Bird watchers hike all day just for the rush of a thrush

Nora Cochrane, left, of Biddeford and Jeanne Tucker, right, of Kingfield search with other birders for a Bicknell’s Thrush on June 12 on Mount Saddleback Deirdre Fleming photo

SANDY RIVER – A 74-year-old woman wondered if she could climb a 4,100-foot mountain.

A 67-year-old bird watcher of Texas traveling on a two-month birding trip was also uncertain.

A three month pregnant woman asked if her first hike of the year must be so steep.

The three birders joined more than a dozen others who came to scour Mount Saddleback in search of Bicknell’s Thrush, a bird that breeds only in the boreal forest and only over 3,000 feet above sea level. The species was the star of the four-day Rangeley Birding Festival two weeks ago, with three half-day hikes offered to try and find it.

And yet, it is a very ordinary looking bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes lily of the valley as brown with a “solid grayish face.”

However, Bicknell’s Thrush is also set to become the poster child for downhill ski areas practicing environmental sustainability.

A Bicknell’s Thrush is singing from a Saddleback branch at 3,400 feet. Jeanne Tucker photo

Later this summer, the new owners of the Saddleback ski area – Arctaris Impact Fund – plan to build a 3,000 square foot one-story mid-mountain lodge on Saddleback to serve food and drink to ski area guests. , as well as hikers. and bird watchers in summer and fall. Pending approval from the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, Saddleback managers plan to build the lodge just under 3,600 feet – right in Bicknell’s Thrush habitat – without however affect the rare bird. The ski area is consulting Maine Audubon on the project.

“We hope that the mid-mountain lodge can be a model of responsible development in the areas of alpine skiing,” said Andy Shepard, Managing Director of Saddleback, who joined the June birding hike.

The restaurant will have glass that will prevent birds from hitting floor-to-ceiling windows by using markers in the glass that birds can see, but are barely detectable by people. The marked glass helps to attenuate bird collisions with windows, the second leading cause of bird death in the United States accounting for about 600 million bird deaths per year, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The restaurant will also be laid on pillars to avoid impact on the ground and minimize disturbance to the watershed, and it will have a sod roof with lowbush blueberries to provide native wildlife habitat. It will be built after nesting season – meaning delaying construction until August which is not a great time for construction in the mountains. But Shepard said the goal of the ski area is to be an environmental leader among alpine resorts and protect the unusual thrush that attracts bird watchers.

Kris Federle of Camden, a bird watcher and skier from Saddleback, wanted to know how the ski area was going to handle construction in Bicknell’s habitat.

“It looks like they’re putting things on hold,” Federle said. “It doesn’t seem like something they take lightly. It would be nice if the whole industry, if all development approached things the same way. There is so much development in Maine now. It is an ordinary little brownish bird. But he has a cool song.

The summit of Mount Saddleback – at 4,100 feet – is prime habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush. The medium-sized, uncommon thrush breeds atop mountains over 3,000 feet – and can be found in the Rangeley area. Deirdre Fleming photo

The species that winters in the Greater Antilles – the largest islands in the Caribbean Sea – and breeds from the boreal forest of Maine are listed as Special Concern by the State of Maine. So the unusual thrush that thrives in the western mountains, Baxter State Park, and Canada, is a bird watcher’s delight to see – or even just hear.

It’s a species scientists don’t know much about, said Steve Hale, New Hampshire’s professional birding guide, who led the festival’s treks to Saddleback.

“I have been studying Bicknell’s Thrush for 20 years. And I’ve never seen a nest, ”Hale said.

When the group of a dozen bird watchers gathered on June 12 at 6:30 a.m. at the Saddleback Lodge, Hale said they would climb as far as possible on the roads lined with ski condos. But they still had a good hour’s walk to reach 3,000 feet – the beginning of Bicknell’s Thrush range.

“We want to get into the hot zone pretty quickly,” Hale explained.

A dozen bird watchers joined Hale – three of whom worked for Saddleback or Maine Audubon and came to learn more about the species. Four members of the group were avid bird watchers who wanted to experience thrush, find one and the thrill of the hunt with other birders.

“Bird watching is a quest, like a treasure hunt and archaeological digs. Finding the bird is great, but the joy is in the quest, ”said Jeanne Tucker of Kingfield, who birds in Maine and around the Florida Everglades six months a year.

the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that Bicknell’s Thrush – due to where it nests in thick forests – is “best distinguished by voice.”

Given that, Hale played a Bicknell song on her cell phone after an hour, at 2,990 feet – but just briefly. He described it as “a guitar string that jumps inside a sewer pipe”.

“We don’t want to remove any individuals from the nests. They have a vast territory. We don’t need to start the necessary Bicknell’s Thrush Territory Wars, ”Hale said.

The group listened intently – then hiked the steep ski slope slowly and leisurely, while continuing to listen to the sounds in the woods. Not much further, at 3,100 feet, Hale noted that they were just at the lower end of the Bicknell’s range. The Saddleback ski lodge looked small way below.

Shortly afterwards at 3,400 feet, the group questioned a sound. They climbed through the brush to the trees bordering the ski slope to listen more intently.

Tucker recorded a sound in case the bird made its call again. Then they spotted one and together watched it closely. Shortly after, another flew off a row of dead trees and flew into the sun, providing a better view of the bird.

Nora Cochrane of Biddeford agreed with Tucker – community-based research was part of the rush to find thrush.

“I consider birding to be an oral tradition. It’s a lot easier to learn from people explaining it like that than to read about it in a book, ”said Cochrane, who was on her first hike when she was three months pregnant. of her second child. “I love bird watching. But for the past two years, I haven’t had time with my young son. It’s a treat for me to have this little freedom and to be with people who are excited about a bird. I love when people are led by an escaped bird.

Several bird watchers follow guide Steve Hale up Saddleback Mountain on a Rangeley Birding Festival hike on June 12, after searching for and finding three Bicknell’s thrushes. Deirdre Fleming photo

Hale considered the entire outing – which lasted another five hours before the group returned to the ski resort lodge – a godsend from Bicknell.

Shortly after the group observed Bicknell’s second lily of the valley, a magnolia warbler caught their attention. The bright yellow bellied songbird that is common in Maine has eclipsed the thrush in color and pizazz.

“You know it’s a productive day when people leave Bicknell’s Thrush to watch Magnolia Warbler,” Hale said with a laugh. “YesYesterday we had no views. We only heard it. On the 2019 hike, only half of the group saw the bird. It is special.

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