Bicknell’s Thrush is truly a birder’s bird. Not only is this bird’s picture next to the dictionary definition of the word “drab” but it looks exactly like another more, easily accessible species. The only way to reliably differentiate Bicknell’s from its close relative, Gray-cheeked Thrush, short of genetic testing, is to hear it sing. To do that, you really need to visit it at its breeding ground, preferably as close to dawn as possible to optimize the opportunity to hear the thrush in song. Too bad Catharus bicknelli favors elevations of over 3000 feet. So, your best chance to see a Bicknell’s Thrush is to climb up a North American mountain somewhere between New York’s Catskills and the St. Lawrence River in early June before dawn, looking for the least colorful thrush you can find. Like I said, a birder’s bird.
Does this explain why Corey, Patrick, Will, and I were scrambling over a massive honking beaver dam while scanning for bears at the nearly opaque hour of 4:30 in the morning? Our upland extravaganza was merely a prelude to the real adventure of climbing 3,744 foot Wakeley Mountain. Armed with flashlights, binoculars, and provisions, unencumbered by either spotting scopes or common sense, we hauled our sorry carcasses up a steep vertical track for the privilege of observing Bicknell’s Thrush in its element.
Bicknell’s wasn’t the only bird to call this magnificent section of New York state home. Once the sun came up, we heard the strains of a myriad of breeding birds. Fittingly, the first bird we heard in the dark was a thrush, Swainson’s I believe, while different warblers chimed in to add to the dawn chorus. I’ll jump ahead by sharing that we either saw or heard, mostly the latter, 14 different warblers, an amazing number considering these were all breeding birds, including Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Magnolia, Canada, and Nashville. Black-throated Blue and Green were incredibly common, as were American Redstarts and Northern Parulas. Also in the mix were Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos and rather melodious Winter Wrens.
I won’t lie. The hike was brutal. Conflicting reports list the hike as anywhere from 3 to 5 miles one way, with at least half of it a rugged scramble up a stone-strewn track. Exposed bedrock, plentiful terrestrial amphibian life, and gravity itself conspired to make this a dramatic departure from the usual casual stroll to bird habitat. However, if you want to see boreal species, you’ve got to attain altitude. Too bad the boreal species weren’t showing!
After hours on the trail, we still hadn’t heard Bicknell’s Thrush or Boreal Chickadee or Yellow-bellied Flycatcher or any of the other local species we sought. Besides a brief, but noisy flyover of Red Crossbills and a few Purple Finches, our only ones for the day, the only indicators of the changing mountaintop ecosystem were the increase in spruce trees, the appearance of Red Trillium and Yellow Clintonia, and the unfamiliar trill of breeding Dark-eyed Juncos. While nobody was willing to say it, we each bore suspicions that our mighty exertions might go unrewarded.
We attained the summit just in time to watch the fog roll in. By we I mean Corey, Patrick, and I, as Will adopted a more leisurely pace than the rest of us. This fog severely impaired visibility, even from the vantage of the incredible 80 foot steel observation tower at the top of the mountain. I could barely make out the chattering flock of Pine Siskin or the confiding Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, my very first, perched at eye level. Once I spotted the flycatcher, I knew the enterprise wouldn’t be a total loss, but Empidonax flaviventris was a secondary, not primary objective. Girding ourselves for the long walk, or perhaps scramble of shame down the mountain, each unwilling to be the one to call the effort a loss, we suddenly heard a distinctive “veer!” Acting with the precision of a SWAT team, we triangulated our quarry in an area just out of sight of the mountaintop clearing, yet accessible by an overgrown trail. Corey, who had seen Bicknell’s once before, gallantly let Patrick and I proceed him. Twenty anxious steps through a tangle of boughs and vines brought us face to face with the one and only Bicknell’s Thrush, in full song no less. That yellow bill, those grayish cheeks, brown plumage of subtle but surpassing beauty… this was a bird to scale a mountain for! Alas, that was our only view of the Bicknell’s, which wouldn’t show for Will when he finally arrived or me once I’d unpacked my mostly useless camera.
I’ve stalked some special birds this past year and would put this chase up there with the best of them. Like my quest for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, this pursuit had it all, from daunting, yet captivating terrain to company of the highest caliber. Best of all, though the outcome seemed dicey at times, it ended with the bird! The day was redeemed, true, but it was far from over. We still had to descend from the mountain…
Don’t miss out on the rare opportunity to read multiple accounts of the same Adirondack adventure over at lovely dark and deep, The Hawk Owl’s Nest, and The Nightjar. Reporting like this is why you should always travel with a bird blogger.