Thank you, Ben!

This summer we had the privilege of working with Ben Fletcher, pictured second from left. Ben brought an incredibly well suited array of skills to Vital Communities and was a boon to the Valley Quest program. With a degree from the University of Santa Cruz and intern experience from the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences, Ben quickly became an integral member of the Valley Quest team, applying his interest in ecology and knack for creative thinking right off the bat. He is responsible for getting all 170 Valley Quests live on our website, our new color-coded online Valley Quest map, a slew of Quest updates, brilliantly organized events like the History Tour of White River Junction and the Valley Quest Hawk Walk, as well as a couple new important partnerships for the program…just to name a few!

We are so grateful for the skills and energy that Ben brought, not only for his impact this summer, but for the lasting influence his work has had on Valley Quest—we’re delighted to build off of all the momentum he carried in with him.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ben! We wish you the absolute best going forward and hope you’ll swing in for a visit next time you’re in town!

Bird and Quest

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies lists 382 species of bird that occur in Vermont, whether year-long resident or migratory visitor. The VCE’s Vermont Atlas of Life citizen science operation has recorded sightings of 332 of these species thus far since its conception. And 219 species have been recorded across the state just since the start of this past April (2018). Programs like iNaturalist collect these sightings from volunteers in the public to compile an ever-growing, crowdsourced set of data for use by anyone– from conservationists, to mindful developers, to researchers studying specific species.

VCE

Similar in form and function to iNaturalist, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put together its own program to collect data on species distributions. Naturally, theirs specializes in birds. It’s called eBird. eBird participants have spotted more species than the VCE acknowledges occur in Vermont, with their total up at 385. Is the discrepancy a new development? Perhaps migratory paths are shifting, destinations changing, bringing Vermont new visitors. What if shifting precipitation and temperature trends are convincing some past residents to find new homes, or even making Vermont attractive to prospective immigrants? Perhaps none of these. But if we ever begin to answer such questions, it might likely be thanks to eBird and iNaturalist, existing to harness the massive potential of crowdsourced data sets.

ebird VT stats

Vermont is ripe with birding hotspots and Valley Quest can lead you to a good many of them. Some examples, from late August through September the Gile Mountain Quest near Norwich will take you to a vista along the migratory path of the Broad-winged Hawk. These birds accumulate aerially in large groups, termed kettles, and past recordings reveal sightings of thousands of hawks a day. While near Norwich, you should also check out the Flowing to the River Quest for more raptor encounters. This Quest will take you along a tributary of the Connecticut River into Osprey and Bald Eagle territory. This Quest is also a great opportunity to learn that there is (some find this hard to believe) way more than one variety of duck. This is a rich spot to discover all sorts of waterfowl – while the Bald Eagles will do no harm, beware the swan and geese! (Especially if they have chicks nearby, these two are known to pick fights.)

Broadwings

Bring a notepad Questing with a list of the birds you might encounter, and tally each one you find. Then once you finish up your day and arrive home (or even the next day, or next weekend, it’s flexible) report your sightings on the eBird website to contribute to their catalog. eBird also exists as a free app if you’re interested in reporting in real time.

Merlin birdID    Cornell Ornithology     INaturalist_logo

If you were able to hear birds, but couldn’t spot them, consider bringing your phone along and using an app like Song Sleuth which will automatically identify your audio recording. To dodge the pricetag you can also try the Cornell Lab’s app Merlin BirdID, which offers recordings of different songs from each species for you to listen for your match. Merlin also has a handy tool to help you uncover the identities of birds you didn’t recognize. Once you simply log the size of the bird, the context you saw it (whether flying, on a fence, in a tree, etc.) and the color, you’re presented with a list of all the possible birds you may have encountered.

Many Valley Quests also overlap with eBird’s map full of birding hotspots. This searchable map can help you see all 385 species that Vermont has to offer. If you find a hotspot location that would make for a strong Quest, let us know, we’d love to help you write one or work with community members to spotlight your site with a Quest! Happy Questing! (Below are a nighthawk, hooded merganser and belted kingfisher)

Bird collage

Subbasin Spotlight!

