The Curse of Eugene P. Bicknell Part II

After I parted company with my 3 companions, I couldn’t sleep.  I was bored, so I cut my hair (well actually Danika did).  I did a bunch of things around the house and at midnight, finally laid down to try and get some sleep.  I had to do this, since Corey, Mike and Patrick would be there at 2am to pick me up.  I laid in bed for about 2 hours, getting up and dressed moments before they arrived.

From there we made our way north from Albany to Wakely Mountain in Central Hamilton County, in the heart of the Adirondack Park.  Our target was a unique species of Thrush, called the Bicknell’s Thrush which only breeds above 3,000 feet in elevation in the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York (they also breed in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Quebec).  Formerly considered a sub-species of the Gray-Cheeked Thrush, it was give full species status in 1995.  The bird is named after Eugene P. Bicknell who collected the first specimen in the Catskill Mountains of New York in 1881.  It would be a life bird for everyone except Corey, who got them last year in the Catskills.

The two hour drive was easy, no traffic and no large critters to get in the way.  On the road to the mountain, we had to stop the car for a giant toad in the road.  A Porcupine was also spotted along the side of the road.  We arrived at the parking area around 4am and after about 15 minutes of preparation, we were ready to begin the six mile round trip (and 1500 foot elevation change) to the top of Wakely Mountain.

We entered the woods in a tight group.  We first had to make our way around a large beaver dam which crossed the trail, which isn’t as easy as it seems in the dark.  We stayed as a group, with Corey occasionally emitting a loud call of “There are no Bears here!” to warn any of the woolly pests of our coming.

The first mile followed an old logging road and soon the dawn chorus began.  Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes were first, followed by Winter Wren, Blackburnian Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler and American Redstart.  We also heard the distinct call of a Nashville Warbler.  We stopped at a couple of points and Patrick did a pretty good Barred Owl impression, but we failed to hear any Barred Owls.  I suspect they are busy breeding right now.

The one thing I can say for people from the hustle and bustle of New York City and New Jersey is that they walk fast, real fast.  I’m a slow poke and it wasn’t long before I started to lag behind.  But we arrived at the small pond at the base of the mountain near dawn, all of us intact.  Then the fun began.

From the pond, the trail continued up, and up, and up.  I would have to say the most of the 1500 foot elevation change was in this next mile to mile and a half.  I hadn’t climbed a mountain of any kind in nearly 6 years and it’s not like riding a bike.  It wasn’t long before I fell seriously behind my part bird blogger/part mountain goat companions.  Eventually they continued to push to the top and occasionally Corey yelled down to make sure I was still alive.  I meanwhile went much slower and stopped frequently to enjoy many of the birds which were singing overhead in the canopy.

Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos were at the base of the mountain and after a few feet (or so it seemed) they were replaced by Black-Throated Blue Warblers.  As I continued to climb, they were replaced by Black-Throated Green Warblers.  At one point I also found a Red-breasted Nuthatch nest and a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker nest.  As I chugged along, the woods shifted from deciduous to conifer as we began to hit the magical boreal elevation of 3,000 feet.  The Black-throated Green Warblers, transitioned to Blackpoll Warblers and at one point I swear I heard a Cape-May Warbler, but couldn’t locate it.  Up and up I went and at one point found a great spot where the ground was level and the bird life was great.  Yellow-bellied Flycatchers called and were spotted all around me.  Magnolia and Blackpoll Warblers sang and darted through the trees.  Winter Wren sang next to me, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows went about their nesting business.  The highlight though was a Swainson’s Thrush which landed in a tree next to me and sat there for several minutes while I studied it (and I was also trying my darnedest to turn it into a Bicknell’s Thrush).  At this point I was tired (like I said, mountain climbing is not like riding a bike) out of water and I could have sat there and enjoyed the birds and waited for the rest of them to come down.  But I hadn’t climbed all that way to look at and hear birds already on my life list.  I had come for one bird and so I pressed on.

As I went up, the trees got shorter, but I couldn’t see the top, so I had no idea of how far I had to go.  Blackpoll Warblers were abundant and a loud gregarious flock of birds flew through the woods (later I learned these were Red Crossbills as the mountain goats on-top saw them fly over).  As I approached the summit a flash of blue caught my eye and I was quite surprised to find a male Indigo Bunting!  Looking around (lots of fallen trees and tangle) it was ideal Indigo Bunting habitat, but I would not expect them at such a high elevation.  A few moments later I heard the spiraling song of a Bicknell’s Thrush.  Thinking I might be hearing a recording, I pressed on as quickly as I could and discovered that my companions were no where near me and I took a moment to enjoy my life’s Bicknell’s Thrush.  The climb had been worth it.  Now on level ground I made it to the summit, where I once again met my companions.  We traded birds we had seen on the way up and what they had up top (namely another Bicknell’s Thrush and Pine Siskin).  But there would be no rest for me or time to enjoy the scenery as the other 3 were already to head back down the mountain.

Having really no choice, I begrudgingly followed them down and once again fell well behind.  Having already exhausted my water, my knees began to hurt from a lack of liquid.  But as you might expect going down was much easier than going up, but I’m still slow.  On the way down I was more acutely aware of the changes in birds as the elevation changed and was never more thankful to reach the level logging road.

