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Bicknell’s Thrush

For fanatical birders . . . the Bicknell’s Thrush is one of the most sought after birds on the ABA list.  It is not colorful or imposing; rather it is small and brownish gray. Its song is interesting, but there are many birds that are more musical.  The reason birders chase the Bicknell’s Thrush is its rareness.

It spends a brief four months in the mountains of the US northeast, Quebec and in the Canadian Maritimes . . . nesting in a narrow band,  between 3,000 and 4,200 feet.  The other eight months are spent in the mountains of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

4,000 feet is cold; just below the tree line, with stunted, deformed vegetation (called Krummholz).  The areas tend to be inaccessible . . .  requiring hiking or mountain access roads.  To make matters worse, the Bicknell’s only sings reliably in the morning and at dusk.


For Christmas last year, Ingrid gave us a weekend trip to with one of New England’s bird guides (Derek Lovitch).  The tour consists of hitting birding hotspots in Maine and New Hampshire, followed by an evening trip up Mount Washington (after the access road had closed for the day).

The trip began with when five other birders and our guide met Ingrid and I at the Maine Freeport Wild Bird Supply Store just south of LL Bean.

Stop One was at the Kennebunk Plains, a rare preserved grassland habitat where we quickly picked up four first of the year (FOY) birds, including an Upland Sandpiper.  The group heard the Sandpiper’s cry over and over in the distance . . . but we finally saw them (a flying pair) just before returning to the van after a 2 mile search.  I kidded the guide all weekend that the birds had been in cages . . . released at just the right dramatic moment.

We saw another lifer . . . the Philadelphia Vireo . . . at a spot that is on the guide’s secret list.

After an early dinner in Gorham, New Hampshire we then headed for Mt. Washington.

The Mt. Washington Auto Road is legendary for its narrowness, steep drop-offs, cut-backs and failed brakes.  The group hired an Auto Road driver and his special van to drive us to the top . . . about an hour before dusk (the group put on clothes appropriate for a Maine evening in January).

The views on the ride up were at once breathtaking and terrifying.  I had to close my eyes because I was convinced we were going to fly off into space . . . and things weren’t helped by our driver pointing at landmarks on the way up (keep your hands on the damn wheel).

Our first stop was in the cow pasture . . . a flat area about 1,000 feet below the summit.  No birds . . . but no one expected any. . . however, 40 mile an hour winds and the moon-like landscape made things inspiring.  There were flowers for consolation . . . nature finds a way.

Next we travelled to the summit where the wind gusts reached 70 mph . . . we could barely stand.

Ethan and Ingrid at Summit

Riding down to the krummholz, we began our search for the Bicknell’s Thrush.  We didn’t have to wait long.  Near 4,200 feet we heard the nasal whistle of the Bicknell.  A little later one emerged from the brush and perched for about 15 seconds in front of me and Ingrid.

We continued down the Auto Road on foot (we were the only people allowed on the road at the time) and were often surrounded by Bicknell’s.

At 3,800 feet and as darkness descended we had two to the left of the group and two to the right . . . and a single bird emerged and posed for the group . . . such a thrill! Below us we heard the song of the Swainson’s Thrush, a competitor of the Bicknell’s.  The Swainson’s occupied the band of the mountain below the Bicknell’s territory.

On Sunday morning we took a gondola to the top of Cannon Mountain where we were lucky enough to see the Bicknell again.

We made a few more stops on our trip back to Freeport. In all, we got three FOY birds (Nashville Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Pine Siskin) and two lifers (White-winged and Red Crossbills).

What a great, great birding weekend . . . a great Christmas present.