Posts Tagged ‘Birding’

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Predators: Owls in Winter

Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing.

Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.

Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.

I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.

After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).

This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.

This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).

If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.

If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.

If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.

So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Adirondack History at the NYS Ornithological Association

With a hat tip to the outstanding birding blog The Zen Birdfeeder we point readers to an interesting new online database of 57 years of the New York State Ornithological Association’s (NYSOA) quarterly journal The Kingbird. 229 issues of the journal are currently online, along with 4 ten-year indices; four new issues will be added each year. The journal includes commentary of historic bird lists, natural history field observation reports, an archive of NYSOA development and history, and a lot more.

Here are a few gems I found in the collection – warning – these are all pdfs!

Merriam’s Adirondack List

Stanley Lincoln’s History of the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs

John M.C. Peterson’s Report of the Great 1995 Blowdown from the Bouquet Valley

The Common Loon in New York State


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adirondack Winter Resident Birds: The Kinglet

There is a tiny bird that lives in the Adirondacks whose body weight equals that of two pennies. Its overall size in not that much bigger than a hummingbird, and it does not migrate south to escape the freezing temperatures of the North Country. I often think of these birds as the late afternoon sun dips behind the mountains and the clear star-lit skies suck back up all the warm air that felt so good during the sunny day. I think of what it must take for this bird to survive just one night at 24 below zero Fahrenheit. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dinosaurs in the Adirondacks – The Wild Turkey

Anyone who doesn’t believe that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs needs only one look at a running turkey to have a change of heart. This winter a female turkey has made my back yard a daily stop in her travels, and let me tell you: there are few things in life so prehistoric-looking than a turkey going full tilt trying to escape your camera lens.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.

When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone.

For years nothing was done to rectify the state of things, turkey-wise. By the turn of the century (c. 1900), approximately 75% of New York had been cleared, agriculture and development dominating where once forests grew. Without healthy forests, turkeys could not survive (hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts, is a major part of their diet). As the century plodded along, however, many farmers left home, moving to the cities where jobs were more likely to be had. Old farmland began to revert to forests, and slowly turkeys started to come back, making their way northward from Pennsylvania. By the 1940s, the southwestern part of the state was once more populated with these large bronze birds.

To help things along, New York State converted a central New York pheasant hatchery into a turkey hatchery in 1952. Over the next several years, thousands of turkeys were released into the wild. Sadly, this operation was doomed to failure. Speculation was that the released birds were too tame and therefore lacked the brains to escape (or fight) predators. It was also thought that their natural reproduction was too low to sustain a viable population. So the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) went to Plan B: capture wild turkeys and relocate them.

This new plan began in 1959 and saw New York’s wild turkey population successfully soar from about 2000 birds to over 65,000 by 1990. The relocation program was so successful that the DEC started shipping birds to neighboring states to help them reestablish their own dwindling populations.

I saw my first wild turkey in the early ‘80s out at Letchworth State Park. There were two or three of them, and they flew up into a tree along the edge of a small ravine. Prior to this I never would’ve guessed that turkeys could fly. Three years later, a friend of mine shot a turkey and decided we should give it to my mother for Mother’s Day; so he and I and all my roommates drove to my parents’ house with the turkey in tow. It barely fit in the oven, but it was a mighty tasty bird. Ten years later, turkeys were all over the farm fields back home: whole herds of them marching along the rows of cut corn. (And yes, I use the word “herd” intentionally, for when they are walking along the ground en masse, they are definitely a herd.)

Back in the ‘80s it was believed by biologists that turkeys wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh winters the Adirondacks can dish out. Imagine their surprise when turkeys not only moved into the mountains, but thrived! Hardly a week goes by all year that I don’t see a turkey or two, or ten. Sometimes they lurk along the roadsides, picking up grit or maybe hunting insects; other times they are strutting across a neighbor’s yard.

A couple years ago, I came across a hen and her poults hiding in the shrubbery between the second and fourth holes on the local golf course. I was walking the dog, and of course he started barking, so the hen took off, dashing away into the trees with most of her progeny in hot pursuit. Two, however, were left behind. I sat the dog down and we waited. And waited. One of the poults peeped and trotted off after the long-gone parent, but the other remained behind, peeping its distress. Even though I knew better, the pitiful cries got to me and I finally decided to go “rescue” the thing. My plan was to carry it to the patch of woods in which its mother had disappeared and set it down where she could get to it without having to come near me and the dog. Big mistake. No sooner had I picked up the ungrateful bird then it let out a squawking and wailing that brought the mother running and flapping from the woods. A velociraptor had nothing on her. Fearing for my safety (I’ve heard tales of the damage a turkey can do with its spurs), I dropped the poult, snagged the dog’s leash, and we high-tailed it out of there. That was the last time I tried to help a “stranded” wildlife baby.

