A Novice at the Mad Birder Christmas Bird Count by Christine McGowan

Posted on Wednesday 22 January 2014

I’m a novice birder. In fact, I can’t really call myself a birder. I know my Black-Capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches and other common backyard birds. But I struggle with sparrows, warblers and ducks. And I don’t (yet) keep a life list. When I discovered the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, I was excited to participate, but also a little nervous. I’d read The Big Year – and saw the movie – and I feared I’d be way out of my league with people who’ve been birding for decades.

The annual Christmas Bird Count is the oldest citizen science survey in the world that attracts tens of thousands of birders to help track bird populations. I live in Stowe, Vermont, and I found a Christmas Bird Count circle in the Mad River Valley, with a group known as The Mad Birders. They are a fun-loving group of avid birders who get together regularly to hike woods, fields and back yards in search of birds.

At 8 a.m. on Dec. 16th, I arrived in Waitsfield, VT to meet up with Pat Folsom, an energetic retired teacher who wrangles the Mad Birders. Pat was easy to spot, binoculars covering her face, eyeing a female cardinal across the river. She’d heard that a Carolina Wren had been seen visiting a nearby feeder, and she’d been scouting the area since dawn.


Pat Folsom, of Waitsfield, VT, searches for birds during the Christmas Bird Count

Pat Folsom, of Waitsfield, VT, searches for birds during the Christmas Bird Count

We soon met up with fellow teammates Ken Beebe and Ellen Barillaro. Ellen, a local school administrator, was our driver. Ken a longtime Mad Birder, rode shotgun. Despite being slowed a bit by Parkinson’s, he was ready for the day: binoculars around his neck and walking stick by his side. Our count began at the home of one of Pat’s friends, who graciously let us use her living room to get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of several feeders hanging on her second-floor balcony.  The thermometer read 8 degrees F, so we appreciated the view from inside. Several Blue Jays and Chickadees bombed the feeders. As Pat foretold, the Carolina Wren appeared within a few minutes. Check! What a great find!

Next we crossed the road to observe more feeders and noticed some Chickadees fluttering wildly in the nearby brush. Sure enough, a Northern Shrike was perched atop a poplar surveying the area. Check! Off to a great start, we drove to a nearby condo complex adorned with feeders. We racked up several dozen Black-Capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, American Crows and even two American Robins still hanging around. Among the highlights: a couple of Common Ravens snacking on a carcass; three Golden Crowned Kinglets feeding in some tall pines and two Common Mergansers that flew overhead toward open water on the Mad River.

A few elusive birds we never found:

We drove a total of 30 miles while birding the sector that Pat has been monitoring for eight consecutive Christmas Bird Counts. Our visits included old farms, new vacation homes, village apartments and other backyard birding ‘hot spots.’  All the ‘hot spots’ turned out to be private homes of people who love to feed ‘their’ birds, and were happy to let a car full of strangers traipse through their yards in search of an unusual species – or just to count the Chickadees and Blue Jays.

Some Belted Galloway cows were among the onlookers of our Christmas Bird Count team

Some Belted Galloway cows were among the onlookers of our Christmas Bird Count team

At day’s end, about 40 of us gathered at the home of veteran Mad Birder Scott Sainsbury for a potluck dinner, followed by the main event: the reading of our bird lists. The teams took turns sharing their day’s finds, each attempting to top the next with the sighting of a rare bird or an amusing story. As the evening ended, friends were already making plans to head out the next morning in search of a Northern Hawk Owl seen in Waterbury Center Vermont and making headlines in local birding blogs.


Team Chickadee:  from left to right: Pat Folsom, Ellen Barillaro, and Christine McGowan. Ken Beebe (not pictured)

Team Chickadee: from left to right: Pat Folsom, Ellen Barillaro, and Christine McGowan. Ken Beebe (not pictured)

My inaugural CBC was a success. Not only did I discover that searching for and counting birds is a great way to spend a day, but I also found a whole new community of people I suspect will become lifelong friends.

Did you know? Some of the best birding festivals take place on or around National Wildlife Refuges.


Christine McGowan is the Director of Strategic Communications for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and a beginner bird watcher based in Vermont.

Jeannie Elias @ 8:06 pm
Filed under: Events

FIRST BIRDS by Patti Haynes

Posted on Tuesday 7 January 2014

Snowy Owl in Washington County Vermont on New Year's Day.

Snowy Owl in Washington County Vermont on New Year’s Day.

