Mush to the Thrush
This is a real birder's bird we're going after," explains group leader Bill Hancock as we start our ascent of Saddleback Mountain, overlooking the Rangeley lakes.
No kidding. Despite the fact this is the first official day of summer, the wind, even at the base lodge, is blowing hard. The temperature is hovering in the forties, the skies are threatening, and the mountain is in a shroud. Plus, it's five o'clock in the morning. Most of us have been up well over an hour already; Hancock and another member of our party left Gray at 2 a.m. Only a fool would subject herself to these conditions - or someone on a mission. [For the rest of this story, see the July 2008 issue of Down East.]And, indeed, it is a mission that has brought this group of ten birding enthusiasts together on this most inhospitable morning: we are embarking on a Maine Audubon outing entitled "Mush to the Thrush." We are hoping to catch a glimpse of the Bicknell's thrush, which has been reported to be nesting in the scrub line of this four-thousand-foot mountain before us. Maybe a bit foolish for being up at this hour and out in this weather to look for a bird that is difficult to spot in the best of conditions, yes, but certainly no fools.
The Bicknell's thrush is a small olive-brown bird, about the size of a large sparrow. Discovered in 1881 by amateur ornithologist Eugene Bicknell, it was long thought to be a subspecies of the gray-cheeked thrush but was named its own species in 1995. (These sorts of distinctions are important to true birders.) In the reading I did before the trip, its elusiveness - "more often heard than seen," "very secretive during nesting season," "its ghostlike appearance taunts the most determined researchers, naturalists, and birdwatchers" - was repeatedly referenced. So was its vulnerability.
The Bicknell's thrush came into the Maine limelight during the 2006 hearings regarding the proposed wind farm on the Redington Pond Range, between Saddleback and Sugarloaf mountains. Among the concerns voiced was that construction would disturb the alpine habitat of this bird, which is already considered among the highest in conservation priority. The Bicknell's thrush winters in the Caribbean and nests exclusively on mountaintop spruce groves between New York and Canada. They favor sites that have been disturbed by either man or nature, such as ski areas like this one, but such development also means loss of habitat. So, while the thrush scored a small victory when the original Redington plan - for thirty turbines - was shot down by the Land Use Regulation Commission in 2007, the developers returned with a scaled-back proposal for eighteen on adjacent Black Nubble Mountain, which was likewise nixed.
I am traveling with my friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marguerite Robichaux, who lives in the area. From her deck she views and frequently paints Black Nubble. She and I are both avid birding enthusiasts, she more advanced than I, and we spend a good deal of time in the spring on the phone with one another reporting our latest sightings - mine from the canopy of maples outside my office window in suburban Portland, hers in these western hills. When I visit, we sit with our trusty Nikon 10 x 25 binoculars and field guides close by as we gaze out her soaring windows. This year, she had the first warbler sighting of the season. I had a Baltimore oriole hanging around for an entire week. We both marvel at how we ever get any work done during the month of May.
So, we felt as though we were in pretty good birding form for this trip, able to hold our own. That is, until we arrived at the Saddleback Mountain parking lot shortly before five and watched the gear come out of other cars: harnesses, water packs, hiking poles, military-looking rain gear, big boots, serious field glasses. We had been cautioned that we were going to face a somewhat strenuous climb and were adequately geared, but these folks, mostly couples nudging toward or of retirement age, seemed like they meant business. They wanted their Bicknell's thrush. One younger woman, Judy, looked somewhat pityingly at the glasses (which had always served us both well) slung around our necks and offered most generously, "I have another pair of Zeisses in the car." I had no idea what she was talking about.
As we waited in the gloom and the wind for the last of our party to show up (a young man and his wife, who works with Hancock at Audubon, had apparently overslept; the decision was made to move on without them), Hancock, whose trim silver hair peeked out from under his Audubon ball cap, turned to us all with a quick, wry grin and told us, "At least we won't have to worry about bugs."
Optimism. Birding is all about optimism.
After our initial parking lot greetings and introductions, the group grew quiet when we began our climb. The cold was actually something of a relief. Marguerite and I had done a trial run to Saddleback the prior day to clock the exact drive time. The afternoon was lovely, and the pink and purple and white lupine blurring by our windows was so thick it felt as though we were driving through an impressionist painting. We determined we would need to leave her house at four, meaning we would set the alarm for three-thirty. Her kitty, however, thought we could use a little extra time and started yowling for her breakfast at three. That was okay, I was already awake, fretful we wouldn't hear the alarm, would oversleep, would miss the departure like the absent pair in our party. An expeditioning no-no.
Marguerite and I were taking separate vehicles, since I would be heading straight back to Portland after the hike, and I crept after her down her road in the flat gray dawn. I am not up at this hour very often, and I felt a little cheated that I was not going to get a big red ball sunrise or pink streaked skies. As we made our way down Moose Alley, Route 16, between Stratton and Rangeley, we took it slow. At one point, Marguerite came to a dead stop. I waited but didn't see anything. (It turned out I missed a big bull moose. Another cheat!) A banana sat on the passenger seat beside me, unpeeled. I couldn't imagine eating anything. Even the coffee in my cupholder held no appeal. All I wanted was a little fresh air.
Well, be careful what you wish for. Because as we set out up the mountainside, the airstream was all but pushing us up - not that anyone was complaining about a tailwind. We had an hour-plus hike in front of us to our thrush, mostly straight up, and any bit of help was welcomed. As we trudged along in silence, getting acclimated, I thought about the difference between birdwatching and birding. According to Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year, a tale of extreme birding, a birdwatcher is "a term the pros use to dismiss the spinsters . . . who wait passively for birds to come to them." A birder, on the other hand, is a chaser. When I first started paying attention to birds ten or so years ago, I worried about how it would affect my outdoors experiences. All that learning, listening, naming, knowing, and listing - would I still be able to see the forest for the birds?
So when Hancock makes his "birder's bird" remark, I catch up with him to ask him about this mad pursuit, this quest to catch a fleeting glimpse of a bird, that may or may not show, and is, quite frankly, a little on the dull-looking side.
"Oh," he says pensively, perhaps realizing there is something of an obsessive quality to some birders' approaches. "It's hard to explain the exhilaration of setting out to uncover a species and finding it." We move quietly up the steep grade. "But it's more than that. It's about being out here and seeing all this. This is the kind of morning you'd call off a hike if you didn't have a commitment. But it's nice to be out here on this kind of day, too."
I want to ask him what the chances of seeing our thrush would be. As we gain elevation, the wind picks up even more. It seems to me a condor wouldn't be able to alight and hold onto a branch in this weather, let alone a teensie weenie elusive bird that hardly anyone ever sees. But a question like that seems like nay-saying, and not at all in the spirit of this wonderful morning.
When we reach our first rest stop at a chairlift station, Hancock announces we are only about halfway there and that we need to pick up the pace a bit if we are not to miss our viewing window. The climb, thus far, has been straight up - surely we had traveled farther than that. I see a couple of people fix brave looks on their faces. We trudge onward.
As our limbs and lungs get warmed up, conversation starts to break out. People share where they're from, why they chose this outing, where they slept the night before. The gloom is thick but pockets of sunlight illuminate various patches of green or blue on the stunning expanse of lakes below us - Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic - and the wooded mountains beyond, Redington, Kennebago, Black Nubble. Two dots behind us soon materialize into the young, oversleeping couple, who hightailed it to catch up with our party. Along the way, we pass snowmaking machines, perched high on platforms, looking like klieg lights. There are wildflowers - more lupine, clintonia, Labrador tea, clumps of skunk cabbage - and interesting rock formations. The only thing we don't see is birds.
By the time we near our destination, the wind is coming at us full force. We all huddle in the lee of a utility building as Hancock discusses birds or weather or skiing. I actually have no idea what he's saying because, with my hood up and the wind howling, I can't hear a word.
It turns out he was telling us we were almost there. A few more steps, and we find ourselves deep in spruce scrub. He pulls out an iPod with a set of mini speakers and trains his electronic bird call at the tangle of brambles in front of us. We wait in rapt attention. Nothing. He replays the call. We wait some more, barely breathing. And then it happens. The Bicknell's thrush answers. A flutter of excitement passes over the group, and the binocs go up. We wait, the atmosphere pregnant with hope and anticipation. "Come on Bicknell's thrush, get out here. Give us a thrill." Suddenly, there's a brown flash that rockets across the brush with Star Wars-like precision and speed and then veers into the folds of fir limbs. Judy has it. "The three short spruce, the one in back, the one that is swaying so much. Down at its base, about a third of the way up, behind the little dead spot." We all strain and look and hope and try to see. A couple of people think they might have the bird in their sights. No one is sure if they do or don't. Except me. I am the person who turns her head when the minke whale breaches, the one who blinks when the shooting star falls, the person who sneezes just as Woody Allen gets into a cab. I have a positive non-identification. I see nothing but a crosshatch of black-green.
After a few more attempts and a lot more waiting, we forge onward, but when we reach a foggy pond at the seven-mile mark, Hancock says that the murk and the wind, which is by this point pushing me off the path, make continuing on pointless. It is decided we will descend.
Yet, there really isn't even the slightest air of disappointment in our group as we head back down the trail. The couple who are clearly here for a check on their life list are fatalistic. Marguerite asks them if the closeness of the sighting would count, and they gamely say no, that they will record hearing the call and wait until they can get a confirmed sighting before they add him to their list.
I don't feel disappointed, either. To tell the truth, the bird sightings that have meant the most to me were the ones that caught me off guard - the American bittern we accidentally flushed at Marguerite's, the rose-breasted grosbeak that appeared outside my office window, the glossy ibis, and the black-crowned night heron near my house in Payson Park. Even if the thrush had been handed to me, it wouldn't have delivered the thrill of an unexpected sighting.
As we near the end of our trek, Marguerite and I, who have lagged behind, are suddenly struck still in our tracks by a haunting and mournful call. Its long, fluty trills seem to go on forever. We stand and listen and hear a distant response across the way. When we catch up with Hancock, we ask about it. He responds instantly, almost without having to hear it, "winter wren." The group, who had been in conversation when we arrived, is now silent. Someone asks how big this wren is, and Judy tells us eight grams. Eight grams. We all stand in awe, savoring the thought that all that beautiful music could pour out of something no more substantial than a damp cotton ball. Soon, as we near the base lodge, we will see a flurry of birds - a blackpoll warbler, red-eyed vireo, white-winged crossbills, northern parula, yellow-rumped warbler - but the bird of the hour, for me anyway, will not be these birds or the almost-thrush, but the surprise gift of this wee, wonderful noisemaker.
All in all, not a bad day for a birdwatcher.