Your wildlife sightings are news to us! If you have pictures or stories of encounters with fauna or flora in the area, please email them to us and interesting ones will be posted to this page.

Ron Payne
rpayne72@myfairpoint.net

On Thursday, April 8, Otter Creek Audubon held a special online Cabin Fever Lecture series event, Green Mountain Meadowlarks: Ecology and Conservation of an Imperiled Grassland Bird. Presented by Kevin Tolan, Staff Biologist and Grassland Bird Outreach Coordinator from The Vermont Center for Ecostudies, he told us about a new effort to conserve Eastern Meadowlarks. If you weren’t able to attend live, we have recorded it so that you can view it at your leisure.

Eastern Meadowlarks in the Northeast are rapidly declining; based on the latest USGS Breeding Bird Survey results, they’re undergoing an estimated 8.7% and 8.8% annual decline in Vermont and New Hampshire, respectively. With their recent designation of Threatened in New Hampshire, and imminent listing in Vermont, now is a golden opportunity for targeted survey efforts. VCE is partnering up with New Hampshire Audubon to launch a bi-state “blitz” this spring to encourage birders and community scientists to target areas of grassland habitat with the goal of seeking out meadowlarks. Participants are encouraged to adopt a local block to survey for meadowlarks and track land management. To learn more about the Blitz and how to participate please visit val.vtecostudies.org/projects/eastern-meadowlark-blitz/ or reach out via email at grasslands@vtecostudies.org

This was our final lecture of 2021. We plan to be back again next year with three more lectures to help you get through the winter, hopefully as in person events!

During these trying times OCAS does not feel that it is safe to hold public in-person events, but we are continuing our regularly scheduled walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland so that we can collect bird data, and also, so that through these posts, we can share our sightings with you. Public walks will resume once public health officials say it is safe to hold gatherings again.

This month’s walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland did their absolute best to confirm that it was actually taking place in March. But before we get to seasonal birds, I have to report that we had a sighting of the the melanistic Tufted Titmouse that you can see a picture of in our November issue of Otter Tracks. It was good to see that this bird is still hanging around the area. As far as signs of spring go, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds foraging together is a good sign. And so was an American Robin scratching on the ground on an adjacent yard. Two White-throated Sparrows might have been migrants or overwintering birds. But down in the Marsh, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles singing from high perches really set a spring tone. Flocks of Canada Geese flying overhead and a passing Turkey Vulture helped too.

Over at the Hurd Grassland the theme continued with a big flock of Grackles and Blackbird refueling beneath a nearby feeder. Two Common Ravens flew by in the same direction, both of them carrying what looked like food in their bills, a possible indication that they already have a nest with chicks. Bucking the trend a bit were some still remaining Common Redpolls seen at a feeder. When we were down in the lower field we made sure to take a picture from the Photo Post next to the Birdhouse. You can see how that process works, and the results in the pictures above. And we ended our walk with the nice treat of a close flyby by a Red-tailed Hawk.

All our bird sightings have been submitted to eBird and the full checklists can be viewed at the following links:

Otter View Park

Hurd Grassland

Other wildlife sightings are submitted to the Vermont Atlas of Life.

On Thursday, March 11, Otter Creek Audubon held the second our our Cabin Fever Lectures for this year, Birding New Zealand presented by OCAS Board Member, Gary Starr. In this presentation, Gary invites you to quell your wanderlust with a virtual birding tour of New Zealand, its birds, and its best bathrooms(?). New Zealand’s isolation gives it a collection of some of the most interesting, rare, and unique birds in the world. Kiwis, and many other charismatic species were on display in this entertaining show.

Though we had only planned two talks this years, we have now put together a third to help you get through whatever is left of winter. Next up, Green Mountain Meadowlarks: Ecology and Conservation of an Imperiled Grassland Bird Presented by Kevin Tolan, Staff Biologist and Grassland Bird Outreach Coordinator from The Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Kevin will tell us about a new effort to conserve Eastern Meadowlarks in our area that you can participate in. This event will take place on Thurs. Apr. 8, 7pm. Email us at ocasvt@gmail.com to register for this online event.

In the meantime, if you would like to see more, many of our past presentations can be viewed at this link.

