April Break in the Adirondacks

You can never keep me away from the Adirondacks for long. Though I don’t get to go birding in New York’s own boreal forest oasis nearly as often as I might like to, I make a conscious effort to take the journey to the far upstate on a regular basis. Some years are regrettably missed, while others provide opportunities for multiple visits, but I’ll always be grateful that this remarkable habitat exists within relatively close striking distance of home. With spring break 2023 rapidly approaching, I realized that I had a perfect chance to explore this beloved corner of my state during a new season. My family used to vacation in the region every summer during my childhood, and I’ve made a number of winter trips in recent years, but I had never before been to the Adirondack Park during early spring. I was eager to see what surprises might be lurking among the wetlands and woodlands of the High Peaks at this time of year, so I charted a course for a solo expedition to make the most of my week off from work.

After a lovely Easter celebration with Jacqi’s family in Connecticut, I set out for the Adirondacks on Monday morning. I reached my destination in the early afternoon, which allowed me enough daylight to check out a few sites before turning in for the night. My first proper stop was Bloomingdale Bog, where I spent a few hours traipsing along the trails. It was immediately apparent that winter’s grip on the region was rapidly loosening, with only a few patches of snow remaining and plenty of meltwater flooding the path. The birdlife of the bog featured a blend of lingering winter visitors and newly arrived early spring migrants. A few American Tree Sparrows were spotted hanging around the feeders, and a female Northern Harrier cruised by at low altitude. I reveled in the refreshingly calm atmosphere of this wetland wonderland, savoring my time in the taiga as the sun dipped lower in the sky. 

I meandered towards Saranac Lake as sunset approached, checking in at the Hotel Saranac and settling down for a hearty dinner. After a long day on the road with an early start awaiting me in the morning, I was eager to get a good night’s sleep. I set out on Tuesday just before sunrise, making my way towards Blue Mountain Road near Keese Mill. Though this quiet dirt roadway leads through some fantastic boreal habitat, a large portion of the passage is unmaintained during the winter. The remnant snowbanks and the deepening mud meant that I was unable to reach the prime hotspots during this visit, but I still found quality birding opportunities along the accessible stretch of the thoroughfare. A noisy flock of Evening Grosbeaks flew in to visit the feeders in a yard near the snowplow turnaround, and I was delighted to hear the distinctive triplet flight calls of a passing Pine Grosbeak floating through the trees. This winter’s irruptive finch flight only lightly grazed NYC and Long Island, but up in the Adirondacks the numbers were evidently among the best in recent memory. It isn’t terribly surprising that there are some flocks still hanging around into the spring. Here’s hoping a few of them stick around to nest this season!

I backtracked along the road and detoured past Bloomingdale Bog, keeping my windows rolled down to listen for birdsong. Winter Wrens, Brown Creepers, and Purple Finches were among the species that could be heard declaring their territories from the forest as I drove along. I continued south through the town of Tupper Lake, pausing at each of the causeway overlooks to survey the marshy shoreline. A soft scurrying sound just below the observation platform drew my gaze to the well-camouflaged form of a Wilson’s Snipe crouched among the reeds. The bird seemed reluctant to flush when we locked eyes for a brief moment, so I intentionally turned my head to allow it the dignity of slipping away on foot, which it promptly took advantage of. The brisk winds started to intensify as I scoped the lakefront, but the local wildlife remained fairly active despite the breezy conditions. Highlights observed from this vantage point included diverse flocks of waterfowl, a handsome male Northern Harrier coursing over the wetlands, and a pair of Muskrats engaged in a fierce territorial squabble.

I continued on towards Circle Road near Long Lake, one of my most beloved birding sites in all of the Adirondacks. I stopped near the roadside feeders at Sabattis Bog, but found that this usually productive site was surprisingly quiet. The highlight of this initial visit was a Red-breasted Nuthatch hard at work in the process of excavating a nest cavity, a welcome new confirmation for my personal New York Breeding Bird Atlas total. I stopped briefly at Little Tupper Lake before turning back around to retrace my path more slowly and methodically. Just before I reached the edge of the bog, I finally spotted a fluffy gray form floating across the road like a paper airplane. I pulled over on the shoulder, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I was greeted by a Canada Jay who came bouncing back out of the woods to regard me with bright, curious eyes. This species is far and away my favorite resident of New York’s boreal forests, a charismatic creature that perfectly blends adorable charm with adaptable cunning to steal the hearts and trail mix of all who wander through their territory. This individual was apparently uninterested in food, but still sat a while at close range and whispered soft songs as I reveled in its company. I was especially pleased to see that this jay had been banded by Adirondack birder extraordinaire Joan Collins, who is currently conducting a behavioral study of these clever corvids. Few know this region as intimately as Joan does, and she has always been a graciously welcoming guide for visiting birders who seek the specialty species of the Park. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing more about the discoveries of her ongoing research into the lives of these remarkable birds.

