Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Mountains are Calling...

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” 
"The mountains are calling and I must go.” 
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” 
--John Muir

"On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning” 
“Men go back to the mountains, as they go back to sailing ships at sea, because in the mountains and on the sea they must face up.” 
--Henry David Thoreau

Muir and Thoreau are two of my heroes, and they both championed the beauty not just of the wilderness but of the mountains specifically. At home just outside of New York City, or at school just outside Boston (though actually not far from Walden Pond), both are in short supply. But with a car and a free weekend they are not totally out of reach. You can't get to Muir's 19th century Yosemite, but you can certainly get out of suburbia and into the woods.

Got to get to where it looks like this. 
The Adirondack Mountains fill up a vast, roughly oval chunk of New York State-- Adirondack Park is about the size of the entire state of Vermont-- and are almost certainly the most wild portion of my home state, but until this weekend I had never been. That was corrected Friday when my friend Michael, his brother Alec, and I took a road trip upstate to visit a friend of ours, Colin, in his hometown of Old Forge. At school Colin had regaled us with tales of his town in the wilderness, and we were excited to be able to see it for ourselves.

Our first impressions seemed to confirm his stories: while driving miles on Route 28 through the dark pine woods towards town we got a text from Colin: a photo of a bear walking down a road, taken minutes earlier from his front yard. By the time we arrived it had moved on, though we joked (maybe a bit nervously) about it lurking in the shadows as we walked up the driveway. The air was strikingly different from by our homes in Westchester County-- cool, crisp, and noticeably pine-scented. After meeting Colin's parents and catching up with him we went to bed, with plans for an early morning hike.

The lookout tower on Bald Mountain.
It was chilly when we woke up at 5 a.m. and hurried out of the house to Bald Mountain, hoping to make it to the top in time for the sunrise, or at least to see the pink dawn from the lookout tower at the end of the trail. As we climbed, keeping up with Colin's brisk pace, the ethereal fluting song of Hermit Thrushes came from the distance, and a Red-eyed Vireo began signing its ceaseless series of warbles. From the top we had breakfast with a killer view: the pink clouds of sunrise in the east over the Fulton Chain of Lakes, with the lakes themselves veiled with mist that hovered over the islands.

Sunrise from Bald Mountain
After finishing our bagels and descending the (somewhat unsteady-seeming) lookout tower, we started the hike back down, more slowly this time in the daylight, stopping for a flock of songbirds: chickadees (all Black-capped, I carefully checked each for a the brown cap that would indicate Boreal), a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-throated Green and Black-and-white Warblers, and a Dark-eyed Junco. The warblers are familiar spring and fall birds in Westchester, and the Juncos common winter visitors, but here they were on their breeding grounds, and common even in midsummer. The spruces, firs, and striped maples along the trail also testified to our more northerly location.
Michael and Colin in the woods on Bald Mountain
And the soundtrack to the woods was the incomparable song of the Hermit Thrushes, which I think I was hearing for the first time, or at least fully appreciating for the first time, in their element on their nesting grounds. I have yet to find a recording that captures the beauty of the song (or maybe speakers that can replicate it, I'm not sure), so I can only recommend trying to get somewhere where they are found to listen for yourself. It'll be worth it. The adjectives that best describe it are "flute-like" and "ethereal," though "awesome" works as well, in both the original and current sense of the word.

In the parking lot we came across what was definitely the "most raven-ey" raven I have ever seen. Sometimes I see a raven, and am uncertain whether or not it is a crow before it croaks. This one was so massive that when I first saw it I was sure it was a vulture. As we approached it groaned loudly (I half expected to hear 'nevermore') and flapped off.

Ferd's Bog
More awesome boggyness
The next stop was Ferd's Bog, one of the top birding locations in the Adirondacks. At the end of a short trail through both deciduous and coniferous forests the trees open up onto the bog itself, a low plain of mosses and grasses that have grown over what once was a lake. We walked out along a boardwalk into the bog. The field was sprinkled with dozens of spiderwebs glistening with dew, the odd reddish flowers of pitcher plants, and the ivory blossoms of the abundant White-fringed Orchids. The pitcher plant, with its namesake leaves that trap and digest insects, was one of two carnivorous plants we saw in the bog, the other being the Round-leafed Sundew, with its small leaves covered in sticky hairs that act as a sort of natural flypaper. The orchid and carnivorous plants were the botanical highlights of the weekend, and despite their ubiquity in the bog itself we saw them nowhere else: they are very much habitat-specific, though on their home turf (or moss) they are not uncommon.
White-fringed Orchids were abundant in the bog
Round-leafed Sundews are carnivorous-- the leaves are like sticky little deathtraps.
As are Pitcher Plants. The flower is on the left, the 'pitchers'
lower to the ground on the right
As we walked back along the boardwalk towards the woods, a large bird quietly glided past us, perching close by in one of the stunted spruces sticking out of the bog. With its smooth gray plumage and whitish head it was unmistakable: a Gray Jay! It was quickly joined by a companion, swooping in just as quietly as the first had. They perched in full view in the bare trees, bouncing from one to another with no regard for how close they were to their three human observers. After picking at a few branches, presumably looking for food, they took off and disappeared into the woods. I was ecstatic: this uncommon boreal species was one of my biggest targets for the trip. I had seen one before, six years ago in Yellowstone National Park, but that was a long time ago, and I had never seen one in the East. They were bigger than I had remembered, and I was struck by how quiet they were for jays: while Blue Jays shriek seemingly constantly, these birds didn't make a sound the entire time we watched them. Looking in a field guide later, I found that both this and their tameness are characteristic behaviors of this species.
Gray Jay!
More Gray Jay!
Gray Jay playing peekaboo
A classic boreal scene-- Gray Jay in bog on spruce
Given that the jays had appeared out of nowhere, and feeling a bit warmer in the now mid-morning sun, we decided to stay out in the bog for a while longer in the hopes of something else making an appearance. This quickly paid off when a waxwing-sized bird with very pointed wings fluttered along the treeline at the edge of the bog, perching at the very top of a tall spruce. Raising my binoculars, I confirmed my initial impression of the bird: it was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, another uncommon species, albeit one that does migrate through the more southerly parts of New York. I had never caught up to one there, however, and my only experience with the species was a migrating bird in Arizona a few years ago. This was much better: they seem most at home in a boreal bog, and this individual completed the picture by launching into its loud song, sometimes described as sounding like "cheers! freeeeeee beer!"

Olive-sided Flycatcher in its element, singing away
Surveying his domain
We were stopped twice more as we headed back along the boardwalk, first by a moth that flew right into my outstreched hand: an exquisite Cherry Scallopshell, and then by one of our prettiest sparrows, a Lincoln's Sparrow, a boreal breeder that is daintier and more crisply patterned than its commoner cousin, the Song Sparrow.

Lincoln's Sparrow pops out of the undergrowth for a second
Back in the woods we ran into another birder staring up into a tall pine at a woodpecker that was stubbornly refusing to show itself . He was hoping it was a Three-toed, and so was I, but when it flew to another tree it revealed a white shoulder patch, and proved to be a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Oh well. Still a nice bird, and the area was pretty birdy nonetheless.  With the other birder, who was from Tennessee, we tracked down a handful of breeding warblers-- Magnolia (a vivid male), Parula, Palm, Yellow-rumped-- as well as relocating the Olive-sided Flycatcher. Then we headed out of the bog, feasted on homemade muffins that Colin's mom had made us, and promptly fell asleep for a "power nap."

After oversleeping by an hour and having lunch, Alec, Michael and I (Colin had to work) set off on our next adventure-- canoeing down the serene Moose River that flows through town. The river was placid and lined with white lilies and purple pickerelweed, and the afternoon sun made it a gorgeous paddle.

The Moose River
Is there any better way to spend an afternoon than on a calm river in the woods?
I think not
There were birds (Hooded Mergansers, Great Blue Herons, and Belted Kingfishers most notably) and butterflies (Common Ringlet and Monarch), but the nature highlights of the trip were the Odonata-- dragonflies and damselflies. While my inexperience forced me to leave unidentified various bluets, emeralds, and darners, I did see a number of species that I had never seen before. The lifer dragonfly was a Dot-tailed Whiteface, its eponymous field marks both visible even at a distance, especially the striking pale face. As for damselfies, four were new for me: River Jewelwings, glittering green with black wingtips that flashed when they took flight; Skimming Bluets, electric blue with thin black abdomens; a Powdered Dancer, purplish dusted over with white; and most common, the oxymoronic Orange Bluets, which, flame-colored, live up to the first part of their name but not the second.

Hooded Mergansers
Dot-tailed Whiteface
Powdered Dancer
By the time we got back it was dinnertime, and after dinner we set out (safely inside a car) on a bear-seeking expedition. We couldn't find any, though not for lack of trying, but the effort was not wasted. After calling it quits on the bears we drove to the edge of one of the large lakes outside of town and listened. As we pulled in we heard in the distance a loon calling. So we waited lakeside for the sound to come again. And waited. Colin risked embarrassment to test out his loon-imitating skills, but to no avail. Finally, one sounded off in the distance. And then more did, and we were serenaded by a chorus of loons, their cries echoing in across the lake. The call of a loon is often described as a mournful wail, which it is, but that doesn't fully do it justice. It is far more eerily melodic than that, and more haunting. With Hermit Thrushes during the day and loons at night, the soundtrack of the Adirondacks (and the northern woods in general) may be unrivaled by any other place in the country, or world.

For the next morning, we had debated an ambitious plan to try to see the (apparently) famous Bull Moose of Helldiver Pond, which Colin had done the week before, but with a forecast of thunderstorms we scrapped that, and its requisite 3 a.m. wakeup, in favor of a closer hike, around Moss Lake. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate for that either, and we slept in and made Michael's renowned pancakes instead. It had cleared up by noon, and three of us (Colin again had to leave for work) drove to Moss Lake. The trail there loops through the woods around the lake itself, which had osprey in their nest, perched precariously in a dead tree on an island. The forest was rich, with conifers, maples, and yellow birch above an understory of ferns, hobblebush, clubmoss, and indian pipe. We found a family of Magnolia Warblers, a Red-backed Salamander under a log, and lots of delicious wild raspberries.

Day-flying moths can be confusing. The Spear-marked Black can be mistaken for a butterfly
While the aptly-named Hummingbird Clearwing closely resembles a hummingbird in flight
In the large patches of milkweed near the parking lot there were lots of butterflies and moths: multiple White Admirals, a Monarch, Dun Skippers, a Hummingbird Clearwing moth, and many Spear-marked Blacks, a day-flying moth that looks like a butterfly. Most intriguing were the tiger swallowtail and fritillaries: I have concluded that the swallowtail is probably not identifiable, given the confusion surrounding the difference between Canadian and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in that area. However, I got good enough photos of two fritillaries to make IDs-- the first was the widespread Great Spangled Fritillary, but the second, with its greenish eyes, black wing margins and forewing veins traced in black, was an Atlantis Fritillary, a northern species and a lifer for me.
This is the familiar Great Spangled Fritillary...
But this is my first Atlantis Fritillary
Unfortunately we only had the weekend to spend exploring the area, so after stopping in at Colin's store (Shelter Adirondack Furniture), we reluctantly headed southward, towards home, promising to come back. Because, as Muir said, “Going to the mountains is going home.” 

Gotta come back to see these guys again

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