Natural Hierarchy

We have lots of tree sparrows at our house. They come for the food. Under the feeder this morning we had a few pecking away at seeds that had fallen to the snow.

American tree sparrows

American tree sparrows

But then some bigger birds came along and shooed the sparrows away. Whatever. The sparrows will be back. But hey, cardinals! A pair of them! Sweet!

Male and female cardinal

Male and female cardinal

Then the mammals came out. A gray squirrel came along and scared off the cardinals. Too bad. But hey, squirrels are cute.

Gray squirrel takes over the seed zone

Gray squirrel takes over the seed zone

The squirrel, however, decided to leave. The new kid came along and, even though it was not interested in seeds from the feeder, intimidated the little furry-tailed guy a bit too much.

Coyote hunting for mice (or squirrels)

Coyote hunting for mice (or squirrels)

I can hardly wait to see what comes next.


Another Owl

I spent the last couple of days with my family in Stowe. It is a great place for what you might call a “staycation” as it is less than an hour away. We stayed at Trapp Family Lodge, as they have a special rate for Vermonters if you make a reservation close enough to your stay. We swam in the indoor pool and skied up to the rustic cabin (hot chocolate and soup on offer if you bring some cash) and sat by the fire and played games. It was a fine time.

On the way up we stopped in Waterbury–pulled off at Gregg Hill Road. We were looking for the Northern Hawk Owl. My daughter and I had stopped at the same spot a couple of weeks ago, looking for the same bird. We were out of luck that first time. And we were out of luck the second time. Bummer.

The Northern Hawk Owl doesn’t usually hang out this far south. They are generally Canadians, hanging out in open spruce woods. Occasionally, however, one of them takes a southern vacation. The temperature has been right I suppose. It was three degrees when we woke up this morning. That has been pretty typical this year. This whole week will be cold so the hawk owl might stick around for a bit yet.

This owl has been around since December. WCAX reported on it in December and the Burlington Free Press just had an article on it. Lots of people have seen it as reported on eBird and elsewhere. I wanted to see it. There was a hawk owl hanging around Vermont, in Waterbury even, ten years ago. They are not common in these parts and the chance won’t likely come again soon. I really wanted my daughter to see it. It is something she would probably remember for a long time. It was too bad that didn’t work out.

We left this afternoon and headed home. Since we were passing by, we pulled into Gregg Hill Road one more time. Why not try again? We slowly drove down the hill and my wife asked “How big is this bird?”

“Not that big,” I told her. “Smaller than a Barred Owl but pretty good-sized.” She has seen Barred Owls often enough to have a sense of their size.

“Well there is something in a tree back there.”

I pointed my binoculars and excitedly said “I think that’s it!”

And it was. It was kind enough to hang out long enough for us to look through binoculars and then a more powerful scope to check it out. It is a cool creature. It has the head of an owl but the body of a hawk, hence the not-so-original name. Awesome to see, and we all got to see it well. It was great way to end our trip over the mountains.

I may get a chance to see it again but I won’t count on it. By the time I get around to heading back that way again it will likely have headed back north. But maybe. Tomorrow morning I will look for another rare bird. A Tufted Duck, over from Europe, has been spotted several times on Lake Champlain. I am hoping to spot that one. I won’t hold my breath, as they say, but I’m feeling lucky.

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Channel on the Lake

Skinny Open Water

Skinny Open Water

Lake Champlain is way frozen. I took the ferry across and then back this weekend. Looking out over the lake I could see ice as far as I could see anything. It was clear and sunny and beautiful. A stunning crossing this afternoon. The ferry is doing the trick of keeping the water open so it can cross back and forth, but that is all the water that is open right now–a narrow channel.

We saw a couple of bald eagles on the way over. We saw lots of gulls on the way back. Ice and snow in the mountains topped it all off. Not a bad way to end/start the week.

Floating bits up close and ice to the horizon.

Floating bits up close and ice to the horizon.

Early Morning Visit to the Lake

Just getting light as I head out.

Just getting light as I head out.

Got up early this morning to go look for ducks. Because Lake Champlain is frozen over they have few places to go with open water. I went to the Lake Champlain Ferry dock in Charlotte. I was rewarded for my early efforts. There were hundreds of ducks of many kinds there.

Plus I saw two lifers: Barrow’s Goldeneye, which is not very common on Lake Champlain, a male and a female; plus a pair of Pintails. Stunning birds both.

