Saturday, December 31, 2022

Looking back at first days as a Ranger, keeping feeders stocked for over 50 Evening Grosbeaks

Male party evening grosbeaks

The first day of winter was very nice, but the next few days right through (and past) Christmas Day were wild in many parts of the country. The worst being right in our backyard in Buffalo where the snow is still falling and the wind [is] still blowing off Lake Erie. [It has been] reported that 55 people have died so far [as of December 26] as a result of the storm, many found dead in their snow-trapped cars and some [were found] out on the streets frozen to death.


The quick change in temperature from in the forties down to below zero in just a few hours and winds up to (and over) 70 MPH off the lake brought the snowfall of over five feet in some places again, and drifts of over 16 feet. Many people didn’t heed the warnings and they had to get out and do that last minute Christmas shopping, which could have been their last trip. We missed most of that here in the North Country, but just north of us in the Tug Hill area they had over four feet of snow, and it is still falling there as of this writing [December 26.]

We had over 18 inches of snow on the ground and then the rain came, and it was heavy at times. I had a pond under my bird feeders which I tried to drain away. Then I had to clean out my snow-plugged culverts. I got them all running, and it quickly changed to wet snow. As the temperature went down to below zero the snow got drier, and the water stopped running, which froze up the culverts by the next morning. Luckily, I have heat tapes running through them which I will probably have to plug in if we get rain on New Year’s Eve like predicted.


The new bird in my yard this week was an American Robin that found a few small apples on my tree along the driveway. My fifty to seventy-five Evening Grosbeaks come each day and get their daily fill of sunflower seeds. I still have two White-Throated Sparrows, which are picking up dropped seeds from the suet cakes. They must have grown some under feathers to live in these below zero temperatures, as they should be in Georgia by now. The temperatures down that way weren’t much different than they were up here for a day or two. Don Andrews found a couple flocks of Pine Grosbeaks picking grit in South Shore Road on Christmas Eve. One had been hit by a car whose driver didn’t toot their horn. They will eat on the small crab apples left on some of the trees in town, and they also eat ash seeds which are still hanging on the trees. Pine Grosbeaks and Robins will eat the fruit on sumac trees, but there are very few of them in this neck of the woods. The only ones I know of are opposite the Fifth Lake Canoe Carry. I check them every time I go by to see if anything is working on them. Over in the Champlain Valley, the birds pick them clean by spring.


On my first day as a Forest Ranger, I stopped in the Conservation Department Office in Northville to see District Ranger, Donald Decker. He gave me my badge and a stipulation book. I was on my way to meet the seaplane in Lake Pleasant with my wife Karen, who was pregnant with our son Michael and daughter Erin [was] not yet six months old. [We had] all the possessions in our ’57 Chevy that we needed to survive at the interior cabin at West Canada Lake. We got to Lake Pleasant, and [there] was a rainy, cloud-filled sky in early August. The seaplane pilot from Windhusen’s in Eagle Bay had called and said they weren’t going to make it today. So, we took all our stuff back to West Milton and planned on meeting them tomorrow; same place, same time.

Pine grosbeaks

Pine grosbeaks. Photo by Don Andrews.

We traveled up the next day and the weather didn’t look much better, but the seaplane was coming. Pilot Chuck Windhusen came down through the clouds and landed on Lake Pleasant. We loaded the plane full of gear and food, which he flew in on the first trip. He was gone for about fifty minutes and returned. What I haven’t mentioned is that this was the first plane ride ever for my wife and I. Chuck said, “It’s a little cloudy, but we can make it to the lake”… reassuring, I guess. We also had our dog, a little red collie named Dog, and our cat in a box named Kisser. We got airborne and into the clouds and Chuck looked at his watch as we traveled north, not seeing the landscape many times. The cat became upset as the plane rattled, and she got out of the box. She went around the cab a couple times and Chuck said, “If she goes around again, I’m opening the window.” We got her secured back in the box.


Checking his watch, Chuck said, “It’s about time” and down through the clouds we went. [We] landed right on West Lake and taxied up to the dock in front of the cabin. Campers there had taken all our stuff from the first trip up to the cabin porch. We got all our things out of the plane and thanked Chuck for the ride, but Karen said to him next time [she wanted] to see where [we were] going. Karen had never seen the cabin before, but I had walked in from Perkins Clearing fifteen miles with my dad a week before to see if there was gas in the propane tanks and see what we might need in the way of supplies. The mice had lived there unsupervised for nearly a year, leaving their droppings everywhere. There was not a stick of wood left in the wood pile, so I had to make up some firewood as we were at 2,300 feet and even though it was August, it was cool. It wasn’t long before we had a fire in the fireplace, and hot water on the stove to clean up the mess left by the mice. The phone wasn’t working, but we had radio communications through the Pillsbury Fire Tower in case of an emergency. That was home until the day before Thanksgiving that year.


Another loon stuck in the ice (of Fourth Lake this time,) but that’s another story. See ya.


Photo at top: Male party evening grosbeaks. Photo by Gary Lee.

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Gary lives with his wife, Karen, at Eight Acre Wood in Inlet where he was the Forest Ranger for 35 years, working in the Moose River Wild Forest Recreation Area and West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area. Now retired, Gary works summers for the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, observing, catching and banding loons. The author of a column Daybreak to Twilight in local papers from 1986 to 2019, he now writes his Outdoor Adventures a weekly blog. In 2008, Gary coauthored a book with John M.C. “Mike” Peterson, "Adirondack Birding- 60 Great Places to Find Birds."

4 Responses

  1. Alan G West says:

    Always enjoy Gary Lee’s articles. I have very few birds at my feeders this winter and most of our snow is gone. Yes, I’m doing a little trapping.

  2. Boreas says:

    Here on the Adirondack Coast, I get Evening Grosbeaks about as often as I get Sandhill Cranes. So the fuzzy-tailed rats get the majority of my black oil seed.

  3. Steve B. says:

    Burning down the West Canada Lakes ranger cabins is high on the list of dumb things the state has done in the region. I camped there in mid 1970’s, on my Northville-LP hike, cannot recall, possibly the cabins were gone then. Sad. They did wise up and retained Marcy Dam, Lake Colden and Raquette River at least.

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “many found dead in their snow-trapped cars and some [were found] out on the streets frozen to death.”

    > It is very sad what happened over in Buffalo but it did not have to be. There are questions as to whether the public was forewarned in time. One thing is for sure……they knew that storm was coming days ahead of landfall. Common sense should have had people way-prepared and at home when it finally did arrive, but many cars were on the road and once the snow started sticking it wasn’t long before vehicles started getting stuck, or couldn’t move because of the roads become very slick due to the mix of heavy precipitation at once and the high winds. Another thing is, which I haven’t heard anywhere else…. people tend to dress as if it’s spring even though it’s winter. They wear cotton and tee’s and even shorts are not so uncommon up here in the northeast in the winter, even on 15-degree days. Very strange but then we’re a strange species! I’m guessing those people found frozen to death in their cars were not dressed properly and who thinks to have wool blankets in their cars this time of year, which, if these were the case it explains the deaths.

    If one knows a storm is approaching, and if one is aware of how the northeast weather can be so unpredictable, and if one had smarts, then one would know to ‘be prepared!’ No matter how cold it got, if one was dressed properly and had wool blankets in their vehicles to boot, odds are they’d still be alive today. I do not make light of this tragedy and my heart goes out to the families of their lost loved ones.

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