Birding at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge
By Ken Copenhaver
Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge is a birding gem hidden in plain sight in northwestern Franklin County. If you’ve ever traveled Route 78 west of Swanton, you’ve probably noticed the signs for the refuge, but its full extent isn’t at all obvious just driving through. The refuge has over 6700 acres that include most of the Missisquoi River delta, plus large grassland areas, hardwood forests, and a large bog.
Established in 1943, the refuge’s main mission is to provide stopover habitat for migrating waterfowl. However, the refuge also hosts a large Great Blue Heron rookery, the largest Black Tern population in Vermont, and nearly a third of the nesting Ospreys in Vermont (over 30 active nests in 2009). Wood Ducks are plentiful throughout the refuge, and the grasslands on Tabor Road host the largest Bobolink population in Vermont.
While most of the refuge is closed to the public for the protection of sensitive species, five trails covering diverse habitats are available to visitors. In addition to walking trails, canoeing and kayaking opportunities are available on the Missisquoi River, Dead Creek, and Charcoal Creek. Also, be aware that parts of the refuge are open to hunting and some trails may be closed during hunting season.
Directions: From I-89, take Exit 21 and turn west on Route 78. Follow Route 78 as it winds through Swanton village. After leaving the village, continue about 2.5 miles, still on Route 78, until you reach the first signs for the refuge. The parking lot for our first trail is on the left.
Maquam/Black Creek Trails
At the parking lot is a kiosk with information about the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge and trail brochures with maps and other trail information. A pit toilet is available here. The trail is about 2.5 miles, roundtrip. It begins at the kiosk and proceeds through a field. It then crosses the railroad tracks, just beyond which is a section of woods that has many warblers in the spring, including American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and the ubiquitous Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. Black Creek is to your left. A little further down the trail is an area that has been maintained as Woodcock habitat. Soon after, Maquam Creek is visible on your right, and Maquam Trail branches off to the right. Northern Waterthrush and Great-crested Flycatchers frequent this area.
Proceeding on Maquam Trail, you will eventually come to a boardwalk that follows the edge of Maquam Creek. Watch for Wood Ducks and beavers. Past the end of the boardwalk, the trail can be very wet in spring. But when it is passable, proceed another quarter mile to the end of the trail, where Black Creek and Maquam Creek meet. Belted Kingfishers are often seen here, and to the south, just out of sight when leaves are on the trees, are a small heron rookery and several Osprey nests.
Retracing your steps, just past the boardwalk is a short trail to the right that connects to Black Creek Trail. Black Creek Trail soon comes to the point where Maqaum Creek Trail branched off. Retrace you steps across the railroad tracks and field to the parking lot.
From the Black/Maquam Creek Trail parking lot, turn left onto Route 78 and drive about 1 mile west to our next trail. Pull into the Louie’s Landing Boat Access Area on the right. Toilet facilities are available here. This is also the best place to put in canoes and kayaks. The Jeep Trail begins at Mac’s Bend, about a mile past the gate. Note that the gate is normally locked except during duck hunting season in the fall. Also, be aware that the Jeep Trail itself is closed from the beginning of April to the end of July to protect nesting Ospreys from disturbance. However, you can walk the gravel road from the gate to Mac’s Bend any time. Ospreys and Black Terns are often seen along this section of the river, and in recent years Bald Eagles have become more frequent.
The Jeep Trail begins at the far end of the Mac’s Bend parking lot, about a mile down the gravel road from the gate. The trail follows a narrow strip of floodplain forest along the west bank of the Missisquoi River. About the first mile of trail is mowed several times a year, but beyond that point, the trail can be very wet and indistinct. In a very dry year or in winter it should be possible to walk all the way out to Missisquoi Bay. In late summer, Ospreys, ducks, and shore birds, such as Yellowlegs, are typical. In February, the refuge usually offers one or more Owl Prowls, where Great Horned Owls can often be heard in this area.
From the Louie’s Landing parking lot, turn right onto Route 78. Drive about 2 miles west to Tabor Road, which crosses the railroad tracks to the left. The MNWR headquarters building is a short distance on the left. Rest room facilities are available in the building when open. Cliff Swallows have nested under the eaves of the headquarters building in 2008 and 2009. The Discovery Trail begins right behind the headquarters. It is about a half mile loop that starts and ends in grasslands where Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows, and other grassland birds can be found. It then proceeds on boardwalks through hardwood forest, much of which floods in the spring. Several species of warblers can be found here, including Northern Waterthrush, as well as Pileated Woodpeckers.
Old Railroad Passage Trail
From the Headquarter parking lot, turn left onto Tabor Road. Drive about 1 mile south and turn left into the parking lot across the road from Stephen Young Marsh. A kiosk here gives information about the trail. The trail cuts across the field to an abandoned railroad bed. In this area, grassland birds can be seen, such as Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlarks. Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats are abundant, and a Northern Harrier often cruises the fields. As you reach the far end of the field, listen for Alder and Willow Flycatchers. The trail takes a short jog to the left, then rejoins the railroad bed. From this point on, the trail passes through a wet, forested area, with Maquam Bog stretching off to the left. Many warblers and the occasional Ruffed Grouse can be seen here. The trail eventually ends up at Maquam Bay, and the railroad bed becomes less obvious. If you go past the refuge boundary signs, be very careful that you know how to find the railroad trail again, since it can be very hard to see. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot.
Stephen Young Marsh Trail
The Stephen Young Marsh Trail is about a one mile loop. It begins and ends at the Stephen Young Marsh, and loops through the deciduous woods above the marsh. The trail begins across Tabor Road from the parking lot, but it’s a good idea to scan the marsh before crossing the road. Waterfowl are common in early spring, and later in the spring and summer, Green Herons can often be seen perched on the snags. Proceed across the road and take the trail to the right. Swamp Sparrows are abundant in this area. As you approach the dam at the north end of the marsh, watch for waterfowl and American Bittern. Proceed uphill to the woods. As you approach the pool on the left, check for ducks and Green Herons. Proceed to the boardwalk, where Northern Waterthrush and other warblers may be found. Beyond the boardwalk, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkeys, Brown Creepers, and Golden-crowned Kinglets are sometimes found. At the clearing at the top of the hill, Eastern Towhees have been seen in recent years. As you walk through the woods ahead, watch and listen for Barred Owls, especially in late winter and early spring. Pileated Woodpeckers are common. The trail eventually drops back down to the marsh, passes a former sugarhouse (now a refuge storage building), and continues to an observation platform that extends into the marsh. Tree Swallows are abundant, using both the nest boxes and natural cavities in the snags for nesting. The trail then returns to its starting point.