The irony is that I am headed over to New York today so I will be taking the ferry from that very spot. I won’t have much time to look then but maybe I will get lucky. That is the great thing about birding. You really never know what you might see.

Waders and divers on the open water.

Waders and divers on the open water.

Seriously, how can I count all these little dudes?

Seriously, how can I count all these little dudes?

Icy Situation

Bus on the Icy Road

It started raining yesterday afternoon. By evening it was really coming down. The snow turned to mush. Water poured from the roof. It was winter at it ugliest. It was a bit of a mess. But we were snug inside. No problem.

It was still raining in the morning. I did the usual routine to get ready for work. I was sitting at the table, eggs for breakfast, reading something or other and my wife says, “Whoa, look at how slowly the school bus is moving.” I look out to see one car sliding toward the side of the road, then stop. Then I see the school bus emerge from behind some trees, poking along. “Must be icy.”

At the curve in our dirt road the bus starts to slide. Slowly it slips toward the snow-filled ditch. Then it stops. Like slow motion only it really was moving slowly. Now the bus is sideways to the road but can’t move. It is too icy. Tires spin. One car passes the bus (not sure what that was about) then gets stuck on the slight hill. A couple other cars turn around at the end of the road, the drivers seeing what is up. My wife calls the town garage to let them know.

That was why I was late for work. The bus eventually got going, with the help of lots of sand. One of the stuck cars got going. The other was still there, hazard light flashing, when I finally decided to give the driving a go. It was, indeed, icy. I didn’t get to work quickly.

Drama for the morning it was. It is still raining. Freezing tonight. Could be another adventurous morning.

Ducks on the River

Common Goldeneye on the Winooski River

Common Goldeneye on the Winooski River

Lake Champlain is pretty much frozen over at this point. It has been cold, after all, with little snow. That is what happens to bodies of water when the temperature drops–they freeze. Lake Champlain does not always freeze all the way across. It always has some ice but only every few years does it freeze from Vermont to New York. This is one of those years.

Typically there are ducks on the lake in the winter. Last year there were lots of them as the lake did not freeze entirely. There was enough open water that the ducks stuck around. Until recently there were all kinds of ducks on the lake. But now, they have less and less water in which to swim and dive and find good things to eat. Many of them have been hanging around the ferry channel. The ferry runs all year if they can keep a channel open from shore to shore, and so far they have. This means the ducks have a place to swim. But there are a few other spots for them to swim as well.

Some ducks dabble and some ducks dive. Mallards, the most common duck around here, are dabblers. You can see them raising their hindquarters in the air as they dip their heads underwater to find vittles. Divers plunge right down to scoop up what they can find. Today I saw some divers.

I wasn’t on the lake. I was on the Winooski River, which leads into the lake. In the city of Winooski the river drops over some falls. This means the water is open, not frozen over. I took a half hour to see what I could see. I saw common goldeneye and a lone bufflehead. These are just cool-looking birds, and fun to watch as they disappear and then reappear on the surface. I was unsure what I would see this afternoon and so was happy to see them.

I hope this weekend to see something interesting at the ferry landing. Since I often work in Winooski I will plan to check out the falls at the river again as well. I need to try to see these birds that spend the winter here before they fly off once spring comes. Before I know it, warblers and vireos will be singing in the newly green trees and these ducks will be off to their breeding grounds. Right now the forecast calls for rain and snow and sleet, so I have a little time, but every day I wait means a day I might miss something. I need to make sure I don’t make excuses. The ducks won’t wait for me.

Weather This Week

Is this really going to get washed away by rain?

Is this really going to get washed away by rain?

Anyone can talk about the weather. It is a universal conversation. In New England it is more of a conversation topic than in some other places. Santa Barbara-ites probably don’t have as much passion about the weather as we do here in Vermont. They still discuss it, I am sure, just not as much. But is hard not to talk about it when it gets so crappy changes so drastically. So here is my mini-conversation with you and me about the weather, only I am doing all the talking here.

I love weather. One of the things I love about living here is that it does change. It is sometimes hard to believe that the same landscape that has bare trees and gray skies and brown fields can host singing meadowlarks and blooming daisies and puffy cumulus clouds, that a stinging sleet can be replaced a few months later by a gentle warm rain. I mean, how could I not be amazed by that when it is so amazing? Winter, however, is the hardest season. I don’t mean to say that winter is difficult because it is cold, or the days are shorter, or the sun doesn’t shine as strongly. Those things are a challenge to some degree, sure, but it is the snow that pulls out the emotions in me.

