Nature Observed And Appreciated

Saturday, April 13, 2013
Last month, while bird watching near the Connecticut River in Westmoreland, N.H., Eric Masterson spied a Canada Goose. That’s not unusual at this time of year, except that Masterson recognized the bird immediately because of the wide, yellow, easily-spotted identification collar around its neck that sported the letters GJN.

Two years ago, Masterson had seen the same goose, wearing the same collar, along the river in Walpole. The banding and lettering are large so that a bird can easily be identified without having to capture it.

A land protection specialist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock N.H., Masterson is the author of the recently released book Birdwatching in New Hampshire (University Press of New England).

It’s an illustrated, region-by-region guide to the 400 species that can be found in the state, including year-round residents, migrating birds, breeding birds and the one-offs, birds rarely found in New Hampshire that, for a variety of reasons, put down here for a day or two. These last sightings are the ones that bring bird watchers — or twitchers, as they’re known in Masterson’s native Ireland — from all over the country hoping for a glimpse.

“There’s a really fundamentally wonderful story in observing the natural world,” Masterson said. “And in that story should be a story of concern for a bird’s habitat, not just here in New Hampshire, but on a broader scale.”

What makes GJN valuable on a number of levels is what its banding collar tells us. When Masterson saw it in March 2011, he reported the identification to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and thought little more about it. But in January 2012 he received out of the blue an email from a professor in Denmark who confirmed that he had banded the goose as a young bird in 2008 in Western Greenland.

From 2008 until now, GJN has been identified by bird watchers seven times, in Greenland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Southampton at the outer tip of Long Island, N.Y.

Although it’s speculation, said Masterson, it would make sense that if GJN flies up the coast from the Middle Atlantic or Southern states in spring, it heads for the recognizable landmark of the Connecticut River where it empties into Long Island Sound. GJN then follows the Connecticut River flyway all the way to Canada, then heads for its likely breeding ground in Greenland, a journey of some 3,500 to 4,000 miles.

“If you’re a goose heading north to Greenland, it’s a pretty good road to follow,” said Masterson.

As Masterson tells the story of GJN, he’s standing on farm land overlooking the Great Meadows in Charlestown, one of the premier spots in the state for bird watching. It is early April, with a clear sky and brilliant sun. But the wind is buffeting, which birds do not like because it makes it more difficult to fly. “Wind ruffles feathers, figuratively and literally,” he said.

During spring run-off, this wide expanse of pasture is pitted with ponds of standing water that migrating birds look for. In the water are dabbling ducks: common mallards, black ducks and green-winged teal, with their velvety purple heads.

Some 30 species will pass through here during migration. They include such common species as mallards and crows (which aren’t typically thought of as migrating birds, but are), and less frequently seen species of duck, such as the gadwall, Northern shoveler, Northern Pintail and wigeon.

At the edge of a patch of field, Masterson sees a kestrel, a small, buff-colored falcon that is perfectly camouflaged against the tall, dun-colored grasses. The kestrel winters in the southern states and flies north to breed. It’s the first of three that Masterson will spot over the next few hours. He’s glad to see them because they are in decline in New England, perhaps because of habitat loss and perhaps because they are losing an inter-species competition with the Cooper’s Hawk, which is taking over the kestrel’s territory.

Any bird sighting is significant because “knowing when birds stop to refuel for migration,” and where, provides the kind of information that ornithologists, bird-watchers and conservationists need to determine which habitats need protection, said Masterson.

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Masterson was an urban kid who became fascinated by birds at age 11, when he went on a bird-watching expedition not far from the city. A friend of his family took him, and under his tutelage, Masterson spotted a treecreeper, a pied wagtail and a fieldfare, all fairly common birds in Ireland, but uncommon to Masterson at the time. The outing had an enormous influence on his life.

“It shattered a preconceived notion that birds were an amorphous blob,” he said. Instead they became individuals with stories and idiosyncratic habits and dramatic, thrilling migrations that can be tens of thousands of miles long. “It’s hard not to be over-awed and impressed by that,” Masterson said.

Masterson studied zoology at University College, Dublin, did some work for Greenpeace and has worked in environmental conservation through land protection and education, both in Ireland and the U.S. He’s lived in the U.S. since 1999, and worked at the Audubon Society of New Hampshire before moving to the Harris Center.

One of the keys to bird watching, which he discusses in his book, is that sighting birds is not always a matter of happy accident. Luck plays a part, but he’s learned over the years that you can better your chances by knowing when birds migrate, their preferred habitats and stopping points. “It’s a game of timing and weather and geographic location,” he observed. “It’s a learned skill when things are going to occur, and where they’re going to occur.”

One good bet is to keep an eye on the weather forecast. If bad weather and high winds are in the picture, it’s likely that birds will take shelter on land. “Any port in a storm,” Masterson said. “Birds will put down on the roof of Wal-Mart if they have to.”

Two years ago, while patrolling one of his favorite spots, a standing pond near Charlestown that regularly attracts migrating birds, he spotted a ruff, a wading bird that is almost never seen in the U.S.; it winters in the tropics of Africa and India and its typical breeding ground is Scandinavia, northern Russia and the Netherlands. How it ended up in a “podunk field in the middle of nowhere” is one of those tantalizing birding mysteries.

What depresses Masterson is the rapid rate at which some species of birds are declining, and how many are threatened. “The species you’re seeing are resilient enough to survive to today,” he said. “But you’re not seeing the ones that we’ve lost.”

Or the ones that are disappearing. The wood thrush, with its lilting song, haunts the northern woods in spring and summer. While not on the verge of extinction, its numbers have diminished by 40 to 50 percent since the 1960s, said Masterson. This is because of fragmented forest habitat in both its breeding grounds in the Northeast and its winter grounds in the Tropics, according to the National Audubon Society website.

What bird watching can do, Masterson said, is to remind people of how delicately interwoven these systems of landscape, habitat, flora and fauna are, and what can happen when they are ruptured.

“Making those connections will hopefully impress upon enough people the wonder of the natural world,” he said, “and they’ll want to take steps to protect it.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

“There’s a really fundamentally wonderful story in observing the natural world. And in that story should be a story of concern for a bird’s habitat, not just here in New Hampshire, but on a broader scale.”

Eric Masterson