Ice and Rain

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My son and I took a hike up Mount Philo yesterday. It was a mild day, just above freezing, some sun, some clouds. A good day for a short hike. I was afraid it might be muddy on the trail. Instead we found ice.

There is a paved road that leads to the summit where a campground operates seasonally. The trail is much nicer than the road, however. In most places the trail was frozen and passable, but we had to do some navigating at times to avoid slipping. In more than one spot a slip on the ice would have meant a good trip downhill. It was a fine adventure on a Sunday afternoon.

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The view, as it is most days, was stellar. We looked at places we had been and might one day go. We watched a raven soar in and drop to land on the cliffs below us, croaking as it did so. We watched clouds creep in over the Adirondacks to bring us rain for today. We lingered a little while and then headed down.

We started to follow the road, then decided to take the trail when it crossed that road, but just as we turned off a large and loud group turned off as well. We decided to take the road. The walking was easier and we chatted as we descended. I noticed a couple of hemlocks that looked in trouble. Some of the tallest trees around, they had only brown needles and were full of cones. I wondered if they had been killed by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an introduced pest that can decimate these trees. Eastern hemlock just might be my favorite tree, so if the adelgid is here, my heart sinks.

Now, early morning, it rains. It taps the porch roof. Again, the air is warm, and it blows over the fields, tossing last year’s leaves about and howling through the bare branches of the maples. Yesterday I heard Red-Winged Blackbirds singing. It was the earliest I have seen them here. The sky is gray. The fields and woods are brown. The red stripe on the blackbird’s wing is a harbinger of spring color. Next month, blackbirds will be flashing those red stripes as the field grows green and mud, by then, will replace the ice we encountered yesterday.

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Weather all over the place

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It is pretty easy to talk about the weather. Who doesn’t talk about it? Problem is, most of the time what I hear is complaining. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. Too much rain. The snow is a nuisance. That kind of thing. Complaining about the weather is a national pastime and it is something that binds us together. Too bad, I say. Around here the weather is always changing, and I love that.
Last week the temperature got to -18º. The ground finally froze. I couldn’t stir the compost pile–it was solid. A couple of days ago it warmed up. The temperature rose to 52º. Then it rained all day. Then it got cold and snowed. The rain and warm weather made for some flooding. All that floodwater is ice now. The roads turned muddy, got rutted, then froze. Frozen ruts make for sketchy driving. But they look cool.

This month we have had temperatures that ranged 70 degrees, snow, rain, sleet, high winds, ice, mud, fog. Maybe if it were April that would seem right. But it is February. We still have had no major snow storm. There has been some snow in the mountains but we have not had more than two inches of snow at home. It would be nice to have some snow. It is winter after all. We have, however, had some stunning days, and many of them have made me stop in wonder.

Two mornings ago fog filled the field across the road, curling over the temporary ponds and the overflowing river. Tonight as the sun went down it draped its pink light onto the freshly snow-covered mountains. We can complain about the weather. Or we can smile at the beauty of the world. It is beautiful every day. Why can’t that bind us together instead?

A Little Snow

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Some time in the wee hours I got out of bed. I looked out the window. There was just enough light to see fat wet flakes of snow falling. It was quiet. It made me happy. In the morning I was eager to see snow on the ground. There was about a half inch. It was not much but it was beautiful.

I had a chance for a short walk this afternoon. I braved the edge of the lake ice to creep around a point. The ice held. Snow fell again. The ice, the reeds, the sand were coated with white. Snow gathered in the folds of my jacket. It was quiet. It made me happy.

It has felt like winter these past couple of days–cold, windy, snowy. It will get mighty cold this weekend–single digit temperatures. I hope to get outside, at least for a little while, before then. A walk in the snow will do me right, even if there isn’t much of it.

Bare Winter

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I took a walk in the town forest yesterday. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark. Snow was falling. It was a light snow, the flakes floating slowly to the frozen ground in the light wind. It felt like winter wanted to be there–cold, barren.

I walked quickly. I went to the forest because I hoped to find a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, a bird I have found there before, hopping along the trunks of the tall white pines. There was not a lot of bird activity so I was not lingering. It felt good just to move through the woods. I also went there to walk. I took time to stop, to look, to listen; but I also just wanted to feel my breath and warm myself with motion.

The ground was bare. Those gentle snowflakes were beautiful but they did not gather themselves. They broke apart, tucked under leaves, melted when they hit the slightly warmer ground. James Wright’s “Late November in a Field” begins: “Today I am walking alone in a bare place/And winter is here.” It felt like that, only it is February. It felt like winter was about to arrive, but it should be here by now.

We have gotten little snow. In a typical year I would not have gone to the town forest as I did yesterday. I would not have gotten to the parking area and I would not have tried to park, afraid of getting my car stuck. But the dirt road was like pavement. I did not need snowshoes or skis on the trails. I did not have to worry about ice. The temperature popped above freezing by the time I returned to my car. Late November weather.

I heard almost no birds. A few chickadees called their quiet peeps. I heard my nuthatch honking away, plus one or two others. At one point I stood below the pines and thought “it is so quiet today.” But it was not quiet. The wind blew the bare trees. They swayed just enough, and they were cold enough, to creak and pop. Squirrels chattered. Pines whispered. The forest was having a winter conversation with itself. Once I stopped listening with such focus and allowed myself to hear everything around me I found a world of sound. It was not quiet at all.

Winter has a couple months yet to go. Perhaps we will have a solid snowstorm during those couple months. Or perhaps November will blend into spring come April. Outside my window, the tips of crocuses show themselves below the bird feeder. I do not wish them harm but I would like them to be hidden under a deep layer of snow. I would like this bare winter to wear its snowy cloak, at least for a little while. I would like a little more winter before spring arrives.

No Alligators Around Here

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Goal number one for 2016: find 50 birds in Vermont in the month of January. I hopped on a plane to Florida at 5:45 AM, two and half weeks into the month, with that goal checked, on the nose.

Goal number two for 2016: find 300 birds in the calendar year. On the flight back from Florida I had 103 species on my list. This will not be an easy goal. I am a casual birder, not obsessive. Well, a little obsessive but not too bad. Mostly, I get out when I can but I am intentional about it. As of today I am up to 110 species. February will be a slow month but I will do what I can. I still have several “gimmes,” birds I can expect to find for sure this month, but I won’t start really racking up the species until late March when migrants start returning. I have a conference on Cape Cod in early April and a trip out west later that month, so I have some opportunity. I hope to get to the Maine coast at some point as well. The overall goal is no gimme and it will be fun trying.

Goal number three for 2016: create at least one checklist of birds every day of the year. So far I am on track with that one. This will take some mindfulness for sure, but it is possible. The problem with this goal is that the first day missed means a scratch to the whole goal. It is a goal, however, not a directive, so no worries.

I am not really a resolution kind of guy but goals I can do. I am feeling pretty good about these three. Yesterday I saw a Ruffed Grouse. I knew I would see one at some point this year and this was a close-up sighting. A good way to end January. Spending several days in Florida was a help. I walked around in shorts and found all kinds of great birds. I even got in a solid alligator sighting. I admit it was a bit of a transition, even after that short time, to full-on winter and much less activity with our feathered friends. Birds were everywhere down there. Here in Vermont it can be pretty dang quiet.

I will keep getting out there, however. I have that goal number three to keep me at it. I have some outings to plan and some surprises to hope for. There are no alligators around here but it will be a fun year of birding nonetheless.

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White Ibis at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

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What I got used to seeing. This is at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

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What I am seeing now. This is the Winooski River in Burlington.