I am finally coming up for air after a hectic year, in which I had only a little time for birding for the simple reason that I have been kept largely busy researching and writing Birdwatching in New Hampshire for University Press of New England. The book is a where, when, and how to find the best birding in New Hampshire, and I was fortunate to get great advance comment from Don and Lillian Stokes (best selling authors of numerous field guides to birds), Mike Bartlett (President of NH Audubon), Jamie Trowbridge (President of Yankee Publishing), and Sy Montgomery (NY Times best selling author). The book will be on the shelves by mid-April, after which I will be doing a statewide speaking tour, starting at the Harris Center on a date to be announced in late April, and the Hancock Library 7pm May 2nd.

I hope to see you in the spring.

Birdwatching in NH cover


Depart dock (Rye Harbor) 8am, return to dock, 3:45pm

Trip limited to 20, $50 pp
$5 per car parking fee
Contact me at eric.masterson@myfairpoint.net to reserve a spot.

Star Island is a great place year-round for good views of normally furtive species, like warblers, sparrows, and if lucky, cuckoos.  There is always the chance of a rarity.

Star Island conference center will be closed for the season, so we will essentially have the island to ourselves.  Dress for the worst and expect the best – temps have traditionally been in the mid to high 60’s.  Generally there is little wind on the island, as high winds are one of two conditions under which I cancel, the other being heavy rain (showers are ok as shelter is available).  Bring a pack lunch, a set of warm clothes, sun-screen, and camera (warblers can be exceptionally approachable). I can help coordinate carpooling, and can take those interested on an afternoon tour of the best coastal birding spots.

In the last three years of fall trips, highlights have included:

  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Fulmar
  • Cory’s Shearwater
  • Great Shearwater
  • American Golden Plover
  • Whimbrel
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • Caspian Tern
  • Parasitic jaeger
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Sedge Wren
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Connecticut Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow
  • Dickcissel

A full boat headed out to Star Island today (Sunday May 20th) with dim hopes of a repeat of last year’s epic fallout.  Though the clear weather, calm and occasionally southerly oriented winds have fueled migration of recent, the island was incredibly slow today, with only about 30 individual warblers of nine species (not including common yellowthroat or yellow warbler, both of which were plentiful but not necessarily migrants as they breed on Star).  Still a good day thanks to awesome weather in a great location, and one standout bird courtesy of Jason Lambert et. al who picked up an immaculate drake king eider flying in from the south.  All three terns were present (one Roseate and two Arctic Terns on Seavey Island), and a single Northern Gannet on Square Rock were the other notables.

Star Island – Sunday May 20 2012

Depart dock 8am, return to dock 2pm.  $50pp. Email me at eric.masterson@myfairpoint.net

My first post in months – I have been getting my life back on track after finishing my first book “Birding in New Hampshire” due on the bookshelves next spring.

But for now, lets focus on this spring.  This Sunday, May 20nd I will be leading a trip to Star Island in search of migrant birds.  I have been leading this trip for at least five years, but this is the only trip I will be leading to the island this spring.  It has been a relatively poor few weeks for passerine migration in  New Hampshire.  The wind direction has been wrong for much of the past few weeks, and when the direction has been good, the wind has often been weak, which combined with precipitation to our south has largely suppressed migration.  This has had the effect of slowing down movement.  Thankfully we are due to get a respite toward the end of this week, at least temporarily.

Spring is all about the warblers, and since I have been leading these trips, 22 species of warblers have been recorded.  May 2011 we had 19 warbler species, including 150 northern parula alone.  The famous apple tree in front of the hotel held about 30 to 40 birds while we sat eating lunch only feet away (mainly parula and black and white, but also black-throated green, black-throated blue, and yellow-rumped warbler).

Please contact me at eric.masterson@myfairpoint.net to sign up – $50pp, with $5 per vehicle parking fee at Rye Harbor Marina (located off Route 1A).  Directions to the marina are on http://www.uncleoscar.com, but in reality if you head north on Route 1A you cannot miss it).  Anyone who would like to accompany me birding New Hampshire’s coast after returning from the island is welcome.

Dress with warm clothing.  The island has shelter, bathrooms, but no food or water, so bring your lunch.  The crossing is 45 minutes from Rye Harbor located off Route 1A.

A full list (and a few photographs) of possibilities (all birds seen on Star Island in spring since 2008).

