Time is running out.
Reaching the dead period of mid-afternoon, the chances of producing a stellar bird list for my first Birdathon in two years is decreasing rapidly with every passing moment. Birds no longer sing with the fervor of the early morning hours, leaving visual identification of new species my most important chance of checking off more species. Luckily, the rest of my day includes a mixture of ponds, meadows and bogs, including the usually waterfowl-popular Deer Pond.
Unfortunately, after spending precious time filtering much-needed water along the Deer Pond outlet stream, my chances of reaching my final destination of Raven Lake seems unlikely. If true, gone is any chance of getting any birds specific to large water bodies, such as the common loon or herring gull.
With two liters of water filtered through my gravity filter, I pack up and start toward Deer Pond, via the meadow just to my west. The meadow runs north/south, with the Deer Pond outlet stream coming in at the southeast corner and exiting from the northwest.
View Birdathon 2013: Day Two, Part Four in a larger map
According to the Stillwater Reservoir topographic map this meadow was once fully underwater, but now it is substantially drier with the stream meandering running through it and ending with a small pond near its northern end. At least that was the way it looked two years ago when I visited last. Apparently, this is one meadow that the beavers have yet to recolonize, unlike all those south that delayed my progress earlier today.
Date: May 18, 2013
Length: 1.4 miles (5.7 total daily miles; 7.4 total trip miles)
After crossing the stream, I trek around near the edge of the meadow, staying to the higher and drier ground along its eastern border. My eyes move rapidly from side to side, occasionally looking skyward, in a vain attempt to accumulate at least one more avian species for my Birdathon list.
Many small conifer snags stand scattered about within the dense shrubbery dominating the southern end of the meadow, skeletal reminders of past flooding and the more recent receding. A couple large glacial erratics stand within the meadow, ancient reminders of the glacial activity proceeding the flooding by many thousands of years.
After walking around the larger boulders, the main portion of the meadow comes into view. The shrubbery of the southern portion of the meadow quickly disappears to the north, with emerging herbaceous vegetation and mud dominating on both sides of the stream. Just ahead, on the other side of the stream, an old beaver lodge looms, long abandoned, its wood bleached gray by the unrelenting sun.
Clumps of green vegetation lie scattered throughout the meadow, with brown grass and dark mud mixed within. Only a few larger snags and stumps still stand, suggesting this area has gone through many cycles of wet and dry, but those dry periods were never long enough for new trees to gain a roothold.
I continue hiking northward along the meadow’s eastern border, crossing the stream several time when necessary to avoid reentering the thick surrounding forest. The Deer Pond outlet is nearly the color of ink, with just a slight suggestion of northward flow. The stream’s narrowness in places makes it easy to cross and recross as I progress toward its northern end.
More of the meadow’s northern portion remains underwater, with a pond surrounded by bare mud, many rocks and scattered fallen logs. A number of large and jagged rocks erupt from the surrounding water along the western edge of the pool, displaying a reddish hue unlike those glacial erratics found just a short distance south.
A low, flat ridge of rock lies across the western end of the pond, with the stream exiting through what amounts to a natural weir. On top of the flat ridge lie a thin strip of shrubs and other vegetation, where most likely once stood a long beaver dam, probably taken out one spring day by an ice jam. The work required to flood this meadow goes a long way to explaining its current state, only a very ambitious (or desperate) beaver would take on such a project.
I follow the stream southward a short ways, rock hopping across the water and reaching the bare rock ridge on the other side. The flat, dry rock makes a superb place to drop my pack and give me a little opportunity to explore unencumbered. The large, reddish rocks are blocky, with mostly sharp edges, unlike the larger, rounded rocks along the stream near where I filtered water. Surrounding the larger boulders are many smaller rocks, with the same reddish color, but rounded, as if they endured the onslaught of running water for many years.
At the natural weir, I look out to the west, but the hazy sunlight makes it difficult to keep my eyes open. The water flows out into a wide-open area not too far off to the west. The area looks bog-like, surrounded by shrubby vegetation. I listen for an unusual bird, something to add to my Birdathon list, but I hear nothing new.
As I return to my backpack, I scan the muddy edges of the pool for any evidence of shorebirds of any kind. Then I see it, movement along the northern shore of the pond. A shorebird bobs along the shoreline, probing its beak into the dark mud occasionally. With my shorebird identification skills atrophied by years of inactivity, I immediately rummage through my backpack to retrieve my Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.
