Bob Stymeistand Martha Steele
Mad Brook Trail trailhead. (Photograph courtesy of the author).
Orleans County is one of three counties that constitute the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) of Vermont. Although Martha grew up in Burlington, Vermont, on the western side of the state, she knew little about the northeastern corner before adulthood. She introduced Bob to the NEK, which got its name in 1949 from then-Governor of Vermont George Aiken.
The NEK is a region that has historically struggled economically and is a little too distant from major metropolitan areas such as Boston or New York City to attract large numbers of tourists. But of course, birds pay no attention to political boundaries, and the rich and diverse habitat of the Kingdom results in one of the better regions in the northeastern United States to bird in spring and early summer.
In this article, we focus on Orleans County, with short descriptions at the end of the article of nearby Wenlock Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, and Victory Basin WMA in Essex County. We focus on the months of May and June, by far the most exciting and productive time of the year. To whet your appetite, consider a June day on our property on Wood Warblers Way in Westmore, where Martha’s mother lives. Westmore is home to Lake Willoughby, considered by some to be the Lac Lucerne of the United States. Glacially formed, it is one of New England’s deepest lakes, with a depth exceeding 300 feet in some spots.
Our property is 120 acres of mostly hardwood forest, with an edge plantation of coniferous trees planted in the early 1950s and an open field with several varieties of apple trees. We have recorded 100 species of birds from our property. Waking up and walking onto the deck off our bedroom on an early spring morning often brings distant calls of the Common Loon from Lake Willoughby below us, as well as the calls of an incessant Common Yellowthroat, Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Purple Finch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-throated Sparrow, Black- capped Chickadee, Winter Wren, Ovenbird, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, and on and on it goes. We have several bird boxes in our meadow with nesting Tree Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, and chickadees. We have a kestrel box up and ready for one of the nearby birds to discover and we put up a Barred Owl box last fall. We welcome our avian travelers back and wish them well in finding mates and raising their young. With all of this abundance, sometimes it is hard to tear ourselves away from just walking the edges of our property.
But meander around the county we do. Starting at Lake Willoughby, you will be struck by the view from the north end of the sheer cliffs of Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, which frame the lake on its southern end. Mount Pisgah (elevation 2,751 feet) with its towering cliffs is home to nesting Peregrine Falcons. For those who enjoy a great hike, a trailhead to the summit (1.9 miles) begins 0.7 miles south of the lake on Route 5A (number 1 on the maps) and works its way through different habitats, largely hardwood forest, to the summit. You should see several warbler species, including nesting Blackpoll Warblers, at the summit. Recently, we were surprised to find that Canada Warbler was the most common bird encountered. Early morning is a good time to hear many Hermit and Swainson’s thrushes. Once at the summit, you can either retrace your steps back to the car or continue another 2.3 miles to the northern end of this trail on Route 5A. From there, it is 2.8 miles along Route 5A back to your car. If you hike the full length of the trail, it would be best to park cars at both trailheads to save walking back to the southern trailhead.
The Westmore Town Forest (2 on the maps) has a nice 1.2 mile loop trail that takes you by a wetlands created by beavers and a bog with a short boardwalk, dedicated to Martha’s stepfather Erland Gjessing. In some years this area has produced Yellow- bellied Flycatchers. The Town Forest is usually a reliable spot for Canada Warblers, and is home to many other warbler species: Nashville, Black-throated Green, Black- throated Blue, Magnolia, Black-and-white, and Chestnut-sided. There are also singing Winter Wrens along the walk, a song of which we never tire. We have seen beaver, black bear, and mom and baby moose on some trips. To reach the Town Forest, go to the northern end of Lake Willoughby, and take Route 16 along its North Beach. On the west side of the beach, you will see Peene Hill Road on the left, while Route 16 continues straight. Take Peene Hill Road for about one mile to a small parking spot on the left (space for two or three cars). The trail begins several yards to the left of the parking spot.
After visiting the Town Forest, continue several hundred yards on Peene Hill Road west to Cook Road, turn right onto Cook Road, and go to Route 16 (2.4 miles). Take a left onto Route 16 and drive 1.6 miles to May Pond Road on the left. Take this road for 2.1 miles to May Pond (3). Along the way, be on the lookout for American Kestrels and nesting Bobolinks. May Pond is a beautiful spot with breeding Common Loons, Wood Ducks, and Pied-billed Grebes. Retrace your steps back to Route 16, turn left, and drive 1.3 miles to Barton and Route 5. Take a left onto Route 5 South and in approximately two miles look for nesting Peregrine Falcons on the cliffs above Crystal Lake.
