Chapter Thirty-Three: Lost - the Heart of the Northern Forest

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at symbios@condortales.com and I'll email you a copy.

Sunday 4 June 1995 - "Wind died about 1800, and the bugs were a little pesky on our walk. However, it turned nice and cool, andthe wood thrush chorus at camp after 2030 was super!"

Wednesday June 4 1997- "BIRDS: barred owl, heard; robin, 4-5, others heard; hummingbird, 9-10; crow, heard; red-eyed vireo, 3-4; phoebe, 1;wood thrush, good morning chorus; blue jay, 4-5; chickadee, 2; rose-b. grosbeak, 2; ovenbird, 2; b-t. blue warbler, 1; veery, heard".

Sunday June 22 1997 - "BIRDS: hummingbird, ca. 8;wood thrush, lovely morning and evening choruses - ditto hermit thrush and veery; red-eyed vireo, heard; ovenbird, heard; b-t. green warbler, heard; sapsucker, 1-2, plus nestlings; robin, several; blue jay, heard; white-throated sparrow, heard; bluebird, 1 at powerline; cedar waxwing, 4."

Friday 26 June 1998 - "We heard coyotes howling while we were working on the road drainage.NOTE: I'm not sure we've had a wood thrush yet this year. I put them in the notes a couple days on the basis of 'scolding' calls, but we definitely have not heard a song, so I could have been wrong. Where are they? I noticed in our notes for another year that we hadn't heard any until about this date, but most years I recorded good choruses by now."

Sunday 6 September 1998 - "Probably the two stand-out wildlife non-observations of the year are (1)absolutely no wood thrushes, and (2) very few barred owls. The second is probably easily explained by the Ice Storm - when we have heard owls this year, they have generally been far down in the swamp where there is still a forest canopy. The lack of wood thrushes is very puzzling; I wonder about the rest of New England."

Monday 19 July 1999 - "Nice hermit thrush choruses in recent evenings. Not many veeries, andit seems like the wood thrushes must be permanently gone."

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I've never been good at describing bird songs. From childhood, I've known that white-throated sparrows say "poor Ned Peabody" (or "old Ned Peabody," if you prefer), and olive-sided flycatchers sing "hip three cheers" (if you're a sports fan) or "hic, three beers" (if that evokes a clearer mind-picture). But what do you do about thrushes? Their choruses are more about moods and feelings, than they are about words. Veeries are certainly "interesting." Swainson's thrushes are "pleasant," or maybe "appealing." Hermit thrush songs are "beautiful." Wood thrushes... well, they're a sensation, one that can't really be separated out from the total aural context of the Northern Forest. That's why it's especially sad that we no longer have them at Camp.

In some ways, it's not surprising that we lost our wood thrushes. Many other people did, too. The statistically-based Breeding Bird Survey has shown that between 1966 and 1994, the United States population of wood thrushes declined by an average of 1.7 per cent per year. That translates to a loss of about half their numbers in those 28 years. The downward trend has not stopped in the years after 1994. The species is not on the Endangered Species List yet, but it's on every bird study organization's list as a "species of special concern."

We were luckier than some. Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, only 50 miles south of us as the wood thrush flew, and once home to a large population of the species, was already without wood thrushes by the late 1980s. They have not returned. At least, we were able to enjoy them for another ten years after the Hubbard Brook folks had mourned their loss.

When you ask why the wood thrushes have disappeared, you get a lot of discussion but (so far) no definite cause. Probably there isn't just one reason. Scientists talk about forest fragmentation on the breeding grounds; loss of forest habitat in the wintering areas of Mexico and Central America; use of lethal pesticides in Latin America; acid rain; climate change; and disruption of nesting by cowbirds laying their eggs in thrush nests. Although wood thrushes thrive in older forests, there is even some talk that New England forests are getting too old for them! (An aside: If I was writing as a scientist, I'd have to stop and explain the significance of all these factors. Since I am just an essayist today, I can get away with presenting without further comment a lot of "interesting facts.") Whatever the cause or causes, I suspect that - at this late date - the losses are irreversible.

What mystifies me about the disappearance of wood thrushes on Dummer Hill is the suddenness with which they vanished. At Hubbard Brook, it took several years of obvious decline before they dropped out of the local avifauna, altogether. At Camp, they were common one year, completely gone the next. Granted that we lost a sizeable chunk of our forest to The Ice Storm in the winter between their presence and absence, but we still had a large area of woodland only lightly damaged by the Storm. Also, bird populations generally do not respond that immediately to change. One wood thrush study in Ontario, Canada, showed that adult thrushes were so programmed to their home woods that - even when the forest environment deteriorated to the point that it was no longer "good" wood thrush habitat - some of the oldsters would stay and try to use the area until they all died out, perhaps five or ten years later. So, why didn't some of our birds at least drop by in 1999 to check out the area? How would they know not to come back if they didn't come back? It's a mystery on the back of the bigger mystery.

I've spent all these words memorializing the loss of wood thrushes at Camp, but I should also mention that once upon an earlier time there were few of these birds anywhere in New Hampshire. According to New Hampshire Audubon Society's breeding bird atlas, wood thrushes were almost unknown in the State before 1894. Nobody knows for sure why they came. Maybe there was a time even before that - before New England's forests had been reduced by logging, land clearing, livestock grazing, and burning to near nothingness - when the wood thrushes had thrived, and in the early 20th Century they were merely moving "back home" in response to the re-growth of their former habitat. As I said, nobody knows.

So, easy come, easy go? Are we making too much of this loss of what may actually have been a relatively short-term resident of the North Country? Scientifically, the answer is clearly "no," because the loss isn't just New Hampshire's but is occurring throughout the species' range. From my personal standpoint, from 1969 to 1998 (at that time, my whole lifetime in the Northern Forest) wood thrushes were an integral part of my Camp experience. They could have arrived for the first time in 1968, but what is that to me? I mourn what I miss. We know that everything and everybody eventually dies; we know loss is coming, but we still suffer when it does. When "death" is sudden and unexpected - as was the case with our wood thrushes - the loss is so much more poignant.

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