Bicknell’s Thrush at Cannon Mountain, NH

| June 23, 2016 | 3 Comments

In 1998 the Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli) was split from the similar Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) and given full species status by the AOU. Once considered a subspecies of Gray-cheeked Thrush, Bicknell’s Thrush was awarded its full species status after scientific evidence such as differences in behavior, song, habitat, distribution, morphology, and genetics came to light.

It was around this time that I started to come into the peak of my young birding career in Upstate New York. Yet, in spite of my enthusiasm, I wasn’t aware of this split for another few years until I purchased the first edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds sometime around 2001. After learning that Bicknell’s Thrush was a distinct species and one of the rarest songbirds in North America, I also discovered that they are only found in the high peaks regions (generally above 3000 feet) of New York, New England, and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

Breeding range of Bicknell's Thrush (eBird)

Breeding range of Bicknell’s Thrush (eBird)

As luck would have it, growing up in the Hudson Valley of Upstate New York I was within an hour’s drive of the Catskill Mountains, one of two Bicknell’s strongholds in the Empire State (the other being the Adirondack Mountains). In fact, Bicknell’s Thrush was first discovered on nearby Slide Mountain in the Catskills in 1881 by Eugene Bicknell. Unfortunately, due to living out of NY during the mid-2000’s (ME, CA, NJ) and what seemed to be an uncanny coincidence of responsibilities when I eventually was home I never took the chance to look for this species within my home state. Years later I actually heard a singing Bicknell’s Thrush on Jakes Landing Road in North Dennis, NJ during migration (as did dozens of other birders that day), but I never was able to lay eyes on the bird and thus I never officially counted it. Bicknell’s Thrush became an asterisk* species on my list and one that I wanted to get the first chance I had.

Fast forward to present day with me residing in New Hampshire which is home more than 30% of the world’s Bicknell’s Thrush population and I knew I needed to make an effort to see this species on territory before another year passed. 2016 was the year I would make a concerted effort for this rare and elusive thrush! With my mind made up I decided to ask fellow Chat Happens contributor and Antioch University classmate, Kevin Vande Vusse, to join me on this trip. Without question he said he was in. After discussing this trip for the last few months Kevin and I figured out that late June would be our opportunity with both of us in town between semesters. This past Monday, June 20, was the day we finally made it happen.

With a little bit of planning, and a whole lot of flying by the seat of our pants, we decided to head to Cannon Mountain in Franconia, NH to try our luck on one of the more famous Bicknell’s Thrush mountains in the area. The reason for this is the relative ease at which a birder can get to the summit of Cannon Mountain to look for the thrushes. As it turns out, Cannon Mountain has a well-established ski trail system in place and as such they also have a tram car (gondola) that takes patrons from the base of the mountain to near the summit in just 7 minutes! This is a far cry from the stories you hear about birders arriving at the base of a mountain before dawn and hiking up in the dark to get to the summit by mid-morning. The only unfortunate piece of news in taking the tram is that the tram car only begins operating at 8:45 a.m. which is hours past when most birders try for Bicknell’s Thrush since it is much more active around dawn. Nevertheless, Kevin and I weren’t discouraged by our later arrival and during the two hour ride to Franconia we were filled with enthusiasm and hope for the day ahead.

Driving to Cannon Mountain

Driving to Cannon Mountain

Arriving at Cannon Mountain we quickly gathered our gear, paid for the tram tickets ($17 round trip per person), and were on the tram heading up before we knew it. All-in-all the tram ride was quick and easy and offered a great view of the surrounding area. If you’re afraid of heights or get uneasy at the thought of swinging back and forth in a steel cage while suspended on a cable you can still hike to the top of Cannon Mountain for Bicknell’s Thrush…but it will take you a lot longer than 7 minutes! Admittedly, Kevin and I did share quick glances with each other when one of the staff on the tram said to the other “what’s that noise?” which was followed by “what, that little squeak?” to which the first staff member said emphatically, “I wouldn’t say that’s a little squeak!”. Once we realized it came from the door area and not the cables suspending us we made friends with the Cannon Mountain staff who were excited to hear about our Bicknell’s chase and even suggested a few trails for us to try our luck on.


View from the Cannon Mountain Tramway


We have arrived!

We have arrived!

Arriving at the top, Kevin and I quickly headed towards the ridge trail where we felt our best chance would be. Within just a few minutes of being on the trail we were greeted with great vistas of the surrounding landscape.


View from the top


View from the Ridge Trail

At our first stop we even heard a distant Bicknell’s Thrush singing across the valley, but it was too far away to even consider seeing it. At this stop we also saw and heard singing Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) and White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which was a treat for us since we normally only see these species during the winter time when they migrate down the mountains and into the valleys. Feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces (it was already 80 degrees F) we pushed on before the temperature climbed too much and the birds became less active. As we moved along the ridge trail and approached the tower atop Cannon Mountain the vegetation around the trail thickened and grew taller. Going from waist high spruces near the tram station to trees that were a little taller at 8 feet high we soon heard more bird song around us on the trail. The habitat was looking perfect for our Bicknell’s.