For another productive hike, return to Westmore and Bald Mountain, the third highest peak in the NEK (3,315 feet), where Bicknell’s Thrush regularly nests near the summit. Access Bald Mountain by hiking a trail that begins approximately 350 feet beyond the Long Pond fishing access on the Long Pond Road (4). This road begins on Route 5A at the Willoughby Lake Store in Westmore (great sandwiches and great ice cream). The Bald Mountain trail meanders through open hardwoods and crosses several streams; it is best to have waterproof shoes or rubber boots while hiking this trail. It climbs steeply into subalpine terrain with some rock outcroppings to maneuver. At the summit you will be rewarded with spectacular views from the recently restored fire tower. You should allow two-and-a-half to three hours for this hike. For those adventurous enough to stay overnight, a small cabin on the summit of Bald Mountain can be reserved through the NorthWoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston (there is no water source, so bring your own water). A late afternoon walk in June 2013 and again in 2014 along this trail produced Olive-sided Flycatchers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and several Swainson’s Thrushes.
In June 2012 we hiked this mountain in early morning from the Mad Brook Trail and recorded several Bicknell’s Thrushes, still singing at 10:30 AM. We have also recorded Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Winter Wren, both kinglet species, and nine different warblers. The Mad Brook Trail approaches the summit of Bald Mountain from the north, beginning at the gated terminus of the Mad Brook Road in East Charleston (5). To reach the start of this trail, turn off Route 5A at the Westmore Congregational Church onto Hinton Hill Road. After approximately two miles, you will see a fork in the road; stay right and continue another 1.8 miles to Mad Brook Road on the right. You will see a small, limited parking area a short distance up the road. Hikers should keep the gated road and the neighboring driveway clear. From the parking area, walk up a graveled road toward a meadow, pass a private home, and enter the open meadow. Use your binoculars to find the small trailhead sign (see photo on page 152) on the other side of the meadow and walk through the meadow. The trail enters a mixed forest where it follows an open woods road, climbing easily, and then turns west and briefly descends to the base of Bald Mountain and the first of two nearby stream crossings. From here the trail climbs gradually around a large switchback and then more steeply up the mountain. This trail is longer than the Long Pond Trail but provides an easier way to the top.
North of Lake Willoughby we often bird the Coventry marshes (6) on our way to the Newport area. To reach these marshes, go to the village of Orleans, situated near the junction of Routes 5 and 58 (the northwestern corner of Barton). In the center of Orleans, take Maple Street north into the marshes. Maple Street becomes River Road, where the pavement ends. River Road is a great area for marsh birds, including Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Belted Kingfisher. Coming out of the marshes at the end of River Road, take a left onto Coventry Station Road. Pine Warblers nest in the big white pines there. Make sure you stop at the fishing area by the bridge as this is often a good spot for Rusty Blackbird especially in early spring and again in the fall.
Continue to Maxwell Road, the first right after crossing the railroad tracks. The road rises into fields and farmlands, and the resulting habitat change yields Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Harrier, and Bobolink. At the end of Maxwell, we bear right onto Airport Road passing the Newport State Airport, where Upland Sandpipers have nested, although there have been no reports of this species since 2001. In this wide-open area keep an eye out for raptors.
At the end of Airport Road, take a right onto Route 5 North, and after a short distance bear right at the fork onto Coventry Street. You will soon see on the right the South Bay WMA fishing access (7). This is a good place to look for Pied-billed Grebes and late lingering waterfowl. Continue along Coventry Street into downtown Newport, which sits on Lake Memphremagog (Bob calls this Lake Make-me-an-egg-nog). In early spring when the ice begins to break up, the municipal parking lot in the center of town is filled with hundreds of migrating waterfowl. In late March 2013 we tallied 15 different species including a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes.
From the municipal parking lot, head to the Barton River marshes (8), a great spot for marsh birds, waterfowl, and open edge birds, such as Veery, Warbling Vireo, and Baltimore Oriole. Take a left out of the parking lot and stay straight to go over a bridge. You will see Glen Road on the right after crossing the bridge. Take Glen Road two miles to a small parking area on the right that is opposite 2069 Glen Road (a green house) and next to a transformer station. A short path leads to active railroad tracks. Walk to the left from the path along the railroad tracks out into the Barton River marshes (be aware of freight trains). Listen for Pied-billed Grebes, American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, and Willow and Alder flycatchers. Returning to the car, continue along Glen Road for 1.8 miles to a good area for breeding Mourning Warblers; we have seen them here in the last three years.
