Sunday, June 21, 2009

Musical Whispers

It seemed as if the bird was blowing in a delicate, slender, golden tube, so fine and yet flute-like and resonant the song appeared. At times it was like a musical whisper of great sweetness and power. - John Burroughs on Bicknell's Thrush song

Unknown Pond Trailhead

There was no stove and I was soaked and shivering. I was in Cabot Cabin just below the 4,170 foot summit of Mt. Cabot in northern New Hampshire and it was 8:30pm. I was soaking wet from back-packing up in the rain from the Unknown Pond trailhead 5.5 miles away and 2,300 ft below. I was expecting a stove in this first-come-first-serve free shelter but it was clearly absent and I was wet through. So I stripped off my wet clothes, heated some drinking water with the camp stove I packed in, and climbed into my sleeping bag to warm myself up.

I was feeling every last one of my fifty years at that moment. I had started up the trail late in the afternoon, and with 40lbs of gear on my back I had pushed as hard and fast as I could. I wanted to get up the mountain to get to the cabin before dark. It wasn't really raining when I started and soon I was completely soaked with sweat from the exertion. So when the rain started it seemed a cool relief at first and I didn't don raingear, but it soon turned into a heat sapper as my stamina waned as I pushed the pace a little too hard.

Lower reach of Unknown Pond Trail. Hiking hard and fast in little to no rain.

Upper Unknown Pond Trail in fog and steady rain. I'm in the clouds now.

4 Star Accommodations for the night! Much better than what was outside.

After an hour or so in the sleeping bag I was quite warm again, or at least warm enough to have a look about. I climbed off the bunk and twisting my headlamp on went out onto the cabin's porch. The total silence was only broken by the soft sound of rain splattering the mountain's shoulder. I peered into the darkness but the mountain and I were enveloped by cloud. In the damp mist all that was visible in the beam of my headlamp were the spruces immediately in front of the cabin. Illuminated by the pale blue light of my headlamp they looked ghostly and forlorn. No human sounds reached me on my mountain perch.

Cabot Cabin

I was here for the night and I was here with a purpose. At first light on Tuesday June 16th I would be carrying out a breeding bird survey of high mountain birds for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies' Mountain Birdwatch project. The main target species would be Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). Bicknell's Thrush has only been recognized as a species since 1995 when it was split from Gray-cheeked Thrush. In the United States Bicknell's Thrush is only found in the mountains of New England and New York during the brief breeding season. The limited range of the species and the fragility of it's breeding habitat make it a special concern for ornithologists and conservationists. The rarity of the bird, the ethereal song it sings, and it's remote breeding habitat make it a fascinating species to birders. There are four other species that use this habitat that Mounatin Birdwatch is also targeting in the ongoing survey. They are Swainson's Thrush, a relative of Bicknell's Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Winter Wren, and White-throated Sparrow.

In Bicknell's Thrush Territory.

Breeding bird surveys are one of the ways birders can help contribute to the conservation and protection of birds and their natural habitat. They are also valuable ornithological tools for better understanding the distribution of bird species, particularly uncommon or poorly understood species. Many birders to their credit dutifully carry out these surveys year after year. I had not done one myself in ten years or more and when I learned Mountain Birdwatch needed someone to survey Mt. Cabot I happily volunteered. This was a chance to combine my love of hiking the mountains with citizen science.

3:30 am came early as my cell phone alarm splintered the night's silence like a rock thrown through a window. I dragged myself off the bunk and threw some clothes on. Stumbling around the cold dark cabin I fired up the camp stove and heated water for instant coffee and instant oatmeal. As I drank the dark sludge, which cold and my circumstances made surprisingly tasty, I packed my gear and prepared to start the survey. I wanted to begin recording data by 4:30am. This was a point survey. At five points along the Kilkenny Ridge I was to listen for ten minutes and record every bird I heard or saw. I would record the birds on a form that represented the area around me. Each bird would be positioned on the paper relative to the center of the sheet. The center represented my position. When the survey was completed I would transfer all the data to tally sheets and submit to Mountain Birdwatch which species I heard or saw and how many individuals of each species I believed to be present. I had done surveys before but never in the White Mountains. Still that wouldn't be a problem because I knew all the songs and calls of the birds that breed there. With my gear packed, coffee and food consumed, I left the cabin and headed out to find the survey points. As I had hoped the rain had stopped and the sky was slowly clearing.

Early morning view from the ridge

Topographical map of Kilkenny Ridge with previous survey points marked as red triangles

I had hoped to begin taking data at 4:30am but I soon discovered that the survey point data I had been given were inaccurate. I had been given a sheet of paper that included GPS points, brief written description, and small photos of the points used 4 years earlier. The problem was the GPS points were obviously transcribed incorrectly and the photos were ambiguous. I was able to find the first point because of the unique large boulder at the spot but I was forced to use new points for the other points. I lost about 30 minutes in the process of coming to terms with the inaccurate data so I started the survey shortly after 5am.

