Patches of snow that remain in open areas and along forest edges, and the reluctance of the soil to completely thaw have impacted the seasonal routines of numerous forms of wildlife, including the woodcock. Yet, despite the adversities created by the weather, most woodcock are already engaged in breeding, as can be easily noted by visiting certain settings after the sun has set.
The woodcock is a plump, mottled tannish-brown bird that is seldom seen during the day because of its extremely effective protective coloration, and its preference for remaining inactive when the sun is above the horizon. It is during the fading twilight of evening, and as the sky begins to brighten before dawn that this odd-looking bird ventures from a sheltered spot on the forest floor and begins to forage. With its long, hook-tipped bill, the woodcock is ideally adapted for extracting earthworms from the soil. By inserting this lengthy beak into the dirt, the woodcock is capable of sensing any nearby worms, or other soil invertebrates. The high concentration of nerve cells that exist within its bill are attuned to the minute vibrations generated by worms as they ever so gradually move through the soil. Once it detects and locates an invertebrate, the woodcock quickly attempts to insert its bill directly over the potential meal, grab hold of it, and then pull it from its earthen surroundings.
Because the ground is still partially frozen, or covered with patches of snow in many of the deciduous and mixed forest edges preferred by the woodcock, this bird temporarily concentrates its evenings and early mornings in places in which the soil has thawed and worms have become active. Open, south facing hillsides and wetlands where the sun and high water events have caused the snow to melt are places sought out by the woodcock in early spring. Alder thickets are particularly attractive to this bird as they provide a dense layer of ground cover as well as a wealth of soil invertebrates during the spring. Even in summer, when hot and dry weather forces worms and many soil bugs in open and dry sites deep into the soil below the reach of this bird, alder areas provide conditions favorable to a foraging woodcock.
Although the woodcock’s coloration and markings perfectly match that of a deciduous forest floor or the ground in an alder thicket, the males come into an open, grassy setting before they eat in order to announce their presence. The loud, sharp, nasal-sounding note bleated by the male is a far cry from the melodious tunes produced by many of our feathered songsters, yet this call serves a similar purpose. After repeating this short squawk for several minutes, the woodcock then takes to the air to perform an aerial display that is also part of its mating ritual.
The tips of the woodcock’s primary flight feathers produce a distinct whistling-twitter sound when air quickly flows past them. This is why a woodcock makes a similar twitter noise when it’s flushed from a daytime resting spot.
The aerial display of the woodcock is difficult to follow in the dwindling twilight, especially on overcast nights. When the sky is clear, however, and a full moon has ascended above the horizon, it is possible to watch this bird circle the forest clearing that it has claimed, and perform a series of dives that bring it back to its singing perch on the ground. Taking an evening walk to a forest clearing near an alder thicket or to a stand of young hardwoods after the daytime breeze has subsided, and the first stars of the night (which are usually not stars, but planets) are just becoming visible, often results in noting a woodcock’s presence.
A fair number of these occurrences, however, center on hearing the characteristic sounds made by this plump, short-legged bird, rather than actually seeing it. It is the distinct vocalization made by the woodcock as it stands in the open, yet shrouded by darkness, that alerts other woodcocks in the area, and the humans attuned to the sounds of nature, that the process of creating another generation of woodcocks is already underway.
This announcement is for general use – local conditions may vary and are subject to sometimes drastic changes.
Listen for the weekly Adirondack Outdoor Recreation Report Friday mornings on WNBZ (AM 920 & 1240, FM 105 & 102.1) and the stations of North Country Public Radio.
The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional Forest Ranger incident reports which form a stern reminder that wilderness conditions can change suddenly and accidents happen. Be aware of the latest weather conditions and carry adequate gear and supplies.
SPECIAL NOTICES FOR THIS WEEKEND ** indicates new or revised items.
** WINTER CONDITIONS Although Spring is around the corner, winter conditions still exist with 6 inches to two feet of snow on the ground across most of the region, and more in higher elevations. The Lake Colden Interior Caretaker reported about 3 feet on the ground at the cabin. Expect temperatures below freezing at night at all elevations and below freezing during the day at high elevations. Ice may be found on summits and other open areas. These conditions still require snowshoes or skis at all elevations and crampons on exposed areas. Snow cover is good most trails in the Central Adirondacks, outside that area trails may be wet and muddy. Higher elevations waters are still iced in and covered with snow. Lower elevation waters may be open, or deceptively covered with snow. Use extreme caution with the thickness of ice.
BEAR CANISTERS NOW REQUIRED IN HIGH PEAKS The use of bear-resistant canisters is required for overnight users in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, and recommended throughout the Adirondacks, between April 1 and November 30. All food, toiletries and garbage must be stored in bear-resistant canisters.
SNOWSHOES OR SKIS The use of snowshoe or skis is required in the Eastern High Peaks where ever snow depths exceed 8 inches, as is currently the case, and is recommended elsewhere in the Adirondacks. Using snowshoes or skis prevents “post-holing”, avoids injuries, and eases travel through snow.
EXPECT BLOWDOWN Recent storms and strong winds have caused blowdown – trees, limbs, and branches may be found on and over trails, especially lesser used trails which have not yet been cleared. This will be especially true aft heavy wet snow expected Friday.
** AVALANCHE CONDITIONS The potential for avalanches on slides and other areas prone to avalanche still exists and several have occurred. The danger of avalanches is highest shortly after a significant snowfall, and avalanches can occur anytime there is a deep snow cover made up of multiple layers of snow. The risk of avalanche depends on a number of factors and can not only change from day to day, but also change over the period of the day as temperatures, humidity and solar warming all influence the character of the snowpack. Avoid traveling on open areas with slopes between 25 & 50 degrees and no vegetation. Never travel alone, carry proper safety equipment; and inform someone where you will be traveling.
** MIGRATING BIRDS Thousands of birds are currently undertaking their seasonal journey along the Atlantic Flyway from their southern wintering grounds. Flocks of migratory waterfowl like geese, ducks and swans are among the first to arrive, as songbirds like the red-winged blackbird, Eastern bluebird, Eastern meadowlark and American robin take up residence and build their nests. Over the next few weeks, grab your binoculars to watch the spectacle of birds arriving this spring. Visit DEC’s Watchable Wildlife site to find a place near you for great bird and wildlife viewing opportunities.
** THIN ICE SAFTEY Ice may consist of alternating layers of hard ice and frozen slush which is not as strong as clear hard ice. Snows may be covering thin ice – ice that holds snow may not hold the weight of a person. Always check the thickness of ice before crossing and at several points along the way. Be cautious of ice near inlets, outlets and over any moving water. Each year a number of people fall through thin ice. One has already died and many more have gone through the ice. Use extreme caution with ice at this time of year.
