Holed Up

Here we are at home. Like everyone else. Holed up. We stocked up before most people–on food and basic household supplies. I am working from home. My kids are doing school online. We have a great house. We live in a beautiful place. We all get along. Still, this is a bit of a drag.

We are trying to be safe. Every day, the news gets worse–more cases of COVID-19, more deaths, more misinformation from the White House. Vermont is locked down as much as is feasible. Yesterday at 5:00 pm a stay-at-home directive began for the state. People can still go out, for necessities and necessary work, but in general we are all staying put.

Just now the governor announced that schools, which closed last week, will stay closed for the rest of the school year. My son is in his first year of high school. The principal called with a supportive message, really impressive, telling students it is OK to feel all kinds of emotions, offering some of his own emotion for seniors especially. For teenagers, this is devastating. Three months before school ends they know there will be no prom, no spring track or baseball or ultimate, no graduation, no AP tests or SAT, no wood shop. And no time with friends face to face. My daughter attends a different high school; they have not closed yet. I am afraid that is just a matter of time.

The dogs still wake up too early. We go out and walk them. The sun rises. Two days ago we got ten inches of snow. Most of that has melted now. The woodcocks, after the snow came and went, starting calling again in the field tonight. Robins are singing their lilting songs. Goldfinches are turning yellow. This afternoon I heard the first wood frog of the spring.

We can’t eat out or get a drink from Starbucks or even go to most stores. Even the hardware store is bringing things outside to customers. Life is not what it was. But the total number of cases in Vermont doubled today to over 120. New York City had more 911 calls then they did on September 11, 2001. This thing is deadly. We are inconvenienced, but we are here.

The sun is higher now. The light shines through the bare woods. The world is bigger this time of year–more light, more sound, more beauty every day. That beauty is a counter to the challenges we face now, and the tragedy that is sure to come. As this virus affects all of us more and more, the world spins into spring. We need to pay attention to both.

Pretty nice out, but that snow…

The day has turned out to be a fine one. The temperature is up to 52 degrees. The sun shines, with only a light wind. Things are thawing so it smells like spring. Red-Winged Blackbirds are singing. Geese by the hundreds fly overhead. And are those daffodils teasing the sky?

Yesterday it was winter. The morning saw a dusting of snow and the air never rose above freezing. A cold wind blew. That light snow made the roads and the hills and the piles of snow look fresh and new. Today, however the grime has begun to show.

When snow melts it leaves behind what it held. Maybe those snowflakes formed around specks of dust way up in the atmosphere. And maybe some dirt from the drive was added with each shovelful that got tossed onto the edge of the lawn. And the snowplow dug up some gravel too. All those bits get left behind when the snow starts to melt. To be frank, this time of year things get ugly.

Soon all the snow will fully melt, and the grit collected in the piles will settle into grass and onto the road and eventually we won’t see it at all. But right now it is contrasted with the white ice crystals and, man, it looks a mess. Snow is just so beautiful when it falls and when it gathers, like yesterday morning. But now? Ugh. Don’t make snow cones with that.

Spring is almost here. I mean, you could say it is here but winter still has a say in the matter. There is a back and forth with the season right now, and there will be for some weeks yet. I still would welcome snow, but I also won’t mind when those dirty piles disappear. Steam rises from sugarhouses today–a sign of the shoulder season. It needs to be freezing at night and warm during the day. That we have. I’ll take the syrup, so I guess I will take the season that goes with it.

Kinda Foggy

I have to go when I can go. So I went up to the town forest a couple mornings ago, when I had some time to do it. If I had total flexibility I might have gone the day before, when the sky was clear. But I have to work, and I have a family and, you know, life stuff. So I went when I had time.

May is the month to find migrating birds. And, currently, it is May. So up I went to see what is passing through, or what has arrived for the summer. There was some fog down low, but as I drove up the hill, the fog got thicker. Up at the small parking area it was a bit socked in. I could see, mind you, just not very far. Tree tops were obscured, so I had to listen more than look.

When I go birding I usually listen more than look anyway, so it was natural. I have to remind myself sometimes to look up, in fact. There is just so much sound that birds make–songs and calls and drumming and chips and peeps. On this day I heard plenty of birds–Winter Wrens and American Redstarts and Veeries and Mourning Warblers. The bird of the day was the Bay Breasted Warbler–one that passes through–peeking out from a spruce tree right next to the trail at head height. Cool looking little dude.

I wandered around in the fog for a while before I had to get off to work. It was a successful and satisfying morning. The fog behind the fresh greenery was a quiet portrait of spring. I was in awe. It was awesome. I sank into the landscape and, by observing closely, discovered some of the landscape’s details. Not a bad way to start the day.

It’s May. Get Out There.

That is what I tell myself at 5:00 in the morning when I wake up and it is still mostly dark and I am sleepy and warm in bed and could use a little more rest before getting up for the day to get cracking on the usual routine. It’s May. Just get out there.

I mean, it is beautiful on a May day when the sun rises and the fog settles over the river and the green of the new buds is almost yellow it is so bright. But May is also when the birds come back. Warblers and orioles and flycatchers and sparrows. And so many more. I get out and try to find them. Every morning I try to find a bird species I have not yet found this year. Lately the birds have just been nuts.

What I mean by nuts is there have been so many birds singing in the morning. When I go out I stand in the driveway and listen. I hear ten species from the porch. By the time I get to the end of the driveway I have heard 15. By the turn in the road I’ve found 20. The past couple of times I have walked out early I have seen or heard 50 species. It is nuts.

