Tag Archives: Cathy

Natural Destinations: Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area

by Cathy Bell

(originally posted on vtdigger.org)

Every autumn, thousands of snow geese take a break from their 5,000 mile southbound migration to rest and feed at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont.  Journeying from their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to their winter range in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, the snow geese are but fleeting visitors to the Green Mountain State, descending on our cornfields from October into early November.

The bright white feathers of a snow goose’s body contrast with tips of the wings, which look as though they have been dipped in paint of the richest black.  Young birds are brushed with gray on their backs, giving them a dirty appearance.  Here and there among the flocks are dark gray individuals with white faces.  These steely-looking birds, commonly known as “blue geese,” are the same species as the white ones.  Snow geese of either coloration are far prettier, to my eye, than our resident Canada geese.  Getting to see these visitors from the north is a seasonal treat.

Snow geese

Snow geese at Dead Creek

Hoping to find some snow geese, I went to Dead Creek on Saturday, October 30.  The day started out sunny but clouded up as the big Halloween nor’easter worked its way towards New England.  Driving down Route 22A from the north, I made a right turn onto Route 17.  I had gone less than a mile from Addison Four Corners when I saw a wheeling flock of waterfowl.  Backlit, the winged forms did not reveal any details of their plumage, but the size and flight pattern didn’t seem quite right for Canada geese.  Even as I thought to myself that I must be in the right place, I saw a turnoff on the south side of the road.  I pulled off the highway, shut off the ignition, and hopped out of the car, binoculars in hand.  Looking to the south, I felt my jaw drop in wonder.

About 800 geese were in a field very close by, in easy sight of a viewing platform with interpretive signs.  Hundreds more were in a distant depression.  From the knot of people with binoculars and spotting scopes a quarter mile to the west, I guessed there was another—possibly even bigger—group of geese over there too.  Aerial photo counts that weekend documented more than 4,600 geese in the area, but few people braved the chill wind of the gray afternoon to witness the impressive spectacle.

A northern harrier, its white rump patch catching the watery light, startled the nearest geese into rising from where they rested and fed.  Within moments, the nervousness of a few waterfowl swept through the flock, and hundreds of birds were in the air, honking their discontent in a higher-pitched and more tremulous voice than that of the familiar Canada goose.

Though I looked carefully, I failed to find any Ross’s geese among the swirling clouds of white waterfowl.  Snow geese and Ross’s geese are two distinct species, though very similar in appearance; the rarer Ross’s is more diminutive in build and has a smaller bill.  I later read on the Vermont bird listserv that there were indeed two Ross’s geese at Dead Creek that afternoon, but they were the needles in the haystack of thousands of snow geese.

I may have lucked into witnessing the peak of this year’s snow goose migration, but there’s still time for you to see the spectacular waterfowl as they pass through Vermont.

At 2,858 acres, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area is administered by Vermont Fish and Wildlife and includes extensive reaches of cattail marsh and stretches of open water.  The geese, however, are concentrated in upland agricultural fields.  The designated goose viewing area along Route 17 is the best place to see the birds, but a little farther south, Gage Road can provide good sightings as well.

Moreover, though the snow geese may be the star attraction, there is more here for inquisitive visitors to enjoy.  Northern shovelers and green-winged teal dabble in the shallow, ponded water of the fields, and once in a while a pectoral sandpiper passes by overhead.  A quarter mile west of the goose viewing turnoff, Route 17 crosses the still, murky waters of Dead Creek.  Mallards and black ducks ply the waters here.  Just over the bridge, a left turn takes you down a gravel road towards a hunters’ camping area.  Look along the reedy edges of the water for great blue herons and wood ducks.  Despite its name, Dead Creek is a lively place.

The creek flows northward, parallel to the southernmost portion of Lake Champlain.  Just seven miles north of where it flows under Route 17, the creek joins with Otter Creek and soon wends its way into the lake.  Its meandering path has been modified by the addition of dams, and today, the state actively manages water levels in the flooded impoundments.

The snow goose hunting season runs from October 1 – December 29 in the Lake Champlain waterfowl hunting zone, with a daily bag limit of 25 birds.  Portions of the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, including the upland areas south of Route 17 near the viewing area, are managed as a refuge where no hunting or other public access is permitted.

More information, including maps and directions, is available from Audubon Vermont and Vermont Fish and Wildlife.

Enough Pumpkins in the Patch?

by Cathy Bell

(originally posted on vtdigger.org)

Back in the middle of September, a headline caught my eye. “Northeast Faces Devastating Pumpkin Shortage,” I read, with a mixture of amusement and trepidation.

Devastating?  Really?  Pumpkins are cheery and plump and orange.  It’s tough for me to take them seriously enough to believe that anyone could possibly construe a shortage as devastating.  Even the name—pumpkin—is irresistibly rotund and bouncy-sounding.  Still, that headline got me a little worried.  I have a tradition of throwing a pumpkin-carving party the weekend before Halloween.  It’s always great fun to gather a group of friends together for a few hours of quality time with sharp knives and slimy pumpkin innards.  What if there weren’t enough pumpkins this year?

