Snow on the Green Mountains
I mentioned in my previous post how much of a fan I am of winter. Which is to say... not much of a fan at all. So naturally, in February of this year I made the only logical choice: I went north to Vermont, a place with even more winter weather. A very smart, normal thing to do.
The truth is that I went to college in Vermont (I even have some blog posts from there, from back in the day when this was a photoblog instead of a birding blog), and I've been itching to go back since I returned to the US. I still know lots of people from back there, including my friend Clayton who's been living in Burlington since getting married last summer. And if I'm going to suffer through a winter, I might as well go somewhere that has real snow rather than lots of mud and varying shades of grey like DC.
To my pleasant surprise, there turned out to be a train running directly from Washington DC to Burlington- who would have guessed. It was a 12-hour journey, which is longer than I prefer to spend on really any form of transportation. That said, if I have to be stuck on any vehicle for that long, it might as well be a train: big seats, free wifi, and a view out the window are hard to beat. And the views out the window were indeed beautiful, especially once I got north of New York City: seeing the sunset over the snow-covered Taconics is practically worth the price of a train ticket alone. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures since a bumpy, fast-moving train isn't the best spot for that, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
My first full day in Vermont I went hiking with Clayton and Katie, first along some trails by the Green Mountain Audubon Center. Now that name might suggest birding potential, and I'm sure in the spring and summer it's a fantastic birding spot, but in the dead of winter there was exactly one species of bird: Black-capped Chickadees. What it did have, however, was beautiful scenery, including a snow-covered Camel's Hump and a beautiful icy stream running through the woods.
We did another hike in the late afternoon in order to catch the sunset, which led us to a bare hilltop with a nice view over the town of Burlington and the northern part of Lake Champlain. In terms of easily accessible sunset views, Vermont is really hard to beat.
|The Burlington "skyline" (as it were)|
|Clayton and Katie at sunset|
My Sunday in Vermont I spent down in Middlebury town, doing a mix of birding outings and social calls with people I still know there. On the way down I stopped at Charlotte Beach on the shore of Lake Champlain to search for the Barrow's Goldeneyes that had been reported there a few days ago, which would have been a lifer for me. I saw a couple hundred Common Goldeneyes, as well as lots of other winter ducks like Lesser Scaups and Buffleheads, but was unable to spot any Barrow's Goldeneyes- partly because all the ducks were about 400 feet away and obscured by haze, and partly because it was -20º Celsius and it only took about 10 minutes of standing outside scanning the lake before I completely lost feeling in my face and hands. Ah, winter!
|Are there any Barrow's Goldeneyes in there? Doubtful...|
|The Charlotte "beach"|
|Distant peak in the Adirondacks|
After a morning church service, I stopped by my old college campus in Middlebury- not to relive the glory days of undergrad (good lord no), but in search of the Pine Grosbeaks that were sometimes on campus. I ended up seeing them without even needing to leave the car: a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks feeding on an apple tree near eye level. They were much bigger than I expected, and it's easy to see why they're one of American birders' favorite winter finches, even though I didn't see any of the bright pink males.
After lunch with Middlebury friends I headed to the eastern part of Addison County in search of some other winter migrants. My main stop was the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, famed for its huge flocks of wintering Snow Geese, although those seem to have tapered off in recent years (none were there when I visited). I pulled into the wildlife viewing area and immediately came across a small flock of two winter lifers: Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs! The latter was somewhat of a surprise, and they were both great birds, especially as they stayed on the ground foraging while I watched them, not getting spooked in the least.
My last birding outing in Vermont before returning to boring, grey DC was a trip to Moose Bog, hidden deep in the Northeast Kingdom a few hours' drive from Burlington and one of Vermont's best-known birding spots. It's one of the only places in the area to hold some boreal forest specialties, including Grey Jay, Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee. None of those are regular however, and I knew it was virtually impossible to see all of them, and each was unlikely. Still, any chance to see Spruce Grouse or Black-backed Woodpecker is worth it, so off I went.
Getting to Moose Bog proved to be a bigger adventure than I'd anticipated: nearly as soon as I left Burlington it began to snow, becoming steadily heavier until I could barely see the road in front of me. It was so early in the morning that snowplows were not universally out, and I was in a two-wheel drive rental car with no snow tires. It was the sort of conditions where an average driver would be nearly guaranteed to end up driving headfirst into a snowbank- or worse. Thankfully, I'm not an average driver: I grew up in northern Michigan and went to school in Vermont. Half of my life was spent preparing for that moment, and damned if I wasn't going to let a little snow get in the way of birding. The drive was delayed by an hour or so and there were some close calls, but I made it to Moose Bog by the late morning.
Moose Bog itself was... a mixed bag. To cut to the chase, I didn't end up seeing Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, or Boreal Chickadee, the three lifers I was after. I probably saw Boreal Chickadee in the midst of a flock of Black-capped Chickadees, and I may have heard the wingbeats of a Spruce Grouse, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers of any kind- not even distant drumming. I found out later that there was an alternate trail I hadn't taken (or been aware of) that's where most of the rarer birds are, which was rather annoying, but that's how birding is.
On the other hand, birding there was surprisingly fun nonetheless: boreal forest birds apparently have no fear of humans whatsoever, and I found myself followed wherever I went by Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches expecting handouts of seeds. I even had a chickadee perch on my head for a while, presumably eyeing my hand expectantly. I eventually gave in and gathered some sunflower seeds another birder had scattered on the ground, and I had to do nothing but open my hand a little before chickadees and nuthatches were perching in it gobbling up seeds. I can only imagine that's what Disney princesses feel like.
|Black-capped Chickadee in the snow|
|A Red-breasted Nuthatch begging for a handout|
I mentioned earlier there were 4 target birds at Moose Bog. I certainly missed three of them, but I did, in fact, see the last one toward the end of my time there: a Grey Jay (recently inexplicably renamed by some authorities as Canada Jay) perched quietly in a spruce tree, serenely watching the rest of the birds going about their business. It wasn't technically a lifer, as I'd seen them long ago in Canada, but it was still a great bird to catch up with, and certainly the best look I'd had at one.
I left for DC after my weekend in Vermont highly satisfied (and admittedly ready to return to slightly warmer weather). There's something incredibly renewing about being in the Green Mountains- maybe the fresh air, or maybe the friendliness of Vermonters that I miss in the big city. Or maybe just all the people I know and love who live there. I certainly need to get back, maybe in a time of year when the driving is less life-threatening.