Canada Jay, Moose Bog, 9 May
The Game of Birding
Local birder Cedar Stanistreet recently completed a Vermont "Big Year" where he attempted to see as many species of birds in Vermont in a year as possible. He provides a summary of his experiences chasing birds in 2020, with some of his photos included.
I’ve been birding most of my life, sometimes more, sometimes less, but never before have I undertaken a project of such magnitude. Never before has birding felt so much like a competition, like a high stakes game complete with strategies, risks, rewards, winning, and losing. Birding was all of that for me this year, and more, as I worked one of the most epic listing games there is, the Big Year.
The idea to do a state big year came to me in the spring, after migration was already in full swing and I, not having my normal work obligations due to the pandemic, had been getting out and seeing more migrant warblers than I’m normally able to in any one spring. In addition to birding since I was a kid, I’ve been a musician since then as well, and have shaped my life to prioritize gigs, rehearsals, and the travel that often goes along with those things. This lifestyle usually means being gone on weekends and doesn’t tend to fit well with frequent birding, especially birding with other people. But this year, not being able to do any of that meant that I could get to bed early and get up early, day after day, even on weekends! I could go birding when the birds were there, when the weather was good, when others were birding, not just when I happened to have a free morning. I could even chase rarities, something I had given up trying to do years ago.
So I hit the ground running without any prior planning, doing research and planning on the way as I figured out what I needed to prioritize in order to make this listing effort as successful as I could. What does successful mean? Good question, and one that I sort of figured out as I went, adjusting my expectations from time to time as I learned of new birds that could be findable, got a better idea of when and where exactly each species was most likely to be found, and came to terms with my evolving feelings about time spent driving and other non-birding things that were necessary to make this happen. No sooner did I sign up for ebird email alerts than a big rarity showed up, a King Rail up in Bradford! I made it to the spot the next day, and succeeded in seeing it and adding to my year list and life list. My first lifer of the year, and first in VT in a long while. Things were definitely off to a good start!
For the rest of May and June, I travelled around the state seeking out resident species that are uncommon or local to specific areas, and those few I had missed here on migration. Back in April, I had made a trip to Moose Bog, one of my favourite places to bird in Vermont, just because I love going there and had lots of unexpected free time. I saw a female Spruce Grouse on that visit, as well as getting a Boreal Chickadee and a few Black-Backed Woodpeckers. But I still needed Canada Jay, not to mention lots of migrant species that are often found there. So I promptly went back, 3 more times actually, even though I did find the jays on that next visit. Going to Moose Bog and other places on weekends led to meeting other birders, which has been one of the highlights of the year for me. There haven’t been many other activities I can do lately that allow for meeting people, and birding provides a perfect covid safe setting to meet up with friends, old and new.
Other places I prioritized getting to early on in the summer included trips to Mississquoi NWR to see the Black Terns (one of my all time favourite birds), hiking Stratton Mountain to hear a Bicknell’s Thrush, bushwhacking around on Snake Mountain to find the Cerulean Warblers that were suspected to nest there, combing the perimeter of the Franklin Co. Airport to find Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows, and numerous other trips to the Champlain Valley to find species that are easier to find there, such as Golden-Winged Warbler, American Bittern, and Snipe. I got to know many wonderful Chittenden Co. birders, and many of the best places to bird in that area.
Late June brought a lull in finding new species, with the quiet of the nesting season and nothing new showing up. But by the beginning of August, southbound shorebird migration had started, so I was spending as much time as possible back over on Lake Champlain. I spent so much time at Delta Park in Colchester that it almost felt like a local spot. Shorebirds have always been my weakest point at bird identification, and through birding on the lake with others and studying books, I have improved a lot in this area. This was also one of the most exciting periods of the year, since I was able to get a few more lifers, including Buff-Breasted Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, and eventually, after quite a few unsuccessful boat trips around the Mississquoi delta, a Hudsonian Godwit.
The biggest rarity of the year showed up during this time as well, a very exciting and unexpected lifer. I had just finished a lovely morning outing paddling around Dead Creek in Addison Co. with my friend Dave when the word came in. After what felt like the longest drive ever from Vergennes to Mississquoi, followed by an agonizingly long (and somewhat nerve-wracking in my tiny little boat) paddle across Campbell Bay and a tedious hour and a half of searching the mudflat along with a couple of fellow birders, I finally laid eyes on the Common Ringed Plover! This moment made up for all the other unsuccessful rarity chases I made, and it was truly a stroke of good luck that I had already been in the Champlain Valley with a boat when the plover was found.
Oct. and Nov. brought my focus to finding ducks, since I had missed the spring waterfowl migration, not starting the list until May. Ducks can be tedious, unpredictable, and generally far away. And my luck finding them seemed to be rather poor. By early November, I had spent so much time squinting through a scope in cold wind and bad light at faraway ducks on the lake that I was getting discouraged with the whole thing. It felt like I’d never reach 250 species. But along with the ducks, I still needed to find a few owls, and one of the coolest (and literally coldest) adventures I had this year was helping with the Saw-Whet Owl banding at North Branch Nature Center. These pint-size owls were numerous that evening, and between about 7 and midnight we banded around 50 of them! They are feisty little things, and like to clack their bills in annoyance while glaring at you while being held. And, they are undeniably cute.
Getting Snowy, Short-Eared, and Great-Horned Owl, finally finding a couple rarer ducks, and a southward irruption of winter finches larger than I’ve seen in a decade really ramped up my excitement about the Big Year again in late November. Huge flocks of Common Redpolls, a few Hoary Redpolls (whether or not you believe they are actually a species), Snow Buntings, Crossbills, and Pine Grosbeaks showing up everywhere does a lot to brighten the cold dreary days that birding can be this time of year. And species number 260, which for a couple weeks I thought would be the last, was a Northern Shrike. I had already blown past my initial long-shot goal of 250, so each additional species at this point felt like a bonus! I did eventually end up adding one more species during the year, a Tufted Duck on Dec. 27.
Looking back on it, I’d say that the big year was highly successful by multiple definitions. It was a fun adventure, a treasure hunt, and a learning experience. I found most of the birds I’d hoped to, and many more I never even had on my radar. And I met many wonderful people, made new friends, and explored new parts of the state and new places to bird. I didn’t find everything, which just leaves me with more reasons to continue to chase birds this year and in the future. Someday I’ll find a Connecticut Warbler for my life list, get lucky enough to see a Golden Eagle soaring overhead, and catch up with my Vermont nemesis bird, the Ruddy Duck. And birding in Vermont will be more fun than ever now that I know so many other birders around the state!