A Welcoming Committee

This is a repost from my short piece for a recent edition of the 

Burlington Conservation Newsletter

. Enjoy!

One warm winter afternoon each February, an enthusiastic chickadee reminds us of a bygone Vermont. Its “feeee-beee” song is a delightful protest against months of austere soundscapes. Like a perfect brushstroke on an empty canvas, the song’s beauty is its simple counterpoint to the wind in the treetops, the distant rush-hour traffic, or the crimping of footsteps in the snow. After months of slush, snow, and sticks, many of us have only the foggiest recollections of why we call this place the Green Mountain State. But the chickadee, ever the optimist, sings to remind us that the seasons will change soon enough—and it’s about time to clear the throat.

That change came all at once last Saturday. Practically overnight, our soloist was joined by an orchestra of neotropical voices. A cloud of song sparrows, eastern phoebes, and early pine and palm warblers fell from a passing cold front into the city’s treetops. These advance spring migrants now scarf up early insect hatches and position themselves to defend empty real estate in every cranny of Burlington’s open space.

This time of year, Ethan Allen Tower becomes an air traffic control center. Visitors of the tower are buzzed by turkey vultures and tree swallows, just in from Florida and Mexico. Warblers and vireos from the West Indies leap-frog through the canopy at eye-level with the tower’s crenelations. In a couple weeks, flights will be landing from Brazil and Patagonia. The international diversity in Burlington’s human population has got nothing on that of Queen City birds.

Our gritty chickadee earns his Burlington summer by surviving five months of cold unpleasantries, often cooped up in the hollow of some old maple tree. Yet as he is rewarded with the first lungful of fresh warm air and spring sun, he suddenly finds himself up to his wings in strangers from across the hemisphere. As yellow warblers arrive from Florida to size up our resident chickadee, I’m reminded of my Californian aunt’s midwinter advice to my father: “You don’t have to live like this, David!”

On those beautiful June days at the waterfront, I can certainly relate to our chickadee’s lack of elbow-room. But I begin to understand why those chickadees don’t consider migrating. What better testament is there to a place’s greatness than being the seasonal destination for millions of friends from around the world? As our city comes alive this season, we and the chickadees are privileged to say “Welcome to Burlington!”

Flying over Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring

"Kodiak to control, are you in the tower?"
"Negative, I'm at home in my recliner."
"Are we clear for takeoff?"
"One minute, Kodiak, let me look out the window...Yep, air is clear for takeoff."
"Kodiak to control, we are ready for soon as we can taxi a herd of elk off your runway."

With this exchange, we rolled down the Gardiner, Montana airstrip and lifted into the skies above Yellowstone.

Flight path for our maiden voyage

After lots of finagling over insurance policies, consultations with pilots, and doubts about the reliability of weather conditions in March in the Northern Rockies, we pulled the trigger and included a couple of scenic flyovers into our March Natural Habitat Adventures/World Wildlife Fund programs.

Full disclosure: Many a time I've sat on the benches watching Old Faithful erupt while being thoroughly annoyed by the little private single-props buzzing and circling high above the geyser. People come to the park to experience wildness and wilderness and solitude. Old Faithful is not the place to find peace and quiet in the summer, but a swarm of small aircraft overhead is my nail in the coffin. I hate those things.

Typically, scenic flights are not allowed over the parks, precisely because of the visual and aural upset they cause to those on the ground. A couple years ago, someone figured out that there is a legal loophole allowing private flights to operate as long as photography is the goal. If someone on board has a camera, the whole flight can be green-lit as a photography mission. I imagine this is a loophole that will be closed in coming years.

Fortunately for us, we were actually on a 8-day photography expedition in northern Yellowstone, so there was no denying that our goal was to take pretty pictures. And fortunately for my conscience, the interior of the park is closed to all visitors in mid-March, so our plane would not disturb a single person once we left the northern range.

The flight was spectacular. We traveled from Gardiner all the way to Jackson Hole, admiring the Tetons, the Gros Ventre Valley, the remote Thorofare region of Yellowstone, the Pelican Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and more. We saw bison eking out a cold, snowy life along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We saw wolf-killed carcasses behind knolls that had blocked our view from the roads all week. It was an opportunity to really appreciate the size and scale of the wild lands out here. I hope you enjoy these photographs of the highlights.

Taking off in Gardiner, MT

We came across many remote geyser basins in areas inaccessible without a multi-day backpacking trip

Grand Teton
U-shaped valleys, cirques, glacial lakes, and a terminal moraine! TSS' Field Ed team would probably love this image :-)
The Red Hills in the Gros Ventre river valley

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Yellowstone River meandering through the Hayden Valley

Burn mosaic from the 1988 forest fires. Light green are areas that burned.

Grand Prismatic and Excelsior Geyser

The guinea pigs pioneers of our first flyover program! Thanks guys!