The Avian Rights of Spring
The spring migration of birds, to me, is the really one best times of the year to bird watch. In my mind it is one of the quintessential barometers of the season. Not only are birds arriving in the area to breed, but there are also those that are passing through to points north. If you are up early in the mornings, and have been paying attention over the last couple of weeks you will have noted the remarkable change in our local forests. It is at this time of year that every bird will be making themselves known and setting up shop for the summer. Over the last few weeks I have been watching the different species trickle back up north and listening to the rising cacophony of bird music in the mornings.
We are fortunate, and have a great diversity of birds in our northern forest; an embarrassment of riches so to speak. Many of these birds travel great distances - from as far as Latin and South American- to breed, raise young, and live out their summer here in the Northern Hardwood Coniferous forests of the Green Mountains.
Upon arrival they start picking out habitat on which to stake their claim. The strongest individuals are most likely to grab the best territories. Meaning they are able to exclude their competitors (within species) for the prime spots. This ultimately gives them access to the best food, cover, and vantage point from which to attract the opposite sex. The birds use many strategies to decide who gets what. Often times, as in the case of the Red Winged Blackbird, it is a matter of who gets there first. Older males migrate before the females and young males. They get the pick of the territories.
Other strategies include ritualized display or mocked battle as in the case of the Wild Turkey. You very well may have seen the big Toms out in one of the local fields puffed up, displaying their tail fan, and strutting trying to attract the attention of the congregated hens and discourage the advances of rival Tom’s and the immature Jakes.
The competition for the prime breeding territories is tough, but it insures that the strongest individuals in a population have the greatest chance to bring off a brood in the best habitat available. It is this intra-specific competition that drives the evolutionary process and naturally selects the strongest possible individuals to succeed in their efforts to pass on their genetics to the next generation.
Once breeding territories have been established the business of attracting mates begins and this is typically done through song and ritual display. Go stand outside your back door and listen. I guarantee that you will hear some bird trying to attract the attention of a mate. Go out side in the early morning or later in the evening and you will hear a great deal more. If you visit any marsh, watch for the male Red Winged blackbirds flashing their red shoulder patches. The field at the corner of Moulton Ln. and Stagecoach Rd. has a couple of breeding males that have already set up territories across the pond from each other and you can watch them posture and show off their red epaulets warning each other to stand clear of each other. This simultaneously tells rivals that they are on his turf and signals, in conjunction with song, the attention of the females he hopes to breed with. In the case of the ruffed grouse he drums his chest with his wings to attract attention and mark his territory. This sound can travel over a half mile and is one of my favorite displays. I like the fact that human males are not the only ones who beat their chest and make noise to attract the attention of the ladies.
Feather plumage is another factor in which mates are selected. In most cases the males are the one trying to attract the attention of females. Subsequently, male plumage is much more ornate and colorful to visually attract females. Birds like the Northern Cardinal, the Scarlet tanager, Wood duck, and Indigo bunting all have very colorful plumage. It is one of their strategies in attraction a mate.
The female’s plumage are considerably more drab which camouflages them while they sit on nests. It’s a neat dichotomy. Males the bright colors to attract attention and females need the camouflage to hide and protect the nest. The irony is palpable.
Habitat selection, breeding plumage, song, and ritual display all combined help decipher who are the strongest individual during a breeding season. It is what drives and molds the populations of birds we have in the northern forests and this is the prime time to visit the marshes, woods, and fields to view them in action. By choosing different habitats one can maximize the diversity of birds they see and by paying close attention one can witness bird behavior at its most intense.
Fits and Spasms: Winter turns to Spring
Spring often comes to Vermont in fits and spasms. The same can be said about winter’s exit. The seasonal ebb and flow is a process that is not unlike an unruly toddler at a nice restaurant. That is to say things may start out as planned, but you never know what is going to happen from minute to minute. As a parent of an almost 2 year old, I can say I have written off an evening of fine dining with my family for quite some time. As a naturalist, though, I am fascinated, confused, confounded, and delighted by the transient state of mountain weather, especially at the turn of the seasons.
