Boreal Bird Blitz

Tim HealyBird Finding Tips, Bird Sightings, Birding, Photography, Rarities, Science, Trip ReportsLeave a Comment

No one likes to let vacation time go to waste. As my schedule began to fill up with responsibilities and obligations, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to orchestrate a grand international adventure for my February break this year. Nevertheless, I still had a few days to spare and didn’t want to spend them just sitting around. I decided to set my sights on a relatively local destination for a short-but-sweet jaunt up to the Adirondack Mountains. The planned itinerary outlined a lightning round sweep through the best boreal habitat. There were several specialty species I hoped to add to my various lists, and the opportunity to spend some quality time in the wintry woods was exactly the change of pace I craved.

Newcomb

I made great time on my journey north, departing from Long Island before sunrise and reaching the Adirondacks around 10 AM. My first stops were a series of pullouts east of Newcomb along 28N. The roadside wetlands and clearings offer good vantage points to scan for wildlife. Birding in the boreal forest during winter is often a challenge. The snow-covered, wooded habitat muffles most sounds, and many residents are sparsely distributed among the densely packed trees. Even animals as large as a Moose are shockingly inconspicuous and difficult to track down. Fortunately, open spaces like bogs and marshes provide food and water for critters and increased visibility for critter watchers. There wasn’t much happening at these initial sites, however, so I drove on towards the turnoff for Blue Ridge Road.

Continuing ahead up Tahawus Road, I paused at regular intervals to listen for avian activity. Though the frozen forest was generally quiet, the silence was periodically interrupted by small bands of Black-capped Chickadees working their way through the branches. Amidst their constant twittering chatter, I noticed a wheezy, raspy version of the familiar “chick-a-dee-dee” calls. Turning my binoculars towards the source of the noise, I spotted a chickadee of a different color. It had a brown cap atop its head and rich chestnut feathers on the flanks, as well as a reduced white patch on the cheeks. Boreal Chickadee: one of my top priority birds for the trip! It has been several years since I last encountered the species, and I had never before seen one in New York State. The chickadee quickly disappeared from sight in the shadows of the conifers, but I managed to get a short recording of its distinctive vocalizations. Its Black-capped cousins were much more cooperative, perching close by and watching me curiously as I snapped photographs.

Sabattis Bog

My next destination was Circle Road, located off Route 30 between Long Lake and Tupper Lake. The woods and wetlands along this road are generally fantastic for birding, hosting a variety of finches, woodpeckers, gamebirds, and owls. The highlight of this area is Sabattis Bog, where several feeding stations are maintained by local bird guide Joan Collins. The combination of excellent habitat and reliable food supply makes Sabattis Bog perhaps the best site in New York for one of the state’s most iconic and charismatic boreal birds, the Canada Jay. Joan happened to be restocking the feeders when I pulled up to the bog. An attendant crowd of birds waited impatiently as she filled the suet cages and seed trays. The Canada Jays offered endless entertainment, bouncing from branch to branch and floating down to seize morsels whenever they saw an opening. I never tire of watching the antics of these brazen, adorable corvids.

I chatted with Joan for a while after she finished serving lunch to her feathered friends. When I outlined my timetable and explained which birds I was hoping to see, she generously shared some insider info and tips about likely locations in the vicinity. As a long-time resident of the region and an incredibly observant naturalist, Joan has a wealth of detailed, firsthand knowledge about the creatures of the Adirondacks. We also discussed seasonal and long-term changes in the mountains, including worrying downward trends in numbers and diversity from year to year. The boreal forests of New York are at the extreme southern edge of the taiga biome, making them isolated and especially sensitive to human impact. It was a sobering moment to consider all the threats facing this incredible ecosystem while surrounded by its beautiful scenery and lively inhabitants. If nothing else, it highlighted the importance of studying and conserving valuable refuges such as those found in the Adirondack Park.

Tupper Lake

I thanked Joan for her help and company and set out to continue heading north. Making my way through the town of Tupper Lake, I passed a number of familiar sights which brought back memories of the incredible Ross’s Gull that graced the region in 2017. The lake itself was more fully frozen than my visits in previous winters, and distinctly devoid of vagrant seabirds. Only a small patch of open water remained under the bridge on Route 30. I have seen River Otters along this stretch of road in the past, but I saw no sign of this time despite keeping an eye out as I drove by. Following up on intel from Joan and several eBird checklists, I scoped some of the yards in town where locals had set up bird feeders. Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls were reportedly making regular morning visits to these feeding stations, but by the time I arrived I saw only a handful of chickadees. As I turned to leave, I spotted a lone red-capped finch perched in the branches of a nearby birch.

As I examined the redpoll more closely, I noticed it showed several intriguing field marks. The bird was strikingly light in overall coloration, with a pale face and a white, unstreaked rump. Both the black facial mask and the bright red crown appeared small and sharply defined, and the bill seemed especially stubby. The flanks showed moderate streaking, but the undertail coverts had no discernible markings at all. Having not seen a redpoll of any kind in several years, I felt that my ID skills were a bit rusty, but this individual was looking decidedly un-Common. When I later had the chance to review my blurry, distant photos on a computer screen and consult with other birders, I finally felt confident identifying this individual as a Hoary Redpoll. This represents another new addition to my state list for the time being, though ongoing research on the redpoll complex suggests that a lump may be inevitable. All redpolls are good redpolls in my book, and this sighting was a welcome treat.

