Yesterday I volunteered again for the Winter Bald Eagle Survey. My route is the Winooski River, from Waterbury to Lake Champlain. This is a pretty good distance, so it means driving along the river and stopping at several locations to look for eagles. I have never seen one along the river, only where the river meets the lake, but I have seen eagles above the river at other times, so I was hopeful.
I didn’t see any eagles yesterday, not even at the lake, but I did enjoy being out there. As I have at other times I have done this survey, I took one photo at each of the 14 locations at which I stopped. Below is my Winooski River portrait for January, 2020.
Shorebirds are passing through. Most people have no idea. Maybe they see “sandpipers” if they visit the beach, but in Vermont? No beach, no sandpipers, right? Well, mostly. But when those little wading birds head south, they stop along the way.
I went to Delta Park, in Colchester, to find some shorebirds the other morning. They were there. I saw seven different species. Lake Champlain is low enough that I could walk around the point. At times the wetland bleeds into the lake, so it makes for a wet walk. But I got around the corner and found them.
Some were on a sandbar, not far from shore–close enough to see well with the right optics. There were Semipalmated Plovers, the cutest birds you’ve ever seen–plump little buggers with a mask and orange bill. There was a Dunlin, with a long curved bill, probing deep in the mud for breakfast. And there were long-legged Yellowlegs, living up to their names with long bright yellow legs.
I also saw several Great Egrets, large elegant white wading birds, resting on a log just off the beach. And an osprey soaring overhead. And in the willows, a Yellow Warbler in its drab fall plumage. And on top of all that wildlife, the place itself is just stunning. Green reeds and grasses spilling out toward the lake, and the Adirondacks strutting their stuff over in New York. When I go there I can’t help but fumble a little, I am just so in awe.
So I saw my shorebirds. I stopped for a cup of coffee to sip on my way home. I watched the morning grow into full-on day. I vowed to go again the next morning, even though it would mean another drive to get out there. But when I woke in the dark that night, it was raining.
We have not had anything but showers in months, so I didn’t think much of it. But as the light strengthened, the rain did too. And it kept coming down. I was disappointed. But we got rain. We needed rain. I stayed home most of day–baked bread, made granola, read a book, payed some bills. Shorebirds will be passing through for a little while. I will get out to Delta Park again. And I will see those shorebirds that all the bikers and joggers on the nearby bike path don’t even know are there.
I have been participating in Mountain Birdwatch for a couple decades now. I started with Ricker Peak, which is in Bolton. That worked out great, since we lived in Bolton and I could walk out the door and hike to the survey route. But the survey got a makeover about ten years ago and that route was eliminated. I took on a route on the Worcester Range after that, which had its own charms, but I switched it up this year and volunteered to survey Bolton Mountain instead.
This route was right in my old stomping grounds so the hike in was familiar. I hiked in mid-day and scouted the survey points along the route, in reverse order. I hiked up and over the peak, then down to Puffer Shelter on the Long Trail, just beyond the first survey point. There were two other hikers planning to spend the night there, but I sent up a tent nearby. It was pretty much a stellar day for a hike–sunny and warm with good views when I could get them.
I didn’t exactly have a tent. I brought a bug shelter–really light and roomy enough to be comfortable, but not a solid shelter in rain or high winds. The thing was ideal. I had scouted the route and gotten to the shelter way early, so I had a few hours before I had to try to sleep, even though I was planning to hit the hay earlier than I usually do. There were black flies and lots of them, so I snacked and read in my handy shelter. I did hang out in the shelter for a little black-fly-swatting conversation (one guy hiked in just to spend the night there after seeing the shelter for the first time on a Long Trail through-hike last year, and the other had hiked north from West Virginia), but once out of the bugs I easily fell asleep.
I rose at 4:00 and, after packing up, walked with a headlamp to the first survey point. While I know the routine of this project well, I enjoy it every time. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, which is just always a treat, and my first Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher of the year. Hearing those birds and, sitting in the shadows of spruces, thinking about the long journey they make to get to that spot, I am awed again and again.
I paid careful attention and wrote it all down, and reflected in between survey points, and overall had a pleasant day. I hiked all the way back to the car and was out of there in time for breakfast. Just at the trailhead I ran into a guy from Montreal (it was a national holiday weekend) who had come down with his family and was looking to hike up Bolton Mountain. I told him how to get there and he mentioned he and his wife had a baby in a backpack. While I admired that and remembered carrying our own kids that way, I also couldn’t help thinking of the black flies. They like babies. I tried to warn him but he did not seem to know what they were. I guess they don’t have those in the city. I hoped it worked out.
