Adirondack North Country
Wildlife and Plants
If you paddle to get up close and
personal with the wild world, than you've come to the right place. The
Adirondack North Country is as varied as it is extensive. Lowland
swamp or alpine tundra, grassy meadow or rocky slope, open deciduous
woodland or deep coniferous forest, small stream or large river,
mountain tarn or big lakewhatever you're looking for, chances
are good you'll find it here. And this diversity is matched by an
equally wide range of native plants and animals. Here's a
MIGRATORY BIRDS If you're an avid "twitcher" or just a
casual birdwatcher, you'll have a field day observing the waterfowl
and birds of prey who pass through or nest in northern New York every
The North Country lies astride the Eastern Flyway. The Champlain
Valley and Eastern Ontario Lowlands, in particular, are excellent
destinations for paddling birdwatchers hoping to witness the miracle
of the great twice-yearly migrations. Keep your eyes on the sky for
distant, shifting Vs of Canada geese making their way to their summer
breeding grounds or back south for the winter. If you're lucky, you'll
see shimmering flights of black-tipped, white-winged snow geese, too.
Listen for their characteristic rasping honk.
Migrating ducks also stop for rest and food on ice-free North
Country waterways in the spring and fall. Somemallards, wood
ducks, and common mergansers among themnest in the North
Country, while others, including buffleheads and red-breasted
mergansers, continue on to their sub-Arctic and Arctic breeding
grounds. Families of common mergansers are a common sight on
Adirondack waterways throughout the summer. Look for a train of
bustling balls of fluff swimming along behind a harried mother
duckand sometimes jumping up on her back for a lift!
Geese and ducks aren't the only seasonal migrants, of course. Many
hawks follow the snow-line north and south with the sun. Watch for
red-tails making lazy circles in the air, high in the spring and
autumn skies. And while you're out on the water, don't be surprised if
you see an osprey diving on a fish, or a bald eagle bolting a meal
while standing on a mid-river snag. Long absent from New York waters,
these spectacular birds are making a tentative comeback.
LOONS AND OTHER WATER BIRDS Loons have become symbols of the
northern wilderness. If you spend any time on North Country waters,
you'll probably hear their haunting calls echoing among the hills.
Sometimes several loons will converse throughout the night, calling
and responding again and again. Unlike common mergansers, though,
these big birds can raise only one or two chicks each summer, and
they're struggling to hold their own. Loons are shy. So always keep
your a distance, and never linger near a nest!
During the day, belted kingfishers sound rattling calls as they fly
low over the water along brushy shorelines, hunting for fish. You may
see their nest holes in a cutbank. Great blue herons strut about on
long, stilt-like legs, stalking frogs and fingerlings in the shallows.
Occasionally you'll hear the ong-ka-chonk of a male bittern
calling for a mate in the spring cattail marshes, but his camouflage
is so good you'll be fortunate indeed if you ever see him. On quiet
spring evenings, listen for the wavering huhuhuhuhuhu of a male
snipe soaring over water in a spectacular aerial display. This isn't a
call, though. It's the noise made by air rushing over his tail
WOODLAND BIRDS Do you hear a sound like a hard-starting
motor coming from the spring or autumn woods? You're hearing a ruffed
grouse advertising for a mate. He won't be alone, either. Thanks in
large measure to the restoration efforts of sportsmen's groups, wild
turkey populations are steadily increasing throughout the North
Country lowlands. So expect to hear gobbling when paddling along
rivers like the Grasse or Raquette.
Or do you hear loud hammering, instead? That's a good sign there's
a pileated woodpecker about. Look for deep, pit-like excavations in
standing dead trees. If you see a large woodpecker with a
prehistoric-looking flame-red crest, you've found your bird. Their
smaller cousinsthe yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and downy and
hairy woodpeckerstap gentler tattoos as they hunt for grubs and
Around camp, chickadees cheerfully flit from branch to branch,
often arriving in company with red-breasted and white-breasted
nuthatches, and brown creepers. And no Adirondack day would be
complete without hearing a white-throated sparrow's clear, whistling
call. Overhead, you may hear the hoarse, rasping kraaak! of a
raven, while the flute-like music of wood and hermit thrushes drifts
out of nearby woods.
Later, at night, barred and horned owls break the silence with
their eerie, hooting cries: hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo!
