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.

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Early at Missisquoi NWR

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I like to grind my coffee right before I brew it, but yesterday I made an exception. I did my grinding the night before and set the timer on the coffee maker for 5:05 am. I set the wake-up alarm for 5:00, so by the time I brushed my teeth and got dressed the coffee was ready. With binoculars, camera, bird guide and a full coffee mug, I was out the door.

I headed north to the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. One of my goals this year is to visit five national refuges. I stopped by one in Maine in April. This is number two. I was on the trail by 6:30. Just stepping from the car the birdsong was abundant. Trying to tease out all the various birds’ songs is one of the joys of birding. It is an audio puzzle.

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I was up there for close to three hours. I did not move fast, trying hard to see what birds I could in the rapidly leafing trees. I heard much more than I saw. Eight Northern Waterthrushes? I only got eyes on one. Song Sparrows? I saw a couple. Blackpol Warblers? One out of three sighted. It was lush–green and wet and warming as the morning progressed. It did not feel like my backyard. I was far enough from home that it was familiar, but not quite familiar.

I found many species of birds and got to see some mammals as well. A groundhog crossed the railroad tracks to the trail just as I did. A beaver swam the creek, slapping its tail at me more than once. Sorry, Beaver, just passing through. Squirrels and chipmunks scampered.

The bird of the day had to be the bittern I heard. I did not see it, but they are hard to see anyway. I heard it ga-GLOOMP-ing in the wetland though. Plus those waterthrushes were pretty sweet to find. I had hoped to find a black tern, as they are not common elsewhere in Vermont. I looked, but I ran out of time. I couldn’t spend all day birding, although that would have been fun.

The refuge is a big place. One of these days I will take a kayak up there, or maybe a stand-up paddleboard, and float my way around to find birds. That would be a great way to explore the place. That, however, will have to wait until another visit, perhaps on a day when I can grind my coffee the day I go.

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Birding or Running?

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Look for flycatchers and warblers? Or run the trail around the pond?

Now that it is May I am conflicted. The best time to go for a run for me is first thing in the morning. If I go early I have the least impact on my family, plus it just gets done. Putting it off means sometimes other things get in the way. If I go early, I go. The best time to go birding, however, is also first thing in the morning.

At first light the birds start singing their dawn chorus and, right now, the leaves are still not fully formed. So I can hear birds and see them. Migrants are passing through as well, so some birds can only be seen now since they don’t stick around to nest here. So what is a guy to do?

On the one hand I have been running a good amount, and I have not been injured. So I want to make sure I keep that streak going. But it is not easy to run in the morning when I hear all those songs. I hear something different and I just want to stop to find out what it is. And I do. But without binoculars (I am not carrying those on a run) it can be hard to see a little warbler way up in a birch tree. So I get stymied figuring out what it is. That means I am not really getting the most from my run and I am not really birding. I need to pick.

Rainy days in May are good for running, not because they make for the best runs but because it is harder to hear and see birds. In fact, I would have gone running this morning, but I had to take half the family to the airport. That means I did not bird or run. Some mornings are like that. But if it is raining when I wake? Grab the running shoes.

Mostly I need to get out to find birds now. This really is a small window. Soon the trees will be fully leafed out and those warblers will be way more elusive. And those birds don’t sing for long–in a month and a half they will start to quiet down. And those migrants? Need to find them while they are here.

So I need to get in some runs, for sure, but it is May, for goodness’ sake. This is the birder’s month in Vermont. It used to be the best month for running but since I have gotten into birding I am torn. It is a fortunate problem to have, is it not?

March in February

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A week ago we had snow. This photo was taken up in Stowe where there was even more snow, but still, we had over a foot on the ground here in the valley. We skied around the field. We sledded down the hill. There was enough snow to simply fall backwards and feel the poof of a soft landing. Then it got warm.

Yesterday it started getting warmer. It got up to seventy degrees by early afternoon. In February. What gives with that? We had a flood watch. The snow kept melting. Then it rained. The fields all around us started to flood. It was wet. The river ran high. I swore a heard a Killdeer but I couldn’t find it. I did hear Red-Winged Blackbirds. Lots of them. This is the earliest they have been back since we have lived in this house.

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Just after dark it started to snow. The temperature dropped from a high of 70 to just above freezing. By morning things were crusty and frozen. The mountains had a fresh coat of white. The wind picked up. It was a cold, raw day, more seasonal than yesterday.

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I went birding on the lake. I saw lots of ducks and geese. I was dressed for it, but still, in that fierce wind I got cold. I drank coffee on the way home and felt the warm sun through the windshield.

The sun is higher now. It keeps climbing every day. Soon the warm days will be more common. Will we get more snow? Is winter really on the way out? This is March weather. Usually February is just winter. March is the transition month. Are we really going to have  spring before March even arrives? It could be a fluke, but the patterns suggest otherwise. I love spring, but really, I miss winter. And I don’t think its coming back.

