Yesterday I participated in the Winter Bald Eagle Survey. My route was the Winooski River, from Waterbury to Lake Champlain. While I did not see any eagles, I got to see the river in its winter splendor. It was cold. The day started at 3 below zero and got all the way up to 6 degrees. Here is the Winooski River as I saw it yesterday.
This morning I was eager to check the outside temperature. Yesterday was cold. And windy. The high for the day at our house was 0 degrees. With the wind it felt much colder. Once it got dark the temperature dropped further. So I wanted to know just how cold it had gotten. Right before sunrise, typically the coldest part of the day, our thermometer read -20. Haven’t seen that in a while.
Walking to the mailbox yesterday was a frigid experience. I was mostly warm enough but the small parts of my face that were exposed got nibbled by the icy wind. I wore glasses, which I don’t usually wear in such cold temperatures, but it was just a walk to the mailbox, a tenth of a mile. The wind made my eyes tear. The tears froze. The tears fogged my glasses. The fog on my glasses froze. It was a bit of a visual shutdown. My wife, who had made that long trek with me, chuckled at me, shouting “systems failing!” Funny woman, she.
The squirrels this morning, at one point four of them chasing each other to get the prime seat on the hanging bird feeder, were covered in frost. They looked like little snowballs. That frost started to melt once the sun rose, but they kept eating. Sunrise brought birds back as well–Tree Sparrows and Juncos and Blue Jays and Chickadees and more all gathered around the feeders. Breakfast party.
I had planned to ski around our field yesterday. It snowed lightly all day, adding to the snow we already had. But after that walk to the mailbox I said forget it. It was bitter. The temperature should rise more today. Now, not quite 9:00 in the morning, we are still waiting to hit 0, but it is Sunday. I’ve got some hours yet.
In the meantime I will pay some monthly bills, read a book, join the breakfast party from the other side of the window. I made muffins yesterday and we should probably finish those off today. I need to do my part. Once the sun does some work I will think about enjoying this fine sunny day out in the cold. With contact lenses. Keep those systems from failing, if you know what I’m saying.
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.
Your standard work day. Did some good work, offered my knowledge and labor, learned some things. Heading south toward home. Near Burlington, some traffic. Not bad, considering, but not quick. The traffic loosened as I moved south into more rural territory. Then the car in front of me braked, more quickly than for just a turn off the main road.
It was turkeys. A whole gaggle of them crossing the road. Well, not a gaggle. That’s geese. You could call it a flock. They are birds. Call it a rafter. Seriously. A group of turkeys is called a rafter. Once upon a time it was a raft, I guess. Then it got colloquialized.
Anyway, this rafter crossed the road. There were eight or nine of them. Or ten. I maybe didn’t see all of them. The majority of them ambled from west to east and blended into the trees. Three of them hung out on the other side, pecking at the grass. Cars started moving again.
Turkeys have made a comeback in recent decades. They once were booted entirely out of Vermont, but they came back. Now they are everywhere in the state. Still, it isn’t every day that one must pause in one’s vehicle to let them waddle across the byway. Lucky me today.
Asters are blooming like crazy right now: Purple Aster, New England Aster, Fleabane. Black-Eyed Susans are done. Touch-Me-Nots are gone. Dandelions? Haven’t seen them. Asters rule the fields these days.
I don’t know my butterflies well. I have thought many a time that I should learn them. I got some exposure to learning them on a trip this summer the butterfly garden at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury. They had a tent full of them with signage to show what was what. I don’t remember squat from that. Poor student, I guess.
The butterflies in the photo above are American Ladies. I had to look that up. I might be able to tell a Viceroy from a Monarch, but don’t trust me too much. I know there is more than one Swallowtail in Vermont. Can’t tell them apart though. But I tell you this: they are just cool-looking.
It is kind of nice to simply not know the names of things. There is real pleasure in being able to look at an insect, or a plant or a bird, and to know its name. To name something is the beginning of getting to know it, to knowing more than just its name. However, there can be just as much joy in simply wondering at a thing, in watching and seeing with ignorant eyes, in being present to observe.
A sunrise does not have a name, but it is beautiful. We can watch the sky change and the clouds trudge along in their pinkness and just feel awe. We do not have to create a name for snow on trees to find it wondrous. So it is with butterflies. I am curious about what they all are, what makes them different, where they go in winter, what flowers they prefer–all of that starts with naming them. But I do not need to name them to find them wondrous. They dance, unnamed, among the asters I might be able to name, and I feel like kid. “That is so cool!” I say aloud. And that is enough.
We typically have some milkweed growing in our field. For the past couple of years I have made a point to try to leave some standing when I mow. Since Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed I wanted to make sure they can keep doing their thing. For the past couple of years we have had no Monarch caterpillars on that milkweed.
This year I wanted to just mow everything. Saving the milkweed means saving some of the wild parsnip, and I want that stuff gone. So I just cut it all. The milkweed, however, perhaps because I mowed early enough, came back. And now we have Monarchs.
We found a caterpillar in a neighboring field recently and that made us more vigilant in searching our own. We found one caterpillar, then another, then another. Yesterday my spouse and I took a walk down the road. On the way out we found half a dozen on milkweed plants along our driveway. On our way back we looked again. We found eleven.
I am not sure if they are just doing better this year, or maybe cutting the milkweed actually helped. Maybe the younger plants are more appealing to them. In any case, those critters are thriving in our field. And they are cool-looking–wiggly and fat and striped with those waving antennae. Looking through the milkweed now is like searching for treasure. Plump, squishy, pre-butterfly treasure.
Before long those caterpillars will hole up for a bit and pop out of cocoons as butterflies. Then they will haul their fragile little selves down to Mexico for the winter. That is amazing, and don’t you even think it isn’t. The milkweed will go to seed after the butterflies depart. The seed pops will burst with floating white seed parachutes. I will crack open the pods and toss those seeds to the wind. All of us in the house do this every year. We try to spread the milkweed to help the Monarchs. Apparently it helped last time.
Today it has been raining. I am sure the caterpillars are tucked under leaves, chewing their way through their own roofs. We have mostly stayed inside–reading, doing Algebra homework, paying bills, cobbling together lunch. Tomorrow we will look again for those yellow and white and black wrigglers. Finding eleven of them at once was a household record. I am hoping we can break it.
In the night it starting raining. Hard. The wind picked up. Rain blasted through the screen. We rose, shut some windows. After a while it tapered off. Waking in the dark, I heard the rain fall again against the porch roof. Then I slept.
Morning, rain fell on and off. I could not get out to stain the house siding. Too wet for that. I could not finish mowing the field. I brewed coffee, sat on the porch and read Ivan Doig. My reading was interrupted by heavy showers. Wind misted rain through the screen. More than once I said aloud “Dang. It’s coming down.”
I got lost in Doig’s story, then looked out again at the gray. I had breakfast–blueberries and yogurt and granola. Later I took care of paying bills. I hung some closet doors. When it cleared, I thought temporarily, I popped over to a spot in town that often gets flooded to see if any early shorebirds had come through. They hadn’t. The rain did not come back.
Late in the day, sunlight highlighted the hills. Clouds hung in shadow and the far-off green trees glowed. Wind tickled the Black-Eyed Susans. Trees and grass and flowers drank the fresh water. It is quieter these days, with fewer birds singing. Soon, at night, the Perseid meteor shower will light up the night. I love rain, but hope for clear skies to see the stars surprised by slashes of light.
A few red leaves have appeared, as if competing to be the first to arrive at autumn. They are anomalies, for now. Sandpipers and plovers are not far off. Maples will blush soon. But not today. August has treasures to be found. I need to seek them out.