Mercury Falling and Mercury Rising

So my extended break from entering anything on this blog is broken as of today. I woke early this morning, not really intentionally, but I did, I looked at the clock and realized I was in time to get outside and perhaps see Mercury rising just before the sun. It has been rising early enough the past week or so but the skies have not been clear enough to see anything. So I slipped from the warm blankets and grabbed a thick sweater before heading downstairs. I checked the thermometer–5 below zero. I would have to suit up.

With snowpants over my pajama pants, thick socks and a couple of layers on top, I slipped on a hat and gloves and grabbed my binoculars. The snow squeaked on the porch, loudly enough that I thought it might wake the children asleep upstairs. I stepped through the knee-deep snow out to the field. I perched myself next to a birdhouse on a post and scanned the horizon. This time of year the sun rises north of Camel’s Hump, so I looked there, but I saw nothing. I was not sure what time Mercury might rise over the hills, so I waited.

In the meantime I checked the star chart on the Planets app on my iPod Touch. This app shows the rise and set times for all the planets, based on your location. It also shows what constellations are visible. Venus glowed brightly next to Scorpio. I wanted to learn a new constellation, as the ones I know are few. I found Virgo and spent some time trying to burn it into my memory. I had a hard time visualizing that set of stars as a reclining woman, but I got a good look at it.

I was warm enough in all my layers so I kept waiting. I finally did see something in the general area I was looking, but it seemed too far south, and it seemed to blink. I watched in the binoculars, resting them on the birdhouse. It wasn’t exactly a high powered telescope on a tri-pod but it worked well enough. It kept rising and heading further south so after a bit I knew I had my planet. After about 45 minutes in the same spot I headed in. The stars were faded and I could hardly see Mercury. Since Mercury won’t be visible until December, it was well worth rising in the cold and dark. I even managed to stay warm.

Once inside, before the sun rose over the Mountains, the temperature dropped to 7 below zero. Not a warm morning. I cranked the fire and fired up a cafe latte. I sat back with a book and waited for the children to rise. Now, the sun up, the mercury is rising a little higher. It won’t get hot today, but it will be warm enough to play outside for a while. I plan to take several laps around the field on my skis. We have enough snow this year for a great nordic track and we–adults and children–have taken advantage of it every day we have been able to do that.  I won’t be getting up quite so early tomorrow, unless I decide to get a ski in before I head to work. Even if it isn’t as cold as this morning, however, that ski just may have to wait until late afternoon.

Finding Birds in the Wee Hours

Before Sunrise from Burnt Rock Mountain

For the second time this week, I got up early, drove, hiked uphill for a ways and then sat in hopes of finding some birds. Last year I had volunteered to do a second survey for Mountain Birdwatch, sponsored by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I agreed to do it again this year. I packed up the night before, and readied the espresso maker, so all I had to do was rise, brush my teeth, quickly brew some java and head out the door with my backpack. Other than trying to stay quiet so I don’t wake everyone else, the biggest challenge is just getting up. I had to set the alarm for 12:45. It was barely today when I turned back the blankets.

I managed to get out quickly, however, hot coffee in a travel mug (Americano, with cream) next to me in the cup holder. I had planned for extra time, although I did not need it, as the forecast was for heavy fog. I passed through some fog but I drove over Appalachian Gap on Route 17, so I was higher than any fog for a good chunk of the time.  I started driving at about 1:00 and started hiking about 2:15. I was, as you might imagine, the only one on the trail.

My headlamp guided me, and I did feel a little tired. I was up at 2:00 on Monday morning (shorter drive for that survey route) and I stayed up way too late to watch a movie one night (Sherlock Holmes–too good to watch halvsies) so I wasn’t as perky as I might have been. I got to the Long Trail in about an hour and 30 minutes later I was on the top of Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had 15 minutes to spare before I could officially start at 4:00, so I donned some warm layers, lay against my backpack on the warm stone, and waited. The wind was gusting pretty strongly but not so much that I would not be able to hear birds songs. The stars were out. Jupiter dangled in the eastern sky like an earring. The horizon just hinted at the day to come.

I could have fallen asleep. I had to make sure I kept my eyes open. At four I pulled out my notebook to get started. But no birds were singing. So I waited. Nothing. Was it the wind? I waited until 4:25 and the first bird I heard was the one I most wanted to hear–Bicknell’s Thrush. At that first survey point I heard three of them.

Here is the thing. Some people get excited where their team gets a home run. Others get excited when they win at horseshoes or craps or softball. Some get fired up by nightlife. I get elated when I hear a Bicknell’s Thrush singing. It lifts me up and smacks a huge smile on my face. These little brown birds face a lot, from habitat loss in both their and summer homes, to distant migrations, to acid rain and climate change, so to hear that they have returned for another summer brings me pure joy.