Fortunately for pumpkin seekers, it appears that the forecast Great Pumpkin Shortage isn’t so devastating after all.  If you drive through rural Vermont or stop by your local farmers’ market, you will see row upon row of happy-looking pumpkins offered up for sale.  So what’s the story?  Is there a pumpkin shortage or not?

To answer that question, I swung by my local farmers’ market in the Old North End of Burlington and checked in with Lauri Brewster of The Farm at Cold Spring in Milton.  “It’s regional,” said Brewster.  “Low-lying areas got hit hard.  But we have plenty of pumpkins.”

Not all growers were so fortunate.  Many suffered significant losses in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.  Mark Winslow of Winslow Farms in Pittsford reported that floodwaters destroyed about half his pumpkin crop.  “Approximately 150 tons washed away.  That’s $40,000 in pumpkins.  Because of the loss, we are not able to deliver to our wholesale customers, though we still have an excellent crop for our farm stand.”

Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op has purchased Halloween pumpkins for over twenty years from a single grower, East Hardwick’s Riverside Farm, said produce manager Robert Kirigan.  This year, about a third of Riverside Farm’s pumpkin crop was lost, so “we are a little short,” Kirigan admitted.

Despite having fewer pumpkins to satisfy demand, prices don’t seem to be any higher than usual this year.  According to Kirigan, “Our pricing is the same as last year.  Although normally shortages would tend to push the price up, we and Riverside Farm decided not to raise our prices.  We wanted to encourage folks to buy real pumpkins, not plastic ones.  And for the sake of the Earth we want them to be organic, not grown with chemicals.  So holding the line on price seemed like the right thing to do.”

With fewer pumpkins around, some vendors turn to out-of-state growers to ensure fully-stocked shelves.  Burlington’s City Market, though, specializes in stocking Vermont pumpkins, produce stocker Kara Brown said.  “We buy them from about five different suppliers, some organic and some conventional.  They’ve all definitely had a tighter supply than last year.”

Dire warnings of a pumpkin shortage hit the media a few weeks after Hurricane Irene inundated the East Coast, with news outlets including the Washington Post, CBS News, and the Wall Street Journal posting stories about the potential for a paucity of pumpkins this fall.  Some pumpkin patches, like those of Winslow Farms, were destroyed outright by flooding.  Even if they weren’t carried away by high water, pumpkins that sat in standing water are illegal to sell—a problem encountered by growers in Burlington’s Intervale.

Irene brought a longer-term, more insidious threat, as well.  Lingering moisture in the fields created an ideal environment for the spread of a host of pumpkin diseases.  Plants may not have to suffer through sore throats or stopped-up sinuses, but they can be afflicted with a wide variety of conditions including wilts, rots, and blights.  Like us, they can succumb to onslaughts by bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

“It may be difficult to imagine,” write Purdue University plant pathologists Richard Latin and Karen Rane in their Identification and Management of Pumpkin Diseases, “but we receive more requests for information on pumpkin diseases and pumpkin disease control than on any other vegetable crop.”

Why pumpkins?  The answer lies in what they are and how they grow.  Pumpkins, of course, are squash.  To a botanist, they’re members of the cucurbit family, related to cucumbers and watermelons.  Most members of this plant family are vines, and pumpkins are no exception; they grow by sprawling across the ground.  Their vines can lengthen by as much as six inches a day during peak growing season.  This rapid growth means that pumpkin plants need rich soil and plenty of water.

The challenge is that too much water creates ideal conditions for pathogens that cause rot and decay. Particularly problematic are puddles that persist on the ground in the pumpkin patch.  You probably know how disappointing it is to find a pumpkin that looks perfect from the top, but that has a big soft spot on the underside, sometimes with visible white mold.  This is Phytophthora blight.  The name is a mouthful, but it’s telling: “phyto” means plant in ancient Greek, and “phthora” means ruin or decay—so you can think of Phytophthora as the Plant Destroyer.  There dozens of different kinds of Phytophthora; one, Phytophthora infestans, caused the Irish Potato Famine.

The species that infects pumpkins is called Phytophthora capsici, and it’s a tricky thing to fight.  It used to be considered a fungus, but it has a few strange traits which have led taxonomists to reclassify it as an oomycete, in a different kingdom of life altogether.  Like fungi, it spreads by producing spores.  One kind, called an oospore, is round and thick-walled; it’s built to last and can persist in the soil for years.  But Phytophthora’s other spore type, known as a zoospore or swimmer, is the fascinating one.  Each swimmer sports two little whiplike tails that it uses to propel itself through water.  The existence of these swimmers means that Phytophthora is more closely related to diatoms and marine plankton than it is to fungi.

There are other diseases that infect pumpkins, too, and many of them thrive when there’s a lot of late-season moisture, as there was this year.  In fact, the susceptibility of pumpkins to disease, combined with strongly-seasonal demand (pumpkins are worth a whole lot less if they go to market on November 1), sets them up as a crop that has potential for shortages.  Luckily, weather that creates ideal conditions for disease is usually localized.  In any given year, there’s probably some region of the country that has a pumpkin production problem … but there are plenty of other pumpkins in the patch, if you’re willing to go a little farther afield.