During these trying times OCAS does not feel that it is safe to hold public in-person events, but we are continuing our regularly scheduled walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland so that we can collect bird data, and also, so that through these posts, we can share our sightings with you. Public walks will resume once public health officials say it is safe to hold gatherings again.

This month’s monitoring walk at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland took place on the 13th, one one of the coldest days in recent memory with temperatures down in the teens. With a fairly brisk wind, and solid snow cover on the ground, it felt very peak February. However with the sun shining through a thin layer of clouds—as can be seen in the pictures taken from the MALT Phenology Calendar photo sticks—the birds were actually fairly active, getting into early form for the coming spring. Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Black-capped Chickadees and American Tree Sparrows were all heard singing their territorial songs. The best sighting at the park, however, was a huge flock, of what I estimated at 70, Common Redpolls seen overhead making their way to the bird feeders at Starr Decoys.

Not to be outshone, though, the Hurd Grassland also feature a large Redpoll flock, I tallied in at about 60, that were swarming Gale Hurd’s feeders. Besides that, a singing Eastern Bluebird continued the very early spring theme, as did a Tufted Titmouse which was singing one of its non-toot songs. A passing Raven that was “quorking” and doing barrel rolls was also entertaining. Tracks were very evident all around the property, the most notable ones being Coyote and Bobcat, and abundant Eastern Cottontail Rabbit tracks which likely attracted the interest of the two predators to the property.

All our bird sightings have been submitted to eBird and the full checklists can be viewed at the following links:

Otter View Park

Hurd Grassland

Other wildlife sightings are submitted to the Vermont Atlas of Life.

On Thursday, February 17, The Green Mountain Audubon Society and Otter Creek Audubon held a joint online presentation, Black-capped Chickadees and The Fine Line Between Friend and Foe presented by OCAS Board Member, Dr. David Hof. Black-capped Chickadees are one of the most ubiquitous of our year-round bird species, and yet somehow always remain a joy to encounter. In this presentation we learned about these charismatic birds surprising and complex, life histories. If you missed it, you can watch it in its entirety in the embedded video above.

This was the first of two Cabin Fever Lectures we will be holding online this year. Next up, Birding New Zealand presented by Gary Starr, will take place on Thurs. Mar. 11, 7pm. Email us at ocasvt@gmail.com to sign up to register for this event. In the meantime, if you would like to see more, many of our past presentations can be viewed at this link.

In this issue of Otter Tracks you will find the following articles:

  • 2021 Great Backyard Bird Count
  • Self Awareness in Birds
  • Presidential Last and First Days: An Editorial
  • A Birding Challenge and Opportunity
  • MALT 2022 Phenology Calendar
  • What a Hoot!
  • Calendar of Events

Otter Creek Audubon Society members will receive a copy in the mail but you can always find the latest issues of Otter Tracks in color on our home page. You can also browse issues going back to the year 2000 in our Otter Tracks Archive.

The 61st Ferrisburgh Christmas Bird Count took place on Saturday December 19th. Birders were met with cold and calm and mostly clear conditions. Covid-19 required a change to birding procedures, breaking up teams and leading to an increase in the number of feeder watchers. Fifty-one participants broke into twelve teams and spent a cumulative 196.25 hours in the field while receiving assistance from an additional eleven feeder watchers. Five teams spent an additional 14.25 hours owling. As far as birding, we found 76 species, below our ten-year average of 80, but we did add four additional species during count week. A total of 13,212 birds were counted, which is 40% below our 10-year average. 

The most unusual bird of the count was a king eider taken by a hunter at the mouth of the Little Otter Creek. This species has never before been recorded on the count. 

Waterfowl numbers were low. We had the fewest common loons since 1989, the fewest horned grebes since 1975, and the fewest common goldeneye in the history of the count (previous low 146 in 1988). Species found on only one territory included the king eider,horned grebes, gadwall, and N. pintail. We also found an unusually low number of gulls: the fewest great black-backed gulls since 1977, the fewest ever herring gulls (previous low 15 in 1961), and the fewest ring-billed gulls since 2000. 

Woodpeckers were abundant. Red-bellied woodpeckers populations continue to grow and this year’s 67 set a new record for the fourth consecutive year. We saw the most downy woodpeckers since 1988 and the most hairys since 1975. In addition, a yellow-bellied sapsucker made an appearance for the fifth time in the last ten counts. The first ever yellow-bellied sapsucker for the count appeared in 2007. 

