Winter Birding in New Hampshire

Last week, my family traveled to New Hampshire to ski in the White Mountains.  The skiing was fantastic, but I’m here to talk about the birds.  We drove up from Charlottesville over the course of two days, stopping periodically to chase continuing rarities.  We saw our life bird tundra bean goose at East Reservoir Park in Philadelphia, and our lifer tufted duck at Captain’s Cove in Connecticut.  In addition to the tufted duck, Captain’s Cove proved to be a productive birding stop in general, with several hundred lesser scaup and a glaucus gull.  Two peregrine falcons briefly appeared over the frozen river and proceeded to dive at a lazily soaring red-tailed hawk, which fended them off by flipping over in midair. 

Red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Once we arrived at our destination, the town of North Conway, NH, we were struck by how few and far between the birds actually were.  On several occasions we walked for hours in the snow-covered spruce woods and could find little more than a few black-capped chickadees.  However, one day my brother called me outside early in the morning to point out a flock of four pine grosbeaks sitting in the top of a tree just outside our house, munching on berries.  They were puffed up against the cold, making them seem even larger and rounder then they normally do.  It was only the second time we’d ever seen the species, the first being in Glacier National Park several years ago. 

Pine grosbeak. Photo by Theo Staengl.

Another day we decided to hike from Pinkham Notch onto the slopes of Mount Washington.  It was bitterly cold, so we covered as much of our skin as possible.  Even with gloves and a balaclava, my hands and face were soon cold.  However, the trail was steep, so my core quickly warmed up beneath my multiple coats.  The scenery was gorgeous.  More than a foot of snow blanketed the ground and weighed down the spruce bows.  We passed several small streams, all of them almost completely frozen, with the ice making intricate shapes along their banks.  One waterfall was particularly beautiful, with formations of gigantic icicles covering its rock face.  About two miles in we got to a flat spot with gaps in the canopy and were able to look up at the treeless caps of the mountains.  It was a landscape much more reminiscent to me of the Rocky Mountains, and utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before in the East.  We were in the bottom of a huge bowl, with white capped peaks rising up on three sides of us.  Directly in front of us, a massive wall of snow spanned the gap between two peaks.  Even though it was only two in the afternoon, the sun was low over the mountains, casting the snow in tints of gold and pink. 

Once again, the birding was very quiet on Mount Washington, but we did encounter three boreal chickadees feeding in a grove of spruce.  We were first alerted to their presence by almost imperceptibly quiet “tsee” calls.  A patch of snow fluttered to the ground, and I raised my binoculars to focus on a plump, brownish bird with a large white ear patch.  The chickadees were much more muted and warmer in coloration than the black-capped chickadees we’d seen earlier, but their slow, deliberate movements among the snowy evergreens had a certain charm.  Other than the two chickadee species, we only saw two other species on Mount Washington, a downy woodpecker and a common raven. 

Boreal chickadee. Photo by Theo Staengl.
Red crossbill.

The real highlight of the birding part of our trip came on our way home, when we stopped at Salisbury State Park in Massachusetts.  We were lured there by tantalizing eBird reports of winter finches, but we were under time pressure to drive the twelve hours back to Virginia before a snowstorm hit that we worried might make the roads impassable.  The entrance road to Salisbury led through a partly frozen brackish marsh, which was inhabited by hundreds of American black ducks.  We also spotted a few common goldeneye, mallards, and buffleheads.  Inside the park we drove to a snow-covered campground, which was notable for its extensive sameness.  Every campsite was alike, with a pine tree, a fire pit, and sometimes a picnic table.  It wasn’t long before we heard the calls of red crossbills and located a large flock foraging in the pines.  I spotted a smaller, streakier bird, and watched it until it turned to face me.  Sure enough, it had a bright red dot on its forehead, one of the most obvious features of a common redpoll, a finch I’d never seen before.  The redpoll briefly dropped down onto the ground, before moving off with a group of crossbills.  American tree sparrows foraged on the snowy ground, and large flocks of snow buntings wheeled about in the sky. 

Snow buntings. Photo by Theo Staengl.

A local birder told us the location of two long-eared owls that were wintering in the park, and we followed her directions to them.  Although long-eared owls are present in Virginia, they’re very rare and hard to find, so we’d only seen one individual before those two.  After the owls, we walked out onto the beach and scanned the Atlantic Ocean for ducks.  White-winged scoters and common eiders were the two most abundant species, a striking contrast from Virginia where they’re among the rarest of the expected sea ducks.  In addition, we picked out a few surf scoters, long-tailed ducks, and common loons.  Three sanderlings foraged on the line of the breaking waves. 

Our lifer common redpoll. Photo by Theo Staengl.

The time forced us to leave Salisbury to start our long drive home.  Normally I find being in the car for long trips tedious, but the week had been so filled with activity, sights, and birds that the time to sit and relax felt welcome.

