Yesterday I participated in Vermont’s annual Bald Eagle survey, as I have for several years now. My route is the Winooski River, from Waterbury to Lake Champlain. I drive along the river, stopping at several spots to watch carefully, and watch less carefully as I drive from point to point. I did see one eagle, in Williston, and otherwise had a day of it watching a beautiful river that gets forgotten or taken for granted or often just not thought about.
The day was warm, relatively, just above freezing. In some past years I have done the survey with temperatures below zero. There was no ice at all yesterday, although there was fresh snow in the hills. The water was high and powered over the dams and ledges, less tame than last year. Here is my most recent portrait of the river.
I have been busy enough with work lately that I have not wanted to go birding early during the week, even though it is the season for it. So on Saturday I don’t want to give up the chance. Friday night the weather looked good for some morning exploring, so I planned to go. Saturday morning, however, brought light rain. Rain? Seriously? But I went anyway. It was bound to stop soon.
It kept raining. I turned on the windshield wipers. I went to a local nature reserve–it is fairly new and I had not seen much of it. I parked along the road where I thought a trail started. It sort of did start, in the woods, then fizzled when it opened onto a field. I went the way I thought seemed most likely, but it wasn’t much of a trail. I got to the wetland but then was stymied.
By then it was hardly raining, but it hadbeen raining. That meant the tall grass though which I meandered was a bit wet. Dripping, really. Soggy. Soaked. In my haste to leave the house I had put on pants, to avoid ticks, but they were cotton pants. That was dumb. By the time I walked back the way I had come and got to my car, those pants were most definitely not dry.
But there had to be a better access point to this wetland. I drove up the road and found it, hidden in the trees, no parking except along the road. Yes I was soaked but it was Saturday and I did not want to give up and what’s a little cold and wet? So up the hill into the woods I headed, then down the hill in the woods I went, until it opened again in tall grass. There was a clear path but it went both left and right. I went left.
And that way was just as wet as my first attempt. I got even more wet, even though the rain had passed by now. That grass can hold some water. I had a better view of the wetland, saw some ducks, heard a gallinule calling, listened to an Alder Flycatcher and a couple of Veeries singing. I turned around again and thought I would try going right. This was was less wet but the rain started to fall again.
I did find some birds, although not as many as I might have on a clearer day. Back in the car I polished off my warm coffee, waiting for me in the cup holder. I drove home with the wipers on, those cotton pants wicking all that grass water the whole time. I arrived home wet and chilled, satisfied that I had tried and at least had a good walk in a beautiful place. After a hot shower I got some sourdough bread started. I had a day ahead of me yet.
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.
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.
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.
I worked a long day Thursday–started early and ended late. In the middle, when I had some time, I checked the weather. I was planning to head across northern Vermont in the morning, so I wanted to be sure roads would be clear. The forecast was not promising. Snow was on the way, the heavy wet kind, and lots of it.
In the morning it was raining, but some snow flakes were mixed in. The forecast was worse than the night before. I was going to a school, so I checked the closings list. My school was open, but several others, some schools I would pass right by on my way, were closed. I had to make the call. I decided not to make the trek.
I did drive my daughter in to school. On the way, snow started to accumulate–not a lot, but enough to slow me down. After I dropped her off I headed back to work from home. And it snowed more. It snowed all day. It started really piling up by day’s end. Wet and heavy indeed.
My decision not to drive across northern Vermont was sound. The town where I was headed got two feet of snow by this morning. The section of interstate highway I would have traveled was closed for three hours. There were accidents all along Route 2. Even if I had made it, my two-hour drive would have been longer, and I would have had to return at some point. Here at home, over a thousand homes are still without power, although not ours.
Today is quiet. The snow is tapering off, but all is white. Birds are at the feeder in numbers we haven’t seen all winter. Blackbirds sing despite the snow. The town plow has cleared the road. I just polished off the coffee. Later, I will make a trip out to the dump, run a few other errands, and enjoy what is likely our last burst of winter.
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.
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.
It wasn’t winter, but it did feel cold. The sun was low, but still high enough for an afternoon walk. The light was sharp and the shadows were deep. The woods had the feel of calm, ready for winter to hang out for a while. Leaves rustled under my feet. Wind blew in bare ash branches. Tall grasses shone golden.
I was looking for Rusty Blackbirds. Maybe some would be around, picking through leaves in the wet understory. None were around. I did find quite a few Chickadees. Some crows flew overhead. The bird of the afternoon was the Brown Creeper I finally spotted, creeping, of course, up a maple trunk.
Around the back side of the loop I heard Golden Crowned Kinglets. They trilled their soft calls all around me, hidden. I waited. I watched. I looked for movement. I didn’t see any. And then I did. I got just a quick glimpse of one, its black mask metaphoric of its stealthiness. Not far from there, White Throated Sparrows, or so I thought, called. They stayed hidden in the brown shrubs.
I warmed up after a while, comfortable by the end of my slow couple of miles. I saw few birds, but a chipmunk squeaking away from me, and a red squirrel carrying a beech nut into a hole hollowed out by a Pileated Woodpecker. Looking for birds means paying attention. The river slid by, cold and powerful. The pond tried to thaw out, its morning skim of ice almost gone, but likely to come back tonight. The trail, closed in like a tunnel in summer, was open and new.
I looped around to the car, watching for those sparrows, but they stayed hidden. I headed into town to pick up my daughter and her friends, the heat a little higher than when I started, my mind a little clearer. Fall, that is what I found. I will find my Rusty Blackbirds another day.