Franklin County State Airport – Birding Hotspot
by Ken Copenhaver
An airport might not be the first place one would think of for birding. After all, birds and planes don’t really sound like a great mix. But it turns out that Vermont’s State airports are important areas for grassland birds because of the large fields that are maintained around the runways for safety. To further benefit the grassland birds, the state has established a protocol for delayed mowing of most areas around the airports until after August 1, when fledglings have left their nests. As a benefit to the airport, the longer grass discourages the presence of “nuisance” birds (mostly gulls) that are a safety concern for small planes.
Franklin County State Airport near Swanton is notable for its population of Grasshopper Sparrows – one of only a few breeding sites for this bird in Vermont. In fact, the airport is designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) because of the Grasshopper Sparrows and other grassland species, including Vesper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Field Sparrows, and Horned Larks. American Kestrels can be seen regularly there, and Upland Sandpipers have been seen or heard on occasion, though no nesting evidence has been observed for these rare shorebirds.
The airport is entirely fenced in and access inside the fence is generally not allowed. However, a gravel road just outside the south and west sides of the fence provide viewing access to all the species mentioned above. June and July are the best months for these sparrows. In June they sing more frequently, and in July you can challenge yourself with identification of juveniles. The sparrows can usually be found perching on the fence and on tall weeds. Horned Larks are often on the runway and other paved areas, requiring a spotting scope for best viewing.
Directions: From I-89, take Exit 21 and go east on Rte 78 about 1.1 miles. Turn left at the sign for the airport. Drive north toward the airport and turn left onto the gravel road just before the fence. It’s best to park just off the paved road and walk the gravel road. Also check the field to the south, since Grasshopper Sparrows can be found here, too.