Sunday, September 25, 2011

Where did all the birds go?

An unexpected by-product of Tropical Storm Irene is the disappearance of many songbirds from our corner of Vermont.

We were so distracted by the storm’s messy aftermath that it took a while to realize that things had gotten really quiet. I saw birds as soon as the storm was over—the usual blue jays, mourning doves, and chickadees, plus a flock of (presumably) migrating flickers, as well as the pileated woodpecker, who made his first appearance in years although we hear him often—but the sparrows and finches and thrushes went AWOL. My bird feeders stopped needing refills, and the mornings and evenings grew eerily quiet. What happened to the other birds?

Yes, it’s migration time, which normally changes the backyard equation. But the numbers are way down, too abruptly. I keep note all year, and any time my mom visits we do a formal checklist. So we know, from past years’ records, who should be in the neighborhood.

Our range for any year is 35-42 species at peak of spring/summer, down to 15-19 in depth of winter. In the transition times, we average mid-20s. Yet two weeks after the storm we counted a mere 16 species over 4 days of good weather, with the wildflowers, fruits, and foliage still in full bloom and insects aplenty.


It’s a well-known phenomenon that big storms displace birds, sometimes well outside their normal range. Birdwatchers take advantage of this to expand their life-lists. Indeed, an online search for information showed many reports of southern seabirds blown inland by Irene. There was no mention, however, of land birds blown out to sea.

Of course, only sailors and fishermen would notice, and they probably aren’t plugged into the bird-sighting network. So we will likely never know. It’s worrisome, though, because despite Irene’s catastrophic rains, the storm wasn’t particularly violent in these parts. The wind portion of the event was short and within the scope of ordinary weather. Habitat damage was localized; in our area, just spot road destruction and a few downed trees. There’s nothing to suggest that our birds lost food or shelter, or gained predators, or were simply blasted away.

So where did they go?

All I can think of is the storm mass was larger and more powerful than I understand, and sucked many migrants way off track, and they kept going from wherever they landed. Birds that I recognize as migrants, such as goldfinches, hummingbirds, and phoebes, have been popping up in onesies and twosies but just passing through. The other day we saw a kettle of hawks circling high, with a skein of geese even higher above them. But the normal routine of waterfowl gathering and honking has not occurred at all.

We haven’t seen one song sparrow, which is usually the first to arrive and last to leave and can be utterly relied upon for a daily appearance. The juncos, which started coming a month ago, disappeared again overnight. A house wren, one of which had been ubiquitous and constantly singing before the storm, showed up for one day a few weeks after. And the wood thrush and veery, who normally stay until a killing frost, are long gone. Even the robins are missing. Ordinarily, we see or hear several a day, but I’ve only noticed three in the weeks since the storm.

We’re down to resident winter birds already. Ravens and barred owls, who live here year round, tend to be noisy and visible after the migrants have shipped out. Yep, there they are, almost every day now. The woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches never depart, and they too are increasing activity. Just this morning, though, I spotted two chipping sparrows in the garden after many days of conspicuous absence. They are probably migrating, like the hummingbirds glimpsed last week, so that’s I suspect that’s it for them.

It will be interesting to see who comes back in the spring. I hope there were no big population wipeouts, and all the birds currently absent are happily in transit somewhere else.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A One-Two Punch for the East Coast: Punch #2, the Hurricane

So how many times in history has the United States experienced both an earthquake and a hurricane within 5 days of each other, affecting the entire eastern seaboard?

None that I know of! (Though I confess: I haven’t taken the time to research it. If anyone is aware of such a combo, let me know.)

On August 28, while many of us were still twittering about the earthquake, Hurricane Irene rolled into town. She was aimed at the major population centers, which wisely evacuated or at least geared up, understanding the consequences better than in previous years since modern media have educated us about just how devastating such a storm can be.

Even in Vermont, we were ready, though all we expected was a day of high winds and heavy rain -- a common enough mixture that nobody was particularly worried. Perhaps we buttoned down tighter than usual.

Irene surprised everyone by devastating the inland northern mountains instead of the metropolitan coastline. Vermont topped the national headlines in the scope of its disaster.

At our place, it was a near miss: almost lost the pond, did lose a large hunk of the road and one tree in the dooryard, three elsewhere on the property, which both blocked the road and chopped off power. This sort of thing happened to many people, with scattered pockets of complete wipe-out. But in disaster terms, very few people were catastrophically affected for an event of this scale. Yes, a few deaths; yes, some ruin-your-life property loss and destruction, but nothing compared to having a hurricane wiping out a complete region or a tornado erasing a whole town. The damage here is mainly infrastructural, and causing one hell of a statewide headache.