** SNOWMOBILES Although most of the region’s snowmobile trails have closed, there may still be some snowmobiles operating on designated snowmobile trails in the Central Adirondacks. Skiers and snowshoers using designated snowmobile trails should keep to the sides of the trail to allow safe passage. See the weekly snowmobile trails report below for more information about the condition of local snowmobile trails.
Carry Extra Winter Gear Snowshoes or skis can prevent injuries and eases travel in heavy snow. Ice crampons should be carried for use on icy trails and mountaintops and other exposed areas. Wear layers of wool and fleece (NOT COTTON!), a winter hat, gloves or mittens, wind/rain resistant outer wear, and winter boots. Carry a day pack complete with ice axe, plenty of food and water, extra clothing, map and compass, first-aid kit, flashlight/headlamp, sun glasses, sun-block protection, ensolite pads, a stove and extra fuel, and bivy sack or space blankets.
Know The Latest Weather Check the weather before entering the woods and be aware of weather conditions at all times — if weather worsens, head out of the woods.
Fire Danger: LOW NOTE: We’re entering the state’s historically high fire risk period from mid-March until mid-May.
** Central Adirondacks LOWER Elevation Weather Friday: Sunny. Highs in the lower 50s. Friday Night: Clear. Lows in the mid 20s. Saturday: Partly sunny. Highs in the upper 50s. Winds near 10 mph. Saturday Night: Mostly cloudy. Lows in the mid 30s. Sunday: Mostly cloudy, chance of rain, showers. Highs in lower 60s.
The National Weather Service provides a weather forecast for elevations above 3000 feet and spot forecasts for the summits of a handful of the highest peaks in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. [LINK]
** Snow Cover Snow cover varies throughout the region with little or no snow in the Eastern Essex, Southern Warren and Washington Counties and along the southern and eastern Adirondack, but 6 inches to 18 inches in other areas including most of Hamilton County, Northern Warren and throughout the Central and Northern Adirondacks. Conditions still require snowshoes or skis at higher elevations and crampons on exposed areas such as summits. The latest snow cover map from the National Weather Service provides an estimate of snow cover around the region.
** Downhill Ski Report Aside from Gore, Whiteface, and West Mountain in Queensbury, all downhill mountains are now closed. The Summit of Whiteface has received more than a foot of new snow this past week. Whiteface will remain open daily, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., through Sunday, April 10, and weather and conditions permitting re-open the following weekend, Friday through Sunday, April 15-17. At Gore, some novice-level trails are growing bare but there is plenty of skiing on intermediate skiers and expert trails. Gore expects to be open Friday through Sunday this weekend and next, and possibly, weather permitting, Easter Weekend (April 24th).
** Cross Country Ski Report Most of the region’s cross-country ski areas are still open. With 8 to 10 inches and spring conditions. The Jackrabbit Trail is still skiable its entire length, with about a one foot base. The entire trail has good cover, but the hills are hard and fast. Complete cross-country conditions are available [online].
** Backcountry Ski Report Snow cover is suitable for skiing on all trails with about 3 feet at Lake Colden and more at higher elevations, including some fresh snow this week. Use the old hiking trail to reach Marcy Dam from ADK Loj. The truck trail has an open brook crossing 1/4 mile past the register, but it can be crossed via a narrow snow bridge or a detour upstream to a beaver dam. The bridge is out on the trail to Marcy, see below for details. Snows have accumulated to sufficient depths on Adirondack Mountain slopes to create conditions conducive to avalanches and DEC has issued an Avalanche Warning. The Avalanche Pass Slide is closed to skiing and snowshoeing during the winter months.
** Ice Climbing Report Anything facing south or east is gone or dangerous. There is still some safe ice in the northern facing areas but the season has ended for the vast majority of ice climbers. Additional Adirondack ice climbing conditions are supplied by Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service.
** Rock Climbing Closures All rock climbing routes on Upper and Lower Washbowl Cliffs in the Giant Mountain Wilderness, on Moss Cliff in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness, and on the Main Face of Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain are closed, except for the routes between “Opposition” and “Womb with a View” at Pok-O-Moonshine, to allow for peregrine falcon nesting. See Adirondack Rock Climbing Route Closures for more information.
** Ice Fishing Report Ice fishing is officially open, but recent warm weather have left very slushy conditions and dangerous ice in some areas, particularly at lower elevations and in the southern Adirondacks. Higher elevation waters (above 2500 feet) are still iced in and covered with snow, lower elevation waters are beginning to open up. Be extremely cautious around inlets, outlets, shoreline seeps and over moving water. Tip-ups may be operated on waters through April 30, 2010. General ice fishing regulations can be found in the in the 2010-11 Fishing Regulations Guide.
** Snowmobile Trails Report Most of the local clubs have closed their trails. Now is the time to show restraint to keep from tearing up fragile trails. There is still some riding to be had in the south-central Adirondacks but washouts, water holes, fallen snow bridges, and open stream crossings can be expected. Most clubs have already closed their trails, particularly in Warren and Washington counties, in the towns of Webb and Raquette Lake. Contact a local club for specific details in their area. Gates to snowmobile trails in the Lake George Wild Forest have been closed. Avoid riding on lakes or ponds, and excessive speed. Ride safely. More Adirondack snowmobiling resources can be found here.
** Rivers Expected to Run High Waters in the region are currently running at normal levels for this time of year, but are expected to run above normal this weekend. The Raqautte and HUdson are running above normal. Use care and consult the latest streamgage data.
** Whitewater Rafting Season Has Begun The whitewater rafting season began last weekend on Hudson and boats will likely be available this weekend on the Moose, Black and Sacandaga rivers as well. The Hudson River Whitewater Derby will run May 7-8 2011. The event includes novice slalom, giant slalom, and more.
** Most Hunting Seasons Now Closed Most hunting seasons are now closed with the exception of late snow goose which will end April 15th. Hikers sin the Lake Champlain basin should be aware that they may meet hunters bearing firearms while hiking on trails. Recognize that these are fellow outdoor recreationists with the legal right to hunt on Forest Preserve lands. Hunting accidents involving non-hunters are extremely rare.
** Most Furbearer Trapping Seasons Closed All furbearer trapping seasons are closed with the exception of mink, and muskrat which close April 15th. Body gripping traps set on land can no longer use bait or lure.
