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Blackflies, Bears and Blue-Dash Headed Vireos

In 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 blocks.

Adirondack 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 birder—a Swedish meatball on a toothpick in one hand, a glass of Chardonnay in the other—corrected 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.

Even though the Adirondacks and contiguous regions monopolized New York State’s 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.

The 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-casual—indeed the obsessed—Adirondack birder.

When I moved to the Adirondacks part-time twelve years ago, I gradually met the area’s truly hard core birders—at 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 landscape—“You 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 hadn’t 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.

So 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 we’d do another atlas before you two stopped doing High Peaks.”

During 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 Wilderness Area.

We could hardly wait to start.

Mercifully, 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.

On 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.

Eventually, it occurred to us that the breeding season begins last year—who’d a thunk it?—and the two-week check on our zeal would end in a couple of hours. Oh well.

We 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.

The 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, “We’re talking blood sport here.”

Backpack 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.

Then we ran into the DEC ranger—Steve Langdon, whom we usually encounter on skis—stationed 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.

Pat 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 Langdon’s 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.

Spectacular spot, and no wonder I’d never been there before. I don’t 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 didn’t 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.

Then I noticed my wife’s 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 Pat’s head and shouted, with enough enthusiasm to rock the boat, “There it is!”

We 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.

When we ran into him at Flowed Lands—where we had camped at one of the lean-tos near the head of Calamity Brook—Langdon 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 spray.

That night, Pat woke me with a forceful shove, saying, “John, the bear’s 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 didn’t 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.

The 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.

Tree 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.

The 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.

That 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 didn’t sleep a wink that night, my wife, sotto voce, woke me with an urgent whisper, “John, the bear’s 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.

I 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.

Finally, the bear’s head over my feet and into the lean-to, its neck brushing my toes, my heart thumping so loudly I’m sure the bear could hear it, and having no idea what to do, I growled, loudly as I could. The bear’s 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 didn’t sleep too well the rest of the night, what with all those pots and pans piled up on my side of the lean-to.

Next 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.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” they asked.
“Only that it might have been a mating call,” I replied.

Pat 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.

The things we do for birds.

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