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.

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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Finally, a Snowy Owl

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The problem with taking so much time off from writing is that I now have way too many stories to tell. I can talk about my new interest in birding. I can talk about my trip to visit friends in South Africa. I can talk about the stroke I had way too young. I can talk about the beautiful sunrise this morning, or the recent snowstorm that left us with a deep cover of white. So how to start back up again? 

One thing I find irritating is blogging about blogging so I won’t do that. Why have I not entered anything here in such a long time? Do you really care? If a story has power it is in the telling of the story. We get little from learning why the telling was delayed. So let’s just lay that to rest right now, shall we?

How about I start with the snowy owl? There has been an irruption of snowy owls this year. You may have heard of this, of course. Snowy owls have made the news all over the United States. They are white and showy and downright beautiful. Heck, if snowy owls can hang with Harry Potter they must be magical, right? I think they are.

I have been hearing about them for months now. We live next to a set of open fields which, I would imagine, would be just what a traveling snowy owl would look for. There are trees and barns to perch on, fields full of mice and voles, and open space to fly. Why wouldn’t they come here? I have been fooled more than once by the white of a pale red-tailed hawk but so far there have been no snowy owls around here. So this morning I decided to go find one.

These birds have been reported in Addison County multiple times and, since that is only one county over, I figured it was worth a drive. I listened to a great episode of Snap Judgment on the way down but still, it seemed like it took forever to get there. “There” was the viewing spot on Route 17 at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. I had heard that just yesterday snowy owls had been spotted from right there. Awesome, I thought. That spot is easy to find, a quick pull-in and if the birds are there, it is a good spot to park while I watch. But the birds were not there.

Birders were there. A handful of cars were parked with a few binocular-toting bundled-up folks looking around. The sign of a great bird nearby, if there is a group of birders on hand, is a cluster of arms and a passel of optical devices pointed in one direction. That I did not see. I did see a couple people next to their Subaru with a spotting scope so I thought maybe they had something. Turns out it was a red-tailed hawk, out to fool me again. They said they might have seen a snowy owl down the road, but they were not sure. Another couple stopped and said they saw one for sure, farther south, this morning. I looked around for a few more minutes and headed south. 

The problem with looking for owls while driving is that it is less safe than it might be. It is hard to try to focus on finding something white in fields of snow while looking at a road covered in patches of drifting snow at fifty miles per hour. When no one was behind me I slowed down, but still, I needed to stop. After several miles I did stop. I saw another red-tailed hawk but also a rough-legged hawk–a visitor for the winter from farther north. That was a score. Unfortunately, I was pretty distracted by this point. After a couple cups of coffee and a bottle of water I was feeling ready to bust.

Now this is a rural area, so a rest room was not going to be found close by. I knew I could drive a while to get back to one, but I still had an owl to find. There are not many houses around, but the sight lines are far. I didn’t want anyone seeing some creep stopping on the side of the road to take a leak. So I turned around, my goal now to find an isolated and hidden spot to take care of things. I saw a side road with a clump of trees far down it. I was desperate at this point so took a right. Not far down the road I saw a white lump on a fence post. I got closer and could hardly believe it. Here was my owl. 

There was a car pulled over and I stopped well before I got to it. I looked through my binoculars. I looked through my scope. I didn’t leave the car. I was in too much pain by now. The owl was very cool. The other car left. I took my chances and got out of the car, relieving my pain with a clear view down the road. 

Now I was ready to look at my owl. It was regal and bright and just what I was hoping for. It was close to the road enough to see it clearly. After a while it flew off, tired perhaps of being watched. Wow, I thought, that was a snowy owl. Awesome. But I wasn’t done yet. There were other birds nearby, including a bald eagle soaring overhead. And there was a flock of snow buntings–more winter visitors. There were so many it was hard to count, but there were at least fifty, flying together over the fields and landing as a group on a semi-clear patch. These little guys are white and brown, like little cousins of the snowy owl. They were quite a sight. I stopped and looked at them for a while and I noticed some were not snow buntings after all. They were horned larks.

Since I had never seen these birds before I watched them for a while. Two new life birds for me in one Vermont winter day. Plus a couple birds that won’t be around when spring arrives. Not bad. I headed back satisfied and happy, and got home in time for lunch. Lesson for the day? Too much coffee means finding an awesome bird. I’ll have to see if that lesson proves true again another day.

