Peak Foliage

Peak Foliage
October on Preston Pond

Brief History of Preston Pond

Born from glaciers about 13,500 years ago, the original pond was only what is now the wider north end. Probably about 10,000 years ago, as the modern forest started to take root, beavers colonized the pond and expanded it (old dams are under the water surface).

With the arrival of Europeans in New York and coastal New England, a vigorous fur trade grew in the 17th Century. Beavers are particularly vulnerable to trapping since they are easy to find and they were wiped out by the 18th Century. With no beavers to maintain the dams, Preston Pond drained and appears on 18th and 19th Century maps as only the smaller original glacial north end.

Reintroduction in the 1920's and 1930's led to beavers recolonizing Preston Pond. By chance, they arrived the same year my grandfather bought the property in 1946. Ever since then, beavers have lived unmolested (by humans) on Preston Pond - until February 2016. They have never caused flooding problems or over-eaten the surrounding forest stand to the point that they abandoned the pond. Their population has doubtlessly had its ups and downs, but they have managed their affairs here for the last 70 years as beavers did for millions of years: on their own, despite some of their top predators having been exterminated by humans.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Ice Show

Every now and then, I get a jolting reminder that the extraordinary is always around, even on the most (seemingly) unremarkable days: you just have to look (and not usually very hard).

This morning was deceptively ordinary as Nainette, Shiloh, and I headed over to the pond. Yesterday's snow was thin, the ground still frozen, and the sun was not quite clear of the hills.

No one was out. The geese apparently drove the otters off and the geese and Mallards were either running errands or tucked into the reeds on the north end. However, as the dogs tended to business, I got to looking a bit closer.

The entire lower part of the pond (and up past the ledge on the east shore) was frozen over with a skim of ice. Looking closer still, there appeared to be interesting patterns in it. It was amazing. 168 photos (thank goodness for digital) and two videos later, the dogs were getting anxious for breakfast (Shiloh was very noisily eating a stick) and my fingers were getting numb, so we headed back to the house.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Hooded Mergansers

A treat on the Upper Pond yesterday: a pair of Hooded Mergansers. I saw them last year on Preston Pond, but they didn't stay. Maybe this year. We also have at least one pair of Mallards looking to set up house and a lot of geese.

On the down side (for photographers, maybe not anglers), the geese seem to have chased off the otters. I watched a gaggle of ten even hounding a lone beaver (still the only one I've definitely identified: a young male). The beaver is very tolerant of canoes as it turns out. Bonnie and I got some fun video of him yesterday which I will post tomorrow.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Cold Feet on a Tough Spider

Well it isn't all otters, bears and boulders and Spring waits for no one. The little critters underfoot and often unnoticed are critical parts of the forest ecosystem and this spider is getting a jump on the competition. This was at the ledge south of the Upper Pond.

The Lilliputian landscape below the ledge is often quite beautiful.

Though you should exercise caution photographing it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Snowy Morning

One advantage of living next to the pond:
I woke up this morning and saw a nice gentle snow coming down. So I threw on some clothes, wolfed down some coffee, grabbed camera, tripod, binocs and a camp seat and headed out. My target was a spot on the east shore where I'd be in moderate cover to photograph the otters (and anyone else who happened by).

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Otter and Sunnie in the Sun

This was yesterday around lunchtime. The otter hadn't seen me as I obscured my silhouette by sitting against a tree (no blind). However, its buddy, swimming up on my right must have seen my profile and let out a warning grunt. This one alerts and looks, but never saw me despite my being in plain sight. From that I would guess that their vision is good at movement and delineated shapes, but not too sharp at distinguishing colors (I had a dark blue coat on). So maybe not much for color vision. Anyway, warnings are clearly taken seriously, since even though it didn't locate me, it left anyway with its unfinished Pumpkinseed Sunfish and continued to look for me as it swam away.

Fire & Ice; Art from the Town Forest

OK, long delayed by photographing otters, here is the newest art from the Town Forest (off my easel anyway):
"Fire & Ice" Short-tailed Weasel and Downy Woodpecker 9" x 12" acrylic on board
I still have some small adjustments to make, but it has been put up for a bit (shorten the Downy's tail, nit-picky stuff like that) while I get other paintings going. It started last month on a walk up to the top of Libbys Lookout. On the way up the hill, I came  upon these along side the tracks of a fleeing snowshoe hare. The paired gait is shorter than my mitten makes it look - about 18" - so I think it was a Short-tailed Weasel and not a Fisher. Anyhow, that was in February.                                          

Then a couple of weeks later, on another hike up Libbys, right near the top just before sunset, the light put on a show (that is why I hike up there around sunset a lot).