A few hawk and owl species were particularly abundant. The 105 red-tailed hawks topped the record 97 set in 2000, and 24 great-horned owls topped the previous record of 19 set in 2014. Short-eared owls have been found around the region and our 12 were the most seen since 1981. And a snowy owl put in an appearance near the mouth of Dead Creek. 

The additional feeder watchers helped bump up the numbers of some of our more common species. We set records for the numbers of tufted titmice (225, previous record 158 in 2010), white-breasted nuthatch (236, previous record 207 in 2005), northern cardinal (349, previous record 280 in 2014), and Carolin wren (17, previous record 12 in 2005). Additionally, we set a record for red-breasted nuthatches (257, previous record 159 in 1997) with the New York section finding an astonishing 221. While not a feeder bird, we also set a record for common ravens (77, previous record 67 in 2015). 

We missed waxwings completely. This was the first time since 1973 that no cedar waxwings were recorded on the count. 

Winter finches were abundant. Common redpolls were found on eight territories. We had the most pine siskins since 2008, all but one found in a large flock near Vergennes. This was the sixth ever appearance for red crossbills and tenth for white-winged crossbills, and the first time that both were found in the same count since 1997. We also had a count week pine grosbeak.

As our winters warm we find a number of species appearing more regularly. I’ve already mentioned the yellow-bellied sapsucker. We’ve had hermit thrushes in each of our last three years. And we’ve had both ruby-crowned kinglets and savannah sparrows in five of the last seven years. 

Thirteen species were found by all of our field teams: red-tailed hawk, rock pigeon, mourning dove, downy woodpecker, blue jay, common raven, American crow, black-capped chickadee, European starling, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, American tree sparrow, and house sparrow. 

Seventeen species were found by only one group: 

● From Charlotte: peregrine falcon, belted kingfisher, ruby-crowned kinglet ● From Button Bay: horned grebe, gadwall, northern pintail 

● From New York: American kestrel, ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, hermit thrush red crossbill 

● From New Haven/Monkton: yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern shrike ● From Hawkins Bay: brown-headed cowbird, snowy owl 

● From Otter Creek East/Vergennes: northern saw-whet owl 

● mouth of Little Otter Creek duck hunter: king eider 

Thank you to all the participants. We look forward to heading out to the field again for next year’s count on Saturday December 18, 2021. The complete species list and count is below.  

A full list of species can be seen here.

– Mike Winslow

Held Sunday December 20th, 2020, this year 41 field birders and 34 observers at feeders located and identified 17,289 birds of 68 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 20th. 

We survey a 15-mile-diameter count circle centered on the Lemon Fair in eastern Bridport and covering  from the A & W Root Beer stand on the east to New York State on the west and from Snake Mt. on the north to  Richville Dam on the south. The Middlebury count is one of over 1,800 held throughout North and Central  America.  

Due to the pandemic, the National Audubon Society issued safety guidelines that needed to be met before any count could be held. All in-person compilation gatherings needed to be cancelled. Social distancing and/or  masking were required at all times in the field. Carpooling could only occur within existing familiar or social “pod” groups and activities had to comply with all current state and municipal COVID-19 guidelines. Many counts  added their own additional safety restrictions. For our Middlebury count, we sent many of our volunteers out on solo birding routes on foot or divided up territories so that birders in cars could bird alone or with a family member.  We had solo birders covering almost all of the Trail Around Middlebury and bushwhacking on their own private  land or public land within our count circle. Since so many people were at home due to the pandemic, we had  record numbers of volunteers watching their own bird feeders and reporting the birds they had seen. 

All arrangements for territory coverage and team make up needed to be take place via e-mail prior to the  count, since we had to skip our usual 6 AM organizational breakfast at Rosie’s Restaurant. Owlers started the day in the predawn blackness and field birders headed out at dawn or shortly thereafter. 