This year’s Aquatic Adventure Super Quest showcases the 5 subbasins that make up the Upper Connecticut River Valley, or, more fondly, the Upper Valley. A subbasin is a term used to describe a watershed within a watershed. While a watershed drains to a major river, a subbasin drains to a tributary of that major river. So in our case, the basin that drains to the Connecticut River, and stretches from Canada to the Long Island Sound, is the Connecticut River Watershed, and the Upper Valley subbasins are the mini-watersheds within it. All but one span both Vermont and New Hampshire sides of the Connecticut river, and all ultimately drain to it.

WHAT IS A WATERSHED

These subbasins are named by the rivers that anchor them. Just as all water in the Connecticut River watershed drains to the Connecticut River, all water that falls in a particular subbasin drains to its namesake river(s). Going from North to South we have the following 5 subbasins in our region:

  1. The Wells: Vermont’s Wells River both starts and ends in its own subbasin. Here you’ll also find New Hampshire’s Ammonousuc River, which flows to the Connecticut River all the way from its headwaters in the “Lakes of the Clouds” on the western slopes of Mt. Washington.
  2. The Waits: This subbasin is home to two 25-mile long rivers: The Waits and Ompompanoosuc, both in Vermont. Here you’ll also find Lake Fairlee–a natural lake, it was enlarged by damming a tributary to the Ompompanoosuc in 1939. Towns in this subbasin include Bradford, Strafford, Thetford, Orford…sense a theme? The suffix “ford” in a town name refers to the presence of shallow stream crossings, of which these towns certainly have many!
  3. The White: The White River begins near the crest of Vermont’s Green Mountains and flows 60 miles before it greets the Connecticut River in the aptly named White River Junction. The three branches of this river host an array of sparkling swimming holes and rock formations as they wind through especially hilly terrain. This subbasin connects the quaint towns of Sharon, Royalton, Bethel, Randolph, and many more. This is our only single-state subbasin, and calls Vermont its home.
  4. The Mascoma-Black-Ottauquechee: This massive subbasin is host to five large Connecticut River tributaries: The Mascoma (New Hampshire), Sugar (New Hampshire), Ottauquechee (Vermont), Black (Vermont), and Williams (Vermont) Rivers. The New Hampshire side boasts the highest concentration of lakes in the region, including the largest, Lake Sunapee, where Sugar River gets its start. Towards the southern edge of this subbasin, visit the Williams River’s inlet-strewn Herrick’s Cove for countless bird species and great paddling.
  5. The West: While the 53-mile West River (Vermont) anchors this subbasin, it flows farther South than the Upper Valley. The shorter, more northerly Saxton’s River (Vermont), however, flows through the towns of Grafton, Rockingham, and Westminster, and is dotted with waterfalls, sandy beaches, and deep pools. Steep, narrow gorges and unique outcroppings of bedrock add dimension to the hills in this subbasin.

If you haven’t yet, get your copy of the Aquatic Adventure Super Quest to start exploring the variations between these beautiful, fascinating subbasins today! You can print your own here (11×17 paper), pick up a copy at the Vital Communities office (195 North Main St, White River Junction), or find one at your local library. Then, register your team (pick a fun name!), and start discovering our region anew with our 10 featured Quests. Swimming holes, waterfalls, sun-soaked lakes, mill history, and babbling brooks will guide you through summer fun and learning—you’ve got ’til November 1! Victorious Super Quest teams all win commemorative patches and are entered to win our grand prize!

Happy Questing!

 

A Valley Side-Quest

While Questing is an absorbing hobby in its own right, it opens the door for a number of Side-Quests that you may find enrich the experience. One such Side-Quest is to collect data for any of a number of Citizen Science projects actively under way in the twin states. By participating in Citizen Science projects as you Quest, you inform active conservation research efforts that seek to better understand and protect our local natural environments.

The Vermont Center for Ecostudies is one local research and conservation organization actively tapping into the power of crowd-sourced Citizen Science to aid local plant and animal species. The Center has set up a dozen different organized Citizen Science projects that community members like you can contribute to. They offer a range of expertise requirements from beginner to expert.

The VCE’s most popular project is the Vermont Atlas of Life, hosted on iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a website and smartphone app with which the most casual or expert observers of the natural world can help to keep track of the plant and animal species living in our local environments. The observations are logged in a public database of different species’ population data, which researchers and conservationists can then tap into.