** Trout Season Opened April 1st Trout (brook, rainbow, brown and hybrids, and splake) and landlocked Salmon season open April 1st, but is off to a slow start with so much snow and ice on the banks of local streams, and this weekend waters will be high and cold. Stocking has been delayed. For catch and size limits view the freshwater fishing regulations online.
Bear and Deer Harvest Report Hunters killed just over 230,000 deer and more than 1,060 bears in the 2010 hunting season, according to DEC. The deer take locally was up about 3% from 2009, bear numbers were down about 35% from 2009. While overall population size plays a large role in harvest totals, annual variations in take are also strongly influenced by environmental factors that affect bear activity and hunting pressure such as natural food availability and snow fall according to DEC wildlife biologists.
ADIRONDACK LOCAL BACKCOUNTRY CONDITIONS
NORTHVILLE PLACID TRAIL
The Northville Placid Trail (NPT) is the Adirondack Park’s only designated long distance hiking trail. The 133 mile NPT was laid out by the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1922 and 1923, and is now maintained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Up to date NPT trail condition information can be found online.
Upper Benson to Whitehouse: Just north of the Mud Lake lean-to there has been significant blow-down in several areas across the trail that happened sometime in early December that requires several bushwhacks to get around.
West Canada Lakes to Wakely Dam: The bridge over Mud Creek, northeast of Mud Lake, has been washed out. Wading the creek is the only option. The water in Mud Creek will vary from ankle deep to knee deep.
Personal Flotation Devices Required: Users of small boats are reminded that state law requires all occupants of boats less than 21 feet in length are required to wear personal flotation devices (aka PFDs and life jackets) between November 1 and May 1.
Bear Resistant Canister Now Required: The use of bear-resistant canisters is required for overnight users in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, and recommended throughout the Adirondacks, between April 1 and November 30. All food, toiletries and garbage must be stored in bear-resistant canisters.
** Giant Mountain Wilderness: All rock climbing routes on Upper and Lower Washbowl Cliffs are closed to allow for peregrine falcon nesting. See Adirondack Rock Climbing Route Closures for more information.
Snowshoes or Skis: The use of snowshoe or skis is required in the Eastern High Peaks and is recommended elsewhere in the Adirondacks. Using snowshoes or skis prevents “post-holing”, avoids injuries, and eases travel through snow.
Avalanche Conditions: Everywhere snows have accumulated to sufficient depths to create conditions conducive to avalanches. Avoid traveling on open areas with slopes between 25 & 50 degrees and no vegetation. Never travel alone, carry proper safety equipment; and inform someone where you will be traveling. DEC has issued an Avalanche Warning.
Opalescent River Flooding: Due to ice from previous flooding incidents of the Opalescent River, the Day Glow South camping area below the Lake Colden Dam, including the Opalescent and McMartin lean-tos, remains unusable. Campers are advised to use other campsites at this time
Marcy Brook Bridge: The Marcy Brook Bridge, below the junction of the Avalanche Pass and Lake Arnold trails, was damaged by ice during the recent thaw. The bridge is still usable but one of the railings is bent making the path over the bridge narrow. Skiers may have some problems crossing.
Johns Brook Valley: Lean2Rescue, in cooperation with DEC, will be undertaking several lean-to projects in the Johns Brook Valley over the course of the next several months. DEC will post notifications at the Garden trailhead prior to work being started. Beginning the weekend of March 18-20 the Deer Brook will be moved and the Bear Brook lean-to will be removed.
Avalanche Pass Slide: The slide is closed to skiing and snowshoeing.
Western High Peaks Wilderness: The unpaved section of Corey’s Road, the main entrance to the Western High Peaks Wilderness, is closed for mud season.
Western High Peaks Wilderness: Trails in the Western High Peaks Wilderness are cluttered with blowdown from a storm that occurred December 1st. DEC has cleared blow down along the Corey’s Road, and in most areas accessed from the that road, including the Seward Trail, although not along the Northville-Placid Trail.
Ampersand Mountain Trail: There is heavy blowdown on the Ampersand Mountain Trail as far as the old caretakers cabin – approximately 1.7 miles in. Finding the trail may be difficult after fresh snows. Skiing will be frustrating as there are so many trees down. Past the cabin site the trail is good but snowshoes and crampon are needed.
Elk Lake Conservation Easement Lands: The Clear Pond Gate on the Elk Lake Road is closed and will remain closed until the end of the spring mud season. This adds 2 miles of hiking, plan trips accordingly.
Bushnell Falls: The high water bridge at Bushnell Falls has been removed, the low water crossing may not be accessible during high water.
Opalescent River Bridges Washed Out: The Opalescent River Bridge on the East River / Hanging Spears Falls trail has been washed out. The crossing will be impassable during high water.
Caulkins Brook Truck Trail/Horse Trail: Much of the blowdown on the Caulkins Brook Truck Trail/Horse Trail between the Calkins Brook lean-tos and Shattuck Clearing has been removed. The trail is open for hikers but remains impassable to horses and wagons. DEC crews continue to work to open the trail.
CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN ADIRONDACKS
Great Sacandaga Lake: A section of North Shore Road in Hadley, which runs along the Great Sacandaga Lake, fell into the lake Friday night just south of the Conklingville dam. The Batchellerville Bridge in Edinburg has alternating one-way traffic.
Perkins Clearing / Speculator Tree Farm Conservation Easement Lands: The waters of the Miami River have subsided and the C4/C8 snowmobile trail is open between intersections HM114 and HM6.
Moose River Plains Wild Forest: The Moose River Plains Snowmobile Trail is completely open again, snowmobilers may travel between the Cedar River Headquarters and the Limekiln Lake gate. The water levels on Cellar Brook have dropeed and the Town of Indian Lake has re-graded and groomed the trail so snowmobiles can once again cross safely.
Pigeon Lake Wilderness: DEC Forest Rangers and trail crew have been working to clear blowdown from trails. The following trails are cleared and ready for skiing and/or snowshoeing: Shallow Lake Trail (well-marked with some minor blow down), West Mountain Trail (well-marked, some blowdown remains on section east of the summit), and Sucker Brook Trail
** Lake George Wild Forest (Eastern and Western): Gates on snowmobile trails have been closed.
Eastern Lake George Wild Forest: The Town of Fort Ann has closed the Shelving Rock Road for mud season.
** Hoffman Notch Wilderness Area: The DEC is holding a public meeting to discuss the proposed Unit Management Plan for the 38,500 acre Hoffman Notch Wilderness in the Towns of North Hudson, Minerva and Schroon Lake in Essex County. The plan includes an analysis of the features of the area and the ability of the land to accommodate public use. The meeting will start at 6:30 on April 26 at the Schroon Lake Town Hall. For directions and more details on the draft management plan, read the DEC press release.