And just in case you needed further convincing that turkeys are dinosaurs in disguise, watch a herd of them come trotting across a lawn or field when the early morning fog is lying close to the ground. All you need is to cue up the music and you are staring at a living tableau from Jurassic Park. Add a rock wall for them to jump on, and the scene is complete.

It was -7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, but I don’t think the local turkeys were much fazed by this. Indeed, I think they are here to stay, and that’s a nice thing, for every patch of wilderness should have its resident dinosaurs, and for us the wild turkey fills the bill nicely.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Birding Commentary: Your Coffee and Our Birds

Hmm, what seems to be happening here?
Well it looks like a man walking up to a box.
That box appears to be a soap box, and he’s now standing on top of that box.
Let’s listen in….

I’m sure our readers are familiar with the situation “brewing” in the coffee world of sustainable shade-grown versus unsustainable sun-grown coffee plants. If not, then please allow me this short lesson:

Most of the coffee that is consumed across the US (we drink the most) is grown in a non-sustainable manner by clearing many acres of Central and South American forest and planting rows of coffee plants. Heavy pesticide and yearly fertilizer use goes hand-in-hand with this way of farming because coffee plants by nature grow best in shaded forests. Growing in the sun is relatively new to this plant species and needs help with the “bugs”. This mass-produced form tends to get pretty high yields.

In shade-grown coffee or “rustic” plantations we see plants grown within a forest or a lightly shaded forest. No need for pesticides or fertilizers here, and the ecological practice of organic treatment benefits a wide array of other surrounding plants, insects, birds, and other living organisms. These better-tasting coffee beans are of a higher quality but often yield less than sun-grown.

OK, so these are the two main forms of coffee bean production. Others exist but I will not dwell on them. Coffee beans are grown, harvested, and then sold to buyers, roasters, or sold directly to a coffee bean processing plant (Folgers, Maxwell House,..etc). The consumer then makes his or her choice of coffee at the supermarket.

But according to several recent articles and a good blog many farmers who have given organic, shade-grown coffee a try are giving up and reverting back to sun-grown coffee. To those of us who enjoy an ecologically sound and fair-traded cup of organic coffee every day….this is disturbing news.

Apparently the buyers of some organic coffees (McDonalds, Walmart and Starbucks to name a few) aren’t paying the top premium price that the farmer needs to cover his costs. This in turn drives the premium down and so farmers say, “Hey, why should I break my back and go into debt producing this high-grade coffee when I can grow low-grade coffee w/pesticides much cheaper and still get a good yield?”

Well for this coffee drinker selling out to a cheaper, and ecologically damaging production method is not in my books! I am prepared to spend a bit more for a good and “just” cup of java….are you?

Part II

Since I write about birds I’d like to explain how shade-grown coffee benefits some of our Adirondack “summer-visiting birds” or those birds that migrate in spring from the farthest reaches of Central America to the backyards and forests of our Adirondacks.

According to some Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center writings, a shade-grown coffee plantation can harbor over 150 species of bird. Here they find plenty of insects, fruits, and nectar to feed on. Birds tend to do well when habitats are not altered or destroyed. There are no benefits to birds on sun-grown coffee plantations.

That’s the beauty of shade-grown plantations; it takes an eco-friendly form of growing and merges it right into an eco-sensitive habitat(rain forest). So it’s not so much the coffee plants that birds need but rather the whole, healthy ecosystem of the intact forest that they(and the grower) benefit from.

Most of our summer-visiting warbler species as well as, vireos, flycatchers, hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles, and some finches spend the winter in the tropics. They need a habitat that will sustain them(and the other local tropical birds) for several months before their northward journey’s. A sun-grown coffee plantation will not supply this need.

So, what are we to do. Well first I encourage you to drink organic, fair-traded, and shade-grown coffee whenever and wherever you can. Yes McDonalds and Walmart sells this to the masses but educate yourself before purchasing it from larger retailers and chains. Please go to your local supermarkets, coffee shops, or natural food stores and ask them to carry shade-grown coffee. All our migratory birds thank you!