It got me thinking, and that (eventually) gets me into the studio.
Years ago, I drew paintings out first in great detail. Now I just start slapping paint.

A Snowshoe Hare wouldn't quite fit the scene, but I knew who would. The bird feeding station is right behind my easel out on the studio deck, so I hung up two suet feeders. In no time I had all the reference for Downy Woodpeckers taking sudden flight that I could want (I video taped them).

At this point I was not liking the weasel's pose, so did some anatomical doodling.
And decided to change the position of the front leg entirely and add some snow to help the shape of it blend into the surroundings: a theme I wanted in the painting: hiding in plain sight that would highlight the superb camouflage of the Ermine stage of the weasel's pelage.
And there it is ... for now.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Three Amigos are Back!

Two of them are a bit hard to see here, but their heads are just sticking up on each side of the one with the perch. They were having a feast and popping up through the ice at will. I'd seen their tracks occasionally through the winter, including the day after the beaver traps were pulled and I imagine they are the same three I saw in the lower section of the pond back in early December:
We didn't get as close this time as in this shot (Bonnie spotted them while walking the dogs while I worked), but we watched them for a lot longer and saw them eat heartily - mostly perch.
The otters weren't the only hunters on the prowl in the pond:

The only worry was that with the otters present, I wondered if the third-hand report of a beaver a couple days ago might have been a mistake. We thought there had been between four and six beavers last fall, but it was only a guess; we had never seen more than two at a time, so I was looking forward to confirming there were some beavers still here. A practical worry was that as unlikely as it was that they'd been all killed, the pond is six to eight inches lower than normal and yet the dam is gushing water, so has some maintenance issues after the winter: without beavers to fix it, we could lose a lot of water in the pond.

The ice is going fast, so I figured that if there were beavers left, they would be easy to see, so late in the afternoon I headed over toward the active winter lodge.
.I needn't have worried. I didn't even reach the ledge on the east shore before one spotted me before I spotted it and I heard that familiar splash. After some shots it ducked under the ice and headed toward the lodge. I followed and when I got there, a beaver was snacking at the bottom of the lodge. The first beaver I had nicknamed "Red":
for obvious reasons. The beaver at the lodge seemed darker and was also much more wary. I didn't get a good shot, but had the impression it was a second beaver. I will confirm that as I can. I knew they would likely be there, but even so, it made my day to see them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Breaking news yesterday (third hand - will try to confirm when I get a chance): a beaver was seen on Preston Pond. We only knew for certain that there were two there last year (saw two at a time), but presumed there were likely four or possibly five or six. Three (two on Preston Pond and one on the Upper Pond) including the adult male (pictured here Feb 12) were just killed by a trapper last month: the first trapping in Preston Pond since the colony was established in 1946. Permission for these recreational kills was given by the Select Board (3 yes, 1 no, 1 abstention with an open admission that there was no wildlife management rationale for trapping).
The SB also gave permission to trap for fisher, with the same wildlife management reasoning (none) - reportedly (trying to confirm) only 20 feet from hiking trails. We are not overrun with fisher last I noticed: I've seen one here - ever (though I saw some sign this year - well away from where the trapper wanted to place his traps). As far as I know, no fisher traps were put out, but it will be interesting to know if indeed permission  was granted for them to be as close as 20 ft from trails. Fisher traps are often in trees, so not a particular safety concern for dogs etc, but traps for bobcat, coyote, otter, mink, and weasels anywhere near trails would pose a risk to other trail users, not to mention bird hunters' dogs. Now the Select Board's apparent new-found enthusiasm to allow and seemingly to even encourage recreational trapping where none has occurred for generations and in close proximity to popular hiking trails could make one wonder what priorities drive some members of the Select Board and Conservation Commissions (much of the VT Trappers Association was invited to the January 18 Conservation Commission meeting on the subject and many out of town trappers attended).

