Warbler Weekend at Highland Lodge
May 28

White-winged Scoters, Boreal Chickadees and 16 species of Warbler greeted the Vermont Bird Tours weekend trip to Greensboro and the Highland Lodge. We got some amazing through-the-scope looks at warblers and other songbirds, including Scarlet Tanager, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird building a nest and an Indigo Bunting performing at the Lodge. Long, high-quality looks at warblers are the priority on this trip. And we got plenty. A cooperative Mourning Warbler found its way into our hearts (and Scott Bassage's digital camera -- digi-scoped while he sang from an exposed perch for 10 minutes or so). Blackburnian Warblers really performed this weekend. We watched several through the scopes. Up here, we see birds on breeding grounds (not in migration), which means territorial males tend to sit up and sing for us. It's not often that birding groups watch warblers through spotting scopes. But that's what we do on this trip. It's among the most satisfying birding experiences I know. This trip isn't necessarily about quantity; we don't generate a big species list. It's instead about quality (as well as the grace, simplicity and astonishing food at at one of Vermont's lodging treasures). Here's the complete Warbler Weekend Trip List.

May 21
Berlin Pond Bliss

A Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage, an American Bittern feeding out in the open and jaw-dropping looks at Scarlet Tanager were among the highlights from Vermont Bird Tours outings to Berlin Pond on May 20 and 21. As usual, the pond was a playground for birds. Warbler numbers and diversity were somewhat low at 15 species. But we were busy. Here's the complete Berlin Pond List from the weekend -- 70 species.

May 13
Warbler Wonderland

King Rail, Cerulean Warbler and Lark Sparrow were only a few of the highlights from this year's Vermont Bird Tours trip to Ohio and Ontario from May 7-12. Our group got great looks at these and many other delights during the height of migration. We enjoyed long, gratifying looks at 28 warbler species (29 if you include the Pine Warbler Bryan spotted before the trip). Cerulean Warbler was sort of a trip mascot this year -- we readily found them at Crane Creek State Park in Ohio. Our group's discovery of a King Rail (above) at Magee Marsh in Ohio was big news. We've obviously got nothing against Vermont, but the migration is simply better out there. Here's proof -- our trip list.

May 3
Herrick's Cove

Migration is picking up steam. A smattering of birds at Herrick's Cove in Rockingham (during constant rain) on May 3 included Green-winged Teal, Virginia Rail, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Marsh Wren, and Chipping Sparrow.

April 24
Fish Crow in Burlington

A Fish Crow was calling at the Burlington Intervale on Thursday afternoon, April 20. (I was actually out there looking for butterflies.)

Be aware that female American Crows can offer a somewhat similar-sounding begging call early during the nesting season. It's normally a bit more drawn -- like a higher, nasal version of a typical crow caw -- than the more abruptly ending Fish Crow caw. This one was kind enough to issue the more distinctive two-noted "uh-uh" call as well.

Also of note was a Carolina Wren singing on April 23 across from the Plainfield Fire & Rescue Station (where, as a volunteer firefighter, I can often be found when I'm not out birding).

April 20
Bryan on VPR's Annual Bird Show

From woodpeckers to warblers, even a question about which bird belongs on the Vermont license plate, were fair game during Bryan's annual "Bird Show" appearance on Vermont Public Radio. Follow the "Bird Show" link then scroll down a bit.

March 28
Bryan on Ivory-billed Woodpecker

List online to Bryan's Vermont Public Radio interview about the trip to Arkansas in search of Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

March 26
Ivory-billed Trip in the Valley News

In Search of a Long-Lost Woodpecker
By Dan Mackie
Valley News Staff Writer

Five biologists from Woodstock's Vermont Institute of Natural Science took a road trip recently to join the search for the Holy Grail of ornithology -- the ivory-billed woodpecker.

