New York is home to an impressively diverse array of natural habitats. The Empire State’s various ecoregions run the gamut from the beaches and marshes of Long Island to the grasslands and high peaks near the Canadian border. The Adirondack Mountains are perhaps the wildest, most distinct region of the state, representing the southern edge of the boreal forest biome that stretches across the northernmost portions of the continent. Many of the species that inhabit the Adirondacks can be found nowhere else in the state. This isolated pocket of taiga is one of the countless reasons birding in New York is so special.
I typically try to visit the Adirondack Park at least once a year, even if only for a few days. I grew up making annual pilgrimages to Rogers Rock Campground on Lake George, and it’s a rare summer that I don’t return to those shores. In January 2017, a wayward Ross’s Gull brought me to the town of Tupper Lake for the first time. February found me back for a pit stops on the way to and from a Great Gray Owl chase, and in 2019 I made a brief run up to the boreal forest to secure some state birds and track down my life Black-backed Woodpecker. Though I missed the window for cold weather birding in the early months of 2020, I knew that summer presented a new set of opportunities.
I invited Jacqi to join me for a few days of outdoor exploration based out of Shaheen’s Adirondack Inn, which is currently offering contactless check-in in order to help visitors maintain social distancing. We arrived at the hotel on the evening of Monday, July 13th and set out a short twilight drive down Circle Road. Some of the creatures encountered before nightfall included two Barred Owls hooting in the distance, an American Beaver paddling its way upstream from Little Tupper Lake, and a trio of American Woodcocks flying from the woods towards Sabattis Bog. Once the sun had fully set, we returned to our lodgings to settle in for the night. We knew we had an early wake-up call awaiting us the next day.
By the time the sun was rising on the morning of the 14th, Jacqi and I were already on our way to our first stop: Massawepie Mire. This site is the largest bog in all of New York state, and a converted railroad track running through the property provides a level dirt path for hikers to easily access some fantastic boreal habitat. The trailside wetlands and woodlands proved to be delightfully lively, with birdsong echoing loudly through the low-lying mists hanging over the landscape. Olive-sided Flycatchers declared their territories from atop prominent snags, and Palm Warblers flitted back and forth across the road with new fledglings in tow. Hermit Thrushes, Winter Wrens, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and a variety of warblers added their voices to the dawn chorus.
Unfortunately for us, the bloodthirsty insects of the mire proved to be even more active than the birds. Thick clouds of biting flies followed us all the way along the trail, steadily increasing in size the longer we walked. Our bug spray did little to deter these unwelcome guests, so we picked up the pace for the return leg of the hike and beat a hasty retreat back to our car. The birding didn’t stop once we reached the vehicle, with the drive out of Massawepie producing Broad-winged Hawk and Eastern Bluebird for my year list. We also encountered multiple Wild Turkeys en route to the next destination, usually accompanied by large numbers of poults following close behind.
When we pulled in to park on the roadside at Sabattis Bog, we were pleased to see that there were no hungry bugs swarming the windows. Instead, we were greeted by silent, gray shadows that floated down out of the surrounding trees. Before we even stepped out of the car, the Canada Jays were in position, eyeing us intently from the nearby branches. These clever corvids have grown accustomed to being fed by birders along Circle Road, and they’re not at all shy about seeking handouts. As expected, Jacqi thoroughly enjoyed their adorable antics. This species is one of the most iconic, popular boreal birds with good reason.
The resident pair of adult jays was accompanied by a recently-fledged youngster, who was already every bit as brazen and charming as its parents. It was quick to pounce on tossed peanuts, snatching up morsels from the pavement and retreating to the forest to consume them. I’ve met Canada Jays on a number of occasions across the continent, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with a juvenile bird. It was certainly a fun addition to my list of confirmation contributions to the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, and the photo ops were also exceptional.
