Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bushwhacking for Boreal Birds

Bog south of Crooked LakeSpending time in the backcountry provides many benefits, from the physical exertion of traveling through a harsh terrain to the spiritual rejuvenation that only the sounds and smells of nature can provide. One important benefit for me personally is the pleasure of being intimately immersed in the sounds of bird life, some unique to the Adirondack region.

Unfortunately, this enjoyment appears to be in jeopardy as some of the most precious Adirondack bird species are in a deadly struggle for life and death. Some of the most iconic species of the north woods appear to be losing.

A recently released study documents the decline of many of the boreal bird species in the Adirondack Park. These coniferous-loving species exist at the southern edge of their native breeding range in the Adirondacks, where they often make their living in isolated islands of suitable habitat of swamps, bogs and other wetlands. The limited availability of these wetlands is often difficult to grasp by many, as the Adirondacks’ notoriety is for its wetlands as much as it is for its high peaks and mountain vistas. At least for those who bother to explore the majority of the Park outside the High Peaks region.

What is the suspected culprit assaulting these poor innocent bird species, who are just trying to go about their ancient dance of life in the only home they know? Human beings, of course. More precisely, human beings’ thirst for more and more natural resources, taking the form of development and global climate change. Anyone enjoying time in the backcountry, away from the sounds and heat island effect associated with any metropolitan area can easily appreciate the pressures such phenomenon place on living creatures, boreal ones or not.

For me, birding and outdoor activities are inexplicably intertwined, including bushwhacking and/or traditional hiking. It is almost unheard of to find me in the backcountry without a compact pair of binoculars firmly in hand, inside a backpack or hanging off a hipbelt. This explains my proclivity for early spring backcountry adventures since avian activity is at its peak, as opposed to the lonely quiet of late summer and early autumn. I just feign appreciation for black flies to retain a sense of mystique.

My history with birding runs long and deep, starting when it was still referred to as bird watching. At that time, birding remained in the purview of the nerd or geek, well before it became cool to be one. In fact, I started birding long before engaging in bushwhacking, not to mention hiking, camping and just about any other outdoor activity.

When the spring finally arrives, many of my favorite bird songs once again ring through the Adirondack forests, such as the ethereal, flute-like song of the hermit thrush, the strident pro-education mantra of the ovenbird and the frantic complexity of the winter wren, just to name a few. Although several of these species illicit the feeling of remote wilderness, they are not obligatory backcountry species. In fact, many of these species are not unique to the Adirondack backcountry by any means, as they can commonly found throughout New York State.

In the Adirondacks, it is the boreal species that remain the avian trophies of any backcountry adventure. There are no other places in New York State outside the migratory season where one can hear the sharp call of the black-backed woodpecker, the alcoholic plea of the olive-sided flycatcher (whose call resembles the grammatically incorrect “quick-three-beers”) or the rusty gate hinge-like song of the rusty blackbird. While few of these species will ever win a beauty contents, their songs fill me an unparalleled thrill during a bushwhacking trip.

This upcoming weekend, I have another opportunity to immerse myself in the habitat of these boreal species. With the coming of mid-spring and the migration season, my single Adirondack bushwhacking trip devoted solely to birds is once again here. Like the budding leaves, the emerging black flies and the hustle and bustle of the migratory season, the Birdathon will commence, Hell or high water. With the current weather forecast, it looks like it will be high water this year.

Although this contest to find as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period is a major fund-raising activity for its sponsor, for me it is just an incentive to journey into the Adirondack backcountry in search of bird life. While there, I hope to encounter at least a few of these boreal species, but apparently, it may not be as likely as in the past. These encounters now will be even more precious than before, as they become rarer.

My future trips into the Adirondacks shall now contain a new heightened sense of urgency. Accompanying that urgency is a new appreciation for these unfortunate boreal bird species, which face enormous challenges not of their own making. Whenever an olive-sided flycatcher’s shatters the silence in a boggy wetland, or the clatter of a black-backed woodpecker rattles through a spruce/fir forest, I will pause and listen intently, enjoying the mere knowledge of their continued presence in the precious lowlands of the Adirondacks.

They may not be there much longer.

Photos: Boreal habitat south of Crooked Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

4 Responses

  1. Charlie s says:

    It’s sad what we’re doing Dan.All of the woods they take down to put up yet another subdivision or a gaming center or a drug store or Walmart…. this has an effect on the whole.Our leaders are corporate whores is what they are and they’ll be damned if birds or salamanders or any thing alive will get in the way of tax write-off land that they give away a dime a dozen to contributors of their campaigns.I’ve said it thrice and i’ll say it ten times….We need to start saving every species that remains on this planet starting last year.Every thing alive plays an integral part in all life on this planet.Tell that to someone who has stakes in oil.Or who has leased his land to a gas company.Or wears a goofy cap on his head and dresses up as though a participant in some sporting event……

  2. Hillel B says:

    I was just at a training session near Albany, with Mountain Birdwatch. One of the DEC guys mentioned how they’re having issues with manpower for their bird monitoring of boreal bogs (I believe that was the term he used). I instantly thought of you; ‘also suggested getting in touch with the local birding clubs to do some recruiting.

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