Six years ago, when I started birding more seriously, my goal was to learn the songs of as many local birds as possible. I wanted to be able to hear a song or call and know what I was hearing. I know a lot of them. I look forward to hearing the first Savannah Sparrows or Eastern Meadowlarks or Bobolinks. My heart leaps up, as Wordsworth said, when I hear my first Yellow Warbler of the year. Or my first Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.

There are several birds that regularly show up here whose songs I don’t have nailed. That American Redstart? I should know it by now, but I have to re-remember it each year. Same with the Blackburnian Warbler. But it is a new challenge each spring. “Wait,” I whisper to myself. “What is that? I should know that.” And then smile when I get it.

These days I never have enough time. I have to rush back to the house for a shower and a clean shirt and some breakfast before we all head off to work and school. It would be easier if I had more time for that crap as well. But it is May. I need to get out there. In a couple of months, those birds won’t be singing, and the leaves will be hiding them. So I get up, I grab my binoculars and I try to remember to shut the door behind me as I start listening.

Ready for nesting

Of the four birdhouses sitting on posts at the edge of the field, only two were in good shape. One had a busted roof with a hornet nest under it. One had fallen off and had gotten buried in the snow. Another was loose but at least it still stood. It took care of some of that today.

These birdhouses have been around a while. The only thing I have had to do in the past was to clean them out each spring. They do get used. Two of them had old bluebird nests in them this time. They are made up largely of white pine needles. The other day, as in the past, I dumped the old nests in the field.

Unfortunately, one of them had a dead bluebird in it. It was odd. It was perfectly preserved. Maybe it had not been there long. Maybe it had gotten frozen. I found a spot for it under the white pines. That seemed fitting.

I removed the busted house from its post. That one is sitting on the porch. I am not sure I can easily repair it. I might just replace it. The fallen one I remounted and reattached. I tightened the loose one. The one on the end, closest to the fir tree and the forsythia, seems to get used the least. It had no nest last year and typically does not. It needed no help.

So three out of four next boxes are ready to go. Tree Swallows will be back soon. They often nest in one of them. Bluebirds sometimes get two hatches out of a box. One summer House Wrens used the far one. It will be good to get that fourth one back on track. I am not sure they have ever all been used at one time, but I like to give our avian companions options.

This is the start of cleaning things up outside after winter. I can see we need to rake leaves and clear out debris. Fallen branches need to be hauled away. Our driveway has some ruts that could use some smoothing. But at least the bluebirds and swallows can get started on their annual duty of raising chicks. Already Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows are staking out territories with their songs. Once the ground thaws it will be time for us humans to get cracking as well.

Stymied by snow

Just before dark

I worked a long day Thursday–started early and ended late. In the middle, when I had some time, I checked the weather. I was planning to head across northern Vermont in the morning, so I wanted to be sure roads would be clear. The forecast was not promising. Snow was on the way, the heavy wet kind, and lots of it.

In the morning it was raining, but some snow flakes were mixed in. The forecast was worse than the night before. I was going to a school, so I checked the closings list. My school was open, but several others, some schools I would pass right by on my way, were closed. I had to make the call. I decided not to make the trek.

I did drive my daughter in to school. On the way, snow started to accumulate–not a lot, but enough to slow me down. After I dropped her off I headed back to work from home. And it snowed more. It snowed all day. It started really piling up by day’s end. Wet and heavy indeed.

My decision not to drive across northern Vermont was sound. The town where I was headed got two feet of snow by this morning. The section of interstate highway I would have traveled was closed for three hours. There were accidents all along Route 2. Even if I had made it, my two-hour drive would have been longer, and I would have had to return at some point. Here at home, over a thousand homes are still without power, although not ours.

Today is quiet. The snow is tapering off, but all is white. Birds are at the feeder in numbers we haven’t seen all winter. Blackbirds sing despite the snow. The town plow has cleared the road. I just polished off the coffee. Later, I will make a trip out to the dump, run a few other errands, and enjoy what is likely our last burst of winter.

This morning

Spring teaser complete

This morning I headed out to the lake to try to find some ducks before they all fly back north. A week ago Lake Champlain was frozen over–ice from Vermont to New York. Then it warmed up, and then it rained. There is still plenty of ice. Yesterday I tried to find ducks at the ferry landing. I couldn’t see any open water at all. Wind had blown ice into the cove, filling it right up. Today I tried again and found my ducks.

At Shelburne Farms there was some water. Bald Eagles rested by it, standing on the ice. A crow picked at something out there. Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead and Scaups swam and dove. Farther up the road, water stretched along the shore. Binoculars brought all those ducks closer. I guess there are fish and mussels to feed them down in that cold water. It won’t be long before they fly away to nest.

Closer to home, the river has dropped. The temperature sank into the 20s last night. All that sitting water in the fields turned to ice. A dusting of snow covers it still. On the shore, big frozen slabs. Once the water level fell they could no longer float, like boulders left behind by a glacier. They will likely sit there until spring turns them back to liquid.

Mud still seeps up on the trails. Soon we will have to stop walking on them. They are solid, for the most part, right now. They make for smooth and easy walking. Once the ice all melts, and the ground as well, the trails will be mush. In May, warblers like to sing on one particular stretch of trail. To find them I sometimes have to get wet. Or wait.

Winter is here today. This morning, my son was ruing the loss of spring. I tried to remind him that it is still winter, that those warm days were a bonus. Celebrate warm spring-like days when it is winter, don’t bemoan winter when spring’s time has not yet come. But the sun is higher. The days are longer. Phoebes will soon be singing. They will sing for the ducks as they fly overhead.