Land of the Bicknell's Thrush

Land of the Bicknell’s Thrush

As the ridge trail progressed in front of us one of the birds that we heard was a nearby Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata), another bird that is usually seen or hear during migration, but we’ve never seen on territory. Hoping to get a quick look at the bird in question we gave a quick spish to see if we could get the nearby Blackpoll to show itself. However, within just a few seconds of quiet spishing a nearby, larger bird flew in to investigate our call. Kevin got eyes on it first and within a split second called out “It’s a thrush!”. As the bird made its way around us it began to vocalize. Kevin and I looked at each other in disbelief at our fortune, “It’s a Bicknell’s!”.'s a Bicknell's!

Yup…it’s a Bicknell’s!

Hoping for another look, the thrush fortuitously popped up into a nearby spruce, however, it was extremely backlit and didn’t allow for any good photographs to be obtained. It was at this time that another two thrushes worked their way into the area from the initial spishing that was done in a rather half-hearted way. As the initial Bicknell’s worked its way through the nearby spruce shrubs it was eventually seen in good light and all the clarifying markings were present and clearly observed by Kevin and I which felt great since this is usually a rather retiring species.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Before Kevin and I could truly celebrate, as the thrushes moved off our Blackpoll Warbler made itself known and came into view flitting over the trail and singing in nearby spruce tops for what seemed like minutes on end allowing for some photo ops on a species that we both were hoping for secondarily on this trip. Also present at this first stop was a male Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) in all of its Butterbutt glory. Taking in all the birds that just worked around us, particularly the close encounter with the three Bicknell’s, Kevin and I high-fived each other for our quick success.

Basking in our glory we decided we weren’t quite yet done and moved down the ridge trail further to see if we could stumble upon any other birds for better photo opportunities. As we worked away from the tower atop Cannon Mountain another 100 yards or so we heard another Bicknell’s singing just off trail. Feeling lucky we gave a quick spish to see if we would have any more luck and fortune was certainly on our side as another Bicknell’s Thrush moved in low for another quick view. This time the bird was much lower in the vegetation and allowed for a quick series of photographs before it flew off and resumed singing. One of the observations that Kevin and I both had was how interesting it was to listen to the Bicknell’s calling and singing only a few feet from us and to note how QUIET the vocalizations were! Here is a species that we heard from hundreds of yards away across the top of a mountain range yet within 5 feet of us its calls were a mere whisper! Truly enchanting.

Bicknell's Thrush allowing close photo opportunities for Kevin and Chad (photo courtesy of Chad Witko)

Bicknell’s Thrush allowing close photo opportunities for Kevin and Chad (photo courtesy of Chad Witko)


Bicknell's Thrush coming close (photo courtesy of Kevin Vande Vusse)

Bicknell’s Thrush coming close (photo courtesy of Kevin Vande Vusse)

After this last Bicknell’s sighting Kevin and I decided it was time to call it quits on our Bicknell’s chase while we were ahead and to head back down the mountain and move on to other birding opportunities in the area. As we walked out feeling on top of the world, or at least, atop Cannon Mountain we were once again greeted with amazing views of Blackpoll Warbler, including one individual a mere 3 feet away, as well as amazing vistas, and lots of smiles as we had successfully observed our target species that for me was 16 years in the making. Bicknell’s Thrush would be my 548th life bird in the ABA region.

Kevin and the author stoked after a successful Bicknell's chase!

Kevin and the author stoked after a successful Bicknell’s chase!


Heading down Cannon Mountain

Heading down Cannon Mountain


Chad taking in the view

Chad taking in the view

As we headed down the mountain we started to discuss our next destination, Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson, NH in hopes of finding Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). Having personally observed this species only once before in California this woodpecker of the north which would be a life bird for Kevin. However, the chase for this woodpecker would prove not to be as quick and easy as the Bicknell’s Thrush. You can read about our Black-backed Woodpecker chase here.

eBird checklist for this trip:

For more information on Bicknell’s Thrush Biology, Conservation, and Identification, please visit:

Bicknell’s Thrush (Cornell Lab of Ornithology- All About Birds):

Bicknell’s Thrush (Vermont Center for Ecostudies):

Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation (International Bicknell’s Thrush Conservation Group):

Bicknell’s vs. Gray-cheeked Thrush (David Sibley):

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Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!


Category: Birding

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  1. Black-backed Woodpecker at Pondicherry : Chat Happens | July 4, 2016
  1. Kirk Witko says:


    I’ve just read your article on the Bicknell’s Thrush. Your writing is well put and your photos are unbelievable and beautiful. I’m glad to hear that you reached your goal on seeing that bird. It was a trip well deserved..Keep on birding !!


  2. Carol Renwick says:

    What a great accomplishment! It seems the Thrushes were as eager to meet you and Kevin as you were to meet them. Your respect and appreciation shine through in your writing. The photographs are vivid and beautiful. Thank you for Chatting!

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