Capture1

iNaturalist is also a useful tool for Questers. You can take a photo of any species of plant or animal—mushroom to mammal—and members of the iNaturalist community will hop on and suggest possible identifications. Even the most obscure fungus or caterpillar will be reliably ID’d in likely a few hours, given your picture is detailed enough. The process is fun, intuitive, rewarding, and connects us to those in our communities that also find curiosity, splendor, and awe in the natural world. It also really enriches the Questing experience. Have you ever seen a new mushroom, insect, or shrub on a Quest, and wondered what it was? Snap a photo and upload it to iNaturalist to bring your discovery and learning full circle.

The Vermont Atlas of Life project has already logged more than 210,000 wildlife observations, of nearly 6,000 unique species residing in our tiny state. Citizen Scientists regularly log sightings of some of the most prolific residents like the American Robin (1,430 observations) and the Black-capped Chickadee (1,724 observations), submitting geographic data to help monitor population distribution and track trends from year to year. iNaturalist participants have also logged some of rarest and most ephemeral residents and visitors – like the Snowy Owl (250 observations, the 2017-2018 winter was a huge year for these), the Northern Two-lined Salamander (94 observations), and the Silvery Blue (88 observations).

red-trillium-1406305_1920

A note on cataloging rare species: the pet trade is a real and serious threat to many species we know and love. For example, the wonderful wood turtle (0 observations on iNaturalist, and for good reason). Once relatively common in Vermont, the wood turtle has suffered habitat loss and illegal collection to the point of obtaining the classification of “endangered.” Reporting such species to public databases could accidentally lead to their being scooped up and sold.

However, these species are still perhaps the most critical to report.  Reputable organizations like the VT Herpetology Atlas or the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife need need the help of Citizen Scientists to keep track of these endangered species to aid in their protection. So if you do encounter one of these beautiful shelled beasts, please report your sighting to an organization you can trust.

Rediscovering Questing: Aquatic Adventure Super Quest

Having lived in the region all my life, I grew up Valley Questing with my family. I recently realized, however, that I haven’t done one in almost ten years, so the Aquatic Adventure Super Quest was a perfect opportunity to stretch my legs and get back in the habit. On a beautiful Friday, I gathered up my mother and my dog and headed out to do the Union Village Quest.

Union Village Quest Gate

We set out with confidence, having been going to the Union Village Dam consistently for many years. I learned to ride a bike there, and have attended countless potlucks and birthday parties in the shaded picnic area by the stream. The sun beat down, but the bending forest allowed us to march up the hill without feeling the heat. My dog, excited to be out and about after having recovered from a hurt paw, raced up and down the hill and stared back at us to wonder why we weren’t running as fast as he was. We paused by the stream, watching a couple of butterflies and figuring out where the Quest clues were leading us next.

Here, we made a wrong turn. Assuming that our years of experience with the place would be enough, we strode up the path, only worrying slightly when there seemed to be a very long stretch between clue landmarks. Eventually, after running into a dead end, retracing our steps, and finding another, we were forced to admit that we needed to go back even farther. But there was no reason to be frustrated–the day was beautiful, the dog was happy, and we were in no hurry, so we walked back to the last spot we were sure of and resumed our search.

When we did spot the slim entrance to the trail we were looking for (thanks to my mother!), we saw the “stone find of history” indicated by the Quest clues: the foundations of an old bridge, which we had spent years walking within feet of and never once seen! We wound around the little path, shaded by trees as it ran along the edge of the river. All of a sudden, the defined path faded away, and we were confronted by the end of the Quest. Because it is part of the Aquatic Adventure, I was expecting to see the little stream that traces the edge of the recreation area of the dam, but I was entirely and pleasantly surprised by the beautiful, shady swimming hole at the base of three cascading waterfalls. We hadn’t even realized we were getting close!

Union Village Quest 4

We located and opened up the birdhouse, which held the quest box, and stamped twice–once with the unique stamp, and once with the piece of the big Super Quest stamp. As we replaced the box, called the dog in from his swim in the shady pool, and wandered back to the car, we started wondering about what other Quests we could do soon. Even a decade later, Questing was just as involving and exciting as it had ever been!

The Connecticut River and its Watershed

Connecticut River tideland habitat undergoing invasive plant control (light colored areas) and native plant community restoration.

Since this year’s Super Quest explores the Upper Valley’s aquatic features in all their myriad forms, this makes for an opportune time to focus on that greatest of all our region’s waterways, the Connecticut River. We Upper Valleyans depend greatly on the river, whether we realize it or not, and spend much of our time plying up, down, and across it, perhaps in cars more than boats. But how much do you know about something so close and important to you?

