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Bicknell's Thrush.  Photo:  Jeff Nadler
Bicknell's Thrush. Photo: Jeff Nadler

Adirondack birder says summer visitors are in short supply

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A Long Lake birding expert is doing her part to keep track of the Bicknell's Thrush, a rare songbird that nests on top of mountains in the Adirondacks, New England and Canada. And that often means getting out of bed in the pre-dawn hours.

Joan Collins says scientists have predicted that 98 percent of the thrush's U.S. habitat could be lost due to climate change. Experts have already documented annual population declines of nearly 20 percent in parts of the bird's range.

Todd Moe talked with Collins about her spring and summer early morning birding treks on Whiteface Mountain. She tracks the Bicknell's thrush, and many other species on the mountain, for a bird monitoring survey as part of Mountain Birdwatch, a volunteer science initiative run by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Collins says the woods are quiet this summer and bird numbers are down.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

Todd Moe: You told me that this summer you’ve been leading some bird watching treks very early in the morning--as you said, by five [am] the Bicknell’s Thrush is pretty quiet, so you’re there in the pre-dawn hours.

 

Joan Collins: Yes, four in the morning we go up. There are only two ways to drive into Bicknell’s Thrush habitat and that’s Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks.

I happened to notice an article that was written about the new general manager Aaron Kellet of Whiteface Mountain and he was looking for people who think outside the box, and we just started up a conversation and he was very supportive of being able to bring birders up earlier.

So we’ve kind of partnered on doing these dawn tours now. So going up earlier, the road opens at nine but we go through at four. I bring people to the top and we’re up there in the dark--we start up there in the dark listening to the birds sing and then people try to get visuals as the light dawns. And it’s been quite remarkable and people are incredibly enthusiastic, because people realize when they’re up there that there aren’t any cars driving by, the motorcycle engines aren’t running as we’re listening to the birds. So we have the mountains to ourselves and they’re extremely appreciative for the experience, because most of the people that go up would not be able to climb peaks in the middle of the night to go see this bird.

 

TM: And it’s a bird that these folks care about and feel it’s important to see?

 

JC: Yes, just this past week I had a couple from Texas and they brought the woman’s father--85 years old--from Pennsylvania. And he’s seen well over 600 bird species in North America. And close to the end of our trip up there (because we were up in the fog for a while) he had a silhouette view, and then as the fog cleared we had a gorgeous view of the birds singing. And he looked at it through my scope and he couldn’t hear the birds because he had some hearing loss, but he watched the birds sing and he was ecstatic.

Later on his daughter took me aside and said you know this was probably his last chance to do that. So it was really nice and I felt like crying when she said that. It was really a wonderful thing for this man. And if we had missed a really good view he might have lost his chance to look.

 

TM: Well, and it’s fantastic that people are able to drive up Whiteface. As you said, it makes it a little more accessible to get closer to the Bicknell’s Thrush.

 

JC: Exactly, and this man who was 85, with his sort of last chance at seeing the bird, he couldn’t do any walking on the hill. So we drove from place to place and listened to the different birds that were singing, and then finally had a wonderful visual. He would not have been able to do any kind of extensive walking when we were up there outside the car.

For people like that, this experience is just unique and valuable to them. It’s just a wonderful resource having this road up this peak. And the staff at Whiteface--Aaron Kellet and also Joe Shoemaker, the group sales manager, and Mike Lablanc, the operations manager--[are] all expanding the things they’re doing. They’re having Saturday night dinners up there now; they’re arranging for stargazing trips--because that’s another incredible thing--watching the stars from the summit. So, lots of things that… they can be doing up there.

 

TM: Joan, I just want to remind listeners that you lead bird treks throughout the region, and also you’ve got an event coming up August 6--you’re going to talk about bird watch surveys and some of the work that you do.

 

JC: Yes the Atmospheric Science Research Center has a falconer scientist/natural history lecture series every summer, and I’ll be giving a talk on August 6 about Mountain Birdwatch, Bicknell’s Thrush and also climate changes effects on the high elevation breeding habitat for that bird. Paul Casson is the person that I’ve been working with for the past couple of years for access to Whiteface for doing the Mountain Birdwatch surveys that I do for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies every year. And they’re very interested in lots of different things. Like I said, they have this whole lecture series on lots of different things: mammals, weather, plants, birds and things, so they’re hosting that series. That’s Tuesday evenings at 7 pm.

 

What do you hear?" and they said, "We didn't hear anything," and he said, "Exactly.
TM: Joan what are you seeing, what are you hearing in the woods on Whiteface as you complete these Mountain Birdwatch surveys? Bird numbers down? Is it quieter in the woods?

 

JC: Yeah, the big topic this spring among scientists all over the place, and people who do recordings at night--because lots of people actually record birds migrating at night--people at Cornell, and there’s been discussions on the listservs among birders and scientists about how quiet it is in the woods, and how few birds they recorded during migration.

We had a high-pressure system that stayed in place for a long time in May, and apparently there were some severe weather events that grounded thousands of birds in Texas, starving birds. Terrible pictures when you see them, so you know a lot of them perished over the trans-gulf migrant because of the cold fronts and the crazy snowstorms that came, even in the Midwest in May. The birds had a really tough migration year from the severe weather events that were occurring.

It’s quiet and we all thought well maybe the birds took a different route because of the high-pressure system; maybe they’ll just be late. But June came and the woods remained pretty quiet and many species, especially the neotropical migrants, were just not in the numbers that they normally are. And on my survey this year on Whiteface, every species that I survey for numbers were down except for one. So it didn’t look very good, and this is just one survey. But they’ll be looking at lots of breeding surveys around the country and other ways people collect data to see what happened this year, but it’s a little disturbing.

 

TM: The dawn chorus is also a little quieter.

 

JC: Yes, exactly. My friend John O’Brien, who is a serious birder in Saranac Lake, he opened the door at work the other day and asked some people “What do you hear?” and they said "We didn’t hear anything," and he said, "Exactly."

That’s the problem. It’s really quiet. A lot of June has felt a little bit like August, in terms of the dawn chorus being not what it normally is--where it’s waking you up at four  in the morning because it’s so loud. We’ve just had birds singing outside the window but nothing like normal. It’s not that the birds aren’t here--you can find the various species--but they don’t seem to be in the same numbers that they normally are.

 

TM: And you’re hearing this from other birders around the Northeast as well; it’s not just in the Adirondacks?

 

JC: Oh no, Chris Rimmer, who's the director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, he’s noticing numbers down up on the peaks where he does lots of camping because of the mountain watch project, but also at his house in Central Vermont. And he’s hearing from lots of people asking where are the birds this year? That’s the question you keep getting, even from people who aren’t serious birders--where are the birds? Also the people at Cornell are noticing this. And then apparently, from what I understand, in Michigan and Minnesota, so even though they think some of the birds went up the Mississippi--the middle of the country--because of the high pressure that was keeping them from being able to fly through the eastern coastline, even they have noticed that they have a decline.

So something happened this year, and hopefully over time with more data collection we’ll find out exactly what happened--whether it was the storms that occurred over the Gulf of Mexico or down in Texas. But something definitely happened, and it’s been the most unusual year I’ve ever seen in terms of it being quiet.

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