Snow Geese at Dead Creek

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We used to go every year. We got married in mid-October so we would travel past Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, on our way to go hiking in New York, every year. We looked forward to seeing the Snow Geese. There is a wildlife viewing station just off Route 17 and there would be hundreds of them. It was a spectacle.

There would be a blanket of white geese, thousands of them–honking, rising and falling in groups, waves of them landing or taking off. They would cluster right up to the fence at times, pecking away at the residue in the cut corn fields. It was hard to contain it in one’s imagination, let alone absorb the reality of it.

We don’t go hiking in New York every year now, but yesterday morning I went down to Dead Creek to see the geese, the rest of my family still in bed. I was alone there at first, arriving before the sun rose. A flock of Snow Geese was gathered close enough to see them, but they kept their distance from the viewing area. Then they started to rise and fly overhead. They did not take off all at once, but in large groups. They V-ed their way right over me, settling on the other side of the road in a cleared field. Eventually they all had migrated from the south side to the north side.

They flew as the sun broke the horizon, so they were lit from below. Their black wing tips contrasted with the white of their bodies. They honked, higher and a little squeakier than Canada Geese, their calling filling the morning. I looked for other geese, a White-Fronted Goose or a Ross’s Goose mixed in perhaps, but they all were Snow Geese.

By the time I was ready to head out, other people were arriving. I chatted a bit with them. They had missed the Peregrine Falcon perched right overhead, and the chatter of the Red-Winged Blackbirds. I drove up the road a ways to see if could find anything else, but it was a quiet morning. When I passed by again there was a big crowd, there to see the geese. For a while in the golden light of morning I had them all to myself. While there are not nearly as many as there were years ago, it was still a spectacle for a perfect October morning.

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Early at Missisquoi NWR

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I like to grind my coffee right before I brew it, but yesterday I made an exception. I did my grinding the night before and set the timer on the coffee maker for 5:05 am. I set the wake-up alarm for 5:00, so by the time I brushed my teeth and got dressed the coffee was ready. With binoculars, camera, bird guide and a full coffee mug, I was out the door.

I headed north to the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. One of my goals this year is to visit five national refuges. I stopped by one in Maine in April. This is number two. I was on the trail by 6:30. Just stepping from the car the birdsong was abundant. Trying to tease out all the various birds’ songs is one of the joys of birding. It is an audio puzzle.

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I was up there for close to three hours. I did not move fast, trying hard to see what birds I could in the rapidly leafing trees. I heard much more than I saw. Eight Northern Waterthrushes? I only got eyes on one. Song Sparrows? I saw a couple. Blackpol Warblers? One out of three sighted. It was lush–green and wet and warming as the morning progressed. It did not feel like my backyard. I was far enough from home that it was familiar, but not quite familiar.

I found many species of birds and got to see some mammals as well. A groundhog crossed the railroad tracks to the trail just as I did. A beaver swam the creek, slapping its tail at me more than once. Sorry, Beaver, just passing through. Squirrels and chipmunks scampered.

The bird of the day had to be the bittern I heard. I did not see it, but they are hard to see anyway. I heard it ga-GLOOMP-ing in the wetland though. Plus those waterthrushes were pretty sweet to find. I had hoped to find a black tern, as they are not common elsewhere in Vermont. I looked, but I ran out of time. I couldn’t spend all day birding, although that would have been fun.

The refuge is a big place. One of these days I will take a kayak up there, or maybe a stand-up paddleboard, and float my way around to find birds. That would be a great way to explore the place. That, however, will have to wait until another visit, perhaps on a day when I can grind my coffee the day I go.

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Birding or Running?

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Look for flycatchers and warblers? Or run the trail around the pond?

Now that it is May I am conflicted. The best time to go for a run for me is first thing in the morning. If I go early I have the least impact on my family, plus it just gets done. Putting it off means sometimes other things get in the way. If I go early, I go. The best time to go birding, however, is also first thing in the morning.

At first light the birds start singing their dawn chorus and, right now, the leaves are still not fully formed. So I can hear birds and see them. Migrants are passing through as well, so some birds can only be seen now since they don’t stick around to nest here. So what is a guy to do?

