Mountain Birdwatch 2018

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Simple camp, including notebook for survey notes.

Last year I was unable to complete either of my two Mountain Birdwatch surveys. This is a citizen science project for which I volunteer. The idea is to try to detect songbirds, early in the morning, at high elevation areas in the northeast. It means hiking, rising early, sitting quietly, warding off black flies and mosquitoes. It also means hearing the rare song of the Bicknell’s Thrush and breathing in the lushness of spruce on a cool late spring morning. It isn’t always easy, but it is well worth it.

Last year I had some issues with weather. It rained or was too windy. One of my routes is on Mount Mansfield. I couldn’t get up there because they were paving the road at the bottom of the hill where I access the mountain. I tried more than once but just couldn’t make either one happen. Because it needs to happen in the first three weeks in June, the window is short as it is. Failure. But this year I tried again.

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The first weekend in June I hiked up to the Skyline Trail in the Worcester Range. This range parallels the Green Mountains. It is rugged and gets much less use. Trilliums were still blooming, often right in the trail. There were a couple of wind storms this fall and so there were several nasty blowdowns–trees fell over the trail, requiring a sometimes significant detour. Because the trail is occasionally hard to follow, I had to be careful to make sure I got back on it.

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How’s that for a trail?

I got my butt kicked by the hike up and the hike down, as in years past. It is not that long–3 1/2 miles in and the same out, but it is straight uphill in places, slippery, muddy, relentless. Maybe I am getting too old for this business. However, I did get the survey completed. I set up a tent, set an alarm for 4:00 am, and set off down the trail to find some birds. Success this time.

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The next weekend I was on the top of Mount Mansfield and found success again. This survey route, also about a mile long, is pretty rugged as well, but half of it is on the ridge line. This means I get to sit and listen and look out across norther Vermont while the sun rises. Plus, I get to be alone of the top of Vermont’s highest mountain. How often does that happen? I had a successful survey again and was out of there in time to grab a late morning cider donut at Cold Hollow Cider Mill. And they have this maple French roast  from Speeder and Earl’s that is just bomber. I had to get me some of that.

Since some of the survey target birds winter in the tropics, they just might be hanging out in or around coffee plants when they are down there. The same warbler that flitted over my head to the branch of a fir might have landed on the waxy leaves of a coffee shrub in its winter home. Perhaps, to wax existential, the same coffee plant that was the source of that fine cup I drank? Perhaps.

It is a treat to be able to explore and to feel so connected to the mountains where I live. And it connects me to the wider world. These birds do nest here, but they also live in the tropics. Every year they make the journey each way. That they come back is a bit of a wonder to me. Every year I smile to think that they have returned. It gives me hope that the world is still working, that despite what sometimes seems like human attempts to stop it, the world still turns.  If I am lucky I will make my own small journey again next spring, to sit at the top of Vermont and to take some time to just listen.

Mountain Birdwatch, Worcester Range, 2016

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Every day this June I have woken and looked around and felt lucky to live in such a beautiful place. I mean, seriously, the place is just full of beauty. You have your green meadows and rolling hills and bare peaks. You have tractors tossing bales and Barn Swallows zooming over soccer fields and rabbits chewing clover. Wonder everywhere.

Again this June I have been fortunate to participate in Mountain Birdwatch, a research program that examines high elevation birds. Earlier this month I drove to Stowe, hiked up to the ridge trail on the Worcester Range and tried to find some of these birds. The hike up whooped my can, as it always does, but it was worth the effort.

This hike shouldn’t be that bad. It is about three miles to get to the start of the survey route. Three miles, how tough can that be? That is a 5K. I ran one of those the other day. But this is a challenging three miles. The first part isn’t bad. I hiked up toward the Stowe Pinnacle. That is a standard hiking trail–steep but well worn, fairly smooth, stone steps in some places. Once I have to veer off from that trail, however, the trail is less forgiving. It is steeper, with fallen trees across the trail, scrambles over rocks. It is not well marked and paying attention matters. No zoning out and just putting one foot in front of the other. It is slippery and rugged–a solid challenge.