So now at least we know for certain that there is at least one beaver left and likely more. Will keep an eye peeled as the ice melts (I've been hiking south of the pond lately avoiding the trails due to mud). BTW: the lady who reported the sighting said her dog also went through the ice, so if anyone needed a caution: don't go on the ice. It never got more than about 3" thick in most places this winter (less in others) and has gotten pretty rotten.

If you need further proof, I saw several salamanders (Red-spotted Newts) running around yesterday in the shallows of the abandoned beaver pond on the old LT.

The old LT has so little traffic on it now that it is in excellent shape even with the melt. Yesterday I headed out to explore the beaver pond up in the hills that is on the trail. My intention was to skirt west (upslope) of the pond and then bushwhack up to the ridge top and ridge walk back north to Blueberry Hill and back down to the house. 3 hours with photo stops (I make a lot). About 4 or 5 miles or so, but with 1,540 ft of climbing.

The newts were in the now abandoned beaver pond near the far left of the image on the bottom of the loop. The old LT passes the east end of the pond. I veered off and bushwhacked up to the ridge and headed home.

Oh and another beast was out (along with loads of water bugs, caddis fly larvae and little critters I'd need to stop with a dip net and hand lens for - the ponds are waking up!). I also found some interesting rock exposures on Blueberry hill: ancient metamorphosed sedimentary rocks with the bedding layers split apart by frost and time. I'll dig them out (the shots that is, not the rocks) and post them later along with the ancient stream bed (at least 450 - 500 million years old) that is near the Pudding Stone Pond.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Having been chained in the studio for several days (three paintings going), I was feeling a bit stir crazy. So were the dogs, so I made a promise to them this morning. We headed out at 3:45 pm, picked up the Old LT Southbound and then bushwacked up to the top of Treehouse Hill (or Ravens Crag - in any event, the ridge south of The Pinnacle).

We did not walk up this way and I had to restrain Shiloh from trying to go down - Shiloh will try just about anything just to see if it works. He is young and doesn't know much about limits yet.

Climbing up through a gap in a cliff face, we found an outcrop with what might be calcite crystals in it (along with other beautiful inclusions). Will have to go back for a closer look (didn't have a hand lens or reading glasses). There was also a fair bit of a cave. Nainette explored it, so I guess there wasn't a bear at home.

We picked the trail up again at the top and had a nice treat. At first, I thought I was going to get soaked because every branch and twig was loaded with perfect little glittering raindrops. And they were raindrops: frozen ones.
Near the top, we picked up the Old LT again and headed south and off the ridge below the cliffs west of the Notch Rd. About a quarter mile along (maybe half a mile), we came to a couple small waterfalls coming down through what was left of the ice.

I had wanted to go a bit further and then bushwack up the ridge and back home, but it was after 5 pm, so with the beaver pond we were headed for in sight through the trees, we just turned back along the trail.
The sun was getting low, but not on the horizon when we regained the top of the ridge south of the house. My camera battery had died, so in case I came on some really nice light (likely that time of day), I had taken the battery out and was warming it in my pocket.

Happily so. At the very top of Treehouse Hill, where generations of hikers have marred the birch trees with their knives so that all will ever after know that "JC was here," the sun cleared a band of cloud and put on a show. The camera was touchy, but I did my best.

OK, the new piece - from a walk I did about two weeks ago - will be posted tomorrow (I'd do it now, but the light is bad for shooting it - I use natural light). So, before that comes up, there is one more fairly recent piece from this past fall from Preston Pond.

"First Freeze" Snows in the Air - Preston Pond. 12" x 15" acrylic
The patterns in the ice grabbed my eye walking with the dogs along the shore last November. The geese were Canadas, but Snows worked better with the piece. Saw a flock of Snows just a couple days ago, so feel better about sneaking them in. Snow Geese have shifted their flyways in the last couple years, but generally to the west, so seeing a flock here was an unusual treat (as well as validating my "artistic license").

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

I will be posting some new artwork from the Town Forest soon, so dug up this old plein air piece ("plein air" is the fancy French term for "field painting" which is to say, done on site) I did on Opening Day of deer season back in 2000 (I think). 6" x 9" acrylic.

