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.

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?

IMG_4006

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

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.