Mountain Birdwatch: Blown Out

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For the first time since 2000, when I started volunteering for Mountain Birdwatch surveys, I have not been able to complete a route. I went up to Mount Mansfield this week, spent the night, but had to call it quits with too much wind in the morning. When this has happened in the past I have found time to go back and try again. This year I just won’t be able to do that. Rough. Not only do I not have the benefit of doing it, but someone else will have to cover for me. I guess, however, that with multiple routes over all those years, it was bound to happen.

It was not a waste of time. My son came with me this year. We drove up the road to the visitor center and parked at the ski patrol hut. Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who hosts the study, has been given access by Stowe Mountain Resort to stay the night at the hut. We hiked from there up to the survey route where we completed counting spruce and fir cones as part of the survey. We got to get in a good hike and see some fine views. We watched the sun drop low in the west from the ridge, just the two of us there.

Walking back to the ski patrol hut we watched the full moon rise while we heard Bicknell’s Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush and Winter Wrens and Robins singing. It was a beautiful evening and I felt grateful to be up there.

We slept little but rose at 3:30 anyway. The forecast called for light winds at that hour but the winds were not light. We sat for twenty minutes at the first survey point in the mostly darkness, looking and listening. We heard some birds but the wind made the results questionable. We headed toward the second point and stopped before heading down the challenging part of the trail. We waited. There are only so many hours in the morning and I did some math. Unless the wind died right quick we would not be able to finish by 8:00. The wind did not cooperate. 

We walked up to the ridge. We watched the sun rise, just the two of us up there. Then we split. In Stowe we ate, groggily, some hot breakfast at McCarthy’s. The home fries were some of the best I’ve had. So it was a great day–time with my son outdoors in a beautiful place, plus great home fries. That’s a win. And the survey? Someone will volunteer. And I’ll be back next year. My son even said he wants to come back with me. Like I said, a win. 

 

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Mountain Birdwatch, Worcester Range, 2016

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Every day this June I have woken and looked around and felt lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I mean, seriously, the place is just full of beauty. You have your green meadows and rolling hills and bare peaks. You have tractors tossing bales and Barn Swallows zooming over soccer fields and rabbits chewing clover. Wonder everywhere.

Again this June I have been fortunate to participate in Mountain Birdwatch, a research program that examines high elevation birds. Earlier this month I drove to Stowe, hiked up to the ridge trail on the Worcester Range and tried to find some of these birds. The hike up whooped my can, as it always does, but it was worth the effort.

This hike shouldn’t be that bad. It is about three miles to get to the start of the survey route. Three miles, how tough can that be? That is a 5K. I ran one of those the other day. But this is a challenging three miles. The first part isn’t bad. I hiked up toward the Stowe Pinnacle. That is a standard hiking trail–steep but well worn, fairly smooth, stone steps in some places. Once I have to veer off from that trail, however, the trail is less forgiving. It is steeper, with fallen trees across the trail, scrambles over rocks. It is not well marked and paying attention matters. No zoning out and just putting one foot in front of the other. It is slippery and rugged–a solid challenge.

The ridge trail is also not much used and can be wet, although this year it was pretty dry. There is only one water source so I have to try to time it right to polish off my water to fill up and treat what I collect. Eventually, after I think several times that I must have passed point one, I finally get there. Now I don’t want to be some wussy complainer, but it is a tiring little walk with a full pack (tent, sleeping bag, food and so on) on a steep trail. Or maybe I am just not in my twenties anymore.

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Painted Trilliums growing right on the trail

As in years past, I scouted the route and counted spruce and fir cones that day, after I set up my tent and left some stuff behind. There were Trilliums and Trout Lilies but there were also black flies. I have not seen black flies like that in years. More than once, as I tried to aim my binoculars at tree tops to carefully count cones (this is part of the survey because red squirrels eat the seeds from cones, and when there are more cones there are more squirrels that survive the winter; since squirrels also raid bird nests for their eggs, the number of cones can be an indicator of bird populations the following year) I said aloud, “I don’t think I can do this!” I was, however, not a quitter. I counted my cones, ate a little something, and crawled into my sleeping bag.

The next morning, rising at 4:00, I had a successful survey. The black flies slept in so I was free to listen and watch and take notes on what I encountered. I found more squirrels up there than ever before but I also heard Bicknell’s Thrush, probably the most important target species, at every survey point. Once I had completed the survey, about four hours later, I took some time to linger. It is beautiful up there, even with limited views, and it smells good. The spruce/fir forest in summer is an olfactory opiate.  It smells like spring after a long winter and Christmas and summer camp and childhood and Life.

I took my time hiking back down. I swatted flies and ran out of water before the stream. I listened for warblers. I soaked in the beauty of the place. Back home, I took a nap. Then I sat on the porch and looked out over the fields. The grass rolled in waves in the wind. Kingbirds snatched insects from the air. Wonder everywhere.