Posts Tagged ‘Raptors’

Friday, May 10, 2013

Climbing and Peregrine Falcons:
Upper Washbowl Reopens, Shelving Rock Routes Close

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARock climbers will have a few more routes to climb this weekend, according to Joe Racette, a biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation who monitors the nesting of peregrine falcons on cliffs.

Racette said the Upper Washbowl cliffs near Chapel Pond are now open to climbers. DEC closes Upper Washbowl and Lower Washbowl each spring at the start of the falcons’ breeding season. DEC has ascertained that that this year the falcons are nesting on Lower Washbowl. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Outside Story: Decline of American Kestrels

One autumn day, 15 years ago, I found myself perched on a ladder that was leaning against a highway sign on Interstate 89 somewhere in Vermont. There was a wooden box clamped to one of the sign poles at least 15 feet off the ground, although fear may have exaggerated that memory. I was providing a little autumn house-keeping for one of those nest boxes so it’d be ready when the kestrels returned to breed the next spring.

The box was one of 10 kestrel nest boxes then deployed along the interstate by the Vermont Agency of Transportation, or VTrans. It’s a feel-good project started in 1995 with $40, some scrap wood, and plenty of volunteer hours from VTrans employees, who built the boxes on their own time. Since then, about 90 kestrels have fledged and four orphaned young were fostered in the boxes. That’s a lot of bang for the buck, or rather, a lot of birds for the box.
» Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Outside Story: Peregrine Falcons

When asked to name the fastest animal on earth, many people will respond “cheetah.” But it is the peregrine falcon – a cliff-dwelling raptor –that holds that title with the ability to reach speeds of 200+ MPH as they stoop (dive) in flight. (The cheetah tops out at a mere 70 MPH).

Equally remarkable is the fact that this speed demon of the skies was nearly wiped out 50 years ago; its recovery ranks among the great success stories of conservation biology and endangered species management.

Historically, the eastern peregrine falcon population was centered in New England and the Adirondack Mountains, ranging south along the spine of the Appalachians to western Georgia. In 1940,the population was estimated at 350 pairs; by the mid-1960s, the species was completely gone from the region, a victim of the devastating pesticide DDT. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: Osprey Exit the Park

As the temperatures in the many lakes and ponds that dot the Adirondacks begin to cool, the fish inhabitants of these waterways start to spend more of their time at greater depths. While this change in the routine of these gilled vertebrates impacts the way late season anglers pursue them, it also affects the life of our region’s most effective surface fish predator – the osprey.

With its 4 to 5 foot wing span and 2 foot long body, the osprey is a bird that is difficult to overlook as it soars over a picturesque mountain lake, or perches on the limb close to the shore of a pristine pond. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: The Saw-Whet Owl

As the moon becomes full this week, the opportunity arises to be able to hike on a woodland trail or backcountry road well after dusk without the aid of an artificial light. Regardless of the amount of cloud cover, there inevitably exists on nights around this phase of the moon enough natural light to be able to travel into the woods using only lunar illumination. While nocturnal outings in mid spring can provide a great audio experience, there are relatively few sounds that disturb the silence at this time of year. However, among the seldom noted noises that occur in the Adirondacks in March and April is the call of the Adirondacks smallest nighttime aerial predator, the saw-whet owl.

When initially heard, few people associate this distinct sound with that of an owl. Rather than bellow out muffled hooting notes, the saw-whet makes a rapid series of short “beeps” that resemble the noise produced by a back-hoe or other piece of heavy equipment when in reverse. The very quick tempo, or rate at which the saw-whet makes these beeps, (over a dozen in a 10 second interval of time) creates an air of haste to this bird’s call. Also, once it starts calling a few hours after sunset, the saw-whet continues uninterrupted for several hours in its seemingly intense bouts of vocalization. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 18, 2010

When Raptors Attack: Some North Country Stories

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.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Flights of Fancy: Featuring Feathers

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.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adirondack Family Activities: Wildlife Habitat Awareness Day

Not so long ago my children discovered a baby robin out of its nest and floundering near our front stoop. The mother robin circled nervously. It was a difficult decision to stand back and let nature take its course. My husband and I were operating with a barrage of opinions, a few old wives tales, two crying children and a curious dog. The baby was a fledgling and managed to seek refuge under the deck while its mother continued to feed it. We assume that it flew away one morning like it was supposed to, with no help from us. The most challenging part of those few days was keeping overzealous children from creating a bird sanctuary as the dog whined for a nibble of Robin Red-Breast Tartare.

This Saturday children and adults will be able to ask about all the right ways to help make sure baby animals stay in the wild where they belong. One rule is to remember that these animals are wild and should remain so, so the best course of action is to leave the baby and let its mother do what it does best. That is always better said than done when it comes to children so I can always use a few more talking points.

