Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Boreal Birds and Poutine

A quick run North to add some "Boreal" Species to the Year-List

I'm at my best as a birder when I plan, and at my worst when I don't.  So this weekend, being very much unplanned, produced some very mixed results bird-wise.

With no real plans for the Easter weekend I debated a number of different options before deciding, essentially at the last minute to "Head North" for Boreal birds.  Sounded like a good idea at the time, so with little research, not a peep at the weather forecast, and no fixed itinerary, I booked a hotel in Lake Placid, jumped in the car at 5am on Friday and headed up to the Adirondack Mountains.

For New Yorkers, to get all the State's resident birds, inevitably means a trip (or 8 trips on my big year in 2012) to the Adirondacks for so called "Boreal Birds".  What do we mean by that?

True Boreal species that breed in the pockets of Boreal habitat (essentially high altitude spruce / tamarack bogs) in the Adirondacks.

1. Black-backed Woodpecker
2. American Three-toed Woodpecker
3. Boreal Chickadee
4. Spruce Grouse
5. Gray Jay

And then there are some other Northerly breeders that come down to the coast irregularly.

1. Red Crossbill
2. White-winged Crossbill
3. Pine Grosbeak
4. Evening Grosbeak
5. Common Redpoll (and Hoary Redpoll for now I suppose pending the inevitable lumping)
6. Pine Siskin
7. Northern Shrike
8. Bohemian Waxwing

Some of these species come down to the coast quite frequently (think Pine Siskins), some much less regularly (I've seen one Bohemian Waxwing and two Evening Grosbeaks on Long Island ever), and of course some never come down (try reporting a Spruce Grouse in West Islip and see what response you get from the local eBird reviewer).

Friday, March 25 - Adirondack Mountains

Planning matters!  And so, with no planning, I rather predictably bombed today.   Sabbattis Bog produced a Ruffed Grouse (a year bird), some Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a few Pine Siskins, but no Boreal Birds.  Losing faith I jumped over to Bloomingdales Bog - a "gimme" site for Gray Jay - and saw .... no Boreal Birds.   And then it started to snow ... which turned to hail ... and I decided I didn't like birding any more ....

So I drove to an area with cell reception, cancelled the hotel in Lake Placid, made a hotel reservation in Montreal, messaged a bunch of friends to say I was heading there, and drove North towards the Canadian border.  Four hours after I'd been standing in freezing hail in a damp New York forest, I was in a nice warm French restaurant eating amazing Canadian food, drinking good French wine, and hanging out with good friends.  Plan B turned out to be a good choice.

Foie Gras Poutine at Au Pied do Cochon, Martin Picard's shrine to decadence
Saturday, March 26 - Quebec

Mont Tremblant National Park, Quebec 

So, despite the great French food the night before, I still had no plan, and no Boreal birds.  I didn't want to cross the border again so soon, so actually decided to head further North and drove up to Mt. Tremblant National Park, about two hours North of Montreal.  It's one helluva pretty place and I once saw some Pine Grosbeaks there so I figured I was bound to just randomly bump into Boreal birds, even without any research.

As compared to Friday, Saturday was at least a beautiful day, and even if I'd seen no birds, the trip would have been a really neat drive through great scenery.  There were also actually birds .... finches .... tens of thousands of finches.  The roadsides were full of feeding/gritting Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and everywhere I drove, I flushed them by the hundred.  While this was pretty cool at first, it soon became quite troubling .... I'f I drove too quickly I risked hitting and killing them (not the smartest things and they often flushed in front of the car as I got close) but if I drove too slowly I just pushed a bow-wave for small finches in front of me down the road.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin
In addition to the two finches mentioned there were also a fair number of Purple Finches and a single Evening Grosbeak.  At one point I though I heard some White-winged Crossbills too, but I never heard them a second time to let that record go.  It was a pretty day, lots of birds, few species, and good scenery.  All good stuff, but soon enough I headed back to the more human-centered pleasures of Montreal .... did I mention how amazing the food is in Montreal?

Sunday, March 27 - Adirondack Mountains

Well after two bad birding days, but a lot of good food and wine, I was hoping my luck would change ... and it did!  Back to the Adirondacks where on Friday I could do no right, and today ... I could do no wrong.  Birding is a funny, sometimes cruel, but always interesting hobby.

To begin with, the weather was a lot better - sunny, warmer, and (important for Boreal birding, so much of which is done by ear) windless.  And secondly, for some reason, birds practical threw themselves at me all morning ... not that I'm complaining.

I had limited time so I really intended only to spend time at Sabattis Bog before making the long drive back to the City for Easter Dinner.  I set the destination in the navigation system on the Range Rover and sat back, passively letting it make all the decisions, until I realized that I was passing through the village of Bloomingdale.  So taking control back from the computer I decided to make a quick stop at Bloomingdales Bog where I'd skunked on Friday and ended up spending some quality time with a very cute Gray Jay (Year Bird, and a real "Boreal").

Gray Jay at Bloomingdale Bog

Then on to Sabattis Bog where I quickly found another Gray Jay and then watched as a small red car pulled up and a woman got out, closely followed by said Jay, to put out some food at an improvised bird feeding area.  The woman was of course Joan Collins, Adirondack bird guide and all around encyclopedia of all things avian in the mountains, coming to put out raisins for her Gray Jay friends and suet for a very tame, and quite pushy Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Gray Jay - Sabattis Bog
While it was great to catch up with Joan; who I hadn't seen in a while, she was also very generous with her local information and within minutes I had re-planned the rest of my morning and headed off East towards the town of Newcomb.  Where, over the next couple of hours, I really cleaned up on the local birds adding in quick succession .... a Northern Shrike ... a couple of Evening Grosbeaks ... a Red Crossbill ... a couple of Boreal Chickadees ... and a Black-backed Woodpecker (5 New York State year birds, one after another).

Black-backed Woodpecker nest hole
The woodpecker was perhaps the most interesting as Joan had previously discovered a pair excavating a nest hole ... months earlier than they would traditionally do so.  Climate Change is having a huge impact on the birds in the Adirondacks  - Blue Jays now overwinter (at what cost to Gray Jays?) - Swainson's Thrushes are breeding higher and higher on the mountains (pushing out Bicknell's Thrushes?), and everything is breeding earlier.  While it's fascinating to see what's going on, it's also a little worrying and Joan, with her incredible on-the-ground knowledge is documenting it all.

Reluctantly though, I was timed out and still had a five hour drive to the City so had to leave.  I came to the Adirondacks eight times on my big year in 2012 and have only been back a couple of times since.  I've definitely missed it, and I'll be back soon.  As for Montreal ... I'll be there sooner ...

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