Citizens tally up species in monthly wildlife walks

MIDDLEBURY — It was early on a recent Thursday morning when eight people, armed with binoculars and guidebooks, gathered in the parking lot at Otter View Park in Middlebury, ears perked up for morning birdcalls.
The group was there for the monthly wildlife walk organized jointly by the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) and the Otter Creek Audubon Society. The walks are two hours long, and starting with the May 13 walk, they will now begin at 7:30 a.m. for the summer season.
The walks started just after the park’s grand opening in the fall of 2008. Barbara Otsuka, president of Otter Creek Audubon, and Josh Phillips, executive director of MALT, have been involved form the beginning.
“It was the two of us coming to the same idea at the same time,” said Phillips. “We were thinking about how to get more people involved here. And given the diversity here, we thought it would be fun to accumulate (wildlife) data over the course of a year to really see who was using the park.”
Around that time, Gail Hurd had given the management of the grassland on her Weybridge property over to the Audubon Society (though she still owns it) in the hopes of encouraging bird biodiversity. The two groups hoped to collect some data in both places, so at most walks they split their time between the park and what has become known as the Hurd Grassland.
After each walk, one of the participants enters the birding information that the group has collected at ebird.org, a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The site relies on “citizen science,” that is, data collected by laypeople nationally and, to some extent, globally.
The mass of data coming into the site on any given day gives biologists a broad base of data that they can analyze to find geographic statistics of bird biodiversity.
But the walks aren’t just about collecting data. MALT and Otter Creek Audubon invite all levels, from those with little background in wildlife identification, to experienced birdwatchers.
“The more eyes and ears, the better,” said Otsuka. “(It’s) for anybody, of any ability and any age.”
There are many things that people on the walks can do, from pointing out animal movement in the bushes or trees to listening for one particular birdcall.
This walk had no shortage of bird biodiversity — kingfishers, robins, sandpipers, warblers and orioles. And while the largest number of wildlife sightings tend to be birds, the spring and early summer are good times to see other animals as well. At the group’s last walk they spotted a pair of mating snapping turtles, and they sometimes see other animals along the banks of Otter Creek.
“You always learn something new when you come out here,” said Gary Starr, a Weybridge artist who serves on the Audubon board and regularly attends the walks.
MALT and Otter Creek Audubon also put on a number of special walks throughout the year. During the winter, they invite trackers to lead the group for a different focus, on winter biodiversity. Next month, they have invited Mark LaBarr from Audubon Vermont to lead a walk at the Hurd grassland. The walk will focus on birds and grassland management.
The  walks alternate between the second Thursday and the second Saturday by month, and the next month’s will be on Saturday, June 12.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
MALT will host its Neighborhood Spring Clean-up and Green-up event at Otter View Park on this Sunday, May 23, beginning at 1 p.m. The public is invited to come enjoy refreshments and see friends and neighbors while helping clean up the park at the corner of Weybridge Street and Pulp Mill Bridge Road. Call MALT for more information: 338-1007.

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