November, 2008

Adirondack Birding
Author: John M.C. Peterson & Gary N. Lee

Review by: ALAN PISTORIUS

With color photos by Jeff Nadler Lost Pond Press, 2008 Softcover, 240 pages, $20.95

With color photos by Jeff Nadler
Lost Pond Press, 2008
Softcover, 240 pages, $20.95

Adirondack Birding: 60 Great Places to Find Birds is just what the title suggests—a guide to birding hot spots within (in a couple of cases just outside) the Blue Line, written by veteran birder-naturalists John M.C. (“Mike”) Peterson and Gary N. Lee.

Bicknell’s thrush

Bicknell’s thrush

The selected sites range from the Four Brothers Islands and Ticonderoga Marsh in the Champlain lowlands to the Five Ponds Wilderness and the Tug Hill Wildlife Management Area in the west, from Lyon Mountain and Debar Pond in the north to Powley-Piseco Road and the Washington County Grasslands in the south. Each site treatment features a map and detailed directions, and the book is visually enhanced by numerous black-and-white photos, both landscape “post cards” and bird portraits.

The bird photos are mostly the work of Jeff Nadler, whose gorgeous male blackbacked woodpecker on the cover will have bookstore browsers looking for more color within. There they will find a mix of perched and flying birds—altogether, 46 species—that will appeal to the whole family. Even nature-averse children will fancy the colorful wood duck and scarlet tanager, while seasoned birders will linger over the delicate (and apparently sleepy) Bonaparte’s gull, the steely-eyed rusty blackbird and the super close-up (“how did he GET that shot?”) of a Bicknell’s thrush.

The scale of attack is important in birdfinding guides. Some choose the magnifying- glass approach (“Be sure to look for the Baltimore oriole that often hangs out in the second elm past the third willow from the corner”), while others employ the shotfrom- space technique (“Yellowstone Park is a great place for birds; take your time and look around, and you should see many of the following list of 348 species identified here”). Peterson and Lee have, probably wisely, trod a middle road. They provide enough tactical (where do I put in my kayak?) and habitat detail to be useful, and they name enough species to be helpful without risking glazed-eye saturation.

Bonaparte’s gull

Bonaparte’s gull

Whether treating the Rocky Mountains, the Arizona desert or the Adirondacks, bird-finding guides tend to morph into rare-bird-finding guides. This is probably inevitable. These guides are written by expert birders, and expert birders don’t think anyone should need help finding “dirt birds” like robins and grackles and red-eyed vireos. It is, after all, the “buzz” birds everyone is excited about, and so they get most of the attention. Neophyte birders and non-listers may object here to what must be a 50-to-1 reference ratio of spruce grouse over ruffed grouse, peregrine falcon over sharp-shinned hawk, Philadelphia vireo over warbling vireo, three-toed woodpeckers over flicker and downy, Bicknell’s thrush over wood thrush, and so on. More experienced birders, particularly listers, will feel it only right that the Adirondack’s glamour birds, and especially the boreal specialties, should get a great deal of ink. But surely every reader will salivate over the cited rarities that have turned up in the Park over the years—the trumpeter swan and American white pelican at Tupper Lake and the Harris’s sparrow near Moody Pond, not to mention the whole slew of rarities seen in the Chazy Riverlands, which, as Mike Peterson says, defies credulity.

Most bird-finding guides are formulaic and repetitive, and some are deadly dull. This one avoids that fate, in the first place, by the wonderful Adirondack names scattered throughout. How can your curiosity not be piqued by Spitfire Lake and Kit Fox Pond, by Porcaville and Queer Lake, by the political-correctness-challenged Negro Brook and Polack Swamp? But my favorite is Massawepie Mire, which figures prominently in my favorite fantasy book, Fifty Mires You Must Visit Before You Die. What also enliven the text are wonderful info tidbits, not always ornithological in nature. Mike Peterson points the way to what we would almost certainly have missed at Crown Point, a bronze bust by Auguste Rodin set into the Champlain Monument, and notes that the fine black sand at the mouth of the Boquet River was once shipped to cities to fill sand shakers used to dry quill-pen ink on rag paper. Gary Lee helpfully teaches us how to reflavor our stale gum by adding a couple of minty fruits of the creeping snowberry and informs us of the origin of the deerhair fishing fly called the Tuttle Bug.

Bald eagle

Bald eagle

Readers of Adirondack Birding will notice that Peterson and Lee employ distinct writing styles. Peterson’s is straightforward, spare, professional, voice-free— a style reflecting his many years writing regional reports for The Kingbird and species accounts for New York’s breedingbird atlas volumes. While Peterson shuns the first-person pronoun, Lee embraces it. Peterson reports; Lee invites us on a walk. His voice is casual (rarities are “neat birds,” while a nice view is “worth a looksee”), his approach personal and anecdotal. “I was blown away by a bird I saw one morning as we were camping far above High Falls: a singing cardinal!” He delights in recalling how he had amazed a couple of out-of-towners who had spent two fruitless days searching for boreal woodpeckers: “I made a few owl calls, and a Black-back gave a couple of kiks and landed right on a tree stub not fifteen feet from us.” The personal voice allows, of course, for humor. While showing city-slicker butterfly hunters some Arctic skippers in the Moose River Plains, he noticed that the butterfliers’ specialty binoculars focused down to 12 inches. “I had just gotten a $750 pair of binocs, but I had to stand eight feet away to focus. When I got home, I told my wife that I would be needing new binoculars. She replied that, for $750, I could damn well stand back eight feet. And that’s what I’m still doing.”

Scarlet tanager

Scarlet tanager

Some will argue that the authors and editor ought to have gotten together and decided on a common approach. On the other hand, since some readers will prefer Peterson’s straightforward reportage while others will appreciate Lee’s e-mailto- a-friend style, it may be that style diversity, like biodiversity, is a cause for celebration rather than regret. What both authors give us is good, solid information on sites and birds, and that is, as we now say, the bottom line. Any Adirondack birder of any experience level should find this book not only useful in his or her old haunts, but a stimulus to new hiking and canoeing adventures.