Bears and Blue-Dash Headed Vireos
1980 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,
the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs and the Cornell
University Lab of Ornithology initiated a five-year census
of birds that breed in New York State. New York became
the first state to complete such a daunting survey, which
culminated in an atlas of maps for 242 species of birds
that breed in the state. The project deployed approximately
forty-three-hundred volunteer birders, who spent more
than two hundred thousand hours in the field, looking
for evidence of avian breeding in 5,343 five-by-five-kilometer
birders have a built-in mnemonic device for remembering
the precise number of atlasing blocks in the state:
there is one less atlasing block than vertical feet
above sea level at the summit of Mount Marcy. At a Federation
of New York State Bird Clubs annual meeting in Rochester,
during the first cocktail party, I watched a doctor
of ornithology, as aggressively authoritative as he
was verbose, gasp into silence when a casual Adirondack
birdera Swedish meatball on a toothpick in one
hand, a glass of Chardonnay in the othercorrected
him when he wrongly noted the number of atlasing blocks
in the state. Score one for the casual Adirondack birder.
Of the twelve blocks in the state that for sundry reasons
never got censused, six were in the Adirondacks, all
but completely inaccessible, even to crazed, backpacking
birders. Another neglected sector occupied what the
editors of the first atlas called the main artillery-impact
area of Fort Drum, where birdsong remains undetectable
and courtship impossible to imagine. Another four uncounted
blocks were essentially water locked stretches along
Lakes Ontario and Erie, and on the St. Lawrence River.
though the Adirondacks and contiguous regions monopolized
New York States roster of impossible-to-get-to
places, birders here recorded more species of birds,
and more species breeding, than birders in any other
region in the state. One intrepid participant, retired
forest ranger Gary Lee, agreed to atlas the remotest
regions of the Moose River Recreation area if someone
could arrange to floatplane him into the middle of it,
from where he hiked out.
Adirondack birders who worked on the first atlas acquitted
themselves admirably, dove into the project like loons,
barked like barred owls at night, suffered awesome ferocities
of blackfly and mosquito, and not a little bit of hard
rain, wind, frost and snow. One wonders why the most
inaccessible and difficult terrain in the state got
atlased more thoroughly than regions far more tame and
more populated. Perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke had it right
when he observed, No time spent with the difficult
is wasted. Score one for the not-so-casualindeed
the obsessedAdirondack birder.
I moved to the Adirondacks part-time twelve years ago,
I gradually met the areas truly hard core birdersat
Christmas bird counts, waterfowl counts, the spring
banding station at Crown Point, the gull and heron censusing
and banding on Four Brothers Islands. Most of the local
hard core had worked on the first atlas, and to listen
to their stories, their insider laughter and their intimate
knowledge of the landscapeYou know that
stand of tawny cotton grass across the water from the
second bridge on the trail to Brook Trout Lake from
Inlet?made it overwhelmingly apparent that
most of these people had divided their lives into two
zones: before and after the atlas. Their camaraderie
made people who hadnt participated in the first
census feel like outsiders, spies in the house of love,
wimps who never camped in a marsh in early June for
five rainy days.
when Mike Peterson, the avian guru of the North Country,
called to tell us Atlas 2000 was going to happen, he
said, just before signing off, You know, I was
really hoping wed do another atlas before you
two stopped doing High Peaks.
the last atlas, Peterson, the once and future regional
coordinator of the previous and current atlases, had
scoured the High Peaks region looking for breeding evidence.
He did extremely well, confirming more than a hundred
breeding species in more than twenty atlas blocks. To
my wife and me he happily bequeathed eight little squares
in the High Peaks that cover places like the Great Range,
Flowed Lands, Scott and Wallface Ponds, Panther Gorge
and a couple of landlocked pieces in the Giant Mountain
could hardly wait to start.
we received our official block assignments in mid-December,
1999, two weeks before the start of the census, so our
enthusiasm had no choice but to wait out the last two
weeks of the millennium. I remember thinking that after
the turn of the year, we would probably have to wait
another couple of months before the breeding season
really got going. Wrong. The breeding season, naturally,
has no official date and varies enormously among species.
Early nesters like great-horned owls and white-winged
crossbills often begin mating in mid-December in the
Adirondacks. Talk about unimaginable courtship.
the drive from Manhattan to Keene twice a month, Pat
and I casually count the red-tailed hawks (also early
nesters) we see on the Palisades Parkway and the Northway.
