A Quest for Bicknell’s Thrush Leads to Thoughts of Conservation

Spring is one of the best times of the year to be in the beautiful, birdy, nature-rich state of Maine. The frigid, snowy weather and very short daylight periods move along giving way for long days of warm sun, vibrant green leaves, wildflowers rich with purples, whites, yellows, and more. The illustrious “eastern warblers” are welcomed by all, and many species, like the Bicknell’s Thrush, return to their specialized breeding habitats. Many migrants travel thousands of miles to breed in the diverse habitats that Maine provides, from the boreal forests of the north, to the numerous miles of coastline and islands of the south.

On June 6th of this year, Leica Sport Optics’ Birding Product Specialist, an inspiring and unique guy, Raymond VanBuskirk and I took on the adventure to find the Bicknell’s Thrush. We left dark and early to get to the ski resort at the bottom of a known Bicknell’s Thrush nesting location, Saddleback Mountain, by sunup. We hiked straight up the Saddleback Hiking Trail; a steep, 1.8-mile trail that provided us with some amazing views while the sun was still shining.

As we progressed up the mountain, the sun quickly departed and left us with cloudy, windy, and damp mountain top weather. Once we neared the summit, we turned off onto the Appalachian Trail, followed it North, and rose to the peak at 4116 feet while we determinedly searched for a Bicknell’s Thrush – a would-be lifer for both of us.

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Leica Ultravid HD-Plus on the Appalachian Trail marker at 4116 feet in elevation.

Along the Appalachian Trail, we ran into many species that aren’t very common at this time of year in Maine, such as White-winged Crossbill, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, American Pipit, and Blackpoll Warbler.

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American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) atop Saddleback Mountain.

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Blackpoll Warblers (Setophaga striata) were by far the most numerous species present.

After walking about a quarter-mile on the Appalachian, we heard our first Bicknell’s Thrush signing from below us, so we followed the trail towards it and encountered 6 different individuals! One bird allowed us to study it as it moved secretly through the low brush. Fortunately the thrush came right out into the open for a few brief periods, and I was able to get a couple quick shots.

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Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) at 3,821ft.

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Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) at 3,821ft.

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Habitat at 3,821ft where the Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) pictured above was found.

While Raymond and I were watching this truly rare bird – its global population is estimated to be fewer than 125,000 individuals – I was struck by the realization that this species and many others are at a very real threat of extinction due to human-caused loss of appropriate wintering habitat (deforestation) or because that habitat could easily be destroyed with increased natural disasters in response to climate change.

On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where 90% of the world’s Bicknell’s Thrushes are concentrated during the winter, deforestation runs rampant and when coupled with natural disasters, such as Hurricane Matthew, it makes the future for this wonderful little Catharus thrush very uncertain. Everyday many species are losing essential wintering habitat that could lead to major population declines and eventually extinction. Here in Maine, and probably across most of northern North America, we often forget about conservation needs on the wintering grounds or how our lifestyle choices affect our planet, though this is changing. We see these species in the breeding season, but forget about them in the winter months.

Now is the time to make personal life changes that are beneficial to a warming planet and look for ways to help wintering ground conservation efforts. There are many ways you can get involved! Make donations to notable conservancies that focus on wintering ground protection, consume only shade grown coffee, eat less beef, preach conservation to anyone who will listen, and the possibilities go on! Next time you see a tired spring migrant, think about where they’ve been, the struggles they had to overcome all winter long, and do something to help mitigate daily threats.

Check out this website to learn more about Bicknell’s Thrush conservation efforts.

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Everyone should drink shade grown coffee because, well for one it tastes better, but mostly because shade grown farming practices support biodiversity and create habitat for resident and transient species. Large-scale sun-coffee plantations clear land to grow coffee in the direct sunlight, leaving no habitat for birds.

 

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