Monday, June 11, 2007

NY State Birding Adventure - Day 2

The second day of our four blogger birding extravaganza began not too long after the first day ended. Shortly before 2:00 AM, after 2.5 hours of sleep, we woke up and headed for our destination - Wakely Mountain. It was a little over a two hour drive northwest to get there. We picked up Will on our way and we were off to search for boreal breeders - specifically Bicknell's Thrush. This specialized breeder of spruce-fir habitat is only found at high elevations from the Catskills north to a few points in southeastern Canada. It would be a life bird for both Mike and me.

We drove traffic-free through the night and found the dirt road that would take us to Wakely Mountain. Along the road, we tried to avoid hitting deer and toads while trying our best to stay awake (kudos to our driver Corey for being good at being awake). We encountered a Porcupine sauntering off the road (a life mammal for me) and a Luna Moth coursing across the headlights of Corey's car. Around 4:15, we arrived to the base of Wakely Mountain for our 6+ mile roundtrip hike. All of us secretly prayed that the potentially strenuous hike would reward us with our quarry.

I'd never hiked in the dark before, but it was really fun. By the light of our flashlights, we proceeded up the trail only to be met by a HUGE beaver dam blocking our way. After a moment of fear that we'd need to find a new mountain, we were able to find a trail around the dam. We moved on with Corey being sure to make loud noises to scare away bears as we progressed. The terrain was flat for the first 1.5 miles or so. Birds began singing before daylight with Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, and Swainson's Thrush being some of the first I remember hearing. The trail also had what to me was an abnormal amount of toads. There seemed to be one every 100 feet or so and some of them were HUGE! As we moved along gradually gaining elevation, more birds chimed in - Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, and Hermit Thrush among others. Daylight could be seen periodically poking through the canopy, but it was still pretty dark in the forest.

The trail up the mountain

We reached a fork in the road. One fork led to another beaver dam and a beautiful lake, the other led steeply up. No time to enjoy the lake now... we had a mission. Up we went! The climb was pretty steep, but did not require hand over hand climbing (to my relief). As the daylight increased, I could really see the beauty of this forest. Hemlocks, spruces, and firs dominated with aspens and maples sprinkled in. Lichen and moss-covered rocks and trees created a very different feel from the oak and poplar-dominated forests I mostly see in NJ. The ascent was strenuous and a bit tricky in spots where the trail was comprised of large smooth, exposed rock. A few slips by each of us, but we were all no worse for wear. As we reached higher and higher elevations, we frequently stopped in hopes of hearing the Bicknell's. Each stop yielded the same results... no Bicknell's singing or uttering their "VEER!" call. All was not lost though. We heard Sapsuckers doing there irregular tapping rhythms, encountered a probable nesting Red-breasted Nuthatch and even had a flock of Red Crossbills fly over. Flora was plentiful too. I saw two new wildflowers: Yellow Clintonia (Clintonia borealis) and, finally, my first trillium - Red Trillium (Trillium erectum).

Red Trillium, AKA Purple Trillium, AKA Wake-robin

We climbed higher and higher and made more frequent stops to listen. No luck yet. The bugs were getting pretty bad as daylight increased. Black flies and mosquitos forced us to re-apply our repellent on a few occasions. For me, they weren't biting, but they were a real nuisance. With no Bicknell's yet, I could sense a collective concern growing in our group about whether we had made the right choice of mountains. I still trusted my NYers though.

After several hours, we reached the summit. A fire tower, the tallest in the Adirondacks at almost 90', stretched into the clouds. Visibility from the summit was limited to the whiteness of the cloud that had encroached the mountain top. We explored the area which also housed a cabin, an outhouse, and a sleeping deck for workers. A flock of Pine Siskins paid us a brief visit and several Yellow-bellied Flycatchers gave their "chu-wee" calls. One even posed right in front of me. Even with all these great birds, it was difficult to forget our original goal which we had not achieved.

Corey and I climbed the tower about halfway to look at the tops of the trees. Around this time, the sun started to poke through the clouds and the fog started to burn off a bit. The gorgeous view from the summit made a few brief appearances before the fog covered it again. This sun must have triggered something in the birds because we suddenly heard a loud "VEER!" come from within about 20' of the base of the tower. We listened intently and heard it again. "VEER!" It called a third time, but this time it was followed by an unmistakable song with an upward slur at the end - the song of a Bicknell's Thrush. We searched the trees, but couldn't find it. Corey and I bolted down the tower and we all gathered to peer through the trees. Corey was the first to spot the bird sitting on a branch about eye-level. Mike and I were able to get on it for spectacular "life" looks at this endangered species. We were able to watch it call and got excellent looks at the large amount of yellow at the base of its bill. Our fears of not seeing the bird instantly washed away and all was right in the world. Will appeared from the trail (he smartly took his time on the trail instead of racing up it like we did) and confirmed that he had heard a few on the way up and reported a few other bird sightings he had.

The fire tower

We celebrated briefly, then began our descent. Going down wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. It was a little rough on my knees, but I didn't fall on my butt. We tried to make quick time because we had other spots in the 'Daks that we wanted to see. The best sighting on the way down was a Ruffed Grouse that was obviously trying to distract us from a nest. Will even saw it do a broken wing display in front of him.

At the bottom of Wakely, we rested and refueled on coffee. It was only about 9:45 and there was still some birding to do. We got back on the dirt road that took us to Wakely and continued on for another 30 miles or so. At a roadside pond, we encountered an Alder Flycatcher and a Great Blue Heron, but few other new birds.

A serene roadside stop

Our final destination was Ferd's Bog, which aside from a Winter Wren with his amazing song and a few other birds we'd previously seen, was incredibly quiet. I still enjoyed being out on a boardwalk in a really gorgeous bog. The local birders, Corey and Will, were pretty disappointed that this spot didn't produce the hoped-for birds like Black-backed Woodpecker and Olive-sided Flycatcher. I could live with it though. We had done an amazing hike in the wee hours of the morning with a tremendous payoff. I had a real satisfied feeling about the hike and a little birdless territory couldn't take that away. I got to spend a few splendid days birding with some great people too. Will and Corey really know their area - not just the birds, but the geography and history of the area too. It's always fun birding with Mike too and I enjoyed getting some lifers together.

Ferd's Bog

We headed home to Mike's in the Bronx and I traveled on to Piscataway, NJ. To end this, I need to apologize to my girlfriend, Beth, because I quickly fell asleep for the next 13.5 hours.


Anonymous said...

With the thrushes and wildlfowers! Looks like you guys had an amazing time! Bravo!

Jochen said...

Mean stuff for someone who's really into Catharus thrushes but has never been to the breeding grounds of Bicknell's.

Anonymous said...

Life mammal? Don't tell me you keep a list...and will Beth let you out again?

Patrick B. said...

Jochen, if you're not in Germany next summer, I'd be glad to repeat this trip and stay a little longer!

Corey, I list everything! Well, maybe not everything, but most living things. Beth will definitely let me out again. She's good like that.

Anonymous said...

Don't you want to mention how you celebrated seeing your first trillium?

Beth said...

I couldn't keep him down if I tried (not that I would try). I'm just jealous I couldn't be out there with him. Honey, this is a great post and it's okay that you fell asleep as soon as you got home...that's nothing new! :)

Patrick B. said...

Mike, I definitely don't want to mention the dreaded "trillium incident." :)

Larry said...

Giant Toads-sound like a sci-fi movie.
I've been in areas that have Bicknell's but have not yet made a concerted effort to find one.

-That sounds like the type of adventure that I would enjoy.-Nice descrition of the trip-and congrats!