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Summer Journal: Volunteer in Service to the Bicknell’s Thrush

Step One: Get Out of Bed at 3:20 a.m.

Morning comes early for birders, I discovered, while crawling out of the tent into the pre-dawn darkness. The air felt chilly for mid-June and the silence held the nearly tangible calm of that moment between breaths.

“We’ll listen to songbirds and hike in the White Mountains,” I had told my mom when I persuaded her to join me on the expedition up Mount Moriah in Gorham, N.H. As we pulled on layers to guard against the chill, she reminded me once again that I had failed to mention that it meant getting up at 3:20 a.m. She hadn’t signed up for this.

Nevertheless, we shouldered the day packs last Wednesday, and set off up the trail, guided by beams of light from our headlamps that bobbed and dipped as they advanced before us.

We were conducting a bird monitoring survey as part of Mountain Birdwatch, a volunteer science initiative run by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies out of Wilder. Selecting one of nearly 130 routes across the Northeast, we were to monitor and record the presence of 11 target species (10 songbirds and the red squirrel) at six locations along the trail.

I had volunteered while away at college, when winter weariness brought out my enthusiasm for New England woods and a confidence in my own skill as an outdoorswoman. In truth, I am merely a hiker, able to distinguish the occasional morel or wild ramp, but unfamiliar with birds and their songs.

Mountain Birdwatch expeditions, I found out later, aren’t for the fainthearted. In May, I received a thick packet by mail, complete with a VCE bumper sticker, detailed instruction guide and birdsong identification CD.

For the next few weeks, driving along the interstate and standing by the CD player in my kitchen, I tried to learn by heart the shrill song of the yellow-bellied flycatcher and differentiate the call of the Bicknell’s Thrush from that of the Veery.

In the pre-dawn, though, only the occasional wisp of a breeze interrupted the silence as the leaves shuddered. I could hardly bear to let my own voice break the solitude. The darkness wrapped itself around us, and the fallen branches and boulders caught in the light of the headlamp seemed to jump abruptly from obscurity. We gingerly stepped our way across Rattle River, the namesake of the trail we followed, and began the ascent.

Not long after, the melodious tinkle of our first Bicknell’s Thrush of the morning pierced the stillness, and I turned, making eye contact with my mom. She had heard it too, and we paused, savoring the moment.

Over a decade ago, concerns raised about the Bicknell’s Thrush and its diminishing native habitat led to the genesis of Mountain Birdwatch.

The small brown-winged thrush, often recognized by the russet flecks on its white belly, finds its habitat in limited high-altitude forests across the Northeast. Due to climate change, habitat degradation and the red squirrel’s predation on nestlings, the Bicknell’s population is estimated at just 125,000, according to VCE materials.

“The program was developed to fill a hole in high-elevation bird monitoring,” said Judith Scarl, conservation biologist and director of Mountain Birdwatch. “The Breeding Bird Survey (an avian survey run across Canada and the U.S.) didn’t make it to the high elevations that we’re looking at, so you have this community that was really being missed.”

We reached our first observation point at the designated 45 minutes before sunrise, just as the foliage lightened to distinguishable shades of gray. Squatting at the edge of the trail, packet in hand, we recorded the temperature, conditions and weather.

For four consecutive five-minute intervals, we mapped the name and location of each target species we identified, either by song or by sight. The first 10 minutes included an emphasis on the Bicknell’s Thrush.

We sat on our haunches, calves cramping, straining our ears to pick out the bird calls that emerged from the shadowy canopy. I began to notice the sounds of the forest; the murmur of the river seemed to rise to a dull roar, every stick cracking sounded amplified, every breeze, violent. When we paused and really listened, the trills and warbles rose into a melodious chorus. I recorded much of the ruckus in the packet, estimating the distance and the position of each bird.