The warmth of the sun and the dearth of insects made our time at Sabattis Bog especially enjoyable. In addition to the Canada Jay family, there were plenty of other critters around to provide entertainment. Pileated Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Blue Jay were among the bird species observed during the stakeout, and the songs of Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, and Magnolia Warbler provided a lovely soundtrack. One particular American Red Squirrel was especially protective of the feeding station on the edge of the bog, noisily defending the stockpile of seeds and suet from Eastern Chipmunks, White-throated Sparrows, and other squirrels who attempted to partake in the bounty. It was quite a spectacle to behold, even if the scale of the conflict rendered it more amusing than awe-inspiring.
Jacqi and I took our lunch break on the bridge overlooking Little Tupper Lake. It was quite a scenic location to enjoy a meal, with the clouds overhead beautifully mirrored in the glass-like surface of the water. New fledgling confirmations for my Atlas checklist at this site included Barn Swallows and Yellow Warblers. Once we’d eaten our fill and started north, we also spied a baby and parent Common Loon floating on Tupper Lake. We drove through a handful of brief, light sunshowers along the way, a far cry from the ominous forecast of storms that had been predicted in the days leading up to the trip. Truly, we couldn’t have asked for better weather for this Adirondack expedition.
While I don’t need a specific excuse to spend time upstate, I must confess that I did have a particular target in mind when planning this trip. After finally connecting with Bicknell’s Thrush a few weeks ago, I was left with only one breeding species in New York that I still needed for my world life list: the Spruce Grouse. For years, I considered this bird an impossible dream, a legendary and cryptic creature that had all but vanished from its southernmost strongholds in the Empire State. If I wanted to see one, I would probably have to try my luck somewhere in Canada or the northern border states where the species is more reliable. However, thanks to recent efforts by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack population of Spruce Grouse has gotten a helping hand that seems to be making something of a difference. Land management, introductions of new individuals, and education campaigns directed at locals and hunters are all currently underway, and sightings of the rare birds are on the rise.
The outlook of the future isn’t all rosy for the New York Spruce Grouse. This is still a sensitive species which is highly susceptible to threats like habitat fragmentation, vehicular collisions, and climate change. Nevertheless, it’s heartening to see that the ongoing conservation initiatives appear to be having some measure of success. I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a Spruce Grouse during my travels, little more than a chunky shadow with a conspicuous swath of white across the breast hopping up from the roadside into the branches of the conifers. It was a fittingly fleeting encounter with this vanishingly scarce denizen of the Adirondack boreal forest, and a wonderful prize for our short-lived quest. My copilot happened to be dozing in the shotgun seat at the time of my sighting, but fate paid her back the next day by delivering a distant view of a bird crossing a trail while I was distracted by nearby sparrows.
The early afternoon hours were spent exploring a path that runs from Blue Mountain Road towards Madawaska Pond. New additions to the trip list included Swainson’s Thrush and Golden-crowned Kinglet, and we also spotted another young Canada Jay moving through the trees. Insects were abundant at this site, and thankfully most of them wanted nothing to do with our blood. White Admirals, Atlantis Fritillaries, and other butterflies fluttered about the trailside blossoms, joined by a handful of dragonflies and hoverflies. A White-tailed Deer paused for a moment up ahead before continuing into the woods, one of the few large mammals we observed on our journey. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the Madawaska track were another pair of approaching birders, who I quickly recognized as Ken and Sue Feustel. We swapped updates about our recent sightings and plans for the rest of the week before continuing on. I was grateful for the opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces. That being said, their appearance cost me a bet with Jacqi. I should have known we wouldn’t be the only birders enjoying the splendor of the Adirondack Mountains at this time of year!
We started back towards Tupper Lake in the mid-afternoon, noting groups of Common Ravens and two mother White-tailed Deer with fawns along the way. Jacqi and I were both exhausted from the predawn start to our day, and we were planning to get up just as early the next morning. After a relaxing evening hanging around Shaheen’s, we turned in at a reasonable hour so we’d be adequately prepared for our second day of adventures. Once again, we departed from the hotel before the sun was visible on the horizon. We returned to Massawepie Mire armed with considerably stronger bug spray than we’d packed for the previous visit, but to our great relief we found that the abundance and ferocity of the flies had decreased by several orders of magnitude. Unsurprisingly, our experience on this second visit was considerably more enjoyable.