On the one hand I have been running a good amount, and I have not been injured. So I want to make sure I keep that streak going. But it is not easy to run in the morning when I hear all those songs. I hear something different and I just want to stop to find out what it is. And I do. But without binoculars (I am not carrying those on a run) it can be hard to see a little warbler way up in a birch tree. So I get stymied figuring out what it is. That means I am not really getting the most from my run and I am not really birding. I need to pick.

Rainy days in May are good for running, not because they make for the best runs but because it is harder to hear and see birds. In fact, I would have gone running this morning, but I had to take half the family to the airport. That means I did not bird or run. Some mornings are like that. But if it is raining when I wake? Grab the running shoes.

Mostly I need to get out to find birds now. This really is a small window. Soon the trees will be fully leafed out and those warblers will be way more elusive. And those birds don’t sing for long–in a month and a half they will start to quiet down. And those migrants? Need to find them while they are here.

So I need to get in some runs, for sure, but it is May, for goodness’ sake. This is the birder’s month in Vermont. It used to be the best month for running but since I have gotten into birding I am torn. It is a fortunate problem to have, is it not?

Fine Spring Day

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Green is coming out. In the yard, daffodils are blooming, white and yellow. Azaleas have popped. Grass is starting to stand up. Spring? I believe so.

I was up early, out to find birds. Otter Creek was flooded. Ducks were scarce at the usual spot by the boat launch. The boat launch was under water. But ducks were abundant in the flooded fields. Shovelers! Ring-Necked Ducks! Plus Mallards and Canada Geese and Wood Ducks. I saw my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year.

Heading home from the ducks I decided to make an extra stop. I walked through Williams Woods. Ruby Crowned Kinglets sang in the brush. Pine Warblers sang in the tops of white pines. A Carolina Wren teakettled far off. And green, trout lilies included, crept across the forest floor.

Clouds gave way to sun but then came back. It is cool but feels warm after those winter days. Rain showers now. I need to get out and pull some early dandelions and grass that is butting in on the flower beds. I might plant some more flowers. The bulbs I planted in the fall are peeking up through the dirt. Soon the world will be a chaos of plants.

Already I think ahead to mowing the field, in July. The meadowlarks are singing, along with Savannah Sparrows. Woodcocks, however, never came back. That is our spring mystery. Where did the Woodcocks go? Or did that final winter storm do them in? Soon we will crank up the lawnmower, and sleep on the porch, and swing in the hammock.

But now we need to enjoy spring–the dawn chorus, the sweet smell of new growth, the wild leeks in the woods. The world feels and smells new.

Wondrous, that’s what it is. Wondrous.

Winooski River Portrait 2

Yesterday I volunteered for the second time for the Mid-Winter Eagle Survey. My route was the Winooski River, from Waterbury to Lake Champlain. I stopped at several spots along the river, crisscrossing and paralleling as I went. Unlike last year, this year I did see one Bald Eagle, perched overlooking the mouth of the river. Like last year, I took photos as I went. Here is my January 2017 Winooski River Portrait:

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River’s edge, Waterbury, Vermont

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Winooski Street Bridge, Waterbury, Vermont

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Bolton/Duxbury Dam

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Duxbury, from Long Trail next to Winooski River

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View of Winooski River from Long Trail Bridge

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Pancake ice

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Common Merganser, seen from Jonesville Bridge

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From Warren and Ruth Beeken Rivershore Preserve

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Looking west from Volunteers Green in Richmond, Vermont

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Discarded television, Williston, Vermont

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View of Winooski River from Woodside Park, Colchester, Vermont

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Winooski, Vermont

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Ice at Ethan Allen Homestead, Burlington, Vermont

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Bald Eagle looking out over Winooski River and Lake Champlain

Last Day of the Year

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We finally got some snow here in the valley. Not much, mind you, but enough to make things look bright. We took a trip to the hardware store and they filled the new inflatable sleds we got for Christmas. They worked like a charm. Fast and fun. Until one of them found a stick, got a slice, and flattened right out, with me on it. No more of that sled today.

At the beginning of the year I set a few birding goals. First was to find 50 species of birds in Vermont in January. Check. Second was to make a birding checklist every day of the year. As of today, check to that as well. Total checklists: 562. My third goal was to find 300 species of birds. As of today I have seen 406. A sub-goal was to find 300 birds in North America alone. When the year started I had not planned a trip out of the country, but with a trip to South Africa that yielded lots of species not found in North America, I easily made my goal. North American birds: 279. Pretty far off but not too shabby.

