Saturday, September 12, 2015

Fall Migration

Here it is, September. Time for the fall migration and Beckham Bird Club's Breakfast with the Birds. So we pulled in at Beckley Creek Park at 8 am for a cloudy, windy, chilly morning.  It's the first time I've used the word "chilly" in some time, but my single sweatshirt really didn't feel like enough before the coffee arrived. It was nice to have some new folks join us. I must admit that fall migration isn't my all time favorite time to go birding. Some of our friends are excited to see warblers coming through again, but I've always had trouble seeing little warblers in the leaves, let alone recognizing their fall plumage.
Down through the wetlands, to find a small group of "mutt ducks" on the pond, put there, so someone heard, to help control the duck weed. Yeah, right. Marching on to Floyd's Fork, where the action starts to pick up. A Green Heron flew beneath the bridge, landing on the rocks beside the river. Funny how hard he was to find for the folks who didn't see him fly there in the first place. A quick jab into the water and he comes up with a small fish to snack on.
  A little farther down the river a Great Blue Heron preens his feathers standing in the shallow water.
About this time, the expert sharp-eyed and sharp-eared birders in the group started finding lots of littler warblers. Turn on the screech owl recording and let's see how many we can draw in! Well, I didn't find many of them, but this lovely Yellow-billed Cuckoo sat on his branch long enough for me to see and get a photo of it - my first! A Redstart looks like a mini-Oriole but wouldn't sit still like the Cuckoo.

The standard little birds flocked in - Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatch and Titmice. They are the tough little guys who stay all year long.
Beckley Creek Park reliably has Red-headed Woodpeckers along Floyd's Fork. Today we even saw a little juvenile with a black head chasing his parents around for a handout.
You know how it is - I see a bird and try to get a photo of it whether I know what it is or not. At this time in the morning, they were calling out Tennessee Warbler and Nashville Warbler, along with Chestnut-sided Warbler and several kinds of Vireo. I'm not sure what this guy is.
But when I couldn't find the target bird, there were always thousands of yellow wildflowers. It's funny that they are all the exact shade of yellow, no matter what the species!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Fun with Geology

In Vermont, two of our favorite things to do are searching for covered bridges and waterfalls. On our last day of vacation, we got to do both at one time. It took a little longer than anticipated, since we noticed the gas light was on and had to go back into Stowe and find a gas station to make sure we didn't run dry out in the middle of nowhere.
Our final waterfall was Sterling Falls, part of the Sterling Falls Gorge Natural Area, a conservation area acquired from the family of IBM's Tom Watson and maintained by six different conservation organizations in Vermont. There are several hiking trails, but the most popular, I would guess, leads to the gorge and has the added attraction of interpretive signs. Since Dick and I are involved with such interpretation we really appreciated them. If I could find a way to contact the right group, I would let them know. All week, I've wished we had a geologist along. Somehow, I'd always thought Vermont was full of granite, and not much else. Internet research shows this is absolutely wrong, but I still would appreciate more guidance.
For example, did you know that a gorge consists of a series of moderate-sized falls, cascades, and pools. A gorge is a section of a stream channel with continuous rock walls which are at least 10 feet high on both sides. A small gorge has walls under 40 feet high and a large gorge has walls over 40 feet high. The walls at Sterling Falls Gorge range from as low as 11 feet at the northern end to over 50 feet at the southern end. Several falls and cascades occur at Sterling Falls Gorge Natural Area. The difference between the two is distinguished by how the water falls from the bedrock exposure. A falls is a vertical or near vertical drop which is at least 3 feet high. The water shoots outward and falls without touching the rock. A cascade is a bedrock exposure which is not vertical but at either a high or a low angle and the water remains in contact with the bedrock. A small falls or cascade is under 20 feet and a large one is over 20 feet.
The rocks of Sterling Falls Gorge are schists of the Camels Hump Group which are a type of metamorphic rock. Metamorphic rocks form from other rocks (igneous, sedimentary, or other metamorphic rocks) by physical and chemical changes in their composition. Temperature and pressure are the main controls in metamorphism. One of the most obvious features about the schist is the near vertical planar surfaces in the rock. This is called schistosity. Schistosity is the result of movement and crystallization of minerals which occurs during metamorphism. Minerals, such as mica, recrystallize and orient themselves according to slippage along the bedding planes of the rock. Is that a cool word or what!
Some of the fallen rocks are in fact large slabs of fallen wall but others were transported when the stream had much more energy. Perhaps in the spring, during the snowmelt season, the stream's discharge was at a much greater volume. The measure of a stream's ability to transport a certain maximum grain size of sediment is referred to as a stream's competence. Looking at the wide variety of sizes of material in Sterling Brook, it is obvious that its competence varies greatly with the season.
How do you think schistosity affects the credibility of the rock? Is it more credible with vertical or horizontal schistosity? The schisosity is a plane of weakness in the rock. It allows water to penetrate and more easily erode the rock than if it were a more homogenous "harder" rock. I love learning new vocabulary! You think of rocks being hard, but "credible?"

