It’s 4 a.m. on a chilled morning in early June. Still three hours away from sunrise so my weak headlamp casts an eerie and unnatural glow to the trail as I pick my way through rock, stream, and unseen balsam fir branches. I’m heading to the summit of Wright Peak in the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Nearing the summit I must first stop every 250 meters from a predetermined point on my map. Here I listen for any bird song that might be heard and then record it in my notes. I chuckle as I think that it’s more like the first “yawn” I hear from these birds. Over a 30-day period myself and dozens of other crazy but doggedly determined volunteer birders are assisting an organization to acquire desperately needed information on some bird species that live on the mountains.
Fast-forward to the end of June, still early morning, and I’m slogging my way through a blackfly-infested bog in the wild regions of the Santa Clara Tract. I’m nearing an area known as the Madawaska Flow. Here I’m still listening for, identifying, and counting bird species but now I’m in a completely different habitat. This lowland environment reveals new species that need to be counted for another study.
Through a not-so-picturesque way I’m shedding light on what’s involved in gathering data for the most recent research of our Adirondack birdlife.
You may fancy the New York Times‘ Science Times section every Tuesday, as I do, but have you thought about the countless hours of research that goes into some of those tid-bits of science? Mind-numbing data is collected and analyzed and then those analyses are scoured and analyzed even more. Then finally results are spewed out on the computer, all to advance our knowledge and understanding.
Well it’s the same in the world of bird study, and thankfully here in the Adirondacks we have organizations that dwell on these processes. These organizations, like the Vermont Center for Ecostudies have called upon countless volunteers to gather lots of data on a rare bird, known as the Bicknell’s thrush, that faces many hardships on its Adirondack and other northeastern mountain-top breeding habitats.
The Bicknell’s thrush is dealt a tough hand as it tries to breed on the wind-blown and often freezing-cold, spruce-fir forests that ring the tops of many Adirondack mountains. If that’s not tough enough the birds then face an even bigger problem as they migrate south to overwinter in an ever-decreasing rainforest on the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island).
Research is also showing a very high level of toxic mercury in many Bicknell’s thrush that are sampled across the northeastern US. Then another “left hook” of habitat loss hits this species in its winter and summer grounds.
Closer to my area of work, we find the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) conducting research on Adirondack boreal birds, or those bird species that inhabit the coniferous woodlands and wetlands found at lower elevations.
Our crew has spent many a bug-swatting hour in bogs, along waterways, or deep into conifer thickets searching and counting tiny, colorful species of warbler, finch, sparrow, flycatcher, and the occasional grouse. Our seven years of data has added up to some interesting pictures of Adirondack birdlife. Basically the trends that we see in our early data seem to go along with the trends found elsewhere in the US. We find a decrease in many species but a rise in some others. The good with the bad!
Another candidate for intensive research throughout the park is the common loon. The loon is facing threats from a growing mercury and lead toxicity in some of our Adirondack waters. Through diligent efforts by staff and volunteers of Biodiversity Research Institute
we now have a clearer picture of what loons are dealing with during their breeding time here in the Adirondacks.
The Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb has become one of our leading institutes of Adirondack wildlife research, and better yet, it involves college students learning in the field and experiencing hands-on education.
We can also pay tribute to the hard-earned, data-gathering hours of even more volunteers that worked on the 2nd New York State Breeding Bird Atlas . Gathered over give years, this data shows what birds breed in which areas of New York. The art work and text associated with this book make it worthwhile purchase for the beginner and avid birder.
So, the alarm bells are ringing across the country and around the world about drastic changes in bird populations, as well as many other forms of wildlife, but here in our own backyards we’ve got dedicated folks wanting to find the answers to complicated questions.
Photo: A red-breasted nuthatch being banded by Paul Smiths College Ornithology students.