Afternoon, Stick Season

image

The river runs not high but not low. A sand bank toward the far side pushes the water away, causing the current to run faster. Across the river the banks drop steeply. In spring, Bank Swallows nest here, burrowing into the sand, flying low over the water to catch flies. Today it is not spring. Fall’s glory has passed. The brilliance of turning leaves is over. Those leaves lie in wilted piles among the bare shrubs.

But it is not yet winter. The current flows smoothly over rocks and sand and mud. A few moths still flit among the maples. There is no ice under which the water must crawl, no ice to scrape at the log lodged in the river’s bend. Snow does not yet fall. Today there are no clouds and the air is warm enough for scattered green leaves in the under-story to spread to catch the sun. But the sun is low, and will not last much longer today.

Upstream, at the mouth of the stream that melts into the river, a beaver just stirs in its lodge. It has been waiting for the light to dim, for shadows to grow long. It dips into the water, swims, waits again. Soon it will climb the bank to work at the silver maple it plans to fell. Already it has cleared smaller trees. It will chew away the bark, working steadily, wary of predators. Perhaps this tree will fall before winter sets in. Perhaps spring winds will send it tumbling. Perhaps it may prove more stubborn, standing for years before its top branches dip into the water. The beaver, however, does not concern itself with such possibilities. It simply works.

Two Blue Jays call across the bare trunks. A woodpecker knocks. A second calls to it and sends the first flapping away. A small breeze taps branches together, but mostly it is quiet. Crickets, cicadas, birds do not sing. Squirrels stay still. The woods here rest, exposed, not waiting exactly, not sure or unsure, just knitting the past into the present so the future can be only an imagined thing that does not matter to this day.

Soon the sun will drop below the hills. The day’s heat will drift off, like milkweed seeds across a field. In the dark, the river will seem louder. No bats will dot the skies but owls will call. Already owls are planning for spring, finding mates, starting nests. They plan for the future, like the beaver, doing today what must be done for tomorrow. Mice will crawl under dry leaves, finding seeds that won’t become flowers, feeding the owls, thinking only of right now, this November day next to the river that will not stop flowing, even when the ice comes.

Barred Owl on a Cloudy Day

Barred Owl

On the way home from work this afternoon I stopped by Shelburne Pond to take a quick walk. I trudged through the snow on the trail, looking and listening for birds. I didn’t find much–a couple of distant crows, a few chickadees hiding in the thick evergreens. I figured it would just be a contemplative walk without much in terms of avian fauna. And then an owl took off right next to me.

I heard it. This may not sound like much but owls are quiet. Their feathers are designed for silence. That is how they can sneak up on their prey at night. They make almost no noise when they fly, but I was close enough that I really heard the whoosh of its wings as it passed me. It flew up into a tree above me and I got to watch it for a while.

It flew off again and then again, back the way I needed to go. I walked back and had another great look at it. “You are an amazing creature,” I told it, and I was not fibbing a bit. After a few minutes I left it in peace, in the silent gray woods.

Barred Owl 2

Another Owl

I spent the last couple of days with my family in Stowe. It is a great place for what you might call a “staycation” as it is less than an hour away. We stayed at Trapp Family Lodge, as they have a special rate for Vermonters if you make a reservation close enough to your stay. We swam in the indoor pool and skied up to the rustic cabin (hot chocolate and soup on offer if you bring some cash) and sat by the fire and played games. It was a fine time.

On the way up we stopped in Waterbury–pulled off at Gregg Hill Road. We were looking for the Northern Hawk Owl. My daughter and I had stopped at the same spot a couple of weeks ago, looking for the same bird. We were out of luck that first time. And we were out of luck the second time. Bummer.

The Northern Hawk Owl doesn’t usually hang out this far south. They are generally Canadians, hanging out in open spruce woods. Occasionally, however, one of them takes a southern vacation. The temperature has been right I suppose. It was three degrees when we woke up this morning. That has been pretty typical this year. This whole week will be cold so the hawk owl might stick around for a bit yet.

This owl has been around since December. WCAX reported on it in December and the Burlington Free Press just had an article on it. Lots of people have seen it as reported on eBird and elsewhere. I wanted to see it. There was a hawk owl hanging around Vermont, in Waterbury even, ten years ago. They are not common in these parts and the chance won’t likely come again soon. I really wanted my daughter to see it. It is something she would probably remember for a long time. It was too bad that didn’t work out.

We left this afternoon and headed home. Since we were passing by, we pulled into Gregg Hill Road one more time. Why not try again? We slowly drove down the hill and my wife asked “How big is this bird?”

“Not that big,” I told her. “Smaller than a Barred Owl but pretty good-sized.” She has seen Barred Owls often enough to have a sense of their size.

“Well there is something in a tree back there.”

I pointed my binoculars and excitedly said “I think that’s it!”

And it was. It was kind enough to hang out long enough for us to look through binoculars and then a more powerful scope to check it out. It is a cool creature. It has the head of an owl but the body of a hawk, hence the not-so-original name. Awesome to see, and we all got to see it well. It was great way to end our trip over the mountains.

I may get a chance to see it again but I won’t count on it. By the time I get around to heading back that way again it will likely have headed back north. But maybe. Tomorrow morning I will look for another rare bird. A Tufted Duck, over from Europe, has been spotted several times on Lake Champlain. I am hoping to spot that one. I won’t hold my breath, as they say, but I’m feeling lucky.

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Northern Hawk Owl in Waterbury

Cold Day to Be Out

Beautiful Ski Day

Federal holiday? Check. Day off for me? Check. Cold? Yes sir.

The day started at our house at 14 degrees below zero. OK, it really started at 12 below when I first got up, then dropped to 14 below by sunrise. Cold enough to experiment with a Super Soaker filled with boiling water. Which I did not do. Every day can’t be perfect can it?

I took my daughter skiing today. We bundled up and headed to the slopes because it was a sunny day and we had the time and we should do it while the snow lasts. Vermont has this great program where every fifth grader can get a Ski Vermont Passport, which includes three passes to most ski areas in Vermont. She has one. Awesome, right? Except there are black out dates. The days when most people will be able to go are the days it does not apply. Love that crap. But we went anyway and paid way too much for a ticket for her even though it was way cheaper at Bolton Valley than at some other ski areas. That is why the passport is such a good deal. Just not today. Anyway, we went skiing and had a great time and there was plenty of snow and it was sunny as all get out and simply beautiful today. But it was cold and breezy. Maybe 15 degrees tops. We got cold hands and feet and took some runs and warmed them up and went inside to get warmer still and had a snack and called it halfway through the day.

After a sandwich in Waterbury we headed up Route 100. I tried hard, and pretty much succeeded, in convincing my daughter that we had a chance to see something amazing. A northern hawk owl has been hanging around Waterbury for a couple of months now. This resident of the far north rarely comes down our way and to have one so close is a chance to see something in nature that many people simply won’t ever get to see. It has stayed in the same general area and many people have had a chance to see it, but until today I have not tried to see it. I noted to my daughter that people are driving up to Waterbury from all parts to see this owl as it is their best chance to see one without having to head to the tundra. I learned that someone had seen the bird that very morning so I was hopeful.

Even on a bitter Monday afternoon we ran into six other people looking for the hawk owl. No one had seen it. We didn’t either. We stuck around for a while but were out of luck. Hopefully I will have another chance. It won’t stick around forever. So we headed home, warm in the car, quiet. A good morning of skiing, some fun together, a foray to find something interesting. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. Happy Presidents Day.