Birders fortunately hike all day only for the push of a thrush

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Biddeford’s Nora Cochrane (left) and Kingfield’s Jeanne Tucker (right) join fellow bird watchers in a search for a Bicknell Thrush on Saddleback Mountain June 12th Photo by Deirdre Fleming

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

A 67 year old bird watcher from Texas on a two month bird watching trip was also uncertain.

A third month woman wondered if her first hike of the year should be this steep.

All three bird watchers joined more than a dozen others who climbed Saddleback Mountain in search of the Bicknell Thrush, a bird that only breeds in boreal forest and only more than 3,000 feet above sea level. The species starred at the four-day Rangeley Birding Festival two weeks ago, which offered three half-day walks to try to find her.

And yet it is a very ordinary looking bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the thrush as brown with a “simple gray face”.

However, the Bicknell throttle is also becoming a figurehead for alpine ski areas that are committed to ecological sustainability.

A Bicknell Thrush sings from a branch on Saddleback at 3,400 feet. Jeanne Tucker photo stoker

Later this summer, Saddleback Ski Resort’s new owners – Arctaris Impact Fund – are planning to build a 3,000-square-foot, single-story, low mountain cabin on Saddleback to provide food and drink for ski resort guests, hikers and bird watchers in the summer and fall. Subject to approval by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, Saddleback managers plan to build the lodge close to 1,600 feet – exactly in the habitat of the Bicknell Thrushes – but without affecting the unusual bird. The ski area is consulting with Maine Audubon on the project.

“We hope the mid-mountain lodge can be a model for responsible development in alpine ski resorts,” said Andy Shepard, general manager of Saddleback, who participated in the June birdwatching hike.

The restaurant will feature glass that prevents bird strikes against the floor-to-ceiling windows by using markings in the glass that birds can see but are barely noticeable to humans. The marked glass helps mitigate bird collisions with windows, which is the second leading cause of bird death in the United States, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The restaurant will be too It will be placed on pillars to avoid bumping the ground and minimize the disruption of the watershed, and it will have a grass canopy with low blueberries to provide habitat for native wildlife. It will be built after the nesting season – that means delayed construction until August, not an ideal time for construction in the mountains. But Shepard said the ski resort’s goal is to be an environmental leader among alpine resorts and protect the unusual thrush that attracts bird watchers.

Kris Federle from Camden, bird watcher and saddleback skier, was interested in learning how the ski resort would handle construction in the Bicknell habitat.

“It seems that they are putting things on hold,” said Federle. “It doesn’t look like they’re taking anything lightly. It would be nice if the whole industry, all development, proceeded in the same way. There’s so much development in Maine now. It’s a simple, little brownish bird. But it has a cool song. “

The summit of Saddleback Mountain – at 4,100 feet – is the best habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush. The medium-sized, unusual thrush breeds on mountain tops over 3,000 feet – and can be found in the Rangeley region. Photo by Deirdre Fleming

The species that winter in the Greater Antilles – the larger islands in the Caribbean Sea – and breeds in the Maine boreal forest is listed as one of special interest by the state of Maine. The unusual thrush that thrives in the Western Mountains, Baxter State Park, and Canada is a thrill for bird watchers to see – or even hear -.

It’s a species that scientists don’t know much about, said Steve Hale, the New Hampshire professional bird watcher who led the festival’s treks up the Saddleback.

“I’ve been working with the Bicknell throttle for 20 years. And I’ve never seen a nest, ”said Hale.

When the group of a dozen bird watchers met at Saddleback Lodge at 6:30 a.m. on June 12, Hale said they would drive as far up the ski condo-lined streets as possible. But they still had a good hour to hike to get to 3,000 feet – the start of the Bicknell Thrush Range.

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

A dozen bird watchers with a wide range of experience joined Hale – three of whom worked for Saddleback or Maine Audubon and came to learn more about the species. Four in the group were avid bird watchers eager to experience the thrush, hunt for a thrush, and the thrill of hunting with fellow bird watchers.

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

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that the Bicknell Thrush – because of its nest in thick woodland – “can best be distinguished by voice”.

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

“We don’t want to pull individuals out of nests. You have a large territory. We don’t need to start any necessary territorial wars against Bicknell’s Thrush, ”said Hale.

The group listened attentively – then they walked slowly and quietly along the steep ski path while they continued to listen to the noises in the forest. Not much further, at an altitude of 3,100 feet, Hale found that they were exactly at the lower limit of the Bicknell’s range. The Saddleback ski lodge looked small far below.

Shortly afterwards, at 3,400 feet, the group questioned a sound. They climbed through the bushes to the trees along the ski slope to listen more closely.

Tucker recorded noises in case the bird raises its call again. Then they spotted one and watched it carefully together. A short time later, another flew out of a row of dead trees and flitted around in the sun – an even better view of the bird.

Nora Cochrane of Biddeford agreed with Tucker – searching together was part of the rush to find the thrush.

“I consider bird watching to be an oral tradition. It’s a lot easier to learn from people who explain it than reading about it in a book, ”said Cochrane, who did her first hike with her second child in her third month. “I love bird watching. But I haven’t had time with my young son in the past two years. It is a pleasure for me to have this piece of freedom and to be with people who are enthusiastic about a bird. I love it when people are driven by a bird that has avoided them. “

Several bird watchers follow guide Steve Hale down Saddleback Mountain during a hike to the Rangeley Birding Festival on June 12 after searching for and finding three Bicknell Thrushes. Photo by Deirdre Fleming

Hale viewed the entire excursion – which took another five hours before the group returned to the ski resort cabin – as a gold mine for Bicknell.

Shortly after the group observed the second Bicknell’s Thrush, a magnolia singer caught their attention. The bright yellow-bellied songbird, common in Maine, has dwarfed the thrush in color and swing.

“They know it’s a productive day when people leave the Bicknell Thrush to see the magnolia singer,” Hale said with a laugh. “YWe had no prospect yesterday. We just heard it. On the 2019 hike, only half of the group saw the bird. This is something special.”

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