Winter “Big Day” of Birding in Vermont

Short-eared Owl.  Photo: Keenan Yakola

Short-eared Owl. Photo: Keenan Yakola

I have a long-standing tradition of going birding on New Year’s Day. Ok, I go birding all the time. But I celebrate the new year with some extra special indulgence in birding. I think a lot of birders have this tradition. I started mine almost 15 years ago, while finding myself in South America a few years in a row, and wanting to savor every morning of tropical bird action. Now I continue the tradition in New England. Rather than staying up til midnight to watch the apple drop, or drinking champagne and singing “Auld Lang Syne” (which is, of course, a great song), I go to bed early, get up well before dawn, and experience the first dawning of the new year. Why not kick off a new year doing what you love most?

 
Evening Grosbeak.  Photo: Jane Ogilvie

Evening Grosbeak. Photo: Jane Ogilvie

 

Being out there to watch dawn break on New Year’s Day always gives me an amazing feeling – a feeling of being truly alive. I get a sense of experiencing something that most people are missing – being outside in the dark, surrounded by pristine nature, facing all of the elements, and fully drinking in the transforming light, the soft pastel colors, and of course, the awakening of the birds and their first sounds. This is true for any dawn, but the feeling is vastly magnified when it’s the first dawn of the year.

For years, I took a trip to the New England coast, but in recent years, I’ve opted for a full-on indulgence in the region of Vermont where I live. In this region, the birding is incredible any time of year, even in winter. In a relatively small area, habitats vary from forested mountains, a large valley of savannah-like grasslands, and the vast Lake Champlain, which attracts quite an array of wintering water birds.

Last year, 2018, I started something new – a winter “big day” in my county. If you’re not familiar with the phrase “big day” in birding, it means to try to find as many bird species as possible in a single day. While less relaxing and peaceful than other modes of birding, it’s a marathon of pure fun. If you’re really serious about it, you can put in a lot of planning, strategizing, and even scouting beforehand.

Typical winter scene in Vermont.  Photo: David Hof

Typical winter scene in Vermont. Photo: David Hof

For the past 4 years, I have done a “big day” in the spring, when most of the migrants are arriving or passing through. It’s an absolute blast, and I look forward to it all year. My record is 126 species in my county. It makes sense to do it at the time of year with the highest diversity to maximize the number of species. But Vermont in winter is typically a snowy and frozen world. Birds are relatively sparse and diversity is low. There are lots of exciting birds around not present at other times of the year, which does makes for great birding, as far as winter in the North. But finding as many species as possible in the dead of winter presents a challenge. For me, it’s a fun and rewarding challenge. The short amount of daylight adds to that challenge – time becomes a huge factor.

Last year, my New Year’s winter “big day” was tough. I had no idea what I might be able to achieve for number of species, and I set my expectations high. A streak of subzero temperatures (Fahrenheit) had left much of Lake Champlain frozen over, which is typically occupied by thousands of waterfowl with a good diversity. I spent much of the day searching for open water. I checked each of my favorite spots along the lake, moving north (the lake freezes south to north). Through my spotting scope, I kept thinking I could see open water to the north, but found it to be just a mirage when I arrived there. I ended up with only 46 species on the day, but it was an exceedingly fun and thrilling day nonetheless.

This year, with milder temperatures and much more open water on the lake, I thought I would blow that total out of the water. However, the weather forecast was grim – rain through the night and into much of the morning and high winds all day. Wind is everything. Birds are rather inactive on windy days, plus it can take sound out of the picture, which is often key for finding and identifying birds. I’d rather it be dead cold with calm winds or even snowing for that matter. The forecast for January 2nd was ideal - totally calm, clear, and sunny. Should I wait until January 2nd? No, that would be anticlimactic, and take away the thrill of the new year. The idea is to kick off the new year as it breaks. I have to play the cards I’m dealt, and make the most of it. So I went for it.