They didn't find it. (If they had, this item would have been on the front page.) “We stopped at Graceland, and we didn't find Elvis, either,” said Bryan Pfeiffer of Plainfield, Vt., a biologist who does consulting work for VINS.

“There's no failure,” said Pfeiffer about quests like this one. “Disappointment, yes.”

In late February, the biologists drove a van to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (with a stop in Memphis) to volunteer for two weeks in the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, last sighted in 1944. Last year, ornithologists raised hopes that the bird might still populate the refuge's remote forest and swampland. A fuzzy videotape and audio recordings support the claims, but a “raging debate” about the evidence remains, Pfeiffer said.

The VINS team joined an effort led by Cornell University researchers. Pfeiffer said they woke at 4:30, headed out an hour later, and put in 12- to 14-hour days looking for signs of the woodpecker. Sometimes biologists canoed in pairs, or spent the day walking singly. Pfeiffer said he walked 6 to 10 miles a day.

Near each day's end, they spent 90 minutes monitoring a potential ivory-billed roost site. No sightings were made, but Pfeiffer said, “It was fabulous to walk all day like that. Sometimes we'd sit and wait and try to be as small and quiet as we could. Bobcats would walk by, and possum and white-tailed deer …'’

Kent McFarland, a biologist at VINS who organized the trip but had to bow out at the last minute because of a family emergency, said he regretted missing out but there was a silver lining. “I told them I'd mowhawk my hair if they found the woodpecker,” he said.

March 25
Eagle Extravaganza (and other stuff)

Bald Eagles put on a show for a Vermont Bird Tours eagle watch on Saturday, March 25. At the mouth of Otter Creek in Ferrisburgh, we watched them soar above us, fly by us, play in the air and simply sit on the ice and eat fish. At least 8 eagles were there on March 25, but Bryan and his pal Ted Murin spotted 11 there a few days earlier and another dozen at the Champlain Bridge (to NY). Other highlights from from Saturday's trip included a cooperative Pileated Woodpecker excavating a cavity; a delightful smattering of waterfowl, many of them courting; various other raptors (including the Rough-legged Hawk pictured to the right) and two Bohemian Waxwings at our meeting spot in downtown Vergennes. Here's a partial list of what Bryan bumped into during exploits in the Champlain Valley (between Charlotte and Addision) from March 23-25:

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Harlequin Duck (Charlotte Town Beach)
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Wild Turkey
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull

Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Bohemian Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

March 13
"Hey, Don't Blow Your Top"

Bryan's partiality to Ruby-crowned Kinglets comes across loud and clear in a series of images showing various stages of "excitement" in a male. The images are featured in the spring issue of Vermont Life Magazine. You can view them by clicking here or on the kinglet to your right.

March 5
Bryan's Ivory-billed Adventure

I'm just back from Arkansas, where a team of five biologists affiliated with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science helped in the search for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. While none of us found Ivory-bills (as expected), the bottomland forest of the Mississippi River basin is an enchanting place -- everything from birds to bear to butterflies. (That's Scrubgrass Bayou to the right, part of our search area.)

Each field day began at 4:30am, when we awoke to shovel oatmeal into our guts before heading into the field dark and early at 5:30am. From that point on, we'd canoe on the bayou or bushwhack the woods the entire day looking for any sign of Ivory-bills, including potential cavities and feeding sites (whose coordinate we dutifully marked on our GPS units). We were mostly on dry land or wading in shin-deep water (deep enough to commune with Wood Ducks). And, except when we were two to a canoe, we bushwhacked alone all day, between six and 10 miles per day.

