You have to get up pretty early in the morning to go bird-watching with Joan Collins. That is if you want to see the Bicknell’s thrush.
Collins is a New York state licensed bird guide and one of the Adirondacks’ most sought-after aviary experts. She will be a big part of Hamilton County’s eighth annual Adirondack Birding Festival, and one of the five hikes she will lead over the three-day stretch of the event will be Saturday’s early-morning trek up Blue Mountain in the town of Indian Lake. Her goal will be to get a good look at the Bicknell’s thrush. If that doesn’t happen, she hopes her group will at least be able to hear the bird’s song, which sounds like a series of flutelike tones ending on a higher note.
“I would never guarantee anything, certainly not seeing them,” Collins said of the medium-sized bird, a close cousin of the gray-cheeked thrush. “It’s a very rare bird to see, although I have seen a lot of them. They also don’t like inclement weather, so guarantee? No. But I think we should be able to hear them.”
Early birders take a hike
If you’re up early enough, that is.
Eighth Annual Adirondack Birding Festival
WHERE: Hamilton County
WHEN: Events will be held Friday through Sunday, June 10
HOW MUCH: Most of the events are free; some require prior registration
MORE INFO: www.AdirondackExperience.com
“The Bicknell thrush begins singing at 4 a.m., and sometimes they can stop at 5,” said Collins. “So I’ll be up early, and I’ll leave the house at 2:30 to get there by 3. Then, depending on how fast the people in the group are, it’ll probably be two hours up and two hours down, plus the birding time. We might be back down by 9 a.m.”
The trip requires preregistration, and on the form is this warning: “This hike is only for the serious seeker of the Bicknell’s, and all participants must be in excellent physical shape to make the climb with the party.”
Collins is a bit more welcoming.
“Well, you have to be in pretty good shape. And I do get people who are brand new to birding and just want to do the trip, and I get people who are experts on the trip,” she said. “People come from all over because the Bicknell’s is a high-elevation bird found only on mountain summits in New York. It’s endemic to the Northeast, so you’re not going to see it anyplace else.”
Collins, a Hudson Valley native who went to Ichabod Crane High School and SUNY Plattsburgh, became interested in birding almost 15 years ago. While climbing in the Adirondacks during the winter — she’s a member of the Adirondack 46ers — she was impressed by the hardiness of the white-winged crossbill, a member of the finch family usually found in northern coniferous forests at high elevation.
“I couldn’t believe they were there in the winter,” remembered Collins. “I guess I mentioned it to a bird expert I knew and he kind of became my mentor. I got pretty serious about birding very quickly.”
Concern for future
The more she’s learned about birds like the Bicknell’s thrush and the white-winged crossbill, the more Collins is concerned about their future.
“The Bicknell’s is in trouble,” she said, “and there are a whole list of threats. Their winter habitat is getting cut down, and they’re getting competition from other birds who are moving up the mountain because of climate issues. The bird is disappearing and that’s very troubling.”
Collins worked as a computer systems engineer after double-majoring in computer science and psychology in college. She spent 10 years working in the computer field in the Albany area and then she and her husband and two young kids — her boys were 5 and 2 at the time — headed to Long Lake in the mid-1990s.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors, and most serious birders are self-taught so that’s what I did,” said Collins. “I’ve been leading bird walks for 12 years, but I recently just officially started my business [Adirondack Avian Expeditions] and I love it. About 95 percent of what I do involves birding. Sometimes people just want to go for a hike and see what they can see, and sometimes I get families with kids, and other times it’s just serious birders. Most of my hikes are flat, unless somebody wants to climb a mountain, and we do that, too.”
If getting to Blue Mountain by 3 in the morning and then climbing up it seems a bit extreme, there are plenty of other options for birders. The three-day birding festival begins Friday morning at 7 a.m. at Ferd’s Bog near the Raquette Lake Common School. Collins is also leading that hike, and, as part of that trip, she’s also offering a hike to Raquette Lake Rail Bed beginning at 10 a.m.
There will be nearly 20 different trips (either hiking, canoeing or by automobile) over the three days, and for those wishing to just sit and listen, Bruce McPherson Beehler, vice president of Conservation International, will deliver a lecture Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.
A renowned birder, conservationist and author based in Virginia, Beehler has traveled the world identifying rare and exotic birds.
The festival is sponsored by Audubon New York and Hamilton County Tourism.
“We’re very happy to have Bruce here for our event,” said Dean Nervik, assistant director at Hamilton County Tourism. “He’s known in birding circles around the world, and he’s going to talk about his birding experience on the Pacific Rim. But he’s also spent 12 summers in the Long Lake area, and he’s written a book about bird life in the Adirondacks.”
Nervik said that Hamilton County began the birding festival eight years ago to put “heads in beds.”
“The Audubon Society put out a press release saying ‘Birding means business,’ we did some other research that kind of confirmed that, so that’s how this all came about,” he said. “Tourism is very important to Hamilton County, and we want to put people in our hotels and our restaurants. We want to get heads in beds.”
Nervik said that each of the trips — all except a boat cruise — are free, but has a limit on the number of participants.
“We have expert guides, all of them licensed, but if you have too many people, if the line gets too long, then you ruin the experience,” he said. “We don’t want to do that, and we want to continue to keep it safe.”
Nervik says he encourages people to wear the proper hiking attire and to bring binoculars, lunch, water and especially bug repellent. Sometimes a head net or bug shirt is good to have on a trip into the deep woods, but Collins said that black flies, typically at their peak in the Adirondacks during early June, haven’t been overwhelming this spring.
“They seem to be less and less each year,” she said, “and this year it seems more like it usually is down in Albany. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. People may like the warmer weather, but all these changes in the climate have consequences.”