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Adirondack Explorer

July, 2009

Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide
Author: James M. Ryan

Review by: Edward Kanze

University of New England Press, 2009 Softcover, 296 pages, $24.95

University of New England Press, 2009
Softcover, 296 pages, $24.95

For years, I lamented the fact that the great and celebrated corpus of Adirondack literature included so little about flora and fauna. The second (1982) edition of Paul Jamieson’s Adirondack Reader pretty much exemplified the state of affairs. Browse the index and you’ll see for yourself the scant attention Adirondack Mountain wildlife tended to receive from writers of literary bent.

Happily, the times they are a-changin’. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College broke the field wide open a decade ago with the publication of his marvelous Field Notes from the Northern Forest (Syracuse, 1999). I’ve made contributions of my own, and others are shouting from the treetops, too, that there’s more to these mountains than deer to hunt, fish to catch, summits to conquer, and waters to paddle. In the Adirondack Explorer and elsewhere, nature writing comes into its own.

Within the genre, guidebooks have begun popping up, the naturalist’s equivalent of the portable tomes Barbara McMartin and the Adirondack Mountain Club have been filling our daypacks and bookshelves with for years. In this category arrives Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide by James M. Ryan, a professor of biology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. The publisher, the University Press of New England, bills the book as “the first comprehensive field guide to the habitats and wildlife of the spectacular Adirondack Park.”

That’s a tall order. How well does the book succeed in filling it? Let’s take a look.

Introductory chapters, which some readers of this compact book will probably skip over in their eagerness to get to the species accounts, cover the Park’s geology, history, forests, and waters. By and large these parts of the book are beautifully done, offering brisk and engaging summations of the material they aim to cover. Ryan gives a short course, for example, on the way Adirondack trees “harden” in order to survive long, cold winters. He’s a teacher by trade. He loves his work, and he’s good at it.

Red-backed salamander Courtesy of University of New England Press

Red-backed salamanderCourtesy of University of New England Press

The rest of the book, nearly two hundred pages, offers a whirlwind tour of Adirondack Mountain zoology. Inherent in such a broad plan is a risk of superficiality. To both his credit and his detriment, Ryan faces the challenge without blinking.

“Common Invertebrates” come first. Here we find only a tiny sample of what’s out there. As a biologist, Ryan knows that spineless creatures such as insects, mites, spiders, and crustaceans outnumber our better-known backboned animals many thousand times over. The choice of what’s included and said to be common and what’s not strikes me as peculiar. For example, stoneflies are treated while caddisflies, hugely abundant and no more obscure, are skipped (aside from a passing mention in the aquatic chapter).

To be fair, Ryan sizes up his audience and sees, rightfully so, far greater interest in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals than in caddisflies, sowbugs, and centipedes. For hikers, paddlers, and armchair readers seeking a broad introduction to the vertebrates of the Park, Ryan provides a useful greatest-hits collection. Forget the claim that the book is comprehensive and enjoy the hundreds of species described in its pages. You won’t find the blue-spotted salamander (part of a fascinating genetic tangle of closely related species known to herpetologists as the Jefferson’s complex) or the boreal chorus frog, but you will encounter, in text and photos, the red-backed salamander, the spring peeper, and the bullfrog. Oddly, Ryan often mentions the total number of species in a group but fails to deliver the full accounting. For example, we learn that there are ten kinds of salamanders, yet only six are named. What of the others? If there’s no room for them in the text, they could easily be added to the checklists in the end pages. The lists as they stand are arbitrary and incomplete.

Ryan makes mistakes, but it would be impossible in a volume of this scope to squeak past without getting caught in at least a few acts of omission and error. He asserts, for example, that “Woodland voles … live only in the southeastern edge of the Adirondack Park.” Don’t tell that to the woodland vole we found on our property in the northern Adirondacks. The minuscule tail of this little Microtus pinetorum caught my eye, and so did its smooth incisors. My identification was confirmed by mammalogist Charlotte Demers at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb and reconfirmed by a higher authority at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse. The preserved corpse now rests in peace in an ESF collection of study skins.

Does our Bloomingdale specimen prove that the woodland vole enjoys a range greater than Ryan suggests? I don’t pretend to know. These rodents live mostly beneath the soil surface and are notoriously difficult to trap. (The last one I identified was from a skull found in an owl pellet.) What I’d like to see Ryan acknowledge is that our notions of their distribution may tell us more about where effective trapping has been conducted than they do about the animal’s actual distribution.

In the bird department, there are also things not quite right. Ryan states, “The American three-toed woodpecker and the black-backed woodpecker breed in the Adirondacks but are rarely seen.” I agree with him regarding the threetoed woodpecker, perhaps the most elusive bird in the Park. The black-backed, however, is common enough at our place that we sometimes observe it while sipping our morning coffee on the porch. Once I saw one out the car window in Ray Brook while racing to a dental appointment. What Ryan may mean is that both birds are highly localized.

The book’s weak spots tend to stem from a too-casual use of language, yet there are technical errors, too. “Leeches are 1 to 2 inches long,” says Ryan. If he went swimming in the Saranac River, he might be greeted by the common freshwater leech Macrobdella decora, which here grows to five inches and more—well within the size range documented for the species. In itself, a point such as this is minor, yet as one advances through the book, the accumulation of them rankles. The problem lies less with Ryan’s expertise, which is generally impressive, and more, perhaps, with poor editing, or no editing at all. Another example: in the text we find (correctly) the “American marten,” and in the checklist the “pine martin.”

On the whole, though, Ryan’s Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide will please the majority of readers and book buyers. Biologists, naturalists, and nature writers may grumble at infelicities of prose and fact, yet all the same the arguments in the book’s favor are strong. Ryan works hard to put the wild animals of these mountains and valleys in the forefront of our consciousness. We can only rejoice in his noble intention, and in the handsome and useful volume he has made.