The time of year to count birds
While many of our regional Christmas Bird Counts occur closer to Christmas, the Saranac Lake count happens near the New Year and I was able to help with it again this year.
The count is popular with local birders because it covers both Saranac Lake and Lake Placid and because it also covers Bloomingdale Bog, Bigelow Road, and some of the boreal habitats where birders can find Canada Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee.
Local birds and cold temperatures
I had been monitoring local birds in and around town all week and found a few birds of interest including Snow Buntings, Red Crossbills, and a Barred Owl, as well as White-throated Sparrows and a Fox Sparrow at my feeders, and most of these species ended up in the count week — the period of time which includes the 3 days before and after the count day itself.
After our recent frigid temperatures, our count day high of about 10 degrees felt balmy — even though the beginning of the day lingered below zero for some time. On such days I often take my time getting outside, and the nice thing about the count was that I was charged with monitoring my bird feeders for some of the species of interest which had been attracted to them.
Feeder watching and cold hikes
And so, I slowly ate my breakfast, counting from the windows in the cold, gray light of early morning, and I soon found the American Tree Sparrow and the four White-throated Sparrows which had been hanging out with the usual contingent of Dark-eyed Juncos. There was also a collection of American Goldfinches, and I added species like Downy and Hairy Woodpecker and both Red and White-breasted Nuthatch.
While nothing rare or terribly unusual (although White-throated Sparrows are not easy to find in the winter up here), the success of Adirondack counts often hinges on finding such species. The Fox Sparrow — the most unusual species I had been seeing — took a bit more time, but it eventually showed up several times throughout the day. In the end I found 15 species at my feeders alone; feeders are often worth multiple checks on such cold counts.
While we were warm and happy inside, my four-legged companion Wren and I finally headed out to Lake Colby where others in our crew had already started the morning, hoping to catch sight of the Barred Owl which I’ve occasionally been hearing there of late. Those folks had already counted the large number of Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, and other birds at the bird feeders by Hulbert’s Supply, but we added more siskins and goldfinches as we walked through the woods. More importantly, we stumbled upon a couple Brown Creepers and a Pileated Woodpecker which the others had not found.
We returned home for a warm up and to meet up with some of the other counters who stopped in to chat. Then my friends drove a loop through the streets of Saranac Lake while Wren and I walked the railroad tracks near North Country Community College, finding species like Red Crossbill, Canada Goose, and Common Raven in the process.
After a break for lunch at my place — when I continued to keep an eye on my bird feeders — I returned to the field, this time to take a short cross-country ski loop on the Jackrabbit Trail from McKenzie Pond Road. We had struggled to find Golden-crowned Kinglets and I was certain I would find some on the Jackrabbit. I was right.
Adding things up
I met up with my friends again to compile our numbers from the day, and then Wren and I took a short walk along Lake Colby in the evening hoping to hear the Barred Owl. We came up empty on that endeavor, but the overall count seemed to be a success once all of the numbers were put together at the compilation dinner which followed.
There were birds like the Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrows, and Red Crossbills which we had found, as well as a slew of White-winged Crossbills along Route 55 near Bloomingdale and the resident boreal birds — Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and Black-backed Woodpecker — which out-of-town birders often seek.
More unusual finds included a couple Rusty Blackbirds near Fowler’s Crossing, and a Northern Pintail at the Saranac Lake High School pond, and while we missed the Snow Buntings I had been finding all week, other folks found some.
That is one of the best things about Christmas Bird Counts. Since birders are canvasing the area in search of everything, odd species get turned up, and the compilation sessions are often fun times of comparing notes and each team’s most exciting bird or birds of the day. And regardless whether or not any rare species get found, food on a cold day makes everyone happy, a sentiment with which Wren and I completely agree. After a day in the cold, dinner and rest were what we wanted most.
It's a great time for winter birding and outdoor adventuring. For more information on Christmas Bird Counts check out the Audubon's site — and why not plan now to join us for next year's count? We've got comfy lodging and delicious dining to enjoy while you're in our neck of the woods!