On my tours I am often asked to explain or provide some insight to the season’s transitions and the vagaries of the weather. Talk about pressure. How does one explain the 70 degree swings of temperature we enjoyed last week? How does one explain Mona Lisa’s smile? The simple fact is, one cannot. The weather is just that, the weather. No matter how hard we work to insulate ourselves from it one cannot deny that ultimately there is no control over the whims and fancy of Mother Nature. It is also probably the reason why the weather is the most talked about subject matter in the history of humanity.
For the uninitiated this is a bit disconcerting. We are all pretty used to having control of things, or at least believing we are in control of things. Getting what we expect is often as simple as either turning the thermostat dial or punching a few buttons on a key board. The weather is a simple reminder of how little control I have, especially if the electricity goes out.
So we are left to adapt. A day at work often involves two or more changes of clothing. Not in the sense of a fashionista, but rather in the way that one dresses to meet the ups and downs of a day outside in these beautiful hills; regardless of temperature or precipitation in whatever format it is delivered. In doing so we state that we are not apart from nature but rather a part of it.
If you look close enough there is very much an order to the chaos that defines the transition of winter to spring. It is not just snow disappearing from the trail system, although that is most certainly one aspect of it. The overall trend is of spring’s rebirth. A single day is only a small cross section in time of what goes on. Stringing those days together is what tells the story of how winter turns to spring.
A day often starts with the crunch of a thin layer of new snow left from the night and ice skimmed puddles in the driveway. It quickly changes to a damp and muddy path as the snow melts. Eventually, the mud dries and one often returns to their start on dry trail and it is as if the early morning snow did not exist at all. As the sun sets and the temperature again drops we are left to ponder whether a fire in the stove might be appropriate. It is all delightfully manic.
As we string these transitional days together we find that the sun rises earlier and sets later, new bird songs call out from the forest with increasing intensity, and new green shoots rise up from the ground between brown husks of last year’s growth. A larger pattern takes shape until we reach our zenith at the summer solstice.
Yes, we are moving through spring, one day at a time. The weather forecast is calling for fits and spasms as winter slowly gives up its hold on the Green Mountains. I delight in every quirky aspect of this time of year and revel in the lack of control I have over the ebb and flow of life. These are great days.
An Ode to Winter at Trapp
Meet the Old Man of the Mountain, Gordon Winchell.
Gordon and his wife Enid were among the first purchasers of a Trapp Family “guest house” in the mid-1980s.
More than 25 years later, they still make the annual journey from their home in Lincoln, MA—through rain and snow and sometimes sunny blue skies—to enjoy the unique magic of this resort in the first full week of March.
The beauty of this place makes Gordon’s heart sing, quite literally.
At 92, he cuts a fine figure on his cross-country skis as he bounds off the trails and onto the broad meadows with the mountains behind.
“I love the mountains and the valley, the open fields and blue sky,” he says, his expressive blue eyes twinkling beneath a flowering thatch of woolly eyebrows.
On his first ski this year, Gordon snapped on his boards, slid down the snowy hill outside the guest house, thrust his ski poles high in the air and broke into a yodeling song, his 92-year-old voice wavering but true: “Over the mountain trails we go. Yodel ay he, yodel ay he, ay he who. Lovely mountain streams below. Yodel ay he, yodel ay he who!”
This is a good time to disclose that I am Gordon Winchell’s son-in-law, and I was standing next to him during this melodic outbreak. I came into the Winchell family picture 32 years ago when I was fortunate enough to marry their delightful daughter Meg, who is every bit as passionate as her Dad in her exuberant love of all things Trapp.
In fact, Meg and I purchased the Winchell guest unit from her parents six years ago, as much to indulge our own selfish pleasure in being here as to ensure the continuation of a favorite family tradition.
