Birding Trip Report - Boreal Forest of Vermont

Originally written in July, 1996 for Birdchat, an e-list for birders, birdwatchers, ornithologists, etc., but posted to this web site Jan. 2003.

Cast of characters:
Ken Gale - your humble narrator and hardcore birder trying to reach 500.
Mercy Van Vlack - excellent birder, but not hardcore lister (though she has about 460 life birds)
Jan Roaix - co-host of our weekend, driver, new birder (since mid-May) with a new Peterson Guide and official editor of a science fiction apa
Tim Roaix - husband of Jan, non-birder who likes nature, hardcore hiker and summer/winter mountain-climber who'd always wanted to see the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

And in spirit, Byron Butler- birdchatter who gave us a TON of information on boreal Vermont in response to my RFI (Request for Information) on Birdchat. He sent a map, e-mailed annotated directions, the whole bit, despite a having to prepare for a major presentation. He was great. My goal birds were Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and White-winged Crossbill. If I saw all three (highly unlikely, I knew), it would put my life list (a list of every species of bird I've seen in my life) at exactly 500.

We got a late start on the morning of July 20th because Tim had to supervise the installation of new computer software that morning. We left Enfield, Connecticutt (in north central Connecticutt near Springfield, Mass.) at 9 AM with a four hour drive into the rain ahead of us. We might have canceled our trip, but an internet connection to the Vermont Public Library said the weather would be much better on Sunday (another advantage to this internet communication stuff). I read portions of Byron Butler's directions aloud on the trip up. Everyone was quite entertained and we were all getting psyched up for the trip (especially me).

We stopped in Bailey's Country Store on the way, because Byron recommended it and recommended getting their sour cream coffee cake, which we did. I asked about the "Guide to Bird-finding in Vermont," but they were sold out. And boy were the people at the counter pleased when I said I heard about their coffee cake on the internet! Claim credit the next time you're up there, Mr. Butler. We ate lunch at the brewpub in White River Junction, NH, Seven Barrel brewery. Nice food. Nice prices.

It rained off and on the whole trip, sometimes hard, sometimes sprinkles. Still, we managed to see Cliff and Barn Swallows, and a possible Eastern Bluebird, all from the car. There were also Turkey Vultures over the highway and Chimney Swifts over the brewpub. It's beautiful country, even from the interstate.

It was early evening and still raining by the time we reached our destination, Island Pond, VT, and checked into the Lakefront Motel. At $75.00 for the four of us, the price wasn't Motel 6, but wasn't the Waldorf. It was your basic motel, right on Island Pond. Visions of Common Loons in the early morning mist entered my imagination. Byron Butler said they might be visible. The motel was better named than the water was. Island "Pond" is really a small lake. There was a cheaper hotel across the street, but Jan didn't like the looks of it so we didn't check it out.

We had an adventure.

We had plenty of time and weren't going to see many birds in the rain, but we decided to find the areas Byron Butler mentioned so we'd find them easily the next morning. Scouting the area, as it were. The directions were perfect. We found Moose Bog without any problem. We missed the turn for Yellow Bogs, but found it soon enough and our scouting journey was paying off. Byron had mentioned a triangle of roads to look for the Spruce Grouse, etc. The first couple miles of road were former boreal habitat that had been logged and at mile four, just as the directions said, was the triangle of roads. Jan and Tim had an old Delorme Atlas which gave great detail of the roads, even the logging roads that are throughout the Yellow Bogs area. According to it, we were halfway to another main road and it was getting dark and we were getting hungry, so we tried for it. Here comes the adventure.

The logging roads we were traveling on didn't quite agree with the old atlas. We tried to find clues, but instead found dead ends, fallen trees (the rains had some INTENSE gusts of wind accompanying them), huge potholes (luckily Jan's car has all-wheel drive) and an occasional parked car. We didn't exactly know where we were, but we knew the way back. Finally, we saw someone driving their four-wheel drive truck toward us. We stopped and flagged them down. They knew all those logging roads and had been driving for three hours, trying to get to the northern edge of the logging area (as we were). There was a downed tree blocking every access. They had turned around and advised us to do the same. We took their advice.

At the end of the road, we asked them for a restaurant recommendation and without hesitation they told us "Jennifer's." Jennifer's is where we ate. Quite nice. Good price.

We went back to the motel, borrowed an alarm clock from them, checked the weather channel and went to sleep, setting the alarm for 5:30. I awoke at 5:00 and stepped out quietly, not waking anyone until I had trouble unlocking (perhaps I was locking) the room's door in the dark.

On the lake, swallows were swooping. At first glance they all looked like Rough-wings, but there were a couple Bank Swallows mixed in. On the shore to my left was a Spotted Sandpiper. To my right, a Great Blue Heron. A family of Mallards swam up after about five minutes, obviously expecting food. Mercy, who followed me out soon after, told them she was saving her bread for the Gray Jays. I don't think they understood her, because they sure were attentive as she spoke to them. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over the hotel and there seemed to be Belted Kingfishers everywhere. There were also pigeons (Rock Doves). No loons, though. We decided to have breakfast and then bird.

End of Part I

Part 2 of 2

In part one, we got to the "northeast kingdom" of Vermont, which is where the boreal birds are. I was hoping for Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee and White-winged Crossbill. Chatter Byron Butler, whose help was invaluable for the area, told me there were no Three-toed Woodpeckers in the area.

In Part Two, we go birding.

We went to the restaurant we'd had dinner in. It wasn't open at a mere 5:30 AM. Went to another restaurant. Not open yet. Island Pond is supposed to be a major fishing area. I thought fishermen got up early? I guess birders get up even earlier. I should have asked Byron Butler about early morning restaurants, too. But we saw birds. At a berry-laden bush in front of the restaurant (Something like Lake Loon) were two Eastern Kingbirds and in the bush, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a hummingbird feeder. We all oo-ed and ah-ed at the hummer and Jan happily ticked it and the kingbird off her life list. Only two pairs of binoculars were out of their cases and they were passed around between the four of us.

We went to Moose Bog, the first area on Byron's list, eating the coffee cake we'd bought the day before at Byron's recommendation. We parked the car and walked the trail. The weather was cloudy and windy. But not windy enough to stop the mosquitoes! We had Avon Skin So Soft, Deep Woods Off and they still kept coming. It took pure deet to keep them from biting, and they still clouded around us, being quite distracting. The woods were quiet. Whether it was the cloudiness, the wind or the mosquitoes that kept us from being at our best, I can't say. We heard chickadees, almost certainly Boreals, but didn't see them. I was expecting warbler song, but didn't hear any. We saw Hermit Thrush and heard Wood Thrush. There were juncos and a Golden-corwned Kinglet and I was followed by a White-throated Sparrow for quite a while, being scolded the whole time. Tim flushed a Ruffed Grouse, but none of the rest of us saw it.

Finally, Mercy suggested turning around and trying another area, more because of the mosquitoes than anything else. She had a huge welt on her cheek. (Interestingly, it always used to be me who got bit. I'd see mosquitoes go up to Mercy and then fly away from her to bite me. About a year ago, that reversed and now Mercy gets bit more often than I do.)

We walked across the highway to another trail. Not boreal forest, but great birding. Jan got several life birds - Solitary Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Myrtle Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee (sigh) and Gray Jay. The Gray Jay was a life look for me. They were obviously used to people and seemed to be expecting to be fed. Mercy threw her bread on the trail and one landed right in front of us. Then another. If they ever split the eastern Gray Jay from the grayer western Gray Jay, we're ready because we saw these two up close and personal. Mercy's favorite birds are corvids and she was ecstatic. Our other looks at Gray Jays (in the Rockies and Cascades) have been quite fleeting.

We also saw what we're calling a "Carbonated Warbler" (after the unidentifiable Carbonated Warbler Audubon painted. Any unidentifiable warbler gets called that by us). It was plain-breasted with an interesting v-pattern to the wings and a strange head pattern. It was as if it had a huge crescent-shaped eye ring. There was white around the eye above and behind. The look was too fleeting even to sketch. Definitely an unidentified warbler, probably in-between plumages. And I'm very good at identifying warblers.

We drove down the road, to access the logging area we'd gotten lost in the night before. There were signs throughout the area. "Notice to hunters [picture of male and female Spruce Grouse] Know the difference between Spruce Grouse and common Ruffed Grouse (partridge). The endangered Spruce Grouse is protected by law, etc."

We parked at mile 4, where Byron Butler had recommended. Tim got a nap. The rest of us walked around. Finally, Mercy's knee was hurting and she decided to sit on a rock and let the birds come to her. Jan and I looked for a trail through the woods, or at least an opening. We heard Yellowthroats and Black-throated Greens (warblers), but saw no trail nor any boreal specialties. Mercy had walked a little bit in and discovered: no woods. There was NO boreal forest here! No forest at all. The logging companies had left a "beauty strip" ON THEIR OWN ROADS. Byron had been there in late May, so we assumed the trees had been cut since then. The sound of chainsaws, which we assumed to be clearing the roads, took on an ominous cast. Our spirits gone, we left the area.

When the going gets tough, the less-than-tough go eating. Wanting coffee and a more thorough breakfast than coffee cake, we went back to the Loon-name restaurant. The kingbirds were gone, but the breakfasts were still being served. We ate heartily and watched the hummingbird from indoors. We then checked a local gift shop/book store for the "Guide to Bird-finding in Vermont" "I think we have it. No, I guess it's sold out." I hope they re-order for the next people.

With a five or six hour trip ahead of us, we left Island Pond. Normally, we'd have left later and simply gotten up late Monday morning, but an hour before we left home to catch the train for Connecticutt, I found out that I had to do a fill-in radio show Sunday night at midnight [this was the preliminary to Ed and I being moved to that time slot]. We had much less time in Vermont than we'd planned on, having to leave late Saturday morning because of one work schedule and leaving early Sunday because of another. We stopped at a bike shop on the way back (Tim is a bicyclist) and learned more about birding in Vermont from the proprietor (we got an updated Delorme atlas, although it STILL didn't have EVERY logging road we were lost on).

For me, a disappointing birding trip, but otherwise a wonderful trip. The further north we went into Vermont, the more beautiful it was. We never checked every spot Byron Butler told us about nor did we have the best weather conditions. I'm sure the wind kept bird activity down. Jan and Tim are already talking about camping out up there or taking me to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Tim knows he's seen Spruce Grouse and Gray Jay there and perhaps the Boreal Chickadee is there, too. But I want to thank Byron Butler once again for his incredible information on the Northeast Kingdom. Hopefully, we'll take advantage of more of it next time. It's an area worth returning to, logged forest and all.

Happy bird-day,

Ken Gale
New York City
July, 1996

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