Northern Hawk Owl on the wing in Waterbury Center Vermont.

Northern Hawk Owl on the wing in Waterbury Center Vermont.

A few Mad Birders and friends decided to kick off the New Year with a BANG! Knowing that there were some really interesting birds nearby, we decided it might be fun to try to find them on the first day of 2014. So, at the crack of dawn that first frigid morning Patti Haynes, Pat Folsom and Scott Sainsbury were joined by Chip Darmstadt, Josh Lincoln, Zac Cota-Weaver and his girlfriend Samantha for a FIRST BIRDS adventure.

Our first target was the Northern Hawk Owl that has been hanging out near the intersection of Rt 100 and the south end of Gregg Hill Rd in Waterbury Center, VT since mid-December. Birders have been flocking in from all over the Northeast to catch a glimpse of this rare and irregular visitor from Canada. Arriving at our destination at 9 am, we met up with Josh Lincoln, who was waiting for us, and had the distant Hawk Owl within eyesight. We could see the bird well through scopes, but were provided with much better looks at this handsome creature when it decided to fly toward us and landed in a tree right on Rt 100 where we were standing.


After good, long looks and numerous photos we knew it was time for the next bird on our list. The next stop was in Berlin, VT to look for the Snowy Owl that has been seen near the E. F. Knapp Airport. This winter there have been numerous reports of Snowy Owls in Vermont, especially in the Champlain Valley, but THIS Snowy was nearby. Seven pairs of eyes scoured the winter white, tundra-like landscape from the top of East View Lane. Chip Darmstadt, director of the North Branch Nature Center, scanned with his scope and fairly quickly located the Snowy! This owl was doing a wonderful job of blending in with its surroundings and was not easy to see. It was hunkered down at the end of a runway looking like a big plowed up chunk of icy snow. We were able to drive closer to get better views and photos of this gorgeous Arctic owl.  Many thanks to Josh Lincoln for the use of these wonderful photos!


We did manage to look at other birds along the way that morning too, including Great Black-backed Gulls, a Northern Shrike and a Rough-Legged Hawk.  Altogether, we found 23 species on the first day of 2014. Everyone agreed that this was a great way to begin a New Year. In fact, everyone had so much fun that we might consider making FIRST BIRDS an annual Mad Birder event, but this first adventure will be difficult to beat!

Patti Haynes @ 8:01 pm
Filed under: Bird Sightings andUncategorized

Mad River/Northfield Christmas Bird Count on Monday, December 16

Posted on Monday 2 December 2013

Geiger OwlMad Birders will be out birding all day on Monday, December 16.  We are participating in the 114th annual Christmas Bird Count, the oldest citizen science project.  Nine teams of three or four will cover a portion of a circle fifteen miles in diameter.  The all day event concludes with a potluck and reporting of results.  A good time is guaranteed by all.

Pat Folsom @ 5:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Very late Nashville Warbler in Waitsfield Village in November

Posted on Monday 2 December 2013

IMG_7813c A Nashville Warbler visited a feeder in Waitsfield Village for several days in November.   He appeared several times a day and ate shelled black oil sunflower seeds.  According to records, he should have left our area at least by the end of October.    Other great birds at this feeder include Carolina Wren, Pine Siskin,  American Tree Sparrow,  lots of Goldfinches, Chickadees, Cardinals.


Pat Folsom @ 5:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Bald Eagles sighted in Mad River Valley

Posted on Tuesday 23 July 2013


There have been several Bald Eagle sightings in the Mad River Valley recently, most north of Moretown Village on the Mad River.  Today an immature was sitting in a dead tree in a yard on East Warren Road.  The owners reported that it sat there for about 2 hours.

Pat Folsom @ 6:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This event has been postponed until June 2nd! Join us then for the Mad Birders Big Morning at CrossHaven Farm in MORETOWN.

Posted on Friday 24 May 2013






The Mad Birders are hosting the second annual “Big Morning” and “Birders’ BBQ” at Sainsbury’s CrossHaven Farm in Moretown on Saturday, May 25!

 Last year’s gathering of the Vermont Birding Community for this event was a true Happening!  Over 50 bird-crazy, good-natured folk from all around the state gathered to meet one another, enjoy some great food and hospitality — and log over 70 species!!  Particularly noteworthy was the Acadian Flycatcher that Chip Darmstadt’s keen ears nabbed while walking through the woods.  Most attendees got to see the bird, and it was photographed and recorded for the record book.  Who knows what we’ll see this year!

