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Snow Geese Galore

A day at Dead Creek,

I know it sounds like the title of an old John Wayne movie, but it’s actually the name of a wildlife refuge in northwestern Vermont. Visiting Dead Creek has been on my radar for years, but I couldn’t work it into my schedule. Then, last week, my wife suggested we take a drive north to see the fall foliage. I said, “Right, the foliage. I love foliage.” I immediately packed for Dead Creek…I mean, the foliage.

The reason I wanted to visit Dead Creek is mainly to see one bird species, Snow Geese. Snow Geese are rare in our area, yet as many as 20,000 of these bright white birds stop in VT each fall on their way to Delaware Bay. It was time I saw this spectacle for myself. Unfortunately, I was so focused on the geese that I allowed my wife to plan the overnight accommodations. Big mistake. As we were getting into the car, she announced that we would be staying at the Trapp Family Lodge. I said, “No, not the tourist Trapp Family Lodge.” As I continued my protest, she calmly reminded me that on the way to the lodge we had to pass the Ben & Jerry’s Factory, where they offer free samples. She heard no more complaints from me.

Our first stop was Montpelier, Vermont’s adorable state capital. Here we had lunch, which for me was a nice plate of root vegetable hash. (Talk about living the dream.) After lunch I suggested we take the scenic back roads to Stowe. I neglected to mention that the back roads also avoided the Stowe’s shopping area. Pretty sneaky, eh? Well, the joke was on me, because we also missed Ben & Jerry’s. Nuts! However, the scenic route was indeed scenic and totally charming. And at one point I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting a big dog. I was just about to complain about the lack of a local leash law, when I realized that the “big dog” was actually a young black bear. Cool beans! A second later my wife was out of the car, chasing the bear with her camera. I’m no expert, but I don’t think bears are one of those things we are not supposed to chase. No worries, though. The bear got away.

When we arrived at the Trapp Family Lodge it was just as I expected it to be – filled with tour buses, tourists and posters of The Sound of Music. Even the image on the men’s room door was wearing lederhosen. Really. But there were two things that made this stop worthwhile. First, the dining room served killer apple strudel, which, of course, we had to try…twice. Also, the property has miles of birding trails. Actually, the trails are for snowshoeing, but that’s not what I used them for. At sunrise I was up and out (while my wife was still sleeping off the strudel). The minute I stepped outside I was greeted by two juncos, the first I had seen this fall. Next, a noisy raven flew over my head and from nearby trees a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers began calling. What a great way to start a bird walk. Too bad things didn’t continue that way. I spent the next two hours hiking through deep woods and walking along pastures, and the only other things I saw were cows, sheep and tour buses. The grounds around the Trapp Family Lodge are truly beautiful and I’m glad we stayed there, but it was time to move on.

Just north of Burlington is the Missisquoi Wildlife Refuge. I had planned to arrive at Missisquoi (pronounce it any way you want) by mid-morning, but my wife spotted a sign for horseback riding (stupid back roads); as a result, we didn’t arrive there until the afternoon. A refuge ranger suggested we hike the Black Creek Trail and she was right. This was one of the coolest trails I have ever taken. The vegetation was thick and swampy, like something found in Florida, only without the heat and the snakes. It also didn’t have many birds. I’m sure the area is hopping with warblers in the spring, but most of those birds had gone south already. I was okay with this quiet walk because I knew I was only a short distance from Dead Creek and 20,000 Snow Geese (remember them?), and that’s where we were headed the next day.

After spending the night in the big city of Burlington (where none of the restaurants served root vegetable hash…sad), we headed for Dead Creek. The brand new visitors center is located on Rt. 17, just forty minutes south of Burlington. We received good birding advice from the ranger, as well as from Enid, a birder who recognized me from her trips to Cape Cod. (I’ve got to start wearing a better disguise.) Established in 1950, the 2,858-acre refuge sits on the eastern side of Lake Champlain and is an important feeding area for migrating waterfowl. Dead Creek is not the typical refuge. It has no wildlife drive or observation towers. In fact, the main reason to go there is to see the Snow Geese, and they didn’t disappoint us.

Just down from the visitors center is the lone viewing area, which overlooks a series of cornfields. At the far end of one of the cornfields were the Snow Geese, lots and lots of Snow Geese. Enid estimated the number to be 4,000, but more kept coming. At one point the birds took to the air, probably spooked by a passing Peregrine Falcon, and the whole area looked like a giant snow globe, with white geese flying in all directions. We watched the goose show for quite a while before finally heading home to Cape Cod and its non-Snow Goose habitat. (I can’t believe VT beats us on this one.)

Anyone heading to northwestern Vermont in October should stop at the Dead Creek refuge and see the Snow Goose spectacular in person. And if you contact me before you go, I’ll tell you where you can score some sweet root vegetable hash. You can thank me later.