much less their history, barely enters our minds.
This coming weekend Ms. Dolan’s Museum of Everyday Life, will open.  Don’t expect spectacle, but do expect to learn something, and to be entertained.
The initial exhibit will be called Fire! and will include at least some of the following:  The history of the match, sulfer and its properties, the international collection of things made from matchsticks, an X-rated collection of pornographic matchboxes (well, not exactly pornographic), portraits of the Glover Volunteer Fire Department, and the arson evidence collection.
Ms. Dolan is a nurse by profession.   She also works with the Bread and Puppet Theater, and involves herself in other ways in the arts.  About seven years ago, she bought a big old house on Route 16 in Glover.  It includes a barn, and that space opened up new artistic possibilities.
“I’m not really a farmer lady,” she said.  “I didn’t think about getting a lot of cows.  I just maybe thought about getting a donkey.
In fact, she does have a donkey.  His job is to mow the lawn, and he appears to be reasonably efficient at it.  Nancy the goat also lives there, but her function in life is more social — she’s the greeter.
Ms. Dolan said in an interview Sunday that she’s always been interested in collections and displaying objects.
“This just springs out of that interest,” she said.  “I take a lot of pleasure in everyday life objects.  Like, how did they invent the paperclip?  And batteries and matches and thimbles and zippers?”
Everything in Ms. Dolan’s museum is an object with a cost of $5 or less.  Not that she’s selling her displays; it’s just that she wants to stick to a celebration of the small, unglamorous and everyday.
The subject of her initial exhibition was a choice between safety pins and matches, she said, but she had more material on matches.  “Matches, like most everyday objects, have a lot of interesting history.”
There was, for instance, the evolution of the matchbook from the match box.  The matches in a box contained enough white phosphorous to kill someone.
“By scraping off the matches, people could kill themselves, and they did,” Ms. Dolan said.
Matchboxes and books were used for all sorts of endeavors.  For instance, Ms. Dolan acquired a bizarre collection of small matchboxes that show on their covers photographs of the Soviet dogs that went into space.
Beer companies used matchboxes in their advertising campaigns.
Matches were called lucifers and still are in some places.
And then there’s phillumeny — the hobby of collecting match-related ephemera, of which Ms. Dolan herself might be considered guilty, though she
might prefer pointing to some unknown fellow who was in the military and collected matchbooks from all over the West Coast, including Alaska.
“This guy spent a lot of time in nightclubs and dance halls,” she said, pointing to the collection of rather artistic matchbooks.  She noted that it’s possible to tell a lot about a person by what they choose to collect.
But the crown jewel of her match collection is likely an assortment of instruments — violins, a banjo, and a mandolin — built entirely of match sticks.  They were made by a man named Dale Brown who was in prison at the start of his unlikely and time-consuming project.
“He only had access to matches and white glue,” Ms. Dolan said.  “He stained them with coffee.”
The museum also includes the “Beastiary,” a whimsical zoo of creatures whose appearance is enhanced by the addition of matchsticks.
The museum will be open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. throughout the summer.  It’s self-service, meaning show up, turn the lights on, and turn them off when you leave.  Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
The museum’s official opening will be on Saturday, June 4.  It’s located on Route 16 south of Glover Village in the barn adjacent to a big yellow house.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com