Barred Owl - found just before dawn.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Barred Owl - found just before dawn. Photo: Tyler Pockette

I planned to start off looking for owls in the hours before dawn. But the predicted high wind and heavy rain pretty much put a damper on owling from midnight til dawn. So I decided it wise to bag a big owling attempt. My overall strategy was to start up in the Green Mountains where I live, find the key mountain species, then descend down into the Lake Champlain Valley to hit a variety of habitats, including of course, the lake itself. In the mountains, I hoped to find two owl species before daylight – Barred Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl. Barred Owls are abundant and usually easy to find. Saw-whet is a bit more challenging. I started the morning at about 5:30am. Rain lightened up some, reduced to a light drizzle at times. I visited a few of my most reliable spots for Saw-whets, but no luck. I walked about a mile stretch of dirt road through the national forest, where I have often found them during the past couple of years. In fact, I couldn’t even come up with a Barred Owl. Then just before dawn, when I was about to concede that the owling was a bust, I spotted two Barred Owls in a tree right in front of me. The silhouette of one glided across the road, and the other one stayed perched looking at me. It was glorious! My day (and year) of birding was underway! And off to a decent start, especially considering the weather.

Northern Goshawk — first bird of the “day” in the first light of dawn.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Northern Goshawk — first bird of the “day” in the first light of dawn. Photo: Tyler Pockette

Then only minutes later, as the first hint of daylight became visible, I heard a loud wailing call not far off in the distance. Northern Goshawk! Wow! What an incredible first bird of the “day”. Goshawks are hard to find anytime, and especially in winter. In spring, when they begin nesting activities, I see them more frequently, but at other times of year it’s often dumb luck. An incredible feeling washed over me as the pastel colors of dawn began to set in. The dawn of the new year was breaking, birds were waking up, and I was immersed in it, drinking it all in. And Northern Goshawk was the first bird! Now that’s an amazing start to the year!

Then other birds began to wake.  Black-capped Chickadees started talking.  A Common Raven flew across the sky.  Then Blue Jays and a Hairy Woodpecker.  The rain had nearly stopped for dawn, but began to pick up again, and was soon coming down pretty hard.  The wind started picking up as well.  I continued on.  The next highlight was a flock of Evening Grosbeaks in the pouring rain.  This can be a challenging species to find, but it has been a good winter for Evening Grosbeaks.  They were still not a guarantee, so I felt great about this find.

 
Evening Grosbeak.  Photo: Jane Ogilvie

Evening Grosbeak. Photo: Jane Ogilvie

 

I hoped to find several other key species in the mountains that would be harder to come by once I descended into the valley.  A few easy ones – Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet.  And a handful of hopeful possibilities – Ruffed Grouse, Bohemian Waxwing, Pine Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Common Redpoll, and Pine Siskin.  Weather was not cooperating.  The wind became progressively stronger, and I was hard-pressed to see or hear anything.  Luckily, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper were fairly easy to find, but I could not find a Golden-crowned Kinglet for the life of me.  I didn’t want to give up on this one because I thought this species would be a piece of cake.  I kept checking spot after spot where I knew them to frequent, but no luck.  I was wasting precious time.  This turned out to be a crucial error on the day.  I spent much of the morning looking for one, and it wasn’t until after 11am that I made it down to the valley with a much larger slough of species to find and places to cover.  Every time I do a “big day”, there is always some common species I miss, some “nemesis” bird on the day.  This time it was Golden-crowned Kinglet.  I finally conceded and headed down into the valley.  One other nice find before leaving the mountains was a group of Wild Turkeys foraging in a forest opening.

Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Photo: Tyler Pockette

Golden-crowned Kinglet, “nemesis” bird of the day.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Golden-crowned Kinglet, “nemesis” bird of the day. Photo: Tyler Pockette

I only had 13 species so far on the day as I headed down into the valley.  The diversity is sparse in the mountains during winter, but several of them were really key species.  Northern Goshawk and Evening Grosbeak were especially good ones to pick up.  Dropping into the valley, I was full of excitement and adrenaline, ready to tap into a much higher diversity of species and habitats, and to start wracking up new species.  The weather continued to be horrid.  Wind got even worse, and continued the rest of the day around 20-25mph.  Birding was tough, and often dead.  I visited my first spot, a floodplain along a slow moving creek – great for raptors, Northern Shrike, sparrows, potential rarities, and lots more.  It was pretty dead.  Eastern Bluebirds and a couple of common species were new additions.  I then stopped at a house where a Yellow-throated Warbler had been hanging out until the end of December – quite an oddity.  No dice there, and a friend of mine had already looked for the bird earlier in the day without success, so I didn’t put in much time.  I then stopped at a college campus with ornamental fruit trees that attract Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings.  Thirteen Pine Grosbeaks were gobbling down crab apples – nice!  No Bohemians, but Cedar Waxwings were a welcomed addition.

