Bird and Quest

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies lists 382 species of bird that occur in Vermont, whether year-long resident or migratory visitor. The VCE’s Vermont Atlas of Life citizen science operation has recorded sightings of 332 of these species thus far since its conception. And 219 species have been recorded across the state just since the start of this past April (2018). Programs like iNaturalist collect these sightings from volunteers in the public to compile an ever-growing, crowdsourced set of data for use by anyone– from conservationists, to mindful developers, to researchers studying specific species.

VCE

Similar in form and function to iNaturalist, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put together its own program to collect data on species distributions. Naturally, theirs specializes in birds. It’s called eBird. eBird participants have spotted more species than the VCE acknowledges occur in Vermont, with their total up at 385. Is the discrepancy a new development? Perhaps migratory paths are shifting, destinations changing, bringing Vermont new visitors. What if shifting precipitation and temperature trends are convincing some past residents to find new homes, or even making Vermont attractive to prospective immigrants? Perhaps none of these. But if we ever begin to answer such questions, it might likely be thanks to eBird and iNaturalist, existing to harness the massive potential of crowdsourced data sets.

ebird VT stats

Vermont is ripe with birding hotspots and Valley Quest can lead you to a good many of them. Some examples, from late August through September the Gile Mountain Quest near Norwich will take you to a vista along the migratory path of the Broad-winged Hawk. These birds accumulate aerially in large groups, termed kettles, and past recordings reveal sightings of thousands of hawks a day. While near Norwich, you should also check out the Flowing to the River Quest for more raptor encounters. This Quest will take you along a tributary of the Connecticut River into Osprey and Bald Eagle territory. This Quest is also a great opportunity to learn that there is (some find this hard to believe) way more than one variety of duck. This is a rich spot to discover all sorts of waterfowl – while the Bald Eagles will do no harm, beware the swan and geese! (Especially if they have chicks nearby, these two are known to pick fights.)

Broadwings

Bring a notepad Questing with a list of the birds you might encounter, and tally each one you find. Then once you finish up your day and arrive home (or even the next day, or next weekend, it’s flexible) report your sightings on the eBird website to contribute to their catalog. eBird also exists as a free app if you’re interested in reporting in real time.

Merlin birdID    Cornell Ornithology     INaturalist_logo

If you were able to hear birds, but couldn’t spot them, consider bringing your phone along and using an app like Song Sleuth which will automatically identify your audio recording. To dodge the pricetag you can also try the Cornell Lab’s app Merlin BirdID, which offers recordings of different songs from each species for you to listen for your match. Merlin also has a handy tool to help you uncover the identities of birds you didn’t recognize. Once you simply log the size of the bird, the context you saw it (whether flying, on a fence, in a tree, etc.) and the color, you’re presented with a list of all the possible birds you may have encountered.

Many Valley Quests also overlap with eBird’s map full of birding hotspots. This searchable map can help you see all 385 species that Vermont has to offer. If you find a hotspot location that would make for a strong Quest, let us know, we’d love to help you write one or work with community members to spotlight your site with a Quest! Happy Questing! (Below are a nighthawk, hooded merganser and belted kingfisher)

Bird collage

Subbasin Spotlight!

This year’s Aquatic Adventure Super Quest showcases the 5 subbasins that make up the Upper Connecticut River Valley, or, more fondly, the Upper Valley. A subbasin is a term used to describe a watershed within a watershed. While a watershed drains to a major river, a subbasin drains to a tributary of that major river. So in our case, the basin that drains to the Connecticut River, and stretches from Canada to the Long Island Sound, is the Connecticut River Watershed, and the Upper Valley subbasins are the mini-watersheds within it. All but one span both Vermont and New Hampshire sides of the Connecticut river, and all ultimately drain to it.

WHAT IS A WATERSHED

These subbasins are named by the rivers that anchor them. Just as all water in the Connecticut River watershed drains to the Connecticut River, all water that falls in a particular subbasin drains to its namesake river(s). Going from North to South we have the following 5 subbasins in our region:

  1. The Wells: Vermont’s Wells River both starts and ends in its own subbasin. Here you’ll also find New Hampshire’s Ammonousuc River, which flows to the Connecticut River all the way from its headwaters in the “Lakes of the Clouds” on the western slopes of Mt. Washington.
  2. The Waits: This subbasin is home to two 25-mile long rivers: The Waits and Ompompanoosuc, both in Vermont. Here you’ll also find Lake Fairlee–a natural lake, it was enlarged by damming a tributary to the Ompompanoosuc in 1939. Towns in this subbasin include Bradford, Strafford, Thetford, Orford…sense a theme? The suffix “ford” in a town name refers to the presence of shallow stream crossings, of which these towns certainly have many!
  3. The White: The White River begins near the crest of Vermont’s Green Mountains and flows 60 miles before it greets the Connecticut River in the aptly named White River Junction. The three branches of this river host an array of sparkling swimming holes and rock formations as they wind through especially hilly terrain. This subbasin connects the quaint towns of Sharon, Royalton, Bethel, Randolph, and many more. This is our only single-state subbasin, and calls Vermont its home.
  4. The Mascoma-Black-Ottauquechee: This massive subbasin is host to five large Connecticut River tributaries: The Mascoma (New Hampshire), Sugar (New Hampshire), Ottauquechee (Vermont), Black (Vermont), and Williams (Vermont) Rivers. The New Hampshire side boasts the highest concentration of lakes in the region, including the largest, Lake Sunapee, where Sugar River gets its start. Towards the southern edge of this subbasin, visit the Williams River’s inlet-strewn Herrick’s Cove for countless bird species and great paddling.
  5. The West: While the 53-mile West River (Vermont) anchors this subbasin, it flows farther South than the Upper Valley. The shorter, more northerly Saxton’s River (Vermont), however, flows through the towns of Grafton, Rockingham, and Westminster, and is dotted with waterfalls, sandy beaches, and deep pools. Steep, narrow gorges and unique outcroppings of bedrock add dimension to the hills in this subbasin.

If you haven’t yet, get your copy of the Aquatic Adventure Super Quest to start exploring the variations between these beautiful, fascinating subbasins today! You can print your own here (11×17 paper), pick up a copy at the Vital Communities office (195 North Main St, White River Junction), or find one at your local library. Then, register your team (pick a fun name!), and start discovering our region anew with our 10 featured Quests. Swimming holes, waterfalls, sun-soaked lakes, mill history, and babbling brooks will guide you through summer fun and learning—you’ve got ’til November 1! Victorious Super Quest teams all win commemorative patches and are entered to win our grand prize!

Happy Questing!

 

A Valley Side-Quest

While Questing is an absorbing hobby in its own right, it opens the door for a number of Side-Quests that you may find enrich the experience. One such Side-Quest is to collect data for any of a number of Citizen Science projects actively under way in the twin states. By participating in Citizen Science projects as you Quest, you inform active conservation research efforts that seek to better understand and protect our local natural environments.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies is one local research and conservation organization actively tapping into the power of crowd-sourced Citizen Science to aid local plant and animal species. The Center has set up a dozen different organized Citizen Science projects that community members like you can contribute to. They offer a range of expertise requirements from beginner to expert.

The VCE’s most popular project is the Vermont Atlas of Life, hosted on iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a website and smartphone app with which the most casual or expert observers of the natural world can help to keep track of the plant and animal species living in our local environments. The observations are logged in a public database of different species’ population data, which researchers and conservationists can then tap into.

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iNaturalist is also a useful tool for Questers. You can take a photo of any species of plant or animal—mushroom to mammal—and members of the iNaturalist community will hop on and suggest possible identifications. Even the most obscure fungus or caterpillar will be reliably ID’d in likely a few hours, given your picture is detailed enough. The process is fun, intuitive, rewarding, and connects us to those in our communities that also find curiosity, splendor, and awe in the natural world. It also really enriches the Questing experience. Have you ever seen a new mushroom, insect, or shrub on a Quest, and wondered what it was? Snap a photo and upload it to iNaturalist to bring your discovery and learning full circle.

The Vermont Atlas of Life project has already logged more than 210,000 wildlife observations, of nearly 6,000 unique species residing in our tiny state. Citizen Scientists regularly log sightings of some of the most prolific residents like the American Robin (1,430 observations) and the Black-capped Chickadee (1,724 observations), submitting geographic data to help monitor population distribution and track trends from year to year. iNaturalist participants have also logged some of rarest and most ephemeral residents and visitors – like the Snowy Owl (250 observations, the 2017-2018 winter was a huge year for these), the Northern Two-lined Salamander (94 observations), and the Silvery Blue (88 observations).

red-trillium-1406305_1920

A note on cataloging rare species: the pet trade is a real and serious threat to many species we know and love. For example, the wonderful wood turtle (0 observations on iNaturalist, and for good reason). Once relatively common in Vermont, the wood turtle has suffered habitat loss and illegal collection to the point of obtaining the classification of “endangered.” Reporting such species to public databases could accidentally lead to their being scooped up and sold.

However, these species are still perhaps the most critical to report.  Reputable organizations like the VT Herpetology Atlas or the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife need need the help of Citizen Scientists to keep track of these endangered species to aid in their protection. So if you do encounter one of these beautiful shelled beasts, please report your sighting to an organization you can trust.