I head them again at the second and third of five survey points. It was peaceful in the woods. I heard many birds, despite the wind. I heard plenty I was not seeking. In fact, I heard a long list of birds. On my hike overall I heard (I only saw a couple of birds the whole time, flying away from me in terror of my fierceness I suppose) these species:

  • Bicknell’s Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Veery
  • Robin
  • Winter Wren
  • White Throated Sparrow
  • Black Capped Chickadee
  • Dark Eyed Junco
  • Brown Creeper
  • Red Breasted Nuthatch
  • Yellow Bellied Flycatcher
  • Golden Crowned Kinglet
  • Blackpol Warbler
  • Yellow Rumped Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Black Throated Blue Warbler
  • Black Throated Green Warbler
  • A couple other warblers I couldn’t identify
  • A woodpecker that was drumming but split as I passed
  • Blue Jay

I might have missed a couple here but it was, you might say, a good morning for this citizen scientist. It was a peaceful hike and I enjoyed some time in the woods. And my guess is that I was home before anyone even got to that particular trailhead today. A day’s work, done by breakfast.

After Sunrise

Holiday Pics

My daughter was awake at 3:30 AM this morning. I gave her the good news that it was after midnight. I also gave her the bad news that she had to wait a few hours to get up for the day. We took a peek at the gifts laid out, then back to bed. She managed to fall asleep for about an hour between then and 5:30. Then she was up for the day. Her brother was not so stimulated. He was conked out until 5:45 when she went to “check on him.” Then we all were down by the Christmas tree, ogling the booty.

We unwrapped, with some restraint, for a couple of hours. We had some scattered breakfast. We ate candy. We took photos. And then it was play time. The children looked at books and did an art project and had some rescue pretending, among other things. Then they went outside and now we are ready for some apple pie. That was a special request from the early riser. That was easy enough to provide. Plus, it means I can eat pie as well.

The day is young and we have much play time to come. There may even be a bath involved, to test out the toy shark cage. Only a huge snowstorm could make this day better. Merry Christmas.

Heading Downstairs in the Dark

Loot

A Little Chaos

Time on the Roads

I can’t say that I have had an easy time each morning I have risen to get a run in. Take this morning, for example. I was tired and fuzzy and hungry when I finally got out of bed, and let me tell you that was not quick process. It was dark. Clouds covered the early light and the half moon high in the sky. It was windy. I shuffled out of bed and changed into running duds. The temperature was 52 and thought, did I read that right? It was warm. So I put on shorts and long sleeves and slapped on a headlamp and a reflector vest and out I went.

My friend Pat, who is a fast enough runner to win now and again, once said to me, when I asked him how he keeps up the training pace, “There are many days when I just do not want to go for a run, but every time I do, I have a great experience.” What he meant was this: it may be hard to get started, but once you do get started, you won’t regret it.  That is pretty much spot on. Today was one of those days. Since it was dark, and the windows on the house are closed these days, I was imagining how cold it was going to be. It is November, and most dark mornings are cold. I recently ran when the temperature was in the 20’s.  This morning, however, was what you might call pleasant.

I had to use my headlamp for a bit. Cars and potholes make me cautious. But much of the way I ran in the almost-dark. It is a bit surreal at times to run when the wind blows and you can’t quite see what lies at the roadside–is that the shadow of a stump or a skunk?–and it is only you and your feet and your breathing and the road ahead. I  love that. A warm morning helps. I stopped for a couple minutes on the bridge over the river, to listen and to look at the shadowed water. It was, to use a word many shiver to utter, lovely.

I will keep doing it, this rising early to run. Some days I will go farther than others. Some days I will hop up eager to pull in some miles. Some mornings I will rise because I know I will be happy I do so even though I just don’t want to in that moment. But I rarely wish I hadn’t gotten up early to run. Only a couple of times have I been too preoccupied with my mental detritus that I would have been better off staying in bed for a while longer. But then again, I probably wouldn’t have slept anyway. In the end, I might as well just get up and go.

I am still wrangling with a bad cough and a bit a stuffed head. I look forward to that passing so I have a little more energy when I get out there in the wee hours, even if I haven’t had breakfast yet. Breakfast, by the way, tastes pretty good once you’ve already been outside for an hour or so. And who doesn’t like a good breakfast? I sit at the table, my mind clear and my muscles feeling good, and I look out at the view and look forward to the day. It may be hard to get up some days, but the time is well spent.

November View

November Morning at Breakfast

Up and Running

I have been getting up early to run these past few mornings.  I love to do that.  The problem is that it is hard to get up early.  At least, it’s hard to get up early enough to be back in time to get all of us ready for work and school and whatnot.  I’m rising in the dark, and it is only going to get darker.  And then I’ll get all used to the darkness slowly shifting they’ll throw daylight savings at me.  I pretty much hate daylight savings.  Why can’t we just pick where the clocks will be?

Anyway, I’m getting up early.  I have to be all careful so I don’t wake the woman in the bed next to me who has tried so hard to sleep all night.  I have to be quiet as I walk down the hall and down the creeky stairs so I don’t wake the children.  I always step on some toy or bang into some chair left in an odd place.  I rarely get out without some loud crash or bump or screech.  But get out I do.