Hudson River Recreation Area: Gates on the Buttermilk Road Extension in the Hudson River Special Management Area (aka the Hudson River Recreation Area), in the Town of Warrensburg remain shut and the roads closed to motor vehicle traffic.
Hudson Gorge Primitive Area: Ice has formed on all waters. Paddlers, hunters and other users of small boats are reminded that state law requires all occupants of boats less than 21 feet in length are required to wear personal flotation devices (aka PFDs and life jackets) between November 1 and May 1.
Santa Clara Tract Easement Lands (former Champion Lands): All lands are open to all legal and allowable public recreation activities beginning January 1. The gate to the Pinnacle Trail remains closed until after the spring mud season.
Santa Clara Tract Easement Lands: Due to logging operations the Madawaska Road and Conversation Corners Road will be closed to snowmobiles and the Snowmobile Corridor C8 has been rerouted.
Whitney Wilderness / Lake Lila: The gate to the Lake Lila Road is closed. Public motorized access to the road is prohibited until the gate is reopened after the spring mud season. Cross-country skiers, snowshoers and other non-motorized access is allowed on the road. Trespassing on lands adjacent to the road is prohibited.
** Taylor Pond Wild Forest: All of the rock climbing routes on the Main Face of Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain are closed, except for the routes between “Opposition” and “Womb with a View”, to allow for peregrine falcon nesting. See Adirondack Rock Climbing Route Closures for more information.
Sable Highlands Conservation Easement Lands: Numerous cross country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities exist on the Public Use Areas and Linear Recreation Corridors open to the public. Skiers and snowshoers are asked not to use the groomed snowmobile routes. Signs on the trails and maps of the snowmobile routes instruct snowmobilers on which routes are open this winter. Portions of these routes may be plowed from time to time so riders should be cautious and aware of motor vehicles that may be on the road. These route changes are a result of the cooperation of Chateaugay Woodlands, the landowner of the easement lands, and their willingness to maintain the snowmobile network. The cooperation of snowmobilers will ensure future cooperative reroutes when the need arises.
Sable Highlands Conservation Easement Lands: A parking area has been built on Goldsmith Road for snowmobile tow vehicles and trailers. The southern terminus of Linear Recreation Corridor 8 (Liberty Road) lies several hundred feet to the east of the parking area and connects to the C8A Snowmobile Corridor Trail (Wolf Pond Road) via Linear Recreation Corridor 7 (Wolf Pond Mountain Road). Construction of the parking area was a cooperative effort of the landowner, the Town of Franklin, and DEC. The Town of Franklin donated time, personnel and equipment from their highway department and will be plowing the parking area.
Sable Highlands / Old Liberty Road / Wolf Pond Mountain Road Snowmobile Trail: Due to planned logging operations by the landowner on lands north of Loon Lake, the western portion of the snowmobile trail (Old Liberty Road/Wolf Pond Mountain Road) that connected with the C7 Snowmobile Corridor Trail (the utility corridor) just north of Loon Lake near Drew Pond and lead to the C8A Snowmobile Corridor Trail (Wolf Pond Road) has been closed this winter. The eastern portion of that snowmobile trail (Wolf Pond Mountain Road) now connects to Goldsmith Road near the parking area. Snowmobiles planning to travel between Franklin County and Clinton County using the C8A Snowmobile Corridor Trail must access C8A at the junction with C7 or use Goldsmith Road and the trail from the Goldsmith Road to C8A (Wolf Pond Road).
Sable Highlands / Mullins Road: The Mullins Road has been opened to snowmobiles to connect County Route 26 (Loon Lake Road) to C7. The road is located approximately halfway between the intersections of Route 26 with C8 (Debar Game Farm Road) and Route 26 with C7.
Norton Peak Cave / Chateuagay Woodlands Conservation Easement Lands: Norton Peak Cave will be closed to the public from Nov 1 till March 31. The cave is a bat hibernacula with white nose syndrome present. It is being closed to recreational spelunking to avoid disturbance of hibernating bats. DEC is closing all bat hibernacula caves on state lands and easments to protect the bat population.
GENERAL ADIRONDACK NOTICES
Accidents Happen, Be Prepared Wilderness conditions can change suddenly and accidents happen. Hikers and campers should check up-to-date forecasts before entering the backcountry as conditions at higher elevations will likely be more severe. All users should bring flashlight, first aid kit, map and compass, extra food, plenty of water and clothing. Be prepared to spend an unplanned night in the woods and always inform others of your itinerary.
Personal Flotation Devices Required Paddlers, hunters and other users of small boats are reminded that state law requires all occupants of boats less than 21 feet in length are required to wear personal flotation devices (aka PFDs and life jackets) between November 1 and May 1.
Cave And Mine Closings White nose syndrome, the fungal disease that’s wiping out bat populations across the northeast has spread to at least 32 cave and mine bat hibernation sites across the New York state according to a recent survey. Populations of some bat species are declining in these caves and mines by 90 percent. White nose was first discovered in upstate New York in the winter of 2006-2007 and is now confirmed in at least 11 states. DEC has closed all bat hibernacula caves on state lands and easements to protect the bat population including Norton Peak Cave in Chateuagay Woodlands Easement Lands and also Eagle Cave near Chimney Mountain. Please respect cave and mine closures.
Practice ‘Leave No Trace’ Principles All backcountry users should learn and practice the Leave No Trace philosophy: Plan ahead and be prepared, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of others. More information is available online.
——————– Warnings and announcements drawn from DEC, NWS, NOAA, USGS, and other sources. Detailed Adirondack Park camping, hiking, and outdoor recreation and trail conditions can be found at DEC’s webpages. A DEC map of the Adirondack Park can also be found online [pdf].
The new DEC Trails Supporter Patch is now available for $5 at all outlets where sporting licenses are sold, on-line and via telephone at 1-866-933-2257. Patch proceeds will help maintain and enhance non-motorized trails throughout New York State.
The persistent northerly wind that has kept spring at bay this year has also impacted the migration schedule of numerous birds. However, the urge to return to the breeding grounds is extremely strong, and there are always hardy individuals that travel northwards during those brief periods when the headwind dies and the air becomes calm.
