Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Apple Drop Time

An apple drops crashing through leaves and branches, narrowly missing a bird that is relieving other hanging-on-fruit of the menace of caterpillars; plunging downward like a skydiver sans parachute the apple lands with a thud; a dead plant stalk impales its nearly perfect skin, puncturing a wound adding to the bruise of arriving at its destination on time but to fast for a soft landing. 

All of this before a clock hand could sweep past two seconds. Only on this clock, the next sweep of the hand awaits, waits, stands still until attention is lost to something other than time.

And so I go back to sipping before the steam escapes with all the robust flavor of Smithsonian Certified Bird Friendly coffee and migrates back to the shade-grown coffee plantations in the Sierra and La Frailesca regions in Chiapas, Mexico. 

Some of the birds in our backyard also are preparing for their rise to the thermals as they head back to their wintering grounds. 

A red-eyed vireo looks down silently from above. All summer its Presstissimo song kept the tempo of time from sunrise to sunset. Now it seems to be reminiscing summer romances played in Adagio - slow with great expression.

Meanwhile, a black and white warbler (zebra bird for me) darts about the apple tree too light to knock an apple loose, but moves fast, and is alert enough to spot tiny worms, spiders, caterpillars, and insects that are too small for me to observe even if I could fly up into the tree for a closer look. I know the avian predator has found breakfast as I watch a snapping munching beak. 

A hummingbird zips past me with a buzz of a giant fly, pouncing upon jewelweed blossoms atop seven-foot-high stems; perhaps I spilled a bit of caffeinated upon their roots earlier in the spring. 

High atop one of our butternut trees, a lemon yellow breast with black wings, a tanager already in its fall foliage having lost, like the late summer sun, most of its hot red semblance now turned to the yellow of our black cherry, sugar maple, and witch hazel. 

Bumblebees scour the last of the yellow Maximillian sunflowers bowing to the goldenrod which bow even lower in respect for its taller brethren. 

Peppers race to finish their transition from green to yellow, or orange, or red; they know their time is short too. 

The gravity of time surrounds me; if I were inside, the weight of falling through bounded space would age me and plummet me faster than the falling apple, my hair turning the color of snow, dropping from the branches and leaves of my head, alerting me of my inevitable final migration. 

Fortunately, I am outside. No mechanical unrelenting sweeping hands here. Only an occasional falling apple or butternut racing down to remind me time outside is not lost, only postponed, delayed, slowed for the intervening period. 

Nature offers me time, between drops, to observe, reflect, appreciate life as though it was endless, timeless, everlasting. 

I am in no rush to reach my final destination, have no desire to be reminded of time quickly passing. I will savor my bird-friendly coffee just as the birds that benefit from it savor the insects on our pesticide-free fruit trees and shrubs. 

We are all on one sort of clock or another. I prefer mine with gaps and only occasional reminders just as nature marches to the reduced daylight hours gradually closing out the summer season. 

When the next apple falls I will measure out the enrichment from the life I have observed about me, in the intervening flutter of wings and wispy rise of coffee bean steam. 


Always there is something to appreciate and treasure,

no less so than time in nature. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Return to the Northeast Kingdom - for Birds, Quiet, and Relaxation!

Vermont's Northeast Kingdom is known for many things: moose, spruce bogs, poverty, isolation, fiercely independent residents. It also has birds that can't be found elsewhere in the state, boreal birds that normally live out their lives north of us in Canada. 

Canada Jay

Our last NEK expedition was way back in 2017, when we got to see many of the iconic boreal species that make the area so special. (Click here for photos of that trip, including feeding Canada Jays from our hands!)

We were way overdue for a return visit but COVID keeps us wary of staying in motels, interacting with people in restaurants, etc. We lucked into a remote off-the-grid airbnb cabin in West Burke, where we could cook our own meals and see no other people

Just what we needed! Isolation, woods, our own meadow, and quiet!

On our first full day, we spent five  hours birding at Moose Bog in Ferdinand VT with boreal bird guru Tom Berriman. 

Tom birds this area several times a week, all year round, on foot or snowshoes. He knows where the male Spruce Grouse takes dust baths, and the fallen log where its mate prefers to sit and watch anyone who happens to pass by. He knows that there are two families of Canada Jays and that none of them like any bird from the "wrong" family horning in on their territory. He can call in Black-backed Woodpeckers and White-winged Crossbills. (Photos of these birds are at our first NEK post here.)

Tom took us first on a short walk along South America Pond Road, before the sun had burned off the morning's fog.

Then on to the bog!

As we scanned the still waters, Tom said "Everything happens here" - and he was right. Almost immediately, we saw a Merlin atop a tall dead tree - and then another Merlin - and a third - and then a Peregrine Falcon! For several breath-held moments, we three watched in astonishment as one of the Merlins chased a Lesser Yellowlegs (a shorebird not often seen in the NEK) - two sleek, fast, streamlined birds, one intent on eating the other. The yellowlegs not only eluded the falcon but then, to rub it in, doubled back and flew right below its perch before leaving the area!

Canada Jays appeared soon after Tom spread out some unsalted peanuts for them. These appealing birds were called Gray Jays until a couple of years ago, and they've had several folk names including Whiskeyjacks (a mispronunciation of an Algonquin term) and "camp robbers" - because they would come right down into logging camps to find food. 

Canada Jays are extremely well-designed for a cold climate, both physically and in their habits. They're intrepid, curious and omnivorous. Their thick, puffy plumage gets puffed out in the winter, providing excellent insulation all over their bodies, even covering their legs and feet. They stash large quantities of food for use during the Northeast Kingdom's long winters. They even nest in the winter!

When they came down for peanuts, they stuffed as many as possible into their mouths and throats before flying off. Tom: Just about every tree around here has untold numbers of nuts poked into crevices and hidden under bark. 

After our remarkable birding day, we two spent our time right at our cabin - eating, reading, drowsing, playing cards, talking and just vegging outdoors. We could hear distant cars and machinery sometimes, but for the most part we were in silence except for the quiet sounds of birds and insects. 

The cabin was beautifully designed and beautifully constructed out of local timber and lots and lots of windows.

The solar lights were an unexpected bonus!

We would have loved an extra day at the West Burke cabin, but it was completely booked. Many others have discovered the peace and beauty here!

posted by Maeve, photos by Bernie

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Towhee Curious about Human

Hard to beat the Ringlets, the Satyrs, Bobolinks, the incredible orange Fritillary, the giant Jack-in-the-pulpit, the amazingly large oaks, birches, and ash trees, the solitude of waving grass meadows, and unmeasurable views, at Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge in Charlotte, Vermont. However, my experience with this Towhee might have topped the list.

Maeve and I heard the towhee but did not observe it until Maeve moved on along the trail. I stayed and worked a few different viewpoints to find it, to no avail. Just as I was ready to leave the Towhee appeared in a cedar tree about 40 feet away.

The bird quickly overcame any shyness, stepping out into full unobstructed view. She (I assume a female) continued to call (another towhee nearby was also 'calling' as well). She preened, looked about, preened, looked about. She seemed at ease with me in full view and she in full view. She ducked her head into her breast as if playing peek-a-boo.

Then she moved behind just a tiny bit of cover and bent her head around the branch as if to see if I was still there.

Next, she turned her tail to me and moved to another tree closer to me, again turning her head seemingly looking down at me. Then moved to another tree a bit closer, and finally another tree even closer to me. Each time she seemed to be tilting or turning her head (like my family's dog used to do when I was speaking to her) as if she was curious about me.

Finally, she gave one last call, then flew over me, across the trail, onto the ground.

I don't know about her; however, I felt and feel like I made a new friend. Perhaps the longing for interaction (interaction suppressed by Covid) with others, even other species, is experienced by birds as well as humans.

My motto is a bird in hand deserves a stick around and visit with the bird as long as it so desires. This thirteen-minute visit with a Towhee seemed like an eternity - an eternity of bliss. 

She ducked her head as if playing peek-a-boo.
Perhaps she knew I was taking photos, and obliged with both profiles.
She seemed at ease with me in full view and she in full view.
She gave one last call, then flew over me, across the trail, onto the ground.

By Bernie - and see my Fritillary photos and others at iNatualist 

Saturday, May 29, 2021


It's almost summer, but we're looking back to an April 10 walk at the South Hero Marsh Trail - and an  exciting little story. 

The trailhead is in a lot that's used by the town highway department to store gravel, sand, etc. Our first indication that the parking lot was also being used as a nursery was an agitated Killdeer, drooping one wing, fanning its beautiful rusty and white tail.