The highest counts always occur in January, when the
birds perch conspicuously in the open, especially on
sunny days. They make themselves easy to see, often
hang out in pairs, then disappear. In January, breeding
pairs of peregrine falcons return to the Brooklyn, George
Washington and Verazzano bridges. The pair that nests
on Hurricane Mountain shows up in mid-March.
it occurred to us that the breeding season begins last
yearwhod a thunk it?and the two-week
check on our zeal would end in a couple of hours. Oh
spent December studying a handbook of insider tricks
to observing birds breeding and building nests, carrying
food and feeding young. It seemed a better use of our
time than searching the sub-zero dark for amorous owls.
The insider manual said what I imagined what it would
say, essentially: the trick is there is no trick, other
than spending a lot of time in the field, at the right
point in the season. The handbook told us what to look
for, not how to find it.
key concept here is, the right point in the season,
which just happens, in the Adirondacks and elsewhere,
to coincide perfectly with the wrong point in
the season for those who loathe blackflies. I
am one such, my wife another. Sitting side-by-side perhaps
six feet from the woodstove, we passed the insider handbook
back and forth, reading it in tandem. We had though
better of leaving a window open in case a great-horned
owl hooted hotly in the gelid darkness. Without discussing
anything we read, we looked at each other and realized,
Were talking blood sport here.
into Johns Brook in early June? Get out of the car in
mid- to late-May? Hike into Lake Colden the day after
Memorial Day? Blood sport. On a day hike into Lake Colden
in early June, we ran into a party of five women from
Quebec who were fleeing the area because three inches
of rain the night before had turned the severely compacted
soil underlying the campground into a series of large
vernal ponds that filled their tents with a foot of
water. One of the women, wearing a tank top and shorts,
looked as if Dracula had ravaged her neck, cheeks, throat
and ankles. Knowing what to expect that day, I had applied
enough citronella oil to drown a cluster fly, never
mind a blackfly, but not enough to overpower the tsunami
of Skin-so-Soft emanating from Pat. We smelled awful,
but we were having fun.
we ran into the DEC rangerSteve Langdon, whom
we usually encounter on skisstationed at the interior
outpost at Lake Colden. He knew were into birds, but
when he saw the badges identifying us as official atlasers,
he enthusiastically told us that lately he had been
seeing this really weird-looking black woodpecker with
a yellow head, in this marshy area at the northern end
of Lake Colden.
and I looked at each other so spontaneously and conspiratorially
that Langdon knew he was onto something cool. We told
him he had watched a black-backed woodpecker, a difficult
bird to see, and one that many birders come to the Adirondacks
expressly to get. (Getting a bird resembles getting
a High Peak: I got Allen yesterday, I
got a golden eagle this morning.) In no time the
three of us were in league to confirm Langdons
sighting and get ourselves a black-backed for block
5788B. Half an hour later the three of us took off in
a canoe, heading north from the outpost, I was glad
Langdon was driving, especially when he navigated through
a giant slalom of marsh with thick stands of aquatic
grassed, which looked hysterically chartreuse against
the still, black water and the metallic-gray stumps
of cedars drowned decades ago.
spot, and no wonder Id never been there before.
I dont bring a canoe when I backpack into Lake
Colden, nor any other area for that matter. I think
boats should be seen but not carried. The blackflies,
meanwhile, were bodacious. I inhaled and wound up swallowing
at least a half-dozen of them, lest I look indelicate
to a forest ranger in a canoe in a marsh at the apogee
of blackfly season. He didnt spit either, and
I could tell from the way his mouth moved and his face
contorted that he, too, had a blackfly stuck at the
very back of his upper soft palette. Pat finally spit,
and Langdon and I exchanged an ear-to-ear smile.
I noticed my wifes chest, which looked as if it
had just been hit by a couple loads of double-ought
buckshot. She had a dozen or so dime-sized blood stains
all over her shirt. The blackflies had obviously crawled
through the spaces between the buttonholes and went
to town. Langdon did an amazing job of not staring.
Still no black-backed woodpecker, though. Our ranger,
suddenly, as though determined to look elsewhere, looked
over at Pats head and shouted, with enough enthusiasm
to rock the boat, There it is!
might have gotten feasted upon by flies, but we got
the black-backed woodpecker in that atlas block, and
months later Langdon told us he had found the nest and
seen adults feeding young.
