Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Northeast Kingdom

When we finally settled on Vermont for our family vacation (Smuggler's Notch, if you must know), my thoughts immediately went to "Boreal." Vermont has the southernmost region of far-north conifer forests, home to the legendary gray jay, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, etc. And this region is known as the "Northeast Kingdom." ("Make sure you take your magic elixir before you go," laughed my wife).

I got up early and drove the foggy and relentlessly charming two hours to the heart of the kingdom east of Island Pond. I had vague directions (referring to unmarked roads a certain number of miles from unmarked landmarks) to a particularly intriguing area named "Moose Bog." I found an unmarked road, parked the car, and took a path through the woods. Not exactly a "bog," but I thought I would walk it a bit to see where it led.

I immediately noticed two things: first, an extraordinary silence, punctuated periodically by passing truck explosions; second, warblers. In my excitement over the prospect of boreal birds, I had completely forgotten that this is where many warblers breed. Soon I would enter the most active bird area I have ever experienced. In less than an acre, I counted off black-throated blues and greens (just about everywhere in Vermont), northern parulas, common yellowthroats, hermit thrushes, blue-headed vireos, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, yellow-rumped warblers, black and white warblers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and others I'm sure I've forgotten. I got some (poor) photos and some sound recordings.

Almost pure exhilaration, only one small problem--no boreals. I had flushed a unseen boomer earlier--a grouse, but what kind? And try as I might, I couldn't make out any brown caps or hear any odd calls from the chickadees. (I never thought I would consider black-throated blues to be clutter birds).

Turns out that I had in fact taken the wrong unmarked road. This was Notch Pond road, a kind Silvio Conte NWR ranger pointed out. The next one over was South American Pond road, which leads to Moose Bog.

Sure enough, a genuine spruce bog. Sphagnum moss covered the floor,

cool lichens hung from the conifers,

and I pledged I wouldn't leave until I found at least one boreal.

It took a while to figure out which path led into the bog proper (meanwhile, I walked right through a flock of chattering golden-crowned kinglets) but it was worth it. They've recently completed a boardwalk to the lake in the center so it was easy going and I could concentrate on boreals amidst the awesome bogginess.

What was that? Thank you, palm warbler, for my only decent bird photo of the day.

Still no boreals.

I sat at the end of the boardwalk and soaked it all in (click on the above photo for a better view). Moose Bog is reminiscent of Ponkapoag Bog in Canton (cotton grass and pitcher plants)

with the delightful addition of spruce-covered mountains and circling ospreys (who sound more impressive in an echo-conducive environment than they do in less resonant shorescapes).

As I turned to leave, I spotted a large white-chested bird perched on the top of a tree. The binoculars confirmed it--a gray jay! "Don't fly away," I pleaded as I pulled out the camera. I captured a glimpse as it flew down.

My first and only boreal. I was now free to drive the relentlessly charming two hours back to Smuggler's Notch.

The most significant bird I saw? Not the gray jay. The palm warbler. They are extremely rare breeders in Vermont and Moose Bog is one of their only known nesting areas.

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