Birding can take you to places and cause you to do things well outside your “comfort zone.” That is why, on a recent sunny and breezy day, I found myself hiking on the Zealand Trail in the White Mountains. The impetus for this was a preliminary review of the route I will soon survey for the Mountain Birdwatch (MBW).
The MBW was begun in the early 1990s, an effort to take an annual census of high-elevation bird species. They are those birds that typically are found in climes over 3000 feet. These populations have been put at risk in recent years by reduction of their habitat due to “global warming, atmospheric pollution and land use such as wind power and ski area development.” Studies over the last three decades have tracked consistent decline in mountain bird species such as Bicknell’s thrush, yellow-bellied flycatcher, blackpoll warbler among others. The MBW’s goal is to bring systematic observation to bear in order to create a more accurate database for analyzing the situation and developing strategies that address the declines.
The MBW census area stretches across a region that marks the Adirondack at its western edge and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at its eastern extremity. The core of its focus is the White Mountains. The particular object of its investigation is the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that breeds exclusively in the White Mountains. Its population in 2003 was 4,900 individuals and since then has been experiencing annual population decreases of 7%.
Locally, the survey effort is managed by the Norwich-based Vermont Center for Ecostudies. It was through that relationship that I became involved. My goal is to go to a pre-determined set of six observation points and record my what I see and hear regarding the presence of several “target species.” The catch is they want this done very early in the morning, because that is when the birds are most active. Thus, if all goes to plan, I’ll be at my first survey point around 4:30 A.M.
Therein is the challenge, getting to the first survey point at the designated time. It is reached by a 2.3 mile hike up the Zealand Trail to its junction with the A=Z Trail. Then it is another 1.5 miles east along the A-Z to the first survey point. Based on our hike this past week that is a two-and-a-half hour effort. That means getting there at the appointed time requires hiking out there in the dark. I can stay at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Zealand Falls Hut, but that cuts only about a mile off the hike. I still end up hiking there initially in the dark over what proved to be on our preliminary survey, challenging terrain. I also could hike out from Zealand Falls after dinner and camp near the first observation point, but it’s a wild world out there. Camping alone in the woods? Hmmm.
At this point, my strategy is not settled. I have to do the survey by June 21. Stay tuned.
Photo Credit : Wetland along the Zealand Trail in the White Mountains, Wayne Benoit - Hanover, NH