Zealand Falls Hut, The White Mountains – It is 4:00 A.M. The dawning light has brightened just enough to define the outlines of the trees that cover the steep-sided slopes of Zealand Notch. I am picking my way gingerly down the precipitously descending path that will lead east to a junction with the Zealand Trail. Once there I will walk a half mile north to Zealand’s junction with the A-Z Trail which will take me eastward for one-and-a-half miles to the first of the six observation points I am to use for my segment of this year’s Mountain Bird Watch (MBW).
After some deliberation, I opted to hike into Appalachian Mountain Club’s Zealand Falls Hut the night before rather than a) spend the night camped alone in the woods near the first observation point or b) attempt to hike out there in the early morning darkness. My current course seemed more prudent even if it meant adding an extra mile of hiking getting to and returning from the hut while still involving some pre-dawn visibility shortcomings. Fortunately, I had acquired a baseball style hat from L. L. Bean that had three battery-powered LED bulbs embedded in the visor. They provided more than enough light to assess my footing as I picked along the trail. Eventually they became unnecessary as the sun’s steady rising caused the light to grow in strength.
My protocol for the bird count was straightforward, get to each of the six observation points and record what birds were heard and/or seen over four consecutive, five minute segments (twenty minutes total) within the range of four concentric, 25-meter circles (100 meters distance in sum). The objects of my attention were ten target bird species; yellow-bellied flycatcher, black-capped chickadee, boreal chickadee, winter wren, Bicknell’s thrush, Swainson’s thrush, hermit thrush, blackpoll warbler, Fox sparrow and white-throated sparrow and one mammal, the red squirrel. Most of the target species are notable because they largely occur only at altitudes of 3000 feet or higher and in forests of balsam fir and red spruce.
The annual MBW’s greatest concern is the Bicknell’s thrush whose population has been in steady decline for over a decade. With perhaps only 4500 individuals in the wild, it is at particular risk because both its winter and summer breeding grounds are limited and under threat. This is particularly true in its winter range. Its geographic extent is limited to the Greater Antilles. Recent studies have reported that some areas, particularly the Dominican Republic’s mountain forests, have experienced habitat reduction of nearly 90% over the last few decades. Accurate monitoring is essential for developing strategies to conserve the existing Bicknell’s population plans making plans for rebuilding it in years to come.
As I trudged along to my first observation site, knowing the Bicknell’s precarious status provided a strong incentive to get accurate counts. An added personal incentive was to see or hear the Bicknell’s and several other of the target species, because they would all be life list additions.
The trail conditions were sloppy due to recent rain. As I reached the first point, an overcast sky meant the forest’s interior landscape remained somewhat dim even with the sun up. On the way there I had kept my hearing on alert hoping to catch the song or call of my targets, especially the Bicknell’s. But the woods were somewhat quiet, largely devoid of bird song, and a freshening wind that stirred the leaves did nothing to help attempts at aural identification.
It would prove to be a frustrating three hours as I worked my way to each of the observation points and took notes. The total number of bird species seen and/or heard from the time I left the hut, to the time almost six hours later that I returned to the Zealand Trail, did not exceed fifteen. The total number of individuals recorded did not surpassing 60. And is anyone surprised those numbers did not include a Bicknell’s thrush? Those of you who have followed these notes previously could have seen that one coming. I did, however, manage four life list additions: yellow-bellied flycatcher, blackpoll warbler, Swainson’s thrush and a bay-breasted warbler. Small victories.
Tired, muddied but unbowed, I began the 2.3 mile walk back to the trailhead parking lot. The rising breeze had blown out the humidity and ushered in fresh, dry air. A deeply, blue sky spotted with scudding, fluffy, cumulous clouds glowed overhead. Embraced by that and the rich, green-covered mountains surrounding, how could I not feel a lift to the spirits? In addition to recording a Bicknell’s thrush, the other goal of my count had been to enjoy the all to rare chance to be out in the White Mountains, and there, as I hiked along, I was succeeding admirably.
Photo credit: Beaver Pond Along the Zealand Trail Blake Allison Lyme NH