Sunday, 22 July 2012

On tour in New England

The views from Mount Washington, the highest peak in the north-east US, are truly breathtaking.
With summer conspicuous by its absence so far in Britain this year, our long-planned family holiday could not come quick enough. Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, just as Friday afternoon traffic was beginning to get heavy, the timing was not immaculate, but it was just great to be back in the States. The journey north to New Hampshire took considerably longer than it should have done, but eventually we pitched up at our first base, North Conway on the south side of the White Mountains.

Myrtle Warblers were common on the mountain. This male is carrying food to its young ...
... while other juveniles have already fledged.
My birding priority here can be summed up easily: Bicknell's Thrush. This high-altitude Catharus breeds in a restricted area of north-east USA and south-east Canada, and most sites require a fair hike. Not so Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, courtesy of an eight-mile occasionally vertiginous route to the summit. I discovered that the Mount Washington Auto Road is the oldest man-made attraction in the US, and had read online about excursions there to see Bicknell's Thrush. Late July is probably at least four weeks past the ideal time to search for the species, but needs must - plus, I had the latest gen from the site courtesy of Howie Wemyss, who went out of his way to make my visit to Mount Washington a success.

Red-breasted Nuthatches 'beeped' away in the stunted spruces, and occasionally showed well.
Much rarer for most would be this Boreal Chickadee.
To cut a long story short, it took two mornings with very early starts, a good few hours of working the mountain between 3,700-4,200 ft, and a lot of looking at seemingly thrush-less habitat. After a false alarm on the first day with a Swainson's Thrush, I finally got a repeated response on the second when playing a recording of Bicknell's, and eventually a quick view of the target bird. So job done, and though the look was brief, it was all the more enjoyable for having had to work hard for the bird. If you're ever planning to come to Mount Washington to look for Bicknell's Thrush, I suggest mid-June is a better time, and avoid weekends when the inevitable crowds cause more disturbance. Also, make sure you drop by the visitor centre and ask the helpful staff for the latest information - without Howie's local knowledge, I would have struggled to locate the right sites in this vast area.

Up near the tree line, White-throated Sparrows were the most obvious passerine.
Several Cedar Waxwings were also a welcome sight.
The icing on the cake today was not on the mountain, but on a nature trail back down near the visitor centre. A short stroll looking for butterflies ended abruptly when the beast below emerged from cover at a range that was too close for comfort. We stared hard at each other, I grabbed a couple of shots, and then made a wary retreat while making myself look big and maintaining eye contact. I've had a bear run-in before and had no wish for a repeat episode - still, a fantastic way to end the day.

I came face to face with this beautiful animal today. Not sure who was the most surprised, but fortunately he was more interested in eating blueberries than bothering with passing birders. Note the missing ear, a sign of past conflict.

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