The Aerial Tramway transports visitors to the sub-alpine zone


Franconia Notch State Park



July 08, 2009
FRANCONIA NOTCH — I heard a Bicknell's thrush singing on Saturday — a loud, distinctive high-pitched descending "veeer." Although I was, of course, disappointed that I didn't also get to see this boreal bird, I was very pleased to hear it.

For the past year I've been writing about the Bicknell's thrush and the concerns that environmentalists have had about the turbines of the proposed wind farm on the high-elevation ridges of Mt. Kelsey and Dixville destroying some of the state's habitat that this species requires.

An assignment to do an article as part of a series on New Hampshire State Parks plus my curiosity about this elusive bird — only recently considered a separate species from the gray-cheeked thrush — gave me the perfect excuse to sign up for a guided bird-watching trip with Mark Suomala (www.allaboutbirds.org) of Epsom.

The Bicknell's thrush can be found at a number of high-elevation ridges, but the state-operated Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway in Franconia Notch State Park allows sightseers and outdoor enthusiasts to reach 4,200 feet in elevation with only an eight-minute ride —a sweat-free way to reach the sub-alpine zone that boasts marvelous views of the Notch and the surrounding landscape.

New Hampshire residents 65 and over can ride the Tramway free during the week, Monday through Friday, but not on Saturdays and Sundays. Roundtrip tickets cost $13 for adults (with no break for seniors) and $10 for children, six to 12, and free for those five and under.

These prices make a weekday ride on the Tramway and the short hike up to the open observation tower and around the summit rim —with a stop for a brought-from-home lunch at picnic tables, either inside or outside the tram building — an affordable outing for grandparents to enjoy with their grandchildren.

Saturday, June 27, was an "open-and-shut" day of glowering skies and scattered showers, with no sunshine at all.

My husband and I met our affable guide and one other client in the parking lot. During a brief orientation we learned that it was quite likely that we would either hear or see 10 species that are found in mainly spruce/fir habitat: blackpoll warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, white-throated sparrow, Swainson's thrush, winter wren, dark-eyed junco, golden-crowned kinglet, Bicknell's thrush, yellow-bellied flycatcher, and magnolia warbler. Although these birds were mainly heard, we did enjoy a few sightings, thanks to Mark's trained eye and help from his enthusiastic client.

We rode the 9 a.m. tram car — first of the day — up the mountain, enjoying the view of Echo Lake and its attractive public beach, the ski trails, and a number of conspicuous mountain ash trees sporting big white blossoms.

Mark lugged his tripod-mounted scope, allowing us to see what bird he had spotted on treetops or branches and making it easy to then pick it out with our own binoculars.

Rainy spells were interspersed with clearing times, and at one point sheets of rain forced us to take shelter under the observation deck. We ventured on the Rim Trail with its open ledges and spectacular views up and down the I-93 corridor and across the Pemigewasset Valley, and we also sought boreal birds on the upper reaches of the Hi-Cannon Trail. The pace was such that we could admire blooming bunchberries and Labrador tea.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org),the Bicknell's thrush has one of the most restricted breeding and wintering ranges of any North American bird. It also has an unusual mating system: both males and females mate with different partners, so each nest has young from different males, and males may have young in several nests. More than one male feeds at most nests. In addition, males do not hold strict territories, and several different males may sing from the same area within a single hour.

Several times Mark heard but could not see a Bicknell's thrush but I could not. Finally I did hear the one repeatedly make the same call, which I interpreted as the equivalent of "hello." The Bicknell's thrush is said to have a three-song repertoire, but that day this bird was a Johnny-one-note. Despite the weather that dampened the boreal birds' enthusiasm for singing and foraging, the trip was a great success. The measured pace encouraged us all to enjoy the natural beauty found at the top of the Aerial Tramway, which surely is one of the state's gems.

In addition, the several families who were hiking around the rim reminded us all that the White Mountains are an international attraction. It was fun to see women wearing saris and also to hear German- and French-speaking tourists, and three-generation families.

Franconia Notch State Park has many attractions and activities, but the Aerial Tramway opens up an interesting and beautiful sub-alpine zone world that is easy for valley-dwellers to forget is there.

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