The ridge trail is also not much used and can be wet, although this year it was pretty dry. There is only one water source so I have to try to time it right to polish off my water to fill up and treat what I collect. Eventually, after I think several times that I must have passed point one, I finally get there. Now I don’t want to be some wussy complainer, but it is a tiring little walk with a full pack (tent, sleeping bag, food and so on) on a steep trail. Or maybe I am just not in my twenties anymore.

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Painted Trilliums growing right on the trail

As in years past, I scouted the route and counted spruce and fir cones that day, after I set up my tent and left some stuff behind. There were Trilliums and Trout Lilies but there were also black flies. I have not seen black flies like that in years. More than once, as I tried to aim my binoculars at tree tops to carefully count cones (this is part of the survey because red squirrels eat the seeds from cones, and when there are more cones there are more squirrels that survive the winter; since squirrels also raid bird nests for their eggs, the number of cones can be an indicator of bird populations the following year) I said aloud, “I don’t think I can do this!” I was, however, not a quitter. I counted my cones, ate a little something, and crawled into my sleeping bag.

The next morning, rising at 4:00, I had a successful survey. The black flies slept in so I was free to listen and watch and take notes on what I encountered. I found more squirrels up there than ever before but I also heard Bicknell’s Thrush, probably the most important target species, at every survey point. Once I had completed the survey, about four hours later, I took some time to linger. It is beautiful up there, even with limited views, and it smells good. The spruce/fir forest in summer is an olfactory opiate.  It smells like spring after a long winter and Christmas and summer camp and childhood and Life.

I took my time hiking back down. I swatted flies and ran out of water before the stream. I listened for warblers. I soaked in the beauty of the place. Back home, I took a nap. Then I sat on the porch and looked out over the fields. The grass rolled in waves in the wind. Kingbirds snatched insects from the air. Wonder everywhere.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on Mount Mansfield 2015

Late day light after counting spruce and fir cones

Late day light after counting spruce and fir cones

Sunday morning I got up early, again, to listen for high elevation birds. I had just done this the week before on the Worcester Range, across the valley, so this was take two in a new place. Stowe Mountain Resort is generous enough to let employees and volunteers of Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who manages the survey, use the ski patrol hut near the summit of Mount Mansfield. So I got to drive up the toll road and stay there for the night. That was much easier, and quicker, than hiking up and tenting, as I did a week ago.

There were a couple other volunteers, there to survey another nearby route, also staying in the ski patrol hut. We did not chat much before I was packed up and out of there, however. The resort charges for use of the toll road for most people; they let volunteers go up for free, but not until they close it to other traffic at 4:00. So I was at the hut around 5:00. I wanted to get one part of the survey, the count count, out of the way, and I wanted to get up there and do it before it got too late. So after I dropped my bag, off I went for a hike.

Trail marker along the route

Trail marker along the route

It was a beautiful night, golden light in a partly cloudy sky. My hike was not long to get to the first survey point, maybe 30 minutes. There were a lot of cones when I could see them. In some spots the trees were too dense for me to see the tops where the cones are. In some spots, on the open ridge line, there were no trees with cones to be had. As I mentioned in my last post about this, there is a correlation between cone density and squirrel populations. When the squirrel population booms after a good cone year, they predate bird eggs when the cones don’t aren’t there to eat. Hence the cone counting, to see how much it affects birds populations.

I got back to the ski patrol hut before 8:00, ready to eat the sandwich (plus the beer) I had brought up with me. The other folks were still out on their cone survey so we did not get to chat yet again as I was ready to hit the sack early. After a night of tossing and turning I was ready to get up when my alarm went off at 3:30. And I was off for another hike.

