Birding in the Adirondacks

Hamilton County is one of only two counties entirely contained within the six-million-acre Adirondack Mountains. It sits in the heart of the "boreal" zone. This diagonal region of habitat runs from the northeastern to the southwestern Adirondacks. Moose River Plains and the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area are two of the most popular birding destinations in the county. Both locations are designated "Important Bird Areas" (IBAs) by Audubon New York. Ferd's Bog, the trail to Shallow Lake, and Brown's Tract Inlet are also popular locations for lowland boreal birding. The increasingly rare American Three-toed Woodpecker can still be found in these areas. Much of the famous 136-mile long Northville-Placid Trail is found in Hamilton County, with popular boreal birding sections in Long Lake.

Hamilton County contains bogs, marshes, swamps, calm rivers, and forests filled with boreal bird species. The high elevation boreal forest on the upper reaches of Snowy, Pillsbury, Blue, and Wakely mountains provides breeding habitat for Bicknell's Thrush. This endemic northeastern U.S. species brings birders from all over the U.S., Canada, and beyond to the Adirondacks.

Things are warming up

Spring in the Central Adirondacks can be moody. Warm-ups are followed by periods of cold, wind, and raw chill. Sun may be chased by snow, sleet, or wintry rain. And so the patience and preparedness of outdoor recreationists is tested regularly as they strip layers off, add layers on, or realize that they unfortunately left their rain coat at home.

Birds have no such layers of clothing to help them cope with the changing seasons, so they fluff their feathers in the cold and move from sunny song to winter's silence. But they know that the days are growing longer and that spring – despite the chilled appearance of a given day – is coming.

Chestnut-sided Warblers are one of over 20 species of warblers which can be found in the Central Adirondacks during spring. Photo courtesy of www.masterimages.org.

In fact, spring in the bird world begins in late winter. Sunny, spring-like days are often set to a backdrop of song as species like Brown Creeper and Black-capped Chickadee offer their songs to blue skies. As the days continue to lengthen and the snow begins to melt, the ice on Adirondack lakes recedes, and it is gratefully filled by waterfowl on their way north. Many of these species stop through for only a day or two – or even a few hours. And while duck species like Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, and Common Goldeneye may be most prevalent, other less common aquatic species can also be found – like Red-necked Grebe, Black Scoter, and Surf Scoter – particularly in mid-late April and early May – and birders should look for them in places like Little Tupper Lake, Lake Abanakee, and Tupper Lake Marsh.

Songs of spring

Their arrival cause for excitement each year, Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the first songbirds to show up in the region. Photo courtesy of www.masterimages.org.

And as winter loosens its grip on the landscape, early migrant songbirds show up – including Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Phoebe, and Song Sparrow. Soon other sparrows follow and local bird feeders host White-throated, Savannah, Fox, Vesper, Chipping, and Dark-eyed Juncos, even as some of our wintering species like Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Bohemian Waxwing, and American Tree Sparrow depart for the year. It can make late winter and early spring a diverse time to explore the region. And the diversity continues to grow.

Soon raptors are on the move into and through the region – from Golden Eagles to Red-shouldered Hawks, and many birders welcome back the loud trills of Merlin and the high-pitch calls of Broad-winged Hawks as they watch the Ospreys adding sticks to their already-enormous nests on the edges of lakes and marshes. The marshes are also full of life – with nesting waterfowl like Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, the low pumping calls of American Bittern, and the haunting winnowing of Wilson's Snipe. They are soon followed by the grunts of Virginia Rails.

And since some of these marsh species are easiest to find in the evening, dusk and nighttime trips become a requisite spring endeavor – producing peenting American Woodcocks, and the quacks, hoots, and toots of Barred Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls. Birders can also hope for Long-eared or Great Horned Owls as well.

Other arrivals

While raptors, owls, and night birds are exciting, they do not hold the exclusive rights to migration. For even as late April and early May waffle between winter and spring, more and more birds arrive. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Blue-headed Vireos, and Palm, Pine, and Yellow-rumped Warblers make a living in chilly and sunny weather alike, and they are soon followed by a litany of others.

After all, as May begins it brings with it still more warblers, sparrows, grosbeaks, thrushes, flycatchers, cuckoos, vireos, and tanagers. The month often starts with the song of White-crowned Sparrows on their way north and the buzzing hum of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. But soon it is a kaleidoscope of pattern and song as more and more species arrive. And while there are many birds to see, the warblers often steal the headlines. Better than 20 species of warblers can be found in the Central Adirondacks during migration, including the following:

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Wilson's Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Ovenbird
  • Palm Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Mourning Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Black and White Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler
  • American Redstart

The Adirondacks are a warbler-lover's paradise!

The pumping calls of American Bitterns can be heard in marshes all over the Adirondacks and North Country during the spring. Photo credit: Alan Belford

Soon enough every trail, peak, climb, stream, lake, and marsh is loaded with the songs of not only warblers but an assortment of other species. And so birders can explore marshes for American Bitterns and Wood Ducks, they can paddle streams and listen to Alder Flycatchers and Chestnut-sided Warblers, they can hike in deciduous forests for Scarlet Tanagers and Eastern Wood-Pewees, they can hike mountains like Pillsbury, Blue, and Snowy in search of Bicknell's and Swainson's Thrushes, and they can adventure into the boreal habitats which characterize the region and find Yellow-bellied and Olive-sided Flycatchers. These same habitats also harbor resident boreal species – like Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee, and birders will do well to plan multiple spring and early summer trips to places like the Moose River Plains, Shallow Lake, and Sabattis Bog.

And so as spring finally wins the battle with winter, it in turn gives way to summer, leaving us both wishing migration would continue and grateful that we are left with a summer to enjoy. It also brings us to the Adirondack Birding Festival, allowing birders to start their summer with the song and beauty of our breeding birds at the most diverse time of year.

The Popular Annual Adirondack Birding Festival

Hamilton County hosts the annual Adirondack Birding Festival, a three-day event held during the second weekend in June. There are bird walks, driving safaris, canoe trips, a social dinner aboard the W.W. Durant on scenic Raquette Lake, and a keynote speaker. This is a popular event, so register early!

Plan Your Birding Expedition in Hamilton County!

For a true Adirondack experience, join us in the heart of the mountains for exciting year-round birding! If you visit, there are comfortable lodging and restaurant options found in this vast wilderness.