A Record-Setting Year: 60th Saranac Lake Christmas Bird Count!

National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the nation’s longest-running citizen science bird project, just completed its 116th year! Here in the Adirondacks, the Saranac Lake CBC just celebrated its 60th year, making it one of the longest-running counts in the country. It was a record-setting year for the count in many respects.

Record Number of Observers

On January 3rd, a record 53 people fanned out across the Saranac Lake CBC territory, which includes Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale, Ray Brook, and Lake Placid. (Each count is a circle of territory with a 15-mile diameter.) Participants cover their territories in teams. New birders are teamed with experienced birders, making it a wonderful way to learn. Territories are covered in a variety of ways: hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, car birding, and, believe it or not, kayaking! Larry Master kayaks the Saranac River each year – brrrr! People who reside within the circle often sign up to be “feeder watchers” and submit tallies of the species that visit their feeders on the count day.

Larry Master has been the Saranac Lake CBC compiler for the past 41 years. He organizes the count by dividing the circle into territories and assigning them to participants. A social compilation dinner is held after the count so people can report their results. Larry submits the data to National Audubon. Christmas Bird Count data helps us better understand the status of birds in the Americas – and the effects climate change is having on them.

Record Number of Individual Birds

Participants counted a total number of 7,505 birds during this year’s Saranac Lake CBC! (The previous record was 5,610 birds set in 1991.)

Record Number of Species

Fifty-one different species were found during the Saranac Lake CBC. With a strong El Nino producing an exceptionally warm December, there was a lot of open water, and as a result, waterfowl species that would normally be gone, were tallied instead!

Wood Duck by Larry Master

New High Counts for 3 Species

Three species had new high counts, including a tally of 2,274 Pine Siskins.

Pine Siskin by Larry Master

Five New Species for the Count

Five of the 51 species found were new to the Saranac Lake CBC including a Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant, Merlin, Northern Mockingbird, and White-crowned Sparrow.

Double-crested Cormorant by Larry Master

Northern Mockingbird by Larry Master

Total Number of Species Seen Over 60 Years

With the addition of 5 new species for the Saranac Lake CBC, it brings the total number of species seen over 60 years to 100.

Count Day

This year, I counted with Terese and John Hart, and their daughter Sarah who lives close to the count circle. Terese and John are biologists who spend most of the year in a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We hiked about 5 miles in the boreal habitat areas of Bloomingdale. With little snow on the ground, there was no need for snowshoes or skis this year. But it did snow on us all day!

John & Terese Hart listening for birds on Bigelow Road

Each year, it is our “mission” to find the boreal trinity of Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and Boreal Chickadee. We succeeded and tallied a male Black-backed Woodpecker, 3 Grays Jays, and 8 Boreal Chickadees. One of the Boreal Chickadees perched in the open at eye level, giving everyone a great view. I mentioned to our group that I don’t relax until we find a Black-backed Woodpecker each year, which is usually the hardest species to locate. Normally, I am fortunate to find one early in the day, but this year, it was found near the end of the day with a great sense of relief! A brook stood between us and the foraging woodpecker that we could hear, but not see, so we bushwhacked to it. Outside of nesting season, this species is remarkably tame and the male Black-backed Woodpecker continued foraging as if it didn’t even notice our presence below!

Male Black-backed Woodpecker by Joan Collins

Boreal Chickadee by Joan Collins

At the same location where we found the Black-backed Woodpecker, 2 Grays Jays flew to us looking for food. I pulled out my raisins and the Gray Jays landed in John and Sarah’s hands for the food!

Gray Jay landing on Sarah's hand for raisins!

The most common bird in our territory was Pine Siskin, and we tallied 710! There were also good numbers of Purple Finches and we found 48. We also tallied many common year-round species such as Ruffed Grouse, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Pine Siskin by Larry Master

Male Purple Finch by Larry Master

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Joan Collins

As we reached the end of our coverage area, toward the northern end of Bloomingdale Bog, we met up with the team that was covering the bog from the south (on skis). There is a Gray Jay feeder at this location and there were 6 friendly Gray Jays that we offered more raisins.

Gray Jay coming to Sarah's hand for raisins!

Compilation Dinner

Once again, Larry Master held the Saranac Lake CBC compilation dinner at his Lake Placid home. There is always a fascinating group of wildlife enthusiasts that assemble for this event each year. After dinner, participants offer their bird tallies and there are always surprises. It quickly became apparent that this was a record-setting year.

Compilation dinner after the count

Compilation dinner after the count

Compilation dinner after the count

Larry Master tallying the Saranac Lake Christmas Bird Count results

How to Participate

If you would like to participate in a Christmas Bird Count, you can check the National Audubon website for counts in your area. Our local Northern New York Audubon chapter website lists all the counts in northern NY. Contact the count compiler and you will be assigned a territory within the circle. If you are a new birder, you will be teamed with an expert. It can be a great way for new birders and children to learn more about the winter birds around them. You will be contributing important data as a citizen scientist in addition to having fun!

Several of the Saranac Lake CBC participants travel a long way to help count birds each year (some from out-of-state). Our area offers many great places to stay and a variety of excellent eateries to warm you up during the beautiful Adirondack winter!


Taking flight around the ADKs this week:

Eating out of the palm of your hand — literally.

6 miles of awesomeness. 

Up close and wild. 

Cross this off your list.

Healing: From head to talon.

Descending by the thousands.

Winter white - it’s so in. Almost.

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