Adirondack Wildlife:
Birds of the Adirondacks

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Blue-headed Vireo on the Black Pond Trail (10 May 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Blue-headed Vireos usually breed in mixed wood forests. Listen for its distinctive song, which sounds like a series of questions and answers. The song is quite similar to the slightly faster song of the Red-eyed Vireo. Blue-headed Vireo on the Black Pond Trail (10 May 2016).

The birds we see and hear in the Adirondack Park fall into several general categories:

  • Year-round Residents: Birds which make the Adirondacks their permanent residence and have developed strategies to survive the harsh winters.
  • Summer Residents:  Birds which use the Adirondack Mountains as a breeding ground, but winter in warmer climates further south.
  • Winter Residents: Birds which breed farther north in Canada and migrate to our area to spend the winter.
  • Transients:  Birds which breed farther north in Canada and are seen fleetingly in the spring as they migrate to their northern breeding grounds and then again in the fall when they migrate south to their winter range.

The cast of birding characters in any location in the Adirondacks changes – sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly – with the march of the seasons.


Birds of the Adirondacks: Spring

Around April, the many bird species that spend their winter in warmer climates to the South make their way back to the Adirondack Mountains to find partners and rear a family. One of the many joys of early spring birding in the Adirondacks – in addition to the absence of deciduous foliage to impede visibility and the relative paucity of biting insects – is the pleasure of welcoming back migrants from the south. By the end of April, birders can expect to see the earliest-arriving migrants. The influx of our summer residents continues through May.

During the spring months, the birds arriving from the south are establishing territory and finding mates. The woods are vibrant with arriving birds, singing and showing off their mating display. The frenetic activity reflects the limited time that birds have to raise their young before it's time to start the journey back to the wintering range.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Hermit Thrush at the Paul Smiths VIC (25 April 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: The Hermit Thrush generally makes its nest either on the ground or low in vegetation. The female builds the nest and feeds the nestlings. Males usually gather food. Hermit Thrush at the Paul Smiths VIC (25 April 2016).

Hermit Thrush: The Hermit Thrush generally puts in an appearance in the Adirondack region by late April. The Hermit Thrush is a short-distance migrant. It winters in the southern US, rarely crossing the Gulf of Mexico. In eastern and central North America, males begin migrating north in March, arriving in our part of the Adirondack Mountains in late April. The Hermit Thrush breeds in a wide range of forest types, including coniferous, deciduous, and mixed forest. It is commonly seen in the forest under-story along virtually all the trails covered here. This thrush is even more commonly heard, singing its haunting, evocative song.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet: Another short-distance migrant is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This species migrates to the southern and southwestern United States and Mexico for the winter, returning to our part of the Adirondack Mountains by about mid-April. Look for the Ruby-crowned Kinglet in spruce-fir forest and mixed woods. While this tiny bird may be difficult to locate as it flits through the branches, it is easily found by its distinctive, rambling song that builds to an incredibly loud ending.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: White-throated Sparrow on the Boreal Life Trail (7 May 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: White-throated Sparrows eat fruits and seeds in late summer, fall, and winter. Insects are the main item on their menu in summer. White-throated Sparrow on the Boreal Life Trail (7 May 2016).

White-throated Sparrow: Another returning summer resident with a distinctive song is the White-throated Sparrow. A short-distance migrant, the White-throated Sparrow winters in the southern parts of the US and returns to its breeding range in northern New York, New England, and Canada when snow melt exposes portions of the forest floor. Listen for its evocative "oh-sweet-Canada-Canada" as these sparrows forage near the ground and flit about low in the bushes. White-throated Sparrows are widely-distributed in our area and can be seen and heard along virtually all trails discussed here.

Palm Warbler: The Palm Warbler is among the earliest warblers to return to its familiar haunts on Adirondack bogs. This attractive, rusty-capped warbler spends the colder months in the southern US and Caribbean, and sets off for its northern breeding grounds in April. This bird is usually seen in the Adirondacks by late April. One of the most reliable places to find this bird is on Barnum Bog, which can be accessed by the boardwalk on the Boreal Life Trail. Listen for its continuous, flattened trill and watch for its bobbing tail. The Palm Warbler is a ground nester and forager, but is most easily seen when it perches on the top of the Black Spruce trees which flourish in Barnum Bog. You can also find Palm Warblers along the Bloomingdale Bog trails.

