In the ornithological equivalent of baseball’s opening day, the Mascoma Chapter of NH Audubon has hosted its first of season birding tour. The event made s search of the Connecticut River traveling south along the river on its Vermont side beginning at Wilder Dam and ending opposite the City of Lebanon’s landfill. The outing was sponsored in conjunction with the VT Center for Ecostudies (VCE’) and was co-led by Mascoma Chapter Steering Committee member George Clark and VCE Director Chris Rimmer.
The original plan had been to start at the Ledyard Bridge in Norwich and head north to the Ompompanoosuc River at its confluence with the Connecticut. With the Connecticut iced over as far as the eye could see, that was not going to be an option. The flow of water through the Wilder Dam keeps the river open almost all winter, however, so we opted for a southward journey.
The day did not begin auspiciously at Wilder Dam for the sixteen birders, eager to get out in the field despite winter's lingering grip,. No bald eagles were present, and the same held true for waterfowl. After twenty minutes, we left having recorded five American crows, six feral pigeons (rock pigeons) and three house finches, hardly the stuff of legends.
Setting our caravan of car poolers in motion we headed off to a place previously unknown to me, Lyman Point Park. This site is located on the northwest corner of the White River’s Junction with the Connecticut, and it is accessed from the “Listen” parking lot where the temporary bridge carries US Rt. 4 over the Connecticut from Vermont into New Hampshire.
Despite the thick, ice-crusted snow, we were able to make our way out to the point for a fine view looking south. Again, the pickings were slim. The White River was almost completely frozen over. Seventy mallards were present huddled on the ice at the White River’s edge with a solitary ring-billed gull standing near by. An American crow and five more pigeons capped off our slight observations.
George then suggested we try traveling down Connecticut River Rd. This street was somewhat known to me. It is a continuation of White River Jct.’s Main Street going south past the freight yards, then going under I-91 and continuing along the river for about two miles before reaching a dead end. Along the way there are views across the river of the W. Lebanon shopping areas and then Lebanon’s landfill.
The presence of bird feeders at a couple of houses, in winter bird feeders often provide the best observation opportunities, we passed on the drive down produced both a variety and number of species greater than that we had observed previously. We counted eight northern cardinals, a white-throated sparrow, nine black-capped chickadees and an American robin. Also seen were downy woodpeckers, an American goldfinch and a white-breasted nuthatch among others.
It was when we approached the landfill’s northern limit that we got the big birder payday. The landfill is famed for drawing in large raptors that come to scavenge. Today was no exception. In the span of about twenty minutes we were treated to the sight of six bald eagles and three red-tailed hawks! In the woods behind were counted eight, wild turkeys and a pileated woodpecker. In the end we had a respectable morning’s count of 23 species.
The raptor sightings were particularly noteworthy, but the morning’s big prize was four red-winged blackbirds, the first of the season for all the participants. We were treated to some of their trilling calls, music that lifted everyone’s spirits. Spring was definitely coming whatever the landscape and temperature indicated otherwise!
We could have ended it there, but a rough-legged hawk had been reported the previously day in the tree line of a corn field along Stevens Road in Thetford. Roughed-leggeds are relatively common over in the Champlain Valley but are rare occurrences in The Upper Valley. A half dozen of us set off for Stevens Road and managed to locate it in short order as it flew along the tree line at the field’s far side before obligingly perching in a tree well within the spotting scope and photo lens camera range. This was a "light morph" displaying a light head and mottled brown and white upper wing feathers. In flight the under-wings were broadly white with distinctive black patches. A beautiful bird!
Red-winged blackbirds and a rough-legged hawk. A good day out and a promising start to the new season, one that would make even a Chicago Cubs fan hopeful.