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Vermont Public’s weekly dose of all things environment.

Out There: When Lake Champlain was a sea

This is the web version of our email newsletter, Out There! Sign up to get our bi-weekly dose of all things environment — from creatures you might encounter on your next stroll, to a critical look at the state's energy transition, plus ways to take part in community science and a roundup of local outdoor events.

🌔❄️ It’s Thursday, February 22. Here’s what’s on deck:

  • An early mud season
  • Debates over pesticide use
  • Looking for owls

But first,

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Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Touching the deep past

A collage showing a lake with mountains in the back. In the lake: an iceberg, a beluga whale, beach grass and yellow flowers.
Photos by Arthur Haines (Native Plant Trust), Donald Cameron, alazor (iStock), cokada (iStock) and Vermont Public. Collage by Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Beluga whales once swam in a sea that covered a portion of Vermont. Several species of coastal plants remain around Lake Champlain from that time.

The Atlantic Ocean once reached the northwestern edge of Vermont. That was around 12,000 years ago, once the ice sheet had retreated further north but the land was still far below sea level after being pressed down by a colossal glacier for thousands of years. The Atlantic flooded in, creating a massive inlet from the Gulf of St. Lawrence called the Champlain Sea.

At the time, humans had domesticated plants and animals, made permanent settlements and painted art in caves around the world. In Vermont, beluga whales swam in the Champlain Sea, and several plants made their way inland. Over thousands of years, the ground rose back up and the sea retreated. But the plants remained. Several species are still found in small populations around Lake Champlain today.

  • 🌾 Champlain beachgrass: There are only two known locations in Vermont — at a state park in Alburgh and a Burlington beach. Beachgrass has a large underground stem system that helps hold the soil in place, acting as erosion control for sand dunes. 
  • 🌼 Beach heather: A shrub found in sandy soil with yellow flowers that expands outward through cloning, sometimes creating large concentric circles of a single clone. It’s only found in a handful of locations in the state with much of its biomass underground, also helping to combat erosion. 
  • 💜 Beach pea: A legume with lavender flowers that thrives on top of sand bluffs, where other species can not survive. It will eventually slough off, and can be seen at the base of bluffs, where beach pea seeds can survive in saltwater for several years. 
  • 🍃 All of these plants thrive where disturbances in environments push out competitors — places with open sand that can shift in the wind. 

In other news

🟤🚗 An early mud season: Climate change, on top of an El Niño year has led to an especially warm winter, with early thaws. Some town road crews used most of their gravel for road repair back in December during a muddy spell. And it turns out little snowfall can also lead to an excess in groundwater, and a more destructive mud season.

🐝 99% of corn seeds in Vermont are treated with pesticides: The European Union and Quebec have already banned seeds coated with pesticides called neonicotinoids known to harm pollinators, and now Vermont lawmakers are weighing whether to do the same. Scientists have questioned the efficacy of neonicotinoids themselves on corn and soybean yields. New York State passed legislation phasing the seeds out by 2029, and some farmers here want Vermont to do the same.

🌲 700 public comments: That’s what the state received after putting out a plan for how to manage a 19,000 acre stretch of land in the Worcester Range, including Mt. Hunger, Stowe Pinnacle and Elmore State Park. The draft plan calls for opening up 2,000 acres to selective timber harvests, and that’s what many had concerns about. Lawmakers have also questioned whether the draft plan aligns with Vermont’s conservation goals and how it might impact future flooding.

In your backyard

A drawing of a bird with a dark beak and red coloring sitting in a forest.
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
These birds can breed nearly any time of year if there’s enough food, including in the coldest months of winter. They’re nomadic and travel wherever conifer cones are bountiful, which changes every year. This winter, red crossbills have been seen across the state.

Get out there

🌊 Learn more about the lake: For the next month, the Lake Champlain Basin Program will host a different speaker Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at their office in Grand Isle. First up is a fisheries biologist from the University of Vermont tonight, Feb. 22. They’ll ask whether there can be ‘good’ invasive species, and share info about lake trout and round goby. Come for the homemade desserts, stay for the science.

🦉🔦 Look for owls under a full moon: Your first chance is in southern Vermont on Friday, Feb. 23 at 5 p.m. at the Hogback Mountain Conservation Area in Marlboro, organized by the Vermont Museum of Natural History. Museum staff will lead a group on a moonlit walk where they’ll listen for owl calls and view constellations.

At the opposite end of the state, in northern Vermont, Friends of Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge are hosting another evening walk to search for owls on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m. in Swanton. They’ll start with an introduction to owls before heading out on a trail through the marsh. Organizers say to dress appropriately and bring a low-intensity flashlight with you.

❄️🦌🪶 A winter celebration in Quechee: There will be reindeer. There will be fairies. Also, chickadees, raptors, song birds, and a chance to identify birds with an educator and watch raptors eat their lunch at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Saturday, Feb. 24 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Adult admission $19.

🐾 Who made those tracks?: Join naturalists from the North Branch Nature Center on a casual outing on their trails in Montpelier to learn or brush up on identifying wildlife tracks, so you might be able to distinguish between a coyote and fox or a mink and a fisher. Sunday, Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. All experience levels welcome, be prepared to travel up to a mile in snowy or icy conditions.

🐦🐾🍁🔥 Burlington has a winter celebration too: This one is at the Intervale, featuring guided walks on winter tracking, along with bird and tree identification. There will also be a bonfire, hot chocolate, a chance to make your own bird feeder, and a tree tapping demo and community sap boil. Sunday, Feb. 25 at 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

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Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Thank you for reading! Don’t hesitate to reach out, we'd love to hear from you. Just email us.

Credits: This week’s edition was put together by Lexi Krupp with editing from Brittany Patterson and lots of help from the Vermont Public team, including graphics by Laura Nakasaka and digital support from Sophie Stephens.

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