13. THE MISSISQUOI NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE Summer 2016
The refuge in Northwestern Vermont near Canada is by far the best nature preserve in Vermont. It was established in 1943 to provide habitat for migratory birds that extend along the Atlantic Flyway between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas. The refuge consists of 6,729 acres mostly wetland habitats with more than 200 species of birds.
In the Maquam Bog at the refuge, one finds an ecosystem saturated with "structural diversity" both above and below the ground. This is a healthy sign as it provides a mixed habitat for a wide range of wildlife and plants. The Missisquoi River meanders through beds of wild rice and stands of wetland plants such as arrowhead, bulrush, and wild celery. In addition to 5000 acres of natural marsh, the refuge includes 1,200 acres of managed wetlands formed by three impoundments.
The refuge is one of my favorite places to canoe in the spring to hear the many noisy young ones in the Blue Heron nests high above in the trees. The great blue heron colony numbers more than 300 nests, the largest in Vermont. In summer, when you happen upon the plant, sweet gale, it's best to hold your nose if you pinch the buds with your fingernail. Without further ado, there is a brown patch of the native, and rare, common reed. This is not the more common, invasive reed one finds everywhere, especially in damp areas along roadways. These reeds have choked out the native reeds.
On May 26th, 2016, I took my first birding excursion of the year at the refuge with three friends, Richard Foye, a birding extraordinaire and Ayars Hemphill of South Newfane, Vermont, and Ian Rose from England. As a young English boy, Ian lived with the Foye's in Topsfield, Massachusetts during WWII. Many children came from England and stayed with families for the duration of the war. Richard’s father, Elmer, ran the Audubon Sanctuary in Topsfield.
Close to the main headquarters are open fields where bobolinks raise their young. Since the 1900s, bobolink populations in the Northeast have been declining with a 75 percent decrease occurring in the past 40 years. Bobolinks arrive in Vermont from mid to late May to breed, with young hatching in mid-June. Hatching occurs at the same time when farmers harvest their first cut of hay, leaving newborn bobolinks subject to a 100 percent mortality rate.
A delayed harvest can spell the difference between life and death.
Farmers are offered a financial incentive to delay mowing during a window of time when their hayfields could produce a healthy crop of grass. In 2014 10 farm fields for a total of 285 acres were managed for birds.
David Charron, who raised Black Angus and grows 250 acres of hay in Rutland County is one of those farmers. He said, "Bobolinks have all but disappeared around here for a time, and I enjoy having them around. If giving up one cutting of 30 acres of hay will help the birds to recover, that's great." The program is called New Incentives for Grassland Bird Conservation, a USDA program. Meadows that were once mowed with horses in midsummer after the young birds had fledged are now cut early and often by farmers trying to maximize their hay harvest.
Bobolinks make a round trip from South America's pampas from Bolivia to Argentina, some 12,000 miles. These ground nesting birds build their homes from course grasses, twigs and fine grasses. They lay 37 eggs each year and remain in the nesting area for about nine weeks during the summer months before migrating southward.
Technological advances in agriculture now allow hayfields to be harvested two to three times a summer and 23 weeks earlier than they were many years ago, making it difficult for grassland birds like Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow to find suitable habitat. Most bobolinks return to the same field year after year. They have a sandy yellow patch on the back of the head and white rump and wing patches with backsides that look like skunks.
Before we walked out to the fields to see the bobolinks, we saw barn swallows making their nests in the eaves under the roof of the main headquarters of the refuge. Swallows migrate thousands of miles from their winter grounds in South and Central America to their breeding and nesting grounds in North America. They spend summers feasting on flies and mosquitoes. Interestingly enough, it isn’t the cold temperatures that drive the birds’ south, it’s the lack of insects on which to feed. I find it amazing to watch them dart through the air, soaring up, and then diving down with ease. They even drink and bathe on the wing, sweeping low enough to grab a mouthful of water, or a quick dunk to clean up. Their aerobatic ability is enhanced by their forked tail, which deflects air currents, allowing them sharper angles of flight, higher lift, and greater maneuverability. Barn swallows often return to last year’s nest. All barn swallows share the distinctive cobalt blue back and the forked tail.
The 900-acre Maquam bog is an important birding area in partnership with the Audubon Society. Fall migration features 20,000 to 25,000 migrating ducks. Thousands of ring-necked ducks feed with thousands of green winged teal, black ducks, and mallards. Nesting bald eagles, hawks, and ospreys. Shad Island is the home to the largest heron rookery in Vermont. Years ago, I canoed up to the island and looked up to the top of the trees to see the herons and their young. And let me tell you, it was the loudest squawking I've ever heard. The deer flies kept biting me and I eventually jumped into the water.
Upland areas of the refuge are a mix of open fields and a hardwood forest of American elm, white ash, white oak, silver, and red maple. Both provide habitat for migratory songbirds, resident mammals, and other wildlife. The day we went, bobolinks and other grassland species use the grassy fields for nesting.
Small mammals like moles and voles that use the open fields provide a food source for birds of prey such as rough legged hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers. Two nonnative invasive exotic plants, water chestnuts and Japanese knotweed are a real challenge.