Imagine my disappointment when I discover the shorebird to be another solitary sandpiper, a species I already got back at Cropsey Pond earlier this morning. For all I know, it might just be the same individual, although I imagine it had a much less difficult time getting here than I did.
More scanning fails to turn up any other species. In fact, the meadow remains mostly silent throughout my time exploring, all except the constant peep or two from the ever-present spring peepers. Disappointed, I retrieve my backpack and follow my path back to the eastern side of the pond, preparing for my journey to Deer Pond.
As I reenter the surrounding coniferous forest, I quickly find the herd path I discovered two years ago. This year, I follow it south and after just a short distance it ends at an old hunter’s campsite. At least, I assume it was a hunter’s camp, given the fire ring, cut wood and plentiful cut logs leaning against numerous trees.
The short stack of decaying wood suggests a campsite suffering from neglect. Many forearm-sized diameter logs, cut at both end, lean against trees, suggesting tent poles for a rather large shelter. Many of their ends look rather recently cut, seeming to contradict the other signs of neglect. A rudimentary fire ring appears unused for a long time in the middle of the campsite. Evidence abounds of illegally cut trees, whether for tent poles or firewood remains unclear.
Leaving the campsite, I strike a bearing of due east through the mostly coniferous forest toward an unnamed beaver pond just south of Deer Pond. Within ten minutes, I arrive at the shore of the beaver pond, observing a male common goldeneye swimming near the opposite shore. Two common grackles fly over the pond, as I scan the shoreline with my binoculars in search of addition bird species.
With no new species, I turn my attention toward Deer Pond. I bushwhack up-slope to the west for a little while before turning directly north to avoid the thickest coniferous forest along the outlet stream. When I finally emerge from the forest, I am looking straight up the southern channel toward Deer Pond proper, opposite of a rock island. A duck quickly takes flight soon after my appearance; unfortunately, it heads straight away from me, robbing me of an opportunity to identify it to species.
The rock island is a large boulder perched on top of an even larger, flat rock. A thin line of shrubbery almost connects the island to the western shore of the pond. The water levels appear lower than on my last visit two years ago, but not as low as the first time I visited here, when it was possible to walk along the perimeter of the entire pond without getting your feet wet.
Turning to the east and easing away from the shoreline, I head for the pond’s outlet. Just below a naturally situated rock dam, accentuated by a beaver’s handiwork, I find my usual crossing. The stream lacks uniformity here, as many different streamlets weave around various small islands of vegetation and rock. Despite the small, densely packed spruce/fir trees surrounding the stream, the crossing is easily accomplished by hopping from one small island to the other.
The shoreline on the other side of the stream is a mess. Pools of dark, murky water lie interspersed with boulders, as spruce/fir trees grow on any available patch of dry ground. Weaving my way through the morass is not easy, but I manage to work my way around to the open rocks in the southeastern corner of the pond.
On the flat, bare rocks, I drop my backpack and take a brief moment to enjoy my surroundings before searching for some waterfowl. With the afternoon hours dwindling, the likelihood of reaching Raven Lake appears even more unlikely now. Instead, Deer Pond may be one of my last chances to increase my avian species tally for this year’s Birdathon.
Now unencumbered with my backpack, I grab my binoculars and start moving northward along the shoreline. For much of the way, the water is right up to the surrounding shrubbery, making it necessary in places to walk on the shrub stems jutting out over the pond. A few deep beaver channels work their way into the shoreline, luckily all were narrow enough for me to hop across and continue further.
Finally, I reach far enough along the eastern shoreline to reach the point where I can get a pretty good glimpse of much of the main pond. Many ducks appear floating on the water’s surface, but they lie beyond the range of my binoculars ability to identify them to species.
The single identifiable species is the hooded merganser. One male and two females float along, one or another occasionally disappearing beneath until popping up moments later nearby. I rarely get to see a male hooded merganser in the Adirondacks, especially one in such brilliant plumage. Some of the other ducks are divers too, but their far distance and my precarious footing makes it impossible for me to identify them to species.
While working my way back to my backpack, a resident beaver approaches; it does not appear happy. By the time I reach my backpack, the large rodent is fervently slapping its tail on the water surface in a feeble attempt to scare me off. While the beaver keeps up its effort to be done with me, a tree swallow flies overheard, adding another species to my list. I rest briefly on the flat rocks, but seeing the late hour, I scoop up my pack and head eastward toward Sunshine Pond.