In 2000, the VCE established Mountain Birdwatch in Vermont, with five target species: the Bicknell’s Thrush, which is currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act; the Swainson’s Thrush, a Bicknell’s competitor; the Blackpoll Warbler; White-throated Sparrow; and the Winter Wren. The following year, said Scarl, who lives in Fairlee, the program added nearly 100 new routes in New York, New Hampshire and Maine. Over the next decade, the initiative grew in area, volunteer numbers and visibility. It identified short-term trends, refined data collection techniques, and began to pinpoint conservation opportunities for the Bicknell’s Thrush.

In 2010 the VCE introduced Mountain Birdwatch 2.0. Organizers added five additional songbirds and the red squirrel to the list of target species.

On the Path

After 20 minutes, we shouldered our packs and moved on, traveling 250 meters up the trail to the next point, marked by nondescript photos of leafy vegetation and boulders obscured by moss. Sometimes we just guessed, counting out the allotted 325 steps. We’d settle among the tulip tree saplings and ferns and take out our stopwatch, compass and packet. I’d pull my jacket tighter around myself to keep out the persistent cold and concentrate hard on the calls that floated in on the light gusts of breeze.

To a novice, the species we were tracking seemed like an eclectic mix: a warbler, the yellow-bellied flycatcher, a couple of sparrows.

After Mountain Birdwatch was originally developed with a focus on Bicknell’s, Scarl said, two other thrush species, the Swainson’s and the Hermit, were added to gauge the effects of competition as birds share a diminishing ecological niche.

Some other species made the list because they occupy the same habitat. Others, like the black-capped chickadee, were chosen because their songs are distinct and easy for volunteers to recognize. The red squirrel, the only target mammalian species, Scarl explained, is a “common avian nest predator in the mountains and can influence how successful” the Bicknell’s is at nesting.

About the Science

By our third stop, the sun had not yet risen and the morning chill still lingered. My mom half-jokingly dubbed our effort “somewhat dubious science,” though whether her skepticism could be attributed to frustration, lack of breakfast or the actual survey itself, I couldn’t be certain.

To be fair, it wasn’t much of an exaggerated criticism. At times, the steady rush of the river below drowned out the chirps and trills above us and despite our focused concentration, the background chatter blurred into a jumble of sound. I wasn’t convinced that three weeks’ worth of birding knowledge, gained largely from the CD player in my Hyundai, was sufficient to determine the future of a threatened species.

Scarl didn’t seem to share my concerns about the reliability of the methodology. “It is [reliable] when it’s done on a large scale; we have protocols to check that the data is accurate,” she assured. “But even some if the data is less reliable than we would like, having almost 130 surveys allows for a few mistakes.”

Among participants, she continued, birding level varies. “About half of our volunteers are birders and really know their stuff, but some people haven’t even paid attention to bird songs before this.” The age range this year, she said, spans six decades, with a 12-year-old volunteer and a few in their late 60s. Scarl mentioned a particularly dedicated birdwatcher from Maine, who had taken a record-high eight routes, with plans to complete two more before the end of the season.

And, Scarl added, a benefit of wide participation is that it raises awareness about environmental issues, adding that “to run a program on this scale without volunteers would be so prohibitively expensive.”

We finished the survey soon after 8 a.m., long after dawn had made way for a brilliantly clear sky. Through the gaps in the trees at our final point, sun flecked the leafy undergrowth. We munched on Goldfish as we took in the occasional glimpse of the mountainside stretching out below us.

It was hard to imagine that as just one cog in the process of advancing VCE’s mission, our task — at least to hear Scarl describe it — may be an urgent one.

“There are (climate change) models that show that the majority of high elevation spruce fir will be gone in the next 200 years in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — the forest below alpine zone and above hardwood forests,” she had told me. “For birds in the Northeast, it’s not looking good.”

But at least for the moment, taking in the vibrant hues of summer and letting the comforting warmth of the sun’s rays linger on my face, all felt well with the world.

The writer lives in Brookfield, Vt.