Yellow-rumped Warbler: Another early-returning warbler is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. This warbler winters in the southern United States, Mexico, and the western Caribbean, migrating north to our part of the Adirondacks by about late April. It's whistled warble can be heard along many trails in our region. It is especially common on the edges of wetlands, such as Barnum Bog and Bloomindale Bog. Look for Yellow-rumped Warblers perched on the outer limbs of trees or flitting through the canopies of coniferous trees as they forage.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Northern Flicker at the Paul Smiths VIC (3 Mary 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Northern Flickers, unlike most woodpeckers, prefers to find their food on the ground. Northern Flicker at the Paul Smiths VIC (3 Mary 2016).

Northern Flicker: Although several of our woodpeckers such as the (Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker) are year-round residents, others are migratory. The Northern Flicker is an example. Our flickers usually leave the Adirondack region in the late autumn, and spend the winter in the southeastern US. The peak spring migration is from late March to early April. The flickers arrive in most parts of the Adirondacks by the end of April, eager to find a mate and start a family.

The Northern Flicker's diet consists of insects, primarily ants, which it finds by probing and hammering the soil with its powerful bill and then lapping them up with its long barbed tongue. For that reason, Northern Flickers are usually seen on the ground, in short grass or bare ground, usually near forest edges. If you flush a Northern Flicker from a feeding spot on the ground, you'll see a flash of yellow on the wings and an obvious white rump patch.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Swamp Sparrow on Heron Marsh (29 April 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Male Swamp Sparrows arrive in their breeding grounds before the females and immediately begin to establish territories. Swamp Sparrow on Heron Marsh (29 April 2016).

Swamp Sparrow: Late April and May is also a good time to monitor the returning birds who make their home near or on Heron Marsh. Listen for the trill of the Swamp Sparrow, which winters in the southern US and Mexico. Swamp Sparrows depart their wintering sites in mid-March to early April, returning to the Adirondack Mountains in late April and early May. Males generally are the first to arrive in breeding areas.

The Swamp Sparrow's preferred breeding habitat includes freshwater cattail marshes, especially marshes with open water, dense low vegetation, and available singing perches. Although the Swamp Sparrow's song is similar to the faster trill of the Chipping Sparrow, if you hear a slow, simple trill from a sparrow-like bird on a marsh, it's probably a Swamp Sparrow. A convenient place to watch and listen for Swamp Sparrows is Heron Marsh, where you can see it perching on cattails near the overlooks on the Heron Marsh Trail and the Barnum Brook Trail. You can also find them along the Bloomingdale Bog Trail, as well as in marshy areas around rivers and streams, such as the Cemetery Road wetlands between Keene and Keene Valley.

American Bittern: The American Bittern also returns to the Adirondacks around late April. This bittern spends its winters on coastal plains in the southern US and further south in Mexico and Bermuda. It leaves for its breeding grounds in the northern US and southern Canada in early spring. It usually arrives in the Adirondack region by late April or early May. Listen for its distinctive three syllable "pump-er-lunk" song and watch for it stalking through the vegetation on Heron Marsh or Bloomingdale Bog with its head in the air, imitating a stick.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Common Merganser on Heron Marsh (3 May 2016).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Common Mergansers are often the first waterfowl migrant to return north in spring. Common Merganser on Heron Marsh (3 May 2016).

Common Merganser: Late April and early May is also a time when the migrating ducks return. The Common Merganser spends its winters on large lakes, rivers, and reservoirs in the southern and coastal regions of their breeding range, and in additional wintering grounds across the northern and western United States. These ducks are among the first ducks to reappear in our part of the Adirondacks. Watch for them in marshes, lakes, and ponds in the Adirondacks, starting in mid-April. The males have white bodies, dark green heads (which appear black in most lights), and a slender, serrated red bill. The females are slate grey with a chestnut head.

Ring-necked Duck: Our Ring-necked Ducks also reappear around this time. Ring-necked Ducks winter inland along the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts. They depart from their wintering sites in February and can usually be found in the Adirondack uplands from mid- to late April on. Look for them resting in the vegetation along the edges and islands of marshes. Despite the name, the neck rings on the Ring-necked Duck are rarely discernible from a distance, so look for this bird's distinctive, peaked head to help you identify it. Adult males are decked out in gleaming black, gray, and white and have a prominent white ring on the bill. Females are a rich brown and have a gray bill with white and black markings at the tip.

