Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Adirondacks in Winter. 17-20 January 2020:
Thendara, Long Lake, Sabattis, Blue Ridge Road,
and Tahawus 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 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 Joan leads  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. 

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? 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

2-9. Cape Cod—Great White Sharks, Ocean Sunfish,
and Humpback Whales
3-5 September 2019

    typical morning at the Powder Hole

On the early morning of the 3rd of September, anticipating a mid-morning pick-up and return to the mainland, I headed down to the Powder Hole for one final encounter with my beloved shorebirds. On the walk down, I heard Bobolinks passing over, giving their pink notes.

Things were fairly quiet at the sandflats. No godwits, no Whimbrel. Just yellowlegs, dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, oystercatchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers, and gulls and terns. Nothing had coming in overnight, but a few things had departed for parts south.

Back at the Lighthouse, I packed up, cleaned and straightened the house, and started freighting my stuff out to the landing on the Nantucket Sound. I used a wagon with balloon tires to move the heavier and bulkier stuff across the Poison Ivy-laced landscape.

Then I heard from my Fish & Wildlife Service hosts that because of the approaching threat of Hurricane Dorian, that plans were changing and my return to the mainland would be delayed.
The Service needed to batten down the lighthouse facilities and they also decided to keep the bird banders off the island until after the passing of Dorian.

    Downtown Chatham, Oyster Cove in the front, and Aunt Lydia's Cove in the back right

By 1 PM I was back in Stage Harbor (as mentioned in the preceding blog), which was filled with birds.

From the FWS HQ, I Ubered to the repair shop in Harwich, where the smashed back window of my car had been repaired (In the pre-dawn hours, when departing my campsite in Provincetown a week earlier, I had backed into a jutting treelimb that popped the back window—not a convenient thing to happen on the morning of my departure for South Monomoy!).

My plan to do a whale watch this afternoon was stymied by these bureaucratic delays, so I reverted to a fall-back plan—chartering a Cessna to search for Great White Sharks out of Chatham airport.

    Pilot Tim Howard, in his Cessna 172

At 4 PM I boarded the Cessna 172 with Tim Howard at the rudder. The two of us took off without delay and within 3 minutes we were tracking northward on the Atlantic side of South Beach, with beautiful Chatham to the southwest of us. And there down below in the pale green water was the dark form of a Great White.

    Yep, a Great White right at the surface, cruising for seal burger

We banked hard to allow me to photograph the beast, which was less than 100 yards off the shore, in shallow water with a white-sand sea bottom, making it particularly easy to see the dark dorsal surface of the shark.

    shark bait--Gray Seals foraging in the shallows northeast of Chatham

The sea surface also featured foraging Gray Seals, of course. These served as the sharks’ luncheon menu.

    Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) the largest bony fish

But there was more. During our 40 minute flight, we also picked out 7 Ocean Sunfish floating flat on the surface of the sea, waggling a fin in their peculiar fashion.

    Look at the shadow of the Great White to understand how shallow the water is

We were looking mainly for sharks, and we found three different individuals in the flight, which took us almost to Truro. I had long wanted to see a Great White, and this did the trick!

    It seems to be the pectoral fin that is waved about by this very streange beast

Tim told me that finding Great Whites from the air is pretty easy during this time of the year, so long as the wind is down and the water relatively clear. The best time of all is the early morning when the sea surface is glassy and the sun is in the east.

    Note how long the pectoral fin is in this creature

After departing the airfield, I headed to Provincetown for the final night of my 6-week field trip. I dined that night at the Canteen in bustling downtown P’town with whale naturalist Dennis Minsky, who organized a morning whale watch for me the next morning.

    The dorsal fin  is almost out of the water

Early Wednesday morning I packed the car and headed out to Race Point Beach to see what was happening out over the water. Not much. I glimpsed one or two blows from Humpbacks, but no big collections of birds. I did glimpse a single jaeger swooping about out in search of a tern or gull to harass.

    Above Chatham. A view of South Beach in the very back (sand barrier), and Chatham's "deep south"

In mid-morning I road the Dolphin 11 out of Provincetown harbor on a fair morning with a decent crowd of anxious whale-watchers. I bumped into a nice threesome of birders from Michigan, who were eager to see some sea birds. We spent much of the trip together, watching birds, fish, and whales.

    Great Shearwater

This morning, the seabirds were few: 15 Great Shearwaters, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 1 Leach’s Storm-Petrel, 5 Red-necked Phalaropes, 5 Northern Gannets, and that’s about it.  Most of the Great Shearwaters we saw right in the mouth of the harbor. The open ocean was fairly bird-free.

    Mother and grown-up calf Humpback Whales, cruising

The boat passed several Ocean Sunfish, each one waving a sharklike fin above the surface.

    Showing the fluke

Our whale encounters were all of the Humpback variety. We spent quality time with two mother-and-calf pairs. The calves were all grown up, but still associating with their mothers.

    More fluke

One mother did a partial breach with a tail smash into the water, raising quite a splash.

    Mother making a ruckus!

The boat moved from sun to cloud to heavy fog and back, making for changing sea conditions.

    the "blow" - how one finds whales at a distance...

Back in the harbor, I started up my car and began my trip home.

    Coast Guard Beach, looking west toward Eastham

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

2-8. South Monomoy Island—Part II

    Adult molting Hudsonian Godwit preening in the Powder Hole. Note patchy belly

One thing I forgot to report in my last blog was that when I was ferried out to the island, we departed from Stage Harbor in Chatham. This is a gorgeous natural harbor surrounded by beautiful summer and year-round homes tucked into wooded hillsides. The surprise was finding two adult Peregrine Falcons hunting birds over the harbor. They glistened in the bright sunlight of the morning as we slowly wended our way out into Nantucket Sound.

    Beach view of the Lighthouse facility, where I was based...

One arrives on the Sound side of South Monomoy, on a beach landing about a half-mile from the lighthouse. One then learns something about the island vegetation. The sandy trail to the lighthouse is, in many places, fringed by abundant vines of Poison Ivy, with leaves turning red with the arrival of early autumn. Some parts of the island were “no go” to me because of the barriers posed by this noxious weed.

    The lighthouse from the far north of the island, on the Atlantic side... no people...

Otherwise the vegetation of the island is low and sparse and benign. A few low pines, bayberry, beach plum, cranberry, blueberry, and much more poison ivy. The wetlands feature Salt Hay and the taller Spartina alterniflora, and Phragmites, among others. Bare sand dunes are prominent in places. No closed forest anywhere. No tall trees anywhere. A number of lakes and ponds dot the island. These are frequented by a variety of ducks, but mainly American Black Ducks and Mallards.

    Tree Swallows enjoying the sunshine on an afternoon in the dunes

The island is a federal wilderness area, and no camping is allowed. I had a special use permit (#53514-19-11), which allowed me to stay on the island to survey shorebirds. That said, it is perfectly OK for day visitors to visit the island and hike here and there. Visitors mainly are fisherfolk and beach-lovers. I am told the surf-casting from the Atlantic shore is excellent for stripers and bluefish.
There are beaches on both the Sound (bay) side and Atlantic side. But it is the Atlantic strip of beach that is mind-blowing—backed by high dunes and very broad and very white. This beach is mainly the domain of shorebirds, gulls, and seals. There are few beaches along the Eastern Seaboard that have as few human footprints as this one.

     Northern sector of South Monomoy, east side, showing the broad white beach

The island is reputed to host a small population of White-tailed Deer, though I saw only a single discarded rack of antlers and yet no footprints in the sand. Creatures I did encounter were Garter Snakes and toads, which I was told are Fowler’s Toads.

     Two American Golden Plovers in the Powder Hole--adults in molt (SESAs in front)

I walked north of the Sound side one morning, in search of shorebirds. This is very peaceful and pleasant and the shore was littered with the shells of dead Horseshoe Crabs. It made me wonder why so many individuals of various ages had died this summer.

    Hudsonian Godwit on the wing over the Powder Hole

Walking the Atlantic is a bit more exciting—windy and very sunny because of the broad white sand beach. I saw a single blowing Humpback Whale, and also saw several waving fins of the weirdly-shaped Ocean Sunfish, that float on the surface of the water. The fin reminds one of a shark, but it is waved about willy-nilly. A shark’s dorsal fin is unable to do that.

    Juvenile Red Knot foraging in the Powder Hole

Sea ducks loafed in flocks off the shoreline. Common Eiders were around, and I also encountered all three species of scoters, Blacks being the most abundant.

    Common Eiders in eclipse plumage...

Of course, Double-crested Cormorants were omnipresent.

    Double-crested Cormorants

Gray Seals are abundant around the island. The seals patrol the shoreline, often popping their heads out of the water to look at me. Groups of seals would follow along the shore as I walked the beach. They are very curious.

    A curious Gray Seal eyeing me...

Twice I came upon large groups of 50 or more seals hauled out on the beach in the early morning. These includes big brutish males, smaller gracile females, and little ones of the year. Among these groups I saw seals with major gashes in their flanks. A product of shark attack?

    A young Gray Seal with a wound (from a shark?)

I spent more time at the Powder Hole mud flats than any place else, aside from the lighthouse where I was based. There were always shorebirds and gulls and terns at the Powder Hole, so it was always productive.

    A big haul-out of Gray Seals

I hunted for Baird’s and Western Sandpipers among the flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers. I never did find a Baird’s, though I did locate several Westerns.

    Western Sandpiper juvenile

I did not see evidence of a lot of songbird movement. I had a few Bobolinks overhead, but few warblers. I think it was early in the season.

    Tree Swallows starting to swirl

Tree Swallows were starting to assemble in numbers. It was fun to watch the swarms that came together out on the beach or over the interior vegetation. Thousands!

    An adult Parasitic Jaeger over the Nantucket Sound's beach

One morning I was surprised to see a Parasitic Jaeger appear overhead. It circled me and then several times dive-bombed a foraging Northern Harrier.

    The jaeger takes off after a female Northern Harrier

South Monomoy continues to evolve, as winds, currents, and storms move sand and water in unexpected ways. The bottom of the island has grown into a large circular “bulb,” gathering sand that get’s carried south down the eastern face of the Cape.

    A resting flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers

Returning back to Stage Harbor after my week on the island, I was welcomed by an abundance of birds—Common Terns, flocks of Double-crested Cormorants, and an Osprey and Red-tailed Hawk.

                           Whimbrel foraging in the Powder Hole

Before heading home to Bethesda, I had a few more things to do on the nature front—take up a Cessna 172 in search of sharks and take a whale watch out of Provincetown. Those adventures will be featured in the next (last) blog of this current trip...  

    Yearling Gray Seal

    young and old Gray Seals