The Connecticut River is massive—the longest in New England: it runs from Pittsburg, New Hampshire’s border with Chartierville, Quebec for some 407 miles to the Long Island Sound, where it pours nearly 20,000 cubic feet of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second. Where does all that water come from? Rain, snow melt, and any other water that runs downhill from the surrounding land into this main artery (including its many tributaries!) feed the rushing courses of this beautiful river as it winds along New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. This wide basin, lying between the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, all 11,000 acres of it, makes up the Connecticut River’s watershed.

The watershed supports an incredibly diverse and plentiful community of life. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals up and down the river live in it and around it. The river used to host one of North America’s southern-most salmon runs. Thousands of salmon swam up the river and its tributaries every year, some making it all the way to the Connecticut’s headwaters, to spawn and die.

On the human side, the river and its watershed give us food and energy. The river’s floodplain has created some of the most fertile agricultural land in the northeastern U.S., and its course has been one the most developed hydropower sources in the country, with nine of the fifteen dams on the river producing hydroelectricity.

This history of the human relationship with the river prompted President Clinton to designate it an American Heritage River in 1998. Indeed, the river has shaped the lives of this region’s inhabitants for a long time: the name “Connecticut” comes from a Mohican word meaning simply “the long river”. And our contemporary name for this very region recognizes that the river is in many ways the defining feature of our community and land: “Upper Valley” refers to the upper section of the river valley carved by the river itself over millennia.

Hopefully these tidbits about the river, which are just the tip of the iceberg, pique your curiosity to learn more. If you are interested in the form and character the river and its watershed take in the Upper Valley itself, look for another blog post soon about the watershed subbasins in our region.

Sources: Britannica, Connecticut River Joint Commissions, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=54712&st=connecticut+river&st1=

Thank you, Chris!!

Chris, back row, with Quest writing students at Sam's Overlook on the Unity Mountain Trail, Unity, NH

Chris, back row, with Quest writing students at Sam’s Overlook on the Unity Mountain Trail, Unity, NH

This spring we have had the great pleasure of working with Chris Jayne. A Hanover-native, Bowdoin College graduate who grew up Questing, Chris brought an aptitude, diligence, and familiarity to our place-based work that has been incredibly valuable. We’ve really lucked out!

Where to begin…he’s gone through every Quest in order to identify the top 50, has been instrumental in every step of this year’s Aquatic Adventure Super Quest (including devising the name!), assisted in a classroom Quest writing project in Unity, NH, and has updated a slew of Quests. He’s got a new Abenaki-themed Quest in the works, has done website and social media work, and has checked a whole bunch of Quest sites, too. We have so enjoyed his presence in the office, and are so grateful to have had Chris on our team these past months.

Chris joined us in February and wraps up today, but we look forward to keeping him on as a volunteer. Thank you for all your great work, Chris! Hat’s off!!

Join Valley Quest as a Summer Intern!

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Are you passionate about the Upper Valley? Do you feel motivated to share our region’s special places with the community at large? Love working with people of all ages? Vital Communities is looking for a summer Valley Quest Intern to help with program outreach, guided Quests, Quest maintenance, and website improvements. The position offers a mix of office-based and field-based work, with flexible scheduling. Candidates must have transportation. Small stipend available. Learn more in this job description, and send resume, cover letter, and writing sample to Valley Quest Program Manager, Lauren@VitalCommunities.org, for consideration.

Super Quest 2018 Aquatic Adventure: The Quests

The 2018 Aquatic Adventure Super Quest is live! This Valley Quest challenge is a tour de force of summer fun. Register your team today for this free guided exploration of Upper Valley swimming holes, waterfalls, streams, and mill town lore. The following 10 Quests highlight various water features, teaching all the way. They are open to the public from May 1-November 1. Download and print the clues from the links here, then collect a stamp impression from each Quest’s hidden box on your stamp sheet to complete the challenge!

