Right Next to Vermont

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The old joke goes like this: the best thing about Burlington is that it’s right next to Vermont. Funny, right? Well maybe not so much any more. Burlington is as much Vermont as Newport and Rutland, as Chelsea and Rupert. But here is something that isn’t a joke: New York is right next to Vermont, and it has some pretty sweet spots.

More than once on a summer evening we have taken a boat ride over to Essex, New York. Some dinner at the Old Dock, right on the water, and some ice cream at the scoop shop up the hill made for a fine end to a summer day. Since the ferry goes right to Essex, it is easy enough to walk on and ride it back to get home. No personal boat required.

I have taken that ferry many times to access the wonders of the Adirondacks. A couple of days ago a few of us took that ferry to take a hike. We took a car across and drove south from Essex. We arrived shortly at the trailhead to Split Rock. This preserved land has 11 miles of trails. We explored a few of those miles.

The woods are full of history. Wide spreading white pines tell of open fields. Thick, sturdy maples tell of houses that were shaded. We found cellar holes and rusted wheel wells from old cars. There is a wide diversity of trees, from sugar maples to red pine to hickory. The few birches, while and yellow, told us that the forest was old enough to have shaded those species mostly out. We saw garter snakes and the quills of a long dead porcupine. There was lots to see.

Most of what we saw was on the way out. This is because we had to hike fast when we started. There were so many mosquitoes that stopping for a minute or more was just not pleasant at all. We slapped and waved and brushed our way up to the first vista spot on our route. It was breezy there, with a nice enough view down to and across the lake. We watched sailboats and listened to Ospreys.

Our way down started along the ridge and we had another fine vista, this one more exposed with an even better view. The hike down was easy and gradual, and the mosquitoes had abated. We got back to the car for a late lunch and headed back into town. And that scoop shop? Still there. Went to it. Had delicious ice cream.

And we rode the ferry back. Riding the ferry on a perfect summer day, waves rolling across to Vermont, the sun shining on the islands and the mountains, the lake stretching north to Canada, really is hard to beat. We soaked in the beauty of it all as we stood on the deck, happy in the afternoon to be back home after a day spent next door.

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Summer Hike

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A couple days ago, my daughter off at camp, my son and my spouse and I hiked up Camel’s Hump. It was a warm day, though cloudy, when we left the house. At the trailhead it felt cool, however. I was chilly when we started off. Of course, that is the perfect hiking weather. To start off a little cold means hitting the perfect temperature once one gets moving.

I have hiked Camel’s Hump too many times to count. I have come from every direction and hiked on every trail up there. The Long Trail crosses the summit and I have gone up and down that both ways. Back in the days when I ran much more I used to run a long loop up one side and down the other and back along the road by the river. That is still one of my favorite experiences. Point is, I have been up there a lot, and I still love it.

We saw only a few people. One hiker was going up the same way as us and a couple others were heading down. At the summit there was one man. His hiking poles (I won’t get into those here but hiking poles seem like an unnecessary accouterment for most people–I mean, do you really need them?) were tossed next to his pack. He was smoking, upwind on the sheltered side, so we either had to hang out in the wind or the nastiness. He was on the phone. The view was great but, given the circumstances, we did not linger.

We heard Bicknell’s Thrushes, three of them, which is always a rare treat, plus many other birds. There are lots of cones this year. The fir and spruce were laden. Looks like a good year to be a squirrel. The purple cones stood out against the blue of the clouds and the green of the new tree growth. The view up close was just as notable as the view off the summit.

Gravity helped us back down to the parking lot and we headed home for a late lunch, a little muddier, a little more tired and filled up with the wonder of a mountain I know well. You can’t hate a summer day like that.

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Mountain Birdwatch, Worcester Range, 2016

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Every day this June I have woken and looked around and felt lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I mean, seriously, the place is just full of beauty. You have your green meadows and rolling hills and bare peaks. You have tractors tossing bales and Barn Swallows zooming over soccer fields and rabbits chewing clover. Wonder everywhere.

Again this June I have been fortunate to participate in Mountain Birdwatch, a research program that examines high elevation birds. Earlier this month I drove to Stowe, hiked up to the ridge trail on the Worcester Range and tried to find some of these birds. The hike up whooped my can, as it always does, but it was worth the effort.

