Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tree of Peace

Bundles of Eastern White Pine needles surround next-spring's bud at the tip of a twig. 
© Dave Spier  [1-5X macro lens at 2X on full-frame sensor + twin macro flash]

Tree of Peace
© Dave Spier

To the Iroquois, the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) was known as the "Tree of Peace" and it symbolized the Great Law of Peace that united five tribes into one confederacy or league, thus ending decades, and probably centuries, of conflict between these groups.  The date is unknown, but precedes white settlement of Upstate New York.  Estimates range from 1100 A.D. to somewhere in the 1500's. 
The Iroquois called themselves Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse.  The name "Iroquois" is a French transliteration from derogatory terms used by the Hurons (in Canada) and Algonquins (from New England to the mid-Atlantic), both enemies of the Haudenosaunee.
All pines have leaves that grow in bundles of two, three or five needles bound together by a sheath where they emerge from the twig.  White pines have clumps of five needles, and to the Iroquois Confederacy, these symbolized the original Five Nations: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk.  What is now the Adirondacks was divided by the Oneidas to the west and the Mohawks to the east.  The Tuscaroras, after being displaced from North Carolina, were eventually admitted to the Confederacy and merged with the Onondagas and Oneidas in central New York.
White pine needles, generally three inches long, are thin, soft and flexible.  It's easy to "shake hands" with a white pine (whereas many other pines have stiff, prickly needles).  The name of this species comes from fine, whitish stripes along the length of the green needles, but you'll probably need a magnifying glass to see them clearly.  During their second year of growth, the needles turn yellow and fall.
Cones are generally six inches long and easy to handle.  Many pines have shorter, compact cones with prickles at the tips of their scales.
White pines can reach great age and size.  Many old pines that survived logging in the Adirondacks are over 300 years old.  One near Syracuse was dated at 458 years.  Mature trees easily tower over their deciduous compatriots.  In pre-colonial America, specimens were reported at 230 feet high and these were later reserved by the king to become ship masts in the British Royal Navy.  The current Eastern White Pine record holder in the Great Smokies reaches 188 feet.  (It was 207 feet high before a hurricane took off the top.)

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Bird Count

Two Common Loons were seen on Bolton Landing’s 2010-2011 CBC.  One was seen on the Old Forge count, which is unusual for the time of year.  This winter-plumage COLO was photographed in early January.  (© Dave Spier)

Christmas Bird Count -- © Dave Spier

It's time again for the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  Not that it actually occurs on Christmas Day anymore, but now it can be any day from December 14 through January 5 (i.e., 11 days before and after Christmas).  The CBC was invented in 1900 as an alternative to the Christmas side hunt in which teams of men went out and shot everything in sight.  The biggest pile of feathered and furred animals won.  More of the history can be found on the Audubon website.  You also can follow links to individual counts and past results.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen-science project now in its 112th year.  Such a long-term perspective allows ornithologists to monitor population trends - some good, some bad.  Please consider joining one of the five local counts inside the Adirondack Blue Line [note: the Ferrisburg, VT CBC circle extends west across Lake Champlain into the Adirondacks], or one of the many peripheral counts in New York if you can make it.  If you lack confidence, it's often possible to be paired with an experienced observer.

Counts inside the Blue Line:

Bolton Landing - code NYBL
Elizabethtown - code NYEZ (Sun., Dec. 18)
[Ferrisburg, VT - code VTFE (Sat., Dec. 17)]
Old Forge - code NYOF
Saranac Lake - code NYSL (Sun., Jan. 1)

Closest peripheral counts:

Fort Plain (Fri., Dec. 30)
Massena-Cornwall - code NYMC (Tue., Dec. 27)
Plattsburgh - code NYPL (Sun., Dec. 18)
Saratoga Spa - code NYSS
Thousand Islands - code ONTI
Watertown - code NYWA
Wilson-Lake Plains - code NYWL

Counts are conducted in predetermined 15-mile diameter circles during a 24-hour period (midnight to midnight).  In fact you can start at midnight by listening for owls! (but most people wait till at least dawn).  For easier coverage, the circles are divided into sectors (sections) and participants can bird as long (or short) as desired, but time and any mileage must be recorded.  To cover administrative costs and keep the count going there is a $5 participation fee for anyone over 18.

