Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bicknell's Thrush in New Hampshire

The lure of finding a Bicknell's Thrush –– a rare summer denizen of high elevations in New England and southeasternmost Canada –– pulled me away from the heat of southern Arizona last month. (The cool mists of northern New Hampshire might have had something to do with it, too!)

Alan and I set out on an eventful drive through Tornado Alley, which results in our seeking refuge in a truck stop's reinforced shower area with perhaps 100 other refugees from the raging tornados. Truckers study the tornado apps on their cell phones while the winds howl.

Resuming our drive, we eventually land in Philadelphia at Bartram's Gardens, where I bequeath my painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture to the museum's permanent collection. Our friend Jim Shiflett joins us here, and curator Joel Fry gives the three of us a wonderfully fun tour of the famous botanical garden. (You can read more about William Bartram and see the painting in my post from March 20, 2013.)

But enough city! In my mind I can hear the haunting flute-song of a Bicknell's Thrush, shimmering over the krummholz. Krummholz is the stunted, bent forest often found at timberline, where exposure to fierce winds prunes the trees. These Black Spruce and Balsam Firs of New Hampshire's northwoods survive at timberline where they have sheltering rocks and enough snow cover. They form a dense tangle of twisted, short trees at timberline, which –– along with the taller bordering forest that grows slightly lower on the mountain –– is just this thrush's cup of tea... Labrador tea!

Krummholz on Mt Washington, New Hampshire (Photos by Narca)

Perhaps the harsh conditions contribute to the thrush's unusual breeding system: a single female will mate with as many as four males, all of whom help to feed the nestlings. It may take that many adults to optimize the chances of raising a clutch of chicks in this challenging environment!


Mt Washington wreathed in cloud

We have chosen Mt Washington in New Hampshire, with its private, good road to the top, as our destination for searching for the thrush. Rain threatens, and the mountain is crowned in cloud, as we make our way to timberline. A pullout allows for parking, and we walk back down through the krummholz and into the taller forest next to it. Very soon we hear the thrush's melody, and Jim spots our singer at the tip of a nearby spruce. Jubilation!

Bicknell's Thrush is a cryptic species, originally lumped with the more widespread Gray-cheeked Thrush. Studies show them to be a species in their own right. It is not only rare but secretive, and we are very lucky to have such a fine look, even though the early light doesn't allow for good photos. Here's the best I can do: guess you'll have to trust me with this one.

Yes, it really IS a Bicknell's Thrush!

Mt Washington is home to a host of other northern birds, like Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadees, and Blackpoll Warblers, and we thoroughly enjoy our morning. Even a Black Bear is romping through the ferns –– a mammal I didn't expect to see in New England!

A chewed-on Black Bear on Mt Washington, New Hampshire

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