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!

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Raising Wrens

This late in the summer, most songbirds in the backyard are finished raising their young. Earlier, a pair of Carolina Wrens built a nest in the gourd outside our kitchen door, but they decided to raise a brood elsewhere apparently. In the last week or so, however, I've noticed them on the patio making LOTS of noise, as these small brown birds can do. One captive male Carolina Wren sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day.
I'll never figure out how they can hold a bug firmly in the beak, and sing or scold at the same time.
They particularly like to sit on the chairs around the patio table while delivering dinner to the chicks. Are they calling to waken the babies? To make sure no predators are around?
When we eat at the patio table, they are very unhappy. The scold us from the trees, the fences, nearby bushes, trying their best to chase these monsters away from their children.
The chicks hear them, and are getting big enough to stretch up and extend their beaks outside the hole in the gourd. "Here Mom, we're ready. Bring the bug on a fast fly-by, and we'll catch it!"
Either one of the parents got brave or we moved far enough away for their comfort, and this one made a stop at the nest. Think how many trips it must take them to feed one bug to each chick each time! Yet those little birds will incubate the eggs for 12-16 days, and in another 10-16 days the chicks are ready to fledge.
These chicks must be nearing the end of their days in the nest gourd. Here's one brave little guy taking a look at the world before he has to jump out into it. I'll know they are gone when the parents stop making a racket on my patio chairs all day!