But the adventure wasn’t done.  As I walked along the path knowing the end was near, I suddenly heard something come crashing out of the underbrush next to me.  I stopped dead in my tracks not knowing what the heck was coming out at me and was quite surprised to find a female Ruffed Grouse.  She ran straight at me, forcing me to take a step or two back, ruffed raised, tail spread, she went into a broken wing display and attempted to lure me off in another direction.  I quickly looked the way she had come hoping to find a nest or some young, and could hear little peeps in the near by underbrush.  I took one step in the direction she had come from and she charged again.  I clapped my hands and yelled some curses at her, but she stood her ground and I’ll give her credit for that.  I gave up trying to find the young, it wasn’t worth bugging her, so I continued down the path.  She stayed a few feet in front of me for about twenty or so yards, before she circled back to her young behind me.  A few moments later I ran into the rest of my group, who also had seen the Grouse but I guess had a far less exciting experience.  The rest of the trip out was rather dull, however we did get great looks at the beaver dam in daylight and we saw many toads during our walk (lots of pictures were taken, though not by me).  We reached the car, hot, parched and tired.  The rest of them enjoyed the Iced coffee Corey had made and I guzzled the bottle of water I had in reserve.

From there we drove down the Moose River Plains road, which is a 22 mile seasonal dirt road, through some of the most remote areas of the Adirondacks.  We made several stops and picked up Great Blue Heron and Alder Flycatcher.  We also heard many of the warblers were had already heard.  It wasn’t all that comfortable for me as I was more dehydrated than I thought and I had cramps in my knees.  The best part was when another Ruffed Grouse crossed the road and allowed Mike to get some pictures (Ruffed Grouse was life bird for him).  But we soon discovered that Patrick and Mike wanted to be back in New York City by 5pm, which cut the plans Corey and I had discussed short.  After a brief stop at the local gas station in Inlet, where Patrick enjoyed an expired Beef Jerky (made with machine removed chicken), Corey a slice of Pizza, Mike an egg and cheese sandwich and I enjoyed the largest Power Aide bottle I could find and a Clark Bar.

From there we went to Ferd’s Bog which is located along the Hamilton/Herkimere County lines.  It is one of the premiere birding locations in the Adirondacks.  It not only is easy to walk into, but it is one of the most scenic spots in the park.  Oh yeah, it can also boast nesting Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Lincoln’s Sparrow.  A quick check of the register showed that no one had much success lately.  Yet we pressed on, my knees feeling MUCH better once I got enough fluid back into me.  We made the .3 mile hike to the bog and Corey and I were surprised to find that many tree’s had fallen since we were last there in September (it’s not easy to get to Ferd’s Bog in Winter, because it is one seasonal road as well).  We heard the normal warblers on the way in, along with Winter Wrens (enjoying the fallen tree’s) and a lone Magnolia Warbler by the boardwalk.  Otherwise it was dead quiet.  A Tree Swallow was flying over the bog.  No boreal species were to be found.  But it was noon time and Corey and I couldn’t tell if it was just the time of day or whether the fallen tree’s had changed things (note: there was a report on the Northern New York List-serv from Ferd’s Bog the next day which reported all the species we missed, so they are still there).  We hiked back to the car and followed the rest of Uncas Road, adding almost nothing new.  We did find a female Wild Turkey with a few chicks along the side of the road and from there it was time to return to Albany.  We tried to add Common Raven or Broad-Winged Hawk on the way home (even a shot of Black Vulture at the Albany Dump), but we were to have no such luck.  We ended the two days with a respectable 95 species and the best part is that these are all breeders.  I can’t ever get over the great diversity of birds in New York State and the great diversity within 2 hours of Albany.  It really is a great place to live.

I want to thank Corey for his driving services, especially since I’m down a vehicle he had to come get me and drop me off a total of 4 times.  I want to thank Mike and Patrick for their company and birding experience.  I certainly learned something new both about birding and blogging.  And most of all, I would like to thank myself, for surviving the cramps in my knees to tell the tale!

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11 responses to “The Curse of Eugene P. Bicknell Part II

  1. Aww man… I feel like crap. First of all, I didn’t realize it was a lifer for you. Congrats! Second, sorry we didn’t stay up top to rest longer. It’s definitely that NJ/NYC fast walking thing. I don’t know what Corey’s excuse is though. 🙂

    I had a great time with you guys. Can’t wait to do it again. Maybe I’ll come up for some winter finches.

  2. Don’t worry about it. Getting looks at Blackpoll Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, White-Throated Sparrow and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in all cases less than five feet away, made taking my time worth it!

    BTW- Corey’s excuse is that he visits NYC on the weekends and had begun to pick up some bad habits!

  3. The secret is that the faster you walk, the quicker it’s over. It certainly doesn’t hurt any less. My knees are still aching!

    Well done all around. I wish we got other views of the Bicknell’s, but fortunately, you’re of the new school that says you can count birds you only hear. Kidding! Can’t wait to see what bird brings us all together next…

  4. Pingback: Stalking the Bicknell’s Thrush

  5. Will, do you have a reliable spot? And just because I walk fast and drive like the possessed doesn’t mean I’m not a country guy still. 🙂

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