“UnWater” and “UnWinter”

There was a remarkable sight on Preston Pond a few days ago. It was an odd day to start with for late February; 50 degrees and raining lightly. Nainette and Shiloh needed to be aired out before breakfast, so as is our wont, we wandered over to the pond. It is a generally peaceful start to the day and we occasionally see wildlife or stirring effects of light and water.  What we found was befittingly odd for the weirdly warm morning: the ice had sunk.

Ice shouldn’t sink. That is a basic tenet of physics upon which all life depends; even the dogs took interested note of it. Lacking higher educations, they soon resumed sniffing and peeing on things, but I stood in the pleasant (though slightly disturbing) warmth and gentle rain, looking out over the beaver dam musing about the ice.

At Mt. Mansfield Union High School in 1973, Mr. Smith ("Uncle Bob") assigned a creative writing project to us in Advanced Science. We were to write a paper premised on a key physical trait of one of several molecules not being true. I chose to write about water not being a bipolar molecule. I titled it “UnWater” and argued that if water were not bipolar, life, and the entire Earth as we know it, could not exist (it’s an easy argument). The bipolarity of water (slight negative charge to the oxygen atom and slight positive to the hydrogen atoms) is why water is a universal solvent and critical for almost every aspect of all known life. It is also why ice floats. As water cools, like most matter, its molecules slow and crowd together so that the liquid becomes more dense – until the temperature reaches 32 F (0 C). Then the attraction that the slight positive and negative charges on different molecules have for each other overcomes the declining energy of motion in the cooling liquid and forces the molecules to expand into a crystal matrix – ice – like a mob of students crowded around a scuffle having to take their seats when the vice principal shows up. This makes ice an odd solid in that it is less dense than its liquid form and voila; it floats. So the pond ice should have been floating too. Something was up.

And that something was the water. The rain had been heavy at times over night. I could see silt covering much of the submerged ice, especially on the east shore where a couple of streams come in. Another interesting symptom of what was going on was that the ice in the middle of the pond was obeying the rules and floating. As the dogs finished up and started bugging for breakfast, the puzzle came into focus. The shore ice must have frozen to the bank and been unable to move as the water rose. As for the middle, the ice is very thin this year and so had enough flex to float up as the streams swelled in and flooded the edges. Well, that explained the sunken ice, but underscored two other disquieting phenomena: thin ice on the pond and rain in February.

These two February oddities have been accompanied by little or no snow, and they follow on a surreally warm, record shattering Twilight Zone of a Christmas Eve (more on that in a bit). Having just been recalling UnWater, I found myself thinking of it as our UnWinter (though March has yet to weigh in). Such a warm winter inevitably brings to mind the hot-button topic of human generated global climate change and, at least at first flush, would seem to support it. However, are all of these oddities really harbingers of humans firing up the biosphere? The severity of winter and weather in general has varied famously in Vermont ever since records have been kept, and Vermont is one small part of the globe. So that it is raining in February and the ice on Preston Pond is thin does not necessarily mean anything relative to climate, let alone global climate. On the other hand, this “UnWinter” would be consistent with a warming Earth. The logical thin ice here is confusing weather for climate. A particularly well publicized example was Senator James Inhofe’s melodramatic presentation of a snowball in the U.S. Senate last February, putatively disproving the idea of global climate change, which it no more did than someone bingeing on Ben & Jerry’s disproves world hunger. More generally a University of New Hampshire study of political independents showed that, as a group, their views on global climate literally change with the local weather.
As for the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum, while Democrats and Republicans each may use examples of weather to make dubious assertions about climate, it is often in service of positions they have already formed, seemingly at least in part due to their respective political philosophies more than objective science. UNH studied this phenomenon too (, as did a wider ranging paper summarizing many such studies in the February 22, 2016 online version of “Nature Climate Change.”
To a degree, you can hardly blame some for being skeptical; finding patterns and making predictions of complex systems can be absurdly difficult, and people in general hate change. However, there are smaller scale analogues that are instructive. As a freelance advertising artist in Manhattan in the late ‘70’s to early ‘90’s, many of my colleagues and I were in a constant search for reassuring patterns in our wildly fluctuating incomes every time the phone didn’t ring for a day. But by stepping back from the day to day and weekly gyrations, we found meaningful (and reassuring) patterns in months and years. This is the basic difference between weather and climate too: time. However, the constant “noise” of short term change still makes it difficult to tell when long term changes are in the works.