Not all the points are easy to reach--this is the actual trail to one of them

Not all the points are easy to reach–this is the actual trail to one of them

Scouting the points made easier it to find them in the early hours. I sat at each point for 20 minutes, according to the survey protocol, listening and looking for several bird species. I heard many of them and saw a couple birds to boot. It was a successful survey. I got to spend some quiet time (except for all that avian singing) on Mount Mansfield, getting fantastic views at three of the six points. By 8:00 I was done, and the singing slowed down. I took a few minutes to admire the beautiful state in which I live–the Worcester Range to the east, Lake Champlain to the west, the Green Mountains stretching north and south. The overcast skies cleared and the sun dappled the rolling green landscape. Hard not to appreciate that.

Morning view from Mount Mansfield ridge

Morning view from Mount Mansfield ridge

Back at my car I changed from synthetic clothes to cotton and headed down the hill. I hadn’t even broken a sweat for this survey; sure I hiked less than my other route, but the weather was pretty much ideal. I stopped for a bagel in Stowe on the way home, mingling my unshaven mug with those of diners just risen for the day. I had already put in a good day’s work. Coffee in hand, I headed back home, the songs of thrushes and warblers dancing around in my tired brain.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on the Skyline Trail 2015

IMG_0466Pictured here is most of the stuff I carried up to the Skyline Trail for my Mountain Birdwatch survey up there this year. I have participated in this citizen science initiative to monitor high elevation songbirds for 16 years now. This was my fourth year on this route, which requires a solid hike in. Not pictured above are the clothes I wore (including hiking boots), a small bag of food (I pretty much snacked the whole time as cooking requires a stove I did not want to carry) and an iPhone (for emergencies and to use as a stopwatch for the survey).

Back in 2000, the first year of the survey, I rose early and walked about my door to hike up to my survey route. I lived in Bolton, at over 2,000 feet elevation, and the route was only a short hike away. The survey’s methods were also different then, with fewer birds to monitor and less time required. I could rise at 5:00 to start by 6:00. This route is different as is the survey. Now I drive an hour, hike three hours, and I need to start about 4:00. When I first adopted this new route, I did the math to figure out what time I would need to get started if I did not spend the night up there. Including prep time and longer hiking time in the dark, I figured starting at 10:00 pm would do the trick. So spending the night just made sense.

Let me tell you, that hike is a beast. It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard. It is only about three miles. A 5K is about three miles, and my 10-year old kid can do that in 45 minutes or less. This, however, is no 5K. The route starts off easy enough, on a well-traveled trail up to the Stowe Pinnacle. Yesterday, as usual on a sunny June day, there were scores of people hiking up and down. I always feel a little odd hiking past people who are wearing running shoes and white T-shirts with my full pack (especially on the way back down when I am covered in mud and sweat and smashed black flies).

The beginning of my hike--easy going on a blue bird day.

The beginning of my hike–easy going on a blue bird day.

After a mile I peel off onto a trail leading up to the ridge. That trail is steep and rocky and covered in roots and slippery and downright tough. Few people go up there but I always seem to see those few, usually when I am talking aloud to myself and they are suddenly upon me. Despite my embarrassment I keep plodding and make it to the ridge. This time I did not take a break until I hit the Skyline Trail. I needed a break at that point.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

At this point I only have to hike along the ridge to Point One, near where I will camp for the night. This is a mere mile, so no problem. At least I think that every time. But that mile takes another hour, with steep up and down (there is a ladder at one point) on a slippery narrow trail. I need to stop to fill water bottles along this stretch, as there is only one water source up there. Eventually I get to my spot and set up camp. Then I take a longer break.

But I’m not done yet. Part of the survey is counting cones. When there is a mast year (a year where there is an abundance of cones) the squirrel population booms. Lots of cones means lots of seeds inside for squirrels to snack upon so lots of them survive that year. But then all those cones are not there the next year and the squirrels are. One substitute food source for them is bird eggs. So there is a connection between cones and nesting birds. Once I set up my tent, I traveled the survey route and followed the protocols to count the cones. And let me tell you there are lots of cones this year. This counting took quite a while so by the time I got back to my tent I was ready to rest.

