Mt. Verstovia Trail to Indian River Valley
For the second year in a row (last year's entry), I participated in the Christmas Bird Count by hiking up Mt. Verstovia trail and cutting down into Indian River Valley. Like last year, I was hoping to see some birds up high that do not normally show up in town. Unlike last year, the weather was much nicer, and I actually saw quite a few birds on the way up.
I left home just after 8am, as the sun was beginning to rise, I was treated to a pretty amazing sunrise as walked past Arrowhead Trailer Court on my way to the trailhead. I could not pass up the chance, to stop and take some pictures, so I took a short detour down to the mouth of Indian River and took some more photos of the sunrise looking over Jamestown Bay. As the color began to fade, I continued on to the start of Mt. Verstovia trail.
Late Fall of this year there was a period of at least a few days (and maybe as long as a week) where the Sitka area was completely innudated with Varied Thrush. Their numbers had decreased significantly since that time, but I still obersved many of them along the trail on the way up. Most of the time I was alerted to their presence by their 'chup' calls. For some of them that is all I was able to observe as they remained hidden from sight in the thick underbrush. In addition to the Varied Thrushes, I also saw Golden-crowned Kinglets, Winter Wrens, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees all by the time I reached the second view point. Last year I had not seen anything by the time I reached this location.
As I was going up the switchbacks, I thought I heard a slight tapping sound. Sound is often the first clue I have about a bird's presence, and tapping sounds often come from woodpeckers. This time was no different, as I was able to spot a lethargic Red-breasted Sapsucker fairly close to the trail. It was much less active than I have typically seen. I am guessing that was a strategy for conserving energy on the short, cool winter days.
With the weather being much more conducive for hiking, I opted to continue on the trail all the way up to Picnic Rock (Peak 2550), rather than cut off trail along the ridge as I had last year. My effort was rewarded when I was able to observe White-winged Crossbills feeding in the conifers at the tree line. This was the first time I had seen these birds. I tried to get a little closer for better pictures, but the terrain was not conducive to doing so.
After a short lunch break on top, I headed down the ridge towards Indian River Valley. I would periodically hear birds, but I could not tell what they were from the calls, and I was not able to see them. I stayed mostly on the ridge as I went down before cutting back to get into the bowl between Peak 2550 and the Main Peak of Verstovia. The bottom of the bowl was a flat meadow with a stream winding through it. With the Main Peak of Verstovia towering over it, the meadow was very scenic, even in this season of brown. I can only imagine what it is like in mid-Summer when the wildflowers are in bloom.
I followed a gulley down from the North side of the meadow. My intention was to hit the ridge that goes down into Indian River Valley just up-valley from a large muskeg near the second bridge. I made my way down the the fairly steep hillside tending mostly down and slightly to the right (up-valley). I periodically saw flags, but did not work too hard to follow them. I saw many squirrels a Winter Wren or two, and at one point even startled up a deer. When I reached the sloped bench that is between the 800 and 1000 foot level, I tried to go mostly up-valley rather than down. I continued to notice the flags as I passed through a couple of clearings and at the edge of the second clearing, I decided to try following the flags.
I made the decision to follow the flags based on the premise that whomever had placed them probably had a decent way to get down (and quite possibly used the same ridge that I had planned to). I should note that the reason I wanted to go to the ridge is that below the bench, the hillside tends to be very steep, with many places having cliffs. I preferred to avoid the need to pick my way around and down cliffs, so I wanted to hit the ridge.
As I followed the flags, they seemed to be going down too soon to make it over to the ridge, but I continued in my simpleminded faith that they must lead to a good way down. As the slope got steeper and steeper and I continued following the flags, I finally found myself at the top of a 20 foot cliff. I searched in vain for the next flag, but could not find one. As far as I could tell, the flags just ended at the top of the cliff. Lesson learned-- "When bushwhacking in the backcountry, beware of following flags. The person who placed the flags was probably more lost than you are."
Fortunately there was a way to skirt around the cliff without causing too much nervousness, so I did not find it necessary to backtrack up the hill (as by this point, I was feeling somewhat fatigued). During this portion of the trip I heard some bird calls that I did not remember having heard before. I did not recognize them, and due to the terrain I was not able to get closer for a chance to see what birds they might be.
Subsequent to the getting down the cliff, the trip back was largely uneventful. I made it to the muskeg where I had intended to and was able hike back along the trail into town. Unlike last year, I did not see all that many birds along Indian River Trail. I did see a couple of dippers and some mergansers, but that's about it.