One of the new survey points I chose. A unique spruce and GPS points recorded.

The first survey point yielded the only Bicknell's Thrushes I would record during the survey period. One was singing its strange synthetic flute-like song while another called slightly further down the western slope. A Boreal Chickadee sang nearby and a Winter Wren bubbled it's complex song far down the eastern slope. The clear mournful song a a White-throated Sparrow greeted the dawn that was slowly eating away at the mist that clung stubbornly to the spruces of Kilkenny Ridge. Two species that I would record at every survey point were Blackpoll Warbler with its high frequency song and Swainson's Thrush with its beautiful flute-like refrains.

Unusual rock in trail embedded in roots chosen as a survey point.

As I chose new survey points I recorded the GPS data and snapped some photos of unique features such as boulders in the trail that were oddly surrounded by roots or uniquely shaped spruces near trail blazes. It is no small challenge to precisely document a location in the wilderness well enough for someone else to accurately relocate it next year.

The sun is starting to win over the clouds. Beautiful!

The high elevation of Kilkenny Ridge means fewer species of bird than would be found in the deciduous forests far below me and consequently recording the birds I heard or saw was not very challenging. Strain as I might to pick up more Bicknell's Thrushes at the last four survey points I could not. The early morning was still and damp. The mist drifted slowly through the spruces like smoke as I completed taking data at the last survey point. Now I could throw everything into my pack and enjoy myself as I hiked out. The trip in and up had been a hard push in fading light and growing rain. The trip out would be leisurely under increasingly sunny skies.

The view to the west from Kilkenny Ridge

Heading north from the summit of Mt Cabot Kilkenny Ridge Trail descends into a col. A col is a dip between peaks on a ridge. The next peak along the trail is called "The Bulge." The Bulge is just under 4,000 feet in elevation. The survey was done and behind me but as I ascended The Bulge I heard three more Bicknell's Thrushes singing or calling. Ever present along ridge as I hiked out was the song of Swainson's Thrushes and Blackpoll Warblers with some Yellow-rumped Warblers thrown in as well. Hiking along the ridge with sunlight streaming through the mist between the spruces while the musical whispers of the mountain birds floated on the air made every bit of the tough hike of the previous evening well worth it.

Leaving The Bulge behind I came to the spur trail that led to the peak known as "The Horn." This peak is crowned with bare granite that peirces the spruce canopy and offers the best views along Kilkenny Ridge. I scrambled up the massive granite slabs of The Horn and was treated to views of Mt. Cabot and The Bulge nearby and to the Presidentials including proud Mt Washington to the south. And as I stood and soaked in the grandeur of the White Mountains around me yet another Bicknell's Thrush sang from deep within a spruce below. After spending a wonderful 30 minutes or so on The Horn I scrambled back down off the slabs and headed back down the spur trail to its juncture with the ridge trail.

The trail to "The Horn"

Mt Cabot in the center and "The Bulge" to the right as seen from The Horn

Survey Marker on The Horn

Walking along the ridge trail I was treated to patches of wildflowers like Painted Trillium. The trail slowly worked lower towards Unknown Pond. I was anxious to explore the reported beauty of the pond. On the trip up I couldn't spare the time and the pond was completely shrouded in fog. Now I could take my time on this wonderful morning to have a proper look. I wasn't disappointed. The cold water of Unknown Pond was crystal clear. Standing tall across the far side of the pond was The Horn. It was one of those scenes you often see captured on postcards. Only on the postcard you can't hear the croak of Ravens or the abrupt song of Magnolia Warbler or feel the cool sweet mountain air flowing into your lungs. The White Mountains are full of these spectacular places, places that you never forget once you have seen them.

Unknown Pond with The Horn in the background

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

The morning was getting on and I still had a couple of miles of mountain trail to cover still to regain my truck at the trailhead below, so I left Unknown Pond behind and headed out. For me the pond would no longer be unknown but would be a treasured memory until such time as I visited it again. As the trail wound lower I started to hear Hermit Thrushes among the Swainson's. This was a clear sign that I was leaving the ridge behind and above me and I was rejoining the denizens of the lower slopes.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). A white variant. This is not White Lady's Slipper, for which it is sometimes mistaken.

I returned to my truck shortly before noon and tossed my pack into the cab as Black-throated Green Warblers and Black-throated Blue Warblers threw their songs at one another across the nearby stream. After grabbing real coffee somewhere along the way I planned on hiking up Mt. Waumbek later that day before the long trek home to Connecticut. It had been another wondrous visit to the Crystal Hills and I had one more 4,000 footer to climb before the day was over. Life is good in New England.

To learn more about Mountain Birdwatch and to see images of Bicknell's Thrush as well as hear it's song, visit the Vermont Center for Ecostudies website at: