Paying Attention

IMG_0538I started birding in earnest after I had a stroke. Instead of going to therapy, I went outside and paid attention to the world around me. I tried to run, but I found that I just kept thinking inwardly, going to dark places. It wasn’t fun. When I went birding, however, I was looking outward rather than inward. I was focused on sights and sounds, on the wind and the river under the bridge, on finding something new wherever I was. I returned feeling better, feeling more perspective on my place in the world.

Getting out in nature can have this impact for many people. It is hard not to notice what is around when you are hiking a mountain trail or canoeing a river. Birding for me gave me more of a focus. I had to pay attention. If my goal was to find as many different birds as possible, I had to be aware. Being passive was not an option. So I got out there and I paid attention and it healed my mind. Having a task, a focus, was key. I stopped paying attention to me when I paid attention to what I heard and saw.

Yesterday morning I visited the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston to go birding. This was part of a bird walk sponsored by Green Mountain Audubon. There were quite a few people there, maybe 20 or so. I meant to count the people but I was too focused on counting birds. We walked the trails for over two hours and, despite the hundreds of mosquitoes, found 45 species of birds. Two highlights were the flock of Blue Jays mobbing a Barred Owl and a Red-Winged Blackbird chasing a Green Heron. We also heard, however, a Brown Creeper, a shy bird who looks like tree bark and whose song is high and hard to hear. Finding that bird means really paying attention so it is rewarding to discover it.

The photo above has a Cedar Waxwing in it. It is perched at the top of a fir. It is hard to see, but I heard its high trilling song, then narrowed down its location and saw it well with binoculars. Birding is not about seeing the birds that make themselves obvious. It is about seeking out the birds that are there, finding them even when they are not obvious. That is the therapy for me in birding.

Cedar Waxwing, not hiding at all

Cedar Waxwing, not hiding at all

I will keep at it for now. There are multiple levels of challenge. How many birds can I find with each outing? How many birds can I find each year? How many birds can I find this year in my county? What might I find new today? Can I finally learn the song of the Blackburnian Warlber? There is the life list to consider as well: how many birds can I find ever? I won’t get bored. I will continue to learn and to discover new things. I will keep my mind healthy. And while I’m at it, I will have fun. That’s some good therapy right there.

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Marsh Wren, Rain

IMG_2682Beyond the glass of the window, the rain falls hard. I can see it against the dark green of the maples, the sumac, the white birch. Streams fall from the eaves. I can hear the pounding of the falling water on the porch roof. Coffee in hand, wearing a dry sweatshirt and shorts, I feel calm, content. I am warm. I have no worries. My daughter still sleeps. My son reads on the porch. My wife is out walking, happy to be in it.

This morning I tried to find a Marsh Wren. I had yet to find one this year and it is Sunday. Sunday means I can go to the marsh on Route 116 to listen. Morning is the best time to go and on weekdays, even Saturday, traffic obscures the sounds of the marsh. Sunday, early, is the time to go. There were a few other cars, but not many, passing as I watched and listened. I had a window without rain for about 25 minutes. I heard and saw many wetland birds. I watched three Green Herons fly overhead. I listened hard for the Grasshopper Sparrow I heard there last year. The nearby field had just been mowed so any Grasshopper Sparrows had left. I heard my Marsh Wren.

We will head north later today to Montreal, to watch France play Korea in the Women’s World Cup. It will be an exciting day in the city. At the moment, however, the day is peaceful and quiet. The rain drums, the House Wren in the spruce sings his bubbly song, a Meadowlark whistles out in the field. Soon I will need to gather things for our trip to Canada, but for now, that second cup of coffee needs to go down before it gets cold. Plus, the rocker on the porch needs company. I don’t want to be the one to let it down.

Signs of Early Summer

IMG_0519I found this American Robin while I was on a walk in Colchester. I noticed it as it flew into a tree right near the path. As I looked more closely I could see that it had landed on a nest. Cool! But check out the beak poking out from under that mama Robin’s belly. She’s got a brood in there. Cooler!

And check out that nest. That thing was crafted with a beak. You can see the softer materials near the top, where the chicks are. All these people are walking past talking about challenges at work or local politics or relationship challenges, and there this Robin family is just getting on with it while we pass it by.

IMG_0514Earlier in the day I had gone for a hike up high. I wanted to see if I could find Bicknell’s Thrush where I used to search for it several years ago. Along with the Thrush I found this patch of bunchberry blooming on the trail, popping out at me in the morning sun light. Later in the summer they will produce small red berries that taste like tomatoes. And down near the left corner there is a yellow trout lily still blooming. It is a little late for those. Down in the valley they flowered out by early May.

