A Little Birding on the Gulf Coast


Ruddy Turnstones flying as the sun rises

I just got back from Florida. I went with my family on a trip to visit my spouse’s grandfather and to get some warmth during these cold Vermont days. We stayed on Sanibel Island, which is home to the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The island is a spectacular place to be, in part because of the refuge, and it is a spectacular place to go birding. We were planning to return to Vermont in Tuesday, but because of the blizzard of 2015, our flight was canceled and we got an extra two days there. That made things quite a hassle for my job, but plenty enjoyable over those two days.

We visited the same place a year ago and I saw 62 different species of birds. I was hoping to see that many this year. I missed some from last year but got a few new ones and saw 72 this year. I went out every morning and snuck in some extra birding on the beach and elsewhere. I didn’t see a Wood Stork (can’t believe I missed that one) or a Yellow Throated Warbler I was hoping to see (I saw a few last year) but had some great sightings nonetheless.

Highlights included three lifers for me: Prairie Warbler, Snowy Plover and Common Gallinule. The Prairie Warbler was flitting about in a tree with a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and a couple of Cardinals. The Snowy Plover I got to see with my wife on the beach. It is always good to see a lifer with someone you love. The Gallinule I saw tucked into some shrubs at water’s edge on the Bailey Tract of the refuge. All were memorable.

I missed seeing a White Crowned Pigeon, an uncommon bird that was hanging around the refuge. It turns out that Lillian and Don Stokes, writers of bird guides and part-time Florida residents, were at the refuge the same day as me and saw that threatened species. It would have been great to see that bird, or to meet them, but timing was not in my favor that day. Below are some other great sightings I managed to photograph.

Willets were plentiful--I saw hundreds of them

Willets were plentiful–I saw hundreds of them

White Pelicans at the refuge

White Pelicans at the refuge, along with Willets, Dunlin and Laughing Gull

American Coot at the Bailey Tract--check out those white honkers

American Coot at the Bailey Tract–check out those white honkers

Black Skimmer landed on the beach one morning; I saw over a hundred that day

Black Skimmer landed on the beach one morning; I saw over a hundred that day (Ring-Billed Gull, Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderlings are hanging out with it)

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

A trip highlight: Eastern Screech-Owl in plan sight. My family all got to see it as well.

A trip highlight: Eastern Screech-Owl in plan sight. My family all got to see it as well.


Giant Swine


At a middle school recently I borrowed a classroom to meet with students. There was a diorama in one corner. Before my students showed up I checked it out. A warrior walks among giant swine. They do not appear threatening. He does not seem concerned. The giant piglet seems most unhappy. Is this three dimensional representation historically accurate? Did humanity learn new things about our past since I was last a student in history class? Or do we have a seventh grader with a sense of humor here? On my next trip to that school I will have to find out if oversized porcine critters roamed with the Romans. My curiosity is itching.

Frozen River

IMG_5717Yesterday my son and I walked down to the river. It was a perfect winter day–23 degrees, sunny, with a thin layer of new snow on the ground. A couple of Hairy Woodpeckers flushed as we got close to the bridge. A Tufted Titmouse whistled across the field. The air was still.

We walked through the trees to the water. In spring, the river bank is often flooded, water to my knees or higher, but yesterday the grass was brown and flattened, the puddles frozen. We could see the frozen river and all the way across the field on the other side. The landscape changes every season, every day really. Where in summer the scene would be green–the grass, the leaves on the trees, even the water–yesterday it was brown and white and blue. Beautiful either way.

The water was frozen from shore to shore. This is not a big river. You could easily toss a rock or a stick or dirt clod to the other side. But it moves along and meanders and isn’t typically solid, even in winter. We might have been able to walk across but we were cautious. We walked along the ice on the shore, watched the water flow under the bridge where the surface was not frozen, crunched our way through the sleeping vegetation.

To get back home we eschewed the road for as far as we could. I followed the shore north while my son bushwhacked through the willows. I watched the tops of them wave and bend as he pushed his way toward me. He emerged with a big grin. The breeze started to pick up as the shadows grew. We walked on the ice that filled the ditch along the road. Camel’s Hump glowed in the sun that has stayed away too often lately. The next morning the temperature would dip just below zero, but in the moment we were content with a fine winter day.

A Little Ice on the Road


Last weekend we headed to Boston for a quick visit, just one night. We went to take advantage of our New England Aquarium membership. We had gone last April and bought a membership as it was the best deal for multiple visits. We figured we would head down there before it expired. We did have a great trip to the city. The trip home, however, was a long one.

The first issue was our van. That van has been a trusty vehicle. We love the van. It is easy to load, holds a lot, is versatile. Overall, it has done us right. But this time, when we got into the city, when we started actually driving in traffic, the transmission stopped working. We’re talking hit the gas and it does not produce forward motion. That made it a challenge to maneuver, or to get out of the way, or to get where we needed to go. Overall. it was not doing us right.

