A quick trip to Vermont:
I was just getting ready to settle into my usual summer routine (hauling birdseed every day) when Keenan, an excellent young birder from Eastham, told me about Moose Bog in Vermont. According to Keenan, a visit to Moose Bog often produces hard-to-find Canadian specialties, including what I’m calling the birder’s grand slam: Spruce Grouse, Gray Jays, Black-backed Woodpeckers and Boreal Chickadees. I know I should be focused on work, but this Moose Bog place sounded too good to pass up. So, after giving it careful thought, I decided that I could work harder in my next life and packed my bags, grabbed my binoculars and headed north to Vermont, the summer home of many New Yorkers, Canadians and, as I soon found out, every biting insect in the entomologists’ handbook.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of birding in VT. It’s just a few hours away by car, thus no plane tickets to buy or TSA to deal with. I can pack the world’s largest bottle of shampoo and no one will stop me. Moose Bog is located in the Northeast Kingdom, a more rustic part of the state with many of the houses looking like they came from the set of Sanford and Son. Nonetheless, the area is beautiful and a wonderful region to visit. Upon checking into my cabin, I asked for directions to Moose Bog. I was told to, “turn left at the white church and then right after the farm.” Swell. Isn’t everything in Vermont either a white church or a farm? I noted the vague directions, went inside to unpack and plan for the morning.
I arrived at the bog at 6:30am and as soon as I stepped out of my car I was greeted by Vermont’s infamous duo: hungry black flies and killer mosquitoes. I quickly doused myself with my special insect repellant, a secret formula that consists of 600% DEET and 10% napalm. The repellant kept the bugs from biting, but they were still irritating as they buzzed around my head. It was like having your jerky cousin put his finger an inch from your face and repeatedly say, “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you.” (I’m sure we all have of one of those cousins.)
Bugs or no bugs, I started down the trail where one of the birds I was hoping to see instantly appeared on a branch above my head. It was a Gray Jay. Gray Jays are the sedated members of the jay family. While their cousins the Blue Jays are like the Marx Brothers, creating chaos wherever they go, Gray Jays move about in stealth mode, often appearing magically and then disappearing the same way. A moment later, a second Gray Jay joined the first one. They both checked me out and then vanished back into the forest without saying a word. It was very cool…and suddenly the bugs didn’t bother me nearly as much.
I was just getting over the excitement of seeing the jays, when a dark woodpecker landed on a dead tree in the middle of the bog. Was it another bird on the list, a Black-backed Woodpecker? Maybe, but I’ll never know for sure. Before I could lift my binoculars the bird flew farther back into the bog and even though I stood there for quite a while, it never reappeared. Boo! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to positively identify the bird, so I can’t really count it. Unlike the NFL, birders don’t accept circumstantial evidence.
I spent the next several hours walking around Moose Bog and saw lots of good birds, including Swamp Sparrows and Blackburnian Warblers, but no more of the grand slam birds. Just a few miles down the road is the 7,200-acre Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, so I decided to check it out. The refuge proved to be another good place for birding. It was filled with assorted warblers, flycatchers and a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. At sunset I returned to Moose Bog and heard a pair of Barred Owls calling, and had a beaver walk across the path in front of me (which was a first), but saw none of my target birds. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow.
After a good night’s sleep and doubling down on my bug repellant, I was back at the bog at 6:15am. On this particular morning the area was buried in thick fog. I could barely see where I was walking, let alone find any birds. But then I saw something standing on a log. As I squinted to make it out, the sun broke through and there, ten feet away, was a handsome adult male Spruce Grouse. Sweet! Spruce Grouse are sometimes called “fool hens” because they allow for close approach, but the minute this bird saw me it flew up into a tree. I was a bit disappointed that I had encountered the world’s only shy Spruce Grouse, but my disappointment didn’t last long. The bird quickly turned, flew down and landed at my feet. At my feet! As I fumbled with my camera I could hear the thumping of footsteps coming my way. I looked around but saw no one. The thumping turned out to be my heart pounding. I took a couple of deep breaths and slowly calmed down. I watched the grouse for a while and then decided it was time to leave the bird in peace and time for me to drive back to the land of birdseed and squirrel complaints. I reluctantly got into my car and headed home. I had had a good trip.
Keenan was right; Moose Bog is a great place for birding. On my brief visit I saw a nice variety of birds, including three (okay, two and a half) of the grand slam birds and a walking beaver (but oddly, not a single moose). Plus, I had an amazing encounter with a Spruce Grouse, aka, fool hen. Although after watching me slog through the woods and fog and battle black flies and mosquitoes, I think the grouse has a different idea of who the real fool i