With the arrival of longer days and warmer temperatures, Vermont’s bird lovers are looking to the fields and woods for of a flit of color in the bushes or listening for an overhead chirp, whistle, squawk or honk as birds engage in their annual spring migration. Some of Vermont’s best bird-watching opportunities are at the state’s 99 wildlife management areas, or WMAs. Owned by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and managed for habitat, WMAs are great for wildlife-based recreation such as bird-watching.
According to Paul Hamelin, a Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist who coordinates habitat management on Vermont’s WMAs, opportunities for birding abound at every WMA. However, some are particularly better than others for seeing birds. Here are his top ten birding WMAs, what makes each one special, how a bird-watcher can access them, and what kind of birds to see there year-round.
1. Dead Creek WMA, Addison
The crown jewel of birding in Vermont, with a new visitor center that opened in 2017!
• Access: There are trails and lookout platforms, and on high-water years a canoe or kayak is also a great way to see birds.
• Birds: A whopping 200 species can be found at Dead Creek, particularly ducks, shorebirds such as sandpipers, as well as hawks and falcons, and thousands of snow geese during the spring and fall migration.
2. Little Otter Creek WMA, Ferrisburg
An incredible array of wetlands located at the mouth of the Little Otter Creek on Lake Champlain.
• Access: Canoe or kayak is best, but any small boat can get you up the river from Lake Champlain.
• Birds: Expect to see wetland and shorebirds such as bitterns, herons, ducks, and osprey, as well as Champlain Valley woodland bird species.
3. Wenlock WMA, Ferdinand
The endless bogs and boreal forests of Wenlock’s vaster neighbors are all present in a tidy, 2,000-acre package.
• Access: Meander along the easy footpaths that set out from the parking lot and check out the new boardwalk and viewing platform at Moose Bog, with recently improved access for persons with mobility impairments.
• Birds: On a short, easy walk you may see four boreal species: Canada jay, boreal chickadee, black-backed woodpecker, and the state-endangered spruce grouse, (and possibly a fifth: the rusty blackbird, also state endangered).
4. Snake Mountain WMA, Addison and Weybridge
Spend time looking for hawks on wing as you gaze at beautiful Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains.
• Access: Set out on a hiking trail from the eastern or western parking lot and meet up with a network of trails that crisscross the ridgeline and summit of the mountain.
• Birds: Birders come to Snake Mountain for the hawks – particularly during the fall migration – but they stay for the many woodland bird species.
5. Eagle Point WMA, Derby
Wetlands and grasslands on the shores of Lake Memphremagog along the Canadian border.
• Access: A nature trail provides easy access through the grasslands, and a second trail ends at a wetland viewing platform.
• Birds: Keep an eye out for grassland birds like bobolink or savannah sparrow, with raptors hot on their tail. The wetland hosts the usual suite of wading birds and waterfowl as well as a great blue heron rookery.
6. West Mountain WMA, Maidstone , Ferdinand and Brunswick
Vermont’s biggest wildlife management area hosts big opportunities to see a wide variety of birds.
• Access: West Mountain WMA’s 23,000 acres can be circumnavigated along dirt roads, while the interior, including West Mountain itself, is a vast, roadless area that is accessible only by foot.
• Birds: This extensive area of unbroken forest provides an opportunity to see several species that are experiencing population declines elsewhere due in part to habitat fragmentation, such as northern goshawk, wood thrush, Canada warbler, and Swainson’s thrush.
7. Pomainville WMA, Brandon
A grassland delight along the banks of Vermont’s famed Otter Creek.
• Access: From the parking lot along Route 7, you can forge your own path through the waving fields of grass or bring waders and check out the recently-restored wetlands.
• Birds: Birders flock here for the opportunity to spot grassland birds such as bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks, but the incredible diversity of birds at Pomainville WMA includes wetland, shrubland, floodplain forest, and upland forest bird species.
8. Birdseye WMA, Ira, Castleton, and Poultney
The towering cliffs on this Hershey kiss-shaped hunk of rock are home to the world’s fastest bird.
• Access: During peregrine falcon nesting season, the nests can best be seen from the shrubby meadows on the south side of the mountain. Outside peregrine nesting season, a well-worn “goat” path takes brave souls up the rocky slopes of the cliff face.
• Birds: Peregrine falcons are the star of the show here, but there are also opportunities to see and hear warblers, grouse, turkeys, thrushes and sparrows.
9. Pine Mountain WMA, Groton, Ryegate, Newbury, and Topsham
A plethora of state-significant natural communities provides a melodious symphony of songbirds.
• Access: Pine Mountain offers a variety of parking and entry points from several vantage points, providing opportunities for a choose-your-own-adventure birding experience.
• Birds: The list of songbirds at Pine Mountain is nature’s poetry: chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated green warbler, wood thrush, hermit thrush, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, alder flycatcher, and great-crested flycatcher.
10. Gale Meadows WMA, Londonderry and Winhall
A paddle around this 200-acre pond and wetland complex surrounded by conserved lands looking for birds is an immersive experience in nature.
• Access: Head down to the pond by foot from the east along a gated road or launch a canoe or kayak from a boat launch on the western shore.
• Birds: More than 100 bird species have been documented at Gale Meadows, with herons, loons, and other waterfowl spotted on the pond, while raptors and woodland birds can be found in the surrounding forests and meadows.
A wildlife management area can be found in nearly every corner of the state and there are birding opportunities at every one of them year-round. Maps and other information are available at https://vtfishandwildlife.com/conserve/lands-and-habitats/. Access is free, but birders can help conserve habitat for birds and other species by purchasing an annual Vermont Habitat Stamp, available for $15 at vtfishandwildlife.com.
In May, turkey hunters may be present on WMAs in the morning but hunting does not occur in the afternoon, except on the last weekend in April which is youth turkey weekend and goes until 5:00 p.m.. If birders choose to go out in the morning, they are asked to steer clear of turkey decoy setups and to avoid areas with actively calling turkeys, as these may be a hunter attempting to call birds in.