Among these impatient migrants are pairs of Canada Geese that have overwintered in the windswept corn fields of southern New York, and across the Pennsylvania and New Jersey countryside where they have found an adequate source of food. Historically absent from most waterways in the Park prior to the mid 1800’s, the Canada goose has become an abundant species of waterfowl in many sections of the Adirondacks populated by humans. When accompanied by its brood of young, a pair of adults avoids the heavily forested shorelines that characterize most bodies of water throughout this section of northern New York. It is large, open fields, especially those in which the grass is periodically mowed that attract this hefty herbivore. Golf course fairways near a pond or river, large athletic fields adjacent to a marsh or stream, and community parks and sprawling lawns that border a lake are all ideal settings for the Canada goose.
The abundance of grasses, leafy weeds, grains and select soil bugs that serve as food to these honking giants attracts them to such open places. Additionally, this long necked bird is better able to scan the immediate surroundings which provide it with the opportunity to detect a predator when one is still a long distance away. Even though many of shorelines in the Adirondacks are still covered with snow, and ice continues to exist well out from the water’s edge, pairs of Canada geese may be seen is spots of open water as they begin to return to the region. Upon their arrival, the pair seeks out a secluded location in which to make a nest. A remote section of a marsh along a stream that has caused the ice to disappear for the season is frequently selected. An open, sun-baked patch of low shrubs and collapsed sedges near the edge of a river is another type of setting that might be chosen for a nest, as is the roof of an abandoned muskrat house that sits back from the shore in a snow free spot.
While these sites lack the grasses and other herbaceous plants that typify a well maintain lawn, such marshy communities still contain an assortment of non-woody vegetation useful to this grazer. Because the growing season has not yet started, the older adults that take up residence in such locations for the month long period of building a nest, laying eggs, and incubating them depend on their experience at locating various seeds and other wetland edibles to keep them sufficiently nourished.
Once their eggs hatch, the parents begin the process of relocating the family to a setting in which grasses are starting to grow.
As southerly winds eventually usher in more spring-like weather, flocks of Canada geese can be heard and seen flying overhead in their characteristic “V” shaped formation. These are the birds that are headed much further north than the upper portion of New York State. The Canada geese that have established breeding populations in many sections of the Park over the past several decades have mostly returned from their wintering areas despite the icy conditions that remain along our waterways. While a few pairs may occasionally be seen on scattered patches of open water that currently exist on some of our lakes and ponds, many pairs of Canada geese have already retreated into the semi-open thickets in marshes and other wetlands that they have selected to serve as their home for the next month or so.
The creation of open spaces along lake shores and river edges that are carpeted with lush, green lawns has been an alteration of the Adirondack environment much to the liking of property owners and community residents alike. For the Canada geese it is also a most welcome change to the shoreline, as it provides this large species of waterfowl with the opportunity to raise the young birds that will begin appearing by early to mid May.
A warm southerly breeze in mid-March brings with it loose, granular conditions on the ski slopes, a layer of mud on dirt roads, and the return of the Adirondacks first seasonal avian residents and among these are the male red-winged blackbirds.
This jet black bird with the red and yellow patch on its upper wing, known as an epaulet, is quick to return to its breeding grounds when air currents become favorable for migration. Despite the presence of snow on the ground, ice on many of our waterways, and periodic outbreaks of bitter cold, these birds exhibit an eagerness to get back to their breeding areas. Immediately upon their arrival, the males begin to lay claim to favored sections of marsh and the weedy shorelines of rivers, ponds, and lakes, especially those that are covered by cattails. It is in such areas of tall aquatic grasses, shrubs, sedges and weeds that the females will be looking to establish a nesting territory when they arrive during the first few weeks of April.
Unlike many birds, the red-winged blackbird does not form a pair bond with a single individual, rather the male services the reproductive needs of all of the females that happen to set up a nesting territory within the boundaries of their section of real estate. It is not uncommon for a prime chunk of marsh, held by a single male, to encompass up to three female nesting territories.
Those individuals that arrive first tend to gain control of the best parcels of marsh. These are the older and more experienced males that average from 3 to 6 years of age. They have learned what areas are likely to attract the strongest and hardiest females, as well as what settings are most likely to allow for a successful nesting season. In this way, these males can best ensure that their genetic information will be passed on to future generations of red-wings.
Once a male selects a territory, he will defend it by loudly announcing his presence with a distinct vocalization. The phrase, “O-Ka-TEE” is often used to describe this call. Additionally, the male opens its wings slightly to expose its epaulets. This visual cue is given to alert other nearby males that he is dead serious about defending his area. It is akin to a human brandishing some type of weapon while standing on his front porch when confronting an unwelcome visitor. Finally, the male is quick to attack any other male that fails to heed the warnings.
Over a several day period, regular skirmishes with neighboring males over the exact boundaries ensue until ownership claims become established. Because most wetlands are still covered in snow and ice, these birds are forced to find food outside their breeding territories. It is not uncommon in mid to late March to note small flocks of male red-wings in poplar trees that border open, south-facing hillsides where foraging conditions are better. Also, when the wind comes up from the north, preventing other migrants from arriving and creating bitter cold conditions, the males congregate in more sheltered locations rather than guard a breeding territory that is currently devoid of any rivals.
Yet, as soon as the weather turns more spring like, these birds quickly return to their patch of marsh to immediately challenge any intruder that has just arrived from the south. Since the first birds back have had a chance to recover from their bout of long distance flight, they are generally at an advantage when they confront recent arrivals that are more physically drained.
During years when frequent spells of unseasonably cold and snowy weather hinder this birds ability to forage, these early migrants may experience significant nutritional stress. This is why birds are careful not to return too early in March.
It is impossible to predict the type of spring we will experience based on sightings and signs in nature. The arrival of numerous flocks of red-winged blackbirds earlier than normal is only a reflection of a period of favorable migration conditions as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. The awakening urge that males are experiencing is strong, and the battles that become a part of this process have now begun in the marshes of the Adirondacks.
Anyone living in a town or hamlet in the Adirondacks knows that the gray squirrel is a common member of the wildlife community within the Park. This bushy-tailed rodent ranks among the most frequently seen creatures, especially if a few individuals in the neighborhood are maintaining bird feeders. Yet, as common as this skilled aerialist may appear, the gray squirrel is not as widely distributed throughout the Park as it would seem.
The gray squirrel is a creature that is heavily dependent on acorns for its staple source of food. It is in mature stands of oaks that the population of this species reaches its natural peak. In areas where oaks occur only sporadically, the gray squirrel has a far more challenging time surviving. » Continue Reading.
