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.

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