This hike shouldn’t be that bad. It is about three miles to get to the start of the survey route. Three miles, how tough can that be? That is a 5K. I ran one of those the other day. But this is a challenging three miles. The first part isn’t bad. I hiked up toward the Stowe Pinnacle. That is a standard hiking trail–steep but well worn, fairly smooth, stone steps in some places. Once I have to veer off from that trail, however, the trail is less forgiving. It is steeper, with fallen trees across the trail, scrambles over rocks. It is not well marked and paying attention matters. No zoning out and just putting one foot in front of the other. It is slippery and rugged–a solid challenge.

The ridge trail is also not much used and can be wet, although this year it was pretty dry. There is only one water source so I have to try to time it right to polish off my water to fill up and treat what I collect. Eventually, after I think several times that I must have passed point one, I finally get there. Now I don’t want to be some wussy complainer, but it is a tiring little walk with a full pack (tent, sleeping bag, food and so on) on a steep trail. Or maybe I am just not in my twenties anymore.

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Painted Trilliums growing right on the trail

As in years past, I scouted the route and counted spruce and fir cones that day, after I set up my tent and left some stuff behind. There were Trilliums and Trout Lilies but there were also black flies. I have not seen black flies like that in years. More than once, as I tried to aim my binoculars at tree tops to carefully count cones (this is part of the survey because red squirrels eat the seeds from cones, and when there are more cones there are more squirrels that survive the winter; since squirrels also raid bird nests for their eggs, the number of cones can be an indicator of bird populations the following year) I said aloud, “I don’t think I can do this!” I was, however, not a quitter. I counted my cones, ate a little something, and crawled into my sleeping bag.

The next morning, rising at 4:00, I had a successful survey. The black flies slept in so I was free to listen and watch and take notes on what I encountered. I found more squirrels up there than ever before but I also heard Bicknell’s Thrush, probably the most important target species, at every survey point. Once I had completed the survey, about four hours later, I took some time to linger. It is beautiful up there, even with limited views, and it smells good. The spruce/fir forest in summer is an olfactory opiate.  It smells like spring after a long winter and Christmas and summer camp and childhood and Life.

I took my time hiking back down. I swatted flies and ran out of water before the stream. I listened for warblers. I soaked in the beauty of the place. Back home, I took a nap. Then I sat on the porch and looked out over the fields. The grass rolled in waves in the wind. Kingbirds snatched insects from the air. Wonder everywhere.

Ice and Rain

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My son and I took a hike up Mount Philo yesterday. It was a mild day, just above freezing, some sun, some clouds. A good day for a short hike. I was afraid it might be muddy on the trail. Instead we found ice.

There is a paved road that leads to the summit where a campground operates seasonally. The trail is much nicer than the road, however. In most places the trail was frozen and passable, but we had to do some navigating at times to avoid slipping. In more than one spot a slip on the ice would have meant a good trip downhill. It was a fine adventure on a Sunday afternoon.

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The view, as it is most days, was stellar. We looked at places we had been and might one day go. We watched a raven soar in and drop to land on the cliffs below us, croaking as it did so. We watched clouds creep in over the Adirondacks to bring us rain for today. We lingered a little while and then headed down.

We started to follow the road, then decided to take the trail when it crossed that road, but just as we turned off a large and loud group turned off as well. We decided to take the road. The walking was easier and we chatted as we descended. I noticed a couple of hemlocks that looked in trouble. Some of the tallest trees around, they had only brown needles and were full of cones. I wondered if they had been killed by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an introduced pest that can decimate these trees. Eastern hemlock just might be my favorite tree, so if the adelgid is here, my heart sinks.

