By Tim Rowland
I’m not a big fan of phone apps, but my embarrassment at constantly having to pester bird-loving friends with sound clips of unknown avians finally drove me to download Merlin, the app that pegs birdsong in the way that Shazam lets you know it was Terry Jacks who sang the regrettable “Seasons in the Sun.”
So consider this the Product Review segment of Explore More, which, while it does include a hike, focuses more on adventures in cell-phone technology.
I got off on the wrong foot with Merlin, because I failed to read the fine print and got saddled with the $43.19 annual deluxe version which, it is true, I can cancel at any time, although I know I never will. But it does come with jazzy add-ons including what I gather is access to a fully tenured Cornell professor who is available to call day or night to talk birds. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.
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I’m not sure I can offer any tips for using the app — except that it does no good to point the phone in the direction of the bird as if it were a TV remote, a habit I can’t seem to break, much in the way that people who grew up in the television age would fix their gaze on the radio during Prairie Home Companion.
Further, every single time I hear some lovely birdsong, I fish the phone from my pocket, activate the app, wait for it to ask whether I wanted to ID by sight or sound and point it at the bird — which immediately clams up.
So the only birds Merlin picked up in my backyard were the ones with no anxiety issues or the ones that really don’t care what you think, like jays, cowbirds and starlings — essentially, the Oakland Raiders of the bird world. While friends and colleagues were bagging warblers, thrushes and buntings, I was left with common little brown birds like wrens and, frankly, enough sparrows to supply a country church barbecue.
Finally, it became time to get serious, so I set out for that rarest of birds, a wilderness area with cell connectivity. At the end of Seventy Road west of the hamlet of Lewis there is a nice little enclave of small peaks that are part of the Jay Range and Fay Mountain tract. There is a small parking area with a DEC sign indicating you have come to the right place, but if you ever see any cars there I owe you a Coke.
From here, Bald Peak (not to be confused with multiple other Balds) is a one mile bushwhack to the west. Cross the dirt road and follow a small stream to the col between Bald and Seventy Mountain, then head left up another drainage, exiting steeply to the left before you start hitting big piles of blowdown and debris.
Here, deep in the untrammeled forest, I began to get somewhere, recording hooded warblers, scarlet tanagers, hawks and such. Merlin had only one certifiable misfire — that is, unless the Adirondacks is home to a flock of Adélie penguins, something that would surely make headlines in the Adirondack Audubon chapter, I would think.
The drainage will spit you out between the dome of Bald and another, smaller knob to the west, the two being separated by a small gorge. Start climbing Bald before you get too far down this corridor — although in truth, I haven’t found any real easy route for this last push to the top. There’s a scratch of a herd path on the northern side. I think. Maybe. But it’s more or less every person for him or herself, the good news being the brevity of the difficult part.
The view to the southwest includes the long ridge to Macdonough, while to the east is Fay and a few lesser peaks, with the long expanse of the Champlain Valley to the east.
I could have stayed all afternoon, but my dog Addie is an action dog who can take only so much looking around before she gets bored and urges me on with a long, deep-throated growl. By chance, I happened to have the bird app running, and Merlin pegged the dog as, I am not kidding, a “bare-throated tiger heron.”
Since then, to be honest, I have had a lot more fun using Merlin on farm animals (it thinks my horse is a red-necked grebe) than I have on our feathered friends. Which means Merlin is now the most useful of all my cell phone apps.
- Bald Peak (Jay Wilderness version)
- Elevation: 2,300 feet
- Distance: 2 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 770 feet