The coniferous forest is young and thick between the two ponds, but luckily, I find the path carved through it, just as I hoped I would. This path, the hunter’s campsite earlier and the trail to the south that will act as my exit route tomorrow morning all indicate a past where this area was once more popular than it is today. The bushwhacking is much easier using the path, until it starts pulling me southward, where I finally head straight for the pond, which I can see downslope through the trees. As I approach Sunshine Pond, the forest becomes both more mature and more mixed.
Arriving at the southernmost tip of Sunshine Pond, I work my way along the western shore a short distance until arriving near my campsite from a Birdathon trip two years before. This area provides some flattish open areas with little vegetation, at least at this point in the season, although in the middle of summer it is most likely thick with bracken fern. A steep forested ridge stands to the west, separating this pond from its nearest neighbor, Deer Pond.
With my arrival at Sunshine Pond, it is time for the decision I dreaded all day long, do I keep moving on to Raven Lake or stop for the day here. My original plan required moving on if I reached this point by five in the afternoon; my watch now reads 5:08 PM. After a great deal of hemming and hawing, I finally decide to stay put for the night, thus avoiding a scramble to find a campsite just before sundown in an area I am unfamiliar with.
As I put up my tarp, a song sparrow sings from the opposite shore. Finally, I obtain a species I originally hoped to get in a beaver meadow along the Cropsey Pond outlet, that is, until the beavers ruined everything and built numerous dams along the stream. I would have gotten another possible new species too, but when a duck flies from the emergent vegetation in the pond, I am unable to identify it, although I strongly suspect it was a wood duck.
I decide to spend the rest of my day watching for birds, instead of cooking dinner, so I make a fast peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I devour quickly. The black flies, which maintained a steady presence all day, now seem to grow to a fever pitch, making it exceedingly difficult to enjoy my meager meal. The pesky flies are probably eager to eat their own dinner before the sunsets.
After finishing my meal, I do my best to hang the remainder of my food. Low branches are at a premium in this mature mixed forest, and I finally settle for hanging it on a bent over young red maple. Any self-respecting black bear, not to mention raccoon, opossum and field mouse can probably reach it with a modest amount of effort, luckily I am hiking out early tomorrow morning. A male hairy woodpecker comes over to investigate all the commotion, joining my moribund species list.
The remainder of the evening involves trying to squeeze a few more species out of the surrounding area. I bounce back between Sunshine Pond’s shoreline and the forested ridge separating the pond from Deer Pond to the west. A male wood duck flies off from the opposite shore, near where I thought I saw one earlier. Off to the northeast, I hear red-winged blackbirds singing, probably at the wetland where I observed them three years before. Two more species are added to the list.
Up on the wooded ridge, I hear multiple species, although they were all gotten earlier in the day. A barred owl calls off to the north, while a hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, black-throated green warbler, white-throated sparrow, yellow-bellied sapsucker, magnolia warbler, black-throated blue warbler and ovenbird all singing nearby. It is nice to be able to stop and enjoy the bird songs now, without being on the run, as I did all during the day.
As the sun sank beneath the ridge, I return to the shoreline for as long as I can before the mosquitoes drive me inside for the night. A white-tailed deer snorts its derision multiple times along the opposite shore, although I never catch sight of it. A purple finch sings in the distance to the east, adding what I think might be my last species for the evening.
With darkness closing in, I get ready to call it another disappointing Birdathon, when I suddenly see a fast moving flier coming in over the pond from the east. At first, I am thinking common nighthawk, but when it lands on the top of a tall conifer along the western shore, I get a pretty good luck at it with my binoculars. Despite my compact binoculars inadequacy in the dwindling light, I make out the marking of a merlin, once known as a pigeon hawk. It stays on its perch for a while, before flying over the pond and along the eastern shore then finally disappearing into the surrounding forest.
Soon afterwards, with the visibility dwindling, I give up on another Birdathon and crawl underneath my tarp for the night. After a two year absence, obtaining only forty-six bird species is a disappointment, but hardly a surprise given the complete absence of flycatchers and the number of other species missed that were observed on previous Birdathons within the Pepperbox Wilderness.
There is enough time for recriminations (and planning for next year) starting tomorrow morning. For now, it is time for a good night’s sleep. With the weather forecast for possible rain, combined with the threatening clouds moving in, I may need all the strength I can get to make it back to Raven Lake Road tomorrow morning before reporting on my results by noon back at the payphone at Stillwater Reservoir.
So ends another bushwhacking Birdathon within the Pepperbox Wilderness where I ran out of time.
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