Spending 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.