Better yet, keep your money in the state or region and patronize Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs for your shade-grown coffee needs!

Photo of a Wilson’s warbler by Will Elder NPS


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bruce Spudworm and the Evening Grospigs

With the recent arrival of a large flock of evening grosbeaks at our feeders, my mind has drifted to one of the main reasons these birds, which are native to the Pacific Northwest, are here in the East: the spruce budworm.

[And this, of course, sends my memory plunging down the rapids of my stream of consciousness to my days at forestry school, where a good friend from New Jersey, who was a huge Bruce Springsteen fan (it was the ‘80s, after all), referred to this forest pest as the Bruce Spudworm. The spoonerism has stuck with me ever since. I therefore dedicate this post to Cynthia.]

Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), often called grospigs around here because of their propensity for emptying birdfeeders at lightning speed, are striking birds. They are big and chunky, the males stunning in yellow, black and white. We see them mostly in the winter, when flocks descend upon birdfeeders and inhale all the seed in a matter of minutes. Once in a blue moon a few might hang around in the summer, but winter seems to be their season.

Even so, one cannot count on seeing evening grosbeaks every winter, for they are rather nomadic, showing up in great numbers one year, and then disappearing, sometimes for years at a time. This sporadic pattern has been documented for well over a century, and there seems to be a tie-in with the spruce budworm.

The spruce budworm (a type of moth, actually) comes in a couple different flavors: the western worm (Choristoneura occidentalis) and the eastern worm (Choristoneura fumiferana). The western spruce budworm is, as you may have guessed, native to the western part of North America. It didn’t turn up in the United States (from Canada) until 1914, when it was first reported in Oregon. Since then, it has spread across much of the Pacific Northwest towards the Rockies, its larvae devouring the foliage, staminate flowers and developing cones of conifers throughout the region.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are blessed with the eastern spruce budworm. Also a native insect, the first major outbreak recorded in the U.S. was in Maine in 1807. The next major outbreak was in 1878, and since 1909 there have been several waves of devastation. In the east, balsam fir is the insect’s tree of choice, so you can imagine the impact this would have on the Adirondack forest. Spruces are also consumed (hence the name), and even hemlocks on occasion, but nothing is hit quite like the firs.

Like many forest insect pests, the spruce budworm’s havoc is wreaked in a cyclic pattern: it’s always out there, eating away at the trees, but the infestation only becomes problematic when the population suddenly swells and takes over the forest. With the spruce budworm, the cycle is about every 40 to 60 years.

Enter the evening grosbeak. Way back when, evening grosbeaks were only seen on occasion in the Pacific Northwest (there were much fewer people in the woods back then). Slowly, they started moving eastward, and by 1854 they had come as far east as Toronto. In the winter of 1889-90, huge flocks were seen in New England. Then they disappeared again for another twenty years. In the winter of 1960-1, evening grosbeaks appeared as far south as Georgia, with huge flocks taking over feeders and forests across the eastern U.S. I bet a lot of birders were thrilled to add them to their lifelists!

It is believed that these irruptions (a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a population) were in large part due to the birds’ fondness for spruce budworm larvae. Although primarily seed eaters, specializing in extracting seeds from the cones of spruce and fir trees, grosbeaks supplement their diets with tasty insect snacks, and spruce budworm seems to be a favorite. Scientists believe that these birds followed the western spruce budworm eastward, and then started snacking on the eastern spruce budworm. When pest populations irrupted, the birds followed close behind.

The sudden increase in spruce budworm larvae can result in a catastrophic loss of spruce and fir trees, adversely affecting the timber industry and forest ecosystems. In order to deal with this, chemicals were employed to combat the insect pests. Unfortunately, birds that eat the larvae (including Tennessee, bay-breasted and Cape May warblers) were also negatively impacted. In fact, studies have shown that evening grosbeaks will not return to areas that have been sprayed for spruce budworm, even if the larvae population increases.

In an effort to try to cut down on the use of toxic chemicals, research has been done to determine if biological controls can be used instead. Science has discovered both a virus and a fungus that infect spruce budworms, but unfortunately neither is particularly deadly – at least not at a level that would benefit the forest. The bacteria B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) has been proven effective for small infestations (fewer than 50 larvae on an 18” branch), but major infestations (more than 8000 eggs per 100 square feet of foliage) are barely touched.

