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Birdathon 2014: The Case of the Missing Tent Stake at Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

Where to end my Birdathon bushwhack in the Pepperbox Wilderness always becomes a difficult decision. There is always the constant incentive to push on, hoping that the next destination will provide the big breakthrough of a plethora of bird species, producing the banner year I continue dreaming about during the weeks leading up to the big day.

Then again, slogging through the forest without the benefit of a trail takes both a physical and mental toll, especially when it goes on over eight hours. Adding to the feeling of apprehension is the many chores associated with making camp, including hanging the food, setting up my tarp, and making dinner, still in the immediate future, preferably when it is still light out enough to see.

Section Stats:
Date: May 17, 2014
Length: 0.0 miles (4.2 total daily miles; 6.1 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Easy

When I finally reach Sunshine Pond, the pull to push on still exists, especially since it is just before five o’clock in the evening, the drop-dead time in which I decided to stop traveling and camp for the night when I started this morning. As usual, the hemming and hawing begins almost immediately upon arrival, but my lacking species list suppresses it for a short while in lieu of searching for a few more species to boost my list before the sun sets.

Sunshine Pond’s southwestern corner is well-known territory for me, as I often either end or begin my Birdathon sojourn here. The many different vantage points along the shore for viewing the southern end of this long pond makes it ideal for searching for birds. Unfortunately, despite its name, its more lake than pond, narrow in width but so long that viewing its northern end is impossible from the south.

Upon reaching one of the many viewpoints along the lake, a Canada goose weaves in and out of the swampy shoreline on the eastern shore directly across from my location. It seems impossible that such a common species makes it on my list this late in the day, but this year it seems more the rule than the exception.

Further scanning the shoreline to the north, where several small islands lie before the pond vanishes beyond my sight, yields a common loon. Though I see only a single bird, I thought I saw a second one, which possibly vanished into the water’s depth. No other bird emerges though, but if there were two and it was a mated pair then perhaps Sunshine Pond is not as devoid of fish life due to acid rain as was previously thought.

Just before I turn away from working on my Birdathon list and shifting gears to campsite set-up, two tree swallows fly over the southern portion of the pond. Their aerial acrobatics capture my attention for a while, as I watch them fly back and forth over the water’s surface in search of an insect meal.

While watching the swallows perform their acrobatic show, a female mallard flies to shore just north of my location, although only temporarily. After catching sight of me, she launches into the air again, flying over the surrounding forest canopy, destination unknown. I did not think I was THAT scary, or smelly.

After resting and some additional obligatory birding, the normal campsite chores are the next thing on my agenda. After hanging my food rope, setting up the tarp is next on the list. Although I perform a half-hearted search for a new campsite location, my tired legs and frazzled mind settle on the same place as last year.

Sunshine Pond southeastern shore

Sunshine Pond southeastern shore

The tarp makes only its second appearance for the year, spread out on the ground awaiting the poles and stakes necessary to transform it from a high-tech blanket into a cozy backcountry shelter. Stuffing the stuff sack of titanium stakes into my pocket, I quickly engage in the often time-consuming search for the required sturdy sticks to act as the forward and backward poles. Plentiful candidates exist in the area thanks to a winter just passed and the herbaceous plant life that has yet to obscure the forest floor.

After finding my tent poles, the staking of the guidelines begins. This is when I make a most disturbing discovery. A tarp stake is missing!

Panic ensues. More panic quickly follows. Birding completely forgotten, I frantically search my nascent campsite. Retracing my steps in the area, my eyes continually scan the forest floor for the precious skinny silver stake. Returning to each area where I looked for sticks, I find nothing. Resembling a chicken with its head cut off, I start to garner an inkling of what a parent with a lost child feels. I keep envisioning the other 11 stakes, screaming in dismay for their lost brother (or sister, as my ability to determine gender of inanimate objects is completely non-existent).

Unable to find the poor thing, the sinking sun on the horizon and my rumbling stomach combine making continuing with the search impossible. Later, with my stomach full and much of my gear secured under the tarp (set up minus one precious stake), I make a last, futile attempt to locate the stake via headlight, but still to no avail. I finally admit defeat, holding out hope that the early light of tomorrow morning might bring some better luck.

Sunshine Pond

Sunshine Pond

With some other chores distracting me for a while, I begin thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, the poor stake never left Cropsey Pond, making a rescue attempt an even more complicated ordeal. Soon an even more disturbing thought strikes me: perhaps I left the stake at Sitz Pond last year, as I could not remember ever counting the stakes back at Cropsey (where I only used a subset of them to put up the tarp in the rain). Either way, failing to find the stake here at Sunshine means another trip to search for it in my immediate future.

With the sun setting, the temperature plummets quickly, forcing me to retreat into my long johns and warm coat. The birds must sense the decrease as well, as I hear many different species calling during the evening hours. Red-winged blackbirds sing from a swamp northeast of my location, while white-throated sparrows, ovenbirds, black-throated blue warblers, hermit thrushes and common grackles add their voices to the cacophony around my campsite.

While distracted once again thinking about the missing stake, two common goldeneyes land into the pond just off shore. As I hustle for my binoculars, currently lying in a pile of my gear, the pair once again takes flight, retreating to a less occupied piece of shoreline, no doubt.

Despite my added clothing layers, keeping warm remains difficult, so I hike up the high ridge between Sunshine and Deer Ponds to get a good look at the lay of the land, and perhaps hear a sorely needed new species or two. Unfortunately, I come back empty-handed species-wise, but I do get a good look at both ponds through the undeveloped forest canopy from a single position. Now, that is something only the early spring can provide.

Evening on Sunshine Pond

Evening on Sunshine Pond

After returning to Sunshine’s shoreline, I lament the lack of species this year, but despite the futility of it all, I stand about quietly waiting for any birds that might show a last minute spurt of activity. The sun is already below the ridgeline to the west, with darkness slowly taking possession of the surrounding forest.

In the dim light, I catch a glimpse of a fat dark brown ball of fur scurrying along the shoreline before finally disappearing into a puddle. It appears and mysteriously vanishes before the thought of watching it with my binoculars even occurs to me. With my species list being in the low forties, forgive me for not being enthusiastic about spotting some type of vole at this late hour.

Just before retreating into the comfort of my sleeping bag, I hear a ruffed grouse drumming in the distance to the south. This common species has the distinction of being my last species for my Birdathon list this year. Once again, I failed to break the 50 species goal that I set for myself every year in the Pepperbox Wilderness. Hell, I barely broke 40 species this year, making it the worst year for the Birdathon in the Pepperbox Wilderness (or anywhere else for that matter) since I started participating again back in 2010 (although I missed it in 2012 because of a knee injury).

My goal will have to wait until next year now. Hopefully, no more stakes will go missing in the meantime.

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