Pine Grosbeak.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Pine Grosbeak. Photo: Tyler Pockette

Eastern Bluebird.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Eastern Bluebird. Photo: Tyler Pockette

I started heading west toward Lake Champlain where the bird possibilities get even better. The drive through rolling open farmland yielded some good roadside raptors – Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel – the latter being an excellent find for January in Vermont. I checked an area for Northern Mockingbird. It’s funny that this species is ubiquitous in much of the country, but it’s a rarity in the North Country. In fact, the spot I checked is the only reliable place for mockingbirds in the entire county. I came up empty on the mockingbird. Approaching 1pm, I only had about 3.5 hours of good daylight, and little time to waste. I hadn’t even made it the lake yet.

I finally arrived at the lake, the first spot usually being the best this time of year. There was open water, which was a good sign. However, it was somewhat disappointing with a low diversity and nothing unusual. The enormous raft of ducks that often hangs out there was largely absent – only about 300 ducks compared to thousands present just the day before. Nevertheless, I added a good number of species to the day – Bald Eagle, Common Goldeneye, Greater and Lesser Scaup (6 waterfowl species in total), and 3 species of gulls. Making my way north along the lake, I checked a few more spots, hoping to find the mother raft of ducks. Sadly, not much for water birds, but a few new songbirds. I was especially pleased to find a Carolina Wren, another very common species further south, but harder to come by in winter up here. I even did a little dance of celebration for this one.

Carolina Wren.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Carolina Wren. Photo: Tyler Pockette

American Kestrel.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

American Kestrel. Photo: Tyler Pockette

Next, I decided to dip away from the lake to explore some open country and shrubby and weedy areas, mainly to look for sparrows, raptors, and other open country birds. I had been here the day before, and found some good birds, but with the wind I couldn’t turn up much. A nice Rough-legged Hawk broke the lull. Then came another highlight on the day – a large flock of over 100 Common Redpolls! I started to scan through for a potential Hoary Redpoll, but within seconds the flock took off and was gone in the distance. Nevertheless, this was a moment of glory.

Common Redpoll.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Common Redpoll. Photo: Tyler Pockette

Rough-legged Hawk.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Rough-legged Hawk. Photo: Tyler Pockette

With only about an hour and a half of daylight left, I realized that I hadn’t even found a large number of ridiculously common, even ubiquitous, species. Moving north, I came across a large mixed species flock in a thicket. I picked up three of these common species – American Robin, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Back to the lake, I spotted a Common Loon, but nothing else. Then came a nice surprise – two Snow Geese in a field near the lake! Definitely a great find for January here. Down to my last good hour of daylight, I went back to open country. Besides House Sparrow, I hadn’t found a single sparrow yet on the day or several other species I expected to find in this type of habitat. At this point, coming across a group House Finches was even glorious. I couldn’t turn up anything else in the shrubby field edges. Then with dwindling light, I located a group of American Tree Sparrows. Typically a ubiquitous bird, they’ve been surprisingly sparse so far in the winter, and given I was hitting the end of the day and light was fading away, this was a triumph.

Snow Goose.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Snow Goose. Photo: Tyler Pockette

As dusk settled in, I arrived at a spot that is very reliable for Short-eared Owls. Before even getting out of my car, two owls flew right in front of me! I got out, and watched an incredible show of Short-eared Owls foraging over the open grassland – an excellent cap to the day. I stood out in the whipping wind for a while longer hoping for a late flyover of Horned Larks or Snow Buntings, but that was a tall order.

Short-eared Owl.  Photo: Keenan Yakola

Short-eared Owl. Photo: Keenan Yakola

Eastern Screech-Owl, encore to the day.  Photo: Tyler Pockette

Eastern Screech-Owl, encore to the day. Photo: Tyler Pockette

With complete darkness, I headed for some riparian woodland for one last encore on the day – Eastern Screech-Owl. I then foolishly spent a few more hours looking for owls in the high wind. The Screech-Owl was pretty quick and easy, but I searched in vain for a Great Horned or Long-eared Owl.

Without a doubt, the weather made for somewhat of a rough day of birding, and it was perhaps not terribly sensible to be out trying on such a day. I ended up with a mere 47 species, and missed a lot of species that I thought would be no problem. But it was awesome! I kept the tradition alive, and didn’t regret doing it for a second. Facing the challenge head on, of both the paucity of species in winter and the adverse birding conditions, made for a thrilling and exhilarating journey. The weather even added a sense of intrepidness. I did top last year’s total by one bird, and even every new common species was a moment of glory and victory.