Winter Bird Irruption

Many species of birds, including raptors, warblers, waterfowl, shorebirds and sparrows migrate twice each year, south in fall, north in spring. Not all birds migrate to the same places each year though. Some birds that breed in the boreal forests of the north come as far south as the Mid-Atlantic states only occasionally, after an absence of several winters. These irregular southward migrations are known as irruptions. Unusually large numbers of several of these “irruptive” species have reached Virginia this winter, including such beautiful birds as purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches, and evening grosbeaks.

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Purple Finch

Other irruptive species include boreal finches, like pine siskin, red and white-winged crossbills, common and hoary redpolls, and pine grosbeaks, as well as certain species of owls and raptors, such as rough-legged hawk, northern goshawk, and snowy owl. Black-capped chickadees also irrupt. These northern species rarely all come south in the same years, but it is not uncommon to have years when multiple species have large coordinated movements.

Irruptive birds move south when there is not enough food to support their populations in the north. The finches, red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees fly south because of bad conifer cone crops in the boreal forest. Snowy owls, on the other hand, seem to irrupt in years when their prey, lemmings, are particularly abundant. While these irruption triggers appear contradictory, they really are not. In both cases, relative scarcity of prey to predators causes a food shortage. The snowy owl population explodes from the plentiful food to the extent that the lemming population can no longer support them all come winter, so they come south in search of food.

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Pine Siskin. Photo by Drew Chaney.

Irruption is closely tied to a cyclical fluctuation in the seed crops of trees the birds depend on as winter food sources. Birches, alders and conifers in the boreal forests— all important food sources for irruptive songbirds — do not bear equal seed crops every year. “Mast” years when lots of seeds are produced are followed by several years of poor seed production. This appears to be an evolutionary strategy to limit the populations of creatures that eat the trees’ seeds to ensure the maximum possible number of seeds survive. In good seed crop years, seed eaters do well, and their population expands. When the next year’s crop is poor, there’s even less food for each animal than there would have been if the population hadn’t grown the year before, and the population falls. Then, when the next good year comes, there are not enough animals to fully capitalize on the seed crop, and some seeds escape. Oaks, hickories, and beeches in the deciduous forests of the East have similar cyclical fluctuations in seed production.

The winter of 2018-2019 is an irruption year for many species of boreal birds. Red-breasted nuthatches started moving south into Virginia as early as August. I saw my first of the season on August 19th in Sussex County. By September they were abundant throughout the state, with several migrating individuals being observed each day at the Rockfish Gap Hawk-watch in Augusta County. Starting in September and October, the nuthatches were joined by large numbers of purple finches and pine siskins. Numbers of these three species dropped significantly by December, but they remained present throughout the state. Many evening grosbeaks and even a couple of common redpolls have also been found in Virginia this year.

Few of the irruptive finches are as beautifully colored or as interesting as the evening grosbeak. Evening grosbeaks were fairly rare in eastern Canada over 100 years ago. Their population exploded about 60 years ago, which corresponded to a major outbreak of their preferred summer food — the spruce budworm. During the mid to late 20th century, they irrupted in huge numbers, sometimes with hundreds in Virginia at once. Since then, their population in the East has crashed, possibly due to habitat reduction from logging in the boreal forest, increased diseases, or decreased spruce budworm populations. As the evening grosbeak population has declined, they’ve irrupted in smaller numbers. So far, this winter has been relatively great for them though, with many having been seen at feeders around the state.

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Evening Grosbeak

Bird feeders are a particularly good way to see some of the beautiful finches that will be visiting our region this winter. Almost all of them like black-oil sunflower seeds. Pine siskins and redpolls — if we should be lucky enough to have more of them this winter in Virginia — particularly like nyjer or thistle seed. My brother and I recently put up a large platform feeder full of black-oil sunflower seeds in hopes of attracting an evening grosbeak, as they apparently prefer platform feeders to tube feeders. In all probability, we won’t see one on our feeder this winter, but you never know!

Sources

Pittaway R. (2014, September 20). Winter Finch Basics. Retrieved from http://www.jeaniron.ca/2012/winterfinches.htm

Pittaway R. (2018, September 20). Winter Finch Forecast 2018 – 2019. Retrieved from http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm

Ehrlich P. R., Dobkin D. S., & Wheye D. (1988). Irruptions. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Irruptions.html

Shaw D. W. Bird Irruption: A Sudden Surge of Birds. Retrieved from http://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/birding-basics/bird-irruption-surge/

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Evening Grosbeak Life History. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Evening_Grosbeak/lifehistory

Mortensen R. (2012, November 7). Birders Can Contribute to Evening Grosbeak Science Right Now! Retrieved from http://blog.aba.org/2012/11/birders-can-contribute-to-evening-grosbeak-science-right-now.html

Devokaitis M. (2018, November 6). This Could be the Winter You Get Evening Grosbeaks at Your Feeder. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/this-could-be-the-winter-you-get-evening-grosbeaks-at-your-feeder/