Adirondacks in Winter. 17-20 January 2020:
Thendara, Long Lake, Sabattis, Blue Ridge Road,
Living in Bethesda, Maryland has its benefits, but in the 21st Century, local access to a snowy and cold winter is not one of them. So, to experience iconic winter, I watch weather.com for the passing of a snow storm through the Northeast, timing my travel to a place where the storm will hit with maximum strength. In recent years I have winter-camped in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. This year the snow storm I located seemed headed for the Adirondacks of upstate New York, so I planned my travel accordingly.
On Friday 17 January I drove 8 hours north to the hamlet of Thendara, just down the road from Old Forge, one of the largest year-round settlements in the Adirondack Park. Arriving in Thendara, I found about 3 inches of fresh snow atop a thin veneer of ice and old snow from earlier in the winter. This fresh snow had fallen the day before I arrived, and was an unexpected bonus. After checking into the Adirondack Lodge, I headed out to walk the rail bed of the Adirondack Scenic railroad that in summer still travels between Utica and Big Moose, stopping in Thendara. In winter, it is an ideal walking route that passes through the boreal forests of the Moose River lowlands.
What look like Black Spruce appear small in foreground. Then snow-covered Red Spruce and Balsam Fir, with several tall White Pine towering over the canopy to the right.
On my 90-minute walk I neither saw nor heard a bird. The overcast of the approaching snowstorm was beginning to arrive from the southwest. It was very peaceful and quiet. The snowmobiles that race around the Old Forge area had not yet arrived for the weekend... I did see signs of life: in the snow I found tracks of Snowshoe Hare, Coyote, and Moose.
Algonquin Peak to right and Iroquois Peak to the left, of the MacIntyre Range of the High Peaks
I rose in the dark on Saturday morning, ate the cold remains of Friday’s lunch, and went down to warm up the car. The air temperature at 0630 was minus 7oF. Brisk! Happily, the car started, and I drove 70 minutes north to Long Lake, to find field-ornithologist Joan Collins, who operates Adirondack Avian Expeditions birding and nature tours around the Adirondacks year-round. She is the most knowledgeable bird person in the Adirondacks, so it was a privilege to go out with her for a day of boreal winter birding.. Joan leads
We first headed to Newcomb, just east of Long Lake. The park in downtown Newcomb offers, first off, a wonderful unimpeded view northward to the High Peaks as well as the Santanoni Range.
Today, the peaks were frosted white. We then wandered the residential streets of Newcomb, finding Evening Grosbeaks feeding in a front-yard feeder and also taking salt or something of interest off a couple of SUVs parked near the feeders. Evening Grosbeaks are no longer easy to find in winter in the US, so these were a special treat.
We then drove east from Newcomb on 28N, first crossing the Hudson (showing open water) and then entering a long stretch of lovely boreal conifer forest. Here we found a singing male Red Crossbill, evidence of breeding. We spent about 10 minutes with this lovely bird before moving on.
Down the road a bit Joan’s marvelous hearing caught the sound of a woodpecker lightly chipping bark from a conifer. We stopped the car and slowly made our way into the thick young spruce and balsam at the road-edge. We were soon watching a female Black-backed Woodpecker unwarily working the bark of an old spruce in the interior. This was one of three Black-backs we encountered during the day. Joan reported that the Black-back’s smaller cousin, the relictual breeding population American Three-toed Woodpecker, is either gone or on the way out of the Adirondacks. Along with Spruce Grouse and Canada Lynx, this permanent resident apparently no longer finds the Adirondacks suitable for survival. [There has been a restoration program in place for Spruce Grouse, but it will probably yield the results produced by a similar program attempted for the lynx—failure; eBird reports sightings of Spruce Grouse in 3 blocks in the Adirondacks in 2019; zero sightings reported for the three-toed woodpecker].
From 28N we next drove a stretch of the Blue Ridge Road. Here we found small flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Golden-crowned Kinglets. But we were eluded by the Boreal Chickadee, the local specialty. The sky continued to darken as the storm slowly approached.
American Goldfinches gathering grit on road bed in Newcomb
We then drove up the Tahawus Road, branching north off the Blue Ridge Road, and Joan pointed out the vocalizations of several of the elusive Boreal Chickadees in the conifer thickets.
Joan tracking down a foraging Black-backed Woodpecker.
When not actively engaged with birds, we chatted about all manner of things related to the Adirondacks, nature, birds, and climate change. Joan in her 24 years here in the Park has witnessed environmental change tied to the warming climate. The lakes and streams no longer freeze over in November. Fewer people are ice-fishing. The snow cover is a fraction of what it used to be.
And immigrant birds from the south are spending the winter in numbers: American Crows, Blue Jays, White-breasted Nuthatches, and more. Joan also spoke of two recent springs in which very few of the migrant songbirds were singing in the forest. Where were they? This is troubling.
Downtown Long Lake features the Adirondack Hotel, right on the Lake (which showed open water here)
We had a nice hot lunch at the Adirondack Trading Post just outside of Long Lake hamlet. The Trading Post is owned and operated by Vickie Verner, daughter of Bill Verner, who was Curator of the Adirondack Museum. Bill edited my first book, on the birds of the Adirondacks.
After lunch, we headed to the Sabattis Road in search of more boreal birds. The snow was just starting—very fine stuff, and the air temperature was about 10 F. Here we found confiding chickadee flocks. Also small families of Canada Jays came in to see us. The jays were remarkably quiet, unwary, and patient, waiting for a treat (Joan provided raisins).
A confiding Canada Jay
I said good-bye to Joan at 2:30 PM. Driving south back to Thendara, the snow picked up and began to coat the roads. The snow plows were out. I took a nap at my motel and then went back out to the railbed where I had walked the preceding evening. The snow was beginning to accumulate, and I was alone in the storm, exactly where I wanted to be. My solitude and peace was disturbed by harsh roars and rattles of snowmobiles racing along trails through the nearby woods. Needless to say, when the snow machines were screeching, there was no hearing the sounds of chickadees and kinglets.
It snowed all Saturday night and on and off through Sunday. I took two long afternoon walks on the rail bed in the snow, and found chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches, Pileated Woodpecker, and a friendly flock of Purple Finches. After dark I called for Northern Saw-whet Owl (no luck).
When I came out of a local restaurant Sunday night, it was still snowing, and by this point we had received 10 inches of accumulation, which was enough to satisfy my annual need for the snow experience.
Snow-covered Balsam Firs along the railbed in Thendara
While out walking the rail bed on Sunday, I spent a lot of time looking at the conifers. Here I found White Pine, Red Spruce, Balsam Fir, Eastern Hemlock, and Tamarack (Eastern Larch). There may have been White Spruce along the rail bed, but I was unable to identify any. Spruce and fir are what really makes the Adirondack boreal conifer forest. Red Spruce was an important part of the Adirondack lumbering economy after the removal of the great stands of White Pine. Even today Red Spruce may be the most abundant conifer in the Park (though the road-side-loving Balsam Fir may complete for this position).
I am still unclear about the ecological relationship between Red Spruce and Balsam Fir. The fir seems to be the spruce’s “younger cousin,” being an earlier successional species and not living as long or growing as large as the spruce. I hope to spend more time reading up on these two and studying their distribution in the forests of the Northeast over the next few years. They are clearly of importance for many of the birds and mammals that inhabit the Great North Woods of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Female Evening Grosbeaks foraging on the back of a Ford Escape in Newcomb. What are they eating?