Woods, Wildlife and Warblers Helps Young Landowners Create a Plan for Their Land

When Christina and Marc Aquila sat down in their San Diego rental home to scour through home listings in southern Vermont in 2011, they were unaware of just how much their life was about to change.

Marc grew up on just over a tenth of an acre in the suburbs of New Haven. “We’d visit family around the Northeast and everyone else had a little more space, and I guess I wanted some of my own,” Marc says. "When we decided to move and some land was actually achievable, I jumped on it.”

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In the first half of 2012, the couple found themselves in the midst of major life changes: moving across the country and purchasing 40 acres of forestland.

“We hadn’t owned land prior to living here, so we didn’t really know what to do,” Christina says. “Figuring out knowledge-wise where to turn for advice and suggestions and to make sure we’re doing the right things were very important from the beginning.”

The Aquilas quickly became aware of the support, professional advice and resources they would need if they were going to be good stewards of their land, but figuring out how to get started was a slow process. Over the first couple of years, Christina reached out to anyone and everyone who could possibly point her towards the right resources. She would pick up pieces of advice here or there, but this only brought about more questions. How were they going to pay for some of the work that needed to be done? Which activities would benefit their land in the future? What Christina really wanted was someone who could help her with a more long-term plan.

In the spring of 2017, the help she was looking for landed in her mailbox from the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program. The program, which is a partnership between the American Forest Foundation, the Vermont Tree Farm Committee and Audubon Vermont, focuses on connecting southern Vermont woodland owners with the knowledge and resources they need to enhance wildlife habitat in their woods while accomplishing other woodland goals.

The couple quickly realized this was exactly what they had been looking for. Excited, they filled out the survey, which offered a free visit from a forester, and mailed it back.

A few weeks later, Travis Hart, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) wildlife specialist, visited the Aquilas on behalf of the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program. He and the Aquilas walked the land and discussed the couple’s goals. Travis also identified areas that were overrun by invasive plants such as common buckthorn.

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With Travis’s help, the couple completed an NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) application for financial assistance to combat their invasive plants. Their application was quickly approved, and with that support, the family now plans to treat 34 acres of their 40-acre property, based on Travis’s recommendations, for the invasive species.

What’s more, the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program continues to touch base with the Aquilas to share more information, helping them on their journey as forest owners. They even sent the Aquilas a set of Birder’s Dozen Cards to get them involved. The vibrant cards showcase a subset of Vermont’s 40 priority bird species, which the Aquila’s two young girls now use to spend hours peering out the window in hopes of seeing one of the special birds in their own yard.

With help from Woods, Wildlife and Warblers and natural resources professionals, the Aquilas continue to learn about their land and implement stewardships activities that will benefit their woods and the wildlife that call them home.

Christina credits Travis as being extremely informative and supportive.

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“My biggest takeaway [from interacting with Travis] was how little I know and how much knowledge there is out there about it all,” Christina says. “There is much more I still have to learn about everything.”

The Aquilas hope to become part of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), a program of the American Forest Foundation that holds landowners to high third-party standards to ensure the sustainable management of their lands.

Until then, Christina and the girls continue to enjoy their Birder’s Dozen Cards and the couple continues to plan exciting stewardship activities that will make their woods a haven for wildlife for generations to come. 

Landowner Learns About Beaver Habitat Through Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers

It was 1967, another normal morning for 16-year-old John as he walked the four blocks to his high school bus stop, or so he thought. As John approached his stop, he noticed a new face, 15-year-old Bill. John introduced himself and they began to chat about their common interests. After a few weeks, this new face at the bus stop became one of John’s closest friends, but John never could have predicted the impact Bill would have on his life.

Throughout that year, John was invited to join Bill and his family at their 40-acre property in Wardsboro, Vermont. After several visits to Bill’s family property, John fell in love with the abundance of trees and wildlife and decided that he would one day own his own little piece of Wardsboro.

“I loved the crisp air out there in the fall, the green mountain foliage, the winter snow falls with quiet peacefulness, and the spring rebirth” John says. “And of course, all the wildlife—the deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, grouse.”

Years later, after completing medical school, John began a fulfilling career as a physician at  Rhode Island Hospital and found himself in a position to make his dream of owning land a reality. In 1998, John purchased 223 acres in his beloved Wardsboro. As John became acquainted with his land, he noticed the wildlife populations were barren compared to what he remembered in the ‘60s during his visits at Bill’s parents’ nearby property.

Determined to support a thriving wildlife population, John began actively working to improve habitat on his land. John had some basic knowledge of forestry, and knew to plant apple and crabapple trees, rye grass, rhubarb, blueberries and other mast shrubs throughout his property as wildlife food sources. He also cut fields and created edges and trails for wildlife habitat improvement. Throughout this time, he knew there was so much more he could do, but he needed some help.  

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Today, two acres of John’s property are home, once again, to returning beaver. According to a neighbor, in the early 1990s this thriving beaver population was evicted due to encroachment upon the adjacent main road. At that time, the beaver dams caused the main road to flood and the previous owners chose to use dynamite to remove the dams and stop the flooding, driving the beavers away.

