The season opener of my alma mater Wesleyan University’s football team, appropriately nicknamed the Cardinals, at Middlebury College provided a welcomed excuse to spend some time at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in nearby Addison, VT. During fall migration, Dead Creek’s nearly 2900 acres are a major stopping place for a variety of waterfowl, most notably snow geese that gather there in numbers upwards of three thousand or more.
Knowing it was early for the snow geese to be there, they usually show up in late October and stay into late November, I thought the extra, 30 minute ride from Middlebury well worth it due to recent reports of shorebirds and other early fall migrants. The refuge is also a short distance from Crown Point, NY on Lake Champlain where there had been reports of migrating waterfowl as well.
The portents were not good when I arrived in Addison. An overcast sky and a strong southerly wind certainly would cause birds, whether land or water-based, to lay low. Also, VT Fish & Wildlife had not yet cut the cornfields. That would discourage the geese that like to forage among the gleanings left behind by harvesting.
The most likely place to observe shorebirds and waders at Dead Creek is from the dirt road that runs along the marshes and impoundments at the refuge’s west side out to an area called Brilyea Access. It can be followed almost a mile out into the refuge providing unobstructed looks into the impoundments yielding particularly good shorebird/wader viewing, especially if Fish & Wildlife has drawn down the water exposing mudflats where the birds are drawn to feed.
As I turned onto the access road from VT Rt. 17, the main road through the refuge and the artery to the Crown Point Bridge crossing, the morning got off to a hopeful start with the sighting of a great blue heron standing motionless out in the water. But that, as it turned out, was about I all would see on or in the water, at that location. A flock of red-winged blackbirds passing over and individual sightings of land birds, like blue jays and American goldfinches, added to the day’s species count total, but water birds were almost nowhere to be seen. By the time I reached the Brilyea Access and crossed over the short, narrow, railing less bridge that connects mainland to an island-based parking area, the day’s list scarcely had grown. A couple of flocks of Canada geese numbering about 100 birds combined passed by over the marshes, but that was the only activity.
I was about to throw in the towel, when scanning the marsh’s shore line, I observed a small flock (30+/-) of what were certainly birds of the teal family. Being in non-breeding plumage and seen in poor light, certain identification proved a challenge. A mallard dropped in, making clear the diminutive size of the teal. Three greater yellowlegs feeding nearby provided a basis for size comparison at the small end. Blue-winged teal? Their feeding pattern, heads down and skimming the water, fit blue-winged teal feeding behavior as described in the Sibley Guide. Taking that all into account, blue-winged teal rather than green-winged seemed plausible. That isn’t to say it couldn’t have been the other way around. Both green-winged and blue-winged teal had been seen at the refuge during the time frame of my visit. Could I be 100% certain with my ID? There are times when uncertainty presents itself in birding. That’s where a second set of experienced eyes comes in handy.
In the end, it was not a particularly productive day, 14 species and one sparrow of indeterminate identity. As I turned the truck back onto Rt. 17 for my return journey to Middlebury, I considered that conditions were not great, and it was early in the season. Could have been worse, and in early November when I return it could be much better. So is the way of birding.