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.

A Little Afternoon Swim

IMG_5829Every winter Special Olympics Vermont holds the Penguin Plunge, a fundraiser that draw all kinds of people who want to take a quick dip into Lake Champlain. My wife and daughter took part yesterday. Each year the sixth grade class at my daughter’s school (led by a motivated and inspired teacher) raises funds and gets fired up to jump in the lake.

It was about ten degrees yesterday. At least the air was that cold. The lake was just about 32 degrees, so clearly a nicer place to hang out than the breezy waterfront. My son and I watched groups run down the boat ramp and get wet. While a few groups of high school boys did swim the short distance of open water the ice’s far edge, most people were in and out of there fast.

I have been in water that cold and I know that it quite literally takes your breath away. It is hard to breathe and one’s muscles don’t respond very quickly. Staying in for long is not a good idea. There were a few people on the dock in dry suits ready to pull anyone out who needed help, but everyone I saw was pretty motivated to make tracks back up to the warming tent.

The event is well organized and has lots of positive energy. There are two changing tents–for men and for women–as well as a staging tent where plungers wait until their wave is called. Everyone who participated got cold, of course, but not for long. Those tents are toasty. It was enjoyable to watch. It was hard to watch and not to participate, in fact. I wanted to get right in there with them. But somebody had to park the car and take the photos. Next year, however, I may have to take a swim as well.

A couple of times today my daughter mentioned that she went in the lake yesterday. I think she was proud of herself. I told her that went swimming just last week and she pointed out that swimming in Florida doesn’t count. True. Really, I was proud of her too.

Windy Enough to Blow Me Over

IMG_5671 I worked at home today and was remarkably productive. By 11:00 I had gotten most of the things on my to-do list completed. I can’t say that happens every time I work at home. Today, however, I managed to crank it out. Mid-day I took a break, suited up for the weather and headed to the lake. I was hoping to see ducks on the open water.

The first spot I stopped was a no go–it was frozen solid as far as I could see. No ducks to be found there. So I headed south and found some water that was less solid. The Shelburne Town Beach can be iced in early, depending on the wind and the temperatures. If wind blows into the bay it can be iced over; if not it stays open. Today the wind was blowing right toward shore but the ice was hardly piled up. It has been cold lately so there is plenty of ice on the lake. There just wasn’t much ice right there. I did see some birds. There were scores of Mallards and several Common Goldeneye but it was hard to see them well. The wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to keep my spotting scope steady. It was even a challenge to keep binoculars steady. I had to lean into the wind to keep from blowing over. I got to see a Bald Eagle soar overhead a couple of times. It was a beautiful mature bird. Unfortunately, it scared away most of the ducks.

I got cold, as you can imagine, but only partly. My hands were getting numb but the rest of me, thanks to my awesome down jacket, was toasty. I moved on to another site and saw even fewer birds. I tried to stick it out but the wind was fierce. Even the birds were having a hard time. Mallards were surfing and getting dunked under the waves curling at the shore. It was a harsh situation. I didn’t see any new birds for the year but it was pretty amazing to see the lake like that. Every time I go it looks different–blowing one day and calm the next, green sometimes, clear others, frozen water or calm water. It is never the same so is always amazing to see.

My year list stands at 33, not terrible for mid-January in Vermont. I missed the Harlequin Duck when I went up to Grand Isle briefly to find that rarity, so bummer for me. I do plan to head to Florida later this month. I am sure that will prove to be a birding foray to write about. Until then, I don’t expect much. If I could get out there every day and really explore, maybe I might find all the avian treasures. But I do have to work.

After I got back home today I tossed a log into the woodstove and got down to some email. I did some scheduling and printed a letter to mail and generally got some more office-type stuff done. It was a lot warmer at my desk. But not nearly as fun.

Wind Ice Ducks

I made the trek to the ferry landing again early this morning to see what birds are still hanging around the open water. I watched the sun rise and got there as the ferry was spinning itself around, trying to break up some of the ice that had formed in the night. It looked like the channel had frozen over, even if it was thinner there. The temperature was 1 degree when I hit the road. The ferry had some ice to break.