I have been thinking about goals for 2017. One goal is to run more. I have not run as much in the past several years. Out of shape, lazy, injuries, depression–I have all kinds of reasons. But I’m done with that. I am going to hit the roads again. Twice a week at least. I would like to say that I will run a half marathon in 2017 but I have made goals like that before and then gotten injured; so let’s say that is a tentative goal. I am willing to put in the effort–it just might not be an option.

Birding goal? I want to move away from the list a little. One goal is to go birding in half a dozen National Wildlife Refuges. They are always beautiful to visit and offer fantastic birding. I will have to hope no group of fruit loops decide to occupy one when I plan to visit, as happened this year in Oregon. I also would like to add some birds to my life list. How about ten? Can I add ten lifers? That isn’t too many but I will have to get out there to make it happen. So I have a list-based goal after all.

And I need to write more. How about I average one blog post per week? That seems doable. Plus I need to make some progress on that book. I will make that one a sub-goal–get an outline done. Then I can take it from there.

This was a good year in many ways. I watched my children grow and do some great things. I took some trips and saw new places. I watched the sun rise from the top of Mount Mansfield. My son and I visited South Africa to see a good friend, plus zebras and lions ostriches. I heard Hermit Thrushes and Golden-Winged Warblers and Baltimore Orioles and Go-Away Birds. I swam in clear water in summer and skied on fresh snow in winter. I baked dinner rolls and made cheesecake. Lots to celebrate.

2016 also offered up some crap. Some of that is the usual crap–work stress, stupid mistakes (did I really back into that car in the trail head parking lot?), stuff that gets tossed around in the course of your standard day. Other crap was a little bigger–Brexit and the U.S. presidential election come to mind. Hopefully we all will get though that garbage in the next few years and come out with some lessons learned. I have less hope for that than usual but I am not totally hopeless.

So here is to 2017. May it be filled with everyday joy and wonder and beauty and fun. And may the bigger crap be less biggery and crappy than it might be. But mostly let’s go for the first bit. Happy New Year y’all!

Rain Window

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A couple days ago I went out in the afternoon to look for birds. One of my goals this year has been to try to go birding every day. Sometimes I catch an owl or two in the early morning. Other days I go walk for a couple of hours. I hadn’t found many birds the other day as it was raining all day plus, you know, work. The rain had let up a bit, and it was going to get dark soon, so out I went.

As soon as I left the house, that rainless window started to close. A few drops fell, then more, and pretty soon it was full on raining. I went anyway. I didn’t go far–just down the road to the bridge over the river. I found some Blue Jays, Chickadees, a White-Throated Sparrow, a couple Juncos. It wasn’t a stellar birding expedition, but I got it in. By the time I got back home I was pretty soggy.

It rained yesterday most of the day. We need it. It has been a dry summer and early fall. We have been afraid our well might run dry. It never has before but we have never had such a dry stretch. These past few days should help. Looking out at Camel’s Hump and the Green Mountains south of there, I can see snow up high. I saw a few cars today with snow piled on their roofs–three inches or so. Full on autumn.

My daughter and I ran a 5K this morning. She has wanted to do them as often as possible this fall. She has run a 5K four weekends in a row. I have run the past three with her. It was forecast to be raining this morning, temperatures in the 40’s, super windy. We had the low temps and wind but no rain. It was a beautiful morning–snow up high, leaves still orange and red–if chilly. Apparently not everyone thought so. There were a grand total of seven runners. I feel like a fair weather runner sometimes but sheesh.

Those 5K’s are getting scarce now that the weather has turned. We can squeeze one in the next couple of weekends. We plan to do one on Thanksgiving day. But then it will be hard to find organized events, at least around here. We got lucky this morning and hit the window right to avoid the rain. Sometimes that happens. Gray skies, blue skies, it’s all beautiful with the other fall colors. Rain or sun, I will keep getting out there. My daughter wants to do those 5K’s and someone needs to do them with her. And I need to get in those birding days.

Only 71 more days and I will have done some birding every day in 2016. I need to think about goals for next year. I will have some kind of birding goal again. And 2017 will bring a running goal as well. Whatever I decide they need to get me out there, whether I hit the rain window or not.