The bird was doing a distraction display, trying to get us - two big dangerous-looking creatures - away from something!

Then we saw a second Killdeer, several feet away from the displaying bird. This one was atop a small mound of gravel, looking tense and alert.

As it stood up, we could see at least two eggs!

Killdeer don't build what most of us think of as nests. They just make little scrapes in sand or dirt or gravel, choosing locations like golf courses, driveways, and even flat gravel roofs. Sometimes they add little pebbles or sticks or bits of trash to their nest. 

This couple had chosen an uncomfortable-looking pile of rocks.

It's not a good idea to publicize the location of nests, so we waited to do this post until the pair of Killdeer had a chance to finish incubating their eggs. Killdeer young are "precocial"; that is, they're fully feathered when they hatch, and they can walk as soon as their feathers dry.
About two weeks after our walk, we learned that the pair was still there and that someone, perhaps the South Hero road crew, had placed warning flags around the nest so visitors wouldn't drive over it.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Bird box photos, Jericho, VT


Build a bird box. That sounds like a good idea. There are easy-to-follow instructions on Audubon and Cornell and other websites. The recommended dimensions are listed for each species of cavity-nesting bird that nests in our area. And there are recommendations on where to place the box, the height off the ground, and the direction to face them.

Only one problem. It requires building a box. A box with a roof and floor and walls that all come together and will not fall apart or be invaded at the first squirrel inquiry. 

Now, I can put a nail or screw into a section of the board, I can almost cut a straight line, I can drill a hole, I can measure at least down to 1/4", and I have put things like my kids' bikes together, though as I recall it took nearly the whole week before Christmas. But let's face it, my woodworking would make a carpenter roll on the floor in laughter. 

Fortunately, the birds don't appear to be too fussy. In fact, after following the dimensions recommended in building a bird box, I often go the extra step of writing the name of the species the box is designed for on the front of the bird box - just in case the product of my carpentry does not quite look like the ideal nesting site the birds are looking for.

If you are concerned with your building skills, let me put that to rest. Though only a few of my bird boxes are occupied in any given year, at least a few usually do get used to raise chicks, as do snags we leave standing. Last year we sat many a summer day watching a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers raise a brood in a tall dead tree (they drilled their own motel) in the backyard.

Here is the kicker. In the past, one box designed and labeled for a nuthatch was used by a Downy Woodpecker, while a nuthatch nested in a wren box. I guess being exact on dimensions is helpful but not always necessary. 

One word of caution: I built a bird box to the dimensions for a Northern Flicker, then took a black magic marker and wrote FLICKER on the front of the box in large letters. However, my spacing left the letters very close to each other. The letters L and I ran together making them look like a U unless you were close to the box. So it looked like I was advertising the box (bird motel) for Fu_ _ ers instead of Flickers. OOPS. Never did see any birds using that box, though the squirrels sure chewed out the opening. Perhaps the birds are more discriminating than I think. 

This spring we wanted to add a screech owl or saw-whet owl box to our list of bird motels in the backyard. Not having the appropriate lumber and due to Covid not willing to go into a box store to get some, I placed a request on Front Page Forum.

Three generous offers came in. We ended up with a board and other materials to build one or more bird boxes, and even received a kit entirely cut out, and drilled, ready to assemble owl box. What a great community we live in, filled with talented, caring, and generous people! 

Dan T. of Jericho provided us with the owl box kit. He writes, "It was my pleasure! My son, Ben-6, helped and he and I will assemble ours soon. I’ll be sure to stay in touch with you about its occupancy." 

Brian C. of Jericho left us lumber for another bird box build. And Jeff E. of Jericho left other materials for bird box installations. Jeff also shared photos of his owl box build and installation. 

Below are some of our installed bird box motels with a current vacancy.

Designed and built for a Pileated woodpecker.

Maeve's [store-bought] wren box is used for multiple nestings nearly every year.

Build it, clean it out each spring and fall, and momma and papa birds will nest in your backyard.

Enjoy your backyard observing nature. She has a great deal to offer.

View the Owls of Vermont presentation by  Zac Cota, sponsored by North Branch Nature Center and Green Mountain Audubon recorded Feb 26, 2021. OR access the recorded presentation (and others) on the North Branch Nature Center web site at presentations. Five Hundred people (the Zoom limit) joined in to listen and watch this presentation on Feb, 26.