Ducks waiting for the day to warm up

Ducks waiting for the day to warm up

At the lake there was not much open water and a few ducks were swimming and diving down for breakfast. Most of them were sitting on the ice, however, heads tucked under wings in the cold. The wind was blowing hard so it felt mighty cold. The cove there is small. It is curious that so many ducks were hanging out on the windy ice instead of seeking shelter somewhere. Maybe they are safer from predators there.

I did see a common goldeneye in two parts. I noticed its head first–alone in a red ring of frozen blood. It was eerie. Later I noticed its body several yards away. It may have been taken by an eagle yesterday and then left there. Eagles do that sometimes. Before I left, the crows had come in to have their own breakfast. I didn’t see any eagles today.

When the ferry left, the ducks, or some of them, hit the water. Lots of them stayed asleep on the ice. I watched the divers sink and rise, sometimes coming up with shellfish or other items in their beaks. I wanted to find the tufted duck that others have seen here but I was out of luck for a second time. I am guessing, if it is still around, it is over on the New York side where there is more water. I did get to see eight different species of ducks–not bad for one spot.

I may try again tomorrow. With the wind chill below zero today, and likely tomorrow, it is a cold affair. But, again, those ducks won’t be around much longer. It is March, after all, which is the month spring starts. A month from now there should be plenty of water to go around.

Bufflehead and scaups prowling the pylons

Bufflehead and scaups prowling the pylons

Channel on the Lake

Skinny Open Water

Skinny Open Water

Lake Champlain is way frozen. I took the ferry across and then back this weekend. Looking out over the lake I could see ice as far as I could see anything. It was clear and sunny and beautiful. A stunning crossing this afternoon. The ferry is doing the trick of keeping the water open so it can cross back and forth, but that is all the water that is open right now–a narrow channel.

We saw a couple of bald eagles on the way over. We saw lots of gulls on the way back. Ice and snow in the mountains topped it all off. Not a bad way to end/start the week.

Floating bits up close and ice to the horizon.

Floating bits up close and ice to the horizon.

Ducks on the River

Common Goldeneye on the Winooski River

Common Goldeneye on the Winooski River

Lake Champlain is pretty much frozen over at this point. It has been cold, after all, with little snow. That is what happens to bodies of water when the temperature drops–they freeze. Lake Champlain does not always freeze all the way across. It always has some ice but only every few years does it freeze from Vermont to New York. This is one of those years.

Typically there are ducks on the lake in the winter. Last year there were lots of them as the lake did not freeze entirely. There was enough open water that the ducks stuck around. Until recently there were all kinds of ducks on the lake. But now, they have less and less water in which to swim and dive and find good things to eat. Many of them have been hanging around the ferry channel. The ferry runs all year if they can keep a channel open from shore to shore, and so far they have. This means the ducks have a place to swim. But there are a few other spots for them to swim as well.

Some ducks dabble and some ducks dive. Mallards, the most common duck around here, are dabblers. You can see them raising their hindquarters in the air as they dip their heads underwater to find vittles. Divers plunge right down to scoop up what they can find. Today I saw some divers.

I wasn’t on the lake. I was on the Winooski River, which leads into the lake. In the city of Winooski the river drops over some falls. This means the water is open, not frozen over. I took a half hour to see what I could see. I saw common goldeneye and a lone bufflehead. These are just cool-looking birds, and fun to watch as they disappear and then reappear on the surface. I was unsure what I would see this afternoon and so was happy to see them.

I hope this weekend to see something interesting at the ferry landing. Since I often work in Winooski I will plan to check out the falls at the river again as well. I need to try to see these birds that spend the winter here before they fly off once spring comes. Before I know it, warblers and vireos will be singing in the newly green trees and these ducks will be off to their breeding grounds. Right now the forecast calls for rain and snow and sleet, so I have a little time, but every day I wait means a day I might miss something. I need to make sure I don’t make excuses. The ducks won’t wait for me.

Beautiful Day and Up Early Tomorrow

Rode the ferry over to New York today. Had lunch, and an ice cream cone, and came back. Swam in the lake (only 59 degrees)–it felt great. A perfect June day. Tomorrow I am up early to go birding. 2:15. I could wait until 2:30 to rise but then I wouldn’t have coffee. No one has coffee to go at that hour so it’s make it or go without. Hopefully I will be successful in finding the birds I seek. Report tomorrow.

TTYL Vermont

One of two tractors, driven by teenagers, headed to New York

Like I said, a perfect day