A Bird in the Hand

One of Vermont's iconic summer birds is the elusive Bicknell's Thrush. A resident of the spruce-fir forests found on the mountaintops of the northeastern United States and Canada, Bicknell's Thrush is a species of conservation concern as climate change slowly strangles its breeding habitat. On June 22 and 23 members of the GMAS and invited guests journeyed to the top of Mount Mansfield to meet one of the world's experts on Bicknell's ThrushBird in the hand, Chris Rimmer, founder and Director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. For nearly 20 years Chris and his coworkers have studied Bicknell's Thrush on its breeding ground at the top of Mount Mansfield and other Vermont mountains and on its wintering range in Hispaniola. No one is better equipped to educate us about Bicknell's Thrush than Chris Rimmer.

bird in handEven in late June the weather at the top of Mount Mansfield is unpredictable and often forbidding. Perhaps, then, it should not have been surprising to encounter dense fog, driving rain, and gusty winds when we arrived at the parking lot at the end of the Toll Road the first evening. No "dusk chorus" for us. Still, Chris was undeterred as he calmly described his research and the history and biology of Bicknell's Thrush in the montane forest. One has to admire this tough liittle bird that survives, indeed thrives, under such adverse weather conditions.

The next morning was better-a literal window of opportunity as the harsh weather temporarily subsided. At 5 A.M. we gathered in the parking lot again to learn more about Bicknell's Thrush. Chris reached into his magic bird bag and retrieved a first year, banded thrush that he had captured in a mist net earlier that morning. Patiently, Chris pointed out that these tiny thrushes travel thousands of miles in migration between Vermont and Hispaniola. One 11 year old bird that he captured on several occasions had traveled an estimated 49,000 miles in his lifetime. Incredible. After recording basic anatomical measurements from this bird (weight, length, wing length, etc.) and allowing a few minutes for photographs, Chris handed the thrush to Jo Wright. After a moment to gain his (and her) composure, the thrush zipped off into the tangle of spruce and fir trees nearby.

A few minutes later Chris released another captive bird from a mist net, a handsome, male Blackpoll Warbler. Chris went through his data gathering routine again, then handed the bird to Jo's husband Chip. The warbler seemed to be quite content resting in Chip's open palm for a few minutes, but finally was induced to return to the forest.

It was a privilege to experience the unique montane habitat at the top of Mount Mansfield, even, or perhaps especially in such inclement weather. Bicknell''s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Swainson's Thrush, and Winter Wren live and breed in these mountains. We were fortunate to spend a few hours walking the narrow trails and inspecting the mist nets to learn more about these special birds and the efforts of investigators like Chris Rimmer to conserve them.

Thanks to Shirley Zundell for her photo of Chris Rimmer holding a Bicknell's Thrush.