WELLS RIVER, Vt. - Bill Shepard called out directions to the party of six, their binoculars at the ready as they stood on the water's marshy edge.
"Far side of pond by the balsam fir with cones on top," he said, pointing. "About 15 feet off the ground. Look for color, a raptor."
The assembled peered through their looking glasses and within seconds all had spotted the red-tailed hawk. After a moment the bird flew on, and the group focused on the tree swallows darting about. Turtles were out in the morning sun, the white-throated sparrow's song was a symphony, and the linear holes left in a tree were evidence that the yellow-bellied sapsucker had been there.
All that and more was found during a short walk on the Boltonville Nature Trail, which follows an abandoned rail corridor near an interstate overpass, behind a high school, and by an organic dairy farm. The trail is one of nearly 130 sites that make up the Connecticut River Birding Trail, a collection of public and private lands along the river's New England watershed.
Shepard is the project coordinator for the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1999 and took off in 2002 when it published the first of three maps detailing birding areas in Vermont and New Hampshire. An updated map of the Upper Valley region from Wells River south to Charlestown, N.H., includes five new areas, among them the Grant Brook Audubon site in Lyme, N.H., and Mimi's Trail, a two-mile forest jaunt to valley views in Thetford Hill, Vt.
The group is considering producing maps for Massachusetts and Connecticut that would enable birders to follow flights from the river's source in northern New Hampshire all the way to Long Island Sound.
The Birding Trail isn't a footpath like the classic Appalachian Trail. Instead, it is a journey for birders and other outdoor lovers such as walkers, hikers, paddlers, photographers, snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and mountain bikers. It traverses forests, mountains, state parks, Army Corps of Engineers sites, schoolyards, and historic sites, while skirting cliffs and waterways.
"It is a connect-the-dots kind of thing," said Shepard. Serious birders can add to their life list, the compilation of all the birds they have identified. Shepard tries to spot 200 species in Vermont alone every year. His best: 199.
Peg Ackerson of Lyme, president of the Mascoma chapter of the New Hampshire Audubon Society, said, "The Birding Trail is a guide and allows us access to certain private properties. You can go birding and not go to the same spots all the time."
The gardens, ornate home, and sculptures of artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) are why visitors flock to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., but the forests, brooks, and wetlands on the property provide opportunities to spot thrushes, vireos, and warblers.
The vast Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Whitefield, N.H., with its fens, ponds, bogs, and forests, is home to more than 200 species of birds and more than 50 types of waterfowl. Favored by walkers and hikers, the site also attracts dragonflies; nearly 40 types have been spotted there.
Mountain bikers using the 23-mile-long Northern Rail Trail between Lebanon, N.H., and Grafton, N.H., should be aware they are among the birds. More than 100 species have been noted there including loons, sparrows, orioles, and blackbirds.
A hike up Mount Cube in Orford, N.H., isn't just a walk along the Appalachian Trail, it's also a Birding Trail hike featuring possible sightings of hawks, finches, and grosbeaks.
Quechee Gorge, a popular Vermont tourist spot, is also a birding hot spot with waterfowl, flycatchers, and wrens. Across the road from fast food in Windsor, Vt., are Lake Runnemede and Paradise Park where the lake, swamp, fields, and thickets host tanagers, bluebirds, and several types of migrating hawks. Herrick's Cove in Rockingham, Vt., is a designated Important Bird Area because it's a big migratory stopover for all types of birds.
The Birding Trail stresses conservation and asks users to stick to the trails and stay away from nests, roosts, and feeding sites.
Alice Allen and her husband own the organic Allen Farm along the Boltonville Nature Trail, which connects to the railbed of the easy-to-walk Cross Vermont Trail. Their red barn on the edge of the Wells River near Interstate 91 has cows grazing outside and barn swallows, bobolinks, and killdeer flying about in season. They allow birders access to their land, even hosting conservation camps for children in summer.
Allen heads out on the Birding Trail near her farm. "Every year I learn something different," she says. "First I looked at colors, then I started looking at bills. I keep at it."
So does the rest of her party. They look, they listen. They observe behavior. They learn that it's all about the food: If there's nothing to eat, the birds move on.
"You can spend hours and hours walking and listening," says Allen. "This is just good for the soul."
Marty Basch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.