Concerns for potential disruptions to rare bird’s habitat
By John Thaxton
When I heard the Olympic Regional Development Authority planned to start cutting trees at Whiteface Mountain to create new ski trails, connector trails between the existing trails and the new ones, and to cut more trees for a path for a new lift, I wanted to learn more.
I contacted the authority and received its proposed Unit Management Plan, 169 pages with charts and graphs that stunned me, particularly because the text discussed the Bicknell’s thrush and its breeding schedule. I breathed a sigh of relief but wondered how thoroughly ORDA understood the Bicks’: “Tree cutting operations above 2,800 feet in terrain identified as suitable Bicknell’s habitat shall be prohibited between the dates of 15 May and 01 August to minimize impacts during the active nesting cycle.”
The Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences wrote that it found “no significant difference in adult survivorship or breeding productivity of Bicknell’s thrushes between ski areas and natural forests.”
The Bicknell’s thrush has an extremely limited amount of nesting habitat—it nests in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec and some of the Canadian maritime provinces. About 98% winter in the Dominican Republic, with the rest in Haiti, Jamaica or Puerto Rico.
The Bicknell’s thrush probably ranks as the most endangered songbird in North America—it has extremely limited areas of viable habitat, exacerbated by the relentlessly increasing movement upward in elevation among all the thrushes.
The Swainson’s thrush, a larger and more aggressive bird than the Bicknell’s, has obviously started breeding at higher elevation and represents an existential threat to the future of the Bicknell’s population.
Though I’m pleased with ORDA’s tree cutting schedule I worry that when a newly fledged Bicknell’s hears the chain saws it will try to get back into the egg from which it hatched.
A little less than seven inches from beak to tail, light brown on its back with a slightly reddish tail, the Bicknell’s has a white belly and chest with small black dots on the upper half of the chest. Its song sounds nasal and wiry, and its call sounds like a loud “weeeir.”
For years my wife and I have been leading groups up the Whiteface Highway to show them the bird, and at one of the birding festivals I remember two tour guests signing up for all three dates we scheduled. I asked them why and it was because they wanted to see a Bicknell’s thrush.
When we pulled into the parking area I stepped out of my car and heard a Bicknell’s singing, then immediately saw it—perched at eye level 40 feet away.