Counting Songbirds in the Adirondacks

Birders and scientists are climbing mountains this month in the northeastern United States, tallying songbirds in the Mountain Birdwatch. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio climbed a peak in New York's Adirondack Mountains in search of a rare thrush.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Across the Northeast, birders and scientists are climbing mountains this month, tallying warblers and sparrows. The Mountain Birdwatch, as it's called, is meant to produce a census of alpine songbirds. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio climbed a peak in New York's Adirondack mountains and send this audio postcard.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

It's 4 AM and bitter cold as we pick our way up the steep flank of Lion Mountain. There's a sharp wind above 3,000 feet. Light like thin milk is just seeping into the forest.

(Soundbite of people walking)

Mr. BRIAN McALLISTER (Bird-watcher): That was a magnolia warbler.

MANN: My guide, Brian McAllister, is a bird junkie whose list reads like the Sibley's Guide. He's volunteering for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, searching for one specific alpine songbird called the Bicknell's Thrush. It's too dim to see, so McAllister uses his ears.

Mr. McALLISTER: Another way that I've learned is to visualize the notes, if you will, in the air. So, you know, that yellow-rumped--it's going up in scale. And so I'm reading the notes going up the lines there.

(Soundbite of birds)

MANN: According to a census published by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, the population of Bicknell's Thrush has declined by nearly 10 percent over the last four years. Scientists blame habitat loss. They also worry about mercury contamination. The birds haven't been spotted on lion mountain for years.

Mr. McALLISTER: So what we're going to do is, we're going to go to our first station; I'll listen; and I'm going to write down the birds I hear.

MANN: It's perfect habitat--dense spruce and alder. After two hours of sitting in the shivery cold, McAllister has logged more than a dozen birds, but not one Bicknell's Thrush. Finally, he uses a taped song, hoping to lure the bird in.

(Soundbite of birds)

MANN: Almost at once, a tiny flash of motion darts right at us. McAllister fumbles to click off the recorder.

Mr. McALLISTER: (Whispering) It went right at our heads. It was sitting right there.

MANN: For the next 10 minutes, two Bicknell's Thrushes flit and tumble through the trees, almost close enough to touch. They're not much to look at--olive and speckled brown. But then, through the rumble of wind, they begin to sing.

(Soundbite of birds)

MANN: With the sun finally climbing above the trees, we head down the mountain to celebrate with big cups of hot coffee. The Mountain Birdwatch continues through June 21st.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack mountains.

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