Now, early morning, it rains. It taps the porch roof. Again, the air is warm, and it blows over the fields, tossing last year’s leaves about and howling through the bare branches of the maples. Yesterday I heard Red-Winged Blackbirds singing. It was the earliest I have seen them here. The sky is gray. The fields and woods are brown. The red stripe on the blackbird’s wing is a harbinger of spring color. Next month, blackbirds will be flashing those red stripes as the field grows green and mud, by then, will replace the ice we encountered yesterday.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on the Skyline Trail 2015

IMG_0466Pictured here is most of the stuff I carried up to the Skyline Trail for my Mountain Birdwatch survey up there this year. I have participated in this citizen science initiative to monitor high elevation songbirds for 16 years now. This was my fourth year on this route, which requires a solid hike in. Not pictured above are the clothes I wore (including hiking boots), a small bag of food (I pretty much snacked the whole time as cooking requires a stove I did not want to carry) and an iPhone (for emergencies and to use as a stopwatch for the survey).

Back in 2000, the first year of the survey, I rose early and walked about my door to hike up to my survey route. I lived in Bolton, at over 2,000 feet elevation, and the route was only a short hike away. The survey’s methods were also different then, with fewer birds to monitor and less time required. I could rise at 5:00 to start by 6:00. This route is different as is the survey. Now I drive an hour, hike three hours, and I need to start about 4:00. When I first adopted this new route, I did the math to figure out what time I would need to get started if I did not spend the night up there. Including prep time and longer hiking time in the dark, I figured starting at 10:00 pm would do the trick. So spending the night just made sense.

Let me tell you, that hike is a beast. It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard. It is only about three miles. A 5K is about three miles, and my 10-year old kid can do that in 45 minutes or less. This, however, is no 5K. The route starts off easy enough, on a well-traveled trail up to the Stowe Pinnacle. Yesterday, as usual on a sunny June day, there were scores of people hiking up and down. I always feel a little odd hiking past people who are wearing running shoes and white T-shirts with my full pack (especially on the way back down when I am covered in mud and sweat and smashed black flies).

The beginning of my hike--easy going on a blue bird day.

The beginning of my hike–easy going on a blue bird day.

After a mile I peel off onto a trail leading up to the ridge. That trail is steep and rocky and covered in roots and slippery and downright tough. Few people go up there but I always seem to see those few, usually when I am talking aloud to myself and they are suddenly upon me. Despite my embarrassment I keep plodding and make it to the ridge. This time I did not take a break until I hit the Skyline Trail. I needed a break at that point.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

At this point I only have to hike along the ridge to Point One, near where I will camp for the night. This is a mere mile, so no problem. At least I think that every time. But that mile takes another hour, with steep up and down (there is a ladder at one point) on a slippery narrow trail. I need to stop to fill water bottles along this stretch, as there is only one water source up there. Eventually I get to my spot and set up camp. Then I take a longer break.

But I’m not done yet. Part of the survey is counting cones. When there is a mast year (a year where there is an abundance of cones) the squirrel population booms. Lots of cones means lots of seeds inside for squirrels to snack upon so lots of them survive that year. But then all those cones are not there the next year and the squirrels are. One substitute food source for them is bird eggs. So there is a connection between cones and nesting birds. Once I set up my tent, I traveled the survey route and followed the protocols to count the cones. And let me tell you there are lots of cones this year. This counting took quite a while so by the time I got back to my tent I was ready to rest.

Compounding the usual challenge of this route were all the fir tops. An ice storm this winter did lots of damage on I wondered as I hiked up (among many many things) if there would be any damage up high. There was. The top sections of fir trees were snapped off and lying all over the place. Many of these, of course, were lying across the trail. Some were small (think mini Christmas trees) and some were like full trees themselves. That slowed me down a bit (plus needles stuck inside my boots and down my shirt as I climbed over or around or through). I stopped at one point and counted them–I could see 18 from that spot.

Tree tops everywhere!

Tree tops everywhere!

In the end, the survey was successful. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, the main target species, several times. Plus I heard Blackpol Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes and Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers all for the first time this year. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place. I was tuckered when I got back to the car. I stopped for a couple pizza slices on the drive home and called it good work.

I took on a second route this year as well but that one does not require such a tough hike. It will feel like a cake walk. This route, however, has pretty high rewards. Lots of people can run a 5K but most wouldn’t do this hike to get up at 4:00 am and not have a view. Apparently, I would.

