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

  • The 2020 Great Backyard Bird Count
  • Carbon Reduction: Ever More Intolerable
  • Bicknell’s Thrush Survival
  • Kirtland’s Warbler: No Longer Endangered
  • Environmental Education Grants Announced
  • 2019 Status of Vermont’s Rare Birds
  • Sign Up for 2020 Salamander Escorts
  • Heading to Hog Island Camp
  • Results on 2019 Christmas Bird Counts
  • Extremely Long-lived Trees

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.

On Thursday, January 9, at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, Otter Creek Audubon held our first of three Cabin Fever Lecture series presentations for 2020. Titled ‘The Search for Long-eared Owl in Addsion County,’ OCAS Board President, Ron Payne told us about a successful collaborative search to learn how to reliably find these elusive owls in our area. If you missed this presentation it can viewed online here thanks to the production facilities of Middlebury Community Television.

Our next lecture will be, ‘Plants for Birds,’ presented by Gwendolyn Causer, Audubon Vermont, teacher/naturalist and Communications Director. Native plants provide food and shelter for birds and wildlife. To survive, birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them. Bird-friendly landscaping provides food, saves water, and fights climate change. This will take place on February 13, 7pm at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury. In the meantime, if you would like to see more, many of our past presentations can be viewed at this link.

American Goldfinch

Five people came out to this months wildlife walk at the Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland, once again ably led by regular participant and volunteer, Jim Phillips. At Otter View Park the highlight of the walk was a Sharp-shinned Hawk while over at the Hurd Grassland, another raptor, a Red-tailed Hawk took top billing.

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.

Our Next walk will take place Saturday, January 11 at 8:00 AM. Meet at the parking area of Otter View Park at the intersection of Weybridge St. and Pulp Mill Bridge Road.

Held Sunday December 15th, 2019 in Middlebury, VT

This year 41 field birders and 17 observers at feeders located and identified 28,839 birds of 62 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 15th.  This is ten fewer species then we found in each of the last three years and 4.6 species lower than our average of 66.6 over the last 31 years; however, the total number of individual birds is almost 12,000 above average.

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. Owling teams started the day in the predawn blackness. Field birders met them at 6 AM for breakfast and an organizational meeting at Rosie’s Restaurant.  After breakfast, field birders headed out to their assigned territories.

Most territories were covered by a group of two to four field birders and a few feeder watchers.  Within each team of field birders were one or two experts who were familiar with birding and the assigned territory.  At the end the day, the field teams met at the home of Jim and Kris Andrews for dinner and a preliminary tally of the species seen.  Reports from feeder-watchers came in over the next few days and were added to the total count. 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 that can be accessed at (  

 We had some very cold temperatures early this fall that appear to have driven many half-hardy birds further south.  In addition, our still-water froze and drove many water birds either north to the wider portions of Lake Champlain or south to the ocean coast.  However, to our surprise, large portions of Lake Champlain reopened during the days before our count and some waterfowl and gulls moved back into our count circle.  Field teams located 13 of the total of 44 water-related species that have been found during our count over its history. This is higher than our average of 11.8 water-related species.  In addition, Bald Eagles moved back in and contributed to an all-time-high total of 27 Bald Eagles in our count circle.  Bald Eagles often hunt for fish and waterfowl along the boundaries of the ice in our larger lakes and rivers.  Our previous count record was 15 Bald Eagles back in 2016 and our average over the last 31 years is only 3.3. Of course, much of this increase is due to a successful recovery of this species in Vermont over the last few decades. 

The most unusual of the water-related birds located during our count was a single Lesser Black-backed Gull spotted by Paul Wieczoreck.  This is only the second time during the history of our count that this species has been found within our circle.  This species is common in Europe and its numbers have been increasing dramatically in eastern North American over the past few decades. 

