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Birdathon 2013: A Cold Start to the Big Day at Cropsey Pond

Black bear at Cropsey Pond

Black bear at Cropsey Pond


Waking from a deep sleep, it takes me a few seconds to recognize the mechanical screech of my radio’s alarm. Scrambling in the dark, I find my GPS, my compass, my hat and about everything else other than the radio. My hand finally connects with the small radio and I switch off the alarm, returning the southern shore of Cropsey Pond back to a state of relative peace and quiet, not counting the constant racket from the spring peepers, of course.

After extricating myself from my sleeping bag and getting my hiking boots on, I emerge from my tarp, headlamp in place and on, to take care of the immediate concern of nature’s call. The cold air facilitates my urgency and allows the visibility of my breath in the light of my headlamp.

As relief came, it dawns on me. After a two-year absence, it had begun. The Brrrrrrridithon is finally here!!

The sky is cloudless; the stars are so brilliant I wish I could stay up the whole night and peer at them. Unfortunately, the sky’s brilliance is short lived, as the tree tops are already basking in the light of the rising moon as it emerges from the west. I hope the clear sky holds out for the entire day, even though it probably means a very cold morning.

Despite the chilly temperatures, the spring peeper chorus is still ongoing. Through the din of their incessant racket, the beaver slaps his tail on the water in protest of my presence. You think after my long absence, it would be happy to see me.

The cold temperatures goad me back under the tarp and into my sleeping bag, but not before hearing my first bird species for the day. Just like back in 2011, I hear a white-throated sparrow sing “Oh sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada,” but this time from the northern shore of Cropsey Pond. It is not the species I hoped for, but I will take it!! One species down, hopefully a shitload more to come today.

Back in my sleeping bag, and with nearly all the clothing I brought with me on, I check my small thermometer to see it reads 45 degrees Fahrenheit. No wonder I am freezing in the sleeping bag, it is only rated down to that temperature, and I run cold when I sleep. Somebody put another log on the fireplace, please!

After lying in the sleeping bag trying to get warm, I despair about not hearing any owls. I do not want to stay up any later than one, or tomorrow’s hike may become a death march well before it needs to be.

Then after being up for about a half hour, I hear what I am waiting for. Nearby, a barred owl starts to call “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaaaall!” It is hard to discern through the constant spring peeper cacophony, but it sounds like another owl is responding in the distance. Then again, the second one may just be a figment of my imagination. Either way, chalk up species number two, and the Birdathon is in full swing.

Happy with my two species, I settle in and decide to head back to sleep for another four hours or so. Maybe it will warm up by five o’clock. I will not be counting on it though.

Waking hours later to the morning bird chorus, I curse myself for not turning on my radio alarm. The orange morning light permeates through the nascent foliage, illuminating the area around my tarp, and it is not even five in the morning yet. My original plan involved getting up before first light, but that ship has already sailed.

I jot down the bird species singing around my campsite, including winter wren, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, common yellowthroat and, what I imagine to be a blurry-eyed white-throated sparrow. In the distance, a ruffed grouse drums on his favorite log, giving me yet another species for my list.

After taking care of my usual early morning full bladder, I scout around my campsite collecting species. A yellow-bellied sapsucker drums nearby, a black-capped chickadee sings his “fee-bee” song, and a golden-crowned kinglet issues his high-pitched song from high up in one of the surrounding coniferous trees. Not be outdone, several spring peepers continue their chorus from the night before. A coyote or two howls off in the distance.

Morning at Cropsey Pond

Morning at Cropsey Pond

The morning feels colder than when I was up at midnight. The lack of blood circulation in my hands and ears forces me to don a hat and gloves, as if it was a cold winter morning, rather than being mid-May. The cold inspires me to check my small keychain thermometer, which reads thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit; good thing the sky is clear or it might snow.

A heavy fog issues from Cropsey Pond, giving off an eerie feeling. The fog shields the coming and goings of several waterfowl, much to my dismay. As the fog thins slowly with the rising sun, I spot three common goldeneye, two females and a single male. He must be an especially well-endowed male to have two honeys hanging out with him.

My campsite yields a plethora of avian species, albeit the more common ones. I spin around frequently, sometimes spotting a flash of a bird, but mostly listening for frequent audio clues, almost to the point of becoming dizzy. A blue jay screams nearby, while a red-breasted nuthatch calls from near shore. Off into the surrounding forest the frequent singing keeps me busy, with an ovenbird, blue-headed vireo, a blackburnian warbler, and a magnolia warbler adding to my burgeoning list of common species.