The “Big Morning and Birders’ BBQ” is a great opportunity for many of us who bird together on the net, but don’t often see one another, to join up for some birding and socializing at Scott and Pat Sainsbury’s farm.  Moretown is about as “middle of the state as you can get, so if you came last year, come again — and if you missed last year, please join us for this wonderful event. CrossHaven farm has 300 acres of mixed age / mixed species forest, plus 100 acres of hay fields and pastures, and 1-1/2 miles of river front on the Mad River.  There are paths in the woods and plenty of open areas to hike and bird.  The place can be very birdy.  124 species have been recorded there.  We’ll have trail maps for everyone.  And, especially after last year, many of us know the lay of the land pretty well can join-up with those who haven’t.

The game-plan will be to see how many birds we can tally in one morning.  And to put faces and names together while we share our (tall) stories about the morning, over lunch.  We’ll also hear from Chip Darmstadt of North Branch Nature Center and Chris Rimmer from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (or their associates) on their great programs and future vision for their organizations.

Here’s the schedule:

  • 5 – 6:30 AM – “Dawn Chorus” walk for those who want to enjoy the sunrise together
  •  6:30 – 7:30 AM – Registration, coffee and goodies, orientation (how many trails, easy to difficult, habitat, etc.)
  •  7:30 – 11 AM – Main Walk
  •  11 AM – Lunch, speakers, bird list, raffle winners
  • 1 PM – done and dusted

 Mad Birder events are usually free to members and $5 for non-members.  This one will be free to all.   At the same time, we feel that it would be a great statement if — when we join together in celebration of the birds we all love — we also show support for those who work so hard to protect and teach about them.  We’ll have a donations box at the sign-in desk, and would like to ask everyone to pitch-in $20, or whatever you feel comfortable giving.  If 50 or so of us attend again this year, we could raise $1000 or more!  And…All of the money will be given to VCE for their avian research and North Branch Nature Center for their youth birding programs.  As a bonus, anyone who donates will be entered in a raffle for some nifty prizes!

 The club and the Sainsbury’s are pleased to host this great event again this year — to serve up some great breakfast, lunch and birdie-sightings for everyone — and to raise some money for the birds we all love.  So, please bring a few bucks from the piggy bank, and help us support the worthy work at VCE and NBNC.  Together, we can make a difference! 

This year’s menu will include:


  • Juice, coffee, fruit and baked goodies


  • Pulled pork and beef brisket bbq sandwiches
  • Cole Slaw
  • Potato and other Salads
  • Baked Beans
  • Iced tea and Lemonade
  • Watermelon

 There is a 60 x 100′ indoor riding ring at the farm, so lunch will be rain or shine.  There is a fair amount of seating on the porch, but bring a folding chair or two if you like.It’s going to be a great time.  Come along and enjoy the day!

Since we’re serving food, we’ll need to keep track of how many are coming.  If you would please reply to Nancy Turner at  with a count on the number in your party, and when you plan to arrive, it would be greatly appreciated.


Jeannie Elias @ 7:01 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Travel: It’s For the Birds! A talk by Maeve Kim on May 11th at 4PM

Posted on Saturday 4 May 2013




Maeve Kim has gone birding in three countries, two provinces and fourteen states. For over ten years, she’s been leading beginners’ bird walks for Green Mountain Club. In addition, she has taught birding workshops in schools and libraries and for the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association. In her presentation, Maeve will share photos of birds and other wild animals, accompanied by lively stories about her birding adventures. She’ll also provide tips for planning a successful birding trip. This program will fascinate and delight birders and non-birders alike – anyone who has an interest in nature! Pictured above are photos Maeve took of  an Arctic Tern in Potter March, Alaska; a Honeycreeper in Trinidad; and a Swainson’s Hawk at Falcon State Park in Texas.  Join the Mad Birders in welcoming Maeve Kim to the Mad River Valley on Saturday May 11th at 4PM in the Warren Town Hall at 413 Main Street in Warren, Vermont.  Admission is free.  All are welcome.  Refreshments will be served!  For additional information call 496-4730.

Jeannie Elias @ 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Barred Owl at Mountain Valley Farm

Posted on Thursday 11 April 2013


Gib and Sue Geiger of Mountain Valley Farm got this shot of a Barred Owl clutching a Red Squirrel in Waitsfield this week.  Sue reported that Gib had saved the squirrel for just this reason and concluded “See it pays to keep dead frozen rodents around when there is a lot of snow on the ground and the owls need help hunting.”