Birds of the Adirondacks: Summer

By late spring and early summer, breeding season is in full swing. Some of the birds may have completed their nests and are sitting on eggs. By early and mid-July, many birds have fledged, and the parents may be observed feeding them. Early summer is a good time to watch for families of birds, such as ducks and ducklings on lakes, ponds, and marshes. The woods are quieter than in the noisy courting period of May and early June, providing a chance to focus on individual birds. During August, activity picks up in the woods, as fledglings come out and can be heard making begging calls to their parents.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Hooded Merganser and her duckling on Heron Marsh (25 June 2015).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Hooded Merganser ducklings leave the nest within a day of hatching, leaping from their nest in the cavity of a tree and sometimes dropping fifty feet to the ground. Hooded Merganser and her duckling on Heron Marsh (25 June 2015).

Hooded Merganser: This small diving duck is a cavity nester. It chooses live or dead trees in close proximity to water. Female Hooded Mergansers construct and maintain the nests. Only females incubate the eggs, which take about a month to hatch. Male Hooded Mergansers abandon the females soon after incubation begins. The ducklings depart the nest within twenty-four hours of hatching, responding to calls from the female in the water below the nest cavity. Hooded Merganser ducklings are very active and begin feeding themselves from the first day, either diving for food or swimming with their heads under water. They forage primarily on invertebrates.

Blue-headed Vireo: Blue-headed Vireos winter along the southeastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, and Central America, leaving their wintering grounds in March and early April and returning to the Adirondack region in early May. Males typically arrive before females. Nest building begins within two weeks or so after the first arrivals. This species builds its nests in trees. The nest-building process usually takes about a week, resulting in an open cup nest, which is suspended by the rim from a fork or a branch. Both males and female incubate the eggs, which hatch in 13 to 14 days. Both adults participate in feeding the young. The chicks fledge in another 13 to 14 days, but they are totally dependent on their parents for food for about a week after leaving the nest.

Birds of the Adirondack Park: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Country Club Lane, Lake Placid (27 June 2015).
Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers often reuse their previous year's nest cavity. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near Country Club Lane, Lake Placid (27 June 2015).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the only woodpecker in eastern North America that is completely migratory. Although a few individuals remain throughout much of the winter in the southern part of the breeding range, most head farther south, going as far south as Panama. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers depart their wintering grounds in late March and early April, arriving in our part of the Adirondacks in late April and early May to find partners and rear families. The males arrive first to establish territories. The females arrive about a week later.

Like Hooded Mergansers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are cavity nesters. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers often return to the breeding site of the previous year, often the very same tree and the same cavity. The male does most of the nest building. The female lays her eggs within a week of nest completion. The incubation period is 10 to 11 days; both parents incubate. Both parents feed the young. The nestlings fledge in 25 to 30 days.

Birds of the Adirondacks: Fall

As fall and cooler temperatures arrive, the majority of songbirds begin to make their way south. Among the earliest to depart are the warblers, who are heavily dependent on insects and invertebrates for food. Prior to departure, the migrants must ingest large quantities of food to fuel their flight.

In late August and early September, many of the birds we see in the Adirondack Mountains are migrants from Canada, stopping here on their way south. These birds usually travel at night, when it is safer to fly. By morning, they come down to relax and start feeding. To feed and refuel for the next night's journey, these fall migrants join up with groups of resident Black-capped Chickadees, who know the best places to feed.

The migrating birds tend to move in small mixed-species groups, apparently for protection against predators or to help find food.  Groups of migrating birds can often be located by listening for the chatter of Black-capped Chickadees, who produce constant chip notes which help keep the small mixed flocks together. 

Spring and Fall Transients:  Fox Sparrow near Country Club Lane (26 April 2016).
Spring and Fall Transients: Fox Sparrows breed in coniferous forest in Canada, passing through our area in late fall and early spring. Fox Sparrow near Country Club Lane (26 April 2016).

Transients seen in late autumn and early spring include the Fox Sparrow, named for its red coloring. This large, stocky sparrow is highly variable. Those that pass through the Adirondacks are "Red" Fox Sparrows, which breed in boreal forests to our north. They are rusty above with some pale gray on the head. They winter south of us, from southeastern Minnesota, southern Wisconsin, central Pennsylvania, southeastern New York, and northern Massachusetts, south to southern Alabama and northern Florida. We see them when they pass through our area in late fall on the way south and then again in early spring on the way north to their breeding grounds in northern Canada.

Another transient sparrow to look for is the White-crowned Sparrow. This species winters just south of us in the continental U.S. and Mexico and breeds in northern Canada and Alaska. These birds pass through our area in early May, traveling north, and then again in late September and early October, traveling south. White-crowned Sparrows, in contrast to many species, do not migrate as cohesive flocks. Individual birds appear to follow their own flight schedules.

