5-25-19 Parsons-Cherry Pond

Cherry Pond in Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)

From Thursday, May 16, through Sunday, May 19, the second annual Bird Camp was held at the AMC Cold River Camp in Chatham. Scheduled at the height of spring bird migration, it was the brain-child of Ned Beecher, one of the off-season managers of the camp and an experienced birder, who also leads a series of annual early morning spring birding outings in his home town of Tamworth every April and early May.

Collaborating with Will Broussard of the Tin Mountain Bird Society, they put together a comprehensive weekend with daily field trips and outstanding evening speakers.

I was a volunteer along with other longtime Cold River Camp volunteers in the kitchen and grounds at Bird Camp. I also went on the day long Saturday field trip, and this hiking column will emphasize that experience. But first it is well to describe the whole weekend, as Bird Camp will be offered annually.

On Thursday, the weekend outings began before even arriving at camp. That afternoon a group of arriving birders met in Sandwich to observe birds and worked their way north, checking other places, to Cold River Camp. That evening after dinner a lecture was given on the whippoorwill by New Hampshire state ornithologist Dr. Pam Hunt.

On Friday, in addition to a daily pre-breakfast birding walk, the day-long field trip went to Brownfield Bog, where they walked the old roads next to the wetlands. Brownfield Bog is a Maine Wildlife Management Area bisected by the Saco River and in the spring the flow of the river moves through all the wetlands there. The group’s notable bird encounters included a flock of warblers where they identified 18 different species; a bald eagle; and two Gadwell ducks.

Friday night, a talk was presented by Matt Haviland of White Pine Programs of York, Maine, on bird language. Bird language is a “Universal language that all living things share on this planet, and that humans used to understand. It serves as an early warning system to ensure peace and safety.”

Saturday’s field trip was to the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Whitefield. Pondicherry, location of big and little Cherry Ponds, is a division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and is owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with New Hampshire Audubon and New Hampshire Fish and Game. It is 6,405 acres of forest, ponds and wetland that is a vitally important bird destination and stopover during migration.

To get there from camp, we drove up Evans Notch to Route 2 and west through Gorham to Route 115 south.

Coming from Conway, drive up Route 302 through Crawford Notch to Twin Mountain, take a right on Route 3 and in a couple miles take a right on Route 115. In 4.4 miles, turn left on Hazen Road and in 1.4 miles turn right into the parking lot for the Cherry Pond Rail Trail.

The mile-long grassy stroll on the old railroad bed is a relaxing way to enter this amazing place. We spread out, having quiet conversations as we approached Cherry Pond. In 1.4 miles, we bore right at a fork out to a new platform on the shore of 100 acre Cherry Pond. Cherry Pond is all that remains of a post glacial lake that was located in this wide basin. It is primeval in mood. On a clear day, the Presidential Range fills the eastern skyline across the pond. This day gray clouds covered their summits.

Avian activity was abundant. On the far shore, someone spotted a northern harrier bothering an immature eagle in mid flight. The eagle landed in the tip of a tall spruce and the harrier departed. We all took turns looking through Beecher’s tripod scope at the distant eagle.

After lunch, we walked down the pond and across the old railroad tracks to the Little Cherry Pond Trail. Little Cherry Pond feels more isolated and wild than the big pond. The 0.6-mile trail into it is in a damp evergreen forest. Finally, you walk on a well-made boardwalk out to a small platform suspended on the peat lined shoreline.

Three of us arrived there first and surprised two full-grown moose swimming about 30 yards away next to the shore. They awkwardly clamored up on the bank and left, one pausing for a hard look at us. The black flies were not too bad for us, but that could have been their reason for a dip, as they will often escape at the height of the bug season by immersing in water.

The others arrived on the platform. Beecher had been using a bird app on his iPhone often to have us recognize bird calls. Here, he happened to play the call of a black backed woodpecker, a fairly rare bird that would be found in this habitat.

Suddenly, a black-backed woodpecker appeared in a dead tree above, having heard the vocalization. A magical 10 minutes ensued, as it climbed up and down the dead tree about 5 feet from the group, occasionally casting a glance at us.

A similar encounter happened earlier in the day when Beecher played the call of a male warbling vireo. A live male warbling vireo saw it as a threat and flew swiftly over the group.

On the way back out past Cherry Pond, the clouds had lifted and the afternoon was warm. Insects filled the air. At a spot where an outlet stream crossed under an old railroad bridge and flowed into a marsh, we paused.

A flock of many warblers was happily eating insects in the air, and flirted from tree to tree. Warblers travel north in mixed groups, and the birders stood below, naming different ones. It was the first time I had seen the bright colors of some, like the Blackburnian warbler, with binoculars. It was good to go with a group of experience birders.

Back at Cold River Camp after dinner, Chris Lewey of Raven Interpretive Programs gave a talk on migration of birds, and we recognized many from that day.

Sunday morning, a field trip was organized to visit the cornfields in North Fryeburg, Maine, down the road, where the tall sandhill cranes are sometimes seen feeding. Off of McNeil Road, the group saw three sandhill cranes out in the fields. These birds, tall as a human, are striking.

“Seeing those was the official end of Bird Camp,” said a satisfied Beecher.

In all, 109 species of birds were identified during the weekend.

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