Birding at the New Year
The Adirondack birding calendar begins like the calendar on the wall — during the coldest and darkest time of year. But cold and snow can set an amazing backdrop to birding, and winter often brings with it some of our most sought-after Adirondack species. These include birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls, which can grace our bird feeders, or Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks, which can be found in town where there are fruit trees still sporting a crop.
The presence of such winter specialties is often determined by food availability to our north as well as the availability of local food. The same is true of both Red and White-winged Crossbills, which dine on the seeds of conifers in our coniferous and boreal habitats, such as those along the Chubb River on Averyville Road in Lake Placid. This means that the productivity of one winter may be quite a bit different than another, but these same boreal environments also harbor species which remain year-round. The list is short, but it includes Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Canada Jay. Birders in search of them during winter should consider a trip to Bloomingdale Bog, Oregon Plains Road, or Bigelow Road north of Saranac Lake.
As such, winter birding in the Adirondacks is not about long lists of species or loads of diversity; rather, it is more about specialty birds which are difficult to find elsewhere. But winter gives way to a time of year when the diversity skyrockets with color and song, a transition which starts with subtlety.
It begins with longer days, dripping and melting snow, and the songs of birds like Brown Creepers and Northern Cardinals, which may have remained here silently all winter. Soon our snow piles are deflating, and we notice our first arrivals of the spring, birds like Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, and Song Sparrows. Holes in the ice on our lakes, such as Mirror Lake, appear and migrating waterfowl quickly exploit them as a pit stop on their way north. The April sun soon opens up patches of grass, and an assortment of migrant sparrows show up, dominated by large numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows, their songs ringing and piercing the air.
South winds bring with them migrating raptors and before we know it we are hearing the trills of Merlins and the high-pitched whistles of Broad-winged Hawks. These join other returning birds like Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Blue-headed Vireos, and Yellow-rumped Warblers as the once quiet woodlands percolate with new life. It is one of the most exciting times of year as a simple walk in places like John Brown’s Farm may yield newly arrived species each day, as the diversity begins to grow as we reach May.
And May could be the most exciting birding month of the year. It begins with our first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a chorus of migrant White-crowned Sparrows, and it ends with the last of our thrushes and other late-arriving species like Olive-sided Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. In between, May is a feathered quilt of texture, pattern, and color stitched together by Scarlet Tanagers, Veeries, Blackburnian Warblers, Cape May Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Philadelphia Vireos, Indigo Buntings, Great Crested Flycatchers, Barn Swallows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a recitation of others. And, as some species like Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers push through our region on their way north, many of our birds settle down to nest, filling the breeze with song as they search for mates and defend territories. In fact, twenty species of warblers nest in the Olympic Region alone.
The diversity of summer
And so we reach June and summer with Black-throated Green Warblers in our deciduous forests, Nashville and Magnolia Warblers in our coniferous habitats, American Bitterns and Wilson’s Snipe in our local marshes and wetlands, Bicknell’s Thrushes and Blackpoll Warblers in the spruce-fir forests of the High Peaks, and Bobolinks gracing our open pastures, such as those at Heaven Hill Farm.
This activity of spring and early summer seems to go by in a blink. By the time we get very far into July, it begins to slow down. The birds are all still here, but with nesting wrapping up for many of them, they become quieter. And so birders have to work a little harder to find some species as the summer advances, but they soon find many songbirds grouped together in mixed-species flocks, signaling one of the most exciting times of year in the Adirondacks and North Country.
After all, autumn in the bird calendar begins during summer, and August can be marked with tremendous waves of migrating birds as their numbers, swelled by successful nests across the region, are augmented further by migrants from the north. The flocks seem to materialize out of the air, splash the leaves and twigs along trails and lakes to life, and then suddenly move on to crash on the shore of another forest or hedgerow, leaving us breathless and wanting more.
Unfortunately, the late summer flocks do not stay around for long, meaning we all must get out and enjoy them when the opportunity arrives. Soon our avian diversity, which had grown so much during the spring and summer, begins to wane once again as the flocks continue on their journey south.
But our fall landscapes do not leave us empty-handed. Mixed fall flocks of nuthatches, kinglets, creepers, chickadees, and lingering warblers remain, and the diversity and numbers of fall sparrows can be stunning. We also find Rusty Blackbirds in some of our area wetlands, and our ears are soon greeted by the overhead calls of Pine Siskins, American Pipits, and Snow Buntings, while raptors continue their migration, which began in September.
Not to be outdone, waterfowl and aquatic species of all sorts pass through our lakes, including Mirror Lake, and birders can find anything from Red-necked Grebes to Lesser Scaup to Common Goldeneye. But soon our lakes begin to freeze over, and birders who wish to continue witnessing the phenomenon (and on a larger scale) should check out the Champlain Valley.
The latter half of fall is also when we begin to listen for the tell-tale calls of our first American Tree Sparrows, Evening Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, and Red and White-winged Crossbills of the season. Their arrival often marks the beginning of winter as they take us full circle to the holidays and our year begins anew.