Early Birds

Savannah sparrow: Mdf via Wikimedia Commons

The beginning of April in the Adirondacks can feel like a chapter out of Left Behind. Schools are on break. Those who can travel do. Restaurants close. Wind whips the winter’s leftover road sand into a salty dust storm. But the season has its pleasures.

“This is paradise. It is in part because any definition of paradise starts with the fact that there aren’t a lot of people,” Fen Montaigne wrote about fishing Siberia, in his book Reeling in Russia.

For Adirondack birders, the absence of distraction sharpens their focus on creatures they haven’t seen in months, and anticipation of others soon to arrive.

“The spring bird sings like a music box that cannot stop,” a first-grade classmate of mine wrote. I think of that little poem every time I hear a winter wren, which I did for the first time March 25 on Dewey Mountain. Brian McAllister, the constant birder, heard a very early wren March 21, during the warm spell, at the Paul Smiths VIC.

My (unscientific) journal records more ski trips than birds at this time last year, and I didn’t note a winter wren till May 2011, but there is other evidence that some birds are getting an early jump. Larry Master, the photographer and zoologist from Lake Placid, is watching the speed of this year’s ruby-throated hummingbird migration. He e-mailed this map and wrote, “Note the amazing difference for 2012 vs. previous years. I had no idea this species could be so responsive to a warm spring! Now I fear that lots of those early arriving hummingbirds will perish with more seasonal weather.”

Another go-to field naturalist, Ted Mack, e-mailed, “There were a few hundred tree swallows over [Lake Champlain] at Rouses Point on Sunday feeding on insects as they headed north. A few wood ducks were at Point au Roche and the first arrival seen by this observer was on March 18 at Ausable Marsh.” Resident goldfinch males are turning yellow, and a snowy owl still lingered at Point au Fer by Rouses Point Sunday, Mack added.

The fresh tune of a song sparrow caught me by surprise in Saranac Lake on March 13, but now is also the time to check fields for Savannah sparrows, pausing on their way to the hayfields outside the perimeter of the park. I’m terrible at identifying sparrows, but this bird stands out with its early arrival, its proclivity for open spaces, and bright yellow eyebrow.

The website eBird provides a weekly forecast of migration activity across the country; the current prediction is for a quiet week in New England as weather slows movement in the Great Lakes region.

The birding site has also become a repository of field data. Larry Master’s list for March 8, in Lake Placid, shows a dozen resident species plus newly arrived red-winged blackbirds.

Masses of birds show up on radar, and the Internet makes it possible to watch the daily progress of the migration. interprets the blobs on the screen for me. Longtime observers like Master, Mack and McAllister have learned for themselves how to watch radar and the weather to predict an Adirondack “fallout,” when rain and north winds ground all kinds of birds and we get a chance to see a huge variety of species. This video has tips on how to read radar yourself.

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