Back to the Dacks

The Adirondack Park is one of my favorite regions in all of New York. I’ve waxed poetic on numerous occasions in the past about how much I love exploring the forests and bogs of this magnificent mountain range. The birding in this part of the state is excellent year round, but each season offers unique highlights. It had been several years since my last winter visit to the Adirondacks, and I was eager for an excuse to get back up there. Particularly, I hoped I would finally have the opportunity to add a long-overdue species to my New York State bird list: White-winged Crossbill.

During the later months of 2021, I started hearing reports that irrupting crossbills were invading the forests of upstate New York. The Winter Finch Forecast for 2021-2022 had predicted that these species would likely move into the Adirondacks in some numbers. My friend Ryan Mandelbaum, a member of the Finch Research Network, set out in January 2022 to survey the scene along with master of all things crossbill Matt Young. They returned with an incredible field report, describing a spectacle the likes of which New Yorkers haven’t witnessed in decades. Both Red and White-winged Crossbills are nomadic by nature, wandering widely in search of productive coniferous trees. Whenever and wherever they encounter a suitable blend of habitat and resources, they set up shop and breed to take advantage of the bounty. This year, the spruces and hemlocks of the Adirondacks have yielded a bumper crop of cones, and the finches had evidently taken notice. Though I have seen Red Crossbills annually in New York since my first state sighting in 2017, I had somehow never connected with their White-winged cousins. It was clear that the current conditions in the Dacks offered my best chance yet to finally track down these unpredictable drifters. 

After enjoying a Vermont ski weekend and a few days in Connecticut with Jacqi’s family, I set out for the Adirondacks before dawn. Following a largely uneventful drive, my arrival in the Park was marked by a trio of Ruffed Grouse crossing the road. As soon as I reached the tracts of boreal forest that line Route 28N, I started seeing crossbills everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They were flitting from tree to tree and gritting on the surface of the road itself, and their chipping calls rang out from every direction.

It quickly became apparent that the Red Crossbills were the more abundant and widespread of the two species, but it didn’t take me long at all to find the White-wings I was searching for. In areas of prime habitat, such as bogs and heavily cone-laden groves, they tended to outnumbered the Reds. As I made my way along Tahawus Road, I found crossbills of both types defending territories. The White-wings circled the treetops in dramatic courtship flights, trilling with gusto, while the Reds delivered their songs from the crowns of the highest snags. The crossbills weren’t the only finches out in force either. There were plenty of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches about, and I heard Purple Finches at several sites as well. There was quite literally never a time when I stopped the car that I didn’t encounter some sort of finch activity. It was truly an unforgettable scene to behold. 

I devoted a large chunk of my day to hiking out to Wolf Pond, setting off from the trailhead along Blue Ridge Road just after noon. The slick, snowy conditions made for slow going, but the views were lovely and there were plenty of crossbills around. In some of the denser stands of conifers, the ground was littered with discarded pieces of cones that had been torn apart by the ravenous flocks.

I returned to the car in the late afternoon, just as snow was starting to fall. It gradually intensified into a short-lived squall with near white out conditions as I made my way towards my lodgings for the night. I took a brief detour down Circle Road once the precipitation began to subside, but I didn’t see much of note in the fading light. I safely arrived at the Long View Lodge in Long Lake ahead of sunset. The food and drinks at the hotel bar were just what I needed after a full day on the road, and I crashed hard once I finally settled into my room for the night.

The next morning I was up with the sun, returning to Circle Road to check out one of the best boreal bird hotspots in the whole of the Adirondacks: Sabattis Bog. It was considerably colder than the previous day, requiring me to bundle up more thoroughly. A Ruffed Grouse flushed up into the trees as I turned off Route 30, and I discovered that the roadside feeding stations were already bustling with activity. The sound of distant drumming across the bog caught my attention, and it was soon echoed by a closer response behind me. A pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers flew into view, snarling at one another and playing peek-a-boo from opposite sides of a snag while the far-off bird continued hammering away. This species is one of the sought after taiga specialties that can be found nowhere else in New York outside the Adirondack Mountains. This was my first Black-back sighting since my lifer encounter back in 2019, so I was thrilled to cross paths with these coal-colored foresters again.

It wasn’t long before the top-billed celebrities of Sabattis Bog made their grand entrance. A trio of fluffy Canada Jays came floating out of the frozen forest in search of a meal. These charismatic corvids are some of my favorite denizens of the Empire State, and no trip to the Adirondacks is complete without some quality time in their company. Their adaptability, cleverness, and adorable looks all add up to make for an incredibly lovable critter. During my last visit to the Park in the summer of 2020, Jacqi fell for the charms of the bog’s resident family of jays, joyfully declaring them her favorite bird species. They’ve always been pretty high up on my personal list as well: I did make a familiar out of one during a previous D&D campaign, after all! I couldn’t resist offering some of my trail mix for the jays to sample, and one of them briefly lit on my hand to snatch a morsel before retreating back into the woods.

The overall diversity of birds in the boreal forest during the winter is fairly low, but the quality of the species present is generally quite high. Additional highlights from the second day of my Adirondack trip included multiple Common Ravens, a flyby Merlin, and several flocks of Common Redpolls. My final major stop of the day was the Roosevelt Truck Trail, another hiking track that heads out into the woods off Blue Ridge Road. The towering trees lining the trail made for a scenic stroll, and with a bit of pishing I was able to coax a number of birds of interest out of hiding. Another Black-backed Woodpecker swooped low over me with a harsh rattle, and a mixed flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Golden-crowned Kinglets swirled through the boughs of the evergreens. A little further down the path, I came upon a dense stand of spruces near a stream crossing. Multiple wheezy voices announced the arrival of a small band of Boreal Chickadees patrolling the grove. Most of my previous experiences with these tiny taiga-dwellers have involved fleeting glimpses of birds mixed in with their Black-capped relatives, so it was a special treat to enjoy close views of a multiple individuals.

After finishing up at the Truck Trail, I checked out a few more sites of interest and revisited some productive locations from the previous day. My efforts were rewarded with another Canada Jay sighting, one more Ruffed Grouse, and plenty of singing crossbills. It wasn’t easy to pry myself away from all these fantastic boreal birds, but I knew that I had a lot of ground to cover to make it home before an oncoming winter storm. Even though I spent less than 30 total hours in the Adirondack Park for this visit, there is no denying that the trip was a roaring success. I successfully ticked the highly anticipated state bird I came looking for, and I’d also been fortunate enough to reunite with a number of the wonderful species that call these mountains home. As usual, I departed from the Adirondacks already looking forward to my next visit. Here’s hoping I get the chance to make another trip up before the year is through!