An unmovable mountain
While the seasons may change as we roll through the calendar, Whiteface Mountain remains fixed, like an unmoved witness to all that is happening around her. In the bird world, the year on the mountain itself starts off quietly. The powder-packed slopes are full of skiers, but the skies and trees are quiet save a few Common Ravens above and Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches in the forests.
But there is still good local birding during winter – it is just that most of the action happens below the mountain which sits above looking down upon it. There in the towns like Wilmington and Lake Placid, Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls may dine at bird feeders while Bohemian Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks seek out ornamental fruit trees.
Food availability determines the presence of such species each year, as it does with White-winged and Red Crossbills which dine on the seeds of cones in our coniferous forests. And while these species may be inconsistent from winter to winter or from one year to the next, the same is not true of our resident boreal birds like Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and Boreal Chickadee, which, like the mountain, are constant and always here. It is a matter of finding them.
After all, local winter birding trips tend to be built around finding these few specialty species. Spring trips, on the other hand, offer a much longer list of birds, and once again it begins in the lower elevations while the mountain stays frozen, cold, and impassive to the season’s advances.
As American Robins, Merlins, and Eastern Phoebes arrive to announce spring to everyone living at lower elevations, the mountain does not seem to receive the message. It sits stoically white, perched above the changing landscape below. But little by little the longer days and the April sun begin to thaw its frozen exterior – and birds begin to move upslope to newly opened forests even as deep snow lingers for weeks in the shadows. The melt is a long process – helped along by the songs of Dark-eyed Juncos, Brown Creepers, and White-throated Sparrows. They are soon aided in their efforts by trilling Winter Wrens, hammering Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, drumming Ruffed Grouse and a growing contingent of birds bent on exploiting the cracks showing in the mountain’s imposing and frigid stare.
As April turns to May the onslaught of warm song begins to win with each day, even though the mountain may summon snow or a cold wind in its efforts to remain frozen. After all, May is the month when our bird diversity jumps, and even the tallest and most stubborn peaks cannot hold out forever against it. And so the mountain and the lands beneath it begin to turn green as Scarlet Tanagers, Blue-headed Vireos, American Redstarts, Black-and-white Warblers, and a host of others bring color and expression to the mountain’s face, if only for a time.
Summer diversity and high elevation species
Birders who explore the mountain during late spring and summer will find these bird communities changing with the elevation as they climb, from deciduous forest species like Ovenbirds, Hermit Thrushes, and Blackburnian Warblers downslope, to Canada Warblers along the wet thickets, to Magnolia and Nashville Warblers in the coniferous habitats. They will also find the select assemblage of species which occupies the highest slopes of the mountain, a list that includes common species like Yellow-rumped Warblers and Dark-eyed Juncos as well as Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Peregrine Falcons (which may have nested on the cliffs in Wilmington Notch), Boreal Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Winter Wrens, Blackpoll Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and most famous of all, Bicknell’s Thrushes.
Indeed, in this mountain fortress Bicknell’s may be the king, at least according to birders in search of their elusive ruler. A denizen of high elevation spruce-fir forests, Bicknell’s requires the effort of climbing to reach it, making Whiteface with its toll road the easiest access to find them. That said, the mountain – although defeated by the sun to show its green roots – can hide them in a tangle of branches, so birders should plan their trips up the mountain early in the day to give them the best chance of finding a Bicknell’s.
And so summer goes, bird song dropping off in July to give way to a time of year when songbirds flock together in mixed groups feeding voraciously in preparation for their southbound journey. Bicknell’s can sometimes be spotted along the toll road doing this too — feeding on the berries of mountain ash. Birders may also witness an influx of other birds, including Tennessee, Bay-breasted, and Cape May Warblers, arriving from the north and making August one of the most diverse times of year to bird the region.
At that time of year the mountain and the surrounding lowlands are infused with life, but the height of songbird migration is far too brief and the birds begin to leave. Birders in search of Bicknell’s Thrush can still find them with effort through much of September, but the winds of fall which took so many other birds south soon carry them from the mountain, which begins to settle into a smug satisfaction that the cold is once again coming.
Winter does not arrive without first bringing us still more birds. The fall migration in late September and October features not only songbirds like American Pipits and Pine Siskins, but also raptors and waterfowl of all shapes and sizes, the latter of which can be found on area lakes.
At the same time late fall ushers in our first Snow Buntings, American Tree Sparrows, and Bohemian Waxwings of the season, harbingers that winter is coming, as if the mountain is willing their arrival with glee. We begin to listen again for the call notes of winter finches overhead, hoping that they arrive and give life to the season’s inexorable advance. And while the mountain may applaud this thought, it certainly doesn’t try to further our hopes for an active winter. Instead it sits above – cold, detached, and unconcerned – ready for another year to begin.
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