Winter Birding: Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths

Using the Long Weekend to Go Birding

My brother Dave recently took advantage of the long weekend and came up for some winter birding in our area. Saturday’s weather offered up light snow showers, but warmer temperatures than we’ve had of late, and we headed out with Wren to Bigelow Road to start our day. Despite the pleasant temperature, the road was quiet, although we did hear a Boreal Chickadee with a group of Black-capped as we walked. Other than a Brown Creeper, that’s all we found. We checked out Oregon Plains Road, but finding nothing there, kept moving.

Bohemian Waxwings and Gray Jays!

A fellow birder had told me that he had found Bohemian Waxwings – the first noted in the area this season - along Fletcher Farm Road in Vermontville just two days earlier, so we headed across Muzzy Road to link up with Fletcher Farm. After my friend had noted the waxwings on Fletcher Farm Road, I found a flock in Saranac Lake, so we were hopeful to catch up with them. We were not to be disappointed. A short way down the road we found a flock of Bohemians – counting 74 in all – sitting in the top of a line of trees and dropping down to feast upon ornamental fruit trees. Excited, we stopped the car and got out to watch them for a while in the light snow. The waxwings ignored us and we listened to their constant chorus of rolling trilled calls.Gray Jays - Bloomingdale Bog

Finally satisfied with the waxwings, we headed down to Bloomingdale Bog. We walked about a mile each way, stopping near the power lines to be approached by Gray Jays hopeful of a handout. We obliged their request and fed them and the hoard of Black-capped Chickadees which were also attracted to the feeding station. Wren sat expecting a handout too, and she gleaned what she could from what we dropped in the snow. We also found a Red-breasted Nuthatch and heard a second Boreal Chickadee, although it never came into view. The rest of the trail was quiet, save the sound of the wind in the trees and a few passing snowmobiles. We decided to move on.

A Northern Shrike and a Black-backed Woodpecker!

We finished our hike and drove north towards Paul Smith’s. Near the tiny hamlet of Gabriels along the boundary of a Christmas tree farm, I noted a Northern Shrike sitting sentinel atop a small fir. I turned the car around and we returned, pulling off the road where we watched the shrike for a few minutes. A beautiful adult bird, the shrike sat looking for potential prey in the surrounding landscape, flicking its tail occasionally. We eventually drove on.Shrike Larry

We next drove a few roads around Gabriels – starting with Jones Pond Road where Red Crossbills have recently been noted. But the snow was picking up and the road was quiet wherever we stopped. So we continued on to the power line trail in Gabriels which takes birders into nice boreal habitat. By this time we had pushed off lunch a long way, but we had packed a variety of snacks to help hold us over. We walked in along the trail in the snow, soon finding two Gray Jays again. We walked a bit further up to a large, frozen wet area surrounded with conifers. I sometimes find Black-backed Woodpecker there, and I made a Barred Owl call to see if I could agitate a woodpecker into giving its hiding place away. Almost immediately after I hooted a Black-backed answered with a rattle call and flew across the trail landing in front of us in order to inspect this daytime owl! I love it when things work out like that. The woodpecker – a male - flew from perch to perch feeding, twice flying directly over us and rattling even though I had stopped making the owl call!Black-backed Woodpecker - Larry

Time to Eat

While snacks and water for the trail were good, we needed a real lunch as it was about 3pm, and so we headed back down to my place in town for some hot soup and chance to warm our chilled toes – we had been standing around quite a bit and that’s an easy way to get cold. At my place I found a note on the door from a birding friend saying that he had found 40 Bohemian Waxwings hanging out near the Pizza Hut in Saranac Lake. That means hungry birders could grab a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants on that strip and get a window seat to see them! We didn’t find the waxwings when we looked for them later, but I have seen the waxwings hanging out near there in the days since. They’ll likely be around until they strip the trees bare of fruit.

Besides dining, traveling birders will also find a variety of lodging options along the same strip of road so they could look for Bohemian Waxwings from their hotel room. And although Winter Carnival festivities are now over, birders can still check out the ice palace and learn about its cool history

An evening snowboard session at Mt. Pisgah
Jackrabbit Trail - Day 2: McKenzie Pond to Lake Placid Pub & Brewery

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