Maybe we should try breeding warblers and grosbeaks and have them in stock to release when infestations occur.

Since the last major outbreak of the eastern spruce budworm was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we should be about due for one. Some birders are speculating that this might explain the great numbers of grosbeaks at the feeders, and the reports of more warblers downstate. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see the grosbeaks, even if their presence means more trips to the feed store for seeds.


Thursday, December 31, 2009

Birding Along The St. Lawrence River

To the north and west of the Adirondacks lies a beautiful natural resource that often gets overlooked. It’s a massive river that carries all the water from every one of the five Great Lakes. It’s home to nesting bald eagles, migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and hawks and falcons patrol its shoreline. Although the St. Lawrence River does not fall within the Adirondack Park “Blueline Boundary,” it is a birdwatching mecca that should not be missed by our Adirondack birders.

The following is a press release I received that announces the publishing of a new birding guide to the St. Lawrence Seaway Trail (The route parallels 518 miles of shoreline along the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, Niagara River and Lake Erie in New York and Pennsylvania):

Great Lakes Seaway Trail Publishes Guide to America’s Next Birding Travel Hot Spot

Sackets Harbor, NY – Birders interested in finding the best birding spots year-round for all manner of migratory & resident raptors, songbirds, and waterfowl along the big waters of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail in New York and Pennsylvania now have new resources to enjoy.

The Seaway Trail Foundation has developed a new birding theme guidebook, audio tour CD, notecards and outdoor storytellers to help birders find their favorite flyers along the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River and Lake Erie.

The Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail by ornithologist Gerald A. Smith is a soft cover, full color traveler’s field guide to birding hot spots along the 518-mile shoreline byway that is one of America’s Byways and a National Recreation Trail.

Funding for the book was provided by the Great Lakes Seaway Trail in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byways Program, the New York State Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byways Program in the Office of Environment’s Landscape Architecture Bureau, and the John Ben Snow Foundation, Pulaski, NY.

New York State Department of Transportation Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee said, “The Great Lakes Seaway Trail National Scenic Byway provides a magnificent trip through the landscapes of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and New York State’s northern and western borders. I know Governor Paterson is proud that we support this trail and other scenic byways across the state so that travelers can enjoy the history, natural beauty, and recreational opportunities that alternative routes provide. Congratulations to the Seaway Trail Foundation for publishing their new birding guidebook, which is sure to delight generations of bird watchers and other visitors.”

Noted regional birders Willie D’Anna, an Eaton Birding Society Award winner in Western NY; Jerry McWilliams of the Presque Isle (PA) Audubon Society; and Bird Coalition of Rochester Executive Director David Semple wrote chapters for the book. Wildlife artist Robert McNamara of Art of the Wilderness, Cleveland, NY, designed and illustrated the guide edited by Julie Covey. The book retails for $19.95.

A companion audio CD, Birding the Great Lakes Seaway Trail Audio Tour,” features the voices of wildlife biologist Kimberly Corwin and Adirondack Kids® co-author and television show host Gary Allen VanRiper. The 80-minute CD retails for $9.95.

The nonprofit Seaway Trail Foundation, based in Sackets Harbor, NY, has also developed birding notecards and a series of bird-themed Great Lakes Seaway Trail outdoor storyteller interpretive panels – all designed by McNamara – to enhance birders’ travel along the coastal byway.

Great Lakes Seaway Trail birding maps are online at www.seawaytrail.com. This new guidebook book is the latest in the “Best of the Byways” (American Recreation Coalition) series published by the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Sackets Harbor, NY, 315-646-1000.

It is also worth mentioning that our local chapter of the National Audubon Society: Northern New York Audubon features field trips each year that may include some of the St Lawrence Seaway Trail within St Lawrence County.

Photo of Bonaparte’s gulls and Ring-billed gulls-Brian McAllister


Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Gross Anatomy of Binoculars

Birdwatching is one-third knowledge, one-third patience, and one-third having the right equipment. Carpenters have all the right tools for their line of work, woodcarvers have the sharpest tools, and doctors, well they BETTER have the right tools! All said, they need these instruments to get a job done. In a similar way, birdwatching, whether it be from your home, car, or the trail, should be no different. You want the right equipment to see the best and clearest image. So I’m going to walk you through the specifics of binoculars and what features might be best suited for you. Hmmm, is Santa’s list still growing?

Once during a Christmas bird count along Lake Champlain we had to identify some ducks bobbing in between the waves way offshore. Binoculars of a lesser quality struggled w/the identification. A steady hand helped but it was clearly some top-notch binoculars that saved the day. My point here being the better quality binoculars showed us a clearer image and allowed us to figure out what we were looking at.

So lesson one-if you can afford better optics, then do so. But what are better optics? I can list all the brands that charge over $1,000 for binoculars(from here on known as “bins” or “binos”) but we don’t need to go that far. There’s plenty of good stuff on the market under $600.

First let’s look at some details. A most-common question asked is what are the numbers on bins(7×35, 8×42, 10×50)? The #7(or 8 or 10) refer to the magnification of the image you see w/the bins. My pair of 8’s magnify what I see 8 fold. Good but a 10x will be stronger(but will it be better remains to be seen).

The number after the “x” refers to the size(in mm) of the objective lens(that large lens at the end of the binos, opposite where you look through). So my 8×50’s have an objective lens size of 50mm. This is bigger than a 35 or 42 objective lens and it helps in allowing more light to come into the bins. It can also give me a much wider view of a tree, a line of ducks, or a group of hawks circling overhead.

Certain disadvantages come with owning a pair of bins with higher magnification. One factor is weight. More glass lenses in a binocular can really add up in weight. That’s OK if you want to weightlift and bird at the same time. Most of us don’t. So manufacturers came up w/lighter materials. This helps those of us w/coffee addiction and the inevitable “shakes”.

But one thing to consider is more is not always better. A 10x bino will magnify 10 times but if you’re a shaky hand, that shaky image is magnified! Many birders enjoy a middle-of-the-road size of 7x or 8x.

With advancing technology there are a number of things that bins manufacturers have put into their products. Many lenses are now “multi-” or “fully-coated” which means they are covered with something that decreases the amount of reflection inside the tubes holding the lenses. This in turn gives you a clearer and sharper image.

Waterproofing binos has also come a long way. Many companies have “nitrogen-purged” or “nitrogen-filled” products which prevent water from collecting inside the lenses. It also helps prevent that internal condensation on lenses that appears when you bring cold binos inside a warm car!

Looking at prices. I mentioned earlier if you can pay for more then do it. A very good pair of bins can run from $200-$500. Some lesser-priced bins can offer good quality but their life may not last as along as a $300 pair. They may also not have all the good features you should look for in binos.

Some names to consider(there are many out there) are Bushnell, Nikon, Vortex, Eagle Optics, Pentax, and Kowa. Higher priced bins are Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss. Many birders have found the Nikon “Monarchs” model to suit their needs. You can find this brand priced around $275-$300, depending on the magnification. But if that’s too high I would look over all the Bushnell models out there. Some are very good at just over $100. Check out B and H Photo & Video

Finally I’ll mention the difference between a standard size pair of bins with that of a compact pair. Just like cars there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Standards are larger as well as heavier(but becoming quite light w/all the new tech advances). Compacts(great for hiking, canoeing, kayaking) are light and small and fit anywhere, but some lack in quality what they made up for in decreased size. Don’t buy the compact bins that have a 9x or 10x magnification. They loose quality as that number goes up. To have good magnification/clear image you need lots of glass which many compacts can’t offer you.

Well, by now you’ve taken your Fathers WWII binos out of the case and as you look through them you suddenly feel dizzy or drunk! Chances are the big chunk of glass(called a prism) in those monsters has cracked or shifted and giving a blurred double-image view. That can be remedied by replacing the prism, but at that cost you may as well invest in a new pair!

So, invest in what you can afford; look for fully-coated lenses; make sure the bins are waterproof; and find a magnification to your liking. But the best advice to you is to handle the binos before purchasing. Shopping online may be cheaper but your hands are not wrapped around the bins, weighing them, feeling them, and your eyes are not looking at a crystal-clear image. Stop over to Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs and handle some binos there!

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the ducks, referred to earlier bobbing on Lake Champlain, where lesser scaup. Catching the differences between greater and lesser scaup can be tricky. Greater scaup is slightly larger and seems to show brighter white on their sides as opposed to a duller gray on the sides of the lesser. In flight look for more white in the wings of the greater.

Photo: Brian McAllister. Those compacts are great for kayaking/canoeing!


Monday, December 14, 2009

Leg-Hold Traps Criticized: UPDATED

Wildlife rehabilitators who helped rescue a bald eagle last week say trappers and state regulators should reconsider use of leg-hold traps.