we ran into him at Flowed Landswhere we had camped
at one of the lean-tos near the head of Calamity BrookLangdon
looked like a disgruntled state employee. He smiled
wanly, told us about the black-backed and asked if the
local bear had given us any trouble. He noted that he
and another ranger had shot the bear in the butt with
a plastic bullet the previous week, and that the deterrent
effect of the exercise was zero. We told him the camper
at the next lean-to had lost his food last night, and
that the bear had eaten most of his toothpaste, two
containers of scrambled eggs and six packs of gum but
left untouched two filleted brook trout in a plastic
bag. Go figure. Looking exhausted, Langdon shook his
head and wished us a good time in the lean-to. When
he turned to hike back to the interior outpost, we noticed
he was wearing a holster with a large can of pepper
night, Pat woke me with a forceful shove, saying, John,
the bears scratching our bear rope. Sure
enough, the sound of two paws scratching were ripping
apart the silence. I grabbed my whistle and blew it
as loudly as I could, as Pat recoiled so violently I
thought she was about the smash through the side of
the lean-to. Then I picked up our two aluminum plates
and banged them so forcefully they both remain dented
too this day. The bear quickly withdrew. It didnt
get our food because we hang our bear bag with six-hundred-pound-test
climbing rope. As we approached the tree we had hung
it from to see if it was still there, we realized the
air smelled intensely of spruce.
following afternoon an overcast sky turned into a picturesque,
partly cloudy one, the wind died down and Flowed Lands
turned into a gorgeous Rorschach image of deep blue
sky and yellow-tinged clouds bisected by sinuous, dark
green curves of mountains. We brought our camp chairs
down the shore of Flowed Lands, set them up on a convenient
boulder and gawked at the view, of which I took twelve
dozen pictures over the course of an hour.
swallows and cedar waxwings were hawking insects low
over the water, moving like floaters across our eyes.
We noticed that the twenty or so birds had frequent
near-collisions as they hunted. When we gathered the
presence of mind to keep our binoculars on just one
bird to observe its behavior, we realized that the adult
birds were capturing insects and, with balletic precision,
feeding them to the young in midair. Incredibly graceful.
scene made me realize how much more intensely Pat and
I had watched birds since the beginning of the atlas,
how many things we saw simply for spending the time
to see them. We never expected to see such stuff as
midair feeding pas de deux, American redstarts peeling
off thin strips of birch bark for nesting material,
a pair of American kestrels copulating six times over
the course of a half-hour, a blue-headed vireo methodically
pulling the wings and legs off a butterfly before feeding
it to its young or the extremely-difficult-to-see mourning
warbler trying to harass us out of its territory, scolding
us soundly from a branch ten feet away.
night I decided to wear my whistle around my neck when
I went to sleep, and to bring along some extra pots
and pans just in case. Although I could have sworn I
didnt sleep a wink that night, my wife, sotto
voce, woke me with an urgent whisper, John, the
bears right here. I did an instantaneous
sit-up, blinked to clear my eyes and saw, about a foot
beyond my feet, an uncomfortably large specimen of good
old Ursus americanus.
experienced complete mental bankruptcy. I ran my hand
frantically all over my chest looking for my whistle,
which, I realized later, had been hanging between my
shoulder blades. The bear inched forward, intrigued
by this human fondling himself wildly. It also probably
smelled the shrimp and shallots I had sautéed,
downwind from the saucepan, while wearing the same top
I wore to sleep.
the bears head over my feet and into the lean-to,
its neck brushing my toes, my heart thumping so loudly
Im sure the bear could hear it, and having no
idea what to do, I growled, loudly as I could. The bears
ears went back as though it were terrified, and in a
heartbeat it vanished. My wife remained profoundly calm
during these proceedings, which was a good thing because
I really needed someone to rub my shoulder while I stared
into the darkness waiting for my heart rate to drop
back into the reasonable zone. I didnt sleep too
well the rest of the night, what with all those pots
and pans piled up on my side of the lean-to.
morning, a group at an nearby lean-to, who had lost
their food to the bear the previous night, asked me
if they had heard correctly: Had I actually growled
at the bear? I was amazed I had done so with sufficient
volume for them to have heard.
Yes, I said, I growled at the mother.
Werent you afraid? they asked.
Only that it might have been a mating call,
and I never did any serious hiking during blackfly season,
give or take a month. Indeed, we used to spend the July
Fourth weekend at the Festival International de Jazz
de Montreal, where instead of looking for birds or growling
at bears we drank beer or wine while listening to the
blues, and we attended concerts by the likes of Tommy
Flanagan, Sonny Rollins and Diana Krall. We used to
stay, sure enough, with Mike and Susan Peterson at their
apartment in downtown Montreal, where there are no blackflies.
For the next four years, though, until the census is
complete, Pat and I will listen to invective directed
at blackflies and black bears, rather than to jazz.
things we do for birds.