In fact, it's a very weird disaster. You can drive around for a while with everything just fine, then turn a corner and whammo! Road gone. Or bridge gone, farm gone, house gone, whatever. Turn the next corner and everything's fine again. Over and over again.

What blind-sided us was the mountain flooding. You think of "flooding" as a valley / lowland / coastline / watershed thing, right? Here, every damn feeder stream, dry streambed, or path of least resistance flash-flooded into a nightmare torrent PLUS every river broke flood height records, all at the same time. The deluge came fast with near tsunami power and just ate through everything in its path. Even places like Killington Ski area, which is nowhere near a river and sits at 2000+ feet altitude, lost a hunk of one of its lodges, just to downslope runoff!

Another thing contributing to the scope of damage is how few roads this state has. Those of us who moved here from other areas often gripe about the lack of alternate routes to get anywhere. So when something like this happens, well, suddenly you can't get in, or out. Neither can the utility trucks or supply services. A statistic we've heard but not confirmed (but readily believe) is that every road in the state took damage somewhere along its course, whether a small washout around a storm drain, or a skinny slice across the road bed, or complete removal of surface and bed for full width and 4-20 feet down. Lots of bridges are gone; but, strangely, lots of bridges remain standing in perfect shape in the middle of a river with the approaches destroyed around them. As well, railroad beds have been undermined or damaged all over the place.

After the rain stopped, the winds began and it started raining trees, leading to situations like on our 0.9-mile dead-end dirt road: a just-passable washout caused by a seasonal stream bed flow overwhelming a culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a few dozen yards later by another massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a half-mile later by a deep washout of one-half the road width caused by a small creek overwhelming a big culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a deep two-thirds-road-width washout caused by downhill current. Many citizens rolled up their sleeves and cut their way out, plugged holes, jury-rigged bridges, etc., while waiting for aid. Most everyone who could got out of their corner as soon as they could by whatever means was available and started reconnoitering to take stock, check on neighbors, and get started on putting things back together.

On our survey outings, we would find everything perfect for a couple miles, until coming upon a low spot in a village flooded by its river overrunning its bank -- and the bridge -- though when the water went down there was no damage aside from silt and debris. Often, when we sought out low areas that we expected to be devastated, based on springtime recurrences extrapolated to flash-flood level, things were just fine a day or two later -- while up high, roads were not just gouged out, but utterly destroyed, either in one gash or for hundreds of yards. Many of the worst hit were villages with in-town rivers, or hamlets where two streams converged. Every area in south-central Vermont, as well as scattered spots all over, saw these scenarios to one degree or another, some to the nth degree. I understand it was the same in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and other regions.

Several Vermont towns were headline-makers, where people were simply stuck on a wooded hill like an island. They’ve had to walk out, and it will be a long time before things are repaired enough to resume normal life. In our case, the partial washouts allowed us to come and go in cars, but large utility trucks couldn’t get in to repair the snapped wires and damaged poles until the road had been repaired. As a little back road with 8 houses, we were pretty darn low on the priority totem pole, so we expected to be at least a week without power. Thank goodness for generators!

Little did we know how resourceful power companies can be. After only three days without juice in our neighborhood, workers showed up in a small platoon, parked their big rigs outside the damaged area, hauled 9 guys in via pickup truck, and fixed the broken line and skewed pole by hand, whistling while they worked.

As in all disasters, people have been coming together and doing wonderful things. Neighbors who otherwise mind their own business went out and about talking and helping each other. Communities, particularly the hard-hit ones, banded together to solve their own problems while waiting for help, and organized themselves into productive coping. Generous business owners threw open their doors for community aid.

For instance, two towns over, in the ski resort town of Ludlow, whose main street was a deep river on Sunday afternoon and evening, and many of whose people suffered great property damage, there's a restaurant with a pub-style bar where spouse and I socialize once a week. The company is good, the drinks are huge and reasonably priced, and the food is comforting and tasty and also reasonably priced. The long-time owner, after watching the water lick at his doorstep, and who depends on both locals and tourists to keep him in gravy, opened early the first day after and set up a free, all-you-can-eat buffet, charging only for drinks. Didn't jack the drinks price, either, and all tips went to the town fund.

We went there both nights -- the first, for aftershock company and to avoid opening the refrigerator, the second by intent because the first had been so much fun and such a good resource for information. That night a cheer went up in town when a convoy of 20+ camouflage-painted heavy-duty vehicles hauling heavy-duty equipment drove through town (presumably National Guard but who knows). Road repair a-comin' soon! Then, when we arrived home, the power company called to get up-to-date info on what they needed to do to fix our service. Both responses were much quicker than anticipated, and heartening. In the week since the hurricane, we’ve seen awesome responses by all towns, services, and citizens, putting things back together faster than expected.

