Working Lands: A Family Making Maple Syrup Grows Sugar Bush for Birds

Tig and Elise Tillinghast show how sweet it is making a living while preserving bird habitat.

Spring in Vermont is often known as “mud season,” and on this warm, sunny day in March you need only attempt passage to the Tillinghast sugar shack, where the family makes maple syrup, to see why. The mire that usually passes for a dirt road on the outskirts of Strafford promises to swallow nearly anything but a four-wheel drive. Yet more than two feet of snow blankets the hillside where Elise Tillinghast is tightening her snowshoes and adjusting her baseball cap for a hike through the forest known as the sugar bush for its preponderance of maple trees. Her husband, Tig, cradles their baby and slips inside the shack. He and little Lucy are off to do some “sugaring.”

Crisp snow crunches with each step as Elise, 40, trudges past the craggy trunks of maple trees connected by a modern labyrinth of slim black, blue, and white tubing (opposite) that carries sap down to the sugar shack. She pauses at the crest of the hill, where the forest opens on a sunny field overlooking the valley. “When we walked this land for the first time, we realized what a special place it is. We felt like a piano had fallen on us. Here on the hill there are views of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and we have wetlands down below that few people even knew existed. There are moose tracks and bear signs and Canada warblers. You’ve just got this wonderful mix of things.” 

[video:56791|caption:VIDEO: Tig and Elise Tillinghast show how sweet it is making a living while preserving bird habitat.] 

The Tillinghasts, she a Harvard-trained lawyer and he an owner-publisher of several advertising trade publications, are working to reap an increasing amount of their income (about half in 2012) from this land by making syrup, and thereby sweetening their forest for birds and other wildlife. The couple is participating in Vermont Audubon’s Forest Bird Initiative, which—at no cost to them—evaluates the habitat quality on their property and its importance to a variety of breeding songbirds, from Canada warblers and wood thrushes to black-throated blue warblers and American redstarts. What’s more, the Tillinghasts are working with a forester to implement the program’s recommendations for how to better manage their sugar bush for birds—and sharing what they learn with their neighbors. “I think birds are a great gateway for understanding the bigger picture,” says Elise, “because everybody loves birds.”

When Vermont Audubon conservation biologist Steve Hagenbuch first visited the Tillinghast property, he was impressed by the diverse habitat he found. “They had about 20 acres of sugar bush, a forest managed for the production of maple sap to be turned into maple syrup. But they also had a good deal of more natural northern hardwood forest with many other tree species—American beech, white ash, eastern hemlock—and this large wetland complex, which has a unique suite of breeding birds.” Best of all, says Hagenbuch, “their forest will always be a forest, because they put a conservation easement on the property through the Upper Valley Land Trust, ensuring that a future owner can’t ever subdivide and build on it—that’s the single greatest threat to these birds.”

To date the Forest Bird Initiative has assessed 145,000 acres of woodlands owned by private landowners in Vermont. Of those landowners, Hagenbuch says the Tillinghasts, who now have about 75 acres of sugar bush, are one of the best examples of what can be accomplished through the program. “They’re a model for other people who are interested in having a forest for sugar production or timber, but how they can do it in a way that still allows the native flora and fauna to be there. They show how you can achieve multiple goals on a working land. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as, "Sweet Music." 

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Setophaga caerulescens

Range and habitat: Breeds in the understory of rich, moist forest in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. Winters in forest and scrub in the Caribbean region.

Status: Still reasonably common in most areas of its range. Surveys suggest no significant change in population during the past few decades.

Outlook: Its overall population, currently stable, would be vulnerable to loss of habitat. Thoughtful management of forestlands will be essential for its long-term survival.—Kenn Kaufman