Mountain Birdwatch 2018


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.


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.


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.


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 2009 Take Two

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

View from Burnt Rock Mountain

Looking South-ish

Looking South-ish

A couple of weeks ago I went up Ricker Peak for my annual volunteer effort to help the Mountain Birdwatch high elevation bird survey.  After I had completed that survey route I noticed that several routes were available still.  So I signed up to do another one, on Burnt Rock Mountain.  I had been up there a couple times before, the first time when hiking the Long Trail from Massachusetts.  I love that mountain, so I figured it was time to volunteer for a second route.

Last week I took a day off and did a scouting trip.  Since the survey requires observing at specific points, I wanted to make sure I found those points during the day.  The survey requires observing birds before the sun rises, so I wouldn’t be able to find them the day I hiked for the real deal.  That scouting mission was mostly successful.  I found four out of five points, although it took me a while.  The first point was “just south of the summit.”  I had a description and a photo.  The point description sheet noted “all photos looking north,” so busted out the compass to make sure I was looking the right way and tried to match the photo.  It was a fine clear day so it should have been no problem.  But I couldn’t figure it out.

I hiked all over the top of that mountain looking for point one.  I finally gave up and headed down the trail to find point two.  Couldn’t find that one either.  Point three was an obvious one, with definite landmarks–steep rocky slope, big fat root hanging over it, tall leaning dead tree–and I thought at first that the photo was backwards.  No wonder I was having trouble.  Then I realized the photo wasn’t looking north.  It was looking south.  It turns out they all were looking south.  After that I found all but point two.  That one would have to wait to be found in the wee hours of survey day.  I ran out of time that day.

I did a repeat hike this morning, but instead of heading down the trail just behind a group of a dozen women in their sixties, all with hiking poles and long pants and sleeves, I was alone.  It was dark, and it was 2:30 AM when I started hiking, so that wasn’t a big surprise or anything.  I walked slowly with my headlamp showing me the way.  No moonlight hiking on this trip.  Aside from the idea that I might meet a sleepy and therefore grumpy bear, I was afraid only of slipping and hurting myself.  It would be a long wait before someone might come to help.

And it was slippery.  It had rained more since my first hike so the streams were higher, the trail had more water on it, the rocks were wetter.  I slipped more than once, drawing blood on my hand in almost the same spot I had on the scouting hike.  I got to the top of the mountain about 4:00.  Right on time.  The survey needs to happen between 4:00 and 6:00 so I sat down, drank some water, pulled out my notebook, and waited.

I had to wait a while.  It was foggy, socked in in fact, so the birds rose later than they might have on a clear morning.  I lay back on my pack, looking into the wet dark air, feeling the drops on my face and reaching out into the morning for any sound.  It was peaceful.  I was afraid I might fall asleep.   And then hermit thrushes started to sing.  Lots of hermit thrushes.

I started my ten-minute observation at that first point at 4:30.  I was lucky.  I heard a Bicknell’s thrush, which is one of the major reasons for the survey.  No matter how many times I hear it, it fills me with joy and gives me hope that the world still is filled with wonders.  It is.  We humans are working hard, it sometimes seems, to trash the place.  But the world is resilient and powerful and beautiful and downright amazing.  I felt that deeply again this morning.

I did find point two, and the rest of them, and I completed the survey on time.  I got to spend a good chunk of time up on a mountain by myself.  That was a treat.  Back at the summit, after my notebook was stowed in my pack, I sat and looked and listened for what I might discover.  There was nothing new, and that was what I sought.  Back at the car, after a slidey hike down, I donned some dry clothes.  I stopped for gas (the low fuel light was on and I was afraid I might not make it; not only did I get gas but free coffee with a fill up) and headed up the twisting road through the gap on Route 17.  I was home by 9:00.

I did take a short nap this afternoon, but I will need to retire early this evening.  It was great experience and I hope to do it again next year.  At the moment, however, I am a bit tuckered.  That is fine with me.  I know that up high, Bicknell’s thrushes still sing.

Birds and Coffee

We have a huge field in front of the house, but we do not seem to have any nesting bobolinks in that field.  They are in the fields all around, just not ours.  Throughout the day I can hear their warbling.  They sometimes pass over our field but they seem to avoid it.  It is a puzzle.

One theory is that the plants in the field are not what they like.  We cut it once every year, in the fall, and let it mulch itself.  This keeps things open.  If we left it to grow a forest would trying to occupy that field in a couple of years.  Maybe these birds prefer the grass in the fields that get hayed.  Frankly, we were hoping that by keeping it open we might attract bobolinks.  So much for that idea.  We do attract lots of butterflies and lots of other birds, however, so we have that.

Another theory is that our neighbor’s cat loves our field too much.  Either it has driven off the bobolinks that did manage to make a home here or the birds decided not to stay when they discovered the cat.  Nice place to visit but the neighborhood just isn’t all that safe.

Maybe it’s too wet.  Maybe all the activity around the house intimidates them.  Maybe it smells bad to them.  I don’t know.  In any case, I love to listen to them.  We do get to hear them sing and that is a joy.  Maybe one of these days they will come around to stay.  The cat can’t live forever.

Listening to the bobolinks, and then the hermit thrushes and robins late in the day, plus the red-winged blackbird scolding me for getting too close to her next, and the field sparrows and the kingbirds, I’ve got a lot to keep my ears busy.  Tomorrow I get to head out early to try to find one of the most elusive birds in Vermont, Bicknell’s thrush.  I don’t hear that bird in our field.  They only hang out up high where the trees are dense on the mountains.  I’ll have to get up early.

They typically only sing during the day’s bookends–dawn and dusk.  So I will rise at 2:00 in order to drive and then hike to get where I need to be on time.  I am a volunteer for Mountain Birdwatch, a program of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I will listen for Bicknell’s thrush and other birds in the wee hours.  This made me think about coffee.

A hot cup of coffee might be nice as I drive in the dark.  So I had the idea of setting up the brewer tonight.  Then I though I wouldn’t.  Then I thought why not?  I am still wavering.  And then I thought about the connection.  One reason thrushes and other migrating songbirds are threatened is because their wintering grounds are no longer what they were.  When forests get slashed for coffee plantations, birds have to find a new place to hang out in the northern winter.  Where do they go?

I try to purchase shade grown free trade coffee, partly because of this study.  I learned to hear a Bicknell’s trush because I volunteered nine years ago and I still am amazed by its song.  To know it is still there, that it has returned for another summer, fills with the unexplainable wonder of the world.  So making sure the coffee I drink doesn’t impinge on that is important.  It is an easy thing to do.  I will get some coffee on the way home either way, but do I sip in the car?

You know, I think I will.  I never have and one thing I can’t stand is things staying the same for too long.  It is easy to fall into a pattern and just keep following it.  If I don’t break things up, I feel stuck.  So I guess I have one more thing to do to get ready before the morning.