Star Island Spring Trip List 2008-2012

  • Canada Goose
  • American Black Duck
  • Mallard
  • Common Eider
  • White-winged Scoter
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Red-throated loon
  • Common Loon
  • Manx Shearwater
  • Northern Gannet
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Great Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Tree Swallow
  • Green Heron
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Osprey
  • Northern Harrier
  • Merlin
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Semi-palmated Plover
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Willet
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Semi-palmated Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Purple Sandpiper
  • Dunlin
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • IcelandGull
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Least Tern
  • Roseate Tern
  • Common Tern
  • Arctic Tern
  • Razorbill
  • Atlantic Puffin
  • Black Guillemot
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  • Alder Flycatcher
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Least Flycatcher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • PhiladelphiaVireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • Tree Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Veery
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Black and White Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Ovenbird
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Mourning Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Bobolink
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • House Finch
  • American Goldfinch

I plan on going to Jeffreys this Sunday if there is enough interest. Seas forecast 1-2 feet on the back of 10knot southerly wind.  Expecting puffin, dovekie, murre, etc.  Let me know if interested.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk takes its name from the old English word for goose, a testament to the significant power of this large forest hawk.  It is also known by its curious scientific name Accipiter gentilis, which loosely translated means the gentle or noble hawk.  Words for Birds, a fascinating lexicon of North American birds by Edward Gruson notes that in Chaucerian English, gentle is a synonym for noble.  I prefer this interpretation, for the Goshawk is anything but gentle.

Northern Goshawk. Photograph by Rick Davidson

Judy Davidson sent me the accompanying picture that her husband Rick took in his backyard on January 21st.  The next day I saw one fly past my office window at the Harris Center, coming from direction of the birdfeeders.  It is not customary for Goshawks to visit backyards to prey on feeder birds; this is the provenance of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.  Goshawks are more likely to take large prey as befits their impressive size.  I saw one take down a mallard in my Hancock backyard several years ago.  Attila the Hun appreciated their aggressive attitude enough to wear a helmet adorned with their likeness, and they will even defend their nest against human intruders.

The species preference for larger game, including grouse, ducks, rabbits, and hares led to them being known as the cook’s hawk among falconers. However, they have also been mercilessly persecuted.  Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a $5 bounty on the species in 1929, a handsome return on the price of a shotgun shell, especially at the outbreak of the Great Depression.  The slaughter of this and other hawks and falcons at places like Hawk Mountain brought forward efforts to protect all birds of prey.

Goshawks were rare in New Hampshire from the 1700’s through the late 1800’s, when the state was largely deforested.  They returned gradually beginning in the late 18th and early 19th century as agriculture diminished and the forest returned.  The species is now an uncommon but widespread breeding bird in mature forests with open understory, and it remains with us through the winter in small numbers.  They are a bit more common in spring and fall when migrants move through the state to and from breeding territories to our north, though the extent of this migration varies with food supply.  When snowshoe hare and grouse populations are low, this bird can be seen as far south as Virginia,  where it sets birders phones ringing just like Snowy Owls do up here.

If you see any interesting sightings like Northern Goshawk, consider reporting them to ebird at www.ebird.org  Ebird is an online database of sightings of birds across the continent and provides useful data on bird distribution and abundance.  You might also enjoy New Hampshire Bird Records, www.nhbirdrecords.org, a quarterly publication devoted solely to the birds of New Hampshire.

A Goose Story

The last day of 2011 brought a welcome surprise – an email from a research professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.  He was writing to thank me for submitting a report of a Canada Goose that his team had banded in the summer of 2008 in a remote part of Western Greenland.

I saw the goose in a stubble field in Walpole on March 22 of this year, at the time an unremarkable goose amongst geese, except for a large yellow neck collar inscribed with the letters GJN.  The purpose of a neck collar is to enable the letters to be read without having to catch the bird – leg bands are rarely field readable.  I sent the data off to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which coordinates band recoveries and field sightings in North America and promptly forgot about the bird until the e-mail on New Year’s Eve.

Canada Geese can be found in New Hampshire year round, but they become quite scarce in southwest NH during the winter freeze.  In March and April they pass through the state by the tens of thousands, destined for breeding grounds further north.  They are a widespread species, comprising multiple forms that breed across a large part of the United States and most of Canada.  The geese that pass north through New Hampshire in spring might be destined for breeding grounds in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, or as far north as Greenland.  Unless a bird is marked like GJN, which was banded in Western Greenland on July 17 2008, we don’t know an individual’s final destination.

It is one thing to understand in the abstract that Canada Geese breed in Greenland and another thing entirely to see a goose in a field in Walpole and subsequently discover that it was born two time zones away, a distance of about 3,500 miles across three countries.  The New Year’s Eve missive from Denmark distilled my bookish fascination with bird migration onto a real live bird, as if this goose had flown straight off the set of the film Winged Migration.  Through wonderful moments like this, all the incredible stories that I have read about bird migration take form.

Not all the Canada Geese in New Hampshire are as well traveled as GJN.  The geese that stay with us during the summer months come from stock from the mid-western states and were introduced to the northeast to augment the population in response to declining stocks elsewhere. They have subsequently lost the urge to migrate, and have become so common that they are regarded as a nuisance in places.  This does a disservice to the truly wild creatures we see in spring.  When next you spy a “common” Canada Goose, ask yourself whether you might be looking at one destined for Greenland, and allow yourself to be a little awestruck.  Happy New Year!