We managed to limp to our hotel and then had to deal with getting a tow and finding a place to which our vehicle might be towed (OK, really my wife did all that while I took the kids to the aquarium, but we’re a team, right?). We would have to figure out how to get home but that would be manageable. It turns out that my wife’s sister had come down to Boston from Vermont on the same weekend. Perfect! They have a big car and could give us a ride! It would mean heading back to Boston some time soon to get the van, but hey, details to figure out.

So Sunday when it was time to go, we all piled into one car and started driving north. We had planned to leave by noon as poor weather was forecast. We wanted to miss any freezing rain or sleet or snow. We ended up leaving more than an hour before noon. Still, we were in for some trouble.

We crossed the line into New Hampshire just fine, with light rain starting but then BOOM, as happens with freezing rain, the road was suddenly slick. We quickly found ourselves among ten or so cars off the road, smashed by each other and spun around. We weaved through that but passed more cars in the same situation. And more. It was a skating rink, for real. We kept crawling forward. At one point, however, we watched a big old sedan spin completely in a circle and then slide toward the exit ramp nearby. We headed toward that exit and kept going. There wasn’t much choice.

That exit turned out to be the longest onramp ever to a different interstate highway. We inched along that but then found ourselves headed south instead of north, but before we could get very far we saw flashing red and blue lights ahead. Traffic was stopped so we just pulled over. That wait was close to an hour before we could move again. We ate candy and trekked to the woods to take leaks. Once we started moving we took the next exit we could and headed into Manchester to find some lunch and to take a break.

We had hoped the freezing rain would abate while we were stopped and it seemed to. So off we headed in search of I-93 North. When we finally started heading in the right direction again we were relieved, but soon saw a sign that said the interstate was closed ahead. So the next exit was ours. We stopped three times in search of a map, hoping it might help us to see the big picture better than a tiny smart phone screen. Apparently no one carries maps any more.

We slowly drove through Concord and then found I-89 north. We made our way toward Vermont, seeing plenty more cars that had slid into the median or been bashed by other cars. I’m guessing we say at least 30, not counting the ones we could not see behind the rescue vehicle lights. We were tired, a little grumpy, but happy to back in the Green Mountain State. About 8 1/2 hours after we left Boston we pulled into our icy driveway, five hours longer than it usually takes us.

I guess this is why people move to Phoenix. Today, however, the sun has come out and shines on the snow that fell Sunday and yesterday. It is a stunner of a day–blue sky and white highlights in the trees and the mountains. I am happy to be here. We won’t be making that drive again any time soon. Oh, wait, we have to go get the van once it gets repaired. I guess that won’t be so bad if we wait until the weather is clear. The repair should be covered by warranty. And I have a few hours of podcasts to catch up on. As long as I don’t have another drive like the one on Sunday, they should last me down and back.

Windy Enough to Blow Me Over

IMG_5671 I worked at home today and was remarkably productive. By 11:00 I had gotten most of the things on my to-do list completed. I can’t say that happens every time I work at home. Today, however, I managed to crank it out. Mid-day I took a break, suited up for the weather and headed to the lake. I was hoping to see ducks on the open water.

The first spot I stopped was a no go–it was frozen solid as far as I could see. No ducks to be found there. So I headed south and found some water that was less solid. The Shelburne Town Beach can be iced in early, depending on the wind and the temperatures. If wind blows into the bay it can be iced over; if not it stays open. Today the wind was blowing right toward shore but the ice was hardly piled up. It has been cold lately so there is plenty of ice on the lake. There just wasn’t much ice right there. I did see some birds. There were scores of Mallards and several Common Goldeneye but it was hard to see them well. The wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to keep my spotting scope steady. It was even a challenge to keep binoculars steady. I had to lean into the wind to keep from blowing over. I got to see a Bald Eagle soar overhead a couple of times. It was a beautiful mature bird. Unfortunately, it scared away most of the ducks.

I got cold, as you can imagine, but only partly. My hands were getting numb but the rest of me, thanks to my awesome down jacket, was toasty. I moved on to another site and saw even fewer birds. I tried to stick it out but the wind was fierce. Even the birds were having a hard time. Mallards were surfing and getting dunked under the waves curling at the shore. It was a harsh situation. I didn’t see any new birds for the year but it was pretty amazing to see the lake like that. Every time I go it looks different–blowing one day and calm the next, green sometimes, clear others, frozen water or calm water. It is never the same so is always amazing to see.

