Spring seems to be painfully slow in returning to the Adirondacks this year. Substantial amounts of snow still linger in most places, and ice continues to cover the surface of nearly all stationary bodies of water throughout the Park. Despite the reluctance of winter to yield to spring, scattered patches of land devoid of ice and snow always develop in late March and early April, signaling the coming change in seasons.
These places of bare ground and open water inevitably attract birds that have returned northward in the weeks around the vernal equinox in their attempt to reach their breeding grounds early and lay claim to a prime mating territory.
For robins, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles, snow free patches of soil provide the opportunity to forage for any seeds, dead or dormant bugs, or dried berries that have been preserved in nature’s refrigerator for the past six months. Even though the soil in most areas remains frozen, these scavenging birds are still capable of finding a sufficient amount of edible matter among rotted pieces of bark, decaying sticks, brown and brittle leaves and small clumps of dead weeds to keep these feathered creatures alive until food becomes more plentiful.
The greatest concentration of bare ground during early spring exists on south-facing slopes, especially where limited tree cover allows the sun to bake the forest floor for most of the day. Regardless of how cold and snowy the weather may be in March, terrain that is pitched toward the south inevitably loses its snow cover, as the sun at this point in time is able to overcome the icy effects of winter. Also, sections of forests beneath large white pines, or a grove of hemlocks where snow does not accumulate to the same depth as in an open hardwoods typically become snow free weeks before other forested settings. Wind swept ridges and elevated areas in open fields and meadows, where frequent breezes reduces the depth of the snow pack, are additional locations that develop bare ground early in the season and attract our earliest migrants.
Streams and rivers are always the first aquatic environments to thaw, losing their covering of ice when February transitions into March. Mated pairs of black ducks and mallards have all returned from their wintering grounds, as these waterfowl are well adapted to tolerate frigid water temperatures. By dunking their heads below the surface, both of these species are able to forage on the assortment of plant and animal matter that has accumulated in various nooks on the bottom and organic material that is being transported by the current just below the surface. The hooded merganser is another type of waterfowl that arrives early and may be seen in alder and willow thickets, as well as in wooded glades just downstream from a beaver pond.
The woodcock is a bird that commonly resides along the shores of alder swamps and slow-moving streams through open hardwood forests. Just prior to maple sugar season, this plump bird with the long bill seeks out a spot in a snow-free area where the soil has already begun to thaw. There it pushes its bill into the dirt in an attempt to unearth any type of soil invertebrate it happens to encounter at this early date. Even though worms have not yet returned to the surface of the ground in these locations, enough bugs exist in this water saturated zone to keep the woodcock healthy until warmer weather triggers the more massive resurgence of invertebrate life in another few weeks.
During years when spring is late, it can be the end of April, or the first week in May before the ice finally goes out on our many lakes and ponds. This creates an unwelcome situation for those birds, like the osprey, loon, and common merganser, that typically return to the Adirondacks in mid April in the hopes of finding large stretches of open water. These birds are forced to take up temporary residence on any patch of open water that suits their needs. Shallow ponds, marshes that have been elevated by melting snow and run-off from frequent spring rains, and stretches of rivers may be used by these birds for several weeks until the ice goes out on the lakes.
Bird watching during an exceptionally cold and snowy spring can be quite rewarding, as many of our migratory residents return close to schedule but are forced to concentrate their time in those places that offer the spring conditions that allow them to eat. By visiting these snowless − or ice free − sites, it is often possible to see a variety of species that are even more anxious for the start of warmer weather than any person with a case of spring fever.
Photo: The view from Owl’s Head by Jessica Tabora.