I stopped for coffee and a muffin at Sweet Simone’s in Richmond and made it home by late morning. It is hard not to be a little tired after rising before dawn, but I felt great. Being in the mountains does that for me. I did not do a whole lot the rest of that Sunday. I dried out the bug shelter and put away my supplies and entered my survey data. Later in the day, we all went out for a creemee. Perfect summer day if you ask me.
I definitely got one of the plum routes. Mount Mansfield is the highest mountain in Vermont and surveying the Mountain Birdwatch route up there means watching the sunrise with no one else around from the highest peak in the state. Pretty sweet. I went up there a few days ago. I had a fine experience.
Mountain Birdwatch is a program to study high elevation songbirds in the northeast with citizen science volunteers. It means hiking a specific route, about a mile long, with five or six specific points. It means stopping at those points and counting ten bird species, plus red squirrels, for 20 minutes. The hardest part is learning the bird songs and calls, since they hardly show themselves in the dense spruce/fir forest. This is my 19th year volunteering, so I’ve got those songs and calls down.
One of the reasons this is a plum route is that I get to drive up the toll road, which is open for paying customers during the day. Stowe Mountain Resort gives permission to Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which manages Mountain Birdwatch, to use the road for research. Scientists from VCE go up there a few times each year to catch and band birds. They were up there a few days before I was. They set up mist nets and check out the avian critters that get snagged. So I get to benefit from the perk of using the road. It makes for a much shorter hike and I can be home in time for a late breakfast.
Stowe even allows VCE staff to stay in the ski patrol hut up there so they can get up early and get to work. I have done that in the past but this year I just rose early (2:00!) and drove over there. After some serious finagling with the lock, which was a bit stuck, I got through the gate and slowly drove up the twisting gravel road. The speed limit is 15 and that is definitely the limit on this road. I parked in the small lot by the visitor center and hopped right onto the Long Trail.
I heard few birds, at least compared to previous years. I did hear Bicknell’s Thrush, which breeds only in that habitat, but no Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher or Swainson’s Thrush, which was just odd. I always hear those birds up there. Until this year. So it was a quiet morning. There was hardly even any wind.
I have found Blackpol Warblers in greater numbers down in the valley this year; I do sometimes hear them in the spring as they pass through on their way toward higher locations, but I have heard a lot of them down low this year. I am guessing that birds are just slow to head up the slopes this year. There was still quite a bit of snow up high, although not on the trails. That’s my theory.
I have another route to survey. I traded my usual route in the Worcester Range for one on Bolton Mountain. I will need to scout that one first so it will definitely take longer. I can’t drive most of the way up the mountain on that route, and I haven’t seen it before, so I will need to find the survey points ahead of time–I don’t want to be trying to find obscure spots along the trail in the dark. It will give me another chance to find the birds I missed on Mansfield. So here’s hoping the weather holds.
That is what I tell myself at 5:00 in the morning when I wake up and it is still mostly dark and I am sleepy and warm in bed and could use a little more rest before getting up for the day to get cracking on the usual routine. It’s May. Just get out there.
I mean, it is beautiful on a May day when the sun rises and the fog settles over the river and the green of the new buds is almost yellow it is so bright. But May is also when the birds come back. Warblers and orioles and flycatchers and sparrows. And so many more. I get out and try to find them. Every morning I try to find a bird species I have not yet found this year. Lately the birds have just been nuts.
What I mean by nuts is there have beenso many birds singing in the morning. When I go out I stand in the driveway and listen. I hear ten species from the porch. By the time I get to the end of the driveway I have heard 15. By the turn in the road I’ve found 20. The past couple of times I have walked out early I have seen or heard 50 species. It is nuts.
Six years ago, when I started birding more seriously, my goal was to learn the songs of as many local birds as possible. I wanted to be able to hear a song or call and know what I was hearing. I know a lot of them. I look forward to hearing the first Savannah Sparrows or Eastern Meadowlarks or Bobolinks. My heart leaps up, as Wordsworth said, when I hear my first Yellow Warbler of the year. Or my first Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.
There are several birds that regularly show up here whose songs I don’t have nailed. That American Redstart? I should know it by now, but I have to re-remember it each year. Same with the Blackburnian Warbler. But it is a new challenge each spring. “Wait,” I whisper to myself. “What is that? I should know that.” And then smile when I get it.
These days I never have enough time. I have to rush back to the house for a shower and a clean shirt and some breakfast before we all head off to work and school. It would be easier if I had more time for that crap as well. But it is May. I need to get out there. In a couple of months, those birds won’t be singing, and the leaves will be hiding them. So I get up, I grab my binoculars and I try to remember to shut the door behind me as I start listening.
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.
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.