Morning on the Mountaintop: Bicknell’s Thrush Quest

2019 was easily the fullest, most dramatic year of my life for birding. In contrast, 2020 has by necessity been a much more subdued affair. Birding close to home has nevertheless been unexpectedly rewarding, with no shortage of unexpected surprises spotted from my fire escape and at nearby Astoria Park. As the end of the school year drew nearer, the responsibilities of remote teaching gradually began to wind down. I was able to take a few small-scale trips away from my immediate neighborhood over the course of June, tracking down some old familiar favorites like Yellow-breasted Chat, Least Bittern, Black Skimmer, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Once our virtual graduation ceremony was behind us, I set my sights on a particular long-overdue target. My 2020 efforts have unsurprisingly lagged behind my usual pace for scoring the first lifer of the year. The best potential candidate within striking distance was a specialty species of the Northeast mountains: Bicknell’s Thrush.

I’ve had a few near misses with these secretive forest-dwellers in the past, invariably involving reports from NYC’s parks of singing migrants who disappear before I get the chance to observe them. The best way to add Bicknell’s Thrush to your life list is to meet them on the mountaintops where they breed. The species is a habitat specialist that only nests in groves of Balsam Fir, which are only found at high elevations or high latitudes. In New York State, these thrushes are restricted to the summits of the tallest peaks, which serve as “sky islands” of isolated habitat towering above the surrounding landscape. Slide Mountain, the highest point of land in the Catskills, is at the southern limit of the breeding range for Bicknell’s Thrush. In addition to being the closest reliable location for me to visit, it’s also the site where the species was first discovered and described in 1881. For both convenience and significance, I could think of no better place to search for my quarry.

In the wee hours of Monday, June 29th, I was up before the dawn. Like many other songbirds, Bicknell’s Thrushes are early risers, and the Slide Mountain birds are notorious for going quiet shortly after first light. All of my friends who had made the pilgrimage before advised me to get to the trailhead as early as possible so I wouldn’t miss the birds’ daybreak performance. A 2.5 hour drive up from Long Island saw me arriving at the base of the mountain just before official sunrise. I quickly set out on the trail up the slope, with light just beginning to color the landscape. Many of the woodland birds at these lower elevations had already started to stir. I could hear the territorial songs of Least Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Scarlet Tanagers announcing the arrival of a new day.

By the time it was bright enough to see clearly, I had gained a decent amount of elevation and found myself amidst thick clouds of fog. This silvery shroud persisted all the way to the summit, lending a delightfully otherworldly touch to the backdrop of my hike. The mixed-deciduous forests around me gradually took on a more evergreen aesthetic as I climbed, with spruces and firs becoming more dominant higher up the path. The soundscape of the morning songsters was changing as well. I had heard a single Wood Thrush shortly beyond the parking lot, but once I reached the middle-elevations the woodwinds section of the dawn chorus was taken over by a number of Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes. Warblers abounded as well, including Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Yellow-rumped, American Redstart, and Ovenbird. 

The Slide Mountain trail is a fairly steep, steady climb, rising more than 1,700 feet in about 2.8 miles. Once I surpassed the 3,500 foot elevation marker, the scenery took a sudden and dramatic turn. I could smell the shift before I saw it, with the heady aroma of Balsam Fir wafting down the path as I trudged along. The typical maples and and birches of the lower Catskills disappeared behind me, and soon I was surrounded by a dense, ancient-looking alpine woodland. It surprised me how much this habitat called to mind my former backyard from my rangering days in Southeast Alaska. The mossy understory, abundant ferns, and gnarled conifers… this was a true patch of boreal forest, a tiny slice of the taiga that had found refuge on this high peak. Winter Wrens and Blackpoll Warblers were among the new voices that were audible as I approached the top of the mountain, and it wasn’t long before a fluting, stuttering song came echoing through the trees around me.

I detected my first ever Bicknell’s Thrush at around 6:30, just about an hour after my start time at the trailhead. It only vocalized a few times in the distance before falling silent, but I was quite relieved to discover that I hadn’t started too late to hear the birds after all. A little ways up the path, I stumbled upon two rival males countersinging with one another. At first, both individuals remained well-hidden, defending their respective territories with music in a stirring battle-of-the-bands style performance. I was able to obtain a recording of their duet, and I enjoyed beautiful, unobstructed binocular views when one of the thrushes briefly emerged from cover. Getting to see and hear these musicians in their element, with their ethereal voices floating through the misty alpine forests, was an experience well worth the time and effort it took to reach the summit at this early hour.

When I arrived at the peak of Slide Mountain, the dense cloud cover encircling the summit made it impossible to see anything beyond the crowns of the surrounding firs. In truth, this sea of fog added to the magical, isolated atmosphere in this high-elevation wonderland. I took a few moments to explore the area, enjoying the continued Bicknell’s Thrush songs ringing out from the forest. I also encountered a few Purple Finches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and White-throated Sparrows in the immediate vicinity. Keeping an eye out for signs of nesting activity for the Third New York Breeding Bird Atlas proved fruitful, with family groups of parents feeding recently fledged Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Hairy Woodpeckers also detected along the upper reaches of the trail.

By 7:30, I was prepared to begin my journey back down the mountain. I passed through the territories of a few Bicknell’s Thrushes along the way, silently thanking them for a marvelous morning in their company atop this island in the sky. The distant croak of a Common Raven echoed among the trees as continued my descent, emerging from the mists of the Balsam Fir forest and returning to the familiar, leafy greenery of the lowlands. The avian background music quickly changed again from a boreal blend to a mix of Blue-headed Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Cedar Waxwing, and other common species.

After not seeing a single human soul on my way up the trail, I only passed half a dozen folks during the final leg of the return trip. Even better, all of them were courteous enough to follow my lead in masking up as we approached and passed one another. I finally reached the parking lot at around 9:20, nearly 4 hours after my hike to the summit began. I made good time returning to Long Island, and before heading back to Queens for the evening I managed to score a great bonus bird with a heard-only Purple Gallinule at Twin Lakes Preserve. This recent rehab release was a new addition to my total for my home county of Nassau. It’s not often that a birder is fortunate enough to encounter an alpine Northeastern breeding endemic and a southern wetland-dwelling vagrant in the same day!

Given the circumstances of the current global reality, there’s a non-zero chance that Bicknell’s Thrush could be the only new species of bird I encounter this year. That’s a far cry from the 422 fantastic lifers I documented in 2019, to be sure. All the same, I consider myself very lucky indeed to have birding in my life during these troubled times. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world to hunt down new experiences, and if you look closely you can find exciting adventures near your own neighborhood. My expedition to the peak of Slide Mountain surpassed even my highest expectations. It was great to get away from the City for a bit and explore a new setting, and I managed to do so without any unnecessary, social-distance-breaking stops. That it is still possible for me to find previously unseen birds so close to home after more than 1,200 different species encountered is a testament to nature’s diversity, resilience, and mystery. I’m certain I’ll count this morning amidst the mist, moss, and music of the mountains among the highlights of my time in New York.