Keeping the Old Brain Sharp

Some of the Puzzle Books I'm Taking On

Some of the Puzzle Books I'm Taking On

There was a recent article in the Guardian, The Lifestyle to Beat Alzheimer’s, about what one can do to keep dementia at bay.  The headliner was about coffee (this New York Times article has more details about that).  Coffee drinkers, it noted, “will be clinking mugs in a toast to new research suggesting that just two strong cups of the black stuff a day can reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.”  I’ll make sure to keep sipping the dark roast.

The article mentioned several other things that research suggests can keep one’s brain sharp enough to avoid slipping into forgetfulness.  To summarize:

  • Drink two strong cups of coffee (the regular stuff, not decaf) per day
  • Eat blueberries, kale and broccoli (and other vegetables)
  • Don’t smoke (duh)
  • Drink one or two alcoholic drinks per day
  • Stay in shape
  • Speak more than one language
  • Stay married (no divorce allowed as that can increase risk of getting dementia)
  • Do crossword, sudoku and other puzzles

Other than speaking multiple languages, I’m doing pretty well on this list.  I am working on the puzzle thing especially right now.  I’ve got multiple books of them going at once, in fact.  I have been tackling crossword puzzles, sudoku, kenken and new to me, kakuro.

My parents gave me five new books of puzzles for Father’s Day.  My mother sees dementia every day, since she works in an elderly care facility.  I guess she wants to keep me sharp for longer than other people.  I’m good with that.  My parents really do love me.  Puzzles: the gift that keeps giving, even when you become an old codger.

I am afraid I could use some help with staving off dementia.  Already, I forget crap all the time.  If taking the time to do some puzzles will help, I’ll do it.  It may get in the way of other things but that is the way of it.  “Sorry, honey, can’t paint the house right now; I’ve got to prevent Alzheimer’s right now.”

Mountain Birdwatch Survey 2009

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I set the alarm for 2:10.  I was going to set it for 2:00 but I figured I could use an extra ten minutes of sleep.  Typically when I set the alarm I wake up before it goes off.  Not at 2:10.  I slid off the bed in the dark and headed to the bathroom.  I had planned ahead, sleeping in my contact lenses and leaving the rewetting drops next to the sink so I wouldn’t have to open the noisy drawer.  I brushed my teeth and headed downstairs.  My clothes were ready to go.  I dressed while the espresso was brewing and the water was boiling.  I mixed the two, added some cream in my travel mug, grabbed my backpack and headed out.

I don’t usually have a fear of the dark.  I know my way from the house to the car.  I did hesitate this morning, just for a moment, however.  Skunks are about.  Surprising one would have added a complication to my morning plans.  Once I was driving it was smooth sailing all the way to Bolton.  I passed two other cars on the way.

Coffee polished off, I started hiking in the dark.  I have hiked that same way many times.  The moon was full but it was mostly hidden by clouds.  Nonetheless, I did not use my headlamp most of the way.  The trail is not all that rough and I had enough light.  Once I got to the wet part of the trail that hides between tall trees, I had to use a light.  I got to my starting point at about 10 minutes to 4:00.

The idea is to listen between 4:00 and 6:00.  When I first started doing this survey the suggested hours were 6:00-8:00.  That did not prove as successful as these earlier hours.  My route was a lot harder as well so even getting done by 8:00 was pretty much not happening.  The route changed a bunch of years ago to what it is today–same mountain, easier navigation.  I had not heard any birds on my hike.  The first song was at 4:03, a white-throated sparrow.  I waited a few minutes to officially start and even then heard only three birds in ten minutes of listening.

At the second of five points I had better luck.  The main target species here is Bicknell’s thrush.  I heard three of them at this point, which is rare on this survey route.  I have heard two before, but never three at once.  Hearing one is exciting enough.  Knowing that these diminutive, shy birds have flown all the way back from Dominica is truly heartening.  By this time all the birds seemed to wake up.  This morning chorus was rich, so many birds singing and calling that I had to concentrate to distinguish them all.  The silent woods came alive.

On the way to point three I heard another two Bicknell’s thrush and they kept singing so I heard them during my official point count.  I heard a sixth one at point five.  I heard all of the other four target species, along with lots of others, so the morning was a success.  I stopped to take a couple of photos.  The ones above were taken at about 5:15.  Then my camera battery died.  Too many videos of the children apparently.

I took my time hiking back down.  Twice I got a good peek at blackpol warblers through my binoculars.  Plus, I found 35 cents.  What a deal.  I was back at the car and changed into dry clothes by 7:00.  In the parking lot of On the Rise Bakery in Richmond I called home.  The family was awake and happy.  I headed inside for a maple latte and some home fries, content that I had done a good day’s work.  And they hadn’t even started serving brunch yet.

