Ready for nesting

Of the four birdhouses sitting on posts at the edge of the field, only two were in good shape. One had a busted roof with a hornet nest under it. One had fallen off and had gotten buried in the snow. Another was loose but at least it still stood. It took care of some of that today.

These birdhouses have been around a while. The only thing I have had to do in the past was to clean them out each spring. They do get used. Two of them had old bluebird nests in them this time. They are made up largely of white pine needles. The other day, as in the past, I dumped the old nests in the field.

Unfortunately, one of them had a dead bluebird in it. It was odd. It was perfectly preserved. Maybe it had not been there long. Maybe it had gotten frozen. I found a spot for it under the white pines. That seemed fitting.

I removed the busted house from its post. That one is sitting on the porch. I am not sure I can easily repair it. I might just replace it. The fallen one I remounted and reattached. I tightened the loose one. The one on the end, closest to the fir tree and the forsythia, seems to get used the least. It had no nest last year and typically does not. It needed no help.

So three out of four next boxes are ready to go. Tree Swallows will be back soon. They often nest in one of them. Bluebirds sometimes get two hatches out of a box. One summer House Wrens used the far one. It will be good to get that fourth one back on track. I am not sure they have ever all been used at one time, but I like to give our avian companions options.

This is the start of cleaning things up outside after winter. I can see we need to rake leaves and clear out debris. Fallen branches need to be hauled away. Our driveway has some ruts that could use some smoothing. But at least the bluebirds and swallows can get started on their annual duty of raising chicks. Already Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows are staking out territories with their songs. Once the ground thaws it will be time for us humans to get cracking as well.

Spring teaser complete

This morning I headed out to the lake to try to find some ducks before they all fly back north. A week ago Lake Champlain was frozen over–ice from Vermont to New York. Then it warmed up, and then it rained. There is still plenty of ice. Yesterday I tried to find ducks at the ferry landing. I couldn’t see any open water at all. Wind had blown ice into the cove, filling it right up. Today I tried again and found my ducks.

At Shelburne Farms there was some water. Bald Eagles rested by it, standing on the ice. A crow picked at something out there. Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead and Scaups swam and dove. Farther up the road, water stretched along the shore. Binoculars brought all those ducks closer. I guess there are fish and mussels to feed them down in that cold water. It won’t be long before they fly away to nest.

Closer to home, the river has dropped. The temperature sank into the 20s last night. All that sitting water in the fields turned to ice. A dusting of snow covers it still. On the shore, big frozen slabs. Once the water level fell they could no longer float, like boulders left behind by a glacier. They will likely sit there until spring turns them back to liquid.

Mud still seeps up on the trails. Soon we will have to stop walking on them. They are solid, for the most part, right now. They make for smooth and easy walking. Once the ice all melts, and the ground as well, the trails will be mush. In May, warblers like to sing on one particular stretch of trail. To find them I sometimes have to get wet. Or wait.

Winter is here today. This morning, my son was ruing the loss of spring. I tried to remind him that it is still winter, that those warm days were a bonus. Celebrate warm spring-like days when it is winter, don’t bemoan winter when spring’s time has not yet come. But the sun is higher. The days are longer. Phoebes will soon be singing. They will sing for the ducks as they fly overhead.

Between seasons

Just now it was snowing. Wind waves around the bare branches. Earlier it rained. Yesterday the temperature rose into the 50s and, with some healthy rain, the waters rose. The river topped its banks. Across the road, the fields ripple with wind-blown water.

There is a feel to driving on a soft muddy road. Steering turns mushy. The car slides one way, then the other. Then the road turns solid again. It isn’t like a snowy road, where the road feels solid the whole time, but slick. In mud the car sinks, then rises, floating. It can even be fun if you don’t bottom out.

Mud has begun, after yesterday’s warmth. The curve of our road collects water underground, so it predictably gets muddy. Robins poke at the soft spot. The car gets painted with muck. It isn’t the prettiest time of year.

But the sap is finally running. Steam wafts from the sugar house. We just ran out of maple syrup. I wanted to wait for a fresh batch, but I gave in and bought some last weekend. Last year’s run was a good one. I bought a dark and sweet gallon. The folks who run the sugar house up the road offer free maple cotton candy. We might have to stop there and get some.

I had planned to go for a run this morning. But it is cold–cloudy and windy and just above freezing. I was looking forward to a little warmth, maybe even shorts. I might wait. I might just brave it. The red-winged blackbirds are back. They seem to handle the weather just fine. I should take a lesson from them.

But they can fly. I will need to watch my footing when I go out. That mud can suck one in. I’ve seen worse, for sure, but still, I’d hate to wipe out in a mud patch. That would be unfortunate, even if, like the blackbirds, it is a sign of spring.

Winooski River Portrait 2019

I took part in the mid-winter Bald Eagle survey today. Yesterday was the target day, but I have been out of commission with a cold for a week. I tried to go into work on Wednesday, but I left early. I felt like garbage. I stayed out the next two days. Today, finally, I felt OK. Yesterday I was on the mend but I am glad I rested.

I saw zero Bald Eagles. There were not a lot of birds out in general. The day started at -6º Fahrenheit. It got as low as -9º. It was 11:00 before I saw the thermometer rise into positive territory. Our high was 13º. I guess the eagles were not interested in the cold. As I have the past two years, I took photos along the way. Here is my Winooski River portrait for this cold day.

Mist over the river just after sunrise in Duxbury
Looking north from the Winooski Street bridge in Waterbury
Ice on the Deforge hydroelectric dam
Green Mountains from Deforge hydroelectric dam
Open water under the Long Trail foot bridge
Looking north from the Jonesville bridge
River ice in shadow at Warren and Ruth Beeken Rivershore Preserve
Richmond Town Park
Snow on ice in Williston
Ice flowers in Colchester
Eddy at Winooski Falls
Pancake ice at the Winooski River mouth in Colchester

Another Visit to Moose Bog

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Boreal forest–that’s what it is up at Moose Bog. Fir, spruce, tamarack trees. Moss, ferns, green. I went up looking for a few birds. I had only a little time. I found a few birds. Regardless of that, I enjoyed being there. The place is beautiful.

I needed to be in Lyndonville for a late morning meeting. Since I live on the other side of the state, I figured I would make a stop at Moose Bog. It wasn’t that far out of the way. It added close to an hour and a half to my trip, but I was going to be so close. So I got up early, although it would be have been better to get up even earlier, and headed north.

I hadn’t been there for a while and somebody made some improvements. Where I used to park in the small lot on the gravel road off the not-so-main road, then walk up the road to the trail, there now is a well groomed trail starting right at the parking lot.  And it is a gravel trail. It will not wear out too soon, but it was a bit loud, what with all the crunching under the shoes. Hard to sneak up on birds with that going on.

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And it was a quiet morning. Granted, it was August, and I arrived later than I might have, but still, for a damp, cool morning, there was not a lot of bird song. I did hear a Gray Jay, one of the birds I was seeking, but nothing else unusual, at least at first. I walked to the end of the trail, maybe a mile, past where the gravel ended and the single smooth dirt track picked up. Still, it was still.

One side trail heads down from the ridge to the bog/pond. There used to be multiple trails but now everyone is steered toward one. And it is improved. The first time I was there I got pretty wet trying to maneuver out to see the water. It is a bog, after all. Now, however, there is a boardwalk that leads to a platform, with benches and railings for enjoying that stunner of a spot. It was indeed nice to keep my shoes dry.

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Don’t go that way. Please.

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It was cloudy and threatened rain. I encountered some downpours on the way there, windshield wipers slapping back and forth on high speed, but, other than the soaking I got from the wet foliage, I stayed dry.

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I stayed for too long, as always happens when I go birding, and I had to get out of there. I drove slowly down the gravel road, with the car window down, just in case, you know? And I heard something. Boreal Chickadee? I stopped. Then I turned off the car. Birds were zipping about all over the place. I got out. I walked down the road.

I did find that Boreal Chickadee, plus a Canada Warbler, and a few other warblers. I kept walking further, but I really had to go. I ended on a high note there, for sure. I was late for my meeting, but my colleagues forgave me at least. If I lived closer I would go there more often. Apparently it is a reliable place to see Spruce Grouse, although I have never seen one. I will have to make the pilgrimage again. If I give myself more time, I might get lucky.

Mowing Done

It took me several days but it got done. Every year I try to mow our ten-acre field at just the right time–in the three-week window after July 4th. Completion date this year: July 13.

We mow the field because Meadowlarks nest there. And Red Winged Blackbirds. And Savannah Sparrows. And, if we are lucky, Bobolinks. If we manage it well, and grasses grow more than other plants, then Bobolinks will nest there. It is because birds nest in the field that we wait until July to cut it. Once the chicks have fledged for these ground nesters, we can pass over those empty nests with sharp spinning blades. Baby birds don’t do well with sharp spinning blades.

