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Boreal Birds, Bugs and Bears

June 17, 2010

Last weekend, two birding companions and I scoured boreal peatland bogs in the Adirondack Mountains in search of birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and the state-endangered Spruce Grouse.

Reflecting on the trip, I’m awash in sensory recall…acres and acres of spruce, fir, and tamarack forests still stretch before us. Alder-lined streams quietly gurgle. My boots squash in the spongy earth. My ears ring with sparrow song (old, Sam peabody, peabody peabody) and a cool Adirondack wind wicks away mid-day sweat. And you bet’cha, black flies and mosquitoes are still on the offensive.

The Adirondacks deliver a potent experience every season of the year but June is the best month to bird in the park. Migrants arrive in full force by late May, and by June roughly 176 different bird species (including 76 neotropical migrants such as Cape May and Bay-breasted warblers) are on breeding grounds. As well, two major birding festivals, the Great Adirondack Birding Festival (centered in Paul Smiths) and the Adirondack Birding Festival (in Hamilton County) provide guided field trips to area hotspots.

The Adirondack Park features several diverse habitat types in an area larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon national parks combined. At least 300 bird species occur here, but the biggest draw for avid bird watchers are its highest peaks (home to the reclusive Bicknell’s Thrush) and impressively large and intact low elevation boreal forests.

The boreal forest—an uncommonly beautiful sight to behold for any reason—supports several unique or increasingly rare species such as Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, as well as Spruce Grouse, of which there may be only a hundred or so left in the state.

Being optimists, my friends and I hoped to see all the boreal birds and to score a few lifers. So we jumped off from the towns of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake and placed no small effort in birding places such as Ferd’s Bog, Shallow Lake, Paul Smiths Visitor Information Center (the ‘VIC’) and Massawepie Mire.

Though nature had other plans than to deliver a clean sweep (we dipped on Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, and the grouse), we marveled at the scenery as we traipsed deep into the bogs and strained to identify the unfamiliar mix of birdsongs. We built an impressive trip list sprinkled with dozens of species including Hermit Thrush, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Winter Wren, a great mix of warblers such as Northern Parula, (Yellow) Palm, Chestnut-sided, Mourning, Cape May, and Blackburnian, and a good showing of flycatchers including Alder, Yellow-bellied, Olive, Least, and Great-crested.

A moment of great excitement came at Massawepie Mire when we rounded a bend and saw a black bear not 30 yards away. My friend Mike was the first to see the 250+ pound bear lumbering toward us, head down. The bear looked up and saw us, lifted its nose to catch our scent, made a U-turn, and ran. I lifted my binoculars just in time to see its black, muscled hindquarters sparkling in the sun as it disappeared.

On Sunday, we joined a Great Adirondacks Birding Festival field trip to the top of Whiteface Mountain (4,867 feet) to see Bicknell’s Thrush. The Bicknell’s is a rare, geographically restricted species that breeds at high elevations in the Catskills, Adirondacks, New England and southeastern Canada—areas at risk of global warming. The bird is more often heard than seen because of its preference for foraging and nesting close to the ground in dense stands of spruce/fir or krummholz, those thick stands of stunted, deformed trees near tree line.

Fog, rain, cold winds and low visibility whipped up unpleasant viewing conditions near the summit. But with the help of trip leaders John & Pat Thaxton, our intrepid group captured excellent views of the bird at approximately 3,700 feet. Later in the day, we met up with local birders who invited us to lunch and gave us a personal tour of Massawepie Mire, reminding us how cordial the birding community can be.

The Adirondack experience is so rich, so lasting that even now, I see thick stands of ferns dripping with afternoon rain, I hear the high-pitched tsee-tsee-tsees of tree-top warblers, and I’m still rounding every bend in hopes of encountering that Spruce Grouse.

The Adirondacks pulls me back every time.

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