For many birds, Lake George is a major source of food, supplying fish, frogs, crustaceans, aquatic plants and more. The shoreline habitat is a primary place for foraging, roosting and nesting. The avian community varies seasonally. Some species remain within the area year-round, but the majority of species utilize the area during the breeding season and for migration.
Lake George birds associated with marshes, ponds, lakes, and streams include: common loon, pied-billed grebe, great blue heron, green-backed heron, American bittern, and a variety of waterfowl. The most common ducks include the mallard, American black duck, wood duck, hooded merganser, and common merganser. Other species of waterfowl migrate through the region following the Atlantic Flyway.
The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States. Although DDT and other environment pollutants almost made them extinct by 1950, the bald eagle rebounded and was de-listed from the Federal Endangered and Threatened Wildlife List in 2007. Bald eagles prefer a habitat near large bodies of open water with an abundance of fish. They also need mature stands of trees for perching, roosting and nesting with good visibility and proximity to prey. Nests are reused and added to each year, growing to over six feet across, eight feet deep and weighing hundreds of pounds. Although eagles live mainly on fish, they are opportunistic feeders and will supplement with carrion, small mammals such as rabbits, raccoons, and young beavers, and other birds like ducks and geese. An eagle’s two-inch-long talons can exert 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. In recent years they have spent a lot of time on Lake George and Lake Champlain; even in the winter, these semi-migratory birds have chosen to remain, feeding on fish and ducks in ice-free areas.
Flying high and circling until prey is spotted, then making a swooping dive of over 100 miles per hour to strike the prey right out of the air, the peregrine falcon is one of the world’s fastest and most spectacular birds of prey. The peregrine falcon was seriously endangered in the mid-20th century due to the effects of DDT and other pesticides. Reintroduction efforts have been successful and over the last 20 years the number of nesting pairs has risen steadily. In 1991, the first pair of peregrine falcons nested on Anthony’s Nose at the northern end of Lake George. Since then, the offspring of this first pair have established at least two or three other nesting sites. One of the most successful is across the Lake from the first site, on the cliffs of Rogers Rock. Falcons prefer cliff ledges for their nesting sites, like the dramatic calcareous cliffs of the Lake George watershed. On Lake George they also have an abundant food supply comprised of ducks, geese, gulls and small mammals.
Great Blue Heron
The great blue heron stands about four-feet tall on stilt-like legs. It has a long neck and a white head with two black crown stripes with a long, yellow bill ideal for snatching or spearing the frogs, snakes and fish that make up its diet. A heron in flight is impressive. The head and neck stretch forward during take-off and then are retracted into an “S” shape while cruising. A six-foot wingspan helps them glide close to the water, traveling up to five miles from the rookery in search of food. Difficult to notice when they are not flying, herons will stand completely still, their colors blending into the rocky shoreline, waiting to surprise unwary prey. It is worthwhile to visit the Lake George Land Conservancy Gull Bay Preserve in Putnam to take in the heron rookery; their large stick nests and families can be seen in an abandoned beaver pond near the Lake.
On Lake George we can find the herring gull, ring-billed gull and the great black-backed gull. They spend their time either flying over the water in search of small fish to eat, floating in the open water, or gathered in groups on small rocky islands. Sometimes called seagulls, these birds are protected in New York State.
This icon of the Adirondacks is known for its laugh-like trembling call or wailing “wolf howl” heard across still waters. Loons are large swimming birds that dive underwater to forage on small fish, crustaceans and other aquatic life. These birds exhibit a behavior called “peering” which is characterized by the birds swimming with their eyes and bill submerged underwater to locate prey before they dive. Loons can dive at least 100 feet and normally remain underwater for about one minute, but sometimes remain submerged for up to three minutes. Loons’ only significant competitors for lake habitat are humans. Boaters, shoreline development, intrusive anglers, and recreationists are threats to loons when nesting and raising the one or two chicks they hatch each year. Babies will spend 65% of their first week riding on their parent’s back to increase their chance of survival. Humans have impacted the loon in other ways. In the late 1800s, loons were considered great for sport shooting, which is no longer practiced. Much later, the lead sinkers used by anglers became a threat. Loons pick up pebbles from a lake bottom to aid in digestion; lead sinkers can be ingested by mistake. Lead poisoning was attributed to up to 50% of all loon mortalities. Lead sinkers were banned in 2004 to alleviate this devastation. Mercury pollution, which is carried to the Adirondacks from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, is still a major threat to loons. Despite these challenges, the loon is surviving and recovering in New York State, in large part due to the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program.
Several members the waterfowl family (ducks and geese) can be found here on the lake. Some reside here year round, finding patches of open water even in the winter, while others spend substantial periods of time here for breeding and then migrate to the coast for the winter. Still others use Lake George as a stopover between breeding grounds in the far north and wintering places in the south, but we can enjoy them in the spring and fall when they are passing through.
The common merganser has a sleek, elongated appearance, reaching two feet in length. The males have a glossy, dark green head while the females have a distinct reddish-brown head with a swept back crest. Fast swimmers and excellent divers, mergansers are often seen with their eyes and bill submerged in water searching for small fish and minnows before diving. Preferring shallow water of six feet or less, sometimes groups of mergansers will cooperatively drive schools of fish into shallower areas for easier foraging. Broods are large, and sometimes females will lay eggs in each other’s nests or abandon the ducklings before they can fly, resulting in mixed broods of up to 20 ducklings guided by a single remaining hen. Common mergansers are late migrants, only going as far south as needed to find large bodies of open water.
The mallard is the most abundant duck in North America. Drakes (male ducks) are best distinguished by their green, iridescent heads and white neck ring. Overall, the drake has a grayish body with a brown chest and yellow bill. Females are streaked brown with a whitish tail and a yellowish-orange bill. In flight, a bluish-violet wing patch outlined in white helps to identify the mallard. These ducks will migrate in large flocks, but will stick around wherever there is open water; they are commonly seen in Lake George throughout the winter.
Species of Lake George birds to watch
The following endangered, threatened, and special concern bird species have been documented in the Lake George watershed. Bird data were collected during the 1980-1985 and 2000-2005 Breeding Bird Atlas projects and through NYNHP surveys:
- Peregrine Falcon
- Northern Harrier
- Bald Eagle
- Pied-billed Grebe
- Least Bittern
- Special Concern
- American Bittern
- Common Loon
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Sharp-shinned Hawk
- Northern Goshawk
- Common Nighthawk
- Red-shouldered Hawk
- Red-headed Woodpecker
- Golden-winged Warbler
- Grasshopper Sparrow
- Vesper Sparrow