A yearly cycle
The yearly birding calendar follows the same ebb and flow of the seasons, and at times it may be a better barometer for the changing seasons than the temperature or weather. Migrating birds who travel long distances carry in their wings a confidence that their timing is right – no matter what the weather might say. After all, if they are wrong, they could find themselves in trouble. But more often than not, the birds are correct and we can sometimes set our own calendars by their consistency.
And so the birding year in the Adirondacks begins in the dark and the cold. That means that the year begins with diversity at its lowest ebb, but it doesn’t mean that it's a time of year without good birding. In fact, the winter often harbors some of our most sought-after species. It is then that we might find Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls at bird feeders, or Pine Grosbeaks or Bohemian Waxwings dining on ornamental fruit trees in town. It is also a good time of year to look for Red or White-winged Crossbills – perhaps best found in the region along the various trails and pull-offs along Route 28N as it cuts through the town of Minerva.
These same locations are also good for our resident boreal species – Canada Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee – once again demonstrating that winter offers excellent birds, even if it doesn’t pack a lot of diversity.
The changes of spring and the variety they bring
But that all changes in spring. It begins with those brave species like Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, American Robin, and Eastern Phoebe which come north in the hope of finding food and perhaps open ground as the longer days and stronger sun warm the Adirondacks. Then it swells as April melts our snow and many people plan to leave town during mud season.
That is an understandable response, but April brings tremendous changes to both the landscape and to the birds which depend upon it. And so we hear our first drumming Ruffed Grouse, our first tapping Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a ringing cacophony of singing Dark-eyed Juncos. We spot our first Fish Crows at the Schroon Lake Beach, and note migrating Rusty Blackbirds in area wetlands. The warming air also begins to fracture the ice on Schroon Lake, providing a resting place for ducks and other waterfowl on their way north. Birders interested in seeing even more waterfowl should plan at trip to the Champlain Valley while they are in town.
These are all portents of a developing momentum which will bring an influx of birds to our forests and lakes – like a strong tide sweeping north carrying with it color, and pattern, and song. And so May breaks upon us with excitement as each day offers us a newly arrived species – each adhering to its own timing and migration rhythm. Some of these – like White-crowned Sparrows, and Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers – will continue north, simply passing through the North Country. But many others will remain to nest for the summer and as May advances toward June we find our habitats filling with their contingent of birds.
The warm days of summer
And so we begin summer in our deciduous forests with the songs of American Redstarts, Blackburnian Warblers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers. We paddle lakes like Cheney Pond and find American Bitterns and Wood Ducks. We hike in coniferous forests like those along the Roosevelt Truck Trail, and we find our resident boreal birds joined by Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Magnolia, Nashville, and sometimes Cape May Warblers. And our mountain habitats are home to Blackpoll Warblers and Swainson’s Thrushes. Each species has its timing and each habitat has its species.
The ebb and flow of the bird world moves quickly. Soon our birds have nested, quiet down in July, and they begin to collect themselves in mixed-species flocks. It means that the second half of summer can prove trickier for finding some species without the benefit of their songs, but August (particularly the second half of August) is one of the best times to bird the Adirondacks and North Country. Indeed, fall migration begins during the summer and surges of birds will ripple through our forests and along our hedgerows in the process.
These flocks crash like waves through the alders, and birders can sift through their frenetic pace to discover what hidden gems they hold. Such swells of birds are a grab-bag of sorts – an avian cornucopia waiting to be uncovered. And then the flock rolls away, leaving for the shore of another forest, and leaving the land behind quiet and feeling lonely until the next flock replaces it.
The waves of songbirds during fall migration eventually die down, the birds depart, and we are left with a smaller set of species as September progresses. This is soon followed by the sparrow migration, which builds with Chipping, Swamp, Song, White-throated, Fox, White-crowned, Savannah, Lincoln’s, Vesper, and Dark-eyed Junco. At the same time we watch raptors overhead through the fall, all streaming south on north winds or gaining lift on thermals before gliding south. And then comes the pulse of ducks, waterfowl, and other aquatic species – their numbers building as they stop over on Schroon Lake, Lake George, and Lake Champlain on their way south.
As these birds leave, we find that our diversity is again reaching its ebb. As we listen, we hear the calls of winter finches overhead, the trills of Bohemian Waxwings, and the high, twinkling notes of American Tree Sparrows arriving from the arctic to spend the winter, and we spot a Northern Shrike keeping watch from the top of a low tree. And so we begin the yearly cycle again with cold, snow, and a small number of hardy birds that everyone wants to see.