Rain and Shadows and Light

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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.

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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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

Sugaring Weather

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Frosty. That was this morning. Grass, branches, porch railing, stones–all frost-covered. The air was still. I rose before the sun crested the mountains, walked into the morning. The ground was frozen, so walking was easy and quiet. I wore a down jacket.

Despite the cold, a few degrees below freezing, the blackbirds sang. Song Sparrows tried their best to stake out their territories. Over a hundred geese flew overhead. Yesterday’s puddles sported white caps of ice.

In the river, a beaver broke the water’s surface, swimming around the bend. A mink bounded along the shore, pausing to watch me as I watched it. The river babbled its usual course under the bridge.

When the sun appeared, it spread light across the fields, melting the frost. In the shadows, ice held on. Soon enough, those crystals would droop and disappear. The puddles would be free. Bluebirds would sing as the breeze arose.

Freezing nights and warm days. That is just what sugar makers need. There will be some boiling today. I hope to take my empty gallon jugs up the road to Shelburne Sugarworks today to get them filled. They say they will have sugar on snow, but I’m not sure there is snow to be had. Maple cotton candy, perhaps. My guess is they will be boiling today. The weather is just right.

Cold Morning But Spring is Near

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I needed a new place to go birding, so I looked around and found Cota Field. It is just down the road in Starksboro. I did not know what to expect but hopped in the car and drove down Route 116 and parked next to the pavillion.

The sports fields were frosty. The sun shone. The temperature was in the single digits. I wore my big old down jacket–the Super Poofer as we call it in our house–so I was plenty warm. I found the map tacked to the bulletin board and studied it for a few minutes. Loop trail? Along the brook? Done!

I found some Black Ducks on the water, and some Golden Crowned Kinglets, too. Those are pretty sweet to find–small, secretive, quiet. Getting a good look at those dudes is always a treat. There was not a whole lot of bird activity but enough to keep things interesting. Mostly it was just fun to explore. I want to find several new places to go birding this month. When I started really getting into it a few years ago the exploration piece was one of the best parts about it. Seeing new corners of the place I live connected me more to the place I live.

It was cold but the sun was out. The sun is getting higher as we approach the equinox. So even the cold air feels warmer when the sun shines. I watched the ice melt from the bare branches. Red-Winged Blackbirds started singing–a sure sign of spring on the way. There were no leaves, no flowers, no insects, but the sun glittered in the blue sky and I warmed myself with walking. In several weeks this place will be filled with bird song as that sun rises much earlier. I will be back to explore more then.

Bare Winter

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I took a walk in the town forest yesterday. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark. Snow was falling. It was a light snow, the flakes floating slowly to the frozen ground in the light wind. It felt like winter wanted to be there–cold, barren.

I walked quickly. I went to the forest because I hoped to find a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, a bird I have found there before, hopping along the trunks of the tall white pines. There was not a lot of bird activity so I was not lingering. It felt good just to move through the woods. I also went there to walk. I took time to stop, to look, to listen; but I also just wanted to feel my breath and warm myself with motion.

The ground was bare. Those gentle snowflakes were beautiful but they did not gather themselves. They broke apart, tucked under leaves, melted when they hit the slightly warmer ground. James Wright’s “Late November in a Field” begins: “Today I am walking alone in a bare place/And winter is here.” It felt like that, only it is February. It felt like winter was about to arrive, but it should be here by now.

We have gotten little snow. In a typical year I would not have gone to the town forest as I did yesterday. I would not have gotten to the parking area and I would not have tried to park, afraid of getting my car stuck. But the dirt road was like pavement. I did not need snowshoes or skis on the trails. I did not have to worry about ice. The temperature popped above freezing by the time I returned to my car. Late November weather.

I heard almost no birds. A few chickadees called their quiet peeps. I heard my nuthatch honking away, plus one or two others. At one point I stood below the pines and thought “it is so quiet today.” But it was not quiet. The wind blew the bare trees. They swayed just enough, and they were cold enough, to creak and pop. Squirrels chattered. Pines whispered. The forest was having a winter conversation with itself. Once I stopped listening with such focus and allowed myself to hear everything around me I found a world of sound. It was not quiet at all.

Winter has a couple months yet to go. Perhaps we will have a solid snowstorm during those couple months. Or perhaps November will blend into spring come April. Outside my window, the tips of crocuses show themselves below the bird feeder. I do not wish them harm but I would like them to be hidden under a deep layer of snow. I would like this bare winter to wear its snowy cloak, at least for a little while. I would like a little more winter before spring arrives.

No Alligators Around Here

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Goal number one for 2016: find 50 birds in Vermont in the month of January. I hopped on a plane to Florida at 5:45 AM, two and half weeks into the month, with that goal checked, on the nose.

Goal number two for 2016: find 300 birds in the calendar year. On the flight back from Florida I had 103 species on my list. This will not be an easy goal. I am a casual birder, not obsessive. Well, a little obsessive but not too bad. Mostly, I get out when I can but I am intentional about it. As of today I am up to 110 species. February will be a slow month but I will do what I can. I still have several “gimmes,” birds I can expect to find for sure this month, but I won’t start really racking up the species until late March when migrants start returning. I have a conference on Cape Cod in early April and a trip out west later that month, so I have some opportunity. I hope to get to the Maine coast at some point as well. The overall goal is no gimme and it will be fun trying.

Goal number three for 2016: create at least one checklist of birds every day of the year. So far I am on track with that one. This will take some mindfulness for sure, but it is possible. The problem with this goal is that the first day missed means a scratch to the whole goal. It is a goal, however, not a directive, so no worries.

I am not really a resolution kind of guy but goals I can do. I am feeling pretty good about these three. Yesterday I saw a Ruffed Grouse. I knew I would see one at some point this year and this was a close-up sighting. A good way to end January. Spending several days in Florida was a help. I walked around in shorts and found all kinds of great birds. I even got in a solid alligator sighting. I admit it was a bit of a transition, even after that short time, to full-on winter and much less activity with our feathered friends. Birds were everywhere down there. Here in Vermont it can be pretty dang quiet.

I will keep getting out there, however. I have that goal number three to keep me at it. I have some outings to plan and some surprises to hope for. There are no alligators around here but it will be a fun year of birding nonetheless.

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White Ibis at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

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What I got used to seeing. This is at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

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What I am seeing now. This is the Winooski River in Burlington.