Gray Jay

Gray Jay / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Adapted from Birdwatching in Vermont
by Ted Murin and Bryan Pfeiffer
University Press of New England
ISBN 978-1-58465-188-8

AT DAWN ON MOOSE BOG, Gray Jays float like ghosts through a dense forest of spruce and fir. Boreal Chickadees betray their hiding spots with a nasal “tsk-a-DAY.” A Black-backed Woodpecker pounds a tall, dead black spruce. And all the while, a Spruce Grouse, among the most outrageous and elusive birds in these woods, fans his tail and courts a female.

No birding life in Vermont is complete without a trip to Moose Bog. Here in these remote lowlands, if you are vigilant, quiet, and of all due humility, here you may find the winged children of Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. A basin with granite bedrock, this corner of the state lies at the southern edge of the boreal forest zone; it’s not really boreal but we call it that anyway. We also call this region the Northeast Kingdom. Among these remote forests are sphagnum bogs and spruce-fir-tamarack wetlands. Moose and black bear roam the woods. It is a delightful place, explored best on foot or by ski or snowshoe.

Much of the prime lowland boreal habitat is remote and inaccessible for all but the insect-tolerant bushwhacker. A notable exception is Moose Bog in the state’s Wenlock Wildlife Management Area. Here an observant non-bushwhacker can locate the boreal grand slam: Spruce Grouse (rare), Black-backed Woodpecker (rare), Gray Jay (uncommon), and Boreal Chickadee (sparse but fairly common). (Keep in mind that playing a recorded bird song to attract an endangered or threatened species such as Spruce Grouse can be construed as harassment and, as such, is illegal in Vermont.) All these birds are here; so your relaxed, patient exploration is the best approach for finding them.

Directions: From the old railroad depot in Island Pond, which is a village in the town of Brighton, drive Route 105 east for 9.4 miles and turn right onto the unpaved South America Pond Road. Pass through a metal gate and park in a small pull-off ahead on the right. This road is unplowed in winter, but a cautious driver can sometimes find a spot along Route 105 about one-quarter mile east of South America Pond Road. From this parking lot it is not even 0.25 mile to the western end of the Moose Bog trail.

In spring, which here is in late May, the excitement begins with the first step away from the car, where a Gray Jay might greet a lucky visitor. Walk the road toward an open wetland a few tenths of a mile from the parking area. Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler are common nesting species. Shy Boreal Chickadees sometimes join the more inquisitive Black-capped Chickadees. And Gray Jays sometimes float over the road. At the wetland look carefully for Black-backed Woodpecker, which has nested here.

While walking to the wetland, notice on the right (west) side of the road large boulders blocking a path through the woods. This is the Moose Bog trail – three-quarters of a mile of delightful walking and birding. Dense with conifers, this trail passes through good habitat for Spruce Grouse (especially near the start and end of the trail), Gray Jay, and Boreal Chickadee, in addition to the aforementioned warblers. Ruffed Grouse lives here as well. Cape May Warbler and Bay-breasted Warbler make appearances here on occasion in late May. Both kinglet species nest here, as does Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. The nomadic and sporadic White-winged Crossbill can be abundant and nests here from winter to spring during heavy cone years. One winter an American Three-toed Woodpecker paid a visit.

American Three-toed Woodpecker / © Bryan Pfeiffer

American Three-toed Woodpecker / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Approximately two-thirds of a mile down the trail from South America Pond Road (past a small stand of white cedar on the right) are a few well-worn (and not-so-well-worn) paths on the left leading to the bog. Not very far beyond the paths, a large boulder blocks the other end of the trail near Route 105. Missing the paths to the bog might not be a bad idea, however, since Spruce Grouse can be found toward the main trail’s terminus.

Moose Bog, only a few hundred feet from the main trail, is a classic black spruce woodland bog — a dreamy place at dawn. At the opening’s edge is a floating mat of sphagnum and classic bog plants, including Labrador tea, bog rosemary, pitcher plant, and sundew. Please remain near the bog’s forested edge and expect wet feet. Look for Common Raven overhead and Boreal Chickadee in the woods around the bog. Black-backed Woodpecker and Gray Jay can sometimes be found in the woods here or among the bog’s scattered black spruce and snags. Cedar Waxwing loves it here, and Lincoln’s Sparrow belts out its bubbly song.

Although Moose Bog is a quintessential Vermont birding destination, it certainly not the only stop in this region. In fact, if you want to pad your warbler list, you won’t do it here. Hardwood warbler species, including Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, American Restart, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and others aren’t typically found along the Moose Bog trail. So spend some time birding the many miles of dirt roads in this region. You’ll probably bump into Mourning Warbler, Canada Warbler and other uncommon northerners.

One option is the many spectacular stops in the nearby Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (Nulhegan Basin Division). Another is West Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Spend a lifetime in either location and you will not discover half their secrets.