Wendy and Steve Hall of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington have provided a full day of events to inform humans about when it is right to intervene on behalf of wildlife and when it is best to ignore.

The Wildlife Refuge is 60 acres on the western branch of the Ausable River. There is a one-mile guided nature trail, animal exhibits and experts from organic gardeners to naturalists that will explain how plants and animals play a vital role in nature.

“The important idea we want to get across is sustainability,” says Wendy. “We are involved with a coalition of people that are focusing on sustainability. We have someone from the Ausable River Association talking about invasive species, an organic blueberry farmer and my good friend Nancy VanWie from the Nature Conservancy.”

Wendy says that Nancy plays many roles in educating the public about conservation and sustainability. In addition to her role with the Nature Conservancy, Nancy is also part of the Westport Community Garden project and along with Eddie Mrozik co-founded the Crane Mountain Valley Horse Rescue.

Steve Hall agrees, “ We mainly want people to have a chance to meet wildlife up close and gain an understanding of how everything fits together. Zeebie and Cree, our two wolves, are pets to us but are used as a vehicle to educate how such animals hunt and investigate their property. Zeebie came to us as a baby in July 2009 and is now over 100 lbs. With the bird of prey, like the Great Horned Owl, we bring these raptors up close so people can learn about them.”

According to Steve Hall the main hope is that people will gain a better understanding of wildlife and how it fits into the ecosystem. He hopes that people will see that wildlife is an integral part of the natural world. The role wildlife plays is more beneficial to humans than we know. He brings up the term, “indicator species.”

According to the Nature Conservancy indicator species are animals high on the food chain that indicate the health of the environment. Loons are a prime example as researchers continue to collect data on the mercury accumulation in the loon’s food source.

I am looking forward to finding out when it is time to call in the experts at the Rehabilitation Center and when it is best to leave nature alone.

The Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center is located at 977 Springfield Road in Wilmington. The event is on Saturday, September 4th from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. This event is free but donations are accepted and used to build enclosures for disabled raptors.

Photo courtesy Diane Chase. 


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hawk Migration Into The Adirondacks

On a warm spring day we may look out over some open field with a mountainous backdrop, and while admiring the simple beauty of it all we might perchance see a hawk flying over the field in great spiraling flights as it rides a column of warm air from the valley below.

We learn, as we watch its flight pattern, that this hawk is hunting the fields in search of mice or other small mammals. We wonder how this bird has spent the winters because we never see it during the cold months in the Adirondacks.

Many species of hawk are migratory. Some spend several of our winter months in the warmer climes of Mexico, Central America, and even South America. But it was not until recent times that we discovered this phenomena of hawk, and falcon migration in Eastern North America.

Readers might be familiar with the broad-winged hawk. They are common throughout the lower elevations of the Adirondacks and can often be seen in hardwood forests or around open spaces.

But let’s take a look at the arduous journey this species and other hawk species have to make in order to reach the nesting grounds of our Adirondack woodlands.

Broad-wings can be found deep in Central America during our winter but by May they have completed a huge migratory pathway along the Appalachian Mts and end up nesting in our woodlands.

For the most part, broad-wings will follow the mountains along the east coast because they provide a “highway” of warm air thermals(air rising up from the valley floors) and these thermals are what the hawks soar on as they fly north. Soaring expends less energy than constantly flapping wings.

After safely negotiating the mountains and strong winds, the hawks then face another obstacle in their way. Water! Most hawks do not like to fly over large bodies of water. In our case those bodies of water are the Great Lakes.

The two eastern-most lakes, being Erie and Ontario, have become home to some of the best known spring hawkwatching areas in the United States. Hawks, while migrating, will encounter the open lakes and suddenly slam on the brakes and re-configure their flight direction….around the water.

As they adjust, they find the shoreline of these lakes more to their liking. So any wide open viewing areas along the shoreline can yield views of these hawks streaming along the shoreline on their northward march.

Places like Derby Hill, and Braddock Bay along southern Lake Ontario offer phenomenal viewing opportunities. A bit closer to home one can find some good viewing along Lake Champlain on top of Coon Mountain, just north of Westport in Essex County.

What a pleasure it is to watch these majestic raptors as they cruise their way over valleys and mountains to finally settle into quite forests, and raise a family all in the shelter of these Adirondacks.

Photo: Red-tailed hawk-Brian McAllister


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.


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


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


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Natural History Along the Hudson River

For several years I have been a contributor to the Hudson River Almanac, a publication put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program that follows the changes of the seasons all along the 315 miles of the Hudson River, from its headwaters here in Essex County to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an impressive collection of natural history observations made by scientists and laypeople alike. For a naturalist, this is a fascinating journal. If these waters could talk, what a tale they could tell! » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Golden Eagles Over The Adirondacks

Singer John Denver wrote in Rocky Mountain High, “I know he’d be a poor man if he never saw an eagle fly.” These notes ring true for those of us fortunate enough to see a bald eagle effortlessly soaring over some Adirondack mountaintop or sparkling lake. Bald eagles have made quite a recovery over the past several decades in the Adirondacks, but now I’d like to divert your attention to the the bald eagle’s cousin, the golden eagle.