A Winter Raptor Fest will be held on March 12-13 in Fort Edward, Washington County, NY. Participants will see hawks, owls and falcons on display and during a flight show and learn about the short-eared owl, American kestrel, and other captivating birds of prey. Experts who work to protect and conserve our wildlife will be on-hand to answer questions including NYS Department of Environmental Conservation biologists who will discuss tracking raptor movements with use of satellite, and wildlife rehabilitators. Additional activities will include a snowshoe race, a horse-drawn sleigh ride, and a snow sculpture competition. This two-day event will be held at the Little Theatre on the Farm in Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area, a place that is critical to the survival of many raptors. Get more details on this event by visiting www.winterraptorfest.com.
To the people that study birds, the crow is something of an enigma. While it is often regularly seen in the Adirondacks, its wary temperament makes close-up observations a challenge. Additionally, each crow’s individual pattern of behavior may be either slightly, or vastly different from that of the other members of its flock. This creates difficulty in developing general statements regarding the crow, such as what do crows do during the winter. In some ways, the crow is a bird that is more like a human than any other feathered creature.
The Wild Center’s Wild Winter Weekends continue with activities from now until the end of March. On Friday, February 18th join NASA scientist Peter Wasilewski at 1pm for The Color of Ice. “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water….” (Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey).
Water ice is one of the most widespread, intriguing, and familiar compounds on the planet, in the solar system, and beyond. On Earth it falls as snow, forms lacy deposits on winter windows, creates skating surfaces on lakes, gracefully drapes rock cliffs, packs thickly on the polar oceans, and lays even thicker on the ice caps blanketing Greenland and Antarctica. Peter will speak on the history of winter as seen through ice cores and snowflakes. Peter is a research scientist for NASA on changes in the onset and duration of winter over time. His presentation is filled with exceptional images of snowflakes and ice cores close up. » Continue Reading.
A few years ago I saw my first gray jay—one of the Adirondack Park’s boreal birds. I had read that the gray jay, a member of the crow family, is known for its boldness in stealing scraps of food from humans. Hence, it has been nicknamed “camp robber.”
I saw the jay in the dead of winter on my way to Mount Marcy. I had skied up the Van Hoevenberg Trail as far as the junction with the Hopkins Trail, about 1.2 miles from the summit. There, in the shelter of the spruce and fir trees, I stopped for lunch—a peanut-butter sandwich with raisins.
As I ate, I noticed the gray jay on a branch about fifteen feet away, eyeing my sandwich. When I held out a crumb in my palm, the bird flew down and grabbed the offering. It then returned to its perch and continued looking at me, cockeyed. So I offered another crumb and another one after that. » Continue Reading.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced the opening of the application period for its cooperative Day-Old Pheasant Chick Program. This program enhances pheasant hunting opportunities through a partnership with DEC, sportsmen and sportswomen, 4-H youth, and landowners who are interested in rearing and releasing pheasants. Applications must be filed with a DEC regional wildlife manager by March 15, 2011. Pheasants are a popular game bird since first successfully introduced to New York State in 1892 on Gardiner’s Island. A later release in 1903 on the Wadsworth estate, near Geneseo, truly established this Asian immigrant and helped popularize pheasant hunting in New York. Populations peaked in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “heyday” of the ringneck pheasant. Today, wild pheasants are difficult to find. Most wild pheasants are found in the Lake Plains of western New York. » Continue Reading.
The Wild Center’s Wild Winter Weekends continue with activities from now until the end of March. On Sunday, February 6th Family Art and Nature day begins at 1pm. with this week’s theme, Outrageous Raptors. Visitors will experience live Adirondack Raptors, including a Red-tailed Hawk, an American Kestrel and Adirondack owls. There are also hikes on free snowshoes, animal encounters, feature films and food. Wild Winter Weekends are free for members or with paid admission. The Wild Center is open throughout the winter on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm and during the entire week of President’s Day. For additional information on The Wild Center, visit www.wildcenter.org or call (518) 359-7800.
Every so often a flutter of activity is spawned in the northern extremes of the Adirondack Park (Clinton County) when a few sandhill cranes put in an appearance in a farmer’s field or nearby wetland. Sandhills are not common birds in the eastern US, and most of the Adirondacks is a bit too mountainous for their tastes. So it’s to the lowlands and the agricultural belts around the Park’s perimeter that these birds head if they come here at all.
This last weekend I was in Michigan, where I got to witness the migrating sandhill cranes as they flew in to their evening roost at the Haenhle Audubon Sanctuary. A lone whooping crane, a highly endangered species, joined them in some late afternoon snacking in the marsh, much to the great delight of the dozens of spectators who stood on the chilly hillside to witness the spectacle. Now, to be honest, I never really gave cranes much thought. To me they were simply another “foreign” bird that I was unlikely to see (I’m not the kind of birder who will travel to the ends of the earth to add a particular bird to a lifetime checklist). There were a couple white-naped cranes at the zoo where I used to work, and I knew that of the fifteen crane species worldwide, ten are listed as threatened, critically rare, or vulnerable throughout their ranges, but that was about it.
The tall, long-necked, wading wetland birds with which I am most familiar are great blue herons, which to the untrained eye look a lot like cranes. Both are tall, long-necked, and wade about it wetlands. But the heron, despite outward appearances, is not a crane. And neither are the various egrets that sometimes turn up in ponds and wetlands within the Blue Line.
If one wants to get into specifics, one can start with the fact that herons are in the family Ardeidae (which includes the egrets and bitterns), and cranes are in the Rallidae family. When a heron flies, it tucks its neck back into its body; a crane flies with its neck stretched way out in front, much like a Canada goose. Herons flap their wings with slow up and down movements, while cranes flap slowly downwards, but have a more rapid up-stroke.
I saw my first pair of wild cranes Saturday morning. I was driving northward into southern Michigan when a pair of long birds flew across the road and out over a farmer’s field. I did a double take – those weren’t herons! The wings were all wrong, and the outline didn’t seem right. They had to be cranes, I thought. A short while later, another pair flew by. There was no doubt left in my mind – these were cranes.
The third pair I heard long before I saw them. I was walking along a trail at a nature sanctuary when through the woods I heard this strange croaking call. It was a sound I’d never heard before, and I thought to myself “those can only be cranes” (had I been back here in the Adirondacks, I might’ve written it off as a raven experimenting with its vocal cords). I walked a little faster, heading toward the field I could see up ahead, hoping I just might see the birds out foraging. No luck – they were on the wing and a few seconds later I watched as they passed above the trees in front of me.
I was thrilled, but at the same time disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a closer look.