We have to cut late enough for the birds but we are also cutting to keep the Wild Parsnip at bay. I’ve been reading lately about Giant Hogweed. That is a similar plant that is becoming more widespread. Rub against it, get the oil on your skin, get some sun exposure and get some nasty burns. Giant Hogweed isn’t around here yet. But Wild Parsnip has been around for years.

If we keep cutting, then the stuff will be held back. Already there is less of it. And the plants are smaller. It seemed to flower later this year, too. But it won’t go away without management. The key is to cut it before it goes to seed. Cut it too late and it just spreads the seeds around. With this year’s cutting, we’ve got two years in a row of good timing. I’m hoping the field has even fewer yellow flowers next year.

I cut it over the span of a week. The first day I cut a big chunk. I would have kept going but going through the big patch of quack grass in the corner (another invasive species I’d like to reduce) I turned around to see clouds of smoke rising from the brush mower. It had happened before. Busted belt burning up. That quack grass is thick stuff.

My wife bought a new belt the next day and together we replaced it. In the past I’ve hauled the mower to the repair shop down the road. But that costs money and, more importantly, time. Thanks to YouTube, however, we felt confident enough to disassemble the machine and make some repairs. Once we tightened those last nuts back up we were back in business.

We have a few Wild Parsnip plants kicking around the edges. I’ll have to cut those manually. With some long clippers. And gloves. After the sun goes down. But mostly, project done. At least for this summer.

Mountain Birdwatch 2018

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Simple camp, including notebook for survey notes.

Last year I was unable to complete either of my two Mountain Birdwatch surveys. This is a citizen science project for which I volunteer. The idea is to try to detect songbirds, early in the morning, at high elevation areas in the northeast. It means hiking, rising early, sitting quietly, warding off black flies and mosquitoes. It also means hearing the rare song of the Bicknell’s Thrush and breathing in the lushness of spruce on a cool late spring morning. It isn’t always easy, but it is well worth it.

Last year I had some issues with weather. It rained or was too windy. One of my routes is on Mount Mansfield. I couldn’t get up there because they were paving the road at the bottom of the hill where I access the mountain. I tried more than once but just couldn’t make either one happen. Because it needs to happen in the first three weeks in June, the window is short as it is. Failure. But this year I tried again.

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The first weekend in June I hiked up to the Skyline Trail in the Worcester Range. This range parallels the Green Mountains. It is rugged and gets much less use. Trilliums were still blooming, often right in the trail. There were a couple of wind storms this fall and so there were several nasty blowdowns–trees fell over the trail, requiring a sometimes significant detour. Because the trail is occasionally hard to follow, I had to be careful to make sure I got back on it.

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How’s that for a trail?

I got my butt kicked by the hike up and the hike down, as in years past. It is not that long–3 1/2 miles in and the same out, but it is straight uphill in places, slippery, muddy, relentless. Maybe I am getting too old for this business. However, I did get the survey completed. I set up a tent, set an alarm for 4:00 am, and set off down the trail to find some birds. Success this time.

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The next weekend I was on the top of Mount Mansfield and found success again. This survey route, also about a mile long, is pretty rugged as well, but half of it is on the ridge line. This means I get to sit and listen and look out across norther Vermont while the sun rises. Plus, I get to be alone of the top of Vermont’s highest mountain. How often does that happen? I had a successful survey again and was out of there in time to grab a late morning cider donut at Cold Hollow Cider Mill. And they have this maple French roast  from Speeder and Earl’s that is just bomber. I had to get me some of that.

Since some of the survey target birds winter in the tropics, they just might be hanging out in or around coffee plants when they are down there. The same warbler that flitted over my head to the branch of a fir might have landed on the waxy leaves of a coffee shrub in its winter home. Perhaps, to wax existential, the same coffee plant that was the source of that fine cup I drank? Perhaps.

It is a treat to be able to explore and to feel so connected to the mountains where I live. And it connects me to the wider world. These birds do nest here, but they also live in the tropics. Every year they make the journey each way. That they come back is a bit of a wonder to me. Every year I smile to think that they have returned. It gives me hope that the world is still working, that despite what sometimes seems like human attempts to stop it, the world still turns.  If I am lucky I will make my own small journey again next spring, to sit at the top of Vermont and to take some time to just listen.