It was time to go back to the Adirondacks. I had a yearning to see bogs and wildflowers, boreal birds and unusual dragonflies. So, I joined Scott Barnes, Linda Mack, and a very interesting group of people on New Jersey Audubon’s annual Adirondacks van trip in mid-June. I was looking forward to this trip for several reasons:
- The itinerary involved areas of the Daks I had never been to before;
- It was a VAN trip, which meant I did not have to drive;
- During the years (all too few years) I was a volunteer at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, I had signed people up for this trip with a great deal of envy since my schedule always conflicted, usually with a work thing;
- I had heard fun stories about the trip from my friend Laura, Somewhere in New Jersey. The stories usually involved black flies, lots of black flies, but I figured that if Laura was covered with biting bugs and still had a good time, then this must be one hell of a trip.
We zipped up north to the Saranac Lake, Franklin County area on a Friday and headed immediately for Bloomingdale Bog. Boreal bogs are the cornerstone of Adirondack birding, nutrient-poor wetlands that accumulate acidic peat, a deposit of dead plant material. Because of the lack of nutrients, the number of plants and creatures that grow in boreal bogs is limited, but those that do are very special, living things that can live in harsh conditions and often no place else. Places like Bloomingdale Bog take hundreds of years to form, and are too easily destroyed. So, I was happy to be in this special place.
We walked down Bigelow Road, a dirt road at the northern end of the bog. (I’m a bit confused about the relationship between Bloomingdale Bog and Bigelow Road. They seem to be the same but separate places.) And walked. And walked. It was late afternoon and not very birdy. But, there seemed to be a purpose to our walk, and finally Scott told us that he had been told about a Black-backed Woodpecker nest in the area. Right past the big puddle. Oh. Since Scott had gotten these directions a week ago, there was much discussion about whether the puddle would still be there, and what constituted a big puddle. But, soon the well-eared amongst us (not me!) heard the sound of young woodpeckers, and there was a Black-backed Woodpecker feeding young at a fairly large hole in a tree near the road.
I was lucky, I got a good look before the bird flew away. But not everybody did, the greenery blocked a straight-on view for many in the group. So we waited, and soon the mama woodpecker was flying in. We couldn’t see the baby birds, deep in the nest hole, but we could certainly hear them chittering away in joy as mama arrived. And, a few feet down the road we found an excellent viewing site where somebody had clipped the greenery down to eye level. Aha! A much better marker than a puddle (which actually was still there). And, everybody got to see these beautiful, striking woodpeckers. Life bird for some, a good bird for all. An excellent start to the weekend!
On the way back, we encountered our second boreal species, Gray Jay! These birds are irresistible–gregarious, curious, and totally adorable looking. An interesting change from the imposing Blue Jays I’m used to. I had first seen Gray Jays out in Colorado, where we would throw them chips and then try to photograph them as they ate the chips and flew away. These jays were no different. When we encountered them again the next day, Cathy volunteered to share her peanuts with the jays, and she quickly became the most popular birder in the bog!
It wasn’t always easy to photograph the Gray Jays, they moved very quickly to and from Cathy’s hand, flying to the top of a tall spruce when the peanuts ran out. But, they were a lot closer than many of the other boreal species we saw that weekend. Yellow-belled, Least, and Alder Flycatchers and Lincoln’s Sparrow were all seen best through the scope.
I was extremely happy that the other boreal species we saw naked-eye in your face close was Mourning Warbler, Geothlypis philadelphia. We encountered this songbird on a rainy Sunday, first on a roadside where only a few of us saw it well, and then, wonder of wonders, at the Azure Mountain trailhead. This handsome, vigorous bird was singing loudly when we got there, and just a hint of its song brought it into our sight immediately. He did not leave the area until we left, though he spent most of his time in the brush and leaves, as they are wont to do. This was definitely my favorite bird of the trip.
There are many natural wonders to enjoy in the Adirondacks in addition to birds. I am clueless when it comes to the striking plant life, so I’m going to quote from the excellent Paul Smith’s College Visitor’s Interpretive Center web page: ”This habitat is a nutrient-poor, acidic wetland dominated by sphagnum mosses, sedges, and shrubs and evergreen trees rooted in deep peat. The two main trees found on Barnum Bog are Black Spruce and Tamarack. Tamaracks, which are also known as the Eastern Larch or American Larch, are coniferous (cone-bearing) trees which behave like a deciduous tree; the needles of the Tamarack turn a golden yellow in fall and drop to the ground, appearing again in the spring. Tamaracks thrive in the acidic environment of bogs.” The photo on the left is a Tamarack, Larix laricina, close-up. Yes! Those are cones, in this case young female cones. The male cones are yellow.
I’m going to write about the dragonflies and butterflies of the Daks, and a surprise non-bird creature, in another blog post, June in the Daks, part 2. To end this post, here are some photos of the view from the last stop on our trip, Whiteface Mountain. I did not get the life bird view of Bicknell’s Thrush that I was hoping for, but I did hear it. (In a way I’m happy I didn’t get the bird, because that means I still have a life bird in New York State to look forward to.) I also got an interesting lesson in attitudes towards the environment in 1929, when the building of the Whiteface Memorial Highway was first proposed. “A few spots should be left for those who enjoy the out-of-doors on foot.” Well, I tend to agree with preserving land, but I’m happy they built that road. Climbing 4,867 feet is not my idea of birding fun. The road enabled us to drive almost to the top, with the remaining 267 feet achieved through an elevator reached through a tunnel into the mountain. Even on a cloudy day, the views were a wonderful reminder of the beauty of the Daks.