Birding the Adirondacks

June 27-29:  Back in June, 2012 I had made a solo trip to New Hampshire for a Saturday morning van excursion partially up the Mount Washington Road ostensibly to look for Bicknell’s Thrush. The outing started just after 6 AM (late for Bicknell’s) and in its entirety consisted of spending less than an hour at one single, all-or-nothing, roadside spot at about 4000 feet, and although the group did get to hear Bicknell’s song, it was a major disappointment having made such a long drive only to be offered what seemed like an inadequate and rather perfunctory effort in lieu of the far more persistent kind of search generally necessary to actually see this elusive species, let alone photographing it. So I resolved to try again at a future time, but definitely somewhere else and certainly not under such imposed constraints.

A bit of research led me to the Lake Placid region of New York’s Adirondacks, where Joan Collins offers the unique opportunity to drive up Whiteface Mountain before sunrise. Sunrise on Whiteface MountainJoan picked me up promptly at 4 AM at Ledge Rock in Wilmington and, treated to the early “morning chorus” all the way up the Whiteface Mountain Road, we were at 4000 feet just as the red ball of sun first peered over a distant ridge. Bicknell’s song isn’t hard to locate, as the birds are actually quite numerous on the mountain, and in fact we spotted one almost right away perched at the top of a small balsam fir, but it was not light enough yet for photography. The temperature was 52 degrees, but it soon began to warm up  – good for comfort, but very bad for black flies! These things are voracious, relentless, and, unfortunately as it turned out, present in dauntingly large numbers in all the good birding habitats – and while DEET does help, even it is not 100% effective against these nasty little critters. Bicknell’s comes at a cost.

Bicknell's ThrushThe road here does not open to the general public until 9 AM, so there was no traffic and we were free to stop anywhere and just hop out. Amongst the chorus of Swainson’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, White-throated Sparrow, and others, we could pick out Bicknell’s on both sides of the road at more than a half dozen spots, and got fleeting glimpses of several more individuals, but most remained concealed. At last, at exactly 8:12 AM at 3943 feet, after several “just missed” chances for photos over more than four hours of perseverance, a Bicknell’s flew across the road, and instead of disappearing into dense cover as usual, to our amazement flew up and landed at the very top of a dead snag. Here it sat for several minutes, in perfect light, singing its alternate one syllable call/song.

Joan knows the Adirondack area so well that she can provide visitors a reasonable chance of finding whatever the desired species might happen to be, and I was hoping to somewhere find a Ruffed Grouse since the only one Dan Logan and I saw in northern Maine in October, 2012 flushed before we could stop the car in time. We planned to look for the grouse in the Tupper Lake area after checking out some spots for certain other species along the way. Black-backed Woodpecker - female with male chickAlong Franklin Falls Road we made a stop at an acre-sized area of tall grass and second-growth vegetation that sits between the road and the forest – a perfect spot for Mourning Warblers – and sure enough, we heard a total of five on both sides of the road and saw two flying, but unfortunately none ever perched in the open and there was no photo op. Next was a woodland section off Moose Pond Road where we observed a male Black-backed Woodpecker chick looking out of his nest hole, patiently waiting for his mother to return with lunch (Joan has since told me that this chick fledged the following day). In Bloomingdale we stopped at a farm to enjoy the comings and goings of a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting under the eaves of an outbuilding. On Middle Pond was a female Common Loon with one chick, while the male flew the length of the lake overhead  several times before coming in for a skidding landing.

Common Loon & chickFinally we found ourselves on the remote dirt roads of the Adirondack Preserve near Rock Pond. After just ten minutes we arbitrarily went right at a fork in the road, but as we trundled by I got a fleeting glimpse of something some hundred yards up the left fork, so we backed up and not only did the “something” turn out to be a Ruffed Grouse (with a chick), but we nearly backed over a second grouse chick in the middle of the fork. It seemed odd that the chick was so far away from the adult, so we wondered if perhaps there were actually two families andCanada Warbler we just weren’t seeing the closer adult, but that remained unresolved and of course both birds scurried into cover before we could react. I was kicking myself at not having been quicker on the shutter and thereby missing this bird yet again, but the opportunity was indeed missed and there was nothing for it but to continue on. We got an unusually close look at a beautiful cooperative male Canada Warbler, and a more distant look at a family of four raucous Gray Jays which frolicked in the canopy above us but would not come down, even to accept our offering of raisins.

And then, at last, after some forty-Ruffed Grouse - femalefive more minutes, another dark shape in the road – adult Ruffed Grouse with another chick. This time I leaned out of the window and wasted no time with the camera, but this family turned out to be less skittish than the first one and we were able to observe mother and chick for a full minute or two.

Miracle on iceThe species count for the day came to 67, including 17 warbler species. All in all it was a perfect weekend – two difficult new species, perfect weather, beautiful scenery, excellent dinner at The Hungry Trout restaurant, and a chance to see the site of the 1980 winter Olympics, including the Lake Placid Arena where the nostalgic “miracle on ice” happened all those years ago. And thanks again to Joan for her congeniality as well as her expertise.

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