We also had to skip our usual compilation dinner after the count. Instead we met via Zoom to share stories  and our preliminary data. Report forms from feeder-watchers and field teams came in over the next few days.  Final results of our count were then compiled and entered online and made available for casual browsing or  scientific study at the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) website. Those results can be accessed at Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  

The weekend before our count, the southern end of Lake Champlain and other bodies of still-water in our  count circle were still open, raising hopes of finding waterfowl and other water-related birds during our survey.  However, as is often the case, cold night-time temperatures a few days prior to our count froze our still water and  drove many water birds either north to open water in the wider portions of Lake Champlain or south to the ocean  coast. We located only seven of the 44 water-related species found during our count over its history. This  compares to our average of 11.7 water-related species located over the 32 years of our count. This was one of only  three years during our count’s history that no one reported finding any Mallards within our count circle and only a  single Ring-billed Gull was seen. Both are certainly in the Lake Champlain Valley this winter, but most have left  our circle in search of open water (and food) elsewhere. 

With almost twice the number of residents watching and reporting birds at feeders, one might assume that  the record numbers of Tufted Titmice (188), and Carolina Wrens (25) reported were the result of the number of  observers, but keep in mind that both of these species are relatively new arrivals here in Vermont. Tufted Titmice  were first seen in numbers over 100 (111) in 2004 and Carolina Wrens were not found in the double-digit numbers  until 2014 (12). Another recent arrival and 2020-record-setter is the Red-bellied Woodpecker (91). They were  first seen on our count in 1989. They were first reported in double digit numbers in 2005 (12), and now for the last  two years they have been reported more often than Hairy Woodpeckers (60). That said, they are also a noisy bird  and easier to locate than Hairy Woodpeckers.  

Although a common summer breeder in Vermont, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (2) a few have recently  become year-round residents. This species was first found during our count in 2007 but has now been reported during six of our last ten counts. This year, two-different teams reported wintering sapsuckers. Jim Andrews and  Kate Kelly spotted a Brown Thrasher in Bridport. This species is also a summer breeder here but was first  reported during our count in 2017. Perhaps this species will also be seen more regularly in the winter as our  climate warms. 

Chris and Preston Turner located an immature Golden Eagle along Otter Creek in Weybridge. This is only  the second time in our count history that we have found this species in our circle. In contrast, the recently  recovered Bald Eagle has been reported every year but one in the last twenty years and even this year without open  water, we found nine. Both Kris Andrews and Craig Zondag reported Rusty Blackbirds (2). This species is  declining in Vermont, but still can be seen with some regularity when more northern birds migrate through 

Vermont in the fall. This is only the third time during our count that this species has been found within our circle.  Brendan Collins spent much of the day scouring the east side of Snake Mountain for birds. He contributed the only  report of a Red Crossbill (1). This conifer-seed-eating bird has only been located twice before during our count. 

The Red Crossbill was not the only northern passerine species to migrate into the Lake Champlain Basin  this winter. Common Redpolls (639), Pine Grosbeaks (46), Bohemian Waxwings (15), Snow Buntings (57),  Horned Larks (335), Pine Siskins (15), Tree Sparrows (424), and one Lapland Longspur (1) were reported as  well. 

Common Ravens (67) and Eastern Bluebirds (178) were reported in record numbers. Both of these  species are recovering from declines suffered many decades ago. The 151 Red-tailed Hawks reported, easily broke the previous record of 113 red-tails seen back in 2013. Our six Northern Saw-whet owls broke last year’s  record of four and ten Short-eared Owls easily surpassed our previous high of three. Chris and Laura Slesar  flushed seven Short-eared Owls from a single tree near Nortontown Road in Addison. Both of these owls are  pretty unique. The Northern Saw Whet Owl is so tiny that most observers would not think it could be an owl. In  length, they are a bit shorter than a Northern Cardinal, but they have much longer wings. Short-eared Owls are a  respectable owl size but fly like a bat in a cheap vampire movie.  

On the other hand, not a single Ruffed Grouse was found. These birds were found every year for the first  23 years of the count with 26 reported in 1994 but they have only been found five of the last eight years. This  appears to be the result of a loss of the dense, shrubby, habitat that this species prefers. 

Our total of 68 species is barely higher than our average of 66.7 and the total number of birds seen (17,289)  is about average (16,951) but both are impressive given the lack of open water in our count circle. A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers. This year we had an  excellent number of field birders (41) and double our usual number of feeder watchers. However, we are always looking for additional people who live within the count circle, can identify the birds they are seeing, and who are interested in reporting what they see at their feeders. If you are interested in reporting your feeder birds or  participating on a field team next year, contact Jim or Kris Andrews at 352-4734. 

Thanks again to all the volunteers and landowners.

