Geese are the harbinger of fall—V-shaped formations of small or large flocks, and the unmistakable honking that has everyone looking up. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder. Mountain hollows have already experienced the first touch of frost. Leaves are finalizing their life cycle by withdrawing the chlorophyll and leaving behind the brilliant colors that make Vermont a destination for those not lucky enough to have a sugar maple in their backyard. Let me introduce you to a place that truly demonstrates the magnificence of the fall migration against a backdrop of an incredible wetland: the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
Characterized by awesome birds and bird banding, fun paddling, great hunting, cool plants, fishing, a rare mussel, a new education center, and a diversity of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, the Dead Creek WMA offers everyone an amazing opportunity to access a huge wetland complex and the habitat it supports. The Dead Creek WMA is probably best known for the flocks of Canada and snow geese, numbering in the tens of thousands, that make an annual stop along the migration trail, but there is so much more!
This fall there are a number of events you can participate in, or you can plan your own excursion during fall foliage to enjoy the changing of the seasons within the wetland. First, the grand opening for the new visitor center is Thursday, September 28th, starting at 5:00 pm, but you can come visit anytime thereafter. There will be many exhibits within the new center, including the “Dead Creek Diorama,” which shows a wetland in 3D, similar to what you might see during a day on the creek. This display includes taxidermy species; models of bones, scat, and footprints; furs; and other wildlife artifacts you can poke and prod.
You can also plan your trip to coincide with the Annual Dead Creek Wildlife Day on October 7th. This will be the 16th year in which this full-day event takes place, 9:30 am to 4:00 pm. You can attend presentations and demonstrations on topics such as clayplain forests, pine marten research, moose research, birding, bird banding, retrievers, warden dogs, waterfowl, and owl pellets, as well as see some live critters. Or experience some hands-on family fun including artisans, fishing demos, nature arts and crafts, food, bluebird houses, decoy carving, soap carving, shooting activities, and kids’ crafts.
If that date doesn’t work for you, then choose another day to kayak, canoe, or hike. The Brilyea Access, off Route 17, just west of the Goose Viewing Area, leads to two walking trails. One goes between the creek and agricultural fields, through a deciduous forest and over Dead Creek on earthen embankments. The other trail, starting at the very last parking area at Brilyea, goes through forest and fields. In addition to Brilyea, there are several other access points described at https://ottercreek.wordpress.com/birding-in-addison-county/dead-creek/.
Whether on the trails or on the water, you can observe the wetland ecosystem at work. This wetland complex is actively managed by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VT F&W) because the stream that had originally flowed through the ten-mile stretch of land had a series of dams built along it, which flooded a large area of land, creating the extensive wetland. To promote wetland health and mimic its natural cycles, VT F&W intentionally lowers water levels along several of the impoundments beginning in August and extending through the fall. As described by Amy Alfieri, the VT F&W Biologist who manages Dead Creek, “by mimicking the water level fluctuations of a natural wetland, cattails, bulrushes, and sedges flourish, providing food and nesting habitat for waterfowl. Systematically lowering the water level within the wetlands exposes the soil which allows plants that migrating waterfowl eat to grow. Many of these plants are annuals, such as smartweed, beggarticks, and millet. The draw-downs also create mudflats which attract migrating shorebirds in August and September that feed on invertebrates burrowed in the mud. Shallow waters in September and October increases availability of seeds and invertebrates for wading shorebirds. Bird watchers have documented more than 250 species of birds at the WMA, and late August through September is one of the best times to spot shorebirds at Dead Creek.” Look closely and you may see the abandoned nest of the marsh wren!
Even if you are not a bird watcher, have your binoculars handy. Numerous mammal species can be spotted in the WMA. A silent approach or quick eye may reveal the white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, gray squirrel, bobcat, beaver, mink, muskrat, river otter, red and gray fox, coyote, raccoon, chipmunks, mice, voles, moles, shrews, or weasels. Many reptiles and amphibians also call the WMA home, and during the fall you may see the painted turtle soaking up the last rays of sun before over-wintering in the mud.
Besides the open water of Dead Creek, the wetland includes an extensive emergent cattail marsh, a broad-leaved emergent marsh, deep bulrush marsh, and a buttonbush swamp. Therefore, in addition to the fish and wildlife habitat functions the wetland provides, these wetlands also improve water quality and help buffer against flooding. Amy explains, “by managing water levels and promoting wetland plants, we’re creating giant sponges of vegetation that soak up excess water during rainstorms. The wetland plants also filter nutrients and pollutants out of the water, improving water quality on Lake Champlain for fishing, swimming, and drinking.”
The Dead Creek wetland complex offers opportunities for hunting and fishing, boating, hiking, birding, and wildlife viewing. The wetland also offers a home to fish and animals, and is a stop-over for countless other birds. Nestled within the Champlain Valley, surrounded by mountains of color, a visit to Dead Creek WMA during the fall when the geese are moving through the area will not disappoint. If this wetland is too far from your home, please read about the other accessible wetlands across Vermont in this fall wetland hiking series. Two more wetlands will be highlighted over the next couple of weeks. Happy autumn!