IMG_0510And here is a view I caught as I hiked down from listening for various birds. I spent the day finding signs that summer is unfolding as it should. Birds are calling out for mates or marking territory. They are building nests and raising chicks. Flowers are blooming. Leaves are shushing in the wind. Again, this transition each year, the shutting down of so much life that slowly emerges with spring and then summer, the richness and diversity of it all, it elates me. All this life just keeps keeping on, doing what it needs to do to continue. Humans have big brains; they create and destroy and mold the world. But only humans have the capacity to be fools. That is easy to see if you look at all the other life that fills the planet.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on Mount Mansfield 2015

Late day light after counting spruce and fir cones

Late day light after counting spruce and fir cones

Sunday morning I got up early, again, to listen for high elevation birds. I had just done this the week before on the Worcester Range, across the valley, so this was take two in a new place. Stowe Mountain Resort is generous enough to let employees and volunteers of Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who manages the survey, use the ski patrol hut near the summit of Mount Mansfield. So I got to drive up the toll road and stay there for the night. That was much easier, and quicker, than hiking up and tenting, as I did a week ago.

There were a couple other volunteers, there to survey another nearby route, also staying in the ski patrol hut. We did not chat much before I was packed up and out of there, however. The resort charges for use of the toll road for most people; they let volunteers go up for free, but not until they close it to other traffic at 4:00. So I was at the hut around 5:00. I wanted to get one part of the survey, the count count, out of the way, and I wanted to get up there and do it before it got too late. So after I dropped my bag, off I went for a hike.

Trail marker along the route

Trail marker along the route

It was a beautiful night, golden light in a partly cloudy sky. My hike was not long to get to the first survey point, maybe 30 minutes. There were a lot of cones when I could see them. In some spots the trees were too dense for me to see the tops where the cones are. In some spots, on the open ridge line, there were no trees with cones to be had. As I mentioned in my last post about this, there is a correlation between cone density and squirrel populations. When the squirrel population booms after a good cone year, they predate bird eggs when the cones don’t aren’t there to eat. Hence the cone counting, to see how much it affects birds populations.

I got back to the ski patrol hut before 8:00, ready to eat the sandwich (plus the beer) I had brought up with me. The other folks were still out on their cone survey so we did not get to chat yet again as I was ready to hit the sack early. After a night of tossing and turning I was ready to get up when my alarm went off at 3:30. And I was off for another hike.

Not all the points are easy to reach--this is the actual trail to one of them

Not all the points are easy to reach–this is the actual trail to one of them

Scouting the points made easier it to find them in the early hours. I sat at each point for 20 minutes, according to the survey protocol, listening and looking for several bird species. I heard many of them and saw a couple birds to boot. It was a successful survey. I got to spend some quiet time (except for all that avian singing) on Mount Mansfield, getting fantastic views at three of the six points. By 8:00 I was done, and the singing slowed down. I took a few minutes to admire the beautiful state in which I live–the Worcester Range to the east, Lake Champlain to the west, the Green Mountains stretching north and south. The overcast skies cleared and the sun dappled the rolling green landscape. Hard not to appreciate that.

Morning view from Mount Mansfield ridge

Morning view from Mount Mansfield ridge

Back at my car I changed from synthetic clothes to cotton and headed down the hill. I hadn’t even broken a sweat for this survey; sure I hiked less than my other route, but the weather was pretty much ideal. I stopped for a bagel in Stowe on the way home, mingling my unshaven mug with those of diners just risen for the day. I had already put in a good day’s work. Coffee in hand, I headed back home, the songs of thrushes and warblers dancing around in my tired brain.

Rainy June Days

IMG_0481It is sunny and warm this morning. It feels like summer. The sun is up, the air is humid. A Cardinal belts out his whistled song. The meadow grass bows. Across the road, the flood waters recede. It has rained for several days now, sometimes coming down hard. The river rose, then rose higher, then spilled into the fields.

My son and I wandered out into it a couple days ago. We chased frogs. They sang loudly enough to hear them across the field, but when we approached closely they clammed up and stayed hidden. Too shy for mammals I guess. We tromped through the new swamp, my cracked mud boots filling with water. We bushwhacked through the stand of willows, getting scratched and soaked. It was a blast.