Compounding the usual challenge of this route were all the fir tops. An ice storm this winter did lots of damage on I wondered as I hiked up (among many many things) if there would be any damage up high. There was. The top sections of fir trees were snapped off and lying all over the place. Many of these, of course, were lying across the trail. Some were small (think mini Christmas trees) and some were like full trees themselves. That slowed me down a bit (plus needles stuck inside my boots and down my shirt as I climbed over or around or through). I stopped at one point and counted them–I could see 18 from that spot.

Tree tops everywhere!

Tree tops everywhere!

In the end, the survey was successful. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, the main target species, several times. Plus I heard Blackpol Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes and Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers all for the first time this year. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place. I was tuckered when I got back to the car. I stopped for a couple pizza slices on the drive home and called it good work.

I took on a second route this year as well but that one does not require such a tough hike. It will feel like a cake walk. This route, however, has pretty high rewards. Lots of people can run a 5K but most wouldn’t do this hike to get up at 4:00 am and not have a view. Apparently, I would.

Alone on Top of Mount Mansfield

Afternoon view for near the summit

Afternoon view from near the summit

Some years in the past I have done more than one Mountain Birdwatch route, rather than just one, making the effort to get up early to try to find birds at (relatively) high elevation, in the name of science. I have done the Mount Worcester route for four years now and I agreed to take on a second route this year. I agreed to this because I had hoped I could simply get up early at home, hike to the survey route and then do the survey. This would mean I would not have to spend the night out and therefore would not need to take most of the weekend to get it done. Several years ago, before the protocol for the survey changed to make it take longer, I could rise at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, drive, hike, do the survey, and be back in town in time for breakfast. So I had hoped I could do that again this year. It did not, of course, quite work out that way.

Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who manages the Mountain Birdwatch survey in the United States, has the benefit of the use of the Stowe Mountain ski patrol hut to aid in its science projects on Mount Mansfield. This means I got to stay there so I could get up early to do the survey. At first I was going to decline this offer and try to drive up super early. But, I thought, what the heck? Why not make things easier? I mean, I am supposed to start the survey at 4:00 in the morning.

So last Saturday afternoon I drove to Stowe. I stopped at the base of the toll road and checked in. I had to sign a couple of release forms. One was for use of the hut and one was for use of the toll road. The toll road snakes its way up and ends close to the summit of the mountain. It provides access for the buildings and towers up there. The towers mean access to television and radio and cell phone signals for all of us. The road means those towers get serviced. It also meant I could drive up rather than hike, saving myself several hours.

In the winter the road is a long and easy ski trail. I had skied it for the first time just this past season. It looked a little bit different without snow. Since it was so late in the day, I only met a few cars coming down and soon arrived at Parking Lot B.  I unloaded my pack and prepared to scout the route. I had never been there so I wanted to make sure I could find each of the survey points. I also wanted to do the cone count.

The survey requires counting fir and spruce cones at each point. This is because of squirrels. Squirrels eat the seeds in the cones. They love those things. So when there are lots of cones (a mast year), the squirrel population grows. The year after a mast year there usually are not so many cones, but there are still a lot of squirrels. So what do they do? They eat the eggs in bird nests. Counting cones can help determine how much of a relationship exists between cones and bird populations. I wanted to get that part done the day before.

I am so glad I scouted the route. The points for this route are all in a straight line but they are not along the same trail.  I had to hike up the access road, down the Long Trail, back up the Long Trail, down the road again, down a side trail, back up the side trail, back down the road, down another side trail, then back to the Long Trail for the last three points. It took some problem-solving and some serious effort as the trails were not all marked well and some were dang rugged.

Boulder suspended over the trail

Boulder suspended over the trail

I couldn’t find one of the side trails and so couldn’t find one of the points. I figured out a way to go the opposite way down the trail and assumed I could follow it all the way through to find the access point on the other end. This was the Canyon Trail, well-named. At one point I came to a canyon. The trail ended in a cliff. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said aloud. More than once. There was just no simple way down. I could see trail markers painted on rocks far below, and I could see a ladder down there as well, I supposed to aid in getting up a steep section. But there was no ladder for me at the top. I envisioned how it might be possible to scale the rocks to get down, but it was 7:00 p.m. by that point, and I was alone, and I was feeling a little tired, and I had not eaten dinner. “Ain’t happening I said aloud.” More than once.