While waiting, we organized our life around the generator. Made sure it stayed running. Made sure we had enough fuel for a long haul. Figured out how long we needed to run it, how many times per day, to keep the refrigerator and freezer alive. Coordinated computer time, and using lights and plumbing, during generator runs. Then, in off times, going back outside and dealing with things -- cutting, hauling, talking with people locally or via phone (as holdouts with a landline, which is underground, we always have phone [until, that is, zealous reconstruction crews started cutting lines!]), resupplying, reconaissance, repairing equipment that broke just when we needed it, and so forth. I even managed to get a bit of paying work done, but hubby was shut down completely, since we haven’t kitted up to run his machine shop off the generator.

In all, for a disaster we fared pretty well, and our problems could be categorized as "major inconvenience causing lifestyle disruption and setback of income, but not unrecoverable loss." For which I am VERY GRATEFUL! We gained better perspective, once the power came back, by watching videos on the Internet about the Japan tsunami. Oh My God. In comparison to that, Hurricane Irene was a flea bite.

A One-Two Punch for the East Coast: Punch #1, the Earthquake

On August 23, as most people heard, there was a hefty but not catastrophic earthquake centered in Virginia, felt all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Here in Vermont, many hundreds of miles north, we had the odd experience of hearing it.

Hubby and I were a couple hours into a paddling trip down a 14-mile segment of the Battenkill River between Arlington, VT, and Shushan, NY, which placed us between the southern Green Mountains / Taconic Hills and the Hudson Valley, snaking through the Battenkill's own river valley. Although the river loosely follows VT/NY Route 313, there is no regular rumbling of traffic, so things in general are very quiet, with just the chuckling water providing ambient noise. Recent rains had the river cantering along at 5+ mph, but there are no big rapids or cascades, so the sound level is essentially constant. A light westerly breeze stirred the foliage but that, too, was a low-level, susurrant background noise.

Weather was bright sun with big puffy clouds, occasionally darkening as a larger, possibly threatening cloud crossed the sun, but with low humidity and no storms forecast. Now and then between the clouds we saw high silver jet contrails but no low-flying aircraft, either private or on approach to airports or air bases (none in area), making for a dramatically fair-weather summer sky.

So, given all that, we were surprised to hear what at first sounded like a distant growling thunder; but it was prolonged and got louder, stronger, sounding at first like a commercial jet flying too low for the contrails we'd seen; but then started to sound like a military jet flying way too low on afterburners, yet not moving through space; it was stationary behind us, too low altogether to be a plane, and it stopped abruptly instead of fading off like a passing craft would. Conversely, it lacked the explosive quality of either thunder or something blowing up in the distance, or violent impact like an auto or train wreck. It lasted, I don't know, somewhere in the 10-20 seconds range, enough to get us looking over our shoulders and up in the sky and suggesting then dismissing the above explanations.

Ultimately my husband quipped, "Get ready for a tsumani!" since it reminded him of earthquakes. I felt kinda the same way. Then we forgot about it as the next section of quickwater came up and required our attention.

At the time of the noise, we were on one of the "rest" sections of the river, where the surface is still lively but you don't have to maneuver, can just float along side by side and talk or gaze around.

At end of day, when we returned to the outfitter's shop (where they provide shuttle service for paddlers), the owner greeted us at the door with "Did you hear the earthquake?" Perhaps she said, "Did you hear about the earthquake" -- unclear in the excited babble among us that followed. For all the rest of the day we looked up information about it online, talked about it with everyone, trying to understand how something so far away could have been audible.

We did not take a time note of when we heard the noise, but in reconstructing the incident realized it was near the time of the reported quake in Virginia. Could we have heard an air release through an existing fissure? An earth burp?

That's my guess. There's a phenomenon in Connecticut called the "Moodus noises" where the earth makes rumbling sounds and occasionally eerie ones in response to minor seismic activity. Since the eastern seaboard, especially the Appalachian chain, is networked with small, constantly busy movement at the micro level, it seems credible to me that we could have heard the quake as its tremors zipped all the way to Quebec.

At least, it's the only explanation that fits the nature and approximate timing of the noise.

The closest similar experience was two years ago, when a high-altitude beaver dam gave way after big rains and dumped a gazillion gallons of water down 600 feet, to carve a new canyon in the mountainside and wipe out the main road in our area. We live perhaps 2-3 miles away as the crow flies, and at the same time the deluge occurred (unbenownst to us), we suddenly heard a strange, not-quite-thunder roar out of a perfectly clear sky that lasted too many seconds. Turns out it was the sound of many tons of rock, water, and broken trees hurtling down the other side of the hill.

A bit creepy, on one hand, but fascinating and exciting, on the other.