Jeannie Elias @ 8:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Tufted Titmouse

Posted on Thursday 11 April 2013

Titmouse MartinWarren Mad Birder Bill Martin demonstrates conclusively that a Tufted Titmouse will come to a suet cake, especially on a sunny day.

Jeannie Elias @ 8:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Spike the Shrike – Our Carnivorous Songbird

Posted on Tuesday 5 March 2013


Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to spend quality time with one of our most fascinating birds – the Northern Shrike. It’s fairly rare that this bird spends much time where it can be observed “up close and personal”.  Most of us see it in a treetop at a distance.  Or, read in a birding net report about a Shrike that just swiped a Chickadee off someone’s feeder.  And, since Northern Shrikes only visit us when they come south to spend the winter in our balmy climes, it’s easy to understand why they are often missed.

Chris Leahy of Mass Audubon says in his book, Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birds“The Shrikes are the only songbirds that prey habitually on vertebrate animals.”  (That means mice, moles, voles and other little birdies)  They are birds of open country and forest edge and tend to seek prominent perches where they can scan for their prey, which also includes large insects and crustaceans. Both of our species (the Northern that we see in Vermont, and the Loggerhead seen in southern states) of “butcher birds” practice the famous shrike habit of hanging (impaling) “meat” on thorns or in narrow crotches, sometimes returning to the mummified remains as long as months afterwards.Recent research indicates that the male shrike may make a display of many impaled victims to exhibit his prowess to females – kind of a “Vlad the Impaler” version of the Bower Bird’s “jungle room” seductive decorating. Shrikes wait in ambush like accipiters, or sometimes actively chase prey.  They don’t have large strong talons (they’re songbirds, not raptors), but they do have an ominous sharp hook on the end of the beaks they use to stun prey, and in eating.Overall, this is a cute little songbird with a highly adapted “attitude”.

 Two weeks ago, I looked out of our back porch window, and saw a gray bird hopping across the snow covered lawn toward our feeders.  My first thought was Blue Jay with his crest down.  But gray.  Gray Jay?  Not likely.  Shrike?  Can it really be a Shrike hopping around like a Robin?  Then I saw the black “raccoon mask” eye stripe and knew that was what it was. The bird hopped over to the feeders, looked around, and took up a perch atop one of the feeder crooks.  All the Chickadees, Nuthatches and Titmouses had left. It sat for quite a while, and then flew low and into the bottom of a Beauty Bush at the corner of the house.  I was a bit surprised to see him skulking about in the bottom of a bush, when I was used to seeing Shrikes in the very tops of trees. 

As if on cue, it flew to the top of a Crab Apple in the front yard and sat perched on the smallest of branches at the very tip-top of the tree.  This seemed more normal to me.  It surveyed the property for a bit, and obviously figured out where the feeders (and birds) were in the front yard.  The little guys had not ceded this ground yet, and several were actively feeding.  The Shrike swooped down, sent them all packing, and landed in the Lilac bush next to the feedrs.  It snooped about in the bottom of the bush for quite some time – perhaps waiting for mice to appear, or for a little black-capped job to come back to the feeders.  Then, It returned to the Crab and sang.  I stepped outside to listen.  It was a lovely chortling song – Leahy describes it as being “Mockingbird-like”.  Although not repetitious like a Mockingbird, there was a clear melodic character to the tune.  (Check out

I went inside to listen to it on my iphone, just to make sure I was getting it.  When I went back out to the porch, Whoosh, a little bird (didn’t really see what it was) went darting past, flying inside the porch and out the far end trying to elude Spikey, who hard on its tail.  Up and over the roof they darted and disappeared toward the back yard.  I ran out back and found the Shrike sitting on a Cherry sapling.  I don’t think it connected with its target.  Eventually it flew off. I thought that was really great – an extended close-up session with the butcher-bird. But, it turned out that a return visit was to be offered.


 A couple days ago, I was putting the Labs up on “dog hill” for some exercise.  Chickadees and Titmouses were singing.  And there was another song.  Seemed like I had heard it before.  Was it one of those wacky mimicking songs of the blue jays?  Nope – it sounded like the Shrike!  I ran to the car, grabbed my bins, and spied Spike sitting in the top of the big maple in the back yard.  It was back, and singing for all the world to hear.  What kind of way was that for an ambusher to hunt?  Maybe it wasn’t hunting I thought.  I recalled that others had told me they had heard a Shrike’s song and thought it resembled many of the sounds we make when “pishing” to attract birds.  Perhaps the Shrike’s song is a natural “Pish” that raises curiosity in other birds – thus revealing its prey.I went inside to watch unobserved.  The Shrike stayed in the tree for 10 or 15 minutes and sang.  Several Chickadees went about their business twenty feet or so down the tree from him.  I’m sure they saw him, but they didn’t leave.  Were they attracted to the song?  Were they keeping an eye on the Shrike?  Did they just not recognize the threat?  Don’t know.