When I mentioned the cranes an hour later to the gentleman who was manning the gift shop, he told me of the nearby Audubon sanctuary where hundreds of sandhills were coming in to roost every evening. Why, they had over 2000 the other night! I pulled out my road map and with much pointing and the drawing of lines, we had worked out the directions to get me there.
When my interview concluded later that afternoon, my new friends all encouraged me to head to the sanctuary. Grab a bite to eat, go to the refuge and sit back to enjoy the show – that was their advice.
So, I stopped for a quick dinner, then, braving the road construction and some confusing detours, I wound my way toward Haenhle. When I got there, the parking lot was nearly full. I found a spot, changed into my Bean boots, and, laden with camera and binocs, headed into the fields.
It was early evening, the sun only just headed toward the horizon, and already the birds were arriving in pairs and small groups. Some flew in fairly low (we could see their toes), while others were high enough to be merely silhouettes. We could hear them coming long before they arrived – their harsh calls can carry up to a mile in good weather.
They glided in, losing altitude as they neared the marsh. They then spilled the wind from their wings, and put down their landing gear – those long, gangly legs that trail out behind when the birds are in flight. With some back winging, they gently settled in to the shallow water to preen and feed.
As each group arrived, the hushed crowd of human spectators would gasp and murmur at the sight. Spotting scopes caught individual birds as they hopped and fluttered among the grasses and their peers. A lined formed to view the whooping crane, which was lurking behind some shrubbery, barely visible.
Now I knew why the Adirondack birding community gets all excited when a report comes in across the wires that a group of sandhills has been spotted in Farmer John’s field up in Rouses Point. To catch a glimpse of these ancient birds (a fossilized sandhill crane bone was found in Nebraska that was dated at over nine-million years old, making these birds among the oldest lineages on Earth) is to witness a bit of pre-history that still walks among us.
Unusual stories often catch my eye while researching topics of interest. A recent example drew me in—the long-ago story of a California baby left lying in the grass while, nearby, the mother performed gardening or other chores. An eagle swooped in and snatched up the baby, leading to a battle royale between the family and the eagle. There were several stories of that type, and it didn’t always end well for the baby.
I involuntarily maintain a healthy skepticism, but have to be careful about letting it completely take over. A little digging turned up a few interesting North Country tales of a similar bent. Some contain embellishments common to the writing style of the day, and others strain credulity, but several of them are likely based on real confrontations. After all, odd things do happen. While sitting in my high school classroom many decades ago, right in the middle of Champlain village, I saw a hawk (a red-tail was my guess) plummet to the earth at great velocity, disappearing into the brush. My assumption was that the bird died on impact, but perhaps a minute or so later, it once more became airborne, a cat dangling from its talons as it flew in clear view past the large windows. If there hadn’t been other witnesses, I’m not sure anyone would have believed me.
Four of my own Adirondack experiences with large birds stand out in memory. While bushwhacking atop one of the inner ridges of Silver Lake Mountain (near Hawkeye), I was once dive-bombed by ravens for a half hour as I lay in the brush, amazed at how loud and relentless they were, and how close they came to me.
While canoeing in the middle of Franklin Falls Pond, I was similarly harassed by two bald eagles that repeatedly swooped overhead. A little scary, yes, but absolutely thrilling. Another time, an angry nesting goose disapproved of a canoe innocently passing by 100 feet away.
The fourth incident took place on a calm section of the Saranac River. It’s hard to believe that an eagle could be somewhat distracted, but that’s the only explanation I have for what occurred. Where the waterway was about thirty feet wide, the eagle flew several feet above the stream, coming directly towards the canoe. I expected it to turn away, but it seemed to be looking from side to side, unaware that I was directly in its path.
Within no more than twenty feet, it suddenly became aware of my presence and pulled up sharply, the “whooshing” sound from its wings loud in my ears. It was a large bird, but from such close range, it naturally appeared enormous. The entire incident lasted only about 20 or 30 seconds, but it will stay with me forever.
Taking all of that into consideration, I reviewed some interesting regional confrontations between humans and birds (veracity unverified).
In 1888, at Brier Hill (St. Lawrence County), a bald eagle was said to have attacked seven-year-old George Richards (he was actually ten). George used a stick to defend himself until older brother Berton, 20, drove the eagle off. Bert later baited a steel trap with newborn calves that had died. He succeeded in capturing the bird, which was held by the Richards family for display.
In 1893, a Bellmont (Franklin County) farmhand working for Frank Winkley was on horseback, rounding up the cows, when he was attacked by two eagles. He was knocked to the ground, where the birds continued the assault. The farm dog came to his aid, and he eventually managed to club one of the birds and capture it. According to the report, the golden eagle’s wingspan was seven feet. It was kept in Winkley’s barn as a curiosity.
Predatory raids on farm fowl were once common. A dramatic case was reported in Chaumont (northwest of Watertown) in 1903 on the farm of Charles Graham. A hen hawk (any hawk that preys on poultry) grabbed a large Plymouth Rock hen, but about 20 feet above the ground, the hen broke free and landed at Graham’s feet. The hawk followed, knocking the farmer down, gashing his face and neck and pecking at his eyes. Graham stood to defend himself, but the bird continued the attack. Finally, the farmer grabbed a shovel, and the hawk departed.
Also in 1903, John Sullivan of Jay (Essex County) was set upon by an eagle, finally driving it off after suffering lacerations to his face. In 1904 came a report from the Bowditch cottage on Upper Chateaugay Lake (Clinton County), where caretaker Frank Nicholson battled two eagles that attempted to make off with some chickens. One of the birds managed to sink its talons into Nicholson’s leg, but he eventually succeeded in “dispatching them.”
In 1905, near McKenzie Pond just east of Saranac Lake, Frank Perks and George Walton were walking in the woods when Perks struck a tree trunk with an axe he was carrying. Suddenly, “an immense eagle flew down from the tree and attacked Perks savagely.” With the help of Walton, Perks suffered no more than a torn hat before the eagle was driven off.
In 1909, a Pitcairn (St. Lawrence County, near Harrisville) farmer, Josiah Almtree, offered a dramatic tale of battling a powerful eagle that had lately been harassing his sheep. The victim this time was Almtree’s daughter, who was carried off but then dropped “unhurt on the roof of a little building near the barn.” Almtree managed a shot at the bird, which escaped. Of course, “unhurt” wasn’t possible, but I’ll beg the Fox News defense here … “We report, you decide.”
