Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Birder's Bird

A quick note on this post today. If you're eating breakfast, lunch, etc, wait until after your done.  There's a fascinating nature pic in this  post, but I personally wouldn't want to be eating and reading at the same time on this photo journey. You've been warned:) So let's begin this birding adventure......

Beth explores the Alpine Garden
The day began well.  We met up with the lovely Beth Standard to find a bird that not only is hard to ID but also difficult to locate inside the dense evergreen forest.  The Bicknell's Thrush.  

Dark-eyed Junco
The night before, I researched field notes and sightings around the Mt. Washington area. Beth had gone on a field study of the birds some time back.  Together, we all hoped to locate this bird. 

Pic courtesy of Wikipedia
The Bicknell's Thrush is not by any means a dazzling bird.  There are no reds or blues or long tailed feathers. It's also a cryptic species in that it looks practically identical to another thrush known as the Gray-cheeked Thrush. However, the Bicknell's is smaller in size. And because it's practically unknown to the general public, it is known as the "Birder's Bird".  Or a bird that is of interest to birders.

Luckily, the Gray-cheeked Thrush was far north up into Canada and Alaska on their breeding grounds. The Bicknell's, however, breed in the highest mountains of the Northeast like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and a place called Canada.  It's range is very limited and therefore the bird is listed as Vulnerable.  During the winter months, it lives in the higher altitudes of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

A windy top!

But this experience, for me, was frustrating for so many reasons. This isn't a place I'd recommend for birders.  As the Mt. Washington Auto Road suggests, it's for people who like to drive to the top and back down again. The noise pollution interfered with my ability to listen to the very tricky call of the Bicknell's. Because this was a one time event, we had to locate the bird early and before other motorists arrived.  

Blackpoll Warbler....Life bird!!!  Field note: Orange legs and feet
We arrived to the entrance station where a very brassy guy moved to put Kathie's car into first gear.  She knew exactly where first gear was located and didn't need a man doing it for her!  The nerve! Oh but that was just the start. The sticker price for this trip was EXPENSIVE!!!   With 4 individuals, it was around 50 bucks.  In my mind, I'm thinking that this was ridiculous. For one bird!  Yet there were several of these special thrushes located around the 3.5 mile marker and we needed to get to that spot before they stopped calling.  There is a window for these birds....early morning or before sunset.  If we missed it, we would have dipped. 

Dark-eyed Junco around the alpine level
The other option is to hike the steep mountain sides super early in the morning, but our team was not up for that one.  

Along the way, we heard so many wonderful birds calling but we couldn't stop.  The 3.5 marker first.  Then bird.  Target birding is tricky business and can be frustrating at times. Also frustrating? Motor vehicles and very few pull offs in the wrong spots! If we tried to stop, there would be a car or motorcycle right behind us.  The forest was beautiful and the vista was incredible.  We eventually reached the marker and pulled over.  Immediately we were able to hear the thrushes calling.  It was around 8 AM.  But the question was, "Was it a Swainson's or Bicknell's calling?"  I had Veery and Hermit Thrushes nailed at this point.  We were too high for the Wood Thrush so I could eliminate that call.  

One of the most fascinating finds of the day.  It's gross and cool at the same time.  This one goes out to my friend Donna who has taught me to investigate everything with a careful eye.  The colorful beetles are known as Sexton beetles.  It's a Carrion or Burying beetle and I'll leave it at that.  
But the other two?  Eventually after their repetitive calling, we could hear the frequency difference. Plus the Swainson's has a call that goes up.  BUT THE CARS AND PEOPLE!!!  Random people would stop and say, "Seeing anything good?"  My anger and frustration began to rise.  Kathie, who is all things patient and good, took over and spoke with the drivers and their running cars.  This bird was an expensive gamble and I wanted to make sure we were hearing it.  

Eastern Phoebe
Once we positively ID'd the birds, we tried to locate them in the thick of the trees.  Beth, Micheal, and Kathie all were able to get their eyes on one or two. But I wasn't going to call the bird if I didn't get a glance at it.  I became quiet.  Kathie and Micheal know me best and they could feel that I wasn't doing well. I, of course, created this stupid drama inside my head. I can call an owl or nightjar by sound and count it, why couldn't I do this with the Bicknell's Thrush? Probably because there were two flitting around the Spruce and Balsam Fir trees! Oh I saw them flitting but I wanted detailed observations!  But the cars wouldn't stop! Not much makes me react, but the trip up this cheesy road with a stupid bumper sticker that said "This car climbed Mt. Washington" made my blood boil.  Really? Just how much effort does it take for a person to put their foot on a gas pedal all the way to the top? Absolutely stupid. Nothing says tacky like this sticker does.
I'd like to stick this somewhere
Further down the road, we stopped and hiked a side trail. It was here my moment with the Bicknell's would happen. I was still skeptical of the near lookalike known as Swainson. But I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I heard the bird call and saw the bird briefly fly mid-level on a tree.  It was like, "I'm here!  Don't stress!" And then it flew away back into the trees.  

