Backyard Birder: A sunrise hike for the hawkwatchers

  • Mount Monadnock in the morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 8:6PM

Summer solstice came and went last week. I always make a big deal about the winter solstice, six months prior, as the light begins its return. In the depths of winter’s darkness, cause to celebrate.

Seasonal light levels determine a lot in the natural world including birdsong. Hormones rev up for the breeding season ahead, dormant in the offseason, and birdsong resumes.

And fades with the fading of the light.

However, birds remain in full song right now. I did two bird surveys in the past week, accompanying people with impressive hearing. Bird surveys rely on ears not eyes, picking up subtle contact notes as well as full-throated song.

First survey was a traverse of Mt. Monadnock in the footsteps of Tudor Richards who did surveys in 1951 and 1962. I did a bunch of surveys a couple decades back. For the one that probably matched Tudor the best, a pal climbed Pumpelly Trail while I did the Dublin Trail. I figured two of us might match his effort.

Tudor was a giant of a man in so many ways. I pictured him Paul Bunyanesque striding up and over the mountain while we mere mortals huffed and puffed.

Somewhat humorously, a few days before the recent survey, as I was getting in shape by huffing and puffing up hills, I realized that my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Birdsong survey—What was I thinking?

I enlisted Henry Walters, Hawkwatcher Henry, great ears and great company for the traverse, and we set off in dawn’s first light up the Dublin Trail. Peak birdsong time is the hour on either side of sunrise.

After the first few ovenbird songs along the trail, “Teacher! teacher!! teacher!!! TEACHER!, we met our only Dublin Trail fellow hiker on his way down. When I said he must have started out in the dark, he said he watched the sunrise from the summit. He said he used to hike a lot with his grandpa, and they always intended to climb Monadnock but never did.

He held out a hand, pointing to his grandfather’s wedding ring. He said, “We did it, finally. He was with me up there.”

A grandparent’s hope: to be remembered like that.

When Henry and I saw a turkey vulture through a patch of sky in the forest canopy, we agreed that Tudor didn’t see any TVs, or ravens, or mourning doves. They’re newcomers since his survey.

What he did see, or more likely hear, were 11 Swainson’s thrushes, no longer spinning out their celebrated thrush songs high on Monadnock. A loss.

In the 1999 survey I did with Scott Spangenberg, he up Pumpelly (eight miles) and me up Dublin (two miles), we heard four. Soon thereafter they dwindled and disappeared. In two 2003 climbs I heard none. The last was in 2001. Here’s what I wrote back then:

“My favorite part of the Dublin Trail also is favored habitat of the goal species of the day—Swainson’s Thrush. A steep chute of exposed ledge delivers the climber up into the first clear vista out across a spruce-balsam forest stunted by mountain conditions. Taking in the view, I also listened intently for birdsong spiraling upward. A Hermit Thrush singing from below gave me hope that the thrush hour was not yet over. Six a.m. was nearing, the Cinderella hour when thrushes quiet down until similar light levels at day’s end trigger a new round of song.

“Dominant voice belonged to Yellow-rumped Warblers, but their two-part trills soon gave way to another favorite reward for climbing Mt. Monadnock: the crystal clear notes of White-throated Sparrows exchanging songs within the spruce-fir zone they share.

“Dark-eyed Juncos, usually as common as White-throated Sparrows, were conspicuous for their absence. Thoreau climbed Monadnock and observed about the junco, ‘It is the prevailing bird up there, i.e. on the summit. They are said to go to the fur countries to breed… They probably are never seen in the surrounding low ground at this season.’

“There were many compensations for missing the Swainson’s Thrush. I had no complaints. I say it often: Heading out in pursuit of birds really has nothing to do with birds; It has everything to do with experiencing the wonders of the natural world, with quieting an overactive mind, tuning in to a slower pulse, breathing in a different air.

“I climbed on along a spine of ledge that raised me almost as tall as the spruce on either side—and delivered me into a new zone of song, spiraling song, upward spiraling Swainson’s Thrush song. Pursuit of birds sometimes delivers the bird that is the object of the quest.

“I ate breakfast within that zone of song, watching, too, as the rising sun gradually lost its red glow as it climbed higher in the sky.

“There was no answering Swainson’s, the way there should be. One male’s territorial reminder should be answered by another, and another, as was the case historically on the mountain. They are a declining species—on Monadnock and throughout their range.”

Henry and I hoped for Swainson’s when we reached their elevation. Of course. That’s what birders do for the ghost birds that were.

Other ghosts include Thoreau and Tudor Richards, but as inspirations.

The mountain is inspiration, too, Monadnock that stands alone, sunrise in the company of white-throated sparrows and juncos casting songs forth in the dawn of a new day.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.