Eventually I did find the point from the other end, and I did count cones, and I got back to the hut to eat and sleep, much later than I wanted. I slept on the couch, fitfully, alarm set to wake me at 3:30 a.m. At 2:30 a.m., however, loud country music started playing. I was confused. I hoped it would stop. I thought I might be able to sleep through it. Then I got up. It turns out there was a huge old boom box in the basement, with giant speakers and double tape deck. It was playing the loud country music. I found the power button and pushed it. The loud country music stopped. I still have no idea what the heck that was about. Timer? Ghost? Mouse?

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On the trail at 4:30 a.m

Ultimately, I did get up. I did hike back up to do the survey. I found all the points easily this time. I heard the birds I had come to find. It could not have been a more perfect morning–no clouds, no wind, a little cool at 45 degrees. When I was finished I sat on the ridge and looked out at this beautiful place on that beautiful day. No one else was around. After enjoying the stillness and the view for a bit, I starting hiking back down, trying hard not to hum a country tune.

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge

White-Throated Sparrow on the ridge, not singing a country tune

A Great Day to Get Up at 4:00 A.M.

IMG_3957The hike up is not that long but it is a bit brutal. After taking one route up a couple of times I realized there is a shorter and easier route, at least for the first bit of the hike. That shorter route cuts off about a half mile of hiking but still, it ain’t easy. This isn’t one of the highest peaks in Vermont and I don’t even end up on a summit, but I tell you it is a tough one.

I hiked up to the Skyline Trail that connects Mount Worcester and Mount Hunger in the Worcester Range, which parallels the Green Mountains. This was my fourth year doing it and each time I think it won’t be so tough. Each time I am humbled. I hike up there so I can camp out and then get up at 4:00 in the morning to find birds. Most of the birds I don’t even see but simply hear. I know, it sounds silly–take a tough hike to rise super early to find birds you can’t see? But it is pretty great.

This is my 15th year volunteering for the Mountain Birdwatch program, which surveys high elevation birds in the Northeast. You know, Bicknell’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Winter Wren, those birds most people have never heard of. That is part of why I do it, I guess. To hear a Bicknells’s Thrush sing, which only happens in early summer and only and higher elevations in northeastern North America, is a treat. Most people simply are not going to hear that song. It is a rare sound and something I cherish. It gives me hope each year that things are not as bad in the world as they might be.

The survey protocols require listening and looking early in the morning. The birds sing the most just as it is getting light and a little while after the sun rises. Being high on a mountain as the world awakens, the smell of firs floating over the trail, bird song ringing out–seriously, it is life lived at its most divine. Of course, I also have to take care to mark down all the birds I detect of specific target species, how far away they are, if I saw or heard them, how many, that science-type stuff, but it feels then like I am doing something that maybe matters, that maybe will help to keep these places and moments around just a little longer.

I agreed to take this route after the one I had been doing for a decade had been discontinued. So it goes when scientific rigor comes into play. The old route just didn’t make the cut when the protocols got changed a few years ago. It was a bummer to let that route go but it gave me a chance to see someplace new. I had heard the new route was tough and it was. It is steep and rugged and not often used. It is slippery and sometimes hard to follow. And it is a just a little more challenging with a pack full of a tent and binoculars and warm clothes and a notebook and so on. I have given up on bringing a stove to cook dinner–too much extra weight; I just bring food I can eat straight up.

This year was particularly nice. It was clear and sunny and just a gem of a June day on both the hike in and the day of the survey. There were no clouds and there was no wind. The birds were out. Last year I hiked in and had to abort because it was too windy in the morning. I had to go back and try again the next weekend. This year the weather could not have been more perfect. OK, it was 35 degrees when I started at 4:00, and I did keep my sleeping bag wrapped around me for the first hour, but it warmed up soon enough. I heard all the birds I expected to hear plus another rare one for that area (a Boreal Chickadee) and called it good after collecting some data.

