Gathering data for Mountain Birdwatch, one of Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ Citizen Scientists projects.
Our alarms sounded at exactly 3:45; we knew what to do. Eat a hardboiled egg, fill the thermos with lousy coffee, brush teeth, put on rain gear and hiking boots, and drive slowly up the hairpin turns of Skyline Drive to the summit of Mt. Equinox. Our motel room had shaken the night before with thunder and lightening, so we were grateful when the rain lightened up. Only 4:30 now, yet a robin was singing his dawn chorus and another flew out in front of us seeming to feign a broken wing.
Gathering all of our gear, we hiked the blue trail to the yellow-red trail to find our first survey point. Photographs and physical descriptions aren’t much help in dense fog, even moonlight fog. Old trees used as landmarks, may have fallen down. “Look for the forked paper birch next to a one meter rock in the trail.” Fortunately, Susan had entered all the latitude and longitude points into her phone ahead of time.
Approaching our first point, we heard a cacophony of winter wrens, thrushes and warblers; ah, this is going to be easy, we thought, for the birds were plentiful. However, those elusive avian species seem to know exactly when we started each twenty-minute countdown. With clipboard, binoculars, and ears ready to record, they invariably fell stone silent and hid under cover. Not until we were getting ready to move on to the next site, did they come flying around us singing most joyously.The forest felt primeval; we could have been in a cloud forest in the tropics; silent, except for the birds, with fern and mosses covering the untidy, old forest. Spring ephemerals were blooming here, weeks later than the lowland flowers.
At 3840 plus feet, Equinox has no bald summits to seek; yet there are lovely overlooks. The Taconic range is the source of Vermont marbles; the rocks on the trail were metamorphic limestone, slicker and whiter than the granite, gneiss, and schist of most Vermont hikes.
The trails were not well marked; in fact, the sign at the visitor’s center does not show any of the summit trails, only the lower Equinox Reserve trails, which abut Bur and Burton skiing Academy in Manchester. The reason for this, we found later, was that the mountain is owned by the Carthusian Monks, who live here in the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration. They are a contemplative, cloistered order, and not encouraging of hikers and other outsiders. They do benefit from a $15 per car fee to drive up Skyline Drive.
Confused, at not being able to decipher the map, we checked into our motel, the North Shire Lodge, where the innkeeper, Tim, who had hiked the mountain 280 times in the last few years, knew every inch of the trails. He may have saved us from being yet another lost-hiker statistic. How surprising it was, then, winding up our 6-point bird-survey at 8:30 AM, we saw a figure running by on a descending trail. It was Tim. How serendipitous that we found him the first time, let alone the second time in this wilderness.
What is Mountain Bird Watch? Vermont Center for Ecostudies has been collecting data, much of it gathered by citizen scientists, like Susan and me on the status of some birds of concern that breed in the montane fir and spruce forests of the Northeast. Every year, in June, volunteers ascend their mountain (there are 130 sites across four states to choose from) before sunrise and look and listen for Bicknell’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Winter Wren, Boreal Chickadee, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Fox Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Black-capped Chickadee, and White-throated Sparrow. We also counted red squirrels and conifer cones. We saw and heard many of the target species, and some other woodland warblers—the Canada Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Magnolia Warbler. A little too far south, there were no Bicknell’s Thrushes that we heard.
Susan and I had both worried about being able to hear the Blackpoll Warbler with his high-pitched tsit tsit tsit tsit. Not to worry, for he sang loudly, and one time flew in and sat on a branch one meter away almost as if to be sure we got it right.
The Winter Wrens stayed out of site while singing their high-pitched, almost never-ending warbles from their preferred habitat of mossy fallen trees.
Swainson’s Thrushes sang songs, similar to the familiar Hermit Thrush, yet always ascending; the Hermit Thrush sings a more creative, variable flute-like song.
If this sounds like like fun (and it was), you can check out VCE’s website for find the citizen science project that fits your interests. http://vtecostudies.org/volunteer/
Mr. Barbo, a most beloved old dog was shot by a “malicious hunter”. His grave sits atop the mountain, decorated by stones of passers-by.