The rest of the early afternoon was spent exploring, include a reconnaissance effort at Massawepie Road to scout the conditions ahead of my planned hike the following day. I was relieved to see that there was parking available and that the path to the trailhead didn’t look prohibitively sloppy, which boded well for my hopes of reaching the famous Massawepie Mire. It seemed that woodland bird activity at most sites was somewhat suppressed by the increasingly gusty winds during the back half of the day. I eventually received a positive report of some continuing regional rarities back in Saranac Lake, and I made haste to follow up on the sighting. Upon my arrival at the grounds of the local high school, I spied the unmistakable towering frames of a pair of Sandhill Cranes patrolling the practice field. This species is a scarce and unpredictable migrant along the coast of New York, but breeding has been documented in several scattered sites upstate. A pair has returned annually to the Tupper Lake marshes since at least 2016, and the arrival of this new prospecting couple hints at continuing colonization of suitable habitat in the Adirondacks. Cranes are a universally exceptional family of birds that I don’t get to encounter nearly often enough for my taste. This extended, close range photoshoot was a welcome change of pace, and I relished the opportunity to spend some quality time with these majestic creatures.

My final night at the Hotel Saranac provided yet another tasty meal, complete with a personal s’mores platter for dessert. I made a point to get to bed at a reasonable hour, knowing that I had a grueling half-day hike ahead of me on the morrow.

The journey out Massawepie Road to the Mire trailhead is normally a short drive, only about 5 miles from the main highway. Like Blue Mountain Road, however, this passage remains unplowed throughout the winter months and is closed to vehicular traffic until later in the spring. Fortunately, the warm weather meant that most of the snow and ice had already melted away, making a trek on foot a feasible option. I strapped on a set of crampons and started hoofing it from the parking lot just before the official break of day, reaching my destination when the sun was still low over the horizon. In the quiet stillness on this early spring morning, the picturesque vistas of the fantastical fen made for a stunning backdrop to my dawn expedition.

I have previously visited Massawepie Mire a few times during the summer, when the infamous hordes of biting insects are at the zenith of their power. To my great relief, there was not a single black fly or mosquito to be seen during this outing. Though the soundscape of birds wasn’t quite as lively as the peak of breeding season, there were a number of newly arrived migrants that were already on territory at this early date. Palm Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, and countless Golden-crowned Kinglets kept me company as I trudged along the trail, and I also flushed an American Woodcock from dense cover near a creek crossing. This site is one of the few remaining strongholds in New York State for the elusive Spruce Grouse, a species which I encountered only fleetingly during my 2020 visit to the Adirondacks. I kept a weather eye out for this furtive cryptid as I passed through the groves of evergreens along the trail, but the closest I came to a sighting this time were a few heard-only, unidentified grouse that flushed before I caught a glimpse of them. Nevertheless, I did manage to successfully connect with another secretive avian inhabitant of the northwoods at the Mire. A steady drumming sound alerted me to the presence of a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers, with the female diligently flaking bark from the trunk of a tree while the male defended their turf with his percussive performance. This specialist species forages in areas with trees that have been killed by fire, insects, or water, and the isolated bogs of the Adirondacks are their favorite haunts within the boundaries of the Empire State. 

The birding at the Mire was outstanding as ever, but some of my most surprising highlights involved the mammalian denizens of the region. I discovered multiple sets of Moose tracks along the muddy trailways of Massawepie, including several fresh impressions that couldn’t have been created more than a few hours prior. While I have been fortunate enough to meet these magnificent beasties multiple times over the course of my career as a naturalist, I have not yet had the pleasure of crossing paths with one in my home state. Moose are widely distributed throughout the Adirondacks but seldom sighted near human habitations, so this near miss served to emphasize that I had wandered well off the beaten path. At the far end of the main trail through the bog, the quiet crunch of snow alerted me to the presence of a skulking watcher in the woods: a Short-tailed Weasel still sporting its winter Ermine pelage. I watched the diminutive predator for a few moments as it bounded through the undergrowth, eventually disappearing into a small tunnel under the ice. You never know what you may find when you’re exploring the wilder reaches of New York State!