This bald eagle became ensnared near Moffits Beach, on Sacandaga Lake in Hamilton County, but was able to fly off with the trap still attached. The five-foot-long chain it was dragging then snagged in the branch of a tree 16 feet above the ground. The bird was discovered by the trapper on December 6 hanging upside down.

The trapper contacted the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office, which called Lake Pleasant–based Forest Ranger Thomas Eakin, who used a pole to bring the bird safely to the ground. He then wrapped the bird in cargo netting from his pickup truck and kept it warm until wildlife rehabilitator Wendy Hall, of the Wilmington refuge Adirondack Wildlife, arrived. She transported the eagle to two Saratoga-based North Country Wild Care rehabbers.

Hall said that the eagle is perching and appears to be mending well from superficial wounds. She thinks its chances of release back into the wild are high. However, the prospects of a red-tailed hawk whose leg was severed this fall in a leg-hold trap in Brushton are not as good. Most raptors brought to wildlife rehabilitators have been hit by cars, Hall said, and most cannot be released. Many captives then become part of educational programs.

The trapper broke no rules and acted responsibly by reporting the injured eagle, those involved in the rescue said. But these two birds prompted Hall to write an essay, “What’s wrong with leg-hold traps?”, for her Web site, adirondackwildlife.org. She respects hunters and says they are wildlife rehabilitators’ best allies. “However, we will never understand why New York continues to permit the use of leghold traps for wildlife. They banned the use of snares and toothed leghold traps, but this does not really address the two main problems with the non-toothed clamp traps which are still legal in New York.

“The first problem is that any wildlife so trapped is going to suffer unimaginable agony, and in many documented cases, the animal will chew off its own leg to effect its escape. These traps do not legally need to be checked by the trapper more than once every 24 hours, which means the captive animal not only may suffer for long periods, but runs the additional risk of drawing in predators attracted by the noise of the creature’s struggles, and who will naturally take advantage of the creature’s inability to flee. Some folks say that’s nature. We call it interference.”

Others say the problem is not the traps themselves. There is movement to change the regulation to prohibit use of “exposed” bait, which can be seen from the air by raptors, which are sight hunters. The Moffits trap was baited with a beaver carcass with the intention of trapping a coyote. Pelts are a source of income for many Adirondackers.

Photograph by Thomas Eakin, NYS DEC


Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Holiday Tradition: The Annual Christmas Bird Count

The freshly fallen snow has gently coated (well at least for a few hours!) the Adirondack woodlands and fields around our neighborhood. Time to brush off the binoculars, grab the field guides, and find those mittens and wool tuque.

It’s Christmas Bird Count time! I thought I would give a few details about the history of this tradition dating back to 1900. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Favorite Bird: Red-Breasted Nuthatches

One day last year I was teaching a group of elementary school students the basics of bird watching and bird ID. It was June, the end of the school year, and the morning was mild. Armed with binoculars, we crept around the end of the building, and our silence was rewarded by a family of red-breasted nuthatches hopping headfirst down the side of a tree.

The newly-flighted juveniles were learning the ropes from Mom, who was instructing them in the fine art of foraging. As with many juvenile birds, the youngsters looked larger than the adult, courtesy of their still downy feathers. It was a great find for me (I’ve only once before watched an adult bird teaching its off-spring to find food), and even the kids seemed to appreciate this glimpse into the otherwise hidden lives of our resident birds. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Feeding Birds: Tuppence a Bag

The little old lady who sat in the square selling birdseed in the Disney version of Mary Poppins was offering a pretty good deal: a bag of birdseed for only two pence. Admittedly the bag was probably pretty small, and a tuppence went a lot further at the turn-of-the-century, when the story is set. When I walk into the bird paraphernalia shop to purchase seed today, I’d best have my checkbook handy, for I’ll need a lot more than tuppence to cover the needs of the greedy diners at my feeders, but I figure it’s worth the expense. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Adirondack Bird Research Resources

It’s 4 a.m. on a chilled morning in early June. Still three hours away from sunrise so my weak headlamp casts an eerie and unnatural glow to the trail as I pick my way through rock, stream, and unseen balsam fir branches. I’m heading to the summit of Wright Peak in the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Nearing the summit I must first stop every 250 meters from a predetermined point on my map. Here I listen for any bird song that might be heard and then record it in my notes. I chuckle as I think that it’s more like the first “yawn” I hear from these birds. Over a 30-day period myself and dozens of other crazy but doggedly determined volunteer birders are assisting an organization to acquire desperately needed information on some bird species that live on the mountains.

