Starting the year at the holidays
The birding year begins and ends with Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) such as the Saranac Lake CBC, with many people hoping that they can start their year off by finding winter goodies like Bohemian Waxwings, Common Redpolls, Red or White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, or Pine Grosbeaks. The mix of such species changes each year with food availability - the factor responsible for how far these species venture south.
But other Adirondack specialties are year-round residents, and birders can search for Boreal Chickadees, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Canada Jays throughout the year. The challenge during winter is how to access some of their boreal and coniferous haunts. But while some such locations are difficult to reach in deep snow, places like Bloomingdale Bog, Oregon Plains Road, and Bigelow Road remain accessible, making them prime places to search. While they are in such locations, birders can also hunt for Red and White-winged Crossbills if it is a good year for finding them, and they will no doubt find some of the other hardy wintering species – like Common Raven, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee, perhaps stumbling across a Ruffed Grouse as well.
As the calendar switches to March, we begin to find changes on the landscape – the longer days and warmer sun start to loosen the hold of winter on the ice-and-snow-bound world. March is still decidedly a winter month, but we begin to hear the songs of birds like Brown Creepers, Bald Eagles return to their enormous stick nests, and early arriving birds like Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, and Common Grackles herald spring to anyone paying attention.
As March advances, the list of arriving species grows, particularly as the lakes show holes in their icy armor – soon filled by migrating Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, and any other species of waterfowl passing through or returning to the region. As we reach April, the list of birds grows even longer with more ducks, chattering Merlins, lurking American Bitterns, hammering Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and a chorus of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows. These are followed by a long list of other sparrows, early warblers – like Pine, Palm, and Yellow-rumped – and April evenings are often marked by the hoots of Barred Owls and the toots of Northern Saw-whet Owls.
May and the diversity of summer
It is all part of the build-up for May, for which the birding world holds its collective breath in anticipation. The month begins with newly-returned species each day, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and White-crowned Sparrows which are seemingly everywhere for about a week before they continue north. Then it becomes a riot of warblers (better than 20 species can be found), tanagers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, grosbeaks, swallows, and everything else in between. The melted snow means that every trail, every paddle, and every mountain is open for birders to find a litany of species wherever they wander, knowing full-well that while they quest for birds, the black flies and mosquitoes quest for them. May, after all, does mark the beginning of bug season.
And while some of these birds will push through the region on their way north, many others will remain behind to nest during the summer. And so as some of our late-arriving species like Swainson’s Thrush and Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers return to take up residence in our forests and bogs, summer kicks off in the region with the Great Adirondack Birding Celebration at the Paul Smith's College VIC.
The event marks the beginning of a time of plenty in the region. Plenty of sunlight. Plenty of song. Plenty of birds. Plenty of places open to explore. And still plenty of bugs. But don’t let that dissuade you from adventuring in the Adirondacks during spring and summer. From at least twenty species of breeding warblers to resident boreal birds, the Saranac Lake Region offers an array of songs and colors for birders, whether your birding crusade takes you to Bloomingdale Bog, Madawaska Pond (where birders could luck into a Spruce Grouse), Floodwood Road, or on a hike up Baker Mountain. The Adirondacks are loaded with avian life.
Late summer changes
But the time of plenty is short-lived. While the breeding species will stay for a few months, their exuberance of song is already quieting by the second week of July. Birders coming later in the summer will still find plenty of birds – but they may not be advertising themselves as conspicuously as a result. And so late summer birding is often a game of finding mixed-species flocks of birds, and sifting through the changing composition to find what birds may be hidden within their ranks.
This becomes even more accentuated in August when an influx of migrants, like Tennessee Warblers, Philadelphia Vireos, and Bay-breasted Warblers, arrives on their way south. At the same time southbound shorebirds like Solitary and Least Sandpipers can be found along the edges of our lakes and streams, and August evenings can be full of Common Nighthawks feeding over our lakes on their way south. It is the beginning of fall migration — after all, fall in the bird world begins during the second half of summer. And the beauty is that the latter half of summer offers far fewer biting insects than the beginning of the season.
Then, before we are ready for it and without anyone asking our permission, the birds depart – first in dribs and drabs, and then in waves. By mid-September many of our birds are gone, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything left to find. Fall walks may offer lingering warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, flyover American Pipits, Rusty Blackbirds, and the fall sparrow migration features a line-up of species like Song, Swamp, White-throated, Fox, Vesper, White-crowned, White-throated, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and Dark-eyed Junco. Soon we are hearing our first Pine Siskins and Snow Buntings of the season.
Fall raptors of all sorts also move overhead on north winds, and just as our woodlands are growing quieter with departing songbirds, ducks and other waterfowl set down on our lakes to rest on their way south. These join Common Loons which may have staged in numbers on some of our lakes – such as Lake Clear. Some of these birds will linger for days or perhaps a week or more. Others will remain only for a few hours to rest before taking wing again.
The diversity of these aquatic migrants, a list that includes Red-necked Grebe, Red-throated Loon, and a catalog of ducks, can be impressive, but they too eventually head south as the end of November turns cold, perhaps snowy, and our lakes begin to seal up again. The days grow even shorter, winter gains strength, and it takes us to the holidays, the time for Christmas Bird Counts, and the New Year when the yearly cycle begins again.