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.
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.