Birding by RV, ch 9, Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell’s Thrush

Once we cross into New Hampshire, our attention turns to the possibility of finding a rare mountaintop thrush, the Bicknell’s Thrush. This little brown bird has a discontinuous breeding range at high elevations from southern Quebec to northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. The species nested in Massachusetts a half-century ago, but no longer. It has experienced a frightening drop in population and has a checkered taxonomic history as a subspecies of Gray-cheeked Thrush to the rank of a full species. Most ornithologists agree that Bicknell’s Thrush is a good species. I, for one consider it a good species. The two erstwhile sharp-tailed sparrows breeding at Scarborough Marsh in Maine are examples of good species. There are other taxa out there that surely are good species, but to others would be demeaned as bad species.

As said earlier, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) Committee on Classification and Nomenclature dictate the last word on what is or is not a species that occur within the geographic scope of the check-list, which is Panama north to Alaska and, for political, not biogeographic reasons, Hawaii. Dictates might be too strong of a word, but most everyone in North America, including ABA, follows the decisions of the AOU. However, checklists outside the geographic scope of the AOU may disagree on certain species that might occur with the geographic domain of North American and, for example Asia. Those other lists even omit the hyphen in check-list. A duck that occurs in the New and Old World come quickly to mind as an example of differing taxonomic conclusions by different checklist publishers. The AOU lists Green-winged Teal and Eurasian or Common Teal as subspecies, whereas almost all other checklists conclude the two teals are separate species. Is the Eurasian Teal a good species in Asia and a bad species or not a species in AOU territory? At least a half-dozen other species representing ducks to warblers are not recognized by AOU, but are listed as good species by some other checklists. Are these species on the edge, taxa lifted out of the rank of subspecies because of different taxonomic opinions or different interpretations of relevent data?

The AOU’s committee annually votes on about 15 to 20 proposals that may change nomenclature or taxonomy of the 2,000 “species” under their purview. The quotation marks here are to alert the curious that, yes, there are good and bad species. The good ones are those based on thorough and published investigations about all aspects of the given animal, inside and outside. Outside includes factors such as morphology to behavior and inside mostly includes genes.

About six years ago, I sent Dick Banks, then chairperson of the check-list committee, a list of 26 birds that I thought require consideration for splitting. Dick, who held the position of chair of the AOU Committee longer than any living ornithologist did, circulated the list among the members of the committee. Part of the idea of the list was to cause committee members to look into some of the 26 issues and write formal proposals for consideration by the committee. Of course, people outside the committee are free to submit proposals. Regardless, my list included literature references for the convenience of the committee members who might follow-up on some of the enumerated taxonomic issues. Among the 26 taxa are two taxonomic issues that were later formally proposed to the committee. I wrote one of those proposals, which, along with the other, the AOU committee deliberated with affirmative votes to split the subject taxon. Another species in my list of 26 had two formal proposals submitted to the committee and both proposals were rejected. My list of 26 includes Marsh Wren, Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Spruce Grouse, Willet and others, all of which have currently recognized subspecies that surely rate recognition as distinct species. There is evidence for an eastern Marsh Wren and a western Marsh Wren, a northern Yellow Warbler, a “Golden” Yellow Warbler and a Mangrove Yellow Warbler, etc. Part of the problem in what are likely obvious splits is the lack of studies that cover all the biological and genetic basis for all the populations concerned. However, expecting to have such a complete data set is unrealistic. If we have all the data, it might be possible to know everything, which is impossible and would be horribly boring.

Some of the birds in the list sent to Dick have since been under consideration by the committee, not because of my list, but in reaction to more recent studies. Yellow-rumped Warbler comes to mind. The committee voted to maintain the status quo, that is, continue to recognize the various subspecies as members of one species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Although the northern yellow-chinned taxa, formerly Audubon’s Warbler, interbreed with the white-chinned birds, formerly Myrtle Warbler, the degree of interbreeding is geographically narrow and biologically limited. There is a biological barrier preventing a geographically wide hybrid zone such as we know for the yellow and red-shafted woodpeckers we know as Northern Flicker. Fast forwarding a little, is discovery of “Myrtle” Warbler genes zipped up with those of “Audubon” Warblers to the south. Fine, but “Myrtle” and “Audubon’s” warblers look different and have different calls. It is easy to agree that looks is not everything and vocalizations of passerines is learned, not innate or hard-wired, but how is it reasonable to continue to ignore morphological and behavioral differences and accept that there are genetic markers between the two groups of warblers and concurrently realize the amount of hybridization is limited and nothing on the magnitude of many other AOU sanctioned species that hybridize (Black-capped and Carolina Chickadee, Golden-winged and Blue-winged warblers, any duck than gets within mounting distance of a Mallard drake, sapsuckers, etc.). Anyway, I am not alone in thinking the jury is still out on the matter of the Yellow-rumped Warbler complex. Maintaining the previous status quo, with apologies to old friends including John Hubbard and many of the members of the AOU committee, I believe, along with others, that it is best to recognize the complex as separate species we once knew as Audubon’s and Myrtle warblers.

While kicking the can, many continue to wonder why Green-winged and Eurasian (Common) Teal are lumped, and what about Yellow Warbler, Brant, House Wren and more? Surely, there are some “good” species within those ranks. What about Mexican Duck? A proposal by Dick to recognize Mexican Duck was shot out of the water. Why? Is it because of interbreeding with Mallards? If that is the case, almost anything that moves might be a candidate for being merged into the world of horny Mallards. How much hybridization is tolerable to the AOU committee before making a decision to lump or split? As for any female duck, how much can a hen tolerate from a male Mallard? Finally, as for me, my battle cry is long live diazi. Long live a “good” species.

Yes, taxonomy of birds is complex and controversial. The AOU committee has a difficult job. Nonetheless, waiting on the committee for decisions on problems related to species/subspecies groups that seem to have obvious relationships sometimes taxes one’s endurance for patience and my voice is not the only one wondering why some of the problematic species pairs, the eastern and western this or that, are not officially considered separate species. David Sibley posted on-line a list of “splittable” candidates about the same time I composed and emailed my list to Dick. Many of the species groups Sibley and I listed are the same. These lists are not getting any smaller today and expert Steve Howell and others are wondering why. In the meantime, what seems to me and others as good species will have to go on my escrow list. Should life provide me time, perhaps some of the birds the AOU committee deems bad species (cf., Green-winged Teal, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow…) will have a vote as good species? In the meantime, I will follow along the establishment path, with the exception of Black Brant I authored in “Birds of Oregon.”

Of course, I may be wrong about that goose, but at the time, my rebellious self-made me go against the grain of the hallowed committee. Despite me “acting out” that one instance, well, perhaps there are other times of ignoring the committee, my previous research endeavors were to correct any mistakes and enhance the knowledge of the taxonomy of North American birds. Insofar as the committee, there are many past and present members who have my greatest respect and admiration and several others whose company I count as lasting enjoyment.

With that said, what is the story of the thrush we are seeking? Not so long ago, Gray-cheeked Thrush was represented by the subspecies bicknelli, aliciae and minimus. The taxonomic history is in a landmark publication in the Wilson Bulletin in 1993. In that paper, author Henri Ouellet deftly reports that birds recognized as bicknelli differ from the other taxa morphologically, behaviorally (e.g., vocalizations), genetically (mtDNA only), geographically (habitat and distribution) and bicknelli does not interbreed with the other populations Gray-cheeked Thrush. Two years later, the AOU split the thrushes, thus recognizing Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s thrushes as separate species.

The late Dr. Ouellet was a meticulous ornithologist, but his taxonomic conclusions that led to recognizing bicknelli as a species were not accepted by Joe T. Marshall. Knowing both Henri and Joe was a pleasure except when the two were together at the museum and near the cabinets containing thrushes. I would then keep my distance. Respect for both men could not color my own belief that Bicknell’s Thrush is a good species and not a bad species as Joe expounded. Henri’s premature death preceded a 136-page publication by Joe that plunges Bicknell’s Thrush back to subspeciesdom. As for Joe’s current thoughts, my old affable friend, retired and sequestered from ornithology and the museum he loved, passed in February this year. Had Joe lived, would he have sent a proposal to the check-list committee not to recognize Bicknell’s Thrush? The AOU continued to recognize Bicknell’s Thrush as a valid species.

Other than Joe, there are individuals who believe Bicknell’s Thrush should be classified as a subspecies of Gray-checked Thrush, the situation existing before Henri’s paper splitting to two into separate species. Newer genetic studies have discovered Bicknell’s and Gray-checked thrushes are not each others closest relatives. Bicknell’s and Veery are more closely related that Bicknell’s Thrush is to Gray-checked Thrush. If Bicknell’s is lumped with anything, systematic criteria would require it to be lumped with Veery, a situation that is most unlikely.

Regardless of taxonomic position, field identification of bicknelli vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush is often problematic. In fact, the two should not be identified in the field unless they are singing, but even then, vocalizations overlap. The two taxa certainly overlap morphologically, causing David Sibley to conclude the specie pair is one of the most “challenging” two species to identify. He also wondered about the taxonomic status of bicknelli, writing that the taxonomic situation of Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s thrushes might be similar to the current thought about juncos with all those different appearing subspecies.

Currently, I follow the AOU Committee in their decision to recognize bicknelli as a species and I agree with Sibley about the identification challenge. I cannot nor wish to repudiate the current taxonomic position of what most everyone regards as a good species. In fact, the great debate on the taxonomic status of bicknelli seems to have come to an end. A paper by dozen years ago by Diana Outlaw and others concluded Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s thrushes are not sister species. The Outlaw paper and its conclusions is not compelling enough, has a few have suggested, reason to lump the two subject thrushes. In science, the jury is almost always out, the last nail is not driven, all of the facts will never (most likely) be available and consequently new information from new source and techniques may alter our conclusions. This is definitely true concerning evaluations of genetic data. Two years ago, Gary Voelker published a compelling story on Catharus thrushes. With his colleagues, he offers convincing information on the genetics of the group that show bicknelli is actually a sister species with Veery (Catharus fuscescens) and Gray-checked Thrush.

Certainly, status as a species garners much greater currency for bicknelli. Most people pay more attention, especially politically and monetarily to conserve dwindling populations of species than might be received by a lowly subspecies. There is little doubt that Bicknell’s Thrush is in need of help, but, as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.


22-23 June 2015

Before leaving Maine, we stop at the visitor center of Rumford. It sits at the edge of U.S. 2, our route, and overlooks Androscoggin River and Rumford Falls under a partially cloudy sky. A marble triptych marks tribute to Edmund Sixtus Muskie, who was born in Rumford and a list of many of his accomplishments are on of the stones. Although former governor of Maine, we remember him most from roles in national politics and his brief stint as Secretary of State. Muskie was a senator when I first visited Maine in 1962.

A middle-aged man working inside the visitor center proudly tells us stories and answers questions about this part of Maine. His enthusiasm may have been as homegrown as that of Edmund Muskie, who we discover had an above average interest in nature. His library, containing volumes on birds attest to that. Holding the title of father of the modern environmental movement, he likely knew about bicknelli, then a subspecies, that nested in high elevations of northern Maine and elsewhere in New England. He might wonder today, as we do, why Bicknell’s Thrush is not on the Endangered Species List. However, I am again, getting ahead of myself.

In a short time, we leave U.S. 2 and the Androscoggin River, and turn south on New Hampshire state highway 16 at Gorham. By now we realize the landscape is slowly changing from its usual domesticated look to one echoing an appearance and feeling of clean and austire beauty found only in nature. Not even a weed seems out-of-place as we motor higher into the White Mountains and pull into a large parking lot at the foot of Mt. Washington. The mountain summit reaches to 6,288 feet, the highest elevation east of the Mississippi, and is famous for some of the severest cold and wind known on the continent. Many fun facts about the mountain overlooking the parking lot could fill a list and occupy truth and imagination for pages, but the fun fact we once thought to follow was to look for Bicknell’s Thrush on the shoulders of the famous mountain. However, Mt. Washington, although it supports a population of breeding Bicknell’s Thrushes, finding them depends on where to search. Our information suggests the need to stop part way up the torturous paved road. Private vehicles may drive on the road to the summit, but it is doubtful our RV would be a contestant. Should we elect to take a company tour, would the driver stop where we want to search? Regardless, my acrophobic symptoms win over the desire to see a Bicknell’s Thrush.

Mt. Washington in the White Mountains

Where would we find Bicknell’s Thrush? Much earlier, we chose to drive east from Bennington, Vermont, instead of going north to Mt. Equinox in the Green Mountains. Hiking up Mt. Equinox meant uncertainty for finding our target and the climb may have been beyond our endurance. Rejection of Mt. Equinox and Mt. Washington left us with at least a couple more locations known for breeding Bicknell’s Thrush and one is on the west side of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The site, the 4,081-foot summit of Cannon Mountain, presents one primary hurdle—riding a tram.

There is no guarantee for finding Bicknell’s Thrush. The species is probably the rarest of North American songbird. It nests in habitats on mountaintops that are vulnerable to acid rain, insect infestations such as from the gypsy moth introduced in 1869, climate change and Swainson’s Thrushes. Acid rain may not be such a problem as it became in the 1970’s in New York and New England, which is perhaps due to effort from Edmund Muskie, former president and birder Jimmy Carter and others. Reports of habitat recovery today hold promise although acid rain continues to hold court over the environment. Containment of insect infestation is difficult and may require different methods for different situations. Over four decades ago while employed in the summer at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, the standard for combating bark beetles was to cut down the infected trees and spray or burn the remains. That and other controls help, but climate change, while driving the temperature upwards, is also warming new habitat for insects. The rise in temperature not only affects wood gnawing s of insects, it impacts habitat and ultimately the breeding domain of Bicknell’s Thrush. It is clear. As the temperature gradient climbs on paper, it likewise climbs up the mountain driving many plants and animals higher and higher until the temperature for those organisms is somewhere above the mountain summit. There is no place to go. That is not a cool fact, but one we, and Bicknell’s Thrush and thousands of plants and animals are facing today.

What about Swainson’s Thrush? Suspicions and documentation now unfold yet another impediment to Bicknell’s Thrush—interspecific competition with Swainson’s Thrush. New information shows climate change to be the principle cause for the competition.

Finally, the forced uphill march of nesting Bicknell’s Thrush, assuming most make it through the winter in dwindling montane forests of Hispaniola, is exposing the birds to increasingly severe weather, which we all know is mortally rough on mountaintops. Many windswept summits are under the influence of air-borne mercury and other pollutants, fragmented by the ski industrial complex and a host of other negative factors that potentially harm the fragile ecology and summer home to Bicknell’s Thrush. If Linda and I find Bicknell’s Thrush this year, we should count ourselves lucky as we consider the thrush most unlucky.

Meanwhile, after bringing myself off some imaginary mountaintop, I approach an employee at the Mt. Washington visitor center, who offers a good route for the remainder of the day, including suggesting a campground down the road. After a few miles of southbound travel through the tree covered White Mountains, we follow a narrow road and park. Several people are there to hike a short trail to view Glen Ellis Falls. Ellis River, which our highway parallels, falls 64 feet and creates a cool misty view of a white vail of water crashing down a gray cliff.

Glen Ellis Falls

Leaving the refreshing panorama, we climb the steep trail and up rock steps constructed in the hard canyon walls to our mobile for lunch. Further south, we turn westward onto Kancamagus Highway near Conway. In a little over a dozen miles is the turn into Jigger Johnson Campground in White Mountain National Forest. We are happy to know the campground provides coin-operated showers.

Our first night at Jigger Johnson, named for a colorful logger of the 1880’s, is one of rain and more rain. The next morning brings cool temperatures at our 1,261-foot elevation. Clouds and tall trees, primarily coniferous, shade most of the day, but the warm showers refresh and spots of sunlight induce to a few birds out of the shadows. A female Blackburnian Warbler forages only 12 feet from our RV while the pecking of a woodpecker suggests an American Three-toe. The woodpecker remains hidden, and then its pecking sound disappears. Numerous juncos and Chipping Sparrows are singing in the campground. A singing robin belts out an unfamiliar strain. Was it a young bird? Was it a robin pioneering a new melody? I will leave those questions for those adept in avian vocalizations and enjoy the evening song of a Jigger Johnson Campground Swainson’s Thrush.

24 June 2015

A clear blue sky wakes us. A Warbling Vireo, the eastern one, is singing at our campsite. Using playback of a Blackburnian Warbler, we attract Blackburnian and a Magnolia Warbler that forages only 10 feet away. A male Black-throated Blue and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers came into view. I worry if we will hear Bicknell’s Thrush singing at this late date.

Continuing westward, we again travel New Hampshire’s highway 112, the remote Kancamagus Highway. The name kancamagus is from the Penacook Indians and means the fearless one. Except for the familiar brown and white signs indicating campgrounds and an occasional vehicle, our drive is quiet and scenic. It is 59 miles between Conway where we drove by a couple of days ago and our next immediate destination, Lincoln on the west slope of the mountains. Designated on maps as a scenic byway, Kancamagus Highway, which opened in 1959, today attracts 750,000 vehicles per year, most of which come for what locals call leaf peeping.

Our view this June, especially from an overlook just east of 2,855 foot Kancamagus Pass, is of impressively tall rounded peaks and ridges high over Swift River, the same stream near Jigger Johnson Campground. Covering the mountains is secondary forests, remnants of forests of bygone years that stood even more impressively before the timber barons scalped the virgin terrain. Much of the forests of the White Mountains were clear-cut in 1892. What was not cut was accidentally or on purpose burned to make charcoal. John Wingate Weeks should have credit for saving the forest of the White Mountains and other eastern forests by passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, legislation that anchors the importance of the National Forest system. Birders, RVers, ecologists, recreationalists, timber industrialists, leaf peepers and more are grateful for national forests including White Mountain National Forest that began in 1918 as a direct result the Weeks Act.

Linda and I view a sea of green trees, of barren and scarred landscape, of a landscape showing decades of recovery, which is but an imagined figment of a virgin forest. We wonder what it might have been. According to some sources, only 3,000 acres of old growth forests remain in New Hampshire. That is fewer acres than occupied by old growth in Florida. What we do see is from our viewpoint and saw at lower elevations, are beech trees, mountain, striped, red and sugar maples, and, further up the slopes, mountain ash, balsam fir, red spruce and paper birch. Still higher, grow black spruce known by boreal species, including Bicknell’s Thrush. Lacking base-line studies, we will never know how much recovery is taking place. My guess is there were more forest breeding birds than there are today. Judging from my own anecdotal observations from the late 1950’s to today, I think I am not far off in surmising there are fewer birds in Oregon and I imagine the same is true for the same time span relating birds in New England.

Lincoln is adjacent to the juncture with I-93, our route north to Cannon Mountain, but we first refurbish our RV collection of food. We also need to make some phone calls, but the cell phone, being out of range for communication, decides not to reconnect despite a nearby phone tower. In order to get it to work, we use a secondary phone, which operates with a different carrier to call the carrier of the primary phone. Thirty or more frustrating minutes brings the primary phone to life.

About fifteen scenic miles north on I-93 is the turn into the parking lot at the foot of the tramway up Cannon Mountain. It is probably too late for hunting Bicknell’s Thrush and, as it turns out, the tramway is closed for inspection. It will be in operation tomorrow and I tremble a little thinking we have a good chance at the thrush and tremble some more thinking I can overcome my acrophobic misgivings about being in a gondola hanging by cables. I know, I will pretend we are in an airplane experiencing bad weather and holy smokes, flying way to damn low, but high enough that a sudden descent will be fatal.

Lafayette Place Campground             Cannon Mountain

Backtracking to the south a little on I-93, we pull into Lafayette Place Campground of Franconia Notch State Park. The park occupies 6,692 acres of Franconia Notch and surrounding slopes and straddles eight miles of I-93. Our view is, in every direction, gorgeous, breathtakingly inspiring and in the realm of national park beauty. From our near 1900 foot elevation, we see steep slopping summits of 4,459-foot Liberty Peak and 5,249-foot Lafayette Peak soaring to the east and across the narrow valley, the notch, is Cannon Mountain, so vertical is its eastern face that I can only describe it as a huge rocky cliff. The Pemigwasset River flows along our route and marks the edge of our campground.

Built on a slope at 1,760 feet in elevation, Lafayette Place Campground squeezes in 98 campsites, but the terrain is not conducive for many RVs. A ranger at the lodge hands over a map with pink dot on the open campsites and circles around sites that should accommodate our 22.5-foot RV. Only two such sites fit, or should I say, two that we might fit. Another RV is just pulling out, having been given directions probably identical to ours. We hurry, if that is possible on the very narrow although paved campground roads, to one of the circled sites. The RV ahead us is backing into the site. We manage to turn around and arrive at the second circled site. It is empty, reasonably level and far enough into the campground to dampen traffic noise from I-93. While Linda readies for the evening, I rush back to the lodge to lay claim to our site and pay the $25 per night fee. Lack of an electrical hookup might seem to lower the fee, but this is not the case. Even so, assuming we find Bicknell’s Thrush on Cannon Mountain, the cost for us adding the species to our life lists is a bargain. Then again, I remind myself, assuming nothing is a good habit. Returning to camp from the lodge, a Ruffed Grouse reveals itself among the frenzy of campers.

25 June 2015

Morning arrives with initial thoughts of seeing the rare Bicknell’s Thrush today. Actually, that is not true. My first thought is getting to the bathroom as soon as possible. Then, I think, pour some water over a caffeinated tea bag waiting in a cup, no wait, I forgot to start the generator in order to run the microwave to heat the water that will drive the tea to bleed in the cup so I can drink and then wonder about Bicknell’s Thrush. Okay, so far, so good. As the cobwebs disappear, the means to get on top of Cannon Mountain snarl my happy face, but only a little. Riding an aerial tramway, something I have never done, is something I will do, and without my fear of heights debilitating my will to hold up my binoculars.

Linda is fearless. I tell her I may need her to allay my acrophobic trepidations. Our tickets on the park-operated tramway are $17 each. While we wait for the scheduled ascent, we check out the huge metal structure anchoring the bottom of the aerial tramway. To a non-engineer, the site is amazing and perhaps it is to an engineer. The first tramway in North America, constructed in 1938, carried 6.5 million people up the 2.1-mile trip near the summit of Cannon Mountain. A second and present tramway has been operating since 1980. With a degree of foreboding, I decide the tramway must have a good track record and deem our trip will be safe.

Boarding the gondola, which has a capacity of 80, requires stepping from the heavy metal framed building onto a car hanging over thin air. At least the supporting cables appear heavier than what I observed yesterday. Now is the time for believing all will be okay and now is the time to hold onto Linda and pull from her essence that we will not crash. I begin thinking that it would be better to hike up the mountain, but that would have taken hours. The door of the gondola closes. A tug slides the gondola forward and suddenly it swings upward, almost grazing painfully steep slopes and over the crowns of a few trees. The driver tells everyone to look for bears. I just want the journey over while Linda smiles and hopes to see a bear. Most of the ground below the route of the tram is devoid of vegetation. After each T-section holding up the long cables, the gondola sinks almost too quickly for comfort, but then I can feel and see the steady climb. I am still alive. This is almost fun. The sizes of trees become smaller as we climb and, in about 10 minute, our ride is abruptly over.

Looking down at I-93           The vertical clear-cuts for skiers on Cannon Mountain

Perhaps 20 people were on board the gondola. They, and most everyone walking the trail from the building at the upper terminus of the tram, are dressed for summer. However, summer below in the notch is far warmer and less windy than on Cannon Mountain. Linda and I are happy to not be dressed in shorts, sandals or less and relieved, even with long pants, long-sleeves and boots, that the backpack contains not just water and food, but also our trusty green jackets.

Our outdoor garb seems to brand us as a different type of tourist. Why did we think such thoughts? Maybe it was asking the gondola driver specific questions about the thrush. Perhaps everyone else thought we are not the carefree tourist they were used to seeing. Are we scientists or hikers, ready to tackle the mountain terrain that their light footwear would not allow. Perhaps some may have considered us Bicknell’s Thrush huggers. After all, there is money to be had from skiers and skiing and expansion of ski regions such as Cannon Mountain, which causes conflict to conserving habitat for the thrush. Linda and I know very well from experiences regarding Spotted Owls in the Pacific Northwest, that not everyone is happy with those promoting conservation of a bird. Of course, perhaps smiles and friendly hellos are not to be expected in New England. People in the region certainly have reputations for unfriendly attitudes, but we decide that must actually be Yankee reserve. Maybe they were suspicious of our jackets, but it was most likely envy as they shiver in the bracing wind at the summit. For whatever the reason, most of the people on the mountain are civil, quiet and seem more reserved than those we have experienced in other parks and natural settings outside of New England. That is okay.


A Bicknell’s Thrush was just off the trail


Truly, the view is amazing both from the distant landmarks to the immediate scene of subalpine vegetation. From our tail, we hike past stunted low growing conifers, probably red spruce or balsam fir growing in gnarly and low thickets that botanist call krummholz communities. This looks to be home for breeding Bicknell’s Thrushes, but where are they? Our trail is unpleasantly close to the edge of the dangerously steep eastern face. We look down into the notch and above the site of Old Man of the Mountain, a famous stony face naturally sculpted on the cliff, but that collapsed in 2003. The profile is the reason why Cannon Mountain once had the name Profile Mountain and the profile is the one outlined on New Hampshire state road signs. Linda seems to enjoy looking down more than me. A dark brown stained trail sign tells us we are at the boundary of Franconia Notch State Park and 724,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. The sign is pock-marked with pits from hard cold snow and ice and stiff wintry wind. Another sign, gray and weather worn, across the trail lists several trails and mileages, including the half-mile Hi-Cannon Trail that loops around the mountain. An earlier sign read Cannon Mountain Rim Trail. Regardless, the concern now is where are the thrushes. So far, we find a couple of Blackpoll Warblers, several juncos and a lone male American Robin.

About the time we finish reading the signs and after a group of five shorts and sandal wearing tourists pass, we hear an alarm call that was none other than that of a thrush. Minutes later, a more distant thrush sings. The vocalizations match our memory of our target bird, a Bicknell’s Thrush. As we finish the short hike, a thrush jumps into the open. The three of us are surprised, but take the time to gather salient field marks. All three have two legs, two are large and wearing green jackets and one is small, brownish and matches illustrations in a field guide. Linda and I find a place sheltered from the wind by the upper terminus building of the tram, quench our thirst, enjoy sandwiches and revel in our good success.

Returning to the bottom, we quickly shed our jackets and head for Echo Lake, a large body of water seen from the tramway. Facilities at the lake provide the only RV dumping station within miles. Our campsite waits, being safe by leaving a small bright yellow plastic rack for drying clothes on the picnic table and a dish pan sitting in the middle of the parking spot. Written on its white sides is the word “occupied.”

26 June 2015

It would have been wonderful to stay a little longer in the Franconia Notch region. I wonder if Bicknell’s Thrush breeds on any of summits and slopes taller than Cannon Mountain. We know that birders and ornithologists are researching Bicknell’s Thrush at Franconia and elsewhere. It would have been informative to talk to some of those folks, but during our entire stay, including the short look at the top of Cannon Mountain, we never saw anyone hinting of being interested in birds. No binoculars are in view, just sandals and flip-flops with many possibly waiting for the next ski season. We hope the rarest songbird in North American somehow survives.


It is not difficult to get ahead of one’s self, especially concerning the life or death of a species. As of this writing, Bicknell’s Thrush does not receive Federal protection under the Rare and Endangered Species Act even though the species clearly meets the criteria of the Endangered Species Act for listing. Those criteria, in the words of the Act, are: there is “present or threatened destructions, modification, or overutilization of its habitat or range;” the species is threatened by “disease or predation;” there is “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms;” and “other natural or manmade factors [are] affecting its survival.” That Bicknell’s Thrush should be classified as “endangered” rather than “threatened” also seems obvious. According to the Endangered Species Act, a “threatened species is one “that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” whereas, “an endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A petition to put the rare thrush on the Department of Interior’s list is dated 2010. Actually, Bicknell’s Thrush was in a list of candidates for considering endangered or threatened published in the Federal Register in 1994. That is particularly embarrassing to me since the parent of the Biological Survey, my outfit, is the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Biological Survey was occasionally asked for input concerning endangered species and when tasked by them, we did not take years and years to provide answers. That aside, I read the five-year-old petition of 2010. It is thorough, with considerable documentation based on peer-reviewed research. Ignoring the fact that the offices of the Engandered Species might be under funded, it seems inconceivable that the petition has not already been accepted. Perhaps some of the reason for the great lag in time since the petition was submitted might relate to local opposition in the guise of fear that someone’s acreage might not be available for commercial exploitation such as clear-cuts for another ski run. Another possible reason for the delay is people, including politicians, not believing the reality of climate change, a major factor contributing to loss of important habitat to breeding Bicknell’s Thrush. What ever the reason, it seems that the delay is not following what the Endangered Species Act states about listing since it is written by the Act that “In our priority system, the degree or magnitude of threat is the highest criterion…” The delay in listing procedures necessitated a law suit in September 2013. Now, the service has until 30 September 2017 to at least complete their 12-month finding on the matter. Those findings will be considered, and, according to official protocol, listing Bicknell’s Thrush might not occur until about two years later.

Then what? Assuming Bicknell’s will be afforded the unfortunate label of endangered, laws already protecting the species will be better enforced. Anyone thinking about killing or even disturbing a Bicknell’s will be in big trouble. Since the feathers of such a somber looking and not particularly meaty species rarely fit the appetite of most law breakers, perhaps the most important benefit of being endangered is better protection of habitat even to the point of land purchases to promote the recovery of endangered species. Recovery might also include habitat changes such as controlled burning (think Kirtland’s Warbler and Red-cockaded Woodpecker).

Suffice to say, Bicknell’s Thrush is not the only species in the country that is threatened or endangered. Linda and I have been fortunate to observe some of the hapless species such as Snail Kite, Whooping Crane and Florida Scrub-Jay during this year. Sadly most of the species on the U.S. endangered list hang by a thread in Hawaii. Witnessing any endangered species is a privilege, especially one so likely doomed as the Bicknell’s Thrush.

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