On a windy morning just below the summit of Mount Mansfield, Chris Rimmer walks the trail checking mist nests for the Bicknell's thrush. The ornithologist with the Vermont Center For Ecostudies has been coming here and to two other sites in Vermont for the past 21 summers to study the elusive thrush. There are only about 100,000 left in the world and they call high mountaintops in the Northeast home for the summer.
"It's an indicator of these iconic mountaintop forests that are such an important part of the landscape of the Northeast that so many of us care deeply about," Rimmer said.
After checking more than 20 nets and coming up with a variety of sparrows, warblers and another type of thrush with striking similarities, we finally hit the jackpot. Rimmer extracts the Bicknell's Thrush from the mist net and we bring it back to the parking lot for closer examination. The yearling male is assigned a leg band-- number 193176929. It's measured, weighed and checked for overall health. Finally, visiting researchers with the New York State Museum take a blood sample for DNA analysis.
After mating and summering-over here, the thrush makes an amazing migration to the Caribbean. Ninety percent of them spend the winter in a small region on the Island of Hispaniola. And it's there they face their greatest danger.
"The habitats are under siege from overpopulation pressures primarily, but the forests are being cleared for charcoal production, for subsistence agriculture, for commercial and subsistence logging," Rimmer explained.
Since 1994 Rimmer has spent a good chunk of his winters in the Dominican Republic also, studying the birds and working to secure habitat.
"You can't understand or conserve any kind of migratory animal, whether it's a caribou or a monarch butterfly or a Bicknell's thrush, without knowing what's happening across its full migratory range. So once we started looking at it here, we knew we had to get the other piece of the puzzle in the south," he said.
A recent success story-- a first of its kind-- a 1,000 acre reserve in the Dominican Republic for the birds officially opened last week.
While the top of Mt. Mansfield and similar subalpine zones in the Northeast are not threatened with the kind of development seen in the Caribbean, researchers say climate change over time could eventually force the thrushes off their mountaintop habitat.
"They're squeezed at both ends, as many migratory animals are nowadays. But this one being so rare and so geographically limited at both ends of its range is a particular concern," Rimmer said.
Despite the birds' potential perils, Rimmer says he's optimistic in the long run.
"There's so many people and groups down there that are deeply committed to turning things around that have optimism themselves and so that fuels our optimism and gives us great hope," Rimmer said.
Working across international boundaries to protect a songbird that calls Vermont home for the summer.
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