Alone on Top of Mount Mansfield

Afternoon view for near the summit

Afternoon view from near the summit

Some years in the past I have done more than one Mountain Birdwatch route, rather than just one, making the effort to get up early to try to find birds at (relatively) high elevation, in the name of science. I have done the Mount Worcester route for four years now and I agreed to take on a second route this year. I agreed to this because I had hoped I could simply get up early at home, hike to the survey route and then do the survey. This would mean I would not have to spend the night out and therefore would not need to take most of the weekend to get it done. Several years ago, before the protocol for the survey changed to make it take longer, I could rise at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, drive, hike, do the survey, and be back in town in time for breakfast. So I had hoped I could do that again this year. It did not, of course, quite work out that way.

Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who manages the Mountain Birdwatch survey in the United States, has the benefit of the use of the Stowe Mountain ski patrol hut to aid in its science projects on Mount Mansfield. This means I got to stay there so I could get up early to do the survey. At first I was going to decline this offer and try to drive up super early. But, I thought, what the heck? Why not make things easier? I mean, I am supposed to start the survey at 4:00 in the morning.

So last Saturday afternoon I drove to Stowe. I stopped at the base of the toll road and checked in. I had to sign a couple of release forms. One was for use of the hut and one was for use of the toll road. The toll road snakes its way up and ends close to the summit of the mountain. It provides access for the buildings and towers up there. The towers mean access to television and radio and cell phone signals for all of us. The road means those towers get serviced. It also meant I could drive up rather than hike, saving myself several hours.

In the winter the road is a long and easy ski trail. I had skied it for the first time just this past season. It looked a little bit different without snow. Since it was so late in the day, I only met a few cars coming down and soon arrived at Parking Lot B.  I unloaded my pack and prepared to scout the route. I had never been there so I wanted to make sure I could find each of the survey points. I also wanted to do the cone count.

The survey requires counting fir and spruce cones at each point. This is because of squirrels. Squirrels eat the seeds in the cones. They love those things. So when there are lots of cones (a mast year), the squirrel population grows. The year after a mast year there usually are not so many cones, but there are still a lot of squirrels. So what do they do? They eat the eggs in bird nests. Counting cones can help determine how much of a relationship exists between cones and bird populations. I wanted to get that part done the day before.

I am so glad I scouted the route. The points for this route are all in a straight line but they are not along the same trail.  I had to hike up the access road, down the Long Trail, back up the Long Trail, down the road again, down a side trail, back up the side trail, back down the road, down another side trail, then back to the Long Trail for the last three points. It took some problem-solving and some serious effort as the trails were not all marked well and some were dang rugged.

Boulder suspended over the trail

Boulder suspended over the trail

I couldn’t find one of the side trails and so couldn’t find one of the points. I figured out a way to go the opposite way down the trail and assumed I could follow it all the way through to find the access point on the other end. This was the Canyon Trail, well-named. At one point I came to a canyon. The trail ended in a cliff. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said aloud. More than once. There was just no simple way down. I could see trail markers painted on rocks far below, and I could see a ladder down there as well, I supposed to aid in getting up a steep section. But there was no ladder for me at the top. I envisioned how it might be possible to scale the rocks to get down, but it was 7:00 p.m. by that point, and I was alone, and I was feeling a little tired, and I had not eaten dinner. “Ain’t happening I said aloud.” More than once.

Eventually I did find the point from the other end, and I did count cones, and I got back to the hut to eat and sleep, much later than I wanted. I slept on the couch, fitfully, alarm set to wake me at 3:30 a.m. At 2:30 a.m., however, loud country music started playing. I was confused. I hoped it would stop. I thought I might be able to sleep through it. Then I got up. It turns out there was a huge old boom box in the basement, with giant speakers and double tape deck. It was playing the loud country music. I found the power button and pushed it. The loud country music stopped. I still have no idea what the heck that was about. Timer? Ghost? Mouse?

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On the trail at 4:30 a.m

Ultimately, I did get up. I did hike back up to do the survey. I found all the points easily this time. I heard the birds I had come to find. It could not have been a more perfect morning–no clouds, no wind, a little cool at 45 degrees. When I was finished I sat on the ridge and looked out at this beautiful place on that beautiful day. No one else was around. After enjoying the stillness and the view for a bit, I starting hiking back down, trying hard not to hum a country tune.

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge, not singing a country tune

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.