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A new kind of Adirondack guide

New field guide caters to the average Adirondack enthusiast

May 2, 2009
By HEATHER SACKETT, For the Enterprise

LAKE PLACID - A new book on Adirondack wildlife, written by an Adirondack native, attempts to introduce the average person to the animals of the Park.

"Adirondack Wildlife: A Field Guide," written by James M. Ryan, covers almost every animal a hiker might encounter on the trail - from creepy-crawly bugs to birds to the majestic moose.

"It's really for the non-scientist," Ryan said. "They might refer to it when they saw something on the trail they didn't know about."

Article Photos

Tiger swallowtail caterpillar
(Image provided)

Ryan, who grew up in Newcomb where his parents were high school teachers, is now a biology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region. Growing up inside the Blue Line, Ryan said he has always had an interest in the Adirondacks, but found it difficult to expose his students to the wildlife here without using many different field guides. What was really needed, he said, was a guide that was specific to the region.

"Adirondack Wildlife" includes descriptions and photos of more than 230 species that are common to the interior mountainous region of the Park. Ryan doesn't include all of the animals that are more common to the fringes of the Park, like the Tug Hill Plateau or the Champlain Valley, or migratory birds. The guide sticks to the year-round residents of the core of the Park, and Ryan does it in a concise 249 pages.

To compile the information, Ryan relied on his own knowledge as a biologist and avid birder, and talked with workers at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He also combed through historical records and scientific literature.

"It took a fair amount of research," he said.

The book is not totally comprehensive and some animals, mostly invertebrates, had to be left out in the interest of keeping the book a reasonable size, Ryan said.

"The biggest challenge was deciding who I had to leave out," he said. "I tried to include plants, but it became impossible. I decided to keep things in the areas I knew the best."

For Ryan, that area is mammals. He has spent summers surveying the plants and animals of Madagascar's rain-forests, studied vampire bats in Trinidad and surveyed the coastal forests of Ghana.

The book includes not just descriptions and photos of animals, it also has a brief description of their behavior, habitat and life cycle.

"It's not just to identify it, but to learn a little about the animal," Ryan said. "I tried to incorporate both of those."

The field guide would also appeal to the amateur geologist, historian or ecologist. Ryan has included a chapter on the geologic history, as well as the human settlement history of the area. Chapters on forest communities and Adirondack waters give the reader some basic knowledge of the (often harsh) environments the animals live in. There is also a glossary of scientific terms.

Although it would be a welcome addition to an Adirondacker's book shelf, "Adirondack Wildlife" is really meant to be thrown into a day pack, dog-eared and filled with quickly-scribbled notes - a field guide in the true sense of the word. A make-shift ruler in both inches and centimeters can be found on the front and back inside covers and amateur biologists can check off sightings on a species checklist in the back of the guide.

"I wanted to keep it small enough and affordable enough to throw it in a pack and pull the book out when you see something," Ryan said.

Ryan's favorite Adirondack species is not among the iconic animals of the region. The loon, moose or black bear just don't appeal to him the same way a red-spotted newt does.

"They have a fascinating life history," he said. "I'm also partial to bats, and the pygmy shrew most people don't know about. I gravitate toward animals that are lesser known and less charismatic than some of the other ones."


Contact Heather Sackett at (518) 523-4401 or



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