And when I do, the sun is working on the back side of Camel’s Hump and the sky glows and the low clouds are tinged with pink and the world is just beautiful.  It is hard not to enjoy it when the day starts off with its show.  Cloudy, rainy, clear, snowing, whatever, it is always beautiful.  If you can’t see it you need glasses or something.  Or you live in a place where you can’t see the world around you.  Because the world is just plain old stunning as the sun rises and the wind shakes the dew from the turning leaves and the spider webs grace the goldenrod.  I may be tired but it is so worth it.

Tomorrow morning I will try to rise again, even earlier.  The farther I want to go the earlier I need to rise.  So once I really get to the high mileage I need to get up way early.  But I’m just doing the shorties now–one to five miles–just to get out there and feel the morning and to get moving.  Sure, I’ll train for something sooner or later, and sure, I’ll run later in the day at times, but I need to remember, when I am bleary eyed and tuckered, that the early morning will give me a shot better than any espresso.

My shoes get wet as I walk across the dew-covered grass.  A late bat swoops over the field.  The asters quake in the breeze.  And the smell of fallen leaves mingles with a far off skunk and damp earth.  It makes one appreciate being alive.

Mountain Birdwatch 2009 Take Two

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

Looking South-ish

Looking South-ish

A couple of weeks ago I went up Ricker Peak for my annual volunteer effort to help the Mountain Birdwatch high elevation bird survey.  After I had completed that survey route I noticed that several routes were available still.  So I signed up to do another one, on Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had been up there a couple times before, the first time when hiking the Long Trail from Massachusetts.  I love that mountain, so I figured it was time to volunteer for a second route.

Last week I took a day off and did a scouting trip.  Since the survey requires observing at specific points, I wanted to make sure I found those points during the day.  The survey requires observing birds before the sun rises, so I wouldn’t be able to find them the day I hiked for the real deal.  That scouting mission was mostly successful.  I found four out of five points, although it took me a while.  The first point was “just south of the summit.”  I had a description and a photo.  The point description sheet noted “all photos looking north,” so busted out the compass to make sure I was looking the right way and tried to match the photo.  It was a fine clear day so it should have been no problem.  But I couldn’t figure it out.

I hiked all over the top of that mountain looking for point one.  I finally gave up and headed down the trail to find point two.  Couldn’t find that one either.  Point three was an obvious one, with definite landmarks–steep rocky slope, big fat root hanging over it, tall leaning dead tree–and I thought at first that the photo was backwards.  No wonder I was having trouble.  Then I realized the photo wasn’t looking north.  It was looking south.  It turns out they all were looking south.  After that I found all but point two.  That one would have to wait to be found in the wee hours of survey day.  I ran out of time that day.

I did a repeat hike this morning, but instead of heading down the trail just behind a group of a dozen women in their sixties, all with hiking poles and long pants and sleeves, I was alone.  It was dark, and it was 2:30 AM when I started hiking, so that wasn’t a big surprise or anything.  I walked slowly with my headlamp showing me the way.  No moonlight hiking on this trip.  Aside from the idea that I might meet a sleepy and therefore grumpy bear, I was afraid only of slipping and hurting myself.  It would be a long wait before someone might come to help.

And it was slippery.  It had rained more since my first hike so the streams were higher, the trail had more water on it, the rocks were wetter.  I slipped more than once, drawing blood on my hand in almost the same spot I had on the scouting hike.  I got to the top of the mountain about 4:00.  Right on time.  The survey needs to happen between 4:00 and 6:00 so I sat down, drank some water, pulled out my notebook, and waited.

I had to wait a while.  It was foggy, socked in in fact, so the birds rose later than they might have on a clear morning.  I lay back on my pack, looking into the wet dark air, feeling the drops on my face and reaching out into the morning for any sound.  It was peaceful.  I was afraid I might fall asleep.   And then hermit thrushes started to sing.  Lots of hermit thrushes.

I started my ten-minute observation at that first point at 4:30.  I was lucky.  I heard a Bicknell’s thrush, which is one of the major reasons for the survey.  No matter how many times I hear it, it fills me with joy and gives me hope that the world still is filled with wonders.  It is.  We humans are working hard, it sometimes seems, to trash the place.  But the world is resilient and powerful and beautiful and downright amazing.  I felt that deeply again this morning.

I did find point two, and the rest of them, and I completed the survey on time.  I got to spend a good chunk of time up on a mountain by myself.  That was a treat.  Back at the summit, after my notebook was stowed in my pack, I sat and looked and listened for what I might discover.  There was nothing new, and that was what I sought.  Back at the car, after a slidey hike down, I donned some dry clothes.  I stopped for gas (the low fuel light was on and I was afraid I might not make it; not only did I get gas but free coffee with a fill up) and headed up the twisting road through the gap on Route 17.  I was home by 9:00.

I did take a short nap this afternoon, but I will need to retire early this evening.  It was great experience and I hope to do it again next year.  At the moment, however, I am a bit tuckered.  That is fine with me.  I know that up high, Bicknell’s thrushes still sing.

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.