Sunday, March 8, 2015

TR’s Diary Of An Adirondack Birding Trip

63061_covThe State University of New York Press is coming out with an edition of Teddy Roosevelt’s diaries from 1877 to 1886, when the future president was in his late teens and twenties. Given TR’s ties to the Adirondacks, I expected to find some entries from our neck of the woods and was not disappointed.

In 1877, Roosevelt and a friend, H.D. Minot, wrote a short article with a list of birds they had observed near Paul Smiths, The article – “The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin County, N. Y.” – was TR’s first published work. Click here to read the article.

The article is based on three birding trips in the Adirondacks, in 1874, 1875, and 1877. Minot, a Harvard classmate, accompanied Roosevelt only on the last trip. TR’s diaries contain several short entries from that excursion.

The SUNY book, edited by Edward P. Kohn, a historian, is titled A Most Glorious Ride: The Diaries of Theodore Roosevelt 1877-1886. It is due out April 1.

The first mention of the Adirondacks in the diaries appears on June 21, 1877: “Started for Adirondacs.” Not all that substantial, but it’s noteworthy that Roosevelt used a variant spelling of Adirondacks.

His entry for the next day is almost as laconic: “Reached St. Regis Lake Adirondacs. Staying at Paul Smiths, with Harry Minot.” By Paul Smiths, he meant Paul Smith’s Hotel, a popular wilderness lodge on Lower St. Regis Lake. As Kohn says in a footnote, the hotel burned down in 1930

There is a gap in the diaries. The next entry is for June 30. Basically, it’s a list of birds he saw that day: crow blackbird, spotted sandpiper, red crossbill, great blue heron, merganser, black duck, wood duck, and common loon. Of the crossbills, he remarks: “Common in small parties. Flies high and keeps to the tops of the tallest pines, on whose seeds it feeds.”

The next day (July 1) contains a more detailed description of the red crossbill’s behavior: “Frequently comes around the hunters shanties, to pick up crumbs &c. Otherwise rarely approaches the ground, keeping to the top of the pines, among whose branches it climbs about like a parrot, even hanging head downwards from the branches. It is tame and unsuspicious. Its ordinary note, given while flying, sounds like ‘kip kip.’ It also chatters occasionally, and has a sweet, powerful song, like that of the purple finch. It flies strong & high, ‘dipping’ slightly. If wounded it clings tightly to the branches, even when dead, not falling. Although it feeds chiefly on seeds it also snaps up any insect it happens to come across.”

On July 3, Roosevelt went into the woods to camp. In the next day’s entry, he described the behavior of the crow blackbird: “Found in small colonies, each one usually many miles from its neighbours. They are found by ponds, in tamarack swamps or among the alders that fringe the streams. I saw several feeding among the lily pads, walking on them & catching small frogs.”

The entry for July 5 says: “Potters Pond, 25 miles from Paul Smiths. Shot my 1st deer, a buck. Also a couple of black ducks and three ruffed grouse.”

The trip’s last entry (July 7) reads: “Came out of the woods today. Good fun, but not much fishing. Weeks bag 1 buck, 2 duck, 3 grouse, 52 trout (about 15 lbs). Have had no tent. Eatables—bread & tea.”

Based on my perusal of the index, this is the last entry from the Adirondacks. In later years, of course, he would return to the region. In 1901, when he was vice president, he was at Lake Tear of the Clouds below the summit of Mount Marcy when he received word that President William McKinley, shot a week early, was dying from his wounds. TR traveled that night to the train station at North Creek, where he learned that McKinley had died. At 42, TR was now president.

In 1999, an unnamed peak near Tabletop Mountain was named TR Mountain in Roosevelt’s honor. At 3,820 feet, it is the 61st highest peak in the Adirondacks.

A Most Glorious Ride is a 322-page hardcover that sells for $29.95. It can be purchased on Amazon or the SUNY Press website.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

4 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    I’m curious about the “crow blackbird” walking on lily pads and snapping up frogs. Living in colonies seems to describe both crow or blackbird behavior, but I’ve never heard of, or seen either walking on lily pads.

    Can anyone clarify this behavior? Mis-identification perhaps?

  2. David St.Onge says:

    Common names for birds have not always remained constant. Teddy called ,what we know today as a dark eyed junco, a snow bird. You can cross reference to his list because he includes the Latin names.

  3. Bruce says:

    Thanks for letting me find it on my own. The name has been changed from Quiscalus purpureus, to Quiscalus quiscula, the Common Grackle.

    The next step is to check out the “lily trotting behavior.” Not as readily available on line. I have yet to install my Thayer’s birding program in my new computer, sounds like a good time to do it.

    I’ve always heard the Junco referred to as “snow birds.”

  4. Ellen says:

    Very interesting! Thanks.

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