If you live within the 15-mile diameter circle of a particular count, you also can choose to stay home and just watch your feeders and count all the yard-birds including any fly-overs.  All species count.  Keep track of the maximum number of individual birds of each species seen and the length of time you spend watching for birds.  Contact the compiler in advance so he/she knows to expect your data; final results can be phoned in the evening.

(Most) counts are followed by a compilation dinner or meeting.  For example, the E-town post-count meeting will be at the Deers Head Inn Restaurant (7552 Court Street) in Elizabethtown, NY around 5:00 pm.  Contact Charlotte Demers in advance.  For the Massena-Cornwall CBC, contact Eileen Wheeler.  For Fort Plain, it's Tom Salo.  For Saranac Lake, Larry Master.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011


Male White-winged Crossbill in ornamental Douglas Fir -- © Dave Spier

Crossbills -- © Dave Spier

           White-winged Crossbills, an irruptive species in winter, are frequently reported on NNY Birds.  Their traditional diet of Canadian spruce seeds sometimes runs low and once exhausted, the birds head south in higher numbers.  The birds' small, thin bills, which are crossed at the tips, allow them to specialize on the small, soft cones of Spruces (White, Black, and Red), larch, Eastern Hemlock, Northern White Cedar and Red Cedar.  The White Pine, unlike other eastern pines, has soft cones that can be utilized by crossbills.  They also use Douglas Fir and Blue Spruce, introduced species in the east.

          White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) are medium-sized finches with a year-round range from Alaska eastward through the boreal forest zone to the Canadian Maritimes.  There’s a fair number of breeding reports from around the Adirondacks with a concentration of confirmed sightings in northern Herkimer County and adjacent Hamilton County.

           In the winter, they migrate erratically into the northern states with sporadic reports from the central states.  Adult males are dull red with black wings and two prominent white wingbars.  Females are yellowish gray with similar wings.  Juveniles are heavily streaked and somewhat resemble Pine Siskins, another winter visitor.   In Europe the white-winged is called the Two-barred Crossbill.

            Another species, the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is similar, but has a heavier bill and lacks the white wing bars.  [In rare cases, a variant of the first-year male can display weak wingbars.]  There are nine recognized "types" (similar to subspecies) of Red Crossbills and some of these may be evolving into separate species.  The specially adapted beaks are pointed and crossed at the tips, but the size and exact structure varies among the different types depending on the species of cone they are best adapted to.  The heavier bill allows Red Crossbills to pry out seeds from heavy pine cones in addition to spruce and fir.  An individual crossbill can extract and eat 3000 conifer seeds in one day, which probably explains why they keep moving in search of new food sources.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pine Siskins

Siskins -- © Dave Spier

Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) are heavily streaked with yellow feather edges on the wings and yellow patches on the inner tail sides.  The amount of yellow varies with less on young birds and more on adult males.  Since this gregarious bird tends to travel in flocks, at least some members will show varying amounts of yellow.  There are also two buffy wing bars.  Siskins also hang with goldfinches; both are members of the same family and about the same size and once shared the same genus (Carduelis).  Female House Finches are similar, but larger with lower-contrast streaking.  Siskins also resemble redpolls, another finch, but redpolls have a red cap.  Siskins have notched tail ends, but so do female Purple Finches which have high-contrast streaking, a plumper build and heavier bills.  If you’re having trouble, the best bet is to take a photo and send it to
When winter food supplies are short in their Canadian boreal homeland, siskins wander south, showing up first in similar forested habitats in the Adirondacks where significant flocks have been reported throughout October and November.  (Details can be found on the Google group, Northern New York Birds.  There's also a link in the right sidebar.)  Recent reports [Nov. 29] have come from Joan Collins at Sabattis Bog, Little Tupper Lake, several locations on Rt. 28N including flocks totalling 200 in Minerva, and the Roosevelt Truck Trail with 150 siskins.  Joan's more recent posts [Dec. 4] from Horseshoe Lake and Low's Ridge-Upper Dam Trail have reported smaller numbers in these locations.
Pine Siskins are one of several kinds of birds referred to as “irruptive species,” meaning they can show up unexpectedly anywhere in the lower 48, and the pattern changes from year to year.  A few birds may linger into the spring and act as though they will nest locally, which they do in New York State.  The heaviest concentration of nesting records occurs in three clumps from roughly Norwich to Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.
Siskins are seed eaters.  They prefer conifers [spruce, pine, cedar and hemlock], but also eat seeds from deciduous trees [especially birch], shrubs [particularly alder], flowers [weeds] and grasses.  They readily come to thistle-seed feeders, sometimes in large flocks, but also eat sunflower seeds – basically the same diet as goldfinches.  By the way, goldfinches and siskins can feed upside down.  Special feeders are made with the seed holes below the perches.  In the case of siskins the skill is useful in extracting seeds from conifer cones.

