A “boreal grand slam” in Vermont, and perhaps elsewhere, is to see the four boreal species (Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed Woodpecker) on one birding outing. Or for others like me, it’s to get them as life birds, period.
I had seen, quite some time ago, Gray Jays and a cooperative Spruce Grouse but had never seen the other two species. Monday, I hoped to remedy that with a trip to the Northeast Kingdom with my faithful hound.
It is about a 1 plus 45 trip to the Victory Wildlife Management Area but it was a beautiful drive – trees showing red buds, some patches of snow, warm temperatures. The dirt road into Victory was in great shape with no traffic and I could hear Winter Wrens, Blue-headed Vireos, and Black-capped Chickadees as we cruised in with the windows down. Did I say that it is too early for bugs — which are treacherous in later spring.
Our destination was a pipeline crossing which had recently been described by a local birder, Tom Berriman of Lyndonville, as one of the good spots for Black-backed Woodpeckers. He wrote on the list serve that they had paired up and building nests and included a digiscoped video of one at work.
I had never met Tom but “know” him through postings, Facebook, and his great photos on the NEK Audubon page. When I got to the crossing, sure enough, his truck was there. Penny and I trekked in for about a half mile when way up ahead, returning, was this guy with a telescope slung over his shoulder. I watched a young Red-tailed Hawk thermal as I waited for him. I knew it was him and he recognized me, from having Penny on a leash, as we shook hands and talked for a bit. It had been a quiet morning for him as well.
When I mentioned that I was looking for a Black-backed Woodpecker he immediately said, “Do you want me to take you to where I saw the two yesterday?” I thought that he was going to give me good directions but as we walked back to our trucks, it became evident that he wanted to take me there.
So, after shedding some layers (it was getting warm), we walked in on an adjacent gated jeep trail quietly talking about all sort of topics and listening for drumming. He has better hearing than I do, or recognizes the light tapping of the Black-backed, and he heard a couple that were off a ways. Soon, we got to the spot where he had seen them.
After a short wait, he motioned and we moved into the woods a bit, through tangles and dead trees (I had Penny on a leash which got tangled here and there) he pointed and climbing a spruce tree was a female Black-backed Woodpecker. I got a great look but no photo with the trees and dog to deal with. She flew shortly and that was it.
As we waited a bit, I asked Tom how he knew she was there. “I heard some light tapping,” he said. I would have likely walked right by the bird.
He’d been tramping for four hours or so but still went out of his way to walk another half mile or so to guide me to this life bird. It is an example of his hospitality – he’s well-known and respected for taking birders to his favorite spots – but also of the kindness that I have found in the birding community here and in other states. It is a wonderful aspect and one more reason why birding can be so rewarding. Thank you Tom for life bird #428.