Mountain Birdwatch 2019 on Mansfield

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.

It’s May. Get Out There.

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 been so 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.

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.