Many feeder watchers reported very few birds at their feeders this fall before and during our count.  This may seem hard to believe given that our total of 28,839 individual birds was the highest number of individual birds seen in the 31 years of our count and 12,000 over our average of 16,940.  However, it is easily reconciled given that the total of European Starlings this year was 17,463Eleven thousand more than the average number of starlings seen in our count.  In addition, numbers of individual Common Crows, American Robins, and Canada Geese were all well above our average,  Subtract the additional 11,000 starlings, 1,800 crows, 1,200 robins, and 900 geese and the total numbers of individuals of birds would drop to around 14,000 birds.  

Keep in mind that our starlings are not native.  They were introduced from Europe into Central Park in New York City by fans that wanted all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to be found in New York.  It is estimated that they released a combined total of 100 birds in 1890 and 1891. Those relatively few birds are the ancestors of the 17,463 starlings we counted.  Why are all those starlings here? It may be they are here for the same reason as all the robins, namely the abundance of small fruit this year on junipers, crab apples, dogwoods, sumac, and other trees and shrubs.

One reason feeder watchers reported fewer birds at feeders this fall, could be that those birds are finding plenty of natural food on their own.  Another possible reason is that almost none of the northern seed-eating birds have come down from the north this year. We had no grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, or siskins found during our count.  In addition, many of those species commonly found at feeders such as Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, Song Sparrows, and Mourning Doves were here, but were found in numbers well below average.  Some of our low numbers during our count may well be that birds were seeking cover as a result of increasingly strong winds during the afternoon of our count, but despite that handicap, numbers of many bird species seemed low this year. 

Despite the challenges, our rugged field teams still found some unusual species for our count.  Spencer Hardy located a Chipping Sparrow at an active set of feeders and Warren King, Barry King, and Dave Hof located a Swamp Sparrow along Otter Creek.  These two species are usually well south of Vermont by December.  Also the team of Kathy and Gary Starr and Marcia and Jeremiah Parker located a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Shoreham (see photo).  Sapsuckers have become more common as wintering birds in the north as our climate warms.

 Wind noise makes it harder for owls to be heard by our rugged owling teams and perhaps harder for the owls to hear our recordings.  Still, for the second year in a row they located record-tying four Saw-whet owls, as well as three Eastern Screech Owls, three Great Horned Owls, and a single Short-eared owl.  No Snowy Owls were located this year, as was the case last year, but that is not all that unusual.  Snowy Owls are only sporadic visitors to our area. What was far more unusual was that no Barred Owls were heard or seen this year.  Last year we located 24 Barred Owls and our average is 5.3 per year.  

Our field teams found only a single Ruffed Grouse.  In the late 90’s we found twenty or more of these birds on our counts.  This is almost certainly the result of the loss of their habitat within our count circle.  Only 13 Wild Turkeys were found, but I believe they were mostly roosting and not easy to find.  

Other than the thousands of starlings, we set a couple other new record highs.  Mixed in with all the berry-eating American Robins were twenty four Northern Flickers.  This surpassed our previous high of 19 flickers found back in 2007.  The 60 Common Ravens found, beat our previous high of 57 and was well above our average of 21.6 birds.  This is another species showing a long-term recovery here in Vermont.

Our 17 Horned Larks was well below our average of 320.1 and our 72 Snow Buntings is disappointing compared to our average of 345.8.  They are harder to find when we have no snow cover. The snow forces these two species to the plowed edges of roads to find food and they are regularly flushed by passing cars.

Our total of 62 species is lower than our average of 66.6 and our lowest total in a decade but these numbers fluctuate annually based on weather events before and during the count, food availability here and north of us, and the availability of open water in our count circle, so I don’t believe they are indicative of long-term trends for most species. 

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) but our reports from feeder watchers still need to be increased.  Consequently, we are 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.

