TOUR de VALLEY
Wayne Benoit/Hanover, NH

A mass of snow buntings proved to be the day's highlight.

The need to get a car repaired in Rutland provided the perfect opportunity to take a mid-winter tour of the Champlain Valley. It is always uplifting visiting the lake and its environs. Coming down the west side of the Green Mountains and getting that first look at the Valley’s broad plain is a real tonic for the spirit. Even in winter, the vast expanse of the region’s snow-covered agricultural fields set against Lake Champlain’s winter patchwork of ice and open water with the majestic, frosted Adirondacks rising up behind does not fail to cheer. The feeling of openness and long views runs refreshingly counter to The Upper Valley’s confining hilliness where one often feels hemmed in on all sides. The sky was a cloudless, bright, deep blue and a brisk wind blew as my birding buddy Wayne and I began our “Tour de Valley” in Brandon. Fortified by coffee and pastry we set out northward on US Rt. 7 quickly detouring to the outskirts of town to see a covered bridge. On the way, Wayne’s sharp eyes noticed a red-tailed hawk keeping its sentinel watch from a tree that stood on a pasture’s border. That sighting would become the day’s leitmotif. Over the course of the next four hours we would tally nine more similarly watchful red-taileds perched on poles or in trees. Returning to Rt. 7, we set our sights on the
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Crown Point Bridge and Dead Creek WMA area in hopes open water would provide some waterfowl viewing opportunities. Arriving, we found the lake completely iced over. Our only sighting was that seasonally abundant species, “the ice fisher.” Realizing the frozen conditions would preclude the possibility of waterfowl viewing in that area, we set our sites on the Charlotte Ferry dock where, because the ferry runs year round, we were sure to find open water and perhaps a profusion of water birds similar to our visit last winter (see 2014-03-07 UV BLOG – LIFERS). Then came the birding event of the day, if not the season. As we drove east on VT Rt. 17 towards VT Rt. 22A and the town of Addison, we were startled by a white, pulsing mass lifting up to our left. ”Snow buntings!” I exclaimed. Indeed they were and in greater number than I had ever seen. Not only was there this swarm in front of us, but over the stubble covered corn field to our left was a long, undulating swarm moving eastward. We stopped so Wayne could try for some photos. The flock would put down near the road only to repeatedly be startled skyward by a passing car or truck. On two occasions it passed directly in front of vehicles somehow managing not to get hit. In the end, the flock moved farther out into the fields and vanished from sight. I estimated the flock at about 400 birds. Later, a local birder Ian Worley, who saw my posting and Wayne’s photo, said a count in the 1300-to-2000 range was more likely given that his count of Wayne’s photographed flock was more than 400, and I had estimated what was shown there to be about a third of the total number of buntings seen. After that view of a lifetime event, the rest of the day could not help but be somewhat anticlimactic. Yes, we found open water at the ferry dock, but the only birds seen was a flock of about three-dozen gulls hunkered down on an ice floe. We chatted with two other birders on the scene who opined that the ducks had too much open water elsewhere on the lake to be driven to shore. They reported seeing some waterfowl at the Charlotte Town Beach, so off we went. Arriving at the beach we observed a mix of common mergansers and goldeneye some distance off shore engaged in swimming, sleeping, preening and diving. They were barely in range of my binoculars, but fortunately, Wayne was able to photograph them which made later identification possible, one of the great pluses of birding with a skilled photographer. Disappointed in the limited number of birds we saw, so go the vagaries of birding, we struck out for I-89 and the southward drive home. Yes, the number and diversity of waterfowl seen was small, as it was for land birds whose sightings in addition to the red-tailed hawks were limited to a few crows and feral pigeons. But, oh, those snow buntings! That is a lifetime memory image that makes any outing a great success.  

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