Fast-forward to the end of June, still early morning, and I’m slogging my way through a blackfly-infested bog in the wild regions of the Santa Clara Tract. I’m nearing an area known as the Madawaska Flow. Here I’m still listening for, identifying, and counting bird species but now I’m in a completely different habitat. This lowland environment reveals new species that need to be counted for another study. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Paul Smiths: Owls Of An Adirondack Winter

With a full, November “beaver” moon overhead we plodded along on the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center trails. The crisp leaves of maple, birch, and beech that crunch underfoot seamlessly drowned out all sounds. We need to periodically stop and listen. I give a hooting call mimicking our native Barred Owl. Nothing on this first try. We walk through the woods some more, onto the other trail. “I heard something that time!” one of our listeners calls out. Just a distant dog barking. I move us farther down the trail to my lucky spot. Lucky because this is where I always find the owl we seek tonight.

Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll is what my hoot sounds like as it echos off the frosty forest that is as still as the inside of a church. The bright moonlight allows for somewhat easier watching of the silhouetted trees as we look up at them after every hoot is given. Finally a response. But it’s not the normal barred owl call that I expect. It’s higher in pitch and squeaky. I run through the archives of owl calls in my head but nothing clicks. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Backyard Bird Feeding Aids Science

The summer green has faded to brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows, soon to be followed by the dull browns and cold grays of our late Adirondack autumn. Alas, the missing cheery sounds of the robin will leave us wanting, but soon new bird sounds will fill the woods, fields, and our own backyards. So dust off the feeder and set it up outside the kitchen window. The winter birds will be looking for your daily fillings of sunflower seed, Nyjer (thistle) seed, and fattening suet!

For millions of us, bird feeding has become an annual event that brings to mind the joys of winter when we see bright red cardinals, sky-blue blue jays and a whole host of other colorful winter finches. Birds and bird feeders adorn Christmas cards, note cards, and many holiday wrappings. This might give us all a sense of warmth and good cheer throughout the winter season but take a second to think about the birds and their daily lives in the sub-zero temperatures of the Adirondacks.

Bird feeding stations can be a good supplement to the various wild seeds, fruits, berries, insects, and nuts that birds will feed on in winter. Many of our year-round resident birds need to maintain a good layer of fat to keep them alive on those bitterly cold winter nights. And how soothing is it when you see playful chickadees, cardinals, and woodpeckers out your window on a snowy morning?

For many years now the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Centers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb have put together wonderful bird feeding stations just outside their very spacious windows. This allows many visitors to come in, relax and watch the almost therapeutic coming and goings of the birds.

Well, now that you’re convinced on setting up your own bird feeding station you can aid in the world of bird study science . . . even while sitting there at your kitchen table drinking that second cup of (fair trade, shade grown!) coffee.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology(CLO) has been actively rounding up birdwatching citizens to participate in Project FeederWatch: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/ This citizen-science project allows CLO to gather some much-needed data on where birds go in the winter and how many birds visit bird feeders, among many other questions.

CLO says, “Project FeederWatch begins on November 14 and runs through early April. Taking part is easy. Anyone can count the numbers and kinds of birds at their feeders and enter their information on the FeederWatch website. Participants submitted nearly 117,000 checklists last season. Since 1987, more than 40,000 people from the United States and Canada have taken part in the project.”

We all know that many bird species fly south for the winter but there are dozens of species that will stay and endure the harsh winters of the Northeastern U.S. Current data shows a gradual increasing trend in some species and decreases in others. Why? Well that’s what CLO wants to figure out, and with your input of weekly sightings, it may help reveal the answers they seek.

There is a small cost involved but the resource information you get back when you sign up is well worth the small fee. If you would like to see the Project FeederWatch in action, then visit the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center sometime this winter and see how the staff and volunteers conduct their counts.

It should be noted here that bird feeding in winter is a great resource for both birds and humans and should be encouraged. However, as we proceed into spring and summer it would be a good idea to take down those feeders during the warmer months (April to October). Black bears, raccoons, and rodents can destroy many feeders left out in summer. Besides, birds can find plenty of high-protein insects (which they prefer) during the Adirondack summer season.

Photo of Gray Jay by Milt Adams



Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.