Birding in Williston
by Carl Runge
When someone mentions the town of Williston, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Taft Corners, big-box stores, and a lot of development. The term “birding hot-spot” does not immediately leap into consciousness. Yet Williston has a remarkably diverse bird population and the habitat to support it. On the past six Great Backyard Bird Counts conducted in February each year, Williston has placed first or second in species counts for all Vermont towns. In 2005, the Spatial Analysis Lab at UVM, led by Dr. Dave Capen, did an assessment of wildlife habitat in Williston. They identified and characterized seven wildlife units in Williston and recorded nearly 100 species of birds over a six month period.
The town of Williston has had a lot of foresight in conserving these valuable natural communities. In 1987 the town started its Conservation Commission, and since 1989 the town has allocated funds each year to its Environmental Reserve Fund for conserving land and opening it to the public. To date the town has spent nearly $1.1 million from the ERF to purchase land outright, purchase development rights, and to leverage other funds, resulting in the conservation of 1,513 acres appraised at $2.3 million.
This article will describe several areas in Williston with excellent habitat for birds. All of these areas are open to the public and have trails. Access to all is free with the exception of Catamount Family Center, which is privately owned and charges a small daily fee.
The first area we will describe is Muddy Brook Park. This is located on River Cove Road, off Rt. 2A in the NW corner of town, and is actually just over the line in South Burlington. The park is owned by the Winooski Valley Park District and is open to the public. The habitat is riparian floodplain with a thin strip of woodland along the river. This is the point where Muddy Brook and Allen Brook converge just before emptying into the Winooski River. Between this point and the Essex Dam to the east, the river remains open all winter, making it a great location for winter ducks, especially after the lake has frozen. Mallard, Black Duck, Common and Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye are all regularly seen here. In the summer many passerines nest in this area. It is an excellent place for swallows, including Tree, Barn, Bank, and Rough-winged. Warbling Vireo, Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart nest here. Look also for Baltimore Oriole, Belted Kingfisher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, cardinal, and catbird. Nearby are Spotted Sandpiper along the brooks, Killdeer and Wild Turkey. Osprey and Bald Eagle can often be seen along the river.
The next area to visit is the Catamount Family Center. After returning to Rt. 2A, head south. Turn left at the traffic light onto Mountain View Road. Cross North Williston Road, where the road becomes dirt and the name changes to Gov. Chittenden Road. Continue a half-mile to Catamount, which is owned and operated by the McCullough family as a mountain biking, hiking, and cross-country ski center. Birdwatchers are definitely welcome and the area has several different habitats attracting a wide variety of birds. The mixed hardwood and white pine forests on the north side are home to Wood Thrush, Veery, Red-eyed Vireo, and Ovenbird. Walking up the power line ROW to Indian Lookout offers great looks at Chestnut-sided Warblers and Cedar Waxwings. At the top, the view of the river valley and Camel’s Hump to the SE is magnificent. There are two ponds on the property where Canada Goose and Mallard often nest, and where Pied-billed Grebe, Green and Great Blue Heron can be seen. The extensive fields on the south side provide excellent habitat for grassland species, notably Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow, and to a lesser extent Eastern Meadowlark and Field Sparrow. Bobolink nesting is very successful here, as the fields are not cut during the nesting season. The higher elevations on the property attract a large variety of migrating warblers and other songbirds, especially during spring.
Leaving Catamount and driving south on North Williston Road brings you to Williston village. Park across from the Federated Church and start walking on the bike path through some small fields edged by young hardwoods. You may see Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, and Song Sparrow. As you are passing the ball field, look for a lovely nature trail off to the right. As the trail descends and crosses Allen Brook, look for phoebe, House Wren, Tree Swallow and bluebird. Follow the loop trail up through the mixed woodlot, looking for chickadee, flicker, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Next, after leaving the parking lot, go south on Oak Hill Road. Just after crossing I-89, turn left on South Road, go to Mud Pond Road, turn right and park at the trailhead for the Mud Pond Natural Area. Take the half-mile trail through the hemlock and white pine forest where the predominant species is the Black-capped Chickadee. Listen carefully for Barred Owl, the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse and the sweet harmonics of the Wood Thrush. The trail ends at Mud Pond, a unique six acre glacial kettle hole filled with peat. On the pond you may see Mallard and Pied-billed Grebe, and Canada Goose nesting there. Look for beaver swimming by and many redwings and Chipping Sparrows nesting along the shore. On your way back follow the spur trail to the south end of the pond. You will meet the remnants of an old road which is now covered by a beaver wetland. Look here for Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, beaver, and muskrat.
Continue south on South Road, take a left on Oak Hill Road and go to Lake Iroquois in the SE corner of Williston. At the northern end of the lake, take a left on Beebe Ln. and proceed to the public beach area. Across from the beach house find a trailhead marked with yellow LIRD markers. This proceeds along a wetland where you may see Wood Ducks in the water or perched on tree branches. The trail then loops through a mixed hardwood forest of beech, birch, maple, cherry, and ash. Many of the trees are dead, attracting woodpeckers. Look for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the large oval holes of the Pileated Woodpecker. Along the trail you may find Blue-headed Vireo, Veery, Hermit Thrush, and a variety of warblers. In the spring look for wet depressions with standing water. These are vernal pools, important reproductive habitat for frogs and salamanders, as they are protected from fish predation. Treat these delicate areas with respect by observing them only from a distance. To the northeast lies the Richmond Ridge which is contiguous with the foothills of the Green Mountains. This is the area where large mammals may enter Williston, as moose, black bear, and bobcat have been spotted nearby.
Back near the beach, poke along the wetlands adjacent to the entry road. Look for Mallard, Wood Duck, Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, and redwing. The lake itself can be viewed from the beach or the boat landing. In various seasons you may see Spotted Sandpiper, Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Black Scoter, and cormorant.
As you head back north on Oak Hill Road, you will pass the Isham Family Farm. Look for a small turnoff and parking area on the left with a sign for Oak View Hill. Follow this trail up and over the ridge, past a pond and wetland, and through the woods, a lovely walk. In the spring look for Bobolinks in the field around the sugar shack. Return, continue north on Oak Hill Road and take a left on Sunset Hill Road. Find another parking area at the trailhead for the Five Tree Natural Area. Follow this trail up through a forest of mixed pines, hemlocks, and northern hardwoods until you reach a slope with a regenerating forest with shrub cover topped by a dry oak ridge with magnificent views to the west. Bird diversity is similar to other like areas in Williston and, because of the rolling terrain with depressions, you may run across several vernal pools.
Brownell Mountain is in the SW corner of town and is a little harder to find. From Sunset Hill Road, work your way west until you get to South Brownell Road. Go south past the horse farm and park at a small pulloff just before Sucker Brook. Walk over Sucker Brook and look for a primitive trail entering the woods about 50 yards past the guard rail. Go east along the south side of the Sucker Brook wetland and look for an old logging road to your right. This heads up the mountain through a hemlock forest with a lot of blowdown, hosting mostly chickadees and nuthatches. The trail then passes through a transitional hardwood forest with many dead trees, again attracting a variety of wood-peckers. As you approach the ridgeline the hardwoods give way to a younger hemlock grove. Look for Pine and Blackburnian Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and White-throated Sparrows. As you walk along the ridge, you will see a communication tower. This is off town property, so it is time to turn back. You may find the birdwatching easier on the way down as you won’t have to crane your neck so much to see the tops of the trees, thus avoiding the birders’ dreaded occupational hazard, “warbler neck.”
As you can see, Williston offers many good birding opportun-ities. Come to Williston and enjoy our natural communities in all seasons.