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Craig Provost: A Vermont Birding Quest for the Ages

January 4, 2021 by VAL

Craig (right) and frequent birding companion Ted Murin (left) birding somewhere along Lake Champlain. Undated photograph, photographer unknown (or long forgotten).

Any acquaintance of Craig Provost’s knows well that he is one of the most unassuming, understated, thoughtful people on the planet. Craig goes about his business—which happens to involve birding more often than not—without fanfare or self-promotion, propelled by a deep (if quiet) passion and an extraordinary generosity of spirit. This past June, he achieved a birding milestone that precious few Vermont birders will ever realize, as he became just the second person in history to document 150 species in all of Vermont’s 14 counties, each within a single calendar year! Following on the heels of Fred (Pat) Pratt’s historic 2019 feat, in which he helped Pat notch his final 150-species county (Bennington), Craig turned his own attention to Vermont’s southwest corner in 2020.

It took him less than half a year to reach his final capstone, with a Fish Crow in Bennington proper clinching species #150 for the county. In Craig’s own words: “I parked along Dewey Street (June 20th) near the Elm Street Market. On four prior occasions, I had positioned myself similarly in the general area and stayed on site for about an hour each time without success. After about 10 minutes of standing on the sidewalk near my parked Jeep, I heard a nasal ‘caw uh’, looked up and spotted the small crow headed west and eventually out of sight.” Typical Craig: no fist-pumping, no flourish, no one else there to share in celebrating. Even more telling, he kept birding Bennington County throughout 2020, notching a final tally of 162 species, with his last a Common Redpoll on November 28, and submitting 278 eBird checklists!    

A Fish Crow–not Craig’s clincher for #150 in Bennington County, but the best we could do for this rare species in Vermont–from St. Petersburg, FL, April 2019. © Keith Mitchell, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

A bit of Craig’s life history: growing up in Winooski, his lifelong birding “quest” arguably began as a youth at his family’s camp in South Lincoln. At the age of ~11,  he met Bob Spear, Vermont’s legendary bird carver, pioneer birder, educator, and far-sighted conservationist. Bob handed a checklist of Vermont’s birds to Craig, who was captivated by his carvings. Soon after, Craig was spending weekends and school vacation days traipsing along with Bob, and later Oliver and Barbara Eastman, at the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington. These early mentors fueled and nurtured Craig’s keen interest, which was cemented in high school by fellow birders like Frank Oatman, Wayne Scott, Walter Ellison, and Chris Schultz.

Soon after receiving a BA in Business from UVM, with a minor in Forestry, Craig received a commission into the U.S. Army, which took him to Georgia, then Alabama, and ultimately to Fort Lewis in Washington, where he remained for seven years in an air cavalry brigade (also earning an MBA). Birding rarely took a back seat, and Craig birded widely in the Northwest, including numerous pelagic trips. After the birth of son #2 in 1988, he and the family returned to Vermont to finish raising the two boys. He was soon hired by Bombardier Capital, at the time a new commercial finance company, and remained there until 2008 when the company was sold to GE Capital. At that point, he was hired by Union Bank and intends to remain in their Stowe branch until retiring “in a couple of years.”  

Not surprisingly, Craig has long immersed himself in community science projects, beginning with Spotted Owl surveys while stationed at Fort Lewis. Once resettled in Vermont, his early efforts included covering the Hinesburg (now Bristol) Breeding Bird Survey route for a decade, and compiling Christmas Bird Counts. More recently, he has become a self-professed Vermont eBird addict, as evidenced by his position as the state’s #2 all-time leader in both species with 331 and checklists with a staggering 16,905 (his closest competitor languishes at 7,270)! Moreover, Craig is an official eBird reviewer for Vermont’s 4 northeastern counties, a member of the Vermont Bird Records Committee, and a volunteer Eastern Whip-poor-will surveyor. The man is no slouch…

Craig Provost (center with watch cap) and fellow Vermont birders on a Lake Champlain “pelagic” trip, October 2013. © Allan Strong

To chronicle Craig’s amazing feat, below is a county-by-county summary across the years.

Lamoille — 153 species

Chittenden — 175

Washington — 161

Orleans — 163
Caledonia — 162

Addison — 166
Franklin — 204
Orange — 159

Grand Isle — 160
Windsor — 166
Essex — 156

Windham — 172

Rutland — 181

Bennington — 162

By his own admission, Lamoille was the most challenging county to complete, even though he has resided there since 2000. His faithful canine companion Declan has participated in all 14, although he is far less interested than Craig in keeping lists. Highlights are far too many to enumerate, but they include countless encounters with other birders—many known and some newly acquainted—occasional conversations with law enforcement for questionable parking decisions, too many meals behind the steering wheel, and lost gear such as a Kowa spotting scope forgotten along the lake shore and a cell phone that “frisbeed” off the roof of his Jeep.  

Craig Provost’s birding sidekick Declan basking beneath an enormous Jack-in-the-pulpit. © Craig Provost

When asked “what’s next?”, Craig doesn’t hesitate to respond. First is maximizing his total county “ticks” in Vermont (the total all-time species in each county, combined). He considers the sky to be the limit on this, but the current grand total for all observers combined in eBird is 3,888, and Craig stands at 3,004. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever touching that! Second, and “courtesy of a man named Ted” (that would be the legendary Ted Murin), 200 species minimum in all 14 Vermont counties. This one is certainly within reach, with 10 down and 4 to go: Craig figures Bennington and Essex will be difficult, but he’s close in Lamoille and Caledonia.

The birding community congratulates Craig on his epic achievement, and for inspiring all of us to get out there and explore our state!