The golden eagle has long been a source of inspiration, power, and mystery to humans and it shows up as the national symbol of many countries. The golden once flew in great numbers across North America but at this point in time it seems to be holding on to a limited western population and a scattered eastern population. The western population is found throughout the mountainous states from Mexico to Canada and into Alaska. East of the Mississippi it can be found in small pockets of the western Appalachian Mountains during winter, with a majority of the eastern eagles spending their summer breeding season in the regions of northeastern Canada and Maritime Islands.

To this day we still wonder if there was ever a healthy breeding population in the Adirondacks. Teddy Roosevelt stated, in an overview of his 1870’s trips to the Adirondacks: “The golden eagle probably occurs here.” It is believed that the last known nesting golden eagles in this area (around 1971) was found in the Moose River Plains area—a wonderful bird and wildlife watching area anytime of the year. There were also scattered reports of a nest around the Tupper Lake region. As previously mentioned, mystery often surrounds this bird of prey.

Well, slowly and methodically science is trying to pull back this veil of mystery. As this proceeds we get a better picture of the eastern population and, lo-and-behold, the Adirondacks often becomes an integral part of this eagle’s migratory pathways!

As late September blends into autumnal October the golden eagles of Northern Canada’s eastern provinces begin a determined southerly migration into the western Appalachian Mountains. These raptors will often complete a day’s journey of 100 miles or more with good tailwinds. As the estimated 200-300 eastern golden eagles come southward they are naturally funneled over the northeastern states and, as luck would have it, many goldens migrate directly over the Adirondacks.

Technology has played a major role in this investigation. Over the years, many golden eagles have been caught, and radio transmitters have been placed on the backs of these eagles. As the signal is given off by the moving transmitters they show up (via satellite) on “listening” computers and the eagle’s flight path is followed. Based on several mapping sites I found (here’s one), there is a distinct pattern of golden eagles flying over Franklin, Clinton, Jefferson, and St. Lawrence Counties during both fall and spring migration.

OK, now that we know they’re out there . . . what do we look for? As fall marches through October into November I would start looking at the sky when the winds are from the north or northwest. Get out into some open field or on a mountaintop that offers a wide, open view. Personally I like Coon Mountain, near Westport, or I’ll climb the accessible fire tower on Belfry Mt outside Mineville. Both offer some nice views of the Champlain Valley. Another good option is Azure Mt, off Blue Mt Road, northwest of Paul Smiths.

While up there I’ll look with my binoculars for migrating raptors and specifically I’ll focus on the many turkey vultures that are lazily soaring on the heated thermals coming off the valley below. Golden eagles can resemble turkey vultures in flight with a slight “V” shape to their up-turned wings. Most bald eagles and other bird of prey will fly with their wings straight (horizontal) out from their bodies. As you focus on these dark-colored birds, look closely at the wings and try to determine if there are white patches on the undersides of the outstretched wings and a black band on tip of the tail. If so then you may be looking at an immature golden eagle! As our only birdwatching president, Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “Bully for you!”

Photo: A golden eagle in flight.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Museum Program Gets You Close to Birds of Prey

The Adirondack Museum is offering an opportunity to encounter Adirondack raptors close-up as part of their Cabin Fever Sunday series. A Great Horned Owl, a Red-Tailed
Hawk, an American Kestrel, and more will be on hand along with Adirondack Park Agency Visitor Interpretive Center Environmental Educator Rynda McCray on Sunday, January 11, 2009. This special bird-of-prey presentation featuring non-releasable education birds. Learn about special adaptations, habitats, and human impact on bird populations.

The Newcomb VIC has five birds of prey. They include a great horned owl, a red-tailed hawk, an eastern screech owl, a northern saw-whet owl, and an American kestrel. All of the birds were rescued and received care from wildlife rehabilitators. However, none are able to survive in the wild. The birds work in tandem with Environmental Educators to provide “bird-on-hand” programs for the public. Rynda McCray is Center Director of the Newcomb VIC. She developed the
Bird-of-Prey Program and has worked with live Adirondack raptors for the
past 10 years.

The presentation will begin in the Auditorium at 1:30 p.m. Cabin Fever Sunday programs are offered at no charge to museum members. The fee for non-members is $5.00. There is no charge for children of elementary school age or younger. Refreshments will be served. For additional information, please call the Education Department at (518) 352-7311, ext. 128 or visit the museum’s web site at www.adirondackmuseum.org.



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