James S. Andrews

The 60th Ferrisburgh Christmas Bird Count took place on Saturday December 14th. The morning rain gave way to a foggy but pleasant day with temperatures in the mid-30s to mid-40s. There was no snow cover and the lake was mostly open. Fifty-seven participants broke into twelve teams and spent a cumulative 143 hours in the field while receiving assistance from an additional six feeder watchers. Five teams spent an additional 19 hours owling. As far as birding, we found 80 species plus one count week, one more than our 10-year average of 79, and counted 18,520 birds which is 18% below our 10-year average.

Birders discovered four species that can be considered extremely rare for the count. A great egret at the mouth of Little Otter Creek was a first. Two species were recorded for only the second time in count history: a gray catbird in Waltham (only other record 1982), and a nicely photographed common yellowthroat from Button Bay (1993). Additionally birders found and photographed a fox sparrow in Charlotte, for the species third appearance (2001 and 2 in 1963).

Waterfowl numbers were mostly unremarkable. Species found on only one territory included horned grebes, white-winged scoters,red-breasted mergansers, and great blue heron. Two adjacent areas reported a single lesser scaup, but it’s not clear if they both saw the same bird. We did have a record number of double-crested cormorants (5).

Two woodpecker species set record numbers and we had a high count of brown creepers. Red-bellied woodpeckers populations continue to grow and this year’s 54 topped the record of 49 set last year. Our 24 northern flickers topped the 1994 record of 21. And our 16 brown creepers were the most since 1999.

While hawk and owl numbers were about average, we did have a three falcon day, picking up merlin, peregrine, and kestrel. The four merlins seen tied the record set in 2007.

The abundant juniper berries helped with our thrush count. We found five hermit thrushes which doubled the number found in the previous 59 years. Eastern bluebird numbers hit a record high of 158 topping the 2008 record of 135.

Overall field bird numbers were low. Only two teams spotted horned larks for a total of 23. We saw the fewest snow buntings (5) since 2006. However two lapland longspurs were recorded from Charlotte.

It was a good year for some of our less common sparrows. We found 143 white-throated sparrows, shattering the record of 87 set just two years ago. The 40 song sparrows set a record that had held since 1979.

Though most finch numbers were unremarkable, we did see 883 American goldfinches which topped the previous high of 781 found in 2015.
House sparrows and starlings moved in opposite directions. The 6,015 European starlings was the most ever, topping the 5,406 meticulously counted in 2017. The 397 house sparrows on the other hand was the lowest number since 1964.

Sixteen species were found by all of our field teams: red-tailed hawk, rock pigeon, mourning dove, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, blue jay, common raven, American crow, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, American robin, European starling, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, house finch, and American goldfinch.

Nineteen species, plus a count period bird, were found by only one group:

  • – From Charlotte: white-winged scoter, boehemian waxwing, fox sparrow, and lapland longspur- – From Button Bay: red-breasted merganser, winter wren, common yellowthroat, and snow bunting- – From New York: horned grebe, snow goose (cw), ring-necked pheasant, and ruby-crowned kinglet- – From Kingsland Bay: great blue heron and brown-headed cowbird- – From North Ferrisburgh: American kestrel and purple finch- – From Monkton: wild turkey- – From Otter Creek East/Vergennes: short-eared owl- – From the Otter Creek West/Buck Mtn.: gray catbird- – mouth of Little Otter Creek duck hunter: great egret

Thank you to all the participants. We look forward to heading out to the field again for next year’s count on Saturday December 19, 2020. The complete species list and count is below.

Mike Winslow

Thirty people came out on a lovely morning for our annual First Day Hike at Button Bay State Park. This is the fifth year we have held this event in collaboration with Vermont State Parks. This event combines the tradition of birding on New Year’s Day to start building a birding year list, with the relatively new tradition of holding walks at parks on the first day of the year.

The search for birds proved a little challenging at first with just common species like Chickadees, Blue Jays and Crows being seen at first. But as when we reached the first overlook of the lake, we spotted a nice flock of White-throated Sparrows in the bushes along the shore. With them were a Dark-eyed Junco, Cardinals and a Carolina Wren which didn’t allow us to see it, but went through all it’s variety of calls except for it’s main song.

