A rare sighting

Sometimes it seems like half the people in the Adirondacks have seen a panther. Heck, I thought I saw one myself last year. But a spruce-grouse sighting–now that’s a real rarity.

Male spruce grouse. Wikipedia photo.
Male spruce grouse. Wikipedia photo.

As reported in the Explorer this year, the spruce grouse is one of the most endangered birds in the Adirondack Park (and the state). The birds live in patches of boreal habitat more characteristic of northern Canada than northern New York. Over the past two decades, the number of “birding blocks” in the Park where the bird has been sighted has dropped 26 percent, from twenty-seven to a mere twenty. One researcher fears there may be fewer than a hundred of the birds left.

So it’s good news that Steve Langdon thinks he saw a spruce grouse in a region where there has not been a confirmed sighting since the 1980s. At the time, Langdon was driving on a dirt road in the Shingle Shanty Preserve, private land located south of Lake Lila, with Ron Tavernier, a biology professor at the State University College at Canton. Langdon is helping to manage research at the preserve.

“I was just giving him a tour of the property, and this grouse tears across the road,” Langdon says. “Both of us saw the red on the head.”

Red patches above the eyes distinguish a male spruce grouse from the much more common ruffed grouse.

Langdon and Tavernier realized the significance of the sighting. They stopped to look for the bird, but it had disappeared.

Glenn Johnson, a spruce-grouse researcher, said there have been no confirmed sightings in the Shingle Shanty region since the 1970s, although the land’s caretaker had reported seeing spruce grouse on a number of occasions. Johnson and Angelena Ross surveyed the region from 2001 to 2005 but found no specimens. Johnson is tantalized by Langdon and Tavernier’s sighting. “These guys are on the ground a lot, so maybe they’ll find the bird,” he said.

Ross, a state wildlife biologist, notes that Shingle Shanty Preserve is seventeen miles from the nearest known spruce-grouse habitat–at Massawepie Mire. And yet spruce grouse, being poor fliers, generally don’t travel more than six or seven miles. If spruce grouse exist at Shingle Shanty Preserve, she said, they could be an isolated population or they might have come from an unknown population between the preserve and Massawepie Mire.

Johnson and Ross are working on a plan to protect the Park’s spruce grouse. One option is to introduce birds from out of state. But the preliminary results of DNA tests suggest that the Adirondack spruce grouse has a unique genetic makeup. That could complicate matters. On the one hand, bringing in birds from outside could change the population’s genetic identity. On the other, the population’s unique DNA could be a sign of a lack of genetic diversity.

Click here for an online Explorer story about the Park’s boreal birds, including the spruce grouse.

Click here for maps showing the locations where spruce grouse are known or thought to dwell in New York State.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.

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