 After a bit, it flew down and took up its position on one of the feeder crooks. Some of the Chickadees stayed around – on a witch hazel bush nearby.  They didn’t come to the feeders.  And, it was interesting to watch how their demeanor changed.  Usually, when they are feeding and going about their business, they flit and pop in jerky little motions that often involve moving their tails and heads up and down.  With the Shrike around, their attitude and movement changed.  They became much more animated, and the movements were decidedly and regularly side to side sweeping their tails back and forth.  It was more like they were wind vanes pivoting in a shifting breeze.  They were vocalizing too, but I could not hear them through the window.  Clearly, this was the Chickadee alarm posture – interesting to see in and of itself.The Shrike dropped to the ground, and walked about, looking down.  Beneath our feeders are a number of little holes where mice and moles surface from their subway system to nab a seed or two.  This bird had seen or heard something that alerted him of to their presence.  It was after them and not the local birds. 

 It tip-toed about on top of the tunnels, and watched and listened.  Then it hopped onto the lowest branch of the Witch Hazel and hid in the branches and watched.  It never sat really still like a heron.  It looked this way and that, tipping its head from side to side.  It stayed in the bottom of the bush for about 10 minutes, and then slowly worked his way up to the top – seeming to give up on the rodents. I blinked, and it was gone.  I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye and suspected that it had streaked back to the Beauty Bush it had visited the week before.  Sure enough, when I walked through the house and into a room where I could see the bush, there it was.  I didn’t see any prey.  It sat in the low branches for a few minutes and then hopped down on to the snow along a row of Cedars that is next to the bush.  Now it marched up and down, looking into the bottom of the Cedars.  I wondered if maybe it had wounded a bird and was looking for it.

Next thing, and unseen by the Shrike, a Chickadee flew out of the upper backside of the Cedars and landed in the Beauty Bush.  It sat on the edge closest to the Shrike and began the agitated motion and vocalizing I saw earlier.  I was very surprised that this little fellow – who apparently had experienced a close shave with the butcher – didn’t just fly away.  Instead, it sat defiantly, motioning and sounding the alarm for others.  It did this for almost 20 minutes. The Shrike paid no attention – perhaps not realizing that this was the bird it had chased.  Or, perhaps it was after something else.  It paced back and forth under the Cedars for some time, and then dove into one of gaps between the bases of the trees.  The Chickadee kept up his alarm.  Eventually the Shrike flew out and landed in a large rose bush.  I couldn’t really see him very well from my vantage point, but it occurred to me that the rose bush was just where a successful impaler might go with prey.  I relocated, and could see the bird, but no evidence of a catch. Soon, it flew back toward the Beauty Bush – in the area where the Chickadee was protesting.  The little bird quickly relocated to the back of the bush and kept up his vigil.  

Northern Shrike - 2-13 h I thought it was after the Black-Cap.  But, the Shrike took a position on a low branch in near the base of the bush.  And as I was watching, I caught a bit of movement in the snow, below.  I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.  But, after a few moments, a small mouse or mole head peeked out of the snow.  The Shrike – just a foot or so above the rodent – prepared to strike.  But, the fur-ball, popped its head back in, and the Shrike – unlike an owl – didn’t appear to understand that if it attacked just behind the hole, it’d get lunch.  The mousey guy appeared and disappeared again.  Same reaction – ready to strike, but again, no launch.  

That was it for the rodent.  It didn’t reappear.  And – with the little Chickadee still bravely sounding the warning – the Shrike soon retreated to a far off tree — probably to survey the surroundings from there, and start the hunt again. I was thrilled that I had the opportunity for such a lengthy observation of Spike.  I learned much about how Shrikes hunt, how likely they are to succeed, how the high vantage point observation may be a pre-cursor to on-the-ground hunting, how lovely their songs are, and how brave-hearted Chickadees respond to serious threats.  I hope it comes back so I can learn more.

Scott Sainsbury – Moretown, Vermont

Jeannie Elias @ 1:21 pm
Filed under: Bird Sightings andUncategorized