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Birding in Vermont: A COVID-19-safe year-round activity

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This fall the migration of geese to and from our local ponds has been a page out of National Geographic. Thousands moved from pond to pond seeking respite and food for their long journey to warmer winter climates. They were a noisy raucous group, honking as they flew. The sound of their flapping wings created an amazing din from below. Along with eyeing geese, my rural village generally experienced a noticeable uptick in bird watching since the outbreak of COVID-19. Adamant is low density and offers an expansive, natural environment, wonderful for all sorts of birds as well as for physical distancing.

Birding can be a COVID-19-safe and year-round activity. Vermont’s state bird list tops 385 species. The Vermont Audubon Society credits this to expansive Lake Champlain and our extensive forests of mixed hardwoods and conifers. We have many native species of shrubs such as elderberry and arrowwood viburnum that add to our friendly bird habitat. The Vermont Audubon Society lists the number one area in Vermont for birding as Dead Creek in Addison, reported to be home to more than 200 species. Vermont also features a number of trails dedicated to birding, particularly around Lake Champlain. The attraction to birding is cross-cultural and has appealed to many famous people such as President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Laura Bush, and film director Wes Craven.

There is a distinction drawn between bird watchers, who look at birds, and true “birders,” who look for them. A serious birder may also be a “twitcher,” someone who travels long distances to see a rare bird and catalogue or “tick” it off their list of birds they’ve seen. 

Birdwatching is a low budget activity. All you really need is a good set of eyes or a pair of binoculars. Add to that a Vermont Field Guide and you are on your way to becoming a “birder.” When you get more serious, you may want a journal and to join a birding group. You should adhere to the birding code of ethics and focus on the safety of and respect for birds and their habitat.

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The best times to bird watch are dawn and dusk. Birds indigenous to Vermont include goldfinch, downy woodpecker, grouse, and barred owls. Robins migrate medium to short distances and may be spotted here in winter. Other wintering birds include bald eagles along the Oakledge coast in South Burlington, the tit, American goldfinch, blue jays, the mourning (not morning) dove, and white-throated sparrow. 

The power and beauty of birds is amazing. Calais birder Erika Mitchell was awed by the sight of a great blue heron on Sodom Pond one summer chomping on an 18–24-inch-long fish. She remarked how she and her husband never catch anything longer than six inches.

There are several ways to hone your skills and knowledge. There are groups to join, such as the local Mad Birders Club. Facebook has a Vermont birding site with more than 2,100 members. Birding classes and migration walks are available at North Branch Nature Center. Vermont Public Radio’s “BirdNote” features biologist Bryan Pfeiffer. WDEV’s “For the Birds” is hosted by Anson Tebbetts from the Agency of Agriculture and Chip Darmstadt, retired director of North Branch Nature Center. Naturalist Bridget Butler, known as Vermont’s “bird diva,” hosts a spring and fall bird show on Vermont Public Radio. 

Check out the list of birds of Vermont on wikipedia.org, which lists them all by common and scientific names with photos, descriptions, and recorded songs and calls. Many bird calls can be vocalized with a mnemonic, for example “teacher, teacher, teacher” for an ovenbird or “what! what! where? where? see it! see it!” for an indigo bunting. To me, the ticker tape chatter of finches and the love calls of loons are uniquely special sounds. Another great resource is ebird.org, a collaborative project managed by the Vermont Atlas of Life of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which not only helps identify birds but also shares sightings and lets you track your bird lists.

The mixture of birds changes rapidly throughout the year as various birds come and go to and from their favorite places. In Central Vermont these include public places such as the North Branch Nature Center, spots along the Siboinebi bike path overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, Green Mount and St. Augustine cemeteries, Berlin Pond, and many other accessible ponds and lakes at our doorsteps. Backyard habitats may also be prime bird-watching arenas, as may the many paths and trails throughout our woods and fields.

Birding is free, it’s outside your door and through the windows of your house, it’s outdoors and natural, and may carry some of us a long way in providing entertainment, exercise, and intellectual stimulation during this COVID-19 medical pandemic, perhaps helping to curtail a related mental health pandemic. As for birding in cold months, to me our winter birds are the flowers of winter, from the bright yellow of a goldfinch and brilliant blue of a jay to the screaming red of a cardinal signaling that winter and COVID-19 will eventually come to an end.