Birds of the Adirondacks: Winter

As winter approaches, only a hardy set of locals remains, dominated by the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. In the Adirondack uplands, all of the warblers, thrushes, and ducks have long since departed for warmer winter ranges. The list of birds that remain over the harsh winter includes, amazingly, the tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet. These active little birds can survive –40 degree nights, sometimes huddling together for warmth. Some of the birds we see in the winter, such as the Common Redpoll, are not year-round residents, but birds which breed to our north and move south into our area for the winter.

Many of our winter residents are frequent customers at bird feeders. Birds typically seen at feeders during winter include Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, American Goldfinches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches.

In addition to the hardy birds who spend their winters in Adirondack uplands, a second cast of birding characters can be found in the warmer Champlain Valley – a center for cold-weather birding in the Adirondack Park. Lake Champlain remains open for much of the winter, so it attracts a large number of ducks and other aquatic birds that had abandoned the Adirondack uplands earlier in the fall. A number of raptors also use the lake area as a flyway and remain nearby as long as the weather allows.



References

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. Alder Flycatcher, American Bittern, American Black Duck, American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Redstart, American Robin, American Wigeon, Bald Eagle, Barn Swallow, Barred Owl, Barrow's Goldeneye, Bay-Breasted Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, Black Scoter, Black-and-white Warbler, Black-backed Woodpecker, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue Jay, Blue-headed Vireo, Bobolink, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee, Broad-winged Hawk, Brown Creeper, Brown Thrasher, Bufflehead, Canada Goose, Canada Warbler, Canvasback, Cape May Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Chimney Swift, Chipping Sparrow, Common Goldeneye, Common Grackle, Common Loon, Common Merganser, Common Raven, Common Redpoll, Common Yellowthroat, Cooper's Hawk, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, Evening Grosbeak, Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Gray Jay, Great Blue Heron, Great Horned Owl, Greater Scaup, Green-winged Teal, Hairy Woodpecker, Hermit Thrush, Herring Gull, Hooded Merganser, Horned Grebe, Horned Lark, Lesser Scaup, Lincoln's Sparrow, Magnolia Warbler, Mallard, Merlin, Mourning Dove, Mourning Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Flicker, Northern Harrier, Northern Parula, Northern Pintail, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Shrike, Northern Waterthrush, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Osprey, Ovenbird, Palm Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, Pine Warbler, Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-eyed Vireo, Redhead, Red-necked Grebe, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-throated Loon, Red-winged Blackbird, Ring-billed Gull, Ring-necked Duck, Ring-necked Pheasant, Rough-legged Hawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Ruffed Grouse, Savannah Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Snow Bunting, Snowy Owl, Song Sparrow, Spotted Sandpiper, Swainson's Thrush, Swamp Sparrow, Tree Swallow, Turkey Vulture, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-winged Crossbill, Wild Turkey, Wilson's Warbler, Winter Wren, Wood Duck, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-rumped Warbler. Retrieved 30 January - 2 April 2017.

Cornell Lab or Ornithology. Birds of North America. Subscription Web Site. American Bittern, Blue-headed Vireo, Common Merganser, Common Redpoll, Fox Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, Hooded Merganser, Northern Flicker, Palm Warbler, Ring-necked Duck, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Swamp Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-rumped Warbler. Retrieved 30 January - 2 April 2017.

eBird. Clinton County, Essex County, Franklin County, Fulton County, Hamilton County, Herkimer County, Lewis County, Oneida County, Saratoga County, St. Lawrence County, Warren County, Washington County. Retrieved 30 January - 2 April 2017.

Alan E. Bessette, William K. Chapman, Warren S. Greene and Douglas R. Pens. Birds of the Adirondacks. A Field Guide (North Country Books, Inc., 1993).

John M.C. Peterson and Gary N. Lee. Adirondack Birding. 60 Great Places to Find Birds (Lost Pond Press, 2008).

Adirondack Park Agency. Checklist of Birds of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smiths, NY. Undated.

Lake Champlain Region. Cold-weather Birding in the Champlain Valley. Retrieved 2 April 2017.

Alan Belford. Ducks and Raptors along the southern ADK Coast. 24 February 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2017.

Alan Belford. Great Ducks and Raptors around Crown Point. 6 February 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2017.

Alan Belford. Raptors and Owls in the Lake Champlain Region. 23 January 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2017.

Alan Belford. Excellent Birding in the Lake Champlain Region. 10 January 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2017.

Wildlife of the Adirondack Park

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