Most such stories are quite old, but a more recent one (though still over 50 years past) occurred in Ausable Forks in 1957. Young Jimmie Camire, while playing with friends, was attacked by a hawk. The bird grabbed his shoulder, but he broke free. Under renewed attack, Jimmie’s shouts brought his brother, Butch, and Jeff Hewston, to the rescue. They had been cutting small trees nearby, and used an axe to kill the hawk, which they said had a wingspan of 43 inches.
Not all regional fowl attacks came from above. In 1908, Gouverneur’s Louis Boulet, Sr., owned a particularly raucous Rhode Island Red, a breed that can be incredibly aggressive. (They’ve been known to kill snakes, cats, foxes, and small dogs.) The big rooster’s frequent attacks made it clear the farmer was not welcome in his own hen house. Egged on by frequent muggings and occasional blood loss, Boulet decided this chicken’s goose was cooked.
Healthy skepticism can be valuable, but before deciding how feasible some of those old stories might be, check out some “eagle attack” videos on YouTube. Be forewarned: several are graphic. Some are simply amazing, demonstrating the willingness of large birds to mix it up with creatures of all sizes, even striking a black bear in a tree.
Photo Top: An attack by a “domesticated” eagle.
Photo Middle: The Bald Eagle’s formidable beak.
Photo Bottom: Eagle talons.
Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
Consider the bird, in all its glorious forms: from the minute hummingbird to the land-bound ostrich; from the brilliantly-colored parrot, to the monochromatic crow; from the predatory raptor to the fruit-eating waxwing. For 135 million years they have walked and flown about the planet. A pretty good-sized portion of the human population has taken to birds like a fish to water, and it is easy to see why – their colors and ability to fly have captured our imaginations. When you page through almost any field guide to birds, you find that it is arranged in a particular order: from the most ancient species (loons, waterfowl) to the most modern/advanced (the finches). The ancestors of loons and geese paddled around the same waters as many of the last dinosaurs. When the reign of the dinosaurs came to its firey end, many of the birds of that time perished as well, but not the loons and geese, ducks and other shorebirds. These animals lived on and are still with us today. Perhaps this is one reason why we find the call of the loon so haunting. One can almost imagine it calling out through the mists of a tropical world where giant reptiles still roamed.
Feathers seem to be the big thing that sets birds apart from the rest of life on this planet, not flight. After all, birds are not the only things that fly; so do insects. At one point in time, there were reptiles that also flew. Today, some lizards and snakes still take to the air, but they no longer can fly, they merely glide. Still, it is more than you or I can do without the aid of mechanical devices, so we will grant them this point.
It is currently believed that feathers initially evolved not for flight, but as a means of keeping warm. To this day, there are few natural fibers that insulate quite as well as feathers. Birds have six basic types of feathers: flight feathers, contour feathers, filoplumes, semiplumes, bristle feathers, and down. Of course, there is also a substance known as powder down, but it isn’t really a feather, so for now we will ignore it.
Flight feathers are, as you might have guessed, the long, sturdy feathers that make up the working part of the wing. They are asymmetrical: the leading edge, or anterior vane, is narrower than the trailing edge, or posterior vane. Between the two vanes runs the rachis, or shaft, of the feather. These are the real workhorses of the feathers, and they are incredibly stiff because they take quite a beating (no pun intended). When Thomas Jefferson sought a feather for a quill with which to write the Declaration of Independence, it is a flight feather that he used.
Contour feathers are the ones that give the bird’s body its basic shape. Most of the feathers that you see when you are looking at a bird are contour feathers. Like flight feathers (which technically are also contour feathers), they have a pretty rigid shaft, but unlike flight feathers, they are symmetrical. The tip of each contour feather is neat and tidy, but the bottom half is fluffy. This part is closest to the body, where it works to keep the bird warm. Contour feathers are attached to the bird in a way similar to shingles on a roof – each overlapping its predecessor, creating a interlocking, aerodynamic form.
Semiplumes are my favorites. These are the feathers that are made up of long, fluffy strands. Unlike the feathers mentioned above, semiplumes are wild, they don’t lie all neat and tidy. If you were to take a flight or contour feather and rough it up a bit, you would find that you could straighten it easily enough by running y our fingers up the barbs (the individual strands that make up each vane). They “zip” together with little trouble, thanks to the hooks that line their edges. Semiplumes don’t have these hooks, so their “strands” stick out all over the place. Their purpose? Insulation. You’ll find the semiplumes located just beneath the contour feathers.
As you can see, layering is what it is all about. Birds knew this long before we humans picked up on it. Layering, as we all know today, is the best way to keep warm when the weather turns cold, and down is the way to go. Down feathers are naught but tufts of fluff. They trap the most amount of air, creating the best insulating layer. These are the feathers that lie closest to the body, trapping the body’s heat where it can do the most good. Similar to the semiplume, down is wild and untamed in its appearance. Unlike the other feathers, it has no (or nearly no) shaft – it is, as I said, naught but fluff.
Probably of the coolest of the feathers, however, are the fliloplumes. These feathers look like a wand with a bit of fluff stuck to the tip. Filoplumes are located just below, and sometimes sticking out from, the contour feathers. It is believed that they fulfill the same function as whiskers do on a cat: they detect movement and vibrations. It is possible that these feathers help the bird know when it is time to groom – the bird can feel when things are out of place. Another thought is that they might help the bird gauge its speed when in flight.
Bristle feathers are just the opposite of filoplumes in appearance: a bit of fluff near the base and a stiff, tapered shaft at the tip. You will only find bristle feathers on the heads and necks of birds. On some birds they protect they eyes (eyelashes?), and on others they form an insect-catching mesh around the mouth. They are quite prominent around the mouths of whippoorwills, nighthawks and flycatchers.
When it comes to birds, feathers are but the tip of the iceberg of what makes them fascinating. I recently added a new book to my collection of field guides (pretty soon I’ll have to hire a Sherpa just to carry my field guides into the field with me). It is a guide to the feathers of many North American birds. I don’t know about you, but I often find feathers when I go out for a walk in the woods, or even a paddle on the water. Some feathers are pretty easy to identify, but others can sure be a puzzle. With the help of this book I hope to be able to add one more proverbial feather to my naturalist’s cap.
It was another grey and nearly drippy day as I headed out the door this morning with the dog in tow (some mornings he isn’t any more eager to go out than I). It had rained overnight, so everything was damp, but at the moment the air was still and relatively dry.
Up ahead I watched a largish raptor swoop up and land on a street light. I pondered the species for a moment, taking note of size and coloration as best I could with the animal backlit against the morning sky. It was about then that I noticed that the background chatter of morning birds was getting progressively louder. Caw! Caw! Caw!
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