Back in my midtown studio, I kept rationalizing reassuring patterns even after what were, especially in hindsight, loud alarms. My yearly income dropped for the first time in ’88, but it was still good and even though it stayed down in ’89, I rationalized that maybe it was just part of an even longer term variation. Then, at the end of ‘89 the handwriting on the wall appeared (ironically disguised as the highlight of my career): a client called with the 1990 SuperBowl logo. Normally this meant I would work with the agency to design it. However, my dreams of football glory deflated when the job arrived. Instead of some rough initial sketches from the art director, I was presented with a completed layout done on one of the new fangled computer programs. The only thing they needed from me was to render the final camera-ready art because computer images at the time were too pixilated. At that moment I became a trained monkey, and was about to become a dinosaur. And I kind of knew it. Change is very hard though, so I kept rationalizing patterns and hoping against the evidence for another couple of years - I became a "denier" – until my income was barely more than my mortgage. The refusal to act on what I knew was coming cost my family enormous trauma (we’re all good now) and arguably, my marriage. Climate, driven by processes ranging from the atomic to cosmic and composed of myriad interwoven negative and positive feedback loops, is astronomically more complex than the economic vagaries of advertising art; and the fate of the biosphere is at stake rather than that of a few artists and their families. Of course, like my family, the biosphere will come through OK – eventually. The question is whether our comfortable civilization will – if that is, there really is a climate change problem which we are causing and can do anything about.
So, are there significant patterns to our winters? Three inches of ice in the dead of winter is not normal here and it is not just this season. For many years now, it has often been a dicey proposition to go out on Preston Pond in certain areas. At the risk of proving myself a curmudgeon, when I was a kid, the ice on Preston Pond would get 18 inches thick or more. We had a game we called “golf,” where we would shovel a clear patch on the pond, chop one foot deep pits into the ice at various points and take turns shooting pucks into the pits. We scored it like golf. Lake Champlain ice would be two feet as I knew all too well from hand augering the holes when we went ice fishing. As of this moment (March 1), the main lake is open – it is unfrozen. That has happened in 65% of the winters since 2000: 27% of the winters in the 1900’s and 3.5% of the winters in the1800’s according to National Weather Service data at Burlington. In the 1880’s, the lumber yards in Burlington would put down hay, lay track and run a locomotive over the ice to Plattsburgh. On an April 15th in the 1980’s, VT Fish and Wildlife drove a truck out on Preston Pond to stock lake trout fingerlings. The ice was thick and no one worried about going through; not in January, February, or March; and not in much of December or April. A long lasting decline from 18+ inches to 3 inches (>83%) on Preston Pond (and two feet to nothing on Champlain at Burlington) is a pattern, and local as it is, it is almost certainly no longer weather, but climate.

Whether (sorry) it is climate change or not does not seem to be much of a question to most of the scientific community, though the battle rages on in the public/political sphere. That battle is understandable given the economic and political stakes and our species’ general aversion to change; and even if a broad consensus is reached that human-fired climate change is real, there almost certainly will remain legitimate questions about what its effects will be, how long they will take to occur, and what policies are best to deal with them. However, if the bulk of climate researchers are correct, and we are heating the biosphere, my worry is that many people, politicians and policy makers among them, are likely going to wait like I did in New York. The trauma my family and I went through, repeated on a world-wide scale, could trigger social and economic upheaval that could break civilization. 

Gazing out on Preston Pond in the warm February rain, something clicked into place. I recognized that I’d had, for lack of a better term, a “SuperBowl Logo Moment” back on Christmas Eve. It was disguised within a lovely treat of a day, but ominous when thrown into the midst of years of on again off again winters, unreliable ice, and the warmest fall on record. 67 F (and partly sunny) was indeed a bizarre and record shattering temperature for Christmas Eve in Vermont, but that was not what created the Twilight Zone sensation referred to earlier. It wasn’t even the salamanders in the pond or the frogs singing – though I did feel the opening scenes were rolling. It was my wife Bonnie’s voice, like Rod Serling’s intoning our arrival at the eerie station stop: “Oh, Rob - Look!” I turned back – and then glanced down. My only excuse for not seeing it is a rather weak “who would expect to?” I had just stepped over a gorgeous young garter snake sunning in the leaves - on Christmas Eve.  
Garter snake near Preston Pond Christmas Eve 2015. Photo: Rob Mullen