We had a snow day last Friday. This is a huge hassle for me. I work in schools, so with school cancelled I had to call it a day as well. This means I have to reschedule things when I have few, or often no, days to reschedule them. It means more work and missed work and generally a nuisance all around. But we had a snow day. A snow day is the coolest, most awesome thing around. Lots of snow falling and making things beautiful and brightening the world and filling in all the cracks and crevices so we can play in it? That is just the best. So it is a pain but it is the greatest thing ever. That is what I mean by pulling out the emotions. Love and hate it, that kind of thing.

Once the snow is cleared from roads and walkways and doors, things get back to normal for the most part, but then we still have snow on the ground. This means snow forts and skiing around the field and snowballs tossed at the kids walking down to meet the bus and, again, the beauty of it all. I love the snow, and so does everyone else in our cozy house. When we have snow we are all happy about it. But guess what? Tomorrow or the next day it is going to rain. Now, I love rain. I love a warm summer rain or a cold autumn rain or a good thunder shower. But I do not like rain when it threatens to soak into and wash away my precious snow. It means first slush and then ice and no more snow forts or skiing around the field or snowballs. It means brown crust and slippery walking. I do not like rain after snow.

Winter is for snow, not for rain, at least around here. Rain in March, I can handle. I mean, winter has to end sometime and I can deal with that. But it is February. We should be getting more snow. I want to be able to ski out my door every day. The forecast calls for rain and then freezing temperatures. Ouch. No snow on the horizon.

Until another day. I am sure we will get snow again. I can’t really complain. Weather is just weather, not something to gripe about. I can dislike some of it and feel OK with that. It is a waste of energy to complain about the weather. I am just letting you know how it makes me feel in this case. Most of the time I love the weather, whatever it is. When it gets to 10 below zero I say bring it–if it is going to be that cold then why not 20 below? Wind is an audio delight, lightning is exciting, heat makes the tomatoes grow faster. But rain on top of snow, followed by a freeze? That just shouldn’t be allowed.

Cold Day to Be Out

Beautiful Ski Day

Federal holiday? Check. Day off for me? Check. Cold? Yes sir.

The day started at our house at 14 degrees below zero. OK, it really started at 12 below when I first got up, then dropped to 14 below by sunrise. Cold enough to experiment with a Super Soaker filled with boiling water. Which I did not do. Every day can’t be perfect can it?

I took my daughter skiing today. We bundled up and headed to the slopes because it was a sunny day and we had the time and we should do it while the snow lasts. Vermont has this great program where every fifth grader can get a Ski Vermont Passport, which includes three passes to most ski areas in Vermont. She has one. Awesome, right? Except there are black out dates. The days when most people will be able to go are the days it does not apply. Love that crap. But we went anyway and paid way too much for a ticket for her even though it was way cheaper at Bolton Valley than at some other ski areas. That is why the passport is such a good deal. Just not today. Anyway, we went skiing and had a great time and there was plenty of snow and it was sunny as all get out and simply beautiful today. But it was cold and breezy. Maybe 15 degrees tops. We got cold hands and feet and took some runs and warmed them up and went inside to get warmer still and had a snack and called it halfway through the day.

After a sandwich in Waterbury we headed up Route 100. I tried hard, and pretty much succeeded, in convincing my daughter that we had a chance to see something amazing. A northern hawk owl has been hanging around Waterbury for a couple of months now. This resident of the far north rarely comes down our way and to have one so close is a chance to see something in nature that many people simply won’t ever get to see. It has stayed in the same general area and many people have had a chance to see it, but until today I have not tried to see it. I noted to my daughter that people are driving up to Waterbury from all parts to see this owl as it is their best chance to see one without having to head to the tundra. I learned that someone had seen the bird that very morning so I was hopeful.

Even on a bitter Monday afternoon we ran into six other people looking for the hawk owl. No one had seen it. We didn’t either. We stuck around for a while but were out of luck. Hopefully I will have another chance. It won’t stick around forever. So we headed home, warm in the car, quiet. A good morning of skiing, some fun together, a foray to find something interesting. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. Happy Presidents Day.

