By TIM ROWLAND
For the past 44 years a small group of hardy volunteers has encamped each May on the peninsula at the Crown Point State Historic Site in the shadow of ancient forts—ground where Samuel de Champlain, Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen and great Native American chiefs once trod.
Their mission over two weeks is to capture as many birds as they can, affix a tiny, identifying bracelet to their delicate little legs and release them to complete their journey to wherever they might be journeying. Each bird, more than 20,000 to date, is carefully measured, sexed and catalogued, sometimes to be discovered again hundreds of miles away.
The Crown Point Bird Banding Association is a relaxed and knowledgeable coterie of volunteers who spend the days checking the nets, entertaining tourists and school groups, and going on runs for coffee and Michigan hot dogs. Birding has become increasingly popular in the Adirondacks, not just among aging boomers who can no longer trot up Mount Marcy, but among kids who are fascinated to hold and then release such a delicate snippet of nature.
The banding station itself, founded by legendary birder Mike Peterson, draws no scientific conclusions from its work. “We’re just like the DOT counting cars on the highway,” said master bander Gordon Howard. The records go into a national database in Laurel, Md., where they can be accessed by researchers, providing one small piece to any number of grand puzzles of the natural world, to be solved by the world’s scholars, scientists and climatologists.
But even if the answers aren’t always apparent, the questions presented by the birds are fascinating in their own right. For example, in a typical year, the banding station might snag a few dozen raucous blue jays. This year, less than half way into their stay, the banders had already captured and released nearly 250. It’s hard to say why. Something happened somewhere to change the equation, no doubt, but the answer might never be known—unless some aspect of blue jay behavior tickles the fancy of a researcher somewhere.
But even if there are no official studies, the banders find plenty to observe and reflect upon in regard to climate, individual storms, food sources and habitat. For a species that can’t talk, the birds that migrate up Lake Champlain in a rainbow of color and a symphony of song have plenty to say.
Birds vote with their wings. If the climate or habitat changes, they go elsewhere. The year after Hurricane Sandy the station caught only 10 warblers, down from the usual 200. “Maybe the population crashed, or maybe that year they just went through Buffalo,” Howard said.
Retired New York State forest ranger Gary Lee said changes to climate and habitat, which go hand in hand, have caused a noticeable shift in bird populations. Brown thrashers that used to be everywhere are now all but gone. And it might surprise casual bird fans who keep a feeder filled with seed that cardinals are a relative newcomer to the North Country.
Crown Point, which juts into the lake like a large thumb, is known as a migrant trap. The birds flying up the shoreline reach the tip of the thumb to find nothing but open water all around. Because the downward air currents over cold water make it harder to fly, the birds turn around and fly back, eventually finding the shoreline that steers them around Bulwagga Bay and on to points north.
That’s where the 19 traps, which somewhat resemble fine-mesh volleyball nets two meters high and 12 meters long, snare their quarry. All things being equal, birds are fastidious in their habits. In Mexico, said bander Tom Barber, banders have caught birds not only in the same station as in prior years, and not only in the same net, but in the same square meter of the same net. Even cutting down a lilac bush that a bird has come to depend on can throw the creature into a tizzy when it returns in the spring from the tropics.
Without some catastrophic event, or human interference, change happens slowly. One of the reasons banders are hesitant to jump to conclusions, Howard said, is that the station has “only” been around for 44 years, still short of the half century or so it may take to complete a natural cycle. Those who grew up in the 1970s might remember flocks of bright yellow evening grosbeaks that have since disappeared—and could be returning. That’s because the bird follows the spruce budworm, which ebbs and flows in 40-year cycles.
Crown Point is something of a Holy Grail for birders, with more than 180 species having been documented on the grounds where nearly 300 years ago French and British forces built their fortifications and chased each other up and down Lake Champlain. The two sides clashed in the Seven Years War (known to us as the French and Indian War), which broke out in the 1750s and was fought around the globe in what was the first true world war. The hostilities would have an effect on the birds at Crown Point.
As part of their defenses, the Europeans planted hawthorns, a spiny shrub-tree whose dense growth and sharp barbs made them all but impenetrable to advancing soldiers. These hawthorns proved better at holding the ground long-term than either the French or the British, and the descendants of these trees thrive to this day. When its leaves are first starting to push they become home to an itty-bitty worm that will turn into a small moth. Unless, that is, it is eaten first by any of more than 25 species of warbler for which Crown Point is particularly famous. “This is the McDonald’s of the flyway,” Howard said.
Seasoned birdwatchers typically hear a bird before they see it. And it can take some practice to spot the little balls of colorful fluff as they dart through the trees, but eventually spots of almost tropical color begin to present themselves amidst the glossy green leaves—magnolia and Tennessee warblers, yellowthroats, redstarts, orioles and cedar waxwings, who got their name from their preferred habitat and the fact that a drip-like feature on their wingtips resembles the wax with which nobles sealed their letters with a signet ring.
It is work, no doubt. The nets must be constantly monitored, data must be painstakingly entered into spreadsheets, and in a storm last year one of the tents wound up on its roof. But in the grand scheme—out with the lake and the fields and the forests and the birds—there is very little to complain about.