Flocking to Ferd’s
By Edward Kanze
Ask a birdwatcher to name favorite places in the Adirondacks, and you’re almost certain to get an earful about Ferd’s Bog. This soggy, green corner of the Pigeon Lake Wilderness consists of 170 acres of fen and swamp. Boreal birds more typical of Canada than the United States nest there, and visitors come from all over New York and beyond to see them.
Located near Inlet, Ferd’s Bog is named for the man who discovered its feathered treasures. During the summers of 1970 and 1971, bird lover Ferdinand LaFrance wandered into the mossy basin on several occasions and recorded 69 species of birds in the air, on the ground and perched in trees and shrubs. This is an extraordinary number for a single place in the Adirondacks in summertime. Among the birds were two boreal woodpeckers that breed sparingly in northern New York, the black-backed and the three-toed. There were yellow-bellied flycatchers, too, gray jays or “whiskey jacks,” spruce grouse and boreal chickadees.
The “bog” named for Ferd is actually not a bog at all but a type of ecosystem called a poor fen. While bogs are filled by rain and runoff, fens such as Ferd’s are supplied at least in part from below by groundwater. Fens that form in limestone basins are rich in nutrients and support communities of lime-loving plants. Poor fens such as Ferd’s are acidic and short on nutrients. Topped by a squishy mat of sphagnum moss, also known as peat, Ferd’s Bog provides habitat for carnivorous plants called sundews (two species, the spatulate and round-leaved) and pitcher plants. These flowering meat-eaters capitalize on the fen’s abundant water and sunshine and overcome its dearth of nutrients by catching insects and spiders and digesting them.
Visitors to Ferd’s in the warm months usually find orchids in bloom. Among those rooted and flourishing in the sphagnum are grass-pink, rose pogonia, white-fringed orchid and a peculiar, purple-green species known as heartleaf twayblade. All these flowers are protected by law and never to be picked or removed.
For better and worse, Ferd’s Bog is easily accessible. It lies near the Herkimer County border just north of Inlet, a short drive east from Old Forge. Beginning in the 1970s, as news of the birds and plants got out, hundreds of people began to visit every year. Appreciation of the place continues to grow. The Adirondack Council designated it an “exemplary community” in its 2020 Vision report, published in 1988, and just last year the National Audubon Society named it a “New York state important bird area.”
For every natural attraction enjoyed by the public, fame brings costs. At Ferd’s during the 1990s, the carpet of living peat covering the bog began to wear out in places from pedestrian traffic. Footprints on bogs and fens can last for years, perhaps decades. Damage, once inflicted, tends to worsen unless disturbance ceases.
In July 1998, my wife Debbie and I visited Ferd’s with two Australian friends, Peg and Keith MacLeod. Suddenly, there was a cry for help. We turned, and Peg was gone. The sphagnum carpet, threadbare from the tread of many feet, had suddenly given way, and Peg sank deep into the muck. We couldn’t help laughing.
“I almost became a woolly mammoth,” Peg quipped. These prehistoric beasts are sometimes found in sphagnum bogs and fens in a nearly perfect state of preservation because the bacteria that break down fur, flesh and bones cannot survive in acidic conditions. We mused that if the rest of us hadn’t been on hand, Peg might have vanished until the day an archaeologist came along, hauled her out and put her in a museum.
Peg’s discomfort aside, the damage to the sphagnum mat was no laughing matter. Action was needed to prevent further deterioration. It came in 1998, when a Department of Environmental Conser-vation (DEC) work crew built a 500-foot boardwalk over the surface of the fen. Ordinary wooden uprights and planks would have sunk into the mire, so instead the structure was built of plastic boards whose cores are filled with foam. The material is normally used to construct floating docks. Now visitors to Ferd’s can stroll among the birds and flowers without disappearing or damaging the bog. The boardwalk floats on the moss, distributing weight evenly and protecting the fragile mat beneath it.
“People have really stayed on the boardwalk, and it’s gotten a lot of use,” says Gary Lee, a former DEC ranger, now a free-lance nature writer based in Inlet. Lee visits Ferd’s Bog regularly and knows its resources well. When visiting during the bird-breeding season, from late May through much of the summer, he likes to imitate the hoot of a barred owl. This, he says, often brings a black-backed or three-toed woodpecker out for a close look.
Aside from birds and orchids, Lee reports that Ferd’s Bog provides a
home for mink frogs, bog lemmings, a rare plant called three-leaf Solomon’s seal, a boreal native perennial called buckbean and wild mistletoe that parasitizes black spruce trees along the fen’s fringes. Lee mostly runs into birdwatchers peering through binoculars when he visits Ferd’s but also meets people who have simply walked the half-mile in from Uncas Road just to see what’s there.
Gary Lee knew Ferdinand LaFrance. His voice drops half an octave in telling me that Ferd died in 1998, the year the boardwalk was built. We both agree that if one is going to have a piece of the planet named for him, it would be hard to find a better memorial than Ferd’s little corner of the Adirondacks.