Finally, a Snowy Owl


The problem with taking so much time off from writing is that I now have way too many stories to tell. I can talk about my new interest in birding. I can talk about my trip to visit friends in South Africa. I can talk about the stroke I had way too young. I can talk about the beautiful sunrise this morning, or the recent snowstorm that left us with a deep cover of white. So how to start back up again? 

One thing I find irritating is blogging about blogging so I won’t do that. Why have I not entered anything here in such a long time? Do you really care? If a story has power it is in the telling of the story. We get little from learning why the telling was delayed. So let’s just lay that to rest right now, shall we?

How about I start with the snowy owl? There has been an irruption of snowy owls this year. You may have heard of this, of course. Snowy owls have made the news all over the United States. They are white and showy and downright beautiful. Heck, if snowy owls can hang with Harry Potter they must be magical, right? I think they are.

I have been hearing about them for months now. We live next to a set of open fields which, I would imagine, would be just what a traveling snowy owl would look for. There are trees and barns to perch on, fields full of mice and voles, and open space to fly. Why wouldn’t they come here? I have been fooled more than once by the white of a pale red-tailed hawk but so far there have been no snowy owls around here. So this morning I decided to go find one.

These birds have been reported in Addison County multiple times and, since that is only one county over, I figured it was worth a drive. I listened to a great episode of Snap Judgment on the way down but still, it seemed like it took forever to get there. “There” was the viewing spot on Route 17 at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. I had heard that just yesterday snowy owls had been spotted from right there. Awesome, I thought. That spot is easy to find, a quick pull-in and if the birds are there, it is a good spot to park while I watch. But the birds were not there.

Birders were there. A handful of cars were parked with a few binocular-toting bundled-up folks looking around. The sign of a great bird nearby, if there is a group of birders on hand, is a cluster of arms and a passel of optical devices pointed in one direction. That I did not see. I did see a couple people next to their Subaru with a spotting scope so I thought maybe they had something. Turns out it was a red-tailed hawk, out to fool me again. They said they might have seen a snowy owl down the road, but they were not sure. Another couple stopped and said they saw one for sure, farther south, this morning. I looked around for a few more minutes and headed south. 

The problem with looking for owls while driving is that it is less safe than it might be. It is hard to try to focus on finding something white in fields of snow while looking at a road covered in patches of drifting snow at fifty miles per hour. When no one was behind me I slowed down, but still, I needed to stop. After several miles I did stop. I saw another red-tailed hawk but also a rough-legged hawk–a visitor for the winter from farther north. That was a score. Unfortunately, I was pretty distracted by this point. After a couple cups of coffee and a bottle of water I was feeling ready to bust.

Now this is a rural area, so a rest room was not going to be found close by. I knew I could drive a while to get back to one, but I still had an owl to find. There are not many houses around, but the sight lines are far. I didn’t want anyone seeing some creep stopping on the side of the road to take a leak. So I turned around, my goal now to find an isolated and hidden spot to take care of things. I saw a side road with a clump of trees far down it. I was desperate at this point so took a right. Not far down the road I saw a white lump on a fence post. I got closer and could hardly believe it. Here was my owl. 

There was a car pulled over and I stopped well before I got to it. I looked through my binoculars. I looked through my scope. I didn’t leave the car. I was in too much pain by now. The owl was very cool. The other car left. I took my chances and got out of the car, relieving my pain with a clear view down the road. 

Now I was ready to look at my owl. It was regal and bright and just what I was hoping for. It was close to the road enough to see it clearly. After a while it flew off, tired perhaps of being watched. Wow, I thought, that was a snowy owl. Awesome. But I wasn’t done yet. There were other birds nearby, including a bald eagle soaring overhead. And there was a flock of snow buntings–more winter visitors. There were so many it was hard to count, but there were at least fifty, flying together over the fields and landing as a group on a semi-clear patch. These little guys are white and brown, like little cousins of the snowy owl. They were quite a sight. I stopped and looked at them for a while and I noticed some were not snow buntings after all. They were horned larks.

Since I had never seen these birds before I watched them for a while. Two new life birds for me in one Vermont winter day. Plus a couple birds that won’t be around when spring arrives. Not bad. I headed back satisfied and happy, and got home in time for lunch. Lesson for the day? Too much coffee means finding an awesome bird. I’ll have to see if that lesson proves true again another day.