The sunny weather and reduced fog resulted in improved vistas all around the mire, and the songbirds were rather vocal about their appreciation for the improved conditions. Canada Warbler, Brown Creeper, Blackburnian Warbler, Alder Flycatcher, and Chestnut-sided Warbler were among the species detected during our stroll down the old rail bed. Ravens croaked in the distance while chickadees and kinglets fluttered through the branches overhead. It was a beautiful day to be out on the bog.
Red squirrels and chipmunks were as common as ever, but we also stumbled upon signs of some other mystery mammals along the trail. I was surprised to find mole tunnels crossing the dirt road at two different locations, with one leading to a burrow that dug deeper into the soil. Research suggests this Bugs Bunny-esque runway was excavated by either a Hairy-tailed or Star-nosed Mole. A set of large, strangely-shaped tracks in the mud near Silver Brook, which is close to the end of the accessible path, gave us pause at first. Having reviewed several different resources, it seems likely that these footprints were left behind by a passing American Beaver. Searching for mammals is often more challenging than birding, and I always love when I can find concrete evidence of the forest’s more secretive residents.
We past the Feustels once again on our way out of the Mire, exchanging details on our Canada Warbler sighting for a tip to check near the parking area for Mourning Warbler, which we did successfully. From there we continued on to Tupper Lake, where a scan of the northern marshes turned up American Bitterns, Ring-necked Ducks, and Eastern Kingbirds. Back at Sabattis Bog, the Canada Jay family was nowhere to be seen, but I was pleased to hear my first Red Crossbill of the year. Our final birding stop for the day was back on Blue Mountain Road, this time exploring the southern trail to the St. Regis River. A fledgling Lincoln’s Sparrow was one of the highlights on this hike, which also featured a flotilla of baby Wood Ducks and singing Pine and Black-throated Blue Warblers.
Once again, the bulk of our outdoor efforts were complete by the time mid-afternoon rolled around. However, I had one more scheme in mind before departing the Adirondacks. Once the sun had set, we set off on a final drive down Circle Road in the hopes of finding some nocturnal birds. It turned out to be a bit buggier than I would’ve liked, and there was no sign of the Barred Owls we’d heard a few nights prior. When I stopped the car near a stand of conifers down the road from Little Tupper Lake, I immediately heard several small, raspy hisses coming from the shadowed branches. Jacqi and I tried in vain to get a visual on the hidden birds, but I did manage to obtain a very faint recording. Comparing this audio to samples online suggests that these could have been fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owls. Unfortunately, without getting a visual or good recordings there was no way to confidently confirm this tentative identification. Satisfied with the results of our search efforts, we finally returned to our beds.
Jacqi and I allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit on Thursday morning, rising at around 8 AM and pulling our things together for departure. Soon we were on the road again, passing the beautiful views along the shores of Tupper Lake as we slowly made our way south. A Ruffed Grouse crossing the road between Long Lake and Newcomb was a welcome parting gift, especially considering that I hadn’t seen this species in several years. We made a brief stop at my parents’ Lake George campground for a delicious lunch before continuing on and leaving the Adirondack Mountains behind us.
During the course of this upstate getaway, I recorded 11 new year birds, including a lone, briefly-glimpsed lifer, as well as 8 species confirmed as breeders for the Atlas. Even without these listing prizes, it was a genuine treat to be up in the boreal forest again. The rich scent of evergreens, the still, starry nights, and the wonderful wildlife are well-worth the journey and effort necessary to seek them out. The Adirondacks will always have a special place in my heart, and I was thankful for the opportunity to share this magical habitat with Jacqi for the first time. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.