Two thrushes.  Behavior, habitat and altitude can dictate everything.  The Bicknell's Thrush is located in the lower right hand corner and prefers mid to lower levels of the tree near the ground.  In the upper left?  A Swainson's Thrush.  It is a thrush that feeds higher up in the trees.  It also behaves similar to a flycatcher at times and that behavior alone separates itself from other thrushes. 
All of this drama for one bird. It really is a beautiful mountain with some epic landscape, but I will never go on this road again.  If someone wants to go hiking, I'm up for it.  The motorists and talkative, fast paced hikers along the trails really make the birding tough.  By the time you get your eye on a bird, somebody is rumbling by and there goes the bird.  For the hikers reading this post, this is an absolute MUST!  YES!  Great accommodations for you! New England was epic, but I can say that I will NEVER return to the Auto Road of Mt. Washington.  Everything else that followed was fun and exciting.  The Bicknell's Thrush definitely lives up to its' title.....A Birder's Bird.  

Hikers stop here for a steep climb up at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.  Really nice place with showers, etc for the hiking crowd.  This is at the base of Mt. Washington.....a very different experience than the Auto Road. 
For an interesting video on the Bicknell's Thrush, click here. Like everything, the Bicknell's Thrush was an experience that won't be forgotten anytime soon.  I blog from the heart because that's what it's all about.  I know there will be more challenges ahead.  I can say that what came before and followed the Bicknell's experience was truly wonderful.  Stay tuned for more from our New England adventures..... 


  1. A stressful outing but with a happy ending.

  2. Hellooooo que bien te lo pasas.. Saluditos..

  3. I am so glad you saw your bird.. It does sound stressful.. Thanks for sharing your outing! Happy Birding!

  4. Sometimes one has to wonder if it's all worth it, but then the magic (or effort) happens and it IS worth it! Well done to all of you.

  5. Chris, I'm just laughing reading your account because I knew how frustrated you were! Thankfully you only need to get it once, and you did! But, I, too, wish we had all gotten better and longer looks at it!

    I appreciate your honesty!

  6. Yes, I've had the same experience on roads and trails. Sounds like it all worked out in the end.
    In many cases, I try to buy/find detailed topographic maps of trails that crisscross the highway at certain points. Then, when/if you are able to park at the trailhead, you can hike down the trail for about 5 minutes to lose all the sounds of vehicles and people. I buy and study maps during the winter before a summer trip. Happy Birding, my friend.
    P.S. Yes, the humidity is unbearable. I go out and garden for about 10 minutes, then race in and take an A/C break before I'm completely drenched with sweat.

  7. Oh, and speaking of thrushes, my absolute favorite songbird call is listening to the hermit thrush deep in a forest. The thrush you were after sounds even better! Looks like a tough bird to find up at that elevation!

  8. Had you walked up it would have been foggy.
    We have Sexton Beetles here. Beautiful things with dubious habits.
    A successful day.

  9. Not for everyone this trip! At least you saw the Bicknell, and were amongst friends who understood. I love the first picture of Beth in the Alpine Gardens, breathtaking picture!

  10. What a stressful and challenging experience. So glad you finally got a sighting though. That car sticker is unbelievable :(

    We get Sexton Beetles here - they quite often turn up in my moth trap :( Still they do provide a useful service even if its rather gross!!

  11. Nice work getting the bird under such awful conditions! The things and fees we endure for certain birds!

  12. It's true we will do almost anything to support our passions won't we.

    I'm so glad that despite the seemingly never ending stream of those who tried to throw you off of your game, you did persevere.

    Ummm by the way, Canada is a country, and rather large. LOL.


  13. To Jen......;) Someday I hope to visit this magical place you speak of:)

  14. I respect and require this quiet concentration. Yet I also like to drive mountain roads. Though I wouldn't pay money to do it. Glad you got your bird.

  15. Hello Kreesh, i am here again. I can't fully appreciate the bird because it is not colorful, haha, but i appreciate the way you wrote this post. I also am awed that you can mimic the bird's calls, that is a rare skill indeed. My niece since young can also mimic some of our birds in the property, but i cannot. I also laughed and was very much entertained by your other observations and posts very far from birding, most specially the sticker and the rotting animal.

  16. As someone who just spent hours upon hours in the car, climbing mountains and whizzing by photo opportunities, not wanting to ask the driver to stop (or being unable to stop) I feel your pain! We can't hike anymore, so we are stuck with this sort of "sightseeing" while in N AZ, Utah & CO and I was painfully aware that we would not be getting many bird photos on our trip. We were rewarded with other photos I will be sharing that were AWESOME...but the bird photos were few. (Being in Madera Canyon two months ago at Chuparosa Inn for two days not going anywhere and just letting the birds come to us, that was the best kind of birding possible for us! :-) ) I'm glad you had success in spite of all the annoyances!

  17. I think these types of days are responsible for more high blood pressure in birders! I do wonder why some people bother to go to places like this when they seem to never leave their car! Oh well, each to their own!

    Sorry about the much delayed reply - I've been in the UK for a month and I let the blog sit on the back burner - normal service will resume soon!

    Stewart M - Melbourne


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