Where to see our annual visitors

I awoke in near-darkness to chirping, peeping and tweeting—the “dawn chorus.” I sat up in my sleeping bag where I was camping along the shores of Horseshoe Lake to better hear and identify the avian songsters. The ethereal song of a nearby hermit thrush was flutelike. A white-throated sparrow chirped and elegantly whistled its short tune.

It was time for a dawn birding hike to Horseshoe Bog. The cool air was perfect for active birds and fewer blackflies. I had a quick breakfast and made the short drive to a pull-off at the Department of Environmental Conservation gate. From here, a dirt road leads through various natural habitats, each with different birdlife. On one side of the road is classic mixed woods—a blend of hardwoods and conifers of various tree species. On the other, hemlock, balsam and eastern white pine are dominant. A Swainson’s thrush sang from low in the conifers, and a pair of blue-headed vireo called out from the mixed woods. From high up on either side of the road, Blackburnian warblers sang. My walk through thick forest abruptly opened to a sphagnum bog bordered by low shrubs, tamarack and black spruce. I heard the sounds of palm warbler and Lincoln’s sparrow. More distant, likely from Hitchins Pond, was the unmistakable oonk-GA-loonk of a reclusive American bittern. The road continued into northern hardwood forest, with maple, beech and yellow birch. This is breeding habitat for red-eyed vireo, scarlet tanager, hermit thrush, black-throated blue warbler and ovenbird.

My birding outing was a lesson in the diversity of avian life that flourishes in the Adirondacks in summer.

Some birds do not migrate and are year-round Adirondack residents. But most are just spring and summer visitors, using these northern woods and wetlands as a nursery, then wintering in warmer climates to the south. Nesting season for many birds happens in June, with birds quieting down as summer draws to a close. Birdsong in July and August diminishes as parents raise their young and molt into fresh plumage for the migration southward.

Birding in summer offers plentiful species diversity, but with a few challenges. Blackflies, mosquitoes and ticks are a nuisance, but can be dealt with by wearing long pants, long sleeves, insect repellent and a head-net. Heat and humidity can be avoided by birding before 10 a.m. and in the late afternoon. A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and water are standard summer birding essentials. Birds are more difficult to spot within heavy summer vegetation, so listening for their song helps reveal their location.

 

Blackburnian Warbler

(Setophaga fusca)

A small migrant songbird that breeds in mature conifer and mixed forests. The male in breeding plumage sports a bright orange throat with contrasting black markings. In spring and summer, they sometimes feed on the underside of vegetation by hovering and working their way outward along branches, starting at the base and moving to the tip. Caterpillars, beetles, spiders and other small insects are their main diet. The male has two primary songs. One begins with a short series of three high notes followed by a lower-pitched series of four or five notes—teetsa teetsa teetsa zizizizizi. The other begins low and ends high; the first part of the song is a series of rapid two-part notes followed by one or two high notes—zip zip zip titi tseeeeee. Blackburnians spend the winter in the mountain forests of southern Central America and northern South America.

The web-based resource E-bird lists summer sightings across the entire Adirondack Park in mixed woods and conifers. Popular breeding spots include the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC), Adirondack Interpretive Center at SUNY ESF’s Newcomb campus, Bloomingdale Bog, Ferds Bog, Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway, and along Uncas, Blue Mountain and Sabattis Circle Roads.

 

Scarlet Tanager

(Piranga olivacea)

A medium-sized migrant songbird with fairly stocky proportions. In spring and summer, adult males are a brilliant red with black wings and tail. Females are olive-yellow with darker olive wings and tails. Beginning at the end of July or early August, the male molts from his bright red and black alternate plumage to a drab, female-like basic plumage. Scarlet tanagers breed mainly in deciduous woods—oaks, maple and beech. In breeding habitat, they eat caterpillars, moths, beetles, wasps, bees, aphids, wild fruits and berries. Their song is a hurried, repetitive warble, somewhat like that of a robin. Their winter home is in northwestern South America.

This long-distance migrant is found in the Adirondacks’ most extensive forest community-—the northern hardwood forest. E-bird shows sightings at the trail into Bloomingdale Bog, Horseshoe Bog and along Uncas, Blue Mountain and Sabattis Circle Roads.

 

Blue-headed Vireo

(Vireo solitarius)

A stocky small migrant songbird with a medium-length tail. Vireos breed in open woods, usually containing a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees. When feeding, they work deliberately along branches, searching for insects. This species sometimes flies out to catch insects in mid-air, or searches for them on the bark of major limbs. Its song is a series of sweet, slurred phrases like that of red-eyed vireo, but slower and more musical. Blue-headed vireo winter along the southeastern seaboard, Gulf Coast, Mexico and Central America.

While the presence and song of the red-eyed vireo is ubiquitous across Adirondack deciduous forests, the blue-headed vireo prefers mixed woods with conifers. Birders typically find them on the trail to Bloomingdale Bog and Ferds Bog. They’ve also been sighted along Uncas, Blue Mountain and Northpoint Roads, as well as the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway.

 

Swainson’s Thrush

(Catharus ustulatus)

A wary migrant songbird that prefers edges and openings of coniferous and mixed woods. Although Swainson’s thrush may be seen occasionally standing or running on the forest floor, this species spends less time on the ground than other thrushes. Likewise, they feed not only on the ground but forage in trees and may hover momentarily to take insects from foliage or catch them in midair. Their song is a series of reedy spiraling notes inflected upward—oh, Aurelia will-ya, will-ya will-yeee. Winters in Central and South America.

Found in coniferous and mixed woods throughout the Adirondacks including at upper elevations. E-bird reports include the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, Bloomingdale Bog, Ferds Bog, Moose River Plains and Uncas Road.

 

Palm Warbler

(Setophaga palmarum)

A woodland warbler that breeds in northern sphagnum bogs with scattered cedar, tamarack and black spruce trees. An early nester, arriving in April. Near the base of a stunted spruce at the edge of a bog, the female will create an open cup nest. It feeds mostly on small beetles, mosquitoes, flies, caterpillars, aphids, grasshoppers, ants, bees and spiders. Its voice is a weak dry trill, like that of chipping sparrow but slower—tre-tre-tre-tre-tre-tre! Palm warblers spend the winter in the southeastern US, especially Florida, and the Caribbean.

Although showing up just about anywhere in spring migration, Adirondack breeding spots are more limited to open bogs and fens favoring the northern and western portions of the park. A reliable place to find the palm warbler in summer is at Barnum Bog along the Boreal Life trail at Paul Smith’s College VIC. E-bird shows breeding season sightings at Bloomingdale, Ferds and Horseshoe Bogs as well as at Sabattis Bog along Sabattis Circle Road.

 

American Bittern

(Botaurus lentiginosus)

Dense freshwater marshes, sedges, reeds and wet meadows and bogs with tall grasses are breeding habitats for this large, solitary heron. Usually difficult to spot, it is occasionally seen in the open in late mornings and early afternoons. When alarmed, the bittern extends its neck and head vertically and freezes or sways with the breeze, blending in with surrounding vegetation. Diet is mostly fish and other aquatic life. Known for its odd song—oonk-GA-loonk—that can be heard across long distances. Winters in the southern US, Mexico and Bermuda.

E-bird has reported sightings at numerous wetlands across the park, including Paul Smith’s College VIC, Bloomingdale Bog, Tupper Lake Marsh and Ausable Marsh.


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