Today, we are Enid and Gordon’s chauffeurs, happily transporting them once a year in our Jersey van from their Massachusetts’ home to their Stowe guest house. (And, yes, Snooki, the Jersey shore can’t hold a candle to the Vermont mountains. Read this and weep.)
What attracted my in-laws to this place more than 25 years ago is still a powerful magnet for visitors today.
Enid says that long before the guest houses were built, she and Gordon were attracted to the “the aura of a very pleasant place”—the land, the Austrian-style accommodations, the von Trapp family, “and of course we loved the music, Dad being a singer.”
When our children were young, Meg and I would bring them here to teach them how to cross-country ski before they would attempt a downhill run.
Now in his twilight years, Gordon skis, often twice a day, while Enid works on her memoirs about leaving war-torn England as a child to escape the looming Battle of Britain and the London blitz. She and her siblings were cared for by American foster parents. Of course, she fell in love with a handsome Navy medic, her future husband Gordon, before returning to England after the war. The rest, as they say, is history or, in this particular case, history in the making. We look forward to the completion of Enid’s memoirs.
At our Trapp condo, wrapped in the cozy warmth of a blazing wood fire, we enjoy looking through the east-facing picture window to watch the sun rise or witness a howling Nor’easter bury the hills and valleys in a thick blanket of snow, all the. We prepare most of our meals in the kitchen here, but we also enjoy one or two fine dinners at the lodge’s Austrian-style restaurant.
As I write this, Meg and her father are outside, enjoying a last day of cross-country skiing before returning to Boston.
I haven’t told you yet about the cougar and moose tracks we found in the woods on a ghost-silent winter morning ... or the chance encounter with Johannes’ long-haired Highland cattle along the “Skater’s Waltz”… or the excitement of hearing a clattering cowbell announce the winner of a collegiate cross-country ski race.
I could ramble on, and maybe I have done so already.
It’s nearly time to start packing for our Saturday departure. Our memories of another pleasure-filled visit to the Trapp Family Resort will soon be all we have left —until we return again next March.
And we will be back. That’s for certain. You will know us by the Old Man of the Mountain, with that twinkle in his eye and a yodel in his voice.
Winter’s Pine Siskins
Vermont’s Green Mountains are truly a unique place. The winter season illustrates that nicely. People travel from all over the world to visit our little corner of the world to marvel at our beautiful landscape and, in many cases, experience the recreational opportunities it affords. Much like human beings who come to visit, there is a bird population that visits Vermont during its long winter as well.
There are two groups of birds that call Vermont home during the winter. The first set are those species that live in our forests year round and do not migrate at all. They include species like the Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, the Wood Peckers (downy, hairy, and pileated), and the Kinglets (golden-crowned and ruby-crowned) just to name a few. They are the hardy of the hardy and seek out an existence in a, relatively speaking, harsh environment as one of their specialties.
The second group is composed of bird species that migrate to Vermont to wait out the winter until their homes in the boreal forest or arctic tundra of the far North become hospitable once again in the spring. They include, most notably, the Snow Bunting, Common Redpole, Hoary Redpole, Snowy Owl, and the Pine Siskin.
As fall transitions to winter and the first snows of the year blanket the ground, many of our feathered year round residents migrate down from the high elevation forest that top the area hills and mountain peaks, and the first visitors from the north start to arrive for the season. It can be an anxious time of year for the area bird watchers. Who will arrive first? When and where?
Of these visitors one of my favorites over the years has been the Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinnus). By some standards the Pine Siskin is rather drably colored, although I feel that is a mischaracterization. It is a small finch with a heavily brown streaked body (head, back, breast , and flank), beautiful yellow wing bars, and dark brown/black wing tips. It resembles its close relative the American Goldfinch in size and song, and during the winter months is often found in large migratory groups.
The Pine Siskin spends the majority of its time in the high latitudes of the boreal forest of Canada. As its latin species designation (C. pinnus) suggests it is a lover of the coniferous forest. During its winter migration it is often found in large groups or near the large stands of conifers that dot our mixed low elevation forests.
