8/22/2013 - Although Birdwatching in New Hampshire was released in the spring, its relevance increases as the days shorten and the temperature drops, since autumn is prime time not only for leaf peeping but for birdwatching in New England. The author, Eric Masterson, says his wife jokes that he only does chores in June and July, “after the last bird has arrived on territory and before the first fall migrants appear on the coast.”
People similarly obsessed with birds — those who know their three-toed woodpeckers from their sooty terns — probably already acquired this paperback for their libraries. The rest of us, for whom birdwatching is an idle pursuit confined to the backyard feeder, would benefit by taking a look. This is no Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds; it lacks the depth and ample photography of the longtime birding bible. But it is an accessible and concise summary of the things with feathers that live and vacation in New Hampshire, and might just turn you into one of the 46 million Americans who consider themselves avid birdwatchers, those whose discretionary income goes into birdseed, birdhouses, binoculars and scopes.
New Hampshire is home to 300 species of birds that “occur” in the course of a year. “This number does not include the storm-blown waifs and vagrants, which bring the number of birds recorded in the state to more than 400,” Masterson writes. Then there are those who use the state’s welcoming habitats as little more than breeding ground and nursery. This leaves us with 70 species here all year, and 30 here only in the winter.
Masterson, however, is not concerned with the common birds that most everyone can identify: the jays, the chickadees, the sparrows. He urges us to seek out “the good bird” — “the spectacular, the secretive, the rare.” That said, he acknowledges that even among devoted birdwatchers, it’s a tedious endeavor, often anticlimactic. In 2004, for example, a rare red-footed falcon spent two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard and got nearly as much attention as a visiting president. But “a career built on the pursuit of rarities alone will be one of infrequent moments of elation interspersed with long periods of frustration,” Masterson writes.
Equally meaningful and more predictable pleasure, he says, can be found in encounters that occur more frequently: say, the spotting of a pair of golden eagles (most likely in late October or early November), or 150 chimney swifts circling and descending into the chimney at Peterborough Town Hall, or a kettle of broad-winged hawks dipping and ascending in graceful union.
Don’t know what a kettle of hawks is? Neither did I, until reading this book. That migrating raptors ride a thermal column in a formation called a “kettling” is among the fascinating bird trivia you’ll learn from Masterson’s book. Also, that the brown-headed cowbird makes no nest of her own, but dumps her eggs (up to 40 in a season) into the nests of other species. And that the Louisiana waterthrush and the Tennessee warbler both come to New Hampshire to breed. (And they say Virginia is for lovers.)
Among the most helpful chapters is a month-by-month breakdown of bird activity in the state. We’ve already missed the best time to explore the tern restoration project at the Isles of Shoals (July), but we’re in the thick of the fall migration, the peak of which may be seen from the raptor observatory in Miller State Park. “Each year, about 10,000 eagles, hawks, and falcons pass by,” Masterson writes. The passage is predictable within a window, Sept. 16-19, on a day with calm and clear weather.
“If you can’t make it to Pack Monadnock, there are several other good hawkwatching sites in New Hampshire, including Little Round Top in Bristol, Carter Hill in Concord (8,000 hawks in fall of 2011), Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard, and Little Blue Job in Strafford,” Masterson writes. “Alternatively, find a spot near your home that has an unobstructed view to the north, and establish your own hawkwatch site.”
While parts of Birdwatching in New Hampshire turn dry (do we really need a birdwatching code of ethics?), on whole, it’s an intriguing foray into the natural world, the only one that can be enjoyed from your couch. B
Eric A. Masterson will speak at the Gilford Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 10, and at the McLane Audubon Center in Concord from 7 to 9 p.m. Sept. 19.