On the water, we found four Common Loon, all far enough away that we needed spotting scopes to see them well. Also popping out from marsh along the shore edge were a group of American Black Ducks which may or may not have been flushed out by the exuberant explorations of some of our younger walk participants. An overflight by a Bald Eagle was also a highlight from this point.

Further along the trails we stirred up some Cedar Waxwings and a Robin, in and around some Red Cedar trees, which we noted had plenty of berries for the birds to eat. We also spotted a Downy Woodpecker too.

Down at the end of the trail on the point opposite Button Island, we added a few more water birds with a passing Common Goldeneye, several Common Mergansers, and a group of Mallards. Far across the lake we were also able to observe some Ring-Billed Gulls actively flying and diving in the water.

On our way back we had one of our most unusual sightings of the day, a Large Yellow Underwing moth caterpillar seen crossing the snow encrusted roads. This is a non-native species that is occasionally seen in winter locally for whatever reason.

This walk has become a favorite for its leaders and our many repeat participants over the years. We look forward to holding it again next year, and hope you will join us too.


European Starlings

December’s Monthly wildlife walk at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland took place on a morning with just terrible weather. Rainy and foggy with questionable road conditions. And that’s probably everybody wisely stayed away. Everybody except for walk leader, Jim Phillips, that is. Jim did the due diligence and walked the trails at both properties generating the kind of uninspiring, but useful ebird checklists containing some of the very few birds willing to show themselves on a morning such as this. And for doing this we thank him greatly.

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.

Our Next walk will take place Saturday, January 11 at 8:00 AM. Meet at the parking area of Otter View Park at the intersection of Weybridge St. and Pulp Mill Bridge Road.

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

  • 2019 Silver Feather to Allen Karnatz
  • Hurd Grassland Changes Hands
  • Bridget Butler, “The Bird Diva,” on Fall Migration of Birds
  • Carbon Reduction: Only Part of the Story
  • An Emerald You Don’t Want
  • Book Review: Identifying Ferns the Easy Way
  • Hog Island Audubon Camp, Summer 2020!
  • Where Have All the Songbirds Gone?
  • OCAS 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.

Do you live in or near one of the circles in the map above? If so, you should consider participating in the Christmas Bird Count. One of the oldest, continuously running, citizen science projects, the CBC has accumulated over a century’s worth of data on the occurrence of wintering birds. There are two ways to participate, as a field observer Read the rest of this entry »

This Month’s wildlife walk at Otter View Park and the Hurd Grassland took place on a sunny but seasonably cool morning. One of the best sightings of the day happened right at the start when we spotted an immature Norther Harrier coursing back and forth over the Park’s upper meadow before it went away going south. Down on the boardwalk we noted how the beaver dams that were built this summer did a good job of catching sediment from the recent hard rainfall. At the creek we saw a Wood Duck which flew from a log on our side of the river to disappear into the vegetation on the other side. Four Common Mergansers also zoomed past us headed upriver. And a Northern Cardinal posed for us with its feathers all puffed out while eating grapes.

Over at the Hurd Grassland we were met with a rather brisk breeze. American Goldfinches were seen bouncing around the skies together, and Pigeons were on their regular perch atop the silos at the farm across the road. A couple of small flocks of White-throated Sparrows were found in the hedgerows, as were a few Dark-eyed Juncos, the first of the fall seen by many in our group. Some of the best action of the day was at Gale Hurd’s feeders, which we watched while gratefully sipping hot cider. House Finches, Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice all vied for the seed, sometimes multiple species perched together at the same time.

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.

Our Next walk will take place Saturday, December 14 at 8:00 AM. Meet at the parking area of Otter View Park at the intersection of Weybridge St. and Pulp Mill Bridge Road.

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