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Birdathon 2014: A Wet Time at Cropsey Pond

Ruffed grouse nest

Ruffed grouse nest

With at least half of the way to Cropsey Pond to go, my 2014 Birdathon adventure has been a wet one so far. Although missing the worst of it by sitting it out in my car, the rain returned as soon as I was far enough from my vehicle to rule out a hasty retreat. At least the rain slowed down my ascent up a small mountain enough to spot a rocky viewpoint providing an expansive view of Stillwater Reservoir.

By the time I finish marveling at my good fortune and decide to leave the stunning viewpoint, the rain has nearly ceased falling. It matters little now though, as I am already nearly soaked to the skin in a number of places. Either leaks abound or a sweatsuit is the more appropriate term to describe my jacket rather than rain gear.

Other than the constant drip and drab of drops falling from the canopy, the surrounding forest is eerily quiet; the birds are nearly silent in this dreary weather. This bodes ill for the Birdathon tomorrow. An arduous wet trudge through dense vegetation with nary a bird in sight will make for a long, tedious and uncomfortable day.

After returning to my route toward Cropsey Pond, it takes only a short distance farther and I reach what appears to be the height of land, or at least close enough for my purposes. Cresting the hill provides a little relief for my weary legs, as well as a renewed determination, but that quickly dissolves when the rain starts falling again with increasing intensity. The wet weather combined with the distance left remaining toward my ultimate destination for the day proves that the adage about no rest for the wicked continues its relevancy.

Upon stopping to fiddle with my GPS, a sudden flurry of air and feathers explodes in front of me. This is no IED in Fallujah mind you, just a ruffed grouse flushing up just a few steps away from me. At the spot of the bird’s takeoff lies a nest in the crotch of some tree roots, with one egg displaced a few inches from the nest, probably due to the mother’s sudden departure.

Section Stats:
Date: May 16, 2014
Length: 1.1 miles (1.9 total daily miles; 1.9 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Moderate (rain/descent/dense)

Haste is of the essence when it comes to photography today, so I whip out the camera at my hip, take a few photos and depart as quickly as I can toward Cropsey Pond. In these cool and wet conditions, eggs cannot last very long without their mother’s heat. Despite the rain interfering with my GPS, I briskly walk away from the nest, trying to put as much distance between the two of us as I can.

My earlier appraisal about the height of land appears incorrect as the terrain undulates with several ups and downs along the way. Where blowdowns were once largely nonexistent during my climb to this point, but they begin making an appearance now, with their abundance increasing steadily as I descend to Cropsey Pond.

With the increasing young hardwood tree density comes a whole host of other bushwhacking difficulties. At times, I move through the forest like a pinball, bouncing from one young stem to another, each drenching me with another shower of drops once clinging to the branches and young leaves. However, at this point, it hardly matters, as I have not gotten any drier since leaving the viewpoint earlier on my trip despite wearing my rain jacket and pants; it might just be time for a new jacket at the very least.

The descent seems to take much longer than it should. Since the pond probably did not move since last year, the wet misery must be the culprit for this apparent time displacement.

Finally, just short of two o’clock in the afternoon, I emerge from the dense regrowth along Cropsey Pond’s southern outlet. The sky remains socked in with clouds, with each tiny rain trip hitting the outlet’s surface making circular ripples that collide with their adjacent neighbors’, producing a nearly mesmerizing chaotic surface pattern. Although more water is currently flowing through the outlet than the last year, it seems lacking given the amount of rain that fell since I left my vehicle just hours earlier.

After walking upstream a short distance, I cross just below a huge beaver dam and reenter the forest, heading right for my usual campsite along the pond’s southern shore. The campsite is nothing special, a small level area with just enough room to place my shelter without requiring too much site modification. It is not the Ritz-Carlton mind you, but it will do as long as I can get out of the rain for a few hours.

With the rain is still falling, I waste no time setting up my tarp as quickly as possible in an attempt to avoid getting all my other gear wet. Upon unfolding my tarp, it is almost immediately soaked by the rain, making the darn thing stick to me as I struggle to get it up. With the off-season comes some skills atrophy, increasing my inefficiency with the tarp setup, which the rain takes full-advantage of to soak it and myself.

My hurried attempt with the shelter causes some turmoil within the leaf litter. As I move about to tie off each corner of the tarp, I notice a redbacked salamander fleeing from my campsite as if the Devil himself were after it. From the tiny amphibian’s point of view, he probably is, or if not the Devil, at least something akin to Godzilla or King Kong.

Finally, after a short delay to accommodate my rusty tarp setup skills, the shelter is up and ready for nesting. As I begin throwing in my surprisingly still dry gear underneath it, the rain stops. Why would it want to rain when I am safely underneath a shelter anyway?

A half hour later, the rain makes a repeat appearance as I begin preparing my dinner. Luckily, I anticipated such a thing happening, and set up the stove just outside my tarp, where I could comfortably hide from the ensuing downpour. Although early for dinner, I figure I would try and get it over with before the rain starts up again. Too late!

The chicken hot dogs and instant potatoes go down quickly, reflecting my eagerness to finish with my camp chores as soon as possible, burning my mouth in the process. What I tasted of the hot dogs made going back for them just after leaving my place earlier in the day totally worthwhile. By the time dinner is over and I quaff down a couple cups of chamomile tea, my rain gear is nearly dry from the combination of body heat and stove under the tarp, a benefit of cooking under the shelter I suppose.

The rain falls steadily throughout the afternoon, tapering off to nearly nothing a few times along the way. At times, it falls in heavy sheets but for the most part it remains steady enough to everything in the forest around my tarp.

I spend much of my time underneath my tarp, whiling away the hours listening to my radio or writing in my journal, journeying out only to hang the food bag, pee and brush my teeth. Surprisingly, the time passes rather quickly.

Wildlife activity is rather sparse, which is not shocking, as they are probably hiding from the rain too. An occasional ovenbird or hermit thrust will pipe up and sing, but soon afterwards, the forest returns to silence, with only the persistent sound of raindrops hitting the leaf litter and my tarp breaking the silence. A couple ducks fly low over the pond, but my angle under the tarp and their speed makes it impossible for me to identify them to species.

Avian life is not the only vocal opponent of forest as a few spring peepers call in between the rain showers, though fewer than I would have thought. The twang of the green frog call proves loud enough to be heard over the rain showers, despite it coming from down near the pond’s shoreline.

The rain appears to hold the biting flies at bay too. Although no-see-ums make an appearance every time the rain ceases, neither mosquitoes nor black flies show up in large numbers. Although I am grateful for this, somehow I feel they are just biding their time for more favorable weather conditions before descending on me. I am sure I find out tomorrow if it is drier than today.

The temperature keeps dropping rapidly during the early afternoon hours. At six o’clock it is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit in my shelter, but less than two hours later it is only around 50 degrees. In anticipation for a cold and damp night, I layer on nearly all the dry clothes I brought with me and crawl into my Highlite sleeping bag to make the best of it. Perhaps I should have brought the larger but warmer Marmot Mystic bag with me; I think I say this nearly every year.

The rain keeps falling, and falling, and falling. The sound of it bouncing off the tarp is almost deafening at times. It keeps up steadily through the evening before finally tapering off around nine o’clock. Within an hour it sounds as if it completely ceased.

Regardless of whether the rain ceases throughout the night or not, given the amount of rain fallen today it is bound to be one wet and wild Birdathon tomorrow. This thought comforts me little as I slip off into sleep early in the evening in anticipation of waking around midnight to get my first species of the day.

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