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Backyard Birder

The songs of Pack Monadnock

Early Monday morning I headed for Pack Monadnock to climb the auto road. Sure footing on pavement allows maximum attention to the natural world.

As hardwoods at the start transition to spruce towards the summit, each elevation zone has its own plant community — and birds. I had a few in mind that I hoped to spend time with.

I used to be a regular hiker up Pack, all seasons, and a lot of memories stirred as I made my way up the road. I remember David and Karin Van Strien, regulars, too, David always well ahead of Karin.

I attended David’s funeral a few weeks back at the Unitarian Church in Peterborough where he’d been a longtime minister. He was an honorable man, strong of character and of body. Family and friends spoke about both qualities.

Hiking Pack was part of a regimen that kept him strong as well as hard to keep up with.

First birdsong was no surprise: the repetitive “tweedledum, tweedledee” of a red-eyed vireo male singing from the foggy treetops above the Miller State Park parking area just off Route 101.

Red-eyed vireos sing throughout a summer day.

Not too far along came the flute-like notes of a hermit thrush. Our three woodland thrush species are Top 10 vocalists for sure, and already the climb was worth it.

I listened as he started each refrain with an introductory note at a different pitch. That’s my memory trick: a hermit lives alone, and begins his song with a single note. The sound-alike wood thrush launches his “e-o-lay” refrain without that thoughtful introduction.

At the first hairpin turn I remembered the flying squirrel I saw one March hike. When launched in flight it looked more like furry washcloth than squirrel as it unfurled its generous skin flaps to sail out and away some 100 feet downslope.

Halfway up the mountain, as spruce begins to mix in with hardwoods, a musical trill announced the first northern species: dark-eyed junco. We’re at the southern end of their breeding range, and the higher in elevation you climb the more juncos you’ll encounter. Mount Monadnock rings with junco song up where spruce trees rule.

Fainter sounds and smaller shapes energetically gleaning spruce branches announced the second northerner: golden-crowned kinglet.

I had doubts about the kinglet ID but knew to wait a bit. Soon the male’s neon orange crown patch flashed brightly in the dark spruce depths.

Mountains have their own weather, and the sun that rose at our house far below wouldn’t pierce Pack Monadnock’s fog until the morning was well along.

I’ve reached the age of rich memories, and the spruce stands where the road steepens near the summit (pictured here) brought memories of exploring the Maine Coast and overnights at a rustic cabin surrounded by the dark, dense spruce trees of Maine’s northern forest.

I met a few friends on their way down the mountain as I was climbing. First was Cynthia Nichols, always eager for what nature delivers. She told me about juncos near the summit.

David Baum hikes the road almost daily before his workday begins. I thought I might meet him and did.

I asked him about blackburnian warblers, a favorite of mine decades ago when I was a regular hiker, too. We met at the elevation where spruce and hardwoods are equal. That’s where I used to spend time with blackburnians, nicknamed “flame throat” for the intense orange that presents when a blackburnian comes into view.

Trees don’t reach great heights in the challenging weather at higher elevations, and good looks at birds that favor treetops are possible.

That’s a benefit of mountain birdwatching.

David said he’s seen blackburnians along the nearby Wapack Trail and wished me good luck.

At the summit I checked progress made by the Friends of the Wapack on the historic stone hut cut into the granite ledge. A new roof is well underway.

I walked the short distance north of the summit to New Hampshire Audubon’s fall hawkwatch site — and to one of the magical times that Pack Monadnock can deliver.

I was photographing what looked to be an elderberry shrub with bright red berries when the bird activity began farther down the trail.

Red-breasted nuthatches shared spruce tops with yellow-rumped warblers, both gleaning their respective niches. Juncos worked ledge and spruce skirts below.

And then a blackburnian warbler joined the mix of activity centered on four large spruce trees beyond which visibility faded into a gray, misty fog.

I don’t know how many blackburnians there were in that mountain amphitheater of bare ledge and spruce. A count was difficult as they appeared and disappeared.

Blackburnians are loosely communal and nest closer together than most bird species.

One male lingered a long time at the tip of a spruce branch, his flame throat bright against the dark green backdrop.

Warblers aren’t known for lingering long.

There was no chatter among the group, none of the usual contact notes that keep a group together; none of the distractions that a sound can bring.

Long ago I wrote about a few other times on Pack Monadnock, surrounded by the company birds, forming a memory that will last a long time.

Carl and I lingered a good while in a similar fog-shrouded circle of birds. It was a Sunday. Carl said, as we moved on, “I’ve been to church today.”

It’s a feeling many people share out there in the wild world as privileged observers at just the right place and just the right time.

The Backyard Birder runs every other Thursday in the Ledger-Transcript.

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