Vermont’s Birders and Landowners Are Joining Forces to Contribute to Science

A new program recruits volunteers to survey breeding birds that would otherwise go uncounted.
Bridget Butler smiles looking towards the camera with binoculars around her neck, surrounded by trees.
Bridget Butler, co-creator of Birder Broker. Photo: Kelly Burgess

This spring, Jacob Crawford walked through a light-spangled forest of beech and maple in central Vermont and came across a dark and shady patch created by a stand of towering white spruce. From the top of the tallest tree a Yellow-rumped Warbler sang. A pair of tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets peered out from the shelter of dense needles. He turned to Lynn Blevins, the forest’s owner, and explained the scene. The spruce patch, he said, provided birds with thicker foliage to hide in and different insects to feed on. This habitat diversity made her property more welcoming to a wider range of avian species than one populated by leafy trees alone.

Since 2019, a program called Birder Broker has been pairing volunteer birders like Crawford with bird-curious landowners across Vermont. “Birders are building this community of people who care for the land,” says the program’s cofounder, consultant Bridget Butler, whose business goes by the name Bird Diva.

Inspired by a state-led project that matched hunters with landowners, Butler envisioned the initiative after years of work with Audubon Vermont and other biodiversity nonprofits. With 80 percent of Vermont’s forests under private ownership, she knew scientists needed access to more data about where species breed. She also knew people were hungry for knowledge about birds on their property. Both groups faced obstacles to gathering more information.

Birder Broker took off when Butler partnered with the nonprofit Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which runs community science projects such as the Vermont Breeding Bird Survey. As with that effort, Birder Broker sends volunteers to seek out birdlife. But instead of making counts from roadways, they do so on private parcels of typically at least 50 acres, visiting three times during breeding season and entering data into the eBird app.

Thanks to the surveys so far, Audubon scientists studying the declining Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers learned of a new breeding hotspot for these species. Another researcher interested in small, seasonal wetlands called vernal pools found out about new sites to investigate. Audubon Vermont’s senior conservation biologist Steve Hagenbuch says the surveys help his team understand how avian communities are responding to the organization’s Healthy Forests initiative. “They’re filling a huge need,” he says.

Through participating, some 30 landowners are seeing the fruits of their existing conservation efforts, or finding inspiration to get more involved. On one survey Matt Paggi spotted his first Scarlet Tanager. “I didn’t know about them, which is odd, because they are so bright,” he says. But now that he’s learned to look high in the canopy, he sees the birds all the time as he works.

The surveys have also helped Paggi show employees at Barred Woods Maple, a syrup-making operation where he is a co-owner, just how their bird-friendly practices make a difference. Those efforts include logging trees in small patches to create sun-filled habitat with shrubs for Winter Wrens and small trees for Cedar Waxwings. “We were interested in birds, just not very knowledgeable,” says Barb Paggi, his wife and another partner in the business.

After the Birder Broker program received its first outside foundation funding this year, Butler and Vermont Center for Ecostudies biologist Nathaniel Sharp now plan to expand the work to meet landowner demand. Those efforts also mean that volunteers like Crawford will continue seeing the relationship between landowners and wildlife deepen: “There’s so much more to it than just counting the birds,” Crawford says.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “It’s a Match” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.