Winooski River Portrait 2

Yesterday I volunteered for the second time for the Mid-Winter Eagle Survey. My route was the Winooski River, from Waterbury to Lake Champlain. I stopped at several spots along the river, crisscrossing and paralleling as I went. Unlike last year, this year I did see one Bald Eagle, perched overlooking the mouth of the river. Like last year, I took photos as I went. Here is my January 2017 Winooski River Portrait:

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River’s edge, Waterbury, Vermont

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Winooski Street Bridge, Waterbury, Vermont

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Bolton/Duxbury Dam

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Duxbury, from Long Trail next to Winooski River

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View of Winooski River from Long Trail Bridge

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Pancake ice

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Common Merganser, seen from Jonesville Bridge

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From Warren and Ruth Beeken Rivershore Preserve

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Looking west from Volunteers Green in Richmond, Vermont

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Discarded television, Williston, Vermont

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View of Winooski River from Woodside Park, Colchester, Vermont

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Winooski, Vermont

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Ice at Ethan Allen Homestead, Burlington, Vermont

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Bald Eagle looking out over Winooski River and Lake Champlain

Last Day of the Year

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We finally got some snow here in the valley. Not much, mind you, but enough to make things look bright. We took a trip to the hardware store and they filled the new inflatable sleds we got for Christmas. They worked like a charm. Fast and fun. Until one of them found a stick, got a slice, and flattened right out, with me on it. No more of that sled today.

At the beginning of the year I set a few birding goals. First was to find 50 species of birds in Vermont in January. Check. Second was to make a birding checklist every day of the year. As of today, check to that as well. Total checklists: 562. My third goal was to find 300 species of birds. As of today I have seen 406. A sub-goal was to find 300 birds in North America alone. When the year started I had not planned a trip out of the country, but with a trip to South Africa that yielded lots of species not found in North America, I easily made my goal. North American birds: 279. Pretty far off but not too shabby.

I have been thinking about goals for 2017. One goal is to run more. I have not run as much in the past several years. Out of shape, lazy, injuries, depression–I have all kinds of reasons. But I’m done with that. I am going to hit the roads again. Twice a week at least. I would like to say that I will run a half marathon in 2017 but I have made goals like that before and then gotten injured; so let’s say that is a tentative goal. I am willing to put in the effort–it just might not be an option.

Birding goal? I want to move away from the list a little. One goal is to go birding in half a dozen National Wildlife Refuges. They are always beautiful to visit and offer fantastic birding. I will have to hope no group of fruit loops decide to occupy one when I plan to visit, as happened this year in Oregon. I also would like to add some birds to my life list. How about ten? Can I add ten lifers? That isn’t too many but I will have to get out there to make it happen. So I have a list-based goal after all.

And I need to write more. How about I average one blog post per week? That seems doable. Plus I need to make some progress on that book. I will make that one a sub-goal–get an outline done. Then I can take it from there.

This was a good year in many ways. I watched my children grow and do some great things. I took some trips and saw new places. I watched the sun rise from the top of Mount Mansfield. My son and I visited South Africa to see a good friend, plus zebras and lions ostriches. I heard Hermit Thrushes and Golden-Winged Warblers and Baltimore Orioles and Go-Away Birds. I swam in clear water in summer and skied on fresh snow in winter. I baked dinner rolls and made cheesecake. Lots to celebrate.

2016 also offered up some crap. Some of that is the usual crap–work stress, stupid mistakes (did I really back into that car in the trail head parking lot?), stuff that gets tossed around in the course of your standard day. Other crap was a little bigger–Brexit and the U.S. presidential election come to mind. Hopefully we all will get though that garbage in the next few years and come out with some lessons learned. I have less hope for that than usual but I am not totally hopeless.

So here is to 2017. May it be filled with everyday joy and wonder and beauty and fun. And may the bigger crap be less biggery and crappy than it might be. But mostly let’s go for the first bit. Happy New Year y’all!

Rain Window

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A couple days ago I went out in the afternoon to look for birds. One of my goals this year has been to try to go birding every day. Sometimes I catch an owl or two in the early morning. Other days I go walk for a couple of hours. I hadn’t found many birds the other day as it was raining all day plus, you know, work. The rain had let up a bit, and it was going to get dark soon, so out I went.

As soon as I left the house, that rainless window started to close. A few drops fell, then more, and pretty soon it was full on raining. I went anyway. I didn’t go far–just down the road to the bridge over the river. I found some Blue Jays, Chickadees, a White-Throated Sparrow, a couple Juncos. It wasn’t a stellar birding expedition, but I got it in. By the time I got back home I was pretty soggy.

It rained yesterday most of the day. We need it. It has been a dry summer and early fall. We have been afraid our well might run dry. It never has before but we have never had such a dry stretch. These past few days should help. Looking out at Camel’s Hump and the Green Mountains south of there, I can see snow up high. I saw a few cars today with snow piled on their roofs–three inches or so. Full on autumn.

My daughter and I ran a 5K this morning. She has wanted to do them as often as possible this fall. She has run a 5K four weekends in a row. I have run the past three with her. It was forecast to be raining this morning, temperatures in the 40’s, super windy. We had the low temps and wind but no rain. It was a beautiful morning–snow up high, leaves still orange and red–if chilly. Apparently not everyone thought so. There were a grand total of seven runners. I feel like a fair weather runner sometimes but sheesh.

Those 5K’s are getting scarce now that the weather has turned. We can squeeze one in the next couple of weekends. We plan to do one on Thanksgiving day. But then it will be hard to find organized events, at least around here. We got lucky this morning and hit the window right to avoid the rain. Sometimes that happens. Gray skies, blue skies, it’s all beautiful with the other fall colors. Rain or sun, I will keep getting out there. My daughter wants to do those 5K’s and someone needs to do them with her. And I need to get in those birding days.

Only 71 more days and I will have done some birding every day in 2016. I need to think about goals for next year. I will have some kind of birding goal again. And 2017 will bring a running goal as well. Whatever I decide they need to get me out there, whether I hit the rain window or not.