  1. The Floodplain Quest, Haverhill, New Hampshire
  2. The Strafford Watershed Quest, Strafford, Vermont
  3. Union Village Quest, Thetford, Vermont
  4. Flat Rock Quest, Orford, New Hampshire
  5. Barnard Academy Forest Quest, Barnard, Vermont
  6. The Energy Quest at Boston Lot, West Lebanon, New Hampshire
  7. The Quest Where the River and Mill Combine, Lebanon, New Hampshire
  8. Beaver Brook Quest, Brownsville, Vermont
  9. Muckross Quest, Springfield, Vermont UPDATE (6/28/18): ONLY ACCESSIBLE ON WEEKENDS THROUGH MID-AUGUST. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS QUEST MONDAY-FRIDAY. There is a temporary active construction site blocking access to the Quest Monday-Friday. We have permission from the Park Manager to Quest on weekends, as the construction site is only active during the work week. Email Lauren@VitalCommunities.org if this is an issue: she has a back-up stamp in her office.
  10. Sunapee Harbor Quest, Sunapee, New Hampshire

Happy Questing!

Protecting our Waterways

We in the Upper Valley owe a lot to our wondrous waterways. Our rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, wetlands, and marshes provide us with inspiration, adventure, and solace, not to mention drinking water and electricity! They host entire ecosystems, teeming with life of all sorts. Conservation agencies in our region work hard to keep our waters healthy. We learned a bit about these amazing groups in the process of creating the 2018 Aquatic Adventure Super Quest, and want to share what we learned with you. All of these groups welcome volunteers, and many even organize big volunteer events like river clean-ups and waterway monitoring workshops. If you want to put your weight behind one of the many Upper Valley watershed conservation efforts, find the group closest to you from the ones highlighted here:

The Connecticut River Conservancy “is the voice for the Connecticut River, from source to sea.” It works in all four states through which the river runs (New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut) on various aspects of the river’s health, from planting trees on the riverbanks and removing defunct dams for fish habitat to diverting sewage streams, cleaning up trash, and testing water quality.

Zooming in on the twin states, the Connecticut River Joint Commissions have been meeting since 1989 to bring the best ideas and efforts from each state’s Connecticut River advisory commission to the table. These groups work towards benefiting the river and the people who depend on it. While the Joint Commissions have no power to regulate, they leverage other resources to keep the public involved in governmental decisions that affect the river, create corridor plans, provide grants, and advocate for the river in many other ways.

Photo from the White River Partnership

Photo from the White River Partnership

On the western side of the river, the Vermont state government’s Department of Environmental Conservation regulates water supply and quality, manages and protects watersheds, river corridors, and floodplains, conducts research and monitoring, handles wastewater and drinking water, directs recreation, and conducts dozens of other operations that touch on water bodies in the Upper Valley. They generously funded Valley Quest’s 2017 Watershed Challenge project with a Watershed Grant. Volunteering with them would be a great way to say thanks.

To the east, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services casts a similarly wide net in its work on the state’s waterways. They lend water quality monitoring equipment, lead educational programs, manage and protect rivers, and partner with local organizations to manage watersheds, among many other things.

Photo from the White River Partnership

Photo from the White River Partnership

Several groups in the Upper Valley focus on a particular watershed, river, or lake. The White River Partnership, for example, leads grassroots efforts from its Royalton, VT headquarters to promote “the long-term health of the White River and its watershed.” Lately, they’ve been monitoring water quality, hosting river cleanups, planting trees to improve flood resilience, expanding recreational access to the river, and keeping an eye on both native crayfish and fish populations and nonnative invasive species to restore and maintain wildlife habitat.

Another local group focused on a specific river and watershed is the Black River Action Team, which proclaims, “What began as a one-time cleanup of the Black River in southeastern Vermont has evolved into a full-blown grassroots watershed organization. Welcome to the wonderful, wet world of the Black River Action Team!”

If you live near the Mascoma River, the Mascoma Watershed Conservation Council is your go-to group. Its work has historically focused on funding research studies and bringing land around the Mascoma River under conservation.

The Lake Sunapee Protective Association is a group with longevity—they’ve been around since 1898! The LSPA monitors water quality through sampling and laboratory analysis, conducts scientific research, publishes newsletters, checks the spread of invasive species, and leads educational programs.

The Connecticut River and its Upper Valley tributaries give us places to fish, boat, and swim, generate our electricity, irrigate our crops, enrich our soil, and give us fresh water to drink. To maintain, conserve, and improve these benefits, consider joining one of the many local, vibrant watershed conservation efforts, and contact one of these agencies today!

Photo from the White River Partnership

Photo from the White River Partnership

 

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