Each day ended with a 90-minute watch at a potential Ivory-bill roost site. We'd navigate to one of those GPS-mapped cavities, park ourselves and watch it from 80 minutes before until 10 minutes after sunset. It’s called the “magic hour” (although this one has 90 minutes), but one of our team members, Juan Klavins, has dubbed it “happy hour.” During that happy time, indeed throughout the day, we would suspend our disbelief about this bird, we would summon the faith that unlike the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck, the Ivory-bill had somehow cheated extinction, and that on this particular evening at the cavity one of them would decide that you personally are not some worthless lump of flesh in camouflage, that you, who drove cross-country 24 hours through what our nation has become (a homogenous state of fast food and WalMart), are deserving of a visit from the great mythical woodpecker, a visit from what our nation once was. (OK, as you can see, you also get to do some overly ponderous thinking out there during happy hour.)

After all that waiting and thinking, we'd pack up and bushwhack out by flashlight. We were usually back to base camp at 7:30 pm for an hour or so of debriefing, data work and downloading photos (of everything but Ivory-bills). We'd gobble down supper, get our assignment for the next morning, and crash into our sleeping bags by 10pm. Then we'd arise 6.5 hours later to do it again.

That’s it for now. I've uploaded a few preliminary our photos at a quick-and-dirty VINS-Ivory-billed Website. I expect to be doing a few slide presentations around Vermont about the trip in the coming months. I hope to see you at one of them.


February 17
Bryan Searches for Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Bryan and a team of biologists from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science on Saturday begin an expedition to the remote swamps of Arkansas for one of the great quests in all of birdwatching: the search for the near-mythical Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Undaunted by prospects of venomous snakes, waist-deep muck and freezing temperatures, we'll spend two weeks in canoes and on foot trying to locate and photograph the large, dashing and elusive woodpecker, long believed to be extinct.

Dressed more like duck hunters than birdwatchers, head-to-toe in full camouflage gear, the VINS team will work from before dawn well into the evening, with the solitary goal finding and documenting on film any signs of the huge black-and-white woodpecker.

The terrain is remote and sometimes imposing. Much of the habitat can be flooded, so crews will travel by canoe. When on foot, the searchers wear chest-waders. Dense forest growth and venomous cottonmouth snakes are among the region's biodiversity, although cooler February temperatures in Arkansas may keep snakes less active.

For more on this trip, you can read the complete VINS announcement (PDF file) about our expedition or listen to the Vermont Public Radio story.

When he returns (in time for Town Meeting), Bryan hopes to make some visits around the state to talk about the Arkansas journey. Stay tuned for news about that.

February 5
North Carolina Birding News

Bryran just returned from a winter vacation to see birds and butterflies within only a (long) day's drive from Vermont -- to the coastal plain of North Carolina. It's the same location he guides clients to see Black Rail, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman's Sparrow, both Sharp-tailed Sparrow species, Painted Bunting and a host of southern warblers in late April. In any event, here are just a few highlights from his winter trip:

Black Skimmer (11)
Wilson's Plover (1)
Piping Plover (4)
Semipalmated Plover
Black-bellied Plover
Marbled Godwit (50)
Greater Yellowlegs
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Red Knot (12)
Short-billed Dowitcher
American Oystercatcher

Cabbage White (1)
Clouded Sulphur (3)
Cloudless Sulphur (1 fresh)
Polygonia (anglewing) sp. (1)
Red Admiral (1)
Monarch (4)

These were at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach, NC, on Feb. 2, 2006.

... and a Ring-billed Gull eating a Seahorse, a lifer (the Seahorse, that is). By the way, Seahorses are among the few organisms in which males get pregnant.

January 6-8
The "Gullible" Weekend

Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Black-headed Gull, and all the common gull species were among the highlights from from this weekend of gull (and other bird) watching. Other notable species included Greater White-fronted Goose and two Bald Eagles at Shelburne Bay. On January 8, while watching gulls in Gloucester, MA, we also enjoyed the classic winter seashore specialties, including King Eider, Harlequin Duck and Black Guillemot.

About The "Blog"
OK, it isn't an official blog. You can't post replies of your own. Instead, I'll offer nature news and occasional observations about wild things and wild places.

The "Blogger"
Bryan Pfeiffer, founder of Vermont Bird Tours and consulting biologist.

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