Birding Along Lake Colby

A Daily Walk 

On an almost daily basis this time of year, Wren and I can be found walking along the railroad tracks on the backside of Lake Colby in Saranac Lake. Despite the beat-up nature of some of the tracks, it is a picturesque location and with fewer fishermen there this time of year than there are during the warmer months, we generally have the walk to ourselves. Colby is an easy spot to pop out to in town when I don’t have much time, and it offers the considerable benefit to me as a place to look for birds.

The composition of species I find varies quite a bit throughout the fall. I started hiking the tracks along Colby earlier than usual this year since I was interested in finding migrating warblers and other songbirds during the late summer and early fall. I was not disappointed. More recently I regularly found a variety of sparrows in the marshy and brushy edges of the railroad, but after a short time away I returned to find very few sparrows at all. In fact, the only sparrow species I’ve found there in the past week are American Tree Sparrows – a species which winters in our area; the others have headed south.Tree Sparrow - yard

The Time of Year to Look for Waterfowl

But the diversity of sparrows and songbirds isn’t what draws me to Colby at this time of year, anyway. The backside of the lake can be a favorite for migrating waterfowl and I walk Wren there to see how the species composition changes from day to day. A few days ago after looking at those American Tree Sparrows and an American Pipit, I noted three male Buffleheads on the back bay of the lake (sometimes called Old Lake Colby). They eventually flew at our approach and I enjoyed the chance to watch an adult Bald Eagle cruise over the lake in search of fish. The eagles are regular back there and frequent the stand of pines where the enormous lump that is an eagle’s nest sits surprisingly hidden despite its size.

The following day I was back at Colby, and on this day I found 20 Bufflehead, 10 Hooded Mergansers, and a Common Loon. Two days later it was 13 Ring-necked Ducks, 1 Bufflehead, 1 Lesser Scaup, and the streaking dark form of a Mink - not all of our sightings are of birds. Today my tally was a Common Loon and 5 Hooded Mergansers – all of them females. And on almost every day I saw an adult Bald Eagle – presumably the same bird each day – in search of fish or an unwary or injured duck.Ring-necked Duck

Cold Winds and Coyotes

And while the walk along the tracks is flat and easy even with the unevenness of the railroad ties, Colby at this time of year is often not for the faint of heart. Today a wind raced across the water and bog straight into our faces and I pulled my baseball hat low so that it wouldn’t be driven by the wind to sprint along the tracks. Wren nosed the air excitedly as it brought to her messages and information from the surrounding landscape. She also nosed and pawed the ground – as she commonly does – noting where the Coyotes had dug up an old turtle’s nest during the night.

A few weeks ago we arrived when the Coyotes were either still digging or when they had bedded down in the brush along the tracks. Out of nowhere two of them were running away from us down the tracks, one turning left at the far side of the causeway and the other right. We had clearly surprised them. To my own surprise, however, one of them then swam back across the wide bay of the lake to reach the far shore behind us. We watched it with interest in the sunlight, I wish I had my camera with me that day. The Coyote clearly wanted to spend the day in that patch of the woods and we were blocking its path. It hadn’t planned on being cut off.Coyote - Larry

Today, however, there were no Coyotes – just a cold wind and a reminder that winter is not far away. As I stood in the face of the wind and watched the gray, unsettled lake surface, it was difficult to believe that I was swimming almost daily in the (then) chilly waters of Lake Colby in the beginning of October. Now they would be downright frigid. Wren, of course, goes into the water regularly and will do so until the ice covers the lake. Of course, the ice also signals the end of our walks there - as without any open water the ducks must head someplace else. But until then we’ll be on the tracks along Lake Colby most every day in the hopes of seeing what we can find.

Have you walked the tracks lately?  Want to research new-to-you trails and accessible hikes in the area? Perhaps it's time to grab a lunch and your snowshoes and head out into the woods? It's a great time of the year to get out in the Coolest place in the Adirondacks!

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About The Author

Alan Belford has spent much of his life outdoors exploring and learning about wildlife – particularly birds. Alan is often out hiking, paddling, running, or cross country skiing – with his Labrador retriever Wren at this side. A certified teacher and former cross country, baseball, and ultimate frisbee coach, he loves teaching others and has taught multiple natural history (specializing in ornithology) courses for both college students and the general public. He is a licensed guide in New York State, he has traveled widely both domestically and internationally, and he is also a published travel writer and photographer – focusing on outdoor and nature writing.

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