Christmas Bird Count Hike

Mt. Edgecumbe

For the third year in a row, I chose to hike up Mt. Verstovia and down into Indian River Valley for my CBC route. Unlike the last couple of years, we’ve actually had a fair amount of snow this year, including some overnight. Walking along Sawmill Creek Road, I saw ravens and starlings, but someone else was supposed to count this area, so I did not keep track of them all.

Starting up the trail, I saw there some fresh tracks, so despite relatively early (for the shortest days of the year) start, there were others ahead of me. It did not take me too long to remember that I had not been doing much hiking lately.

Not too far beyond the stairs in the salmonberry patch clearing where the trail turns, I stopped to take a break. While sitting there contemplating my poor conditioning, I decided to do my best imitation of a screech owl (let’s just say it could probably use some work). I was a little surprised to hear something respond. I kept whistling, just to be sure, and the response continued. It was not the normal bouncing-ball call of a Western Screech Owl. It sounded kind of annoyed, actually. I suppose it was just settling in for the day, and I had disturbed its rest. Although I felt a little bad for upsetting the owl, I was happy to know that owls might actually pay attention to my whistling, and it was good to get this bird for the count. I know there are quite a few owls around Sitka, but they are rarely included on the count, since few people here actively look for them.

Most of the hike up to the ridge was uneventful. The occasional snow flurry came through, and I took lots of breaks.

Right as I came up to the start of the ridge, I heard a fairly strident repeated call. I came upon a Pine Grosbeak making these calls (and now was able to conclusively say that the bird I heard last month was a Pine Grosbeak). It didn’t hang around for long, so I didn’t get a picture of it.

On the ridge I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker working on a tree. This seemed to me a fairly high elevation for this bird to be, especially for this time of year. I guess it didn’t feel the need to ask me about it, though. Not too far past the sapsucker, I spotted some crossbills in the top of a distant tree. I tried to get closer, but was not able to re-find them.

Near the edge of the trees, I saw a set of tracks that were probably made earlier in the day or possibly the day before. All that was left were dimples in the snow. I was pretty sure they were ptarmigan tracks, but I wasn’t confident enough to count them.

When I got out of the trees, I saw three people snow boarding off of Peak 2550. I was glad that they had broken the trail, as my brief foray into the deeper snow to try for a better look at the crossbills had been strenuous.

I stopped for lunch a little ways down toward the saddle.

From here it was pretty much all downhill. The snow was fairly deep, I was easily sinking in up to my waist. However, it was fun to take big steps down. On my way into the saddle, I passed another snowboarder who was climbing out. I mentioned that it seemed like a bit of a hike back to the top and asked if it was worth it. He said it was. He also told me he had a friend who was also snowboarding (but had stopped to eat a little lower and out of sight) after I commented on the number of tracks that I could see going into the bowl.

While headed down to the meadow (buried in several feet of snow), I saw another Pine Grosbeak. I also had the most unexpected birds on my list for the day. A flock of seven Trumpeter Swans flew by right around eye level for me. They were headed out to the ocean from up Indian River Valley. I’m not sure if they had flown up and circled back or what, but it’s not everyday that the person whose route is probably furthest from any body of water gets to count swans.

At one point on a particularly steep section, I stepped in deeper than I expected and pitched forward a little bit. My foot was extended like I was standing on my tip toes and my calf cramped up pretty hard. I was a little concerned that it might make for a pretty painful remainder of the hike, but fortunately it loosened up and before long I was wading through the snow without any pain.

After getting across the snow covered meadow and down into the gully beyond, I climbed back out of the gully and into the woods on the other side. While walking in the woods through this section, I did see deer tracks, and even got to see a couple of deer. They were not far from me, one of them wouldn’t have been too difficult of a shot if I had been hunting. However I don’t think packing the deer out would have been too much fun.

This year I had resolved not to come down too early to catch the ridge I wanted (like I had done each of the previous years), so I made an effort to stay up a little higher. I avoided getting sucked down along gullies, and eventually came to quite a large gully. If I had thought about it a little more carefully, I would have realized that his gully marked the backside of the ridge that I actually wanted to stay on. Instead of staying on this ridge, I crossed the gully and continued my slow descent while continuing up valley. In the end, this worked out alright. The descent was gradual (no cliffs to navigate this year) and I ended up coming down onto more or less level ground. At this point I was not exactly sure where I was, but I did notice that there was a stump that looked like it had been cut. It took a moment, but the log that had once been the tree attached to the stump resolved itself into a bridge. Suddenly I realized I was looking at the trail. It was only now that I realized I had overshot my intended route by a fair bit. I probably would have recognized the location right away if it hadn’t been for all the snow. One benefit of going the extra distance is I picked up a Brown Creeper during one of my rest breaks.

The walk back down the trail was largely uneventful. I made it out near dark, but did not really have time to go home before the count meeting. I decided to just walk over to the Raptor Center (where the meeting was to be held) and go home after that.

For me it was another successful bird count hike. I was pretty tired, I had a short list of birds, and this year I don’t think any of them were unique to me, but it was definitely worth getting out there.

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