Birds and Coffee

We have a huge field in front of the house, but we do not seem to have any nesting bobolinks in that field.  They are in the fields all around, just not ours.  Throughout the day I can hear their warbling.  They sometimes pass over our field but they seem to avoid it.  It is a puzzle.

One theory is that the plants in the field are not what they like.  We cut it once every year, in the fall, and let it mulch itself.  This keeps things open.  If we left it to grow a forest would trying to occupy that field in a couple of years.  Maybe these birds prefer the grass in the fields that get hayed.  Frankly, we were hoping that by keeping it open we might attract bobolinks.  So much for that idea.  We do attract lots of butterflies and lots of other birds, however, so we have that.

Another theory is that our neighbor’s cat loves our field too much.  Either it has driven off the bobolinks that did manage to make a home here or the birds decided not to stay when they discovered the cat.  Nice place to visit but the neighborhood just isn’t all that safe.

Maybe it’s too wet.  Maybe all the activity around the house intimidates them.  Maybe it smells bad to them.  I don’t know.  In any case, I love to listen to them.  We do get to hear them sing and that is a joy.  Maybe one of these days they will come around to stay.  The cat can’t live forever.

Listening to the bobolinks, and then the hermit thrushes and robins late in the day, plus the red-winged blackbird scolding me for getting too close to her next, and the field sparrows and the kingbirds, I’ve got a lot to keep my ears busy.  Tomorrow I get to head out early to try to find one of the most elusive birds in Vermont, Bicknell’s thrush.  I don’t hear that bird in our field.  They only hang out up high where the trees are dense on the mountains.  I’ll have to get up early.

They typically only sing during the day’s bookends–dawn and dusk.  So I will rise at 2:00 in order to drive and then hike to get where I need to be on time.  I am a volunteer for Mountain Birdwatch, a program of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I will listen for Bicknell’s thrush and other birds in the wee hours.  This made me think about coffee.

A hot cup of coffee might be nice as I drive in the dark.  So I had the idea of setting up the brewer tonight.  Then I though I wouldn’t.  Then I thought why not?  I am still wavering.  And then I thought about the connection.  One reason thrushes and other migrating songbirds are threatened is because their wintering grounds are no longer what they were.  When forests get slashed for coffee plantations, birds have to find a new place to hang out in the northern winter.  Where do they go?

I try to purchase shade grown free trade coffee, partly because of this study.  I learned to hear a Bicknell’s trush because I volunteered nine years ago and I still am amazed by its song.  To know it is still there, that it has returned for another summer, fills with the unexplainable wonder of the world.  So making sure the coffee I drink doesn’t impinge on that is important.  It is an easy thing to do.  I will get some coffee on the way home either way, but do I sip in the car?

You know, I think I will.  I never have and one thing I can’t stand is things staying the same for too long.  It is easy to fall into a pattern and just keep following it.  If I don’t break things up, I feel stuck.  So I guess I have one more thing to do to get ready before the morning.

Packaging

I recently ordered some syrup. I’m talking flavored syrups to jazz up my espresso drinks. I like to add some flavors here and there, mix it up a little, go for something different. I know some folks are purists and just don’t like to add flavors. I can go with straight up but I also like to add some zing. I was out–I had been for a while–so I ordered some more from Amazon.

When you order from Amazon, as you may know if you have ordered from Amazon, you often have the choice of getting things from outside vendors. I had lots of options, and I went with the two syrups I wanted from two different sellers. I received them on the same day.

I received a bottle of Monin hazelnut syrup from CoffeeAM. It was just what I ordered and was shipped intact. It was packaged well, in fact. I can’t imagine it would have broken. The packaging was pretty cool, actually. It was a self-inflating tube of plastic. The problem is that it was all plastic. Plus it was packed in polystyrene peanuts–more plastic.  Here is what it looked like:

Glass in Plastic in Cardboard

Glass in Plastic in Cardboard

I received a bottle of Monin coconut syrup from Boba Tea Direct. It also was packed well enough that it would have taken a lot to have broken. Again, I was impressed by the packaging–even more so than the other shipment. This was all paper packaging. There was no plastic except the tape on the box. It looked like this:

Glass in Paper

Glass in Paper

The prices on the two bottles were about the same. I only ordered from two sellers because they were not both available from CoffeeAM and the hazelnut syrup at Boba Tea Direct was a lot more pricey (not sure what that was about). But because of the paper packaging, rather than plastic, I will order from Boba Tea Direct in the future. The bubble tube was cool, but I can’t toss that in the compost bin, or even recycle it. The world could use a little less plastic. It isn’t huge, but at least I can take one small action.  You?