The activity is much more than singing though. A pair of northern flickers engage in what appears to be some sort of courtship ritual, while a golden-crowned kinglet gathers nesting material in a balsam fir. A black-and-white warbler forages along the trunk of a tree, apparently getting in his morning meal before I do.

When the flow of new species turns from a flood to a trickle, I head south through the forest over toward the blowdown-recovering forest that I fought through the previous day’s afternoon. Through the trees, I spot a solitary sandpiper foraging along the edge of the pond’s inlet stream. The shorebird runs on top of the many moss islands along the stream’s shore. Being that my shorebird identification skills are not what they ought to be, I consult my softcover Peterson Guide to Eastern Birds book to verify the species, since initially I thought it might be a spotted sandpiper instead.

I bushwhack up along the edge of the stream until reaching an old beaver pond just beyond the large beaver dam I crossed beneath the previous day. A broad-winged hawk flies up into a snag hanging over part of the pond, startling me as I approach. The bird of prey peers down at me, eyeing me as if I were a tasty morsel. It continues watching me for much longer than I would have thought, never taking its eyes off me the entire time.

Black bear returning from breakfast

Black bear returning from breakfast

Finding a large log to sit on a short distance from the edge of the stagnant and stygian waters of the pond, I wait to collect more avian species. The surrounding area is scattered with beaver spikes, as the large rodents have been busy clearing the area of the many young hardwood saplings. I doubt the forest appreciates the clearing, but it sure does provide an excellent place to sit and watch the regenerating forest on the hillside across the pond. The only downside of sitting on the log is it is a lot harder keeping warm in the chilly morning air.

Despite the curious hawk, I collect a few new species at the beaver pond, as well as some already recorded favorites. Red-eyed vireo, black-throated green warbler, scarlet tanager and Canada warbler are some of the new singers, while blue jay, yellow-rumped warbler and white-throated sparrows are the old favorites. A rusty blackbird flies overheard, calling frequently, while either an immature male or female American redstart flashes its yellow wings spots from a close-by young sapling.

Lingering on the log much longer than the accumulating new species warrants, I finally head back to my campsite for breakfast before my grumbling stomach starts keeping the birds at bay. The cold temperatures demand a warm breakfast, so I quickly get out my homemade alcohol stove and set about making some oatmeal. Before even lighting the stove, a common goldeneye lands onto Cropsey Pond, right near where I am setting up my temporary kitchen. Unfortunately, the duck flies off as soon as I divert attention from my breakfast.

Despite the lack of any biting insects, due to the cold air temperature most likey, I cannot help myself but eat the oatmeal while standing. I slowly pace back and forth through my campsite, my eagerness to get going and find more bird species leaving me too anxious to sit still.

While pacing, I notice a dark shape ambling along the far shore of the pond. Oh my God, IT IS A BLACK BEAR! Looking around for someone to tell, my excitement momentarily making me forget the fact that I am alone, or even my purpose for being out here. When I finally come to my senses, I realize this is my first bear sighting while on a bushwhacking trip, not to mention a Birdathon. Then remembering this blog, I leap into action, setting the pan filled with oatmeal down and sprinting to my nearby camera.

Backpack ready for a day of birding

Backpack ready for a day of birding

The bear keeps a steady pace, obviously in a hurry to get back to its den and catch something on BearTV before drifting off to a restful day’s sleep. It weaves up and down the northern shore, which rises steeply from the shoreline, though it never strays too far from the water’s edge. As the large bruin continues further eastward, it momentarily disappears behind young conifer trees and the occasional boulder.

Despite the fog drifting off Cropsey Pond’s surface and my feeble attempt to steady myself on a slope, I take several decent photographs before the bear disappears from sight. A few moments after its disappearance, I calm down enough to examine the photographs, surprised at how few I actually took. I guess the excitement got to me. It is a wonder that they came out as well as they did given how much of a hurry I was in.

After the excitement wears off, I finish off my now cold oatmeal and set about cleaning up and packing for the big day ahead. Seeing vulnerability while my hands are busy packing my backpack, the black flies start initiating their attack. It is almost seven-thirty, so I guess I should be thankful to the chilly temperatures for giving me two and a half hours of bloodless-bliss, instead of lamenting its ending.

With my backpack packed and my stomach filled, it is time to head west on a day-long journey that should take me downstream through a series of beaver meadows toward Moshier Creek, over a couple ridges, upstream to Deer Pond and Sunshine Pond, and if time allows, to the eastern shore of Raven Lake for the night.

This would not be a bushwhacking Birdathon in the Pepperbox Wilderness if my plans turned out the way I conceived them, as I would soon discover.

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