Mountain Birdwatch 2019 on Bolton Mountain

View from the Long Trail north of Bolton Mountain peak

I have been participating in Mountain Birdwatch for a couple decades now. I started with Ricker Peak, which is in Bolton. That worked out great, since we lived in Bolton and I could walk out the door and hike to the survey route. But the survey got a makeover about ten years ago and that route was eliminated. I took on a route on the Worcester Range after that, which had its own charms, but I switched it up this year and volunteered to survey Bolton Mountain instead.

This route was right in my old stomping grounds so the hike in was familiar. I hiked in mid-day and scouted the survey points along the route, in reverse order. I hiked up and over the peak, then down to Puffer Shelter on the Long Trail, just beyond the first survey point. There were two other hikers planning to spend the night there, but I sent up a tent nearby. It was pretty much a stellar day for a hike–sunny and warm with good views when I could get them.

Bunch berries were blooming along the trail

I didn’t exactly have a tent. I brought a bug shelter–really light and roomy enough to be comfortable, but not a solid shelter in rain or high winds. The thing was ideal. I had scouted the route and gotten to the shelter way early, so I had a few hours before I had to try to sleep, even though I was planning to hit the hay earlier than I usually do. There were black flies and lots of them, so I snacked and read in my handy shelter. I did hang out in the shelter for a little black-fly-swatting conversation (one guy hiked in just to spend the night there after seeing the shelter for the first time on a Long Trail through-hike last year, and the other had hiked north from West Virginia), but once out of the bugs I easily fell asleep.

I rose at 4:00 and, after packing up, walked with a headlamp to the first survey point. While I know the routine of this project well, I enjoy it every time. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, which is just always a treat, and my first Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher of the year. Hearing those birds and, sitting in the shadows of spruces, thinking about the long journey they make to get to that spot, I am awed again and again.

I paid careful attention and wrote it all down, and reflected in between survey points, and overall had a pleasant day. I hiked all the way back to the car and was out of there in time for breakfast. Just at the trailhead I ran into a guy from Montreal (it was a national holiday weekend) who had come down with his family and was looking to hike up Bolton Mountain. I told him how to get there and he mentioned he and his wife had a baby in a backpack. While I admired that and remembered carrying our own kids that way, I also couldn’t help thinking of the black flies. They like babies. I tried to warn him but he did not seem to know what they were. I guess they don’t have those in the city. I hoped it worked out.

I stopped for coffee and a muffin at Sweet Simone’s in Richmond and made it home by late morning. It is hard not to be a little tired after rising before dawn, but I felt great. Being in the mountains does that for me. I did not do a whole lot the rest of that Sunday. I dried out the bug shelter and put away my supplies and entered my survey data. Later in the day, we all went out for a creemee. Perfect summer day if you ask me.

Mountain Birdwatch 2019 on Mansfield

I definitely got one of the plum routes. Mount Mansfield is the highest mountain in Vermont and surveying the Mountain Birdwatch route up there means watching the sunrise with no one else around from the highest peak in the state. Pretty sweet. I went up there a few days ago. I had a fine experience.

Mountain Birdwatch is a program to study high elevation songbirds in the northeast with citizen science volunteers. It means hiking a specific route, about a mile long, with five or six specific points. It means stopping at those points and counting ten bird species, plus red squirrels, for 20 minutes. The hardest part is learning the bird songs and calls, since they hardly show themselves in the dense spruce/fir forest. This is my 19th year volunteering, so I’ve got those songs and calls down.

One of the reasons this is a plum route is that I get to drive up the toll road, which is open for paying customers during the day. Stowe Mountain Resort gives permission to Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which manages Mountain Birdwatch, to use the road for research. Scientists from VCE go up there a few times each year to catch and band birds. They were up there a few days before I was. They set up mist nets and check out the avian critters that get snagged. So I get to benefit from the perk of using the road. It makes for a much shorter hike and I can be home in time for a late breakfast.

Stowe even allows VCE staff to stay in the ski patrol hut up there so they can get up early and get to work. I have done that in the past but this year I just rose early (2:00!) and drove over there. After some serious finagling with the lock, which was a bit stuck, I got through the gate and slowly drove up the twisting gravel road. The speed limit is 15 and that is definitely the limit on this road. I parked in the small lot by the visitor center and hopped right onto the Long Trail.

I heard few birds, at least compared to previous years. I did hear Bicknell’s Thrush, which breeds only in that habitat, but no Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher or Swainson’s Thrush, which was just odd. I always hear those birds up there. Until this year. So it was a quiet morning. There was hardly even any wind.

I have found Blackpol Warblers in greater numbers down in the valley this year; I do sometimes hear them in the spring as they pass through on their way toward higher locations, but I have heard a lot of them down low this year. I am guessing that birds are just slow to head up the slopes this year. There was still quite a bit of snow up high, although not on the trails. That’s my theory.

I have another route to survey. I traded my usual route in the Worcester Range for one on Bolton Mountain. I will need to scout that one first so it will definitely take longer. I can’t drive most of the way up the mountain on that route, and I haven’t seen it before, so I will need to find the survey points ahead of time–I don’t want to be trying to find obscure spots along the trail in the dark. It will give me another chance to find the birds I missed on Mansfield. So here’s hoping the weather holds.

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