That’s good news for those of us who are shopping for pumpkins, but small consolation for farmers who suffered losses during Tropical Storm Irene.  “I just wish there was a real insurance program for specialty crops,” said Winslow.  “We do not use the government program because our past experience is that it is completely inadequate.”

Subtle Wonders of the High Sierra

by Cathy Bell

After a night spent deeply burrowed into the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I wake to discover that my tent has abruptly transformed itself from a cozy refuge to a swelteringly confined space.  The sun has only just cleared the ridgeline of Cirque Peak, but its rays are strong here at 11,000 feet above sea level, and my little tent heats up like a greenhouse.

Changing from long underwear to field clothes, I clamber out of my tent to find a heavy frost riming the sedges along Siberian Pass Creek.  It is the morning of July 20th.  I don’t have a thermometer, but last night didn’t feel too cold.  I’d guess that the overnight low was in the high 20s.  I stretch and take my time over breakfast, giving the sun a little more time to warm the high country before I set out for my day’s fieldwork.

foxtail forest and Siberian Outpost, Sequoia National Park

Looking over Siberian Outpost.

I’ve set up camp at the edge of a foxtail forest, where widely-spaced pines yield to the treeless gravel flats of the fetchingly-named Siberian Outpost.  Around me, steep talus slopes rear skyward, hinting at the expansive alpine plateaus above.  I am spending my summer in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, just ten miles south-southwest of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada.  At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, but—though it soars a gasping 3,000 feet above treeline—the famed summit is just one of a dozen exceeding 14,000 feet in this region.  Spectacular alpine country abounds: I’ve heard that the Sierra Nevada feature more acres above treeline than any other mountain range in the conterminous 48 states.

The rocky, seemingly-barren high reaches are the reason that I find myself here, in some of the wildest country remaining in the United States.  Though the Sierra peaks seem lifeless from a distance, a closer look reveals a surprising diversity of hardy alpine plants growing amongst the boulders.  I love this hidden world.

tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice

Tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice.

At the same time, I fear what the future holds.  Research suggests that alpine vegetation is especially at risk from the rapid shifts in temperature and precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in our understanding of how high-elevation vegetation will respond to a changing climate.  In fact, since alpine areas are such hard places to access, we don’t even know if their plant communities have already started showing the effects of a warming world.

To try to fill in some of those holes, my master’s project work involves searching for vegetation survey plots that were established some twenty-five years ago.  When I can find the plots, I re-survey them in an effort to compare the plant populations we see today to the ones that were documented in the 1980s, hoping to determine if alpine species are already showing a response to climate change.  So far, the project is going far better than I had dared to hope; I have found every single plot I’ve sought.  Today, I’m going after Plot 403.  I tried to visit it ten days ago, on July 10th, but it was still buried beneath two feet of snow.  I’m hoping I have better luck today.

Shouldering my frame pack with its twenty pounds of field gear, I hike upvalley for half an hour, then scramble up a bouldered slope to the top of a ridge.  As I walk, the rhythm of my footsteps and breath ease me into an almost meditative state.  I take in the dramatic views and reflect on how the wilderness of Sequoia National Park is beautiful but vulnerable.  Though we think of national parks as pristine, even our most highly-protected places are not insulated from human impacts.  The beautiful and diverse plant populations of the High Sierra could be pushed out by changing conditions or the arrival of other plant species, irrevocably altering the character of this unique and inspiring wilderness.  In order to preserve and protect this place for future generations to enjoy, we first have to determine if and how it is changing—and that is what my project is all about.

The ridge brings me west onto the rocky fellfields of the Boreal Plateau, where I start looking for the steel stake that marks the center of Plot 403.  An expansive snowfield still clings to the slope to my right, but it lies east of where the plot should be, and I think I’ll be able to find the plot marker.  I methodically work back and forth, trying to line up the mountains in the distance with rocks on the ground until they match the relocation photo on the clipboard I clutch in my left hand.

dead alpine plant with massive taproot

In life, this plant grew only about an inch above the surface of the ground, but its massive taproot kept it anchored among the rocks.

A brown tangle on the ground catches my eye.  Distracted for a moment from my search, I stop and kneel to peer at the crushed and matted-down plants that the rapidly receding snow has revealed.  Though seemingly dead, most will soon pull energy from their deep taproots and green up, life reasserting itself after the long winter.

Long winters define this world above treeline.   A plant trying to survive here must contend with a growing season of only about two months, howling winds, and an environment that—despite abundant snowfall—is startlingly short on liquid water during the summer, when growing plants require it.  It’s a tough place to make a living, but the alpine plants of the Sierra Nevada are well-adapted to their environment.  They have weathered gradual shifts in climate for a long time.  They are survivors, I know.  I just hope they are able to cope with the climate curveball we have thrown them.

Straightening up, I resume my search for Plot 403, and in just a few minutes I glimpse a flash of reflected sunlight off the center stake.  I take off my pack and get to work.