Returning to the beginning of Glen Road in Newport, turn right and drive to the second set of lights (about a half mile), where there is a Cumberland Farms on the right. Continue straight across this intersection onto Sias Avenue. At 2.2 miles, you will see a fork in the road; stay straight onto North Derby Road. In 3.9 miles, you will reach the Johns River access area on the left (9). Here, walk along the bike path. The marshes here are very birdy, with many Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, Least Flycatchers constantly singing, and Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows singing from the cattails. You might hear a Virginia Rail. We have regularly seen Pileated Woodpecker in this area by walking to the left, up the bike path for several hundred yards.
From the Johns River access area, turn left and continue along North Derby Road to where it dead-ends, about a half mile. Turn left into Eagle Point Wildlife Management Area (10) and drive the approximately two-mile road, birding along the way. This 420-acre grassland and marsh habitat is part of the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. This is a great area for American Bitterns; in 2013 we heard five individual birds pumping away! Other birds include many breeding Bobolinks, nesting Ospreys and American Kestrels, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Savannah Sparrows. Be on the lookout for Ring-necked Pheasant (we saw several young birds in the last two years), Northern Harrier, and Bald Eagle out over the lake. You never know what can be found in this jewel located right on the Canadian border. In winter 2008, a Northern Hawk Owl made its home for a few months in this area, and we visited the bird several times.
Retrace your steps back to North Derby Road and back to the Newport municipal parking lot. Once at the parking lot, continue along West Main Street to its junction with Route 105 (1.1 miles). Turn right onto Route 105 north, and in one mile turn left onto Lane Road. Lane Road passes through mostly open country and farmland, so be on the lookout for open country birds, such as American Kestrel. The road ends in 3.6 miles at Route 14. Near the road’s end you will see a sand quarry, where you can search for Bank Swallows that often feed in nearby Sargent Pond (11). This area looks ideal for Vesper Sparrow, but we have yet to spot this species here.
At the junction of Route 14 and Lane Road, take a left onto Route 14 and go 4.8 miles to the junction of Routes 14 and 5. Take a right onto Routes 5/14, and in a half mile, Route 14 bears off to the right. Follow Route 14 to the town of Irasburg, which has a small town common. At the common, stay on Route 14 (Route 58 goes off to the left), and take your first left on the other side of the common and then your first right. In about 0.1–0.2 mile, bear left onto Burton Hill Road. In 1.7 miles on Burton Hill Road, look for Cliff Swallows that nest on a beautiful white barn along the road. Burton Hill Road leads south for about five miles back to Barton, where we head west along Route 16 toward Greensboro. Along Route 16 between Barton and Greensboro are small ponds that are always worth checking out. Look for Ring-necked Ducks (especially at Horse Pond), Pied-billed Grebes, Olive-sided Flycatchers, American Bitterns, Hooded Mergansers, and others.
Your next destination might be Caspian Lake in Greensboro to search for Northern Rough-winged Swallows and (in the fall) Red-necked and Horned grebes and other waterfowl. To reach Caspian Lake, take a right off of Route 16 toward Greensboro. Once reaching Greensboro, you will pass Willy’s on the right. Continue straight for several yards to a right toward the town beach on Caspian Lake and a good vantage point to search for birds.
From the lake head up to a wonderful boreal forest, Barr Hill Preserve (12), maintained by The Nature Conservancy. Drive north out of town center and turn right at the Town Hall, and in 0.6 of a mile turn left at the first fork and follow the sign to Barr Hill. You’ll pass a dairy farm and then a red barn just before the reserve entrance. The road up to the parking lot (0.6 mile) can be rough on a regular car, and you certainly hope not to meet anyone coming in the opposite direction. There is a small parking area at the base. This is an excellent spot for Dark-eyed Junco, Golden- crowned Kinglet, and various warbler species, notably Nashville and Magnolia. It seems like a good spot for some boreal species like the Boreal Chickadee, which is on the checklist there as uncommon. However, we have never found one here, nor have we found what the preserve is known for, Cape May Warbler. In 2012, we had a breeding Mourning Warbler in the preserve but did not find this bird in 2013. Our experience with Mourning Warblers in the Kingdom is that they are there in some numbers but usually not in the same locations from year to year. We found seven Mourning Warblers in 2013, all but one in locations where we had not seen them before. In the early winter of 2013 the power company cleared a wide path through the forest of our property on Wood Warblers Way, which resulted in our first Mourning Warbler on the property in June 2014.
Magnolia Warbler. (Photograph courtesy of the authors).
Another area that we have not fully explored is Jay Peak, the summit of which is accessible by a gondola. Higher elevation and boreal birds, such as Bicknell’s Thrush, Boreal Chickadee, and Blackpoll Warbler, are present, and ski trails enable you to walk the summit area from the gondola. It is best to call the ski area in advance for gondola schedules before planning this trip.
One other location in the county worth mentioning is the Clyde River marshes. The Clyde River runs along Ten Mile Road in East Charleston. From the intersection of Route 114 and Ten Mile Road go east on Ten Mile Road for about a mile to NorthWoods Stewardship Center. This stretch of road is the only location we know of in the county for Whip-poor-will. Bald Eagles can be found here, and early morning along this road is absolutely raucous with bird song.
We cannot do an article on birding in the Northeast Kingdom without mentioning the Island Pond area and Victory Bog in Essex County. A future article will give more details on these areas, but we provide a brief overview here. From our house in Westmore, it is a mere 45 minutes to the Wenlock Wildlife Management Area, home of the famous Moose Bog trail and South America Pond Road. The Moose Bog trail is the most reliable location anywhere in the Kingdom for Spruce Grouse, and it is possible to also see Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and Black-backed Woodpecker, the proverbial Grand Slam of the Kingdom. We have never achieved the Grand Slam on one trip, though we have seen the Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Gray Jay many times. The Boreal Chickadee is quite elusive and the most difficult of the four to find.
The Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge covers over 26,000 acres of varying habitats. Visit the refuge headquarters Visitor Center on Route 105 in Brunswick,Vermont. You can spend an entire day leisurely crisscrossing the various roads in the refuge, but make sure you stop at the Mollie Beattie Bog, where Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are common and Lincoln Sparrow is usually present. The Peanut Dam Road is a good area for boreal species like Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and maybe a Spruce Grouse.
Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area comprises 4,970 acres of a variety of habitats including lowland spruce forests, upland hardwoods, sedge meadows, and bogs. To reach this area, take Route 2 east from St. Johnsbury to North Concord (10.5 miles), and take a left on Victory Road. The road is well maintained all the way to Gallop Mills. Stopping anywhere along this road will be rewarding. Look for blow-down tree areas about midway for Olive-sided Flycatchers and Black-backed Woodpeckers.
Lodging is most plentiful in the Newport area, the hub of this county. The Willoughvale Inn on Lake Willoughby in Westmore offers spectacular views of the lake, and Island Pond has lodging and dining options to serve as a base for the Essex County locations mentioned briefly here. There is also Brighton State Park in the town of Island Pond for those who prefer camping out.
The locations we highlighted in this article are those we visit frequently, but in truth, many of the birds mentioned here can be found just about anywhere in the NEK, given the right habitat. This region is rural with lots of dirt roads that make it easy to bird by car, slowly riding along and listening for birds. Many of the roads we mention here can be easily birded by car without having to worry about heavy traffic or places to pull over. Weather can be quite variable, and even in mid-June, it is possible to encounter cold temperatures, so always check weather forecasts to best prepare. We are frequently asked about black flies, which are present in May and June. There are certainly times and locations where these and other insects can be problematic, but for the most part, we seem to manage pretty well. We continue to explore the county, trying to find new locations that may be productive. This region is plenty challenging in the dead of winter, but in May and June, it is hard to imagine a better place to bird in New England. So consider the NEK as a great nearby birding destination once the excitement of spring migration in Massachusetts has passed!
Martha Steele is a native Vermonter, having been born and raised in Burlington, Vermont. Since her parents moved to Westmore year-round in 1979, she has hiked extensively throughout the region and, in more recent years, searched high and low with her husband, Bob Stymeist, for birds throughout the NEK.
Bob Stymeist has been interested in birds since 1958. His love of urban birding continues today, and he keeps an annual list of birds found in the City of Boston. His other favorite spot is Mount Auburn Cemetery, which he didn't find out about until 1963 even though it was only two miles from his home. He has recorded 213 species in the Cemetery. Bob was a founding member of Bird Observer and served as its president from 1978–1984. He was treasurer of the Nuttall Ornithological Club from 1981–2011, and has been the statistician for the Brookline Bird Club since 1987.