A cedar waxwing perches above in a crabapple tree outside the Manchester town offices in winter. At right, Sunflower seeds, suet and cranberries invite
A cedar waxwing perches above in a crabapple tree outside the Manchester town offices in winter. At right, Sunflower seeds, suet and cranberries invite birds to a feeder in Bennington. (Bennington Banner file photos)

As unpredictable as our outdoor environment has been this winter, with sub-zero freezes and snow-melting thaws start to feel almost normal -- winter mountains offer fascinating and exciting ways to enjoy the natural world. The local Audubon Society chapter, which serves southwestern Vermont, northwestern Massachusetts and the border towns of eastern New York as Taconic Tri-State Audubon, invites people outdoors all year long.


Although dwindling interest forced them to shut down their programs for adults, Taconic Tri-State Audubon stays active in their efforts to bring children s environmental education into local schools, and they have also continued to run regular birdwatching programs in conjunction with Audubon s national and even international efforts.

It holds the largest of these bird-watching programs, the Christmas bird count, in December, and a follow-up effort, the backyard bird count, starts on Feb. 14 and continues through that weekend to Feb. 17. Unlike the Christmas count, which asks volunteers to head out to assigned areas, the backyard bird count asks people to simply keep an eye on all the birds and kinds of birds they see in their normal lives.

The counts are then compiled in a national database by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and scientists use them to help scientists study and track the constant movements of certain bird populations. Experienced and novice birders alike are invited to participate by signing up at ebird.



org.

Bennington resident Bill Davis, president of Taconic Tri-State Audubon, says the group is very much looking forward to the event, and they expect to see some interesting species.

Right now, be on the lookout for snowy owls that have come down from the north, he said. They re rare in the area, but they have been sighted.

Davis also said that bald eagles and peregrine falcons have returned to the area. It s good to see that both species have benefited from extensive conservation efforts, he said.

Many other, more common birds fly and feed here in the winter as well.

Outside, at my feeder, I have gray birds -- chickadees and nuthatch and juncos and titmice -- all the gray birds, Davis said. There have also been a lot of goldfinches and house finch and purple finch this year. There s a lot out there. In fact, I saw a robin the other day!

Watchers can either count species from the comfort of their homes or explore the local network of trails, many of which are accessible on cross-country skis or show shoes through the winter.

Davis said the trails behind the One World Conservation Center on Route 7 are level and ideal for skiing, as they follow an old set of trolley tracks.

Taconic Tri-State s other focus, children s environmental education, goes on in full swing right now.

In cooperation with the Four Winds Nature Institute, based in Chittenden, the society helps organize regular lessons for children from kindergarten to sixth grade. The program, which is aligned with state and national science curriculums, relies on volunteers, who are trained to go into the classrooms to teach lessons on natural science, designed (according to the Four Winds website) to help children gain knowledge and skills that will help them understand the natural world.

Taconic Tri-State is currently running its education programs in schools in Pownal, North Bennington and at The School of Sacred Heart Saint Francis de Sales in Bennington.

Right now the program is snowflakes, so the kids are out playing in the snow, checking on snowflakes, Davis said. It s a good experience for the public to get in and see what goes on in the classroom, and to work with the kids. It s a good learning experience for everybody.

Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by email
at jmcmanus@benningtonbanner.com.

Join in ...

The Taconic Tri-State Audubon Society has more than 400 members, some as far away as Boston. (Because the Massachusetts Audubon Society isn t associated with the national society, if someone from the state wants to join the national organization they are assigned to an out-of-state chapter, like Taconic Tri-State).

The local chapter is in search of new board members and officers to keep their operations running in the future; contact Bill Davis at loandwill@gmail.com if interested.

Getting outside ...

Pownal hike

Berkshire Knapsackers will lead a Snowsnoe/hike Saturday on the Dome Trail to the summit of the Dome Pownal, Vt., an elevation gain of 1,715 feet. To learn more, call leader Mary Vadney (518) 756-3881.

New York Snowshoe

Taconic Hiking Club will lead a Beginner Snowshoe Hike on Saturday at Hand Hollow Conservation Area in New Lebanon, N.Y. Explore a relatively flat 2- to 3-mile circuit of a Columbia Land Conservancy property. Meet at Schodack Park and Ride at 9:45 a.m. or meet at Hand Hollow at 10 a.m.To learn more, call Sharon at (413) 674-0042.