My year list stands at 33, not terrible for mid-January in Vermont. I missed the Harlequin Duck when I went up to Grand Isle briefly to find that rarity, so bummer for me. I do plan to head to Florida later this month. I am sure that will prove to be a birding foray to write about. Until then, I don’t expect much. If I could get out there every day and really explore, maybe I might find all the avian treasures. But I do have to work.

After I got back home today I tossed a log into the woodstove and got down to some email. I did some scheduling and printed a letter to mail and generally got some more office-type stuff done. It was a lot warmer at my desk. But not nearly as fun.

Dangerous Cold


Ice flowing toward the driveway

As I write this, a couple hours after darkness has fallen, it is zero degrees. That is pretty cold. I’m not talking Celsius here. And the temperature is dropping. Here is the quick forecast from the National Weather Service:

A 20 percent chance of snow showers before 11pm. Mostly cloudy, with a low around -11. Wind chill values as low as -29.

It is no night for streaking. It is frostbite weather. This morning it was nine degrees when we headed outside to meet the school bus, and windy. Our neighbors have a small pond just up the hill and it is not sealed well. It leaks, slowly, into the grasses next to our driveway. Until this winter, that slow seep flowed into our driveway and we had an icy hazard on the approach to the road. Since we had our driveway regraded last summer, and the ditch next to it re-dug, the seep fills the ditch. It is getting full now, as the water turns to ice.


It is pretty cool to watch the ditch fill. There is a slushy layer before the ice reaches the ditch, then it is like flowed land. I can’t tell you how happy I am that that is not in the driveway. The past couple of winters we have had some treacherous moments.

We will have some cold days this week, but mostly seasonal weather. The forecast doesn’t call for any more sub-zero temps. Still, I don’t plan to be walking around in flip flops any time soon. I got a new down jacket for Christmas. I’ll be keeping that puppy handy. Plus boots. And a travel mug. Need to keep the inside warm, too, right?

New Dish for a New Year

IMG_5633For Christmas we got a new cookbook from some friends: River Cottage Veg, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was a gift from friends who run Pass the Pistil, a site dedicated to gardening and making use of what the garden offers (worth some time perusing if you fancy that stuff–I recommend it). I hate to see a cookbook languor, so today I tried an easy recipe from the book, Pinto Bean Chili, fit for a winter day.

Stage one: most ingredients in the pot

Stage one: most ingredients in the pot

Like any good chili, it consists of simple ingredients and is hardy yet easy to prepare. It took me maybe an hour, all told, and we had dinner. My son can be somewhat finicky at times but even he ate it up, despite the zucchini involved. Despite the season I did add that summer squash. I couldn’t resist, and I wanted to follow the recipe before trying my own variation.

Just about ready to eat

Just about ready to eat

Some canned tomatoes, some canned beans, a few vegetables to cut up and we pretty much had a meal. It needed to simmer for about a half hour. Easy. And it was tasty as well–not too spicy, savory and filling–certainly worth trying again. And we even had some left over, just what I need for a week of work after a bunch of days off.

New Year Birding Goal


Last year I had a goal to see 175 birds in my home county. My goal for 2013 was to see 150 and I got up to 174. The 175 goal was simply to surpass that 174. By December 31 I had encountered 194. At one point in October I thought I might be able to get to 200, a lofty goal for one county in Vermont. I had seen three new birds for the year in one day and thought I only needed to find a few more to reach the 200 mark. In the last two months of the year, however, I found only one new one–a snowy owl by Lake Champlain, just inside the county line. Still, 194 ain’t bad.

I could have simply increased my goal to 200 for the county. That would, perhaps, seem logical. I wanted, however, to try something new, something broader. Staying in the county is fairly easy, as I live year and it means I do not travel far. But I will travel a few times in any case. In 2014 I encountered 177 different birds. I traveled to Florida and to California, plus looked on the Connecticut and Maine coasts. I was happy with that. I have no California trip planned but I do have a trip to Wyoming planned. Wyoming does not have quite the diversity that California offers but will offer some great birding I am sure.

My birding goal for 2015 is simply to find 250 birds, anywhere. I know this is less than 2014 but I will not be in California. I saw 88 species there. Half of those I saw nowhere else. It can be tempting to just up the ante and go for more, but attempting to find 250 unique bird species is a reasonable goal for me. If I could take all the time I wanted and travel all over I could try to find twice that number but that is not in the cards, not this year.

Noah Strycker is one man trying to find as many birds as he can in one year by traveling all over the world. He is now in Antarctica, where he started two days ago. There are about 10,000 bird species in the world and he is hoping to see half that many. That is a lofty goal. You can check out his progress on his blog, Birding Without Borders, on the Audubon website. If you want to follow my progress you will have to check back here. It won’t be nearly as exciting, but I hope to get a few interesting species and maybe some photos. So far I am at 28 species for the year, including the Snow Goose that eluded me all last year. Not a bad way to start a new year, goal or no.