            Questions, comments and corrections are welcomed.  Some of my other nature columns [more relevant to the Adirondack perimeter and New York lowlands] can be found on

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Silver Lake Bog -- © Dave Spier

 Tamarack and spruce beside the Bog Trail (early October) - © Dave Spier

I know it simply as Silver Lake Bog, but in the 2011 annual report from The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, it’s listed as Silver Lake Bog Nature Preserve and on eBird it’s “Silver Lake Camp Preserve” referring to the Silver Lake Camp for Girls which operated from 1911 to 1972 before 61 acres were donated to the recently-created Adirondack Nature Conservancy in the mid-70’s to become one of its earliest preserves.  The original size has grown to 98 acres now.  You can take a virtual tour via a slide show on the TNC website.

The bog is in the southwestern corner of Clinton County on the old Hawkeye Road off Union Falls Road.  From Hawkeye travel west about 1.5 miles and turn south on Old Hawkeye Road.  Parking is about a half mile down the dirt road.  Exact directions [with an interactive Google map] are on the Conservancy’s website.  In DeLorme's N.Y. Gazetteer, Silver Lake's north shore is bottom center on page 102, but the Old Hawkeye Road is too short to be labeled.

  Boardwalk across Silver Lake Bog (early October) - © Dave Spier
The highlight of the preserve is a roughly half-mile boardwalk west across the wetlands.  The depression supports a Northern White Cedar swamp and Black Spruce-Tamarack bog.  A trail guide describes plants and animals at 15 stops along the Bog Walk.

At the far end of the bog walk, the trail rises into an upland forest of northern hardwoods and hemlock and then turns south on its way to a pine bluff overlooking Silver Lake.  The flip side of the trail guide describes eight stops along this Bluff Trail. 

  Eastern Hemlock roots beside Bluff Trail (early October) - © Dave Spier

The preserve seems larger than its size because it’s generally narrow and L-shaped.  Total trail length is 1.25 miles one way to the lake.

  Pine Bluff overlooking Silver Lake in October (super-wide angle lens) - © Dave Spier

Birds at Silver Lake Bog

The eBird bar chart for Silver Lake Camp Preserve lists 70 species so far, but the data is very incomplete, especially during the winter months.  (There’s no data for November and January and none for the first three weeks of December.  For all of February there is only one week covered and that has only 2 bird species.)  If you’re in that area, please stop and record any and all birds seen or heard, even if they’re just from the beginning of the trail near the road, and submit to eBird.  At least it will be a start toward filling in the gaps.  Another hole in the data is the lake itself; there are no eBird records for waterfowl – zero – not counting Common Loon reported in May and July at this location.

For another perspective on the bird life in the general vicinity, Silver Lake Bog is in N.Y.S. Breeding Bird Atlas block 5892A.  A block is roughly nine square miles and this one includes the western 3/4ths of Silver Lake, the eastern part of Union Falls Pond and the west end of Taylor Pond.  There were 88 species (including Wood Duck, Mallard and Common Merganser) reported in 2000-2005 during the nesting seasons.  Of the Anatidae waterfowl, only Mallard is actually a confirmed breeder in 5892A.  There were 30 other species also confirmed.  [To see the complete list, click the link above, type in 5892A and click "submit."]

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A few more Silver Lake Bog (early October) photos

  Prime ingredient of a bog is sphagnum moss [there are
numerous species]; Silver Lake Bog - © Dave Spier

  The bog is supported by a high water table; Silver Lake Bog - © Dave Spier

  Tiny Marasmius mushrooms (October) - © Dave Spier

  Carnivorous Pitcher-plant, Sarracenia purpurea - © Dave Spier

  Puffballs, likely Lycoperdon sp. (possibly perlatum) in October;
sorry, I only stopped long enough to photograph them - © Dave Spier