Saranac Lake

I reached my final destination of the day, Saranac Lake, in the late afternoon. The sun was sinking low in the sky as I pulled into town, and it was clear that the birds were already starting to bed down. A short walk along the side streets turned up a few ravens, pigeons, and chickadees, but little else. I checked in for the night and the Hotel Saranac, partaking in some delicious poutine, an excellent burger, and a few cocktails before turning in. With an early alarm set, I planned to get out at sunrise in search of my two remaining “most wanted” birds: Black-backed Woodpecker and Pine Grosbeak.

I started Day Two at Bloomingdale Bog, just north of Saranac Lake. All was quiet at the first bridge overlooking the bog, and I found only a handful of chickadees and nuthatches on the trek north towards Bigelow Road. Once there, I wandered east until I came to a large grove of dead trees. Areas like this are popular with woodpeckers in general and Black-backs in particular. Such concentrations of standing dead trunks provide rich foraging opportunities, suitable snags for excavating nest cavities, and hollow, resonant drumming stations for advertising their territories. Indeed, I encountered multiple Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers along this stretch, but there was no sign of my hoped-for lifer. I got back in the car and relocated to the intersection of Oregon Plains Road and Bigelow Road. Walking west revealed more of the same: plenty of woodpeckers, but not the one I was searching for.

I returned to Saranac Lake in the late morning. Repeating my route from the previous afternoon, I strolled down Church Street and searched the crabapple trees for signs of activity. Pine Grosbeaks had been frequently reported feeding on these fruits in the weeks prior, but I knew that birders who came before me had some difficulty pinning them down. The ongoing invasion of these elusive nomads during the winter of 2018-2019 was one of the main reasons I planned this trip in the first place. Even though these birds are predictably unpredictable, I knew that this season was my best chance to reunite with the species and add it to my New York list. As I approached the intersection with River Street, I was delighted to see half a dozen grosbeaks feasting among the limbs of the crabapples. The birds spent several minutes silently extracting seeds before they took off together and departed to the east. Following this success, I had only one remaining target to seek out.

Back to Newcomb

My Adirondack adventure had followed a flexible, on-the-fly schedule up until this point, and I knew that my itinerary for the second half of the day was very much in flux. The Black-backed Woodpecker was my most desired quarry for the entire trip, the only lifer I could reasonably expect to find in the region. However, I knew that this boreal specialty was particularly tricky and unreliable. Joan had advised me to check the marshy areas along 28N, but cautioned that the birds were most active first thing in the morning. I had originally planned to head back to Long Island by nightfall, but what if I didn’t find the woodpecker? Sloppy, stormy conditions to the south also threatened to make the return trip a treacherous headache. I considered that it might be wiser to stay an extra night and try again first thing in the morning. It would be ideal, though, if I could locate the bird and start my journey south before dark.

I backtracked down Circle Road, taking advantage of the marginally warmer afternoon temperatures and rolling down my windows. Nothing to see, nothing to hear. Traffic along 28N had picked up a bit since the morning, and with limited space on the shoulder I settled for a quick drive-by sweep of the wetlands. Eventually, I found my way back to Tahawus Road, where most of the recent eBird reports for the species were concentrated. After multiple stops and no small amount of effort up and down the length of the road, I finally heard strange snarling rattle calls in the trees around the bend from Blue Ridge Road. These were followed by deep, deliberate drumming, and at long last the Black-backed Woodpecker revealed itself to me. I enjoyed brief but surprisingly good views, and even got to take a few recordings as the bird knocked back and forth with some nearby Hairy Woodpeckers. Not a bad first lifer for 2019!

Heading Home

Rather than spend the remainder of the day twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the bad weather to arrive, I chose to get a move on and begin the long drive home. The storm moved north to meet me as I slowly rolled south, greeting me with snowflakes when I reached Albany County. Road conditions got a bit sloppy as I traveled down the Taconic State Parkway. I got stuck behind snowplows and salt trucks at a few points, but traffic continued moving at a good pace overall. Visibility never got bad enough that my windshield wipers couldn’t handle it, and I completed the ride without a hitch. The return trip took just over 5 hours: barely longer than my early morning drive up the previous day.

For a short-range, day-and-a-half-long vacation in my home state, this outing turned out to be a roaring success. Although I only encountered a handful of species during my brief stay, most were fantastic birds that I haven’t seen in several years. Among them were my first lifer of the new year and a trio of additional new species for my state list. Honestly, I’ve never been disappointed by a trip to the Adirondacks. There are always plenty of natural surprises awaiting the explorers who seek them out. Peaceful boreal bogs and frosty mountain forests are worthwhile rewards in their own right, too. These wonderful wildlands represent some of the best New York State has to offer. There’s no doubt in my mind that the region is a prize worth protecting.