Mountain Birdwatch 2019 on Bolton Mountain

View from the Long Trail north of Bolton Mountain peak

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.

Bunch berries were blooming along the trail

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.

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.

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.

Right Next to Vermont

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The old joke goes like this: the best thing about Burlington is that it’s right next to Vermont. Funny, right? Well maybe not so much any more. Burlington is as much Vermont as Newport and Rutland, as Chelsea and Rupert. But here is something that isn’t a joke: New York is right next to Vermont, and it has some pretty sweet spots.

More than once on a summer evening we have taken a boat ride over to Essex, New York. Some dinner at the Old Dock, right on the water, and some ice cream at the scoop shop up the hill made for a fine end to a summer day. Since the ferry goes right to Essex, it is easy enough to walk on and ride it back to get home. No personal boat required.

I have taken that ferry many times to access the wonders of the Adirondacks. A couple of days ago a few of us took that ferry to take a hike. We took a car across and drove south from Essex. We arrived shortly at the trailhead to Split Rock. This preserved land has 11 miles of trails. We explored a few of those miles.

The woods are full of history. Wide spreading white pines tell of open fields. Thick, sturdy maples tell of houses that were shaded. We found cellar holes and rusted wheel wells from old cars. There is a wide diversity of trees, from sugar maples to red pine to hickory. The few birches, while and yellow, told us that the forest was old enough to have shaded those species mostly out. We saw garter snakes and the quills of a long dead porcupine. There was lots to see.

Most of what we saw was on the way out. This is because we had to hike fast when we started. There were so many mosquitoes that stopping for a minute or more was just not pleasant at all. We slapped and waved and brushed our way up to the first vista spot on our route. It was breezy there, with a nice enough view down to and across the lake. We watched sailboats and listened to Ospreys.

Our way down started along the ridge and we had another fine vista, this one more exposed with an even better view. The hike down was easy and gradual, and the mosquitoes had abated. We got back to the car for a late lunch and headed back into town. And that scoop shop? Still there. Went to it. Had delicious ice cream.

And we rode the ferry back. Riding the ferry on a perfect summer day, waves rolling across to Vermont, the sun shining on the islands and the mountains, the lake stretching north to Canada, really is hard to beat. We soaked in the beauty of it all as we stood on the deck, happy in the afternoon to be back home after a day spent next door.

Summer Hike

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A couple days ago, my daughter off at camp, my son and my spouse and I hiked up Camel’s Hump. It was a warm day, though cloudy, when we left the house. At the trailhead it felt cool, however. I was chilly when we started off. Of course, that is the perfect hiking weather. To start off a little cold means hitting the perfect temperature once one gets moving.

I have hiked Camel’s Hump too many times to count. I have come from every direction and hiked on every trail up there. The Long Trail crosses the summit and I have gone up and down that both ways. Back in the days when I ran much more I used to run a long loop up one side and down the other and back along the road by the river. That is still one of my favorite experiences. Point is, I have been up there a lot, and I still love it.

We saw only a few people. One hiker was going up the same way as us and a couple others were heading down. At the summit there was one man. His hiking poles (I won’t get into those here but hiking poles seem like an unnecessary accouterment for most people–I mean, do you really need them?) were tossed next to his pack. He was smoking, upwind on the sheltered side, so we either had to hang out in the wind or the nastiness. He was on the phone. The view was great but, given the circumstances, we did not linger.

We heard Bicknell’s Thrushes, three of them, which is always a rare treat, plus many other birds. There are lots of cones this year. The fir and spruce were laden. Looks like a good year to be a squirrel. The purple cones stood out against the blue of the clouds and the green of the new tree growth. The view up close was just as notable as the view off the summit.

Gravity helped us back down to the parking lot and we headed home for a late lunch, a little muddier, a little more tired and filled up with the wonder of a mountain I know well. You can’t hate a summer day like that.

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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.

Ice and Rain

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My son and I took a hike up Mount Philo yesterday. It was a mild day, just above freezing, some sun, some clouds. A good day for a short hike. I was afraid it might be muddy on the trail. Instead we found ice.

There is a paved road that leads to the summit where a campground operates seasonally. The trail is much nicer than the road, however. In most places the trail was frozen and passable, but we had to do some navigating at times to avoid slipping. In more than one spot a slip on the ice would have meant a good trip downhill. It was a fine adventure on a Sunday afternoon.

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The view, as it is most days, was stellar. We looked at places we had been and might one day go. We watched a raven soar in and drop to land on the cliffs below us, croaking as it did so. We watched clouds creep in over the Adirondacks to bring us rain for today. We lingered a little while and then headed down.

We started to follow the road, then decided to take the trail when it crossed that road, but just as we turned off a large and loud group turned off as well. We decided to take the road. The walking was easier and we chatted as we descended. I noticed a couple of hemlocks that looked in trouble. Some of the tallest trees around, they had only brown needles and were full of cones. I wondered if they had been killed by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an introduced pest that can decimate these trees. Eastern hemlock just might be my favorite tree, so if the adelgid is here, my heart sinks.

Now, early morning, it rains. It taps the porch roof. Again, the air is warm, and it blows over the fields, tossing last year’s leaves about and howling through the bare branches of the maples. Yesterday I heard Red-Winged Blackbirds singing. It was the earliest I have seen them here. The sky is gray. The fields and woods are brown. The red stripe on the blackbird’s wing is a harbinger of spring color. Next month, blackbirds will be flashing those red stripes as the field grows green and mud, by then, will replace the ice we encountered yesterday.