Nearly 20 years after purchasing his land, John noticed new pools with dams and beaver homes throughout his wetlands and knew the beavers had returned. John was determined to maintain the beaver population, but he didn’t know how to support them while preventing flooding of the main road. In search of advice, he reached out to the local forestry department and was connected with beaver specialist Tyler Brown.

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Tyler was very knowledgeable on this type of situation and offered a suggestion. They constructed a baffle across the main beaver dam spanning the two largest ponds to maintain water levels and prevent flooding, and it worked! The beavers continued to flourish and thrive in the wetlands without causing the road to flood. Not long after, John was even able to catch native brook trout in his pond.

Around this time, John learned about the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program - a partnership between the American Forest Foundation, the Vermont Tree Farm Committee, and Audubon Vermont - which focuses on connecting southern Vermont woodland owners with resources and professionals to help accomplish their goals for the land. Through the program, John was connected with a forester from Meadowsend Consulting Company, Jeremy Turner.

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During his visit to John’s land, Jeremy was also inspired by the diversity and beauty of the wetlands, and was excited to help John maintain this special habitat. Jeremy quickly recognized that the food source would not sustain the growing beaver population and suggested girdling some of the massive conifers surrounding the pond. This would allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy and encourage a greater diversity of young growth to regenerate and sustain the beavers for a longer period of time.  

Today, John and Jeremy are planning a long list of activities that will allow John to finally accomplish some of the many wildlife-related goals he has had for his property. Jeremy is preparing a forest management plan that will enable John to enroll in Vermont’s Current Use Tax Program, helping him save money while continuing to accomplish his goals for his land.

“All of the work I’ve done has been for habitat restoration, and through Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers I’ve connected with foresters who have helped me do even more,” John says.

Jeremy describes John as incredibly passionate about stewarding his land in the most responsible way possible. With Jeremy and Tyler’s continued help and expertise, John has been able to make his goals a reality and truly be an exemplary steward of his land.

 

Woods, Wildlife, and Warblers Tour Highlights Wildlife Management for Landowners

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RUPERT- On Tuesday, October 10th, a group of interested landowners attended a Walk in the Woods tour on Alan Calfee’s 591 acre certified Vermont Tree Farm in Rupert. Calfee is a consulting forester and the owner of Calfee Woodlot Management, LLC. He led the tour with conservation biologist, Steve Hagenbuch, of Audubon Vermont. The tour was hosted as part of the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program to demonstrate the management activities that Calfee has done in his woodlands with the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The work focused on enhancing wildlife habitat while still remaining productive for timber, and increasing the forest diversity.

The Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program focuses on woodland owners in Bennington, Windham, Windsor and Rutland counties, and is a collaborative effort amongst the American Forest Foundation, the Vermont Tree Farm Committee, and Audubon Vermont. The program focuses on connecting southern Vermont woodland owners with resources and professionals to help accomplish their goals for their land and better care for their woods. As Vermonters, our forests are important to us, and what we do can have an impact not just locally, but globally. Vermont forests are home to some of the highest concentration of bird species breeding in the continental United States—meaning this region provides rich, essential habitat for all local wildlife species. Thus, Vermont woodland owners are essential to successful bird and wildlife conservation.

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Prior to the walk, about 30 acres of Calfee’s property had been treated for invasive plant species. Species treated included common buckthorn, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle, all of which outcompete the native tree and understory species he wants to encourage. The property has sugar maple stands and he wants to keep them healthy and make sure invasives don’t outcompete them in the future.

Calfee’s forest management plans include the removal, or “weeding,” of the low-quality trees to allow other trees to flourish and provide homes for wildlife. This will encourage the growth of native trees in the future that will hopefully outcompete the invasives in the area thanks to the invasives treatment this fall.

 “As soon as the area gets sunlight in, it may encourage native growth even more. That is where the wildlife component comes in. The first two layers of the forest are where birds are most active and nesting,” says Hagenbuch about the property. “Since he has red oak and sugar maple seedlings, if we can get little patches open in these areas it will be a start to benefit wildlife...it’d be great if red oak were a component of that to encourage and adapt to possible climate change,” explains Hagenbuch.

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Hagenbuch went on to explain that “oaks and birch in particular host the greatest diversity of our insects, which is important to the birds when they are trying to feed their young. One bird can feed over 200 insects to their young in a single day.”

Calfee has also created young forest habitat throughout his property, which supports certain species like the chestnut-sided warbler. When those areas begin to mature after about fifteen years they’ll attract a variety of different species.

Brooke Decker, the Dene Farm Manager at Hildene, is a new landowner and attended the Walk in the Woods because she, “wants to learn as much as I possibly can- ecology is my background and learning forest management is new to me and Alan is thinking about the management piece. As a visual learner this workshop was a good way to help me think about my role as a landowner.” 

Calfee has done great work on his property so far, but he is not done. Though the desired results for Calfee’s plan may take up to 45 years, working to improve the quality of his woods for both timber and wildlife is his primary focus.  

Landowners Incorporate Wildlife Into Their Management Goals

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Phil and Donna Wheeler have owned their forested land since 1980, when they purchased 50 acres with a spectacular view of the mountains that inspired them to call their property ‘Heavenly High.’ Over time, they acquired additional surrounding tracts and now own about 140 acres. With retirement in mind, they hoped the land would be a peaceful retreat that provided them with a small income on the side.

Phil and Donna had a sense of the responsibilities of land management from the beginning. Soon after purchasing the land, they developed a relationship with a forester who helped them craft a management plan focused around valuable timber. They conducted different forest practices to grow maple trees for the high quality veneer and opened up the property to local hunting and snowmobiling.

Though their focus was on timber, Donna especially enjoyed the wildlife and birds that made their way to their land. While Donna has always been a wildlife lover, managing their land for wildlife without interfering with their primary timber management goals seemed unlikely, so wildlife management was never a focus. 

After owning their land and successfully managing it together for many years, the Wheelers joined the Vermont Tree Farm System with the intention of learning more about land management and showcasing their adherence to the best practices that the Tree Farm System is nationally known for. They attended field days, took tours of other Tree Farms, learned a great deal about handling invasive plants, and learned what other woodland owners were doing to attract wildlife to their property. 

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Donna’s interest in making their land a wildlife haven continued to grow as time went on. One day, she was contacted by the Vermont Tree Farm Committee about a new partnership between the Vermont Tree Farm System, the Vermont Woodlands Association, the American Forest Foundation and Audubon Vermont. The partnership came together to create the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program, which focuses on enhancing habitat for southern Vermont’s birds and other wildlife. Donna’s ears perked at this project, as she had always loved bird watching. Immediately taking interest in the project, she wondered how they could help.

Through Woods, Wildlife and Warblers, the Wheelers set up a bird habitat assessment with an Audubon wildlife biologist, and both Phil and Donna were amazed at how many priority birds lived on their property. They were also surprised to hear that they actually could help these birds without interfering with their timber plans and other land management goals.

They discussed plans, and found a one-and-a-half-acre plot of low grade pine on their property that could be removed to create early successional habitat, which is important for many birds in the region.  The clearing would also create space for the growth of new hardwoods, another potential source of income in the long run.

The Wheelers are extremely excited to provide habitat for more wildlife on their land, while still accomplishing their other management goals – something that seemed implausible before becoming involved in the Woods, Wildlife and Warblers program. Through the program, the American Forest Foundation, the Vermont Tree Farm System, the Vermont Woodlands Association and Audubon Vermont are connecting landowners with the right professionals who can help them incorporate wildlife into their management goals without inhibiting their primary goals for their land.

Local Landowners Create Bird and Wildlife Habitat

Pat and Dan Stone first purchased their 132 acres of woods in Vermont in 2012. Pat had family roots in Vermont, and Dan had a hobby of woodworking. Together, they hoped the property would provide an escape from city living.

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On top of being a peaceful reprieve, they both had hopes to care for the land and improve places for wildlife to live and nest, but did not have extensive knowledge of land management. The Stones had heard stories from others about bad advice or poor logging jobs, so they wanted to make sure they found someone who could give them trusted professional advice. They did extensive online research of foresters and other professionals and conducted interviews with a few that stood out. When they met Kathy Beland and her business partner Frank Hudson, long time foresters with extensive experience in managing forests for wildlife, they immediately felt comfortable and hired them.

During Kathy and Frank’s conversations with the Stones, they shared that while their land hadn’t been managed since the 1930s, it had good soil and potential to be ideal for birds and other wildlife. They helped the Stones discover that there were things they could do if they wanted their woods to provide better habitat, like removing the invasive species that were choking out the native plant life. They were surprised to hear that a harvest was actually good for bird and wildlife habitat.

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Energized by their newfound perspective, the Stones worked with Kathy and Frank to put together a management plan that would eventually include a harvest. Shortly after, Kathy shared that they were prime candidates to join the Vermont Tree Farm System, which would recognize their commitment to conservation and provide them with a community of other trusted professionals and landowners for more learning and common camaraderie. As Kathy told them about this opportunity, Dan remembered seeing a Tree Farm sign when he was a child and felt excited to get involved.

Through Kathy, an active member of the Vermont Tree Farm System committee, the Stones learned about a new project between Vermont Tree Farm, the American Forest Foundation, and Audubon Vermont: Woods, Wildlife and Warblers. This joint effort focuses on working with landowners to improve bird and wildlife habitat across southern Vermont. With so many conservation groups working towards a similar goal, a goal the Stones also shared, Dan and Pat immediately decided to participate in the effort and signed up for a bird habitat assessment with an Audubon Vermont biologist.

The assessment confirmed much of what the Stones had learned from Kathy and Frank – their land had great potential for bird habitat, supporting the harvest plan Kathy and Frank had outlined. The Stones have now scheduled a small harvest on their land that will create new habitat for birds.

The Stones are glad for the people they have met, and the credible guidance they have received. They hope other landowners will see the benefits of working with professionals and take steps to get involved. With their help, they are looking forward to many years of active management where they can make a difference for the birds of Vermont.