LARGE MAMMALS Black bears range throughout the North
Country, but you'll be lucky to see one. Except during droughts and
bad mast years, they keep their distance. That's not to say they won't
take advantage of a free lunch, though. Always keep a clean camp, and
be sure to hang your food at night. Never approach a cub,
however cute you think it looks! Mother bears are very protective, and
momma's got much bigger teeth than you have. She's also an excellant
|Bears are common, but rarely seen. Moose are rare, but often
glimpsed. Killed off in the nineteenth century, moose are now coming
back to the North Country. Despite their great size, these big deer
are gentle creatures. Still, it's best to watch them from a distance,
particularly in autumn, when the males will be belligerent. If worst
comes to worst, though, you're in luckunlike bears, moose can't
You're far more likely to see the smaller whitetail deer,
especially in open fields and deciduous woodlands in lower elevations.
Occasionally you'll stumble on twin fawns huddling in low growth
alongside a portage trail, waiting for their mother to return to them.
Just leave quietly without disturbing them.
Where there are deer, there are coyotes, and the North Country is
no exception. On some nights, these "brush wolves" howl in chorus with
the loons. It's a thrilling and spectacular concert. A recent squabble
over wolf reintroduction ended in a draw, but the coyotes didn't pay
much attention. They knew something that the biologists took a long
time to learn: Adirondack coyotes really are part-wolf. The
wolf is back in the North Country hills, thanks, and he did it all on
If you're really lucky, you may see bobcat sign. Don't expect to
see more than scats or tracks, though. These cats are very shy. And
don't plan on seeing any sign of a lynx. An attempt to reintroduce
these northern cousins of the bobcat ended badly: most were killed by
cars. Raccoons and skunks aren't at all rare, however, and they're not
shy, either. (We've had skunks settle down on the foot of our sleeping
bag!) Both animals like handouts, and both carry rabies. So keep a
clean camp, and keep your distance. Equally bold, but less commonly
seen, river otters frolic in some lakes and rivers. They're big,
fish-eating weasels, but despite this, they're sometimes mistaken
mistaken for a very different animalthe beaver.
BEAVERS AND MUSKRATS The energetic, flat-tailed beaver has
done more to shape the landscape of North America than any other
animal, including man! The North Country is no exception. Look for
beaver lodgeslarge domes of de-barked sticksin nearly
every pond and lake, and along most streams, as well. And the dams?
You won't need to have the dams pointed out to you. On some streams,
you'll be hauling your canoe or kayak over one every ten minutes.
Don't lose patience, though. Use the time to look around you and get
to know the neighborhood. You never know what you'll see. Beaver ponds
are enormously productive places. Sometimes a muskrata smaller
cousin of the beaverwill make its home right against the sloping
side of a beaver lodge, and it's not uncommon for ducks or geese to
build nests on lodges, too.
You may not ever see any beaver, though. They're active mostly at
night. Fresh-gnawn stumps, downed trees, and caches of leafy branches
sticking out of the water near lodges are common signs of beaver
activity. Beavers mate for life and produce kits in the late winter.
On summer evenings, you may see a family emerge from their lodge to
eat and do choresmaintenance and repairs on their lodge or dam.
Whoever coined the phrase "busy as a beaver" knew what he was talking
about! During the day, listen quietly outside an occupied lodge. With
a little luck, you'll hear the soft grunts that make up the better
part of beaver conversation.
It's easy to mistake a swimming muskrat for a beaver at first
glance, but muskrats are much smaller and have a much skinnier tail.
Muskrats build domed lodges, too, but theirs are made of grasses and
mud, and they're nowhere near as large as beaver lodges. Unlike
beavers, muskrats are solitary, and they don't live in extended family
groups. They're active round the clock, though. Watch for muskrat kits
playing in sheltered shallows.
SMALL MAMMALS Just about every established campsite will
have resident mice, chipmunks, and (in coniferous forests) red
squirrels. Mice and chipmunks dine on berries, nuts, and seeds. Red
squirrels eat nuts and seeds, toothey're particularly fond of
pine nutsbut they also eat wild fruits and mushrooms. All of
these energetic and intelligent animals love the same treats you do,
and they'll be happy to poach from your camp stores if you make it
easy for them. Please don't. Wild animals are almost always better off
without human "help." At nigh, you may hear the plop! of flying
squirrels falling softly from the trees, but it's a rare camper who
actually sees one of these elusive,nocturnal creatures.
THE LIVING LANDSCAPE Turtles can be seen sunning themselves
on partially submerged logs and generally enjoying life. Frogs and
toads whistle, croak, groan, and sing throughout the season.
Dragonflies and damselflies dart about like helicopter gunships,
looking for mosquitoes and other prey, while bats sweep along the
shoreline in the evening half-light, snatching moths and other insects
out of the air.
While slogging down the carries (the local name for portages) early
in the summer, keep a lookout for the large, single flowers of
trilliums. Pink lady's slippers, Indian pipe, jack-in-the-pulpit and
jewelweed ("touch-me-not") are also commonly seen. Blue flag, cardinal
flowers, skunk cabbage, and the carnivorous sundews and pitcher plants
all like "wet feet." Look for them in marshy areas and along
waterways. In the shadowy recesses among thickets of black spruce and
cedar, you'll find lush groves of ferns and multitudes of mushrooms.
In areas disturbed by fire or windstorm, you'll find fast-growing
poplar and birchand in autumn, red maples will set low-lying
BITING FLIES Sometimes the landscape bites back. You haven't
had a true Adirondack experience if you don't go home with a few
blackfly, punky (biting midges), or mosquito bites. Some North Country
towns attempt to kill off blackflies and mosquitoes with bacterial
larvacides and blitzes of poisonous chemicals, but they never succeed
in getting them all. Blackflies are usually at their worst during
sunny days from mid-May to mid-June. The punkieswho sometimes
swarm into tents at nightpeak a little later in the year, while
mosquitoes keep going till the first frosts of fall. They're at their
worst on cloudy, humid days and in the evening.
Deer flies will slice steaks out of your hide, and they know just
when you're most vulnerableexpect them to attack when you're on
the portage trail. They're strong fliers, too, perfectly capable of
following you out onto the water. Sometimes a stiff headwind is a
Beasties and Biters and Things that Go Bump in the Night
Biting Flies Insect repellant washes off as you sweat, and
it's not equally effective against all biting flies. It can also be
toxic. Use it sparingly, particularly on children. Wear long pants, a
tightly-woven, long-sleeved shirt, and a brimmed hat. On bad days,
supplement this outfit with a head-net and a fine-mesh "bug shirt."
Avoid floral-scented shampoos and soaps, and use a scentless laundry
detergent for your paddling clothes.
Snakes In most places, you won't see anything more deadly
than the harmless (and beautiful) garter snake. One exception is
Tongue Mountain, on the western shore of Lake George. Rattlesnakes
live there, so watch where you put your hands and feet.
Camp Robbers Small creatures will chew through packs to get
at food, so double-bag your food to contain odors. You may want to
consider using plastic food-safes. Defeating the determined efforts of
bears and small mammals can take some ingenuity, especially in popular
camping areas. Try hanging your food packs, but don't be surprised if
this doesn't always work. Unless you like midnight visitors, never eat
in your tent, and always keep a clean camp. Wash up carefully after
cooking, and dump gray water and fish scraps at least 150 feet from
Other Animals Wild animals and birds are just that, wild.
They're not pets. Do not approach them or feed them. Do not harass
their young or disturb their nest sites. Your curiosity can kill.
Don't let it.
Loons, in particular, are vulnerable. If you approach them too
closely or imitate their calls, you'll distract them from the
essential business of finding fish and raising their young. How close
is too close? A minimum of 100 yards is a about right. If you hear the
wavering tremolo "laughter," you've crossed the line. Back off, and
use your binoculars or a zoom lens.
If you're lucky enough to encounter a moose while paddling, give
him or her a wide berth. A gentle half-ton animal still weighs 1000
pounds. In autumn, male moose can be dangerous. Keep away!
Rabies Rabies is epizootic throughout the North Country.
While all mammals can be infected, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats
are the most common wild vectors. Smaller mammals present much less
risk. Still, you should never approach, pet, or feed any wild
animal, and you should avoid any animal which appears to be ill or
seems to be behaving unusually. Don't allow your dog to run free, and
be sure your pet has an up-to-date rabies immunization. If, despite
precautions, you should be bitten by a wild animal, wash the wound
thoroughly, and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Wear Bright Colors in Spring and Fall Expect to see hunters
on the water and on the trail in spring and fall. Don't expect to see
any back-tags, though. They're not required in the North Country. Buy
a "safety orange" vest and wear it whenever you go hiking. And don't
make plans for an autumn paddling trip to any Wildlife Management
Area. Most are closed to everyone but waterfowl hunters in fall.
Adirondack Guide and all pictures and drawings within are
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
Written by Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest