Birding in the Green Mountains

On May 10, 1775, fewer than a hundred of the Green Mountain Boys under the joint command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga.  Five years later, Benedict Arnold defected to the British side becoming the most famous or infamous traitor in American history.  Almost 11 years after that, Vermont became the 14th State of the Union and is known as the “Green Mountain State”.   It would be another 141 years in 1932 at the depth of the Great Depression before Ethan Allen became famous not as a military leader but as a furniture brand.

About 23 years later, my parents bought a set of encyclopedias that included a group of short books from the Landmark Series on American History/Folklore that included one on Davy Crockett and another titled “Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys“.  I devoured those books – taking me to places that existed only on their pages but fascinated me and left everlasting images.  Growing up in a drab Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. I often visited places like the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Institute – a treasure trove of riches for a young boy – but the idea of Green Mountains was of another sort.  Green Mountains seemed magical.

Ethan Allen

As I moved on to other parts of my life and discovered the West first in California and then the splendor of Washington where I would live for more than 45 years, I forgot about the Green Mountains.   On May 22 as I drove from Buffalo, NY through western Vermont on my way to Rutland where I would be trying to add yet another state to my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys came immediately back to mind.  To my Western eyes, the mountains were not imposing, but they were certainly green.  Even in the many small towns with their picturesque farmhouses or white steepled churches or white clapboard houses, there were trees everywhere.  Green. Green. Green.  So many trees.  I knew there would be birds, but would I be able to see any of them in the dense foliage?  It looked like one undifferentiated habitat.  Would there really be 50 species here?

Edmonds birding bud John Houghton was from Vermont.  He had given me the name of Sue Elliott as a great birder in the Rutland area that might be able to help me.  I contacted her and in a bit of confusing communication learned that the Rutland County Audubon Society had a walk scheduled for the West Rutland Marsh IBA (Important Bird Area on May 23 – a perfect fit for my schedule and a great way not just to find my 50 species but also to get the local perspective that was an important part of the 50/50/50 undertaking.  The confusion came from emails not from Sue Elliott but from Sue Wetmore.  Two people? or one person with two names?

It was a 6 plus hour drive from the Buffalo Airport where I had said my goodbyes to Cindy Bailey to Rutland.  I arrived in time to check out the Marsh that evening in anticipation of the birding the next day.  I immediately heard a number of noisy American Bitterns and then found a number of marsh birds along the boardwalk into the marsh and then walked just a short distance into some neighboring woods which I assumed would be part of the walk the next day.  I had 25 species in less than an hour and I had heard several songs I could not identify.  I relaxed.  I was certain I would have 50 species the next day … IF the forecast thunderstorms did not interfere and it was already starting to rain.  And that was a big worry.  In fact I thought that maybe I would have to change my ground rules and define a day as 24 hours – and have this one start at 6 p.m. on the 22nd so I could include these 25 species and hope there would be sufficient breaks from the rain to find more before 6 p.m. on the 23rd.  I shouldn’t have worried.

I arrived at the Marsh 20 minutes before the 7:00 a.m. start time for the walk.  On the way from the hotel I picked up a dozen “easy species” like House Sparrow, Common Grackle, Blue Jay, and European Starling – a good start.  At the marsh there were no people and also no booming Bitterns and no grunting rails.  Still plenty of Yellow Warblers though.  And the best news was that the weather had changed and the forecast of thunderstorms was pushed out to that night – if at all.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler1

Maybe 10 minutes later another car arrived.  “Are you Sue?”, I asked.  Yes.  “Are you Blair?”  It was Sue Wetmore who explained that I had been referred to her by Sue Elliott who would be leading the walk and they often birded together and called each other “Ditto”.  The other Sue showed up shortly thereafter with husband Marvin.  I tried staying close to them during most of the following walk and learned much about the area, birding and definitely the birds at the Marsh.  The walk was a 4 mile circumnavigation of the marsh with a group that started around 18 and dwindled to half that at the end.  There were a number of beginners and a number of experts including a young brother and sister duo who had both bionic ears and bionic eyes.  They were often the first to find many of the birds.  If they weren’t then one of the “Sues” usually did.

I had not realized that we would be doing a long walk away from the cars and had both too many layers and not enough (as in any) water.  It is tempting to blame my inability to hear and/or see many of the birds on those two matters, but the truth is simply that I was not able to identify the songs and thus had to rely almost entirely on others.  I missed many birds or was not comfortable counting them, but there were lots of birds and I did okay.  Altogether the group had 78 species.  I was comfortable counting 68 so no problem with 50 species for a day.  Included were 17 warbler species.  Some were heard only (or heard barely in my case).  Yellow Warblers were everywhere singing and setting up housekeeping.  Good looks at Black and White Warblers and a Blackpoll Warbler provided a good comparison of similar species.

Black and White Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler – A Comparison

Black and White Warbler1 blackpoll-warbler.jpg

Another good comparison was provided by good looks at both Philadelphia and Red Eyed Vireos.

Philadelphia and Red Eyed Vireos – Another Comparison

Philadelphia Vireo2  Red Eyed Vireo

Many of the birds were distant and/or hidden in the now verdant foliage.  It had been so much easier earlier in the month before the trees had leafed out or at places likes Tawas, Michigan and to some extent, Magee Marsh where the trees were shorter and less dense.  When you are big and beautiful and bold like a Baltimore Oriole, however, photos are an option.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole1

The best part of the visit was spending time with Ditto and Ditto.  These walks and other counts have been going on at West Rutland Marsh for more than 20 years and there is a wealth of knowledge about the arrival and presence of all the birds, breeding success etc.  They have also birded extensively both in Vermont and in many great places around the country.  Trading stories was great fun.  They really know their stuff and happily share it.

We had lunch at Mary’s Cafe after the walk – a very down home place in West Rutland where everyone knew each other.  How different from what has been mostly an anonymous big city existence for me.  Sue gave me directions for nearby places to try for Cerulean and Golden Winged Warblers.  Both of these warblers were ones I have seen but never photographed and had been seen in the County recently.  I was unsuccessful at both spots.  The Cerulean was a long shot and my attempt at the Golden Winged was hampered by the rains that finally came along with heavy winds.  But I added some more species for the day and got some nice photos of an Ovenbird.  We had heard many on the morning walk but no photos.  At the Cerulean spot they seemed to be everywhere and were much more cooperative.

Ovenbird

Ovenbird1

And even though I did not find the Golden Winged Warbler in the on again off again, rain, I added several new birds for the day including a Northern Harrier, Eastern Meadowlark and, a favorite, Bobolink.  The area I birded was more open country and was quite lovely and almost traffic free – always a treat.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Bobolink

Bobolink

Maybe I am remembering my own Northwest in the winter and not the spring, but there were very few raptors seen on all of my Eastern trips and Vermont was no exception,  But there were many Turkey Vultures including a rather gruesome sight.  Driving on a quiet road, a number of Turkey Vultures were perched in trees on both sides of the road.  I figured there must be a carcass nearby.  There was.  A dead and bloody Turkey Vulture was on the road ahead.  Some of the perched birds returned to it after I passed by.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I returned to the West Rutland Marsh for a last time that evening hoping for a repeat of the experience from the previous night.  I heard a couple of American Bitterns and some Virginia Rails but failed to find the hoped for Sora as I dodged raindrops.

The next morning I continued my trip driving through the Green Mountains on my way to New Hampshire.  On my 50/50/50 day with much needed help from Sue Elliott and Sue Wetmore, I was able to observe 75 species.  The thunderstorm never came and the rain was too little and too late to seriously hamper my birding.  I wondered how many warblers were in all of those green trees that I drove through.  I also wondered if Ethan Allen was a birder…

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