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A Trip To The White Mountains

A trip to the White Mountains:

I wanted to call this column “A birding trip to the White Mountains,” but it was actually more of an anniversary excursion, with a little bird watching mixed in…as you might have expected. We decided not to leave until after the Columbus Day weekend in order to avoid the holiday crowds. It seemed like a good idea at the time; it wasn’t. Apparently, there’s this new thing called “fall foliage” that a lot of people drive up to see. Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about this?

Our first stop was in the town of Lincoln, NH, which sits at the foot of Loon Mt and at the entrance to Franconia Notch State Park. I figured this was the perfect place to have lunch and to recharge my fancy electric car; it wasn’t. We hit more traffic there than I had seen on Cape Cod all summer. Every restaurant had long lines and some places had run out of food, and I’m not kidding. We decided to skip the restaurants and forage for ourselves by going apple picking. This was a better idea. The views from the orchard were gorgeous and there were lots of cute farm animals, not lots of people, and plenty of apples. It didn’t take us long to fill a bag, or rather it didn’t take my wife long to fill a bag. I was immediately distracted by a flock of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The tiny birds were heading south from Canada and probably stopped to search the branches of the apple trees for insects…either that or they couldn’t get any food in Lincoln either. While I waited for my wife to finish talking to the goats, I checked Cornell’s eBird website and discovered that one of the better birding places in the area is Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge. I penciled it in for the next morning.

I woke up early, just as the sun was coming up over Mt. Washington. There was just one problem: the valley was filled with fog. I thought fog was only a Chatham thing, but here it was, and lots of it. At first we couldn’t see the birds very well, only catching small glimpses of them as they darted through the branches, looking like ghostly spirits flitting in the mist. It was kind of cool and a bit spooky at the same time, like a scene in a Stephen King novel. Eventually things cleared up and we found a short loop trail that led to a pond of Wood Ducks.

The sun was out by now and it shone brightly on the super-colorful woodies, although I was the only one who saw them. My wife had stopped to take some photos of mushrooms and was lagging behind. I wasn’t worried about her getting lost because we were on a loop trail and I knew she couldn’t possibly lose her way, or so I thought. Two minutes later I got a text message saying she was indeed lost. On a loop trail? How was that even possible? It was like getting lost in a traffic circle. Though to be fair, I’ve seen plenty of people get lost in that horrid rotary in Orleans. I went back to find her, but my progress was slowed when I spotted a Winter Wren peeking out from under a rotting log. Cape Cod has breeding House and Carolina Wrens, but seeing a Winter Wren is a rare treat, so I stopped to watch it for a bit. I figured my wife’s rescue could be put on hold for a few more minutes. When we finally met up, I told her about the wren and she didn’t seem to care; she had found something unusual on her own, a Ruffed Grouse. What? Nuts! I had hoped to see a grouse, too. Grrr! That’s what I get for being slow to run to the aid of my own wife. I won’t make that mistake again…especially if there’s a potential grouse to be seen.

The next morning we hiked the less-than-appealingly-named Mud Pond Trail. In spite of the throngs of people that crowded the towns, we didn’t see a single person on this trail. (The gross name probably scared everyone away.) Our walk was rather uneventful, until we saw a large bird fly up from the ground. I was hoping it was another Ruffed Grouse, but it wasn’t. It was something even cooler…a Barred Owl. The big bird landed on a branch about ten feet in front of us and stared back as we focused our binoculars. Like other woodland owls, Barred Owls are nocturnal, but they are occasionally active during the day. Here in Massachusetts, as well as in other areas, this owl’s population is increasing, which is good news. They are still a rare sight on Cape Cod, however, so it was an especially good sighting for us flatlanders. BTW: All of the trails we visited are part of the 40,000-acre Silvio Conte Wildlife Refuge. Silvio Conte was a long-serving congressman from Pittsfield, MA and a strong supporter of scientific research and environmental protection, and a Republican. Hmm.

Most of the other sightings we saw on this trip were typical for the fall, except for lots and lots of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Last winter, due to a cyclical natural food shortage in Canada, the Cape was visited by a large number of crossbills, siskins, redpolls, grosbeaks and nuthatches. This winter, according to those in the know, Canada will have plenty of natural food and thus we aren’t likely to see many of those birds. The exception might be Red-breasted Nuthatches. Big flocks of these entertaining birds appeared to be on the move and perhaps heading our way. And hopefully, for my sake, they’ll be back on our feeders again this winter. The White Mountains are beautiful and a great place to look for birds any time of year; but if you don’t like crowds, I suggest avoiding the foliage season. Also, if you don’t like getting lost, avoid hiking on loop trails. I know at least one person who finds them to be tricky.