The hike out was tough but not as tough with the gravity assist. Back at the car I changed into clean shorts and shirt, opened the car windows and headed into Waterbury for a slice of pizza. I was tired–not enough sleep and some solid hiking–but I watched the sky turn pink at the beginning of day, and I heard rare birds sing, and for a full cycle of the sun I was immersed in a beautiful place. If my wife could have been there it would have been perfect. I guess perfection will have to wait, for now at least.

Bluebird day on the hike down

Bluebird day on the hike down

Finding Birds in the Wee Hours

Before Sunrise from Burnt Rock Mountain

For the second time this week, I got up early, drove, hiked uphill for a ways and then sat in hopes of finding some birds. Last year I had volunteered to do a second survey for Mountain Birdwatch, sponsored by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I agreed to do it again this year. I packed up the night before, and readied the espresso maker, so all I had to do was rise, brush my teeth, quickly brew some java and head out the door with my backpack. Other than trying to stay quiet so I don’t wake everyone else, the biggest challenge is just getting up. I had to set the alarm for 12:45. It was barely today when I turned back the blankets.

I managed to get out quickly, however, hot coffee in a travel mug (Americano, with cream) next to me in the cup holder. I had planned for extra time, although I did not need it, as the forecast was for heavy fog. I passed through some fog but I drove over Appalachian Gap on Route 17, so I was higher than any fog for a good chunk of the time.  I started driving at about 1:00 and started hiking about 2:15. I was, as you might imagine, the only one on the trail.

My headlamp guided me, and I did feel a little tired. I was up at 2:00 on Monday morning (shorter drive for that survey route) and I stayed up way too late to watch a movie one night (Sherlock Holmes–too good to watch halvsies) so I wasn’t as perky as I might have been. I got to the Long Trail in about an hour and 30 minutes later I was on the top of Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had 15 minutes to spare before I could officially start at 4:00, so I donned some warm layers, lay against my backpack on the warm stone, and waited. The wind was gusting pretty strongly but not so much that I would not be able to hear birds songs. The stars were out. Jupiter dangled in the eastern sky like an earring. The horizon just hinted at the day to come.

I could have fallen asleep. I had to make sure I kept my eyes open. At four I pulled out my notebook to get started. But no birds were singing. So I waited. Nothing. Was it the wind? I waited until 4:25 and the first bird I heard was the one I most wanted to hear–Bicknell’s Thrush. At that first survey point I heard three of them.

Here is the thing. Some people get excited where their team gets a home run. Others get excited when they win at horseshoes or craps or softball. Some get fired up by nightlife. I get elated when I hear a Bicknell’s Thrush singing. It lifts me up and smacks a huge smile on my face. These little brown birds face a lot, from habitat loss in both their and summer homes, to distant migrations, to acid rain and climate change, so to hear that they have returned for another summer brings me pure joy.

I head them again at the second and third of five survey points. It was peaceful in the woods. I heard many birds, despite the wind. I heard plenty I was not seeking. In fact, I heard a long list of birds. On my hike overall I heard (I only saw a couple of birds the whole time, flying away from me in terror of my fierceness I suppose) these species:

  • Bicknell’s Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Veery
  • Robin
  • Winter Wren
  • White Throated Sparrow
  • Black Capped Chickadee
  • Dark Eyed Junco
  • Brown Creeper
  • Red Breasted Nuthatch
  • Yellow Bellied Flycatcher
  • Golden Crowned Kinglet
  • Blackpol Warbler
  • Yellow Rumped Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Black Throated Blue Warbler
  • Black Throated Green Warbler
  • A couple other warblers I couldn’t identify
  • A woodpecker that was drumming but split as I passed
  • Blue Jay

I might have missed a couple here but it was, you might say, a good morning for this citizen scientist. It was a peaceful hike and I enjoyed some time in the woods. And my guess is that I was home before anyone even got to that particular trailhead today. A day’s work, done by breakfast.

After Sunrise