During the spring, summer, and fall the Pine Siskin makes its home in the boreal forest to the north of us. It is a habitat dominated by spruce and fir and subsequently Pine Siskins choose similar habitats on their wintering grounds here in Vermont.
The first Pine Siskins started arriving in our area –this year - around the second week of December and as the season has progressed I have been seeing them with a greater increasing frequency. The first reports I found were online and it wasn’t soon after that they started showing up in number here at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe VT.
Two weeks ago, while inspecting a snowshoe trail with Trapp Family Lodge guide Christian Poacher, we came across a great flock that numbered – by estimation - near 200 individuals feeding on Yellow birch catkins. The orchestration with which the group moved from tree to tree was astonishing and we spent some time watching them move through the forest. The sheer volume of birds moving together was the kind of spectacle reserved for the Discovery Channel.
Despite the mass migration of birds out of Vermont during the fall, there is still much to see. Whether it be the birds that call the Green Mountains their year round home, winter visitors from high elevation forests and points far north, or the unique adaptations and behaviors that these birds that choose to tough out their winter season here in our back yard. There still is much to see in Vermont’s Avian community.
A Few Kicks, and A Little Glide
To say it has been a warm start to winter is an understatement. According to the talking heads on our local news channels it was the second warmest November to date, on record (150 years). Anyone who likes to strap on slippery boards and propel themselves across snow is chomping at the bit. Even the oldest of salts, who remember the warmest November on record (1945), are becoming a little eager. It has become almost painful answering the phone in the Outdoor Center because, ultimately, you end up having to tell a perfectly excited person that we are unfortunately not open…..yet. Talk about being a wet blanket.
Alas, patience is a virtue best cultivated by recognizing, enduring, and conquering haste. If there is one thing we have had a lot of around the Outdoor Center it’s the opportunity to cultivate patience this season.
We are, of course, making every effort – given the hand Mother Nature has dealt us – to get open. Over the course of the last few years we have been refining the placement of snow fencing in the field behind the Outdoor Center. If you have skied at Trapp’s you know how the wind blows up and over the field. That wind also scours snow off the ground and redistributes it elsewhere, and because of its south facing aspect it can be difficult to obtain and maintain a good skiable base, especially in the early season and once again come spring time. The snow fence strategy originated with Johannes, and over time has been refined into a very cost efficient way of capturing the wind-blown snow. It is a strategy born from a close relationship with, and understanding of, the Vermont landscape and the warp and waft of Mother Nature’s strange proclivities. 43 years in the Nordic skiing industry helps a bit with insight as well.
This week we have been getting snow in very minimal amount (1”-2” at a time). It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you see snow flakes forecasted on the weather reports and only get a dusting. At least the snow is sticking to the ground and, as with most every storm here in Stowe, the accompanying wind has blown across the field depositing it in appreciable amounts in the lee side of the snow fence. In fact, the snow fence was so effective in capturing the wind-blown snow that there was about a 90 meter x 1.5 meter rill of snow at the starting at the timing shack and heading west.
Dave Hosmer’s men’s training group skied in a nice track going up and down the rill last night. Up and down we went first diagonal skiing, then double poling, then kick double poling, and finally skiing without poles. I got lapped by men in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. In addition to patience this 41 year old must also work on humility and endurance.
I have broken down and said nuts to patience, so what. I will resume the noble cultivation of virtue at a later date. Instead, I have embraced the kind of haste reserved for Labrador retrievers, small children in candy stores, and nordic skiers everywhere when there is not enough snow to open trails. As luck would have it I just happen to know about a 90 meter rill of snow deep enough for a few kicks and a little glide.
When I bring up the topic of North America’s fall bird migration most people think of the awe inspiring movement of birds that summer here in the Green Mountains to their distant wintering grounds in South America. It’s the compelling subject matter that Discovery Channel specials are made about. However, few people think of Vermont as a place for birds to migrate for the winter season.
