December 2012

Notable Neighbors

Catching a glimpse of three elusive park residents

Illustration by Mark Wilson

SPEND MUCH TIME within the Blue Line and you’re almost certain to encounter white-tailed deer, bald eagles or any number of fish that people throughout the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada know well and enjoy. But what about the more exotic side of Adirondack wildlife? Do we also have any rare or unique animals here in the North Country? Let me introduce you to three of them: a bird, a mammal and a fish.

In 1999 I stumped one of the best birders I know with a dose of amateur’s luck. On a spring morning I glanced out the window of my house in Paul Smiths and spotted a strange-looking bird perched on a telephone pole. It seemed to be a falcon because it had a black vertical stripe through each eye, but its size confused me—too big for a kestrel, too small for a peregrine. My field guide suggested that it might be a merlin, but I had never heard of them living around here before. So I called my friend—who remains nameless for this story because I want to protect his reputation as this region’s infallible god of bird identification.

“No, it’s not a merlin,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked. “It has all of the features in the field guide.”

“You must be missing something; they don’t live around here. It must be a sharp-shinned hawk.”

I should explain that there was more at stake here than the checking off of a name on my life list. This identification was potential gold at the lunch table that I regularly shared with this fellow and other hard-core naturalists at Paul Smith’s College. We were all grown men, but we could also act like competitive kids when presenting our latest wildlife sightings to each other. If I had really spotted a merlin, I would have bragging rights for weeks. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I needed someone to confirm my sighting. It wasn’t going well.

“No, it’s definitely not a sharpie,” I countered, repeating what the field guide showed about the two species. “How can you be so sure it’s not a merlin? You can’t even see it like I can!”

“Not a merlin,” came the reply. “Sharpie.”

I was vindicated by other sightings several months later, though the delay in confirmation killed any hope that my priority in the matter would impress my lunch buddies as much as I’d hoped.

After a nationwide decline in the mid-century thanks to bullets, car windshields and the same pesticides that also thinned the eggshells of other birds of prey, merlins—the midsized falcons that were once known as “pigeon hawks”—were beginning to breed here again. During the 1990s New York State’s first officially recognized breeding pair nested just a few miles from my house.

Nowadays, spotting a merlin here is still exciting because, although they can be found in a variety of mixed forest and prairie habitats throughout the northern temperate zone, they remain relatively rare at the southern limit of their breeding range—in addition to being beautiful, amazing creatures. Before these hunters migrate farther south from the Adirondacks in September or October, my colleagues, students and I see them often enough on the Paul Smith’s College campus that their high-pitched, stuttering cries have become a familiar part of our acoustic landscape. This may change, however, if long-term warming eventually pushes them away into higher latitudes. But for now, our repatriated merlins are great attention-grabbers; after all, falcons are among the superstars of aerial hunting.

One spring morning in 2006, I was walking along the shore of Lower St. Regis Lake on my way to work when what ap­peared to be a robin became a bird-killer before my eyes. It was sitting on a birch branch a few yards from me, and in shadowed silhouette against the sunlit lake it seemed to be just another redbreast. Suddenly it dropped off the branch and flushed a sparrow from the shrubs lining the shore. With blinding speed the two raced here and there, then dove into the thick foliage of a nearby white cedar. I heard the thwack-thwacking of wings against twigs and branches as hunted and hunter spiraled down the trunk, then like a shot the merlin emerged with a round bundle of feathers and sparrow flesh clamped in its talons. Back on the birch branch, a sharp, notched beak finished the job, and breakfast began.

Now that I’ve gloated over proving my naturalist friend wrong on the merlin thing, I hasten to add that he has many more wonderful sightings to his credit than I’ll ever hope to have. For example, he has seen signs of bog lemmings in a wetland near Lake Clear. These secretive hangers-on from the end of the last ice age resemble fat, bob-tailed, short-eared mice if you manage to glimpse them, which is unlikely because bog lemmings are among the rarest mammals in the northeastern United States. They tunnel beneath the snow in winter, and even my sharp-eyed friend hasn’t yet spotted them amid the thick vegetation of summer. Limiting your search to bogs further reduces the likelihood of a sighting because, despite their name, these rodents also live in grassy or sedge-rich patches within or along the edges of mixed hardwood forests. And daytime searches are likely to be fruitless as well, since bog lemmings are mostly nocturnal. According to my friend, one of the best tell-tale signs to watch for is their droppings, which resemble those little rod-shaped sprinkles that you spoon onto ice cream, only they’re green.

I might as well add, though I fear it’s of little avail, that lemmings do not—repeat, do not—commit mass suicide in the ocean. It’s a folk myth that refuses to die because it gives us such a useful and compelling metaphor, and also because an early Walt Disney film presented a faked scene in which boxes of captive lemmings were dumped into a large water body. Look, if it were true, then why would they live in the Adirondacks anyway? We have no ocean for them to leap into.

Then again, maybe that’s why they’re still here.

However, the mother-of-all-noteworthy-Adirondackers is a fish. And I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it, because even specialists didn’t know it existed until recently. I found out about it through Doug Carlson, a fisheries biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“We have an endemic species here in the Adirondacks,” he announced at a conference in Old Forge several years ago. By “endemic” he meant something that lives only here. All ears in the room perked up; an endemic species is something you go to some faraway place to see—or so we thought. But no longer.

“People used to call them dwarf white suckers,” he ex­plained, referring to the droopy-mouthed, silvery fish that sometimes end up on baited hooks but are normally tossed back as so-called trash. “But that classification is wrong, according to recent analyses by Richard Morse and other researchers at the New York State Museum. It’s a separate species that is found only here.”

The official name for these newly documented fish is Ca­tostomus utawana (an incorrectly spelled homage to the Central Adirondacks’ Lake Utowana), but most biologists in the know call them “summer suckers” because they spawn be­tween June and August rather than earlier in the spring when their more common relatives typically breed.

I teach evolution at Paul Smith’s and have published technical papers about the origins of fish species in the tropics, but I never imagined that we had anything like this here. Our summer suckers are as unique to the Adirondacks as Darwin’s finches are to the Galapagos. These fish are special because they evolved here, presumably following the last ice age. And the mechanism behind their origin may be revealed in their name. Perhaps our endemic fish split off from the common white sucker lineage due to a mutation that made them breed later than usual, and their gene pool no longer mingled with the main one. Because mutations happen all the time, reproductive isolation over millennia could have added more and more genetic traits to the summer-breeders until they became a distinct species.

If you want to catch a glimpse of our endemic fish, your best bet is to hang around streams that empty into moderately sized lakes in the uplands, and to do it in June when most spawning begins. If you see swarms of what appear to be small white suckers spawning, you may be among the few lucky individuals who have ever seen them and known what they were looking at. But then again, you might be misled. We’re only just beginning to learn about these fish, and some fine points still remain to be worked out in terms of their biology. Unfortunately, recent surveys have failed to find them in Blue Mountain and Big Moose Lake, where they were originally discovered, so they may be at risk from unidentified dangers before we’ve even gotten to know them well enough to protect them.

According to Rich Preall, another knowledgeable DEC fisheries expert, simply finding summer breeders doesn’t count as a definitive identification. “I’ve collected spawning fish in June that turned out to be common white suckers,” he told me recently, “so it seems as though they don’t always limit their breeding to late spring.”

To me, this means at least two things: If you want to be able to brag to your lunch table buddies that you’ve seen an endemic summer sucker, remember to bring your DNA analysis kit with you. And it also means that these fish raise interesting questions. Preall’s observation shows that common white sucker populations do indeed include variants who breed at odd times of year, so does this confirm the timing hypothesis for the origin of our unique species? Does the presence of both kinds of fish in June spawning beds mean that the species are still in the process of diverging from one another, or even that the “new species” designation is premature? And do invasive perch, shiners or pike threaten to compete or eat our new-found natives into extinction before most of us even know they exist?

Whatever the answers to such questions turn out to be, these three unusual, easily overlooked animals certainly enrich the story of the Adirondacks today. This is not simply a refuge for common wildlife but a crucible of evolution, a place where we can hope to encounter a unique local fish that is important simply for what it is, not only for what it tastes like or how it looks when stuffed and hung over a mantelpiece. With careful attention, a good field guide and some luck we may also garnish such encounters with the sound of a merlin’s cry or a flash of brown fur that represents an echo of the last ice age. Quite a surprising little collection of secrets, so subtly tucked into our lovely corner of the world amid the more familiar creatures of the North Woods. May you come to know and enjoy them, too.

Curt Stager is a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College, in Paul Smiths, co-host of “Natural Selections” on North Country Public Radio and the author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (2011).

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