SWANTON – As an orchestra of bird calls cooed over the mouth of the Missisquoi River, Ken Sturm, the refuge manager for the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge began picking out the individual calls.
“There’s a woodpecker marking its territory,” he said from behind a pair of binoculars as a hammering cadence rustled over the birdsong. “Typically, if an animal is making a loud noise like that, it wants to be heard.”
This cacophony is typical for this time of year, when migrating birds pass through the refuge on their way north for cooler summers in Canada. Those same birds will pass through the refuge again when flying south in the fall, but its only during the spring mating season that they’ll sing as much as they are now.
The annual flocks of singing birds also arrive just as the refuge prepares to celebrate World Migratory Bird Day, an annual event established for celebrating the world’s migratory birds and encouraging their conservation.
While the worldwide date is May 11, the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge has scheduled its celebrations – bird walks through the refuge, a boat tour around the Missisquoi Delta, and a guest speaker – for a week later on May 18. The delay, according to Sturm, sets those events when birding in the refuge would be at its best. Because of the popularity of the boat tour, spots are awarded by lottery. Enter by contacting refuge staff prior to April 30.
Events like these, according to Sturm, are held to bring people into the refuge, where Sturm said he hopes people can start making connections to nature and find something “amazing” around the refuge’s trails.
“I find it particularly important that people understand why places like Missisquoi refuge and other national wildlife refuges are important,” Sturm said. “We’re supplying that small but significant protected area where wildlife rule the show.”
The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge spreads out across 7,000-acre collage of wetland, floodplain forests and bog. Established in 1943 under the U.S. Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the refuge was designated specifically for the conservation of migratory birds that annually pass through Lake Champlain.
Since that initial establishment, the Missisquoi refuge has spread out over the delta, slowly accumulating land around the mouth of the Missisquoi River and establishing places of interest like the Stephen Young Marsh, a sliver of marshland and habitat rung by a walking trail in the refuge’s western bounds, or the Maquam Bog, one of the largest bogs in New England.
The refuge is one of several strategically placed along the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south corridor for birds migrating annually between summers as far north as Canada and winters as far south as the Caribbean.
According to information shared on the refuge’s website – www.fws.gov/refuge/Missisquoi/about.html – some 200 different species of bird will travel through the refuge over the course of the year.
Some of the refuge’s biggest stars, according to Sturm, are the blue herons and bald eagles with nests in the refuge. “It’s easy to paddle down the Missisquoi and see 10, 12 bald eagles,” Sturm said, adding that there are at least three pairs of eagles known to return to nests in the refuge every year.
Wood ducks and mallards are regulars in the refuge’s shoreline, and at least one mating pair of ospreys have a nest perched over Route 78 as it winds through the refuge.
While migratory birds have served as the refuge’s legally-defined priority since its founding, it’s come to serve a host of other species as well.
Offhand, Sturm listed species like the spiny softshell turtle and the little brown bat, both threatened species in Vermont, as animals that call the refuge home.
A quick walk around the refuge’s Old Railroad Passage Trail also turned up chipmunks, garter snakes and a woodchuck nervously crouched along the side of the path.
Last year, according to Sturm, a survey of the refuge’s bee population – the first in recent memory – turned up 13 different species of native bumble bee that buzz around the refuge.
While many of these species could be observed from the several miles of trail threading through the refuge, Sturm warns that much of the refuge remains closed to onlookers specifically to protect the wildlife calling those swathes of the refuge home. “We have seven miles of trail in the refuge, but they don’t go everywhere,” Sturm said.
Even some trails are periodically shut in the name of conservation. Currently a trail stemming off of a boat landing along the Missisquoi is closed, allowing the migrating birds currently flocking to the refuge a chance to mate without being disturbed by any passing hikers.
As the refuge approaches World Migratory Bird Day, Sturm said he hopes people take advantage of the day’s events to “find something that’s surprising to them and allows them to get out on a trail or… learn something about Vermont and the Lake Champlain ecosystem.
“I hope they find a place they can repeatedly come out to for some peace and quiet… or be astounded by a funnel of ten bald eagles flying around and how amazing that is,” Sturm said. “I want them to know this place is available for those kinds of experiences.
“Ultimately, for me, everybody needs a connection to nature, and the refuge provides the opportunity to find that thing that inspires them to care about nature. Sometimes you just need to walk a trail.”
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