Monthly Archives: June 2015

The 2015 “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” Van Trip

Our annual “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” van trip to New Hampshire took place on the weekend of June 13-14 this year. Still licking my wounds from failing to provide satisfactory views for clients (on a private trip earlier in the week) for the first time in over 30 tours to look for this enigmatic, secretive, and range-restricted Northeastern breeding endemic earlier in the week, I was ready to get back in the game and start a new streak.

We departed the store on Saturday morning, and began our drive to the mountains. I always stop somewhere on the way to the Whites, and this year I mixed it up a bit with an easy walk at the pleasantly birdy Jagolinzer Preserve in Limington. Good views of Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak were highlights.

It was already 11am when we arrived at the Caps Ridge Trail in Jefferson Notch, where we casually birded the road, parking area, and the beginning of the trail. It was not the best time of day, of course, but we heard quite a few Blackpoll Warblers and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, along with spotted a variety of warblers, including a couple of the Blackpolls, Black-throated Greens, and Magnolias.


After a little r&r, we had a fantastic early dinner at Saalt Pub, a lovely little gastropub run by a James Beard Award semifinalist who worked for the legend, Julia Child. It’s not what one expects to find in little Gorham. Luckily, with our regular, casual eatery now open only for breakfast and lunch, they were able to squeeze us in. Rest assured this will likely be a regular feature of this tour from now on.

Fueled up and ready to go, we made the short trip to the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road for our private, after-hours charter up to the realm of the thrush.


The view from the summit was magnificent, with amazingly clear views in all directions…thanks to winds now gusting over 60mph!  It was a challenge to walk around, and especially to open the doors of our van!

Escaping the gale before any of were blown away, we dropped down to the Cow Pasture to enjoy some flowers, like this glowing Lapland Rosebay and dainty white Diapensia.




With dusk finally approaching, we dropped down into the krummholz to get to work.

Unfortunately, the winds were increasing, and they were whipping around the mountain. My favorite spots were just too windy to hear or see the thrush, or much of anything else. One sheltered stretch of road did host several thrushes, and we did glimpse a few birds crossing the road, and especially one that flew overhead providing unusually decent looks in flight.  We had one close bird that seemed to be having a negative interaction with a Swainson’s Thrush – was the Swainson’s chasing it?  Swainson’s are marching up the mountain, residing higher and higher each year – are they displacing Bicknell’s?  It was a really interesting auditory show, but we couldn’t get a good look at either bird.

Unfortunately, a thrush that froze in our headlights as it was time to go was a Swainson’s, not our quarry.  Another miss – was I entering a slump?

But this tour gives us two chances to see the bird, and the next morning – another lovely day – we went to a different mountain to try our luck there.

We worked hard for the bird, and although some were close, and some quick glimpses were to be had, we were running out of time, and running out of chances to really see the bird.  Then, this happened:


These are arguably my best photos ever of this reclusive bird, and we were all ecstatic. With everyone happy now, and with these new photos, I even took a moment to enjoy the view.

Restoring the Belgrade Purple Martin Colony.


The Purple Martin is an iconic bird of the Northeast and has long had a “relationship” with people. Their large apartment-style houses grace the yards of many homeowners. However, this large swallow species reaches its northern range limit in Maine, so nesting colonies in our state are very localized and spread out. One such colony has been active since at least 1909 in Belgrade. Over the years, Maggie and Carl Yeaton maintained several martin houses on this property, most recently with assistance from Hammond Lumber Company workers. But, there has come a point where even those houses started to fall into disrepair. Without these houses would this colony that birders from far and wide come to see disappear, as other colonies this far north have done? Many of Maine’s birders, including myself, saw their first Purple Martins here, and the colony is frequented by birders working on their state and year lists, or just want to enjoy one of the state’s rarest breeding birds.


Last summer, I stopped at the colony with a client, John Alexander, visiting from Sheffield, MA. After noticing the poor state of the houses, Alexander offered a donation to replace them. That got the ball rolling. I then contacted local resident, birder, and active member of the Belgrade community, Don Mairs to assist with the project. Don was instrumental in getting this project going; we couldn’t have done it without him. He arranged for all of the permissions necessary, and began to drum up local support for the project.

IMG_1250_edited-2The martins have been returning annually to houses that are now beyond repair. Something needed to be done before this vibrant colony no longer had adequate housing.

One year later, in May 2015, our store, Freeport Wild Bird Supply procured a new steel pole with pulleys (to facilitate cleaning) and plastic gourd array, which is now the preferred style of martin dwelling. With the additional help of local volunteers, Bob Lewis and Ed Slattery, this new set-up was established at the old Yeaton property, now owned by Don and Mary Hammond, of Hammond Lumber.IMG_5413The new gourd array in the background of the colony between Depot Road and Rte 27.

But, the plan does not stop there. Alexander and FWBS supplied a second array to be placed in another location. The thought here is that as martins from the original colony are out foraging, they may notice this nearby housing and eventually establish themselves in this “suburb;” starting an auxiliary colony as a back-up in case the original colony was to fail due to some catastrophic event or circumstances changed. After consultation with Belgrade Librarian Janet Patterson and her Board, and President Mike Barrett of the Friends of the Library Board, it was decided to put this other gourd set-up in the open space behind the library.  This pleasant and bird-friendly location has the advantage of proximity to Belgrade Central School, with obvious potential for collaboration.

IMG_5474It was obvious that Maine birders do not have much experience installing martin poles. The second installation, however, took about 1/4 of the time than the first, so clearly we are learning…slowly.

IMG_5478Sasha’s supervision must have made the difference.

Although it is probably too late for nesters to use the new set-ups this year, the idea is to give the inhabitants of the old houses a chance to check out the new arrays, which they are already doing, along with allowing prospecting immatures to check out future homes. And, as of last check at the library, a pair of Tree Swallows had taken up residence in one of the gourds – a good sign. We at FWBS are excited that this collaboration between us, the Hammonds, the Belgrade Library, and several local residents has resulted in what may just be the beginning of a project to maintain and grow this Purple Martin colony.