It is true, many bird species migrate from points north, often above the Arctic circle, to winter here in Vermont. In fact, many species of birds call our wintery portion of the continent a balmy repose in comparison to their breeding grounds of the far north. Each year I look forward to their arrival, and am often surprised by what, when, and where things shows up in Vermont as the far north becomes uninhabitable to these animals.
There are a couple major factors that drive this migration into Vermont. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the weather. When the weather turns bad there are certain populations of birds that move out. They are hard wired to do so. These are the species we typically see each and every winter.
An example would be the Snow Bunting that lives and breeds on the tundra during the long arctic summer days and winters in the open and fallow fields of the northern United States and southern Canadian provinces. Each year we see flocks of these beautifully contrasting white, black, and – in the case of the females and juveniles - brown birds, move into the neighborhood for the winter. You can often see them flying in unison over the fields. They are very hardy birds that choose to while away the winter here in Vermont.
An additional example is the little Kinglet family (ruby crowned and golden crowned) who breed in the spruce and fir stands of the boreal forest to the north, in addition to the higher elevations here in the Green Mountains. They migrate out of the mountains and into the valleys. Our lower forests are full of them right now. The same is true of the Dark-eyed Junco who is around in sparse numbers until the weather changes for the worse. Then they are found in great quantities in the valleys.
The second major factor that pushes birds out of the north to winter here in Vermont is the availability of food. The bird species that take up residence in our northern forests infrequently stay once every few years and are said to be irruptive populations. Their movement south is driven by a general lack of food on their normal wintering grounds. This pushes segments of the population south in search of sustenance. Species like the Snowy Owl, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll all display these irregular, irruptive population explosions here in the Green Mountains. We don’t see them every year, but they do surprise us every so often.
I think that is what I find so interesting about birding in the post -fall migration doldrums. Sure the number and diversity of birds on my daily checklist are a shadow of those taken in May and June. However, during our “stick season,” you never know who will show up for the binoculars. It keeps me looking at the ubiquitous, albeit entertaining, groups of Black-capped Chickadee to see who else may be hanging about - this is especially true of the Kinglets whose antics with the bands of Chickadees brighten any gray cold day.
Adding in the other year round residents like the Wood Peckers, Owls, Nuthatches, the Brant Waterfowl on open water, Goldfinches, and the like make for a compelling morning birding in the woods.
Our November woods are very much alive, despite their appearance. Sure many birds have left for the warmer climates of the Gulf of Mexico and in many cases South and Central America, but many have also showed up in the lower elevations from as far away as the Arctic to spend their winter in, the relatively speaking, balmy Vermont.
A Murder Of Crows
Ahhh, Halloween. I love this time of year. Even the slightest unknown leaf rustle brings to mind the things one wants to deny. Even the stoutest of hearts can be heard repeating “I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts. It is a time of year where the raspy “croak” of the raven and “caw” of crow seems to carry an unseen weight. So much so that the flocks of crows that gather in the late fall and early winter are called “murders”; a fitting name given the short days, long nights, declining temperatures, and post-foliage skeletal forests that characterize late the Green Mountains this time of year.
Taxonomically speaking the Common raven (Corvus corax) and American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are members of the Corvidae family. The birds are all black from the tip of the beak to the toes on their feet with an iridescent violet sheen, which is old news to anyone who has taken the time to look up. They grow to about 17.5” in length and can have a wing span of up to 40” long. The American crow is widely distributed across North America and can be found in all the states and Canadian provinces with the exception of Alaska and the Northwest Territories.
Ecologically speaking, crows and ravens play very important roles in the day to day rhythms of nature. They are omnivores, and because of their scavenging ways act as a kind of cleaning crew of the dead and dying. I have seen road kill deer carcasses picked clean to the bone in a matter of days by crows and ravens, the speed of which was astonishing.
No doubt this scavenging nature is how they came to their much maligned reputation. It seems that on the battle fields, old crows and ravens were the first visitors to arrive and feast on the flesh of dead soldiers. Not a terribly endearing trait and because of the misunderstanding they have been persecuted throughout time and thought to be the harbingers of death.