While watching Vermont PBS in the evening this week, we heard they were offering a special activity for their members at Smugglers' Notch Resort this Saturday, including a visit from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science - VINS - which rehabs raptors along with many other things. Well, I couldn't pass that by, could I? The presenter did a marvelous job, and it's always reassuring to hear someone else echo the things we always say about raptors. She even told the story about Kestrels being able to track mice because they can see mouse pee glowing in ultraviolet light, which they are able to see!

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Burlington - Big City

Burlington is the largest city in Vermont, and a delightful spot on the shores of Lake Champlain, so today we went to explore it. The Ethan Allen III took us out into the lake towards an invisible horizon, covered in haze. Lake Champlain is the largest fresh water lake, after the five Great Lakes, although it was salt water when the glaciers melted, and home to beluga whales.
For some reason, I'd always thought Vermont to be made of granite, but now I know it has all the shales, sandstones and other sedimentary rocks, tilted off the horizontal, as we've seen in other states. In fact, only that part of the state where granite is quarried for tombstones has much granite at all.
Another lake steamer, the Ticonderoga, is no longer on the lake, but is displayed on land at Shelburne Museum. Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) was a pioneering collector of American folk art and founded Shelburne Museum in 1947. The daughter of H.O. and Louisine Havemeyer, important collectors of European and Asian art, she exercised an independent eye and passion for art, artifacts, and architecture celebrating a distinctly American aesthetic. When creating the Museum she took the imaginative step of collecting 18th- and 19th-century buildings from New England and New York in which to display the Museum’s holdings, relocating 20 historic structures to Shelburne. These include houses, barns, a meeting house, a one-room schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a jail, a general store, a covered bridge, and the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga.
Admission is good for two days, which is important since you can't possible see everything you want to see in one trip. Whether you prefer art on a wall, or an old General Store, you can find it at Shelburne.
This is the first two-lane covered bridge we've seen in Vermont, and of course, it was moved here from some place else, like all the exhibits. The signs warn that you must not travel faster than a walking horse on the bridge or pay a $1 fine, an extravagant amount since you could book a luxury room on the Ticonderoga for $3 per night.
We haven't seen large numbers of birds while in Vermont.  At a small pond behind a house at Shelburne, we saw birds "flycatching" over the water - swooping down and back into the branches hunting for bugs. A flycatcher? A swallow? We speculated. Finally one landed in the willow tree nearby and we found them to be Cedar Waxwings, which surprised us. Normally, Waxwings are berry eaters, so this is some new behavior we didn't know about. In the morning, we will visit the Green Mountain Audubon Center, then return to Shelburne. They have an enormous circus collection along with other colonial and 19th Century buildings and furnishings. The founder reproduced her home in New York  too.
As a wealthy family in the early 1900's, the family had its own private railroad cars to travel up to the farm in Vermont during the summers, much different than the AmTrak we took a few years ago. Dick is waving to all this campaign followers as we explore this fascinating place.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Waterfalls, Wildflowers and Way Up on the Mountain

OK, there are big mountains all around, and we crossed over the Notch several times yesterday, so today we wanted to go higher. The Stowe Ski Resort has gondolas running all the time, and the nice enclosed car doesn't bother my acrophobia a bit.
In the morning, the fog filled the valley on the other side of the mountain, and you could see the whole range of mountains if you squinted.
The Gondola took us up to 3,625 feet on Mt. Mansfield, but brave climbers could climb up to 4,395 feet. I, of course, declined that opportunity, since most of it was straight up the cliff face!
Even at this elevation, the flowers bloomed profusely, and I saw a butterfly I've never seen before, and haven't identified yet. We met a man from Oregon on the trail whose goal is to visit the tallest point in each state of the country.

The zip line had several brave/foolish people willing to take the 10,000+ foot in total length ride to the base. Not me. Zip lines are second only to skiing in my eyes as the top foolish behaviors people indulge in.
At the bottom of the mountain, is Stowe, VT, a delightful village whose city fathers insure that each building is constructed to look like all the old buildings. Down the road from downtown Stowe, is the Moss Glen Waterfall, and it is absolutely amazing! First are the fields of stunning wildflowers growing in a bog along the trail.
The stream is clear and rock filled....

Joe Pye Weed have a wonderful fragrance, despite their odd sounding name.
The trail started to rise, and in a few minutes we saw the waterfall, descending 4 or 5 different levels, and the rounded gorge walls shaped by years of flowing water.
Can't resist making a movie of waterfalls!
Truthfully though, the most moooving experience of the trip so far was our tour of the Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Factory. What a sweet/cold place! We got samples, but then wanted more from the Scoop Shop and had real trouble deciding which flavor to get. My new mantra is "Peace, Love and Ice Cream."

Monday, August 31, 2015

Vermont's Killer Rocks

Instead of traveling west or down to Florida for vacation, we decided to head north to New England this year. Smugglers' Notch is in the Green Mountains, and derives its name from activities precipitated by a request of President Thomas Jefferson to prevent American involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. The Embargo Act of 1807 forbade American trade with Great Britain and Canada.
But proximity to Montreal made it a convenient trading partner, and the Act caused great hardship for Vermonters, many of whom continued the illegal trade with Canada, carrying goods and herding livestock through the Notch. Fugitive slaves also used the Notch as an escape route to Canada.
The road rises from our resort through granite cliffs to cross the Notch and descend on to Stowe. A large flashing sign announces that semis and buses are prohibited through the Notch, followed by another sign that the road is narrowing. A third sign warns that we are in an active rock fall zone, and may be attacked by falling rocks at any time!

The route was improved to accommodate automobile traffic in 1922 providing a route for liquor to be brought in from Canada during the Prohibition years. But apparently no one considered moving the rocks from the projected path of the road, so you have to watch carefully to keep from running into huge boulders in your path. I've heard that mountains make their own weather, and it seemed true in the Notch. Dark clouds looked like a storm was ready to strike, while the wind blew dust devils from the dirt parking areas.
We intended to go to Bingham Falls and headed up a stone stairway from the top of the Notch. A hiker heading down advised that there weren't any falls in that direction, just an 880 foot climb! So we headed back down the mountain to get the directions from our condo, and found we hadn't driven nearly far enough on the other side to find the falls. Another trip through the Notch took us to the pull-off for a short hike to Bingham Falls. The challenge was getting safely down to the bottom of the cliffs to view the beautiful falls and crystal clear pools at the bottom. But Dick took a short slide down the rocks as we headed back to the car. Thus - killer rocks.
Vermont is famous for its beautiful fall leaves and skiing in the winter. Sorry to all those ski buffs, but I think it's silly to slide down a mountain in the cold on purpose. We are enjoying the fall wildflowers and will go canoeing sometime while we are here. The hard part is deciding whether to join the resort's activities or go out on our own!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bird Whisperer

Last night at the Beckham Bird Club meeting, Jean and I chatted about our husbands being out of town or otherwise busy today, and agreed to meet at Beckley Creek Park this morning for a little girl-time birding. The weather was absolutely perfect as we set off down the trail along Floyd's Fork.
The meadows are in full bloom with iron weed, milkweed, blue lupine and some yellow rayed flower I can't identify. The purple cone flowers have finished blooming, making this extra attractive to the Goldfinches, who were chowing down on the small seeds.
I love their little black caps and the way they can balance on the most slender of branches to pull minuscule seeds out of a pod.
On closer examination of the photos when I got home, apparently many of the blue birds I thought to be Indigo Buntings were in fact Blue Grosbeaks. The rusty patch on their wings and really large beak were the clues. With a beak like that, you expect them to eat only seeds, but these birds were going for the millions of grasshoppers in the fields this morning.
Some cardinal flower had been planted along the sidewalk, and I said "We should look for some Hummingbirds along here..."

and voila, Jean found a Hummer perched in a tree above the red blossoms. As the sun rose and warmed things up, I mentioned that we hadn't seen any Vultures yet. Turn around and voila, there are 6-8 Turkey Vultures soaring on their first warm thermal of the day. This meadow usually has lots of Meadow Larks in it but we haven't seen or heard any. Well, nesting season is over, so they don't need to sing, but voila, we saw 4-5 Meadow Larks in the next minute. Either we are just good about knowing what to look for in this spot, or I'm developing some new gift that allows me to summon birds like some sort of Bird Whisperer!  It was harder this morning, since we saw mystery brown birds that were probably juvenile somethings, and few birds were singing. We decided they were juvenile Red Winged Blackbirds later.
I did get a shot of a bird we couldn't identify, planning to send it to one of my expert birder friends for help. Before sending the email, though, I remembered the new Merlin Bird Photo ID service Cornell Univ has to identify birds by photo, and thought I'd give it a try. Some of the options they came up with were pretty weird, like Eurasian Collared Dove, Ovenbird and Common Grackle, but then it suggested a female or immature Common Yellowthroat, and their photo pretty well matched mine. Certainly Common Yellowthroats live in the area we found this bird. Pretty cool!
Not sure what kind of milkweed this is. It's pink like my swamp milkweed, but much shorter. Anyway, especially as the sun rose higher, we saw more Monarch butterflies than I've seen in years.
Everyone is making a to-do about the drop in population of Monarchs, and I'm glad effort is being made to save them. But I also haven't seen any Buckeyes or Fritillaries this year, and others I haven't even thought of yet.
The pond at the Grand Allee has been treated to keep the duckweed down, and now has an aerator bubbling to keep the water clear, and it does look nice.

Butterflies weren't the only insects enjoying the morning. We saw lots of dragonflies, such as this Widow Skimmer...
...and the ever noisy cicada. Park staff were mowing some fields nearby and the Barn Swallows were having a great time chasing down the grasshoppers. School started today in Jefferson County, but I'm glad for an opportunity for some nice weather birding!