A full data summary of the birds counted can be seen here.\

– James Andrews

During these trying times OCAS does not feel that it is safe to hold public in-person events, but we are continuing our regularly scheduled walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland so that we can collect bird data, and also, so that through these posts, we can share our sightings with you. Public walks will resume once public health officials say it is safe to hold gatherings again.

This month’s Wildlife Walk at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland took place on a Sunday rather than the normal Saturday so it wouldn’t clash with the Winter Eagle Survey which this observer was taking part in. I was joined on the morning by fellow board members, Gary and Kathy Starr and we set out wearing masks and keeping social distance to find birds.

At the Park there were unfortunately not may birds to speak of all, but some of the ones observed were good ones. Down at the end of the boardwalk we saw a flock of nine Mourning Doves, which interestingly were seen down on the ice of the recently re-frozen Otter Creek, perhaps finding water at the base of reeds coming through the ice. Down there we also heard a Pine Grosbeak across the river giving it’s distinctive 2-3 note call, but never did manage to see it. Also of note in the marsh were some very recent Beaver cuttings of shrubs, probably from the previous week when the river was flowing.

Over at the Hurd Grassland, the first bird we counted was a Pileated Woodpecker which was seen working on tree at the corner of the property along the road as we drove by. As we walked down into the fields, a Common Raven flew past, doing a couple of barrel rolls for its own entertainment. Lots of rabbit tracks were seen in and around the hedges all over the property, and probable Bobcat tracks were in among them. We paused at the photo stick at both properties to take pictures for the Middlebury Area Land Trust Phenology Calendar. The best sighting of the day, though, goes to a flock of Common Redpolls that is still persisting in the area, and like last month, were mostly interested in the seeds in the birch trees in front of Gale Hurd’s house.

All our bird sightings have been submitted to eBird and the full checklists can be viewed at the following links:

Otter View Park

Hurd Grassland

Other wildlife sightings are submitted to the Vermont Atlas of Life.

During these trying times OCAS does not feel that it is safe to hold public in-person events, but we are continuing our regularly scheduled walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland so that we can collect bird data, and also, so that through these posts, we can share our sightings with you. Public walks will resume once public health officials say it is safe to hold gatherings again.

This month’s walks at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland took place on an unseasonably warm morning which led to an increase in the usual bird activity. But before I get to the birds, I want to talk about a new addition to both Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland, photo posts, which have been placed as part of a joint MALT/Otter Creek Audubon phenology project. You can see one pictured above with very clear instructions on how to use it. The main point is to allow people to take pictures from the same location and perspective showing changes in the land throughout the year. We plan to make taking pictures from these posts a regular part of our monthly wildlife walks in the coming year, and you can see the first two such pictures posted above.

OK, back to the birds. On my way on to the park’s trail a Pileated Woodpecker flew by towards the utility access road. I followed in that direction and managed to find the bird whacking away on a boxelder tree where I managed to get a pretty good picture of it. Fun fact, in the time since the walk, the thick branch the woodpecker was working on has since blown down in the wind. From all directions around the Park, Carolina Wrens were singing their heads off. I counted four in all and at the end of the boardwalk I was able to get a recording of one. A Red-tailed Hawk was perched in a tree down river from there as well. And an Eastern Bluebird hanging out in a tree with a flock of House Finches was a good find there at this time of year.

Over at the Hurd Grassland I got a picture of the most patient Blue Jay ever which stayed in the same perch for a good ten minutes while I worked my way close enough to it to get a good picture. I skirted around the big central hedgerow in hopes of digging up some good birds, and was happy to find a White-throated Sparrow in there among a group of Northern Cardinals. Things were quiet around most of the lower fields, but when I came back up through the Hedgerow things started to pick up. A flock of 38 Robins flew in from the north and started foraging in the shrubs below. Then I had one of my better sightings of the day when I started spotting Pine Siskins, of which I eventually counted 18 in all. As I worked my way back to the parking, a very handsome immature Red-tailed Hawk flew over the fields. And just as I was about to leave, I found a flock of 24 Common Redpolls feeding on seeds in the birch trees in front of Gale Hurd’s house.

All our bird sightings have been submitted to eBird and the full checklists can be viewed at the following links:

Otter View Park

Hurd Grassland

Other wildlife sightings are submitted to the Vermont Atlas of Life.

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