I spent the better portion of my day at Massawepie, watching the weather turn from overcast with sporadic drizzle to bright and sunny. As expected, the long walk back to my parked car was a bit of a slog, but I did manage to get visual confirmation of a Ruffed Grouse that flushed from one of the side trails. I happened upon a few additional individuals over the course of the afternoon, including several confiding birds along the road. The forested habitats that these birds rely on are in notably short supply in coastal New York, which has resulted in the complete disappearance of the species from historical sites on Long Island. Given their rarity in the regions I bird most frequently, I’m always grateful for the opportunity to cross paths with these bizarre chickens of the woods.

With the sun sinking low in the evening sky, I paused for a spell in Long Lake to admire the newly arrived pair of Common Loons paddling around the town’s eponymous body of water. This species is intrinsically tied to the Adirondacks in my mind, with memories of their hauntingly beautiful cries echoing across the twilit expanse of Lake George solidifying their status among the ranks of my favorite creatures. Even though I see these birds in great numbers along the shores of Long Island each winter and regularly spy them migrating over New York City, they undoubtedly seem most at home among the mountains and lakes of the north. I continued on to Little Tupper Lake, where I watched the sunset ignite the western sky as a chorus of wildlife sang the woodlands to sleep. Woodcocks performed their sky dances, a grouse drummed in the distance, and the raucous hoots of a Barred Owl floated across the lake while the regular tail slaps of Beavers broke the stillness of the mirrored surface. The final prize of the day was a River Otter that I spotted frolicking in the stream beneath my vantage point on the bridge just before it got to dark to see. It was a truly blissful ending to an exhausting but exceptional day.

I reached my lodgings in Tupper Lake under cover of darkness, scrounging for dinner at a local pizza place, the sole eatery still open at such a late hour. My final morning of the trip saw me back at Little Tupper for daybreak, where I was treated to the thunderous pumping vocalizations of American Bitterns for the first time in my life. Though I have encountered these stealthy herons in a variety of contexts over the years, including active vismig on several occasions, nothing quite compares to auditory experience of their uniquely bizarre calls.

The last item on the docket for this wonderful spring tour of the Adirondacks was a quest to track down my final expected resident northwoods specialty: the Boreal Chickadee. These tiny but hardy birds can be difficult to detect outside the forests near the summits of the High Peaks themselves, but there are a few reliable areas where suitable extensive habitat still exists at lower elevations around the towns and roadsides of the Adirondack Park. I swept through a handful of sites as I made my way east, with long stretches of quiet punctuated by sightings of Common Raven, Wild Turkey, or Pileated Woodpecker, and I even picked out another Black-backed Woodpecker at a pullout along 28N. Eventually, it came down to my ace in the hole: Sand Pond Brook, an unassuming little spruce corridor that intersects with Blue Ridge Road just east of the Wolf Pond trailhead. Despite its location alongside a fairly busy road, this site has proven shockingly productive for boreal birds when I’ve visited in the past. I spent a few minutes cautiously patrolling the shoulder, briefly crossing paths with a friendly Canada Jay who was foraging along the edge of the forest. At long last, my efforts were rewarded when I heard the wheezy chittering of a pair of Boreal Chickadees flitting through the treetops. The birds were kind enough to post up prominently on illuminated branches, showing off their plush brown caps and toasty cinnamon flanks, before they took off across the road and disappeared from sight. Having successfully secured a taiga target hat trick, I returned to my vehicle with a broad smile on my face and began the long drive home to NYC. 

Every single time I visit the Adirondacks, I find that I am already looking forward to my next trip as soon as I depart from the Park. This early spring expedition was no exception, providing me with a number of overdue reunions with beloved critters and exciting new experiences in equal measure. With any luck, I’ll be back in the Dacks again before too long, but the fond memories of this delightful mini-vacation will surely sustain me until the road leads me back to the boreal forest once more.