Yesterday morning I wandered out to see how much flooding occurred. The field around the river with filled, although I have seen it higher. Water did not cover the road. Mallards swam far out, dabbling in the grasses for slugs. A Great Egret flew in later, wading through the pond, seeking out those frogs we heard. Maybe it would have better luck. A Great Blue Heron arrived while we ate dinner on the porch.

Already the water has dropped. The river will be within its banks today. Rain will likely fall again tomorrow. Thunderstorms will pop up more than once this month. June is here, and she is wearing summer. She looks lovely.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on the Skyline Trail 2015

IMG_0466Pictured here is most of the stuff I carried up to the Skyline Trail for my Mountain Birdwatch survey up there this year. I have participated in this citizen science initiative to monitor high elevation songbirds for 16 years now. This was my fourth year on this route, which requires a solid hike in. Not pictured above are the clothes I wore (including hiking boots), a small bag of food (I pretty much snacked the whole time as cooking requires a stove I did not want to carry) and an iPhone (for emergencies and to use as a stopwatch for the survey).

Back in 2000, the first year of the survey, I rose early and walked about my door to hike up to my survey route. I lived in Bolton, at over 2,000 feet elevation, and the route was only a short hike away. The survey’s methods were also different then, with fewer birds to monitor and less time required. I could rise at 5:00 to start by 6:00. This route is different as is the survey. Now I drive an hour, hike three hours, and I need to start about 4:00. When I first adopted this new route, I did the math to figure out what time I would need to get started if I did not spend the night up there. Including prep time and longer hiking time in the dark, I figured starting at 10:00 pm would do the trick. So spending the night just made sense.

Let me tell you, that hike is a beast. It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard. It is only about three miles. A 5K is about three miles, and my 10-year old kid can do that in 45 minutes or less. This, however, is no 5K. The route starts off easy enough, on a well-traveled trail up to the Stowe Pinnacle. Yesterday, as usual on a sunny June day, there were scores of people hiking up and down. I always feel a little odd hiking past people who are wearing running shoes and white T-shirts with my full pack (especially on the way back down when I am covered in mud and sweat and smashed black flies).

The beginning of my hike--easy going on a blue bird day.

The beginning of my hike–easy going on a blue bird day.

After a mile I peel off onto a trail leading up to the ridge. That trail is steep and rocky and covered in roots and slippery and downright tough. Few people go up there but I always seem to see those few, usually when I am talking aloud to myself and they are suddenly upon me. Despite my embarrassment I keep plodding and make it to the ridge. This time I did not take a break until I hit the Skyline Trail. I needed a break at that point.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

At this point I only have to hike along the ridge to Point One, near where I will camp for the night. This is a mere mile, so no problem. At least I think that every time. But that mile takes another hour, with steep up and down (there is a ladder at one point) on a slippery narrow trail. I need to stop to fill water bottles along this stretch, as there is only one water source up there. Eventually I get to my spot and set up camp. Then I take a longer break.

But I’m not done yet. Part of the survey is counting cones. When there is a mast year (a year where there is an abundance of cones) the squirrel population booms. Lots of cones means lots of seeds inside for squirrels to snack upon so lots of them survive that year. But then all those cones are not there the next year and the squirrels are. One substitute food source for them is bird eggs. So there is a connection between cones and nesting birds. Once I set up my tent, I traveled the survey route and followed the protocols to count the cones. And let me tell you there are lots of cones this year. This counting took quite a while so by the time I got back to my tent I was ready to rest.

Compounding the usual challenge of this route were all the fir tops. An ice storm this winter did lots of damage on I wondered as I hiked up (among many many things) if there would be any damage up high. There was. The top sections of fir trees were snapped off and lying all over the place. Many of these, of course, were lying across the trail. Some were small (think mini Christmas trees) and some were like full trees themselves. That slowed me down a bit (plus needles stuck inside my boots and down my shirt as I climbed over or around or through). I stopped at one point and counted them–I could see 18 from that spot.

Tree tops everywhere!

Tree tops everywhere!

In the end, the survey was successful. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, the main target species, several times. Plus I heard Blackpol Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes and Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers all for the first time this year. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place. I was tuckered when I got back to the car. I stopped for a couple pizza slices on the drive home and called it good work.

I took on a second route this year as well but that one does not require such a tough hike. It will feel like a cake walk. This route, however, has pretty high rewards. Lots of people can run a 5K but most wouldn’t do this hike to get up at 4:00 am and not have a view. Apparently, I would.