Sam Blair is Audubon Vermont’s first UVM Conservation Education Fellow, a position which involves broad participation in the organization’s many conservation and nature education initiatives. This article is the first in a series of “field notes” pieces, written to give the community a fellow’s-eye view of the exciting and important work being done by Audubon Vermont every day.
To read Margaret's update on the 2018 Peregrine Falcon nesting season, click here.
It is 6:00 am, with a misty spring rain sprinkling the windshield, and I’m headed to the Jonesville post office to look for Peregrine Falcons.
You can visit this spot yourself, but I doubt you’ll find a peregrine there on any given day. You see, it’s not the birds I’m after in this little dirt parking lot, but the bird expert. Margaret Fowle is the wildlife biologist in charge of Audubon Vermont’s Peregrine Falcon monitoring program, and this morning she and her two dogs, Percy and Penny, are hiking up to a cliff site in Bolton to look for signs of nesting birds. I am lucky enough to come along.
By 7:00 we have parked the car at the end of a long dirt road and are starting up an unused logging road to the nest site. This landscape feels remote: a network of steeply sloped, overgrown logging roads running through thick forest to wide galleries of regenerating, shrubby land. The roads are lush with wild blackberry bushes and tall grass soaked from last night’s rain. Moose scat abounds, and in muddy patches along the trail I find tracks so large that my outstretched hand fits comfortably inside them. On every side the landscape is exuberantly green, and the clouds sometimes thin to reveal mountains rising all around us. I can actually hear the sound of mist droplets brushing against the trees.
Walking with Margaret, I notice the sounds of the forest in a different way. The Chestnut-sided Warbler, to Margaret’s ear, says pleased pleased pleased to meetcha, while the Black-throated Blue Warbler sounds to me like he’s saying beer beer briiie – this (coincidentally?) is also what I’d like to be eating somewhere warm and dry right now. Margaret has a song, too: alternately Peeeeeercy Percy Percy and Penny! Hey! Get back here! as her dogs try, unsuccessfully, to meet the local chipmunks.
As we continue up the mountainside, an Ovenbird flies out from under our feet and we realize that we have stumbled across its nest. Inside are four perfect eggs, white spotted with brown. From a foot away, the tiny mound of sticks and straw is invisible. Shortly afterwards, I see my first Mourning Warbler, a tiny gold and charcoal-gray bird that flies up from the trail to perch on a tree and watch us.
We reach the cliff site at 8:30, and settle in to watch and wait. For an hour and a half the rain drizzles and the mist whooshes around us. I am smiling ear to ear. Finally, around 10:30, the sun starts to shine through, revealing a massive cliff complex – and no peregrines.
Since Margaret observed a pair of nesting birds at this location earlier in the spring, she suspects that they were among the roughly twenty five percent of nesting pairs who do not succeed each year. A sad story for the peregrines, but perhaps a happy story for the local warblers – and, as far as we can tell, a normal part of life for these birds. I’m not upset. There are many more days and many more cliffs to come. I’ve had a beautiful rainy day in the mountains, and as my muddy boots will testify, I’m walking my way towards those ten thousand hours it takes to really know something.