Ravens and Crows are considered to be of the highest intelligence. They credited with the intellectual ability to count, distinguish symbols, learn patterns, and retain information. Traits I myself could use some help with. They also display an incredible longevity with documented wild individuals living in excess of 14 years. It makes sense that crows would live to be old in that stupidity in nature is often rewarded with premature death.
With the onset of winter crows flocking up into large wintering groups often colloquially called “murders of crows”. This week, as I arrived at Trapp Family Lodge early in the morning, I was treated to a great number (200-300) of crows and ravens departing their nights roost atop Luce Hill. Their great flock’s mass grew as individuals joined the fray and swirled about like leaves in a vortex. It was a truly awe inspiring site. I watched the birds for some time, and as the “murder” moved off like a tornado I couldn't help but think how unique a phenomenon I had witnessed.
With the majority of the summer visitors gone, my bird watching drifts toward the stalwart few who carve out their niches year round in the Green Mountains. The murders of crows and ravens that etch out a living in our shared space are an interesting preoccupation for the bird watchers of the area. Against a snowy back drop they are striking birds whose existence transcends our simple biases. Given that, they still add an edge to the pagan’s holiday of Halloween because it simply wouldn’t be the same without their forlorn and eerie calls coming unseen from the gloom of a gray day’s dusk.
I don’t believe in ghost…I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts
An Autumn Harvest Meal
You can tell the harvest season is upon us by the sudden appearance of scarves, the endless supply of Halloween candy in stores, and the return of college football. Now is the time to indulge in the last bounty of the growing season and feast like royalty. It's also the time for those blessed root vegetables, potatoes, squashes, onions, pumpkins, lamb, grass-fed beef, sheep's milk cheese and apples.
Trapp Family Lodge and Stowe Spared by Irene
Greetings from our Green Mountains,
We have been touched to receive so many inquiries into the impact of Tropical Storm Irene. Both Stowe and the Trapp Family Lodge were very fortunate not to have sustained significant damage, in spite of over six inches of rain and heavy winds. Erosion and wind damage were the chief concern, but we sustained almost no impact to our buildings, roads, and trails. Our capable crew was well prepared for the event, and our guests were able to enjoy the day with a fire in the Lounge and service in the DeliBakery. I spent much of the day outdoors, unplugging culverts and checking the status of buildings and trails- my Austrian loden hat is still drying out!
Unfortunately many towns near us were impacted significantly, as has been reported by the media. Our thoughts go out to those who suffered more damage than we did, and we look forward to doing our part to help neighboring communities, many of which are home to our amazing team of hotel employees.
While some secondary roads suffered damage, all major arteries to the Trapp Family Lodge are back up and running as usual. We continue to operate at 100%, with nothing more than minor erosion and fallen trees. All our restaurants are operating, and our trails are open for hiking and biking. While our gardens took a beating, they continue to produce veggies for us, and the apple and pear trees somehow managed to hold their fruit. The trout are probably still a bit traumatized, but our Scotch Highland cattle barely seemed to notice that anything happened.
Thanks to those of you who have expressed your concern- please share your prayers with those who fared worse than we did.
Sam von Trapp
Executive Vice President
Trapp Family Lodge
Green Mountain Showdown 2011
Stowe, VT — Five of the best action photographers in New England are set to square off in a multi-media battle that will play out live on the big screen in front of a capacity crowd of 200.
Each contestant has from July 16 to August 22 to scout, shoot and compile a five-minute slide show that they feel best captures the essence of their assigned theme: “Bike culture in Vermont.” The final slideshows will be projected onto an outdoor screen on the grounds of the Trapp Family Lodge, the central